No. 191  NAI DFA 219/6

Extract from a letter from Michael MacWhite to Joseph P. Walshe (Dublin)

ROME, 28 February 1942

A stranger arriving suddenly in Rome in these days would find it difficult to realise, from external appearances at least, that Italy is at war. Only comparatively few military uniforms are seen in the streets. Recently, however, German uniforms are more frequent as it is no longer possible to buy civilian clothing because of the rationing. Shops are obliged to remain open and display their best wares in the windows even though they cannot sell or the public buy because of the suspension of sales of all articles containing gold, silver, precious stones, antique paintings, etc. and the reduction of purchases due to the rationing of clothing, shoes, furs; in fact, of almost everything wearable and eatable. In some cases the shopkeeper receives a Government subsidy to help him keep on an idle staff but there are indications that it will soon cease.

All foodstuffs are growing rarer despite the activities of a price fixing and anti profiteering Commission over which the Duce, in person, presides. Infractions of the rationing regulations are severely punished. Hundreds have already been condemned to from three to five years penal servitude and every day adds to the list for there is scarcely an Italian who could refuse to hoard or to secure illegal profits if the opportunity offered. The price of wine which is not rationed has increased by 300% since the outbreak of war. For some reason it has practically disappeared from the market. Wine shops now refuse to sell more than a bottle at the time. Potatoes have not been available for several weeks. The only vegetables on the market are Brussels Sprouts, Cardoon,1 Haricots, Cauliflower, Spinach, Artichokes, and such like unappetising garden products. Eggs are limited to one per week and as they come from Bulgaria they are rarely eatable. Hotels, restaurants and Boarding houses are prohibited from serving either meat, fish or eggs on Sundays and the afternoon of Saturdays. Workmen doing odd jobs now ask for something to eat in lieu of any other payment. As has been stated, everything appears fine on the surface like a person who wears a starched front with no shirt underneath.

A Civil mobilisation scheme has just come into effect applying to all Italians between the age of 18 and 55. The Minister for Corporations, under its provision, can transfer workers of any category to war industries anywhere. Up till recently, there were about 300,000 Italian workers in Germany all volunteers. It seems that there are no more volunteers today and as Germany cannot get the million soldiers she asked for, she insists on getting workmen instead. Hence the civil mobilisation. Although it is believed the Duce agreed, the General Staff objected on various grounds to furnishing the soldiers Hitler wants for the Spring offensive. Italian Officers dislike being placed under German orders. This was illustrated recently when General Bastico2 who commands the Italian troops in Libya asked to be replaced as a protest against the insolence of General Rommel and his Staff to the Italian officers and men. A few days later, the commander of the Afrika Korps returned to Germany on a holiday it is said, but the day before he departed he advanced the Axis troops to a line which could not be held and from which he knew General Bastico would be obliged to retreat. In Russia the Italian army has suffered heavy losses. It was supposed, at the outset, to consist only of volunteers but here again the supply soon dried up, notwithstanding the fact that there are still a couple of million men in Italy of military age but arms and equipment for them do not exist. Only 400,000 pairs of shoes are believed to be in reserve for the 3,000,000 on active service.

In addition to the troops in Libya and Russia there are about twenty five Italian divisions in Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and Greece. In all of these countries sporadic fighting continues. In case of anticipated renewal of resistance, the Italian General Staff wants several divisions in reserve. It does not lose sight of the fact that there are about 250,000 German soldiers in Italy at the moment.

All over the Balkans famine and disease are rife. In Athens the dead are collected by the dozen off the streets every morning. Signor Lodi Fé3 who spent six weeks there recently, on an official mission, told me that for ten days he had nothing to eat there but cabbage soup and he looked it on his return. The Germans took everything they could lay hands on before handing control over to the Italians. They carted off the rice and macaroni the Italian Red Cross sent for the starving Greeks. Nevertheless, the Greeks hate the Italians according to Lodi Fé. They are dying in the streets, he said, but if they see an Italian they spit in his face before they collapse.

[matter omitted]

1Cynara cardunculus, also known as the artichoke thistle, the flower buds and stalks of which can be eaten.

2 General Ettore Bastico (1876-1972), Commander of all Axis forces in North Africa (1941-2); Commander in Chief of Italian North Africa and Governor General of Italian Libya (1941-3).

3 Romano Lodi-Fé, Italian Consul General in Dublin (1934-7) and Minister to Ireland


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