Defending the Vatican

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casimiro
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Defending the Vatican

Post by casimiro » 10 Nov 2020 19:50

A recent book by a Vatican historian describes the defensive measures the papal armed forces planned to implement in the event of an invasion of Vatican City by hostile elements in the summer of 1943. At that time papal armed forces included the Swiss Guard (62 men), the Pontifical Gendarmeria (around 100), the Palatine Guard (approximately 300), and the Noble Guard (32). The latter two units were composed of part-time volunteers with little training whose role was limited to ceremonial duties.

In August 1943 Swiss Guard and Gendarmeria officers began planning for a possible attack on the Vatican. The potential attackers were not identified, but only weeks after the removal of Mussolini the list of prospects was probably limited to resurgent fascists or intervening German troops. The papal officers immediately dismissed the possibility of successful resistance against regular troops, acknowledging that any defense the pope’s soldiers might prepare would be rapidly overcome. Instead the officers focused on an attack by mobs or “unruly elements.”

For their first line of defense, papal officers depended upon detachments of Italian troops and police who were stationed in the neighborhood around Vatican City. With sufficient warning, these units, including a company of the elite Granatieri di Sardegna, would deploy to keep attackers away from St. Peter’s Square and the walls of Vatican City. The pope’s forces would adopt a “passive resistance,” The Swiss Guard were responsible for the gates which they would close and bar at the first sign of threat. The Vatican fire department would use high pressure water streams to help the Swiss keep attackers from the gates. The papal gendarmes would back up the Swiss at the gates and patrol inside the Vatican walls to intercept anyone attempting to come over the walls.
If the gates were breached, gendarmes and halberdiers would retreat into the large papal palace which was also to serve as a refuge for Vatican employees and residents. The pope’s soldiers would then try to hold the entrances to the palace. Neither the gendarmes nor the Swiss Guard thought much of the martial qualities of the Palatine and Noble Guards as evidenced by the fact that the officers planning the defense thought that the Palatines might contribute a mere twenty men to the defense of the palace (under the command of Gendarmeria officers) and the Nobles maybe a few more.

If attackers penetrated the palace, the defenders were to fall back to the papal apartments where they were expected to shield the Holy Father with their own bodies.

In anticipation of a siege of the palace, provisions were pre-positioned in a storeroom under the Sistine Chapel. Medical officers of the Gendarmeria, assisted by personnel from the Vatican pharmacy, would tend the wounded and sick.

The papal officers acknowledged several problems in their plans. A survey of the physical defenses of Vatican City noted that some gates were in disrepair or required reinforcement, while perimeter walls were at places too low or pierced by windows. A project was set in motion to increase the height of certain sections of wall by adding an iron palisade.

The biggest problem concerned the use of firearms to defend the Vatican. At what point, if any, could the pope’s defenders open fire and possibly kill or wound attackers? A draft of the defensive plan, dated 13 August 1943, stipulated that the defenders should refrain from using firearms until the attackers opened fire first, although the plan acknowledged the right of any individual halberdier or gendarme to use weapons in self-defense. A week later, 21 August 1943, an internal Gendarmeria document simply noted that personnel should be ready to use firearms, specifically the Mauser rifles issued to both gendarmes and halberdiers, whenever ordered to do so by their officers.

By 1 September 1943 the defensive plan had been approved by the papal Secretariat of State. Subsequently, there was at least one change. On 9 September the Secretariat of State verbally informed the commandant of the Swiss Guard that the pope prohibited the use of firearms in his defense. The commandant requested (and received) written confirmation of this order. It is unknown if the Gendarmeria, Palatines, and Nobles received similar orders. Subsequent actions by the Swiss commandant indicate that he had reservations about the order. After the German occupation of Rome, the Palatine Guards on several occasions opened fire on intruders attempting to penetrate Vatican buildings around the city.

Reference: Cesare Catananti, IL VATICANO NELLA TORMENTA: DALL’ARCHIVIO DELLA GENDARMERIA PONTIFICIA. Rome: San Paolo, 2020.

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AnchorSteam
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by AnchorSteam » 18 Nov 2020 06:02

Taken as a whole, that looks like 492 men, the equivalent of a short Battalion. (yes, one good Company and a couple of what you could call Militia, minus heavy weapons of any kind, apparently.

A Battalion seemed like too much to be deployed in such a small area until I looked it up on google maps. Even with a wall around the entire place and with parkland that can be given up .... that's still a very complicated defensive situation.
That oval-shaped plaza is an easy kill-zone, but just to the north and south are very favorable routes of approach for an attacker. The Pope must have had a good advisor- a layered defense would have been best and that is just what they were aiming for.

It is tempting to say that a couple of Companies of Panzergrenadies supported by a pair of Stugs would have mopped them all up in an hour or two, but one must remember what a stand the defenders of a Polish Post office made on the first day of the war, in Danzig.

What they seem to have had was a group of Guardsmen that could, in shifts, provide good security against infiltration and urban banditry.... and the later does seem to be the big worry. Instead of a hopeless resistance against a Nazi occupier, would they have been able to stand up to rogue Regiment of Italian troops bent on looting vaults?
How close were they to such a thing happening?

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Andy H
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by Andy H » 18 Nov 2020 16:36

casimiro wrote:
10 Nov 2020 19:50
A recent book by a Vatican historian describes the defensive measures the papal armed forces planned to implement in the event of an invasion of Vatican City by hostile elements in the summer of 1943. At that time papal armed forces included the Swiss Guard (62 men), the Pontifical Gendarmeria (around 100), the Palatine Guard (approximately 300), and the Noble Guard (32). The latter two units were composed of part-time volunteers with little training whose role was limited to ceremonial duties.
Reference: Cesare Catananti, IL VATICANO NELLA TORMENTA: DALL’ARCHIVIO DELLA GENDARMERIA PONTIFICIA. Rome: San Paolo, 2020.
Hi casimiro

Thanks for posting, very interesting.

Regards

Andy H

Sid Guttridge
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by Sid Guttridge » 18 Nov 2020 23:16

Hi Casimiro,

Thanks. I have ordered it.

I seem to recall that the raising of the iron railings on the walls was the subject of some Vatican humour. It was called the Canali Line after the Vatican City's Governor, in comic emulation of the various fortification lines (I.e. Hitler Line, Gothic Line, etc.) the Germans were throwing up across Italy.

The other piece of Vatican humour was to refer to the first escaped British soldier to seek asylum in the Vatican City State as "His Britannic Majesty's Military Attache to the Holy See".

Cheers,

Sid.

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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by Sid Guttridge » 18 Nov 2020 23:27

Hi AnchorSteam,

The Palatine Guards were a small battalion in strength. They largely consisted of younger small businessmen from Rome who had already done their conscript service in the Italian Army, so they were not entirely useless.

However, in mid 1943 they had two major problems; (1) a considerable number had already been mobilised by the Italian Army and (2) they lived at home and only a few were ever within the Vatican City State at any one time.

The Noble Guard were all officers and only at about platoon strength. Some were quite elderly and all of them also lived outside the Vatican City State. They were meant to be the Pope' s personal bodyguard and some were always outside his door or accompanied him on walks in the gardens.

Cheers,

Sid

casimiro
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by casimiro » 23 Nov 2020 18:06

Hi AnchorSteam
You are probably correct in suggesting that the papal armed forces could not have withstood an assault by even small numbers of professionally trained, armed, and led troops. The pope’s defenders understood this. I think the defensive plans in the summer of 1943 anticipated a threat from more or less organized crowds of die-hard fascists who believed the pope had collaborated in the downfall of Mussolini.
After the incorporation of the Papal States into the Kingdom of Italy in 1870 and the subsequent abolition of the pontifical army and navy, the palace guard units remaining to the Vatican—Swiss Guard, Gendarmeria, Palatine Guard, and Noble Guard—struggled to define their roles. Were they purely ceremonial units intended to add decorative elements to papal audiences and ceremonies, or were they operational units prepared to defend Vatican City? The Palatines and Nobles embraced the former definition, the Gendarmeria the latter, while the Swiss vacillated between the two positions.
Obviously, how a unit defined its mission determined how it organized, trained, and equipped itself. The Palatines and Nobles were part-time volunteers whose commitment to the pope was never questioned, but whose training was limited to marching and presenting arms. An unknown number of personnel in both units had served in the Italian army and had received varying degrees of training and, perhaps, combat experience. In 1943 the weaponry of the Nobles was limited to cavalry sabers, a handful of Beretta model 1934 pistols, and several dozen Remington, M1868, single shot carbines, which had not been out of the armory for decades and were museum pieces. In their armory the Palatines held a few hundred rifles of various manufacture and age. The most modern were Carcano M1891 rifles, but other types dated back to the nineteenth century. Neither the Palatines nor the Nobles conducted weapons training.
In a crisis, neither the Swiss Guard nor the Gendarmeria believed they could expect much help from the Palatines and Nobles.
Recruits to the Swiss Guard had to have completed the basic training course of the Swiss Army and had occasional practice with firearms and bayonets while members of the papal corps. The Swiss Guard armory held weaponry dating back to the Renaissance, but the most modern arms were one hundred Mauser M1898 rifles and a couple dozen Dreyse M1907 pistols. In spring 1944, the Swiss Guard purchased thirty Swiss MKPS submachine guns, half of which they transferred to the Gendarmeria. In addition to the submachine guns, the gendarmes had a hundred Mauser M1898 rifles and some number of Beretta pistols. It is not clear what kind of training papal gendarmes received, but it certainly included firearms practice. Some of the pope’s gendarmes had previously served in the Italian police, including the para-military Royal Carabinieri.
Taken as a group, this is not the profile of a combat ready force.

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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by Sid Guttridge » 24 Nov 2020 18:45

Hi Casimiro,

You may be able to help with the following;

In the first five months of 1944 the Vatican City State became involved in helping feed Rome.

Do you know of any sources that detail the role of the Vatican garage in licensing trucks for this?

It is clear that the Vatican's own fleet of trucks was too small to make much of an impact on feeding Rome, so it presumably acquired a lot more drivers and trucks. Do you know from where?

One possibility is that the truck fleet of the Municipality of Rome, which was normally on charge of feeding the city, had it trucks rebadged as neutral Vatican vehicles. This might (1) stop the Germans seizing them and (2) stop Allied aircraft attacking them.

Finally, is there any hard information on how many people in Rome were being fed by the Vatican in the first five months of 1944?

Any ideas?

Many thanks,

Sid

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Andy H
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by Andy H » 24 Nov 2020 21:24

Hi

Was there a specific citadel type structure or specifically fortified building that whatever Papal forces were availble would have fallen back into with the Pope?
Equally knowing there predicament was there a pre-designed escape route/plan into Italy itself?

Regards

Andy H

casimiro
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by casimiro » 25 Nov 2020 05:51

Hi Sid,

Carlo Gasbarri, a priest who worked for the Vatican daily newspaper during the war, wrote a book, "Quando il Vaticano confinava con il Terzo Reich." It may be hard to find, but it is worth the search if you are interested in details of life and work inside Vatican City in 1943-44.

Gasbarri says that there were around 100 trucks in the Vatican vehicle fleet. He does not say if all were wholly owned by the Vatican or if some were coopted from other sources. I suspect the latter was the case.

In spring 1944, Vatican truck convoys traveled to the regions of Umbria, Tuscany, and the Marche to collect foodstuffs. In March, for example, there were seven convoys each averaging 28 trucks. Five of these convoys went to Umbria, one to Tuscany, and one to the Marche.

Gasbarri says that by May 1944 the Vatican was providing food assistance to 25,000 people in Rome.

casimiro
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by casimiro » 25 Nov 2020 06:19

Hi Andy H.

There was no plan for the pope to escape into Italy. The pope made it clear that in the event of an attack he would not flee but would await his fate inside the Vatican.

There was no specially fortified redoubt inside Vatican City into which papal defenders could retreat. In terms of physical/structural defenses, the Vatican was ill-prepared to face an attack. The best defensive feature was the sheer size of the papal palace. Some accounts say the palace contained more than a thousand rooms or spaces in a maze of corridors, halls, passages, and staircases. Papal defenders could buy time by moving the pope into the center of this maze and hoping for rescue by Italian police or army units. Remember, in the summer of 1943, papal officers thought the most likely threat was from fascist mobs outraged by the pope's alleged participation in the removal of Mussolini. Of course if Rome was controlled by a hostile administration (such as the Germans), then all bets were off.

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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by Sid Guttridge » 25 Nov 2020 13:54

Hi Casimiro,

You are costing me a fortune in books! I have ordered the Gasbarri volume.

I will likely have more questions when I have got it.

25,000 is well below the 100,000 people being fed daily by the Vatican at the end of May, as reported by the British Ambassador. A week later, after they had entered Rome, the US reported that the Vatican was feeding 300,000!

Your average March convoy of 28 trucks is interesting, as the Allies estimated that 30 trucks could carry enough food to feed 15,000 people for a week. At the March rate of two convoys a week, this would give 30,000 people fed. If one subtracts the 4,500 people resident in Vatican properties in Rome, we are very close to.the 25,000 figure of Romans fed daily by the Vatican.

My impression is that the food was distributed as prepared meals served at the communal kitchens in the various Vatican properties in Rome. Is this correct?

I am surprised there is no official Vatican publication on these considerable relief efforts. The drivers were in far more danger on these convoys from Allied aircraft than any of the Vatican's four military units ever were. Three of them were killed.

Many thanks,

Sid.

P.S. I see that one convoy attacked by the Allied aircraft on 29 April reportedly had 52 trucks. Two were destroyed and 10 damaged, but without reported casualties. This appears to have been the greatest single vehicle loss. It is possible that convoys were suspended in early May as a result, though I have seen no confirmation of this.

zaptiè
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by zaptiè » 26 Nov 2020 16:35

Also in Castel Gandolfo , the Vatican Palace here had ( and has) an extraterritorial status and was presidiated by Vatican armed force.

casimiro
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by casimiro » 26 Nov 2020 18:21

Detachments of papal gendarmes and Palatine Guards were stationed at Castel Gandolfo, the pope's country villa and farm. As the battle lines drew close to Castel Gandolfo, several thousand people from the surrounding towns and villages sought refuge on the papal property whose extraterritorial status made it neutral territory. In early February 1944, Allied bombers attacking German positions in the Alban hills inadvertently dropped bombs on Castel Gandolfo, killing or wounding hundreds of refugees. This episode was a rare instance of units of the papal armed forces coming under fire during the war.

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Andy H
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by Andy H » 27 Nov 2020 22:12

casimiro wrote:
25 Nov 2020 06:19
Hi Andy H.

There was no plan for the pope to escape into Italy. The pope made it clear that in the event of an attack he would not flee but would await his fate inside the Vatican.

There was no specially fortified redoubt inside Vatican City into which papal defenders could retreat. In terms of physical/structural defenses, the Vatican was ill-prepared to face an attack. The best defensive feature was the sheer size of the papal palace. Some accounts say the palace contained more than a thousand rooms or spaces in a maze of corridors, halls, passages, and staircases. Papal defenders could buy time by moving the pope into the center of this maze and hoping for rescue by Italian police or army units. Remember, in the summer of 1943, papal officers thought the most likely threat was from fascist mobs outraged by the pope's alleged participation in the removal of Mussolini. Of course if Rome was controlled by a hostile administration (such as the Germans), then all bets were off.
Hi casimiro

Thank you for your reply and information therein.

Regards

Andy H

Sid Guttridge
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Re: Defending the Vatican

Post by Sid Guttridge » 27 Nov 2020 23:37

Were Fascist mobs a real threat in July-September 1943?

Mussolini had been deposed by the Fascist Party leadership. Furthermore, there seems to have been absolutely no sign of popular support for Mussolini until well after his rescue by the Germans.

The real threat seems to have come in early 1944 from reorganised RSI police units of the sort that stormed one of the Vatican's extra-territorial properties in Rome. The Vatican City State's own meagre security forces probably had a reasonable chancr of withstanding them for some time, provided they did not receive direct German support.

Cheers,

Sid

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