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80 Years Since the Start of the Great Italian Offensive in the Lower and Inner Carniola

Mid-July this year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the great Italian offensive in the Lower and Inner Carniola. The offensive went on for three months and eighteen days. Its aim - to destroy partisan movement - was not achieved, but it did affect civilians even more than it affected the partisan units. Italian army interned masses of people, shot anyone who seemed suspicious, burnt down entire villages, and offered money rewards to capture various partisan leaders. The High Command of Slovenian Partisan Forces, on the other hand, sent their units concise instructions on how to "thwart the enemy's plans" and how to "carry out counter-offensive".

Proclamation of August 1942.

Warrent for the arrest of Boris Kidrič, Aleš Bebler and eight other persons, August 1942. SI AS 1851, description unit 33. | Author Arhiv Republike Slovenije

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»Today We Set Off On a Nice March Across the Fields and Forests of the Italian Slovenia«

The sentence in the above title was used by the General Mario Robotti on July 16, 1942 to announce the beginning of the Italian offensive.

The command of the XI army corps and the occupying authorities were at the time facing two major issues; one was the rebellious city of Ljubljana and the other was the uprising in the Province of Ljubljana. Since authorities were unable to solve the situation peacefully, they tried to settle it by using force. Their goal was to completely Italianize the region through investigations, mass internments, removal of rebellious leaders, shooting of hostages, burning down of villages, and internment of certain sympathizers for their own protection. As far as their military action was concerned, they decided on two courses of action; launching mass operations fought by large military troops against strong rebellious groups across a certain territory, and employ weaker troops to fight smaller groups of rebels. General Mario Roatta, commander of the 2nd army, strengthened the forces of the XI army corps, commanded by Mario Robotti. Subordinated to the latter were divisions of the Cacciatori delle Alpi, Isonzo, Macerata and Granatieri di Sardegna, the 11th frontier force battle group, two Fascist legions and four battalions. Mario Robotti had a total of 82,000 men at his disposal and they were all significantly better armed than the opposing partisan army.

Although the leaders of the national liberation movement anticipated the possibility of major Italian offensives, they were, nevertheless, surprised by how quickly the offensive actually started. They did, however, have a draft defence plan in case of such an offensive, and the high command also instructed detachment groups to set up their own workshops and hospitals, so as to avoid being too dependent on the civilians. The first Slovenian strike brigade – Tomšič Brigade – was founded as well.

During the first phase of the offensive, the Italian army advanced from all sides to Mokrc and Krim, where four battalions of the Krim detachment and another battalion of the 2nd detachment group were located. Already on day one, Italian army sustained 19 casualties. When on July 20, the Italian army began the second phase of its offensive, the partisans were already outside the ring and were getting ready to strike in their enemy’s back. They had two major objectives; one, not to allow to be cornered by their enemy into a narrow area and so forced to fight frontal, unequal battle, and two, to disperse their units across the entire region.

During the third phase of the offensive, which began on July 24, Italians interned masses of people, shot anyone who seemed suspicious, burnt down entire villages, and offered people money rewards to capture various partisan leaders. The day after the start of the offensive, the High Command of the Slovenian Partisan Forces sent a letter to the headquarters of the V and III detachment groups as well as to the headquarters of all detachments, battalions and groups. In the letter, the high command stressed the importance of preventing the concentration of large enemy army in a single place, as well as the importance of preventing Partisan units to find themselves surrounded by the enemy. Partisans were instructed to attack smaller enemy groups, which lacked proper protection because their larger units departed for the battlefield. Also important was to attack the enemy as soon as they try to fortify themselves in a certain place. During this phase, the Italian attention was directed towards the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the Kočevje detachment, and towards troops of the Krim detachment. Headquarters of the 3rd detachment groups and of Kočevje detachment managed to withdraw. There was also some discouragement in the aforementioned battalions, with some of the soldiers surrendering themselves to the occupying authorities. By the end of the third phase of the offensive, Kočevski Rog was to be surrounded and occupied, while the fourth phase was to concentrate on the territory from the south of Kočevska region to the river of Krka.

Shocked by the violence inflicted upon the civilians by the occupying forces, the Partisans struggled to evacuate all men and hide women and children. Edvard Kardelj wrote to Tito from Ambrus, informing him of the events taking place there. Tito insisted that they must not leave the territory or withdraw to Lika no matter the cost. However, up until the final moment, partisan leaders were unable to detect danger for Kočevski Rog. The only troops staying there was the Tomšič Brigade. The partisans hoped to convince the enemy that the majority of the partisan army is located in the eastern Lower Carniola. The Italians managed to trick the partisans into believing that the offensive was not going to continue in Slovenia, but would move on to Croatia. At the start of the operation, Kočevski Rog was home to the leaders of the national and liberation movement, to headquarters of the 5th detachment group, to the 1st battalion of the Kočevje detachment, to the 2nd battalion of the White Carniola detachment, to the 3rd battalion of Tomšič Brigade, and to the Labour battalion. Partisan attack on January 14 failed, troops retreated deeper into Kočevski Rog and were surrounded from all sides. The Labour battalion found itself in the worst possible situation and was almost entirely captured. Italian army burnt down all base camps of the partisan leadership, several hospitals, partisan printing facilities, workshops and entire villages. They also shot most of those they had captured. On September 4, the Gubec Brigade was founded, and on the last day of the offensive the partisan leadership began to withdraw from Rog, where only a number of soldiers in the group around Boris Kidrič still remained. After the arrival of Aleš Bebler, the high command on September 16 thoroughly reorganized the partisan army. They ordered the founding of two more brigades, the Šercer Brigade and the Cankar Brigade. They also established the Western Lower Carniolan, Eastern Lower Carniolan and Inner Carniolan detachments, accepting the assistance of troops from Croatia as well. When the Italian army was left without part of its troops, who moved to Croatia, Robotti changed the plan for the next phase of the offensive – the main objective became to prevent the passage of partisan units from Suha Krajina toward east. During the sixth phase of the offensive, which lasted from September 12 to 22, Italian troops, assisted by the Legion of Death and members of Village Guards, carried out cleansing on the border between German-Italian demarcation line and the entire province, employing the tactic of sudden raids to try and incapacitate large partisan groups, who quickly retreated from the unsafe territory.

On September 28 and 29, the High Command of the Slovenian Partisan Forces was reorganized near the settlement of Podlipoglav. Executive Committee of the Liberation Front appointed Ivan Maček – Matija as commander, Jaka Avšič became his deputy, Boris Kidrič political commissar, and Edo Mihevc the organizer of the military school. During the ninth phase of the offensive, the Italian army moved to positions to execute the next phase, which was to cover both sides of the river Kolpa, but was eventually completely annihilated by the Croatian 2nd Lika Brigade and a battalion of the 4th Kordun Brigade. The final, eleventh phase, concentrated on Gorjanci mountain range and Žumberak. Ustasha and German troops as well as the Legion of Death also took part in it. In total, some 40,000 enemy soldiers were to take part in this final phase, but Croatian troops managed to break through the ring, again making the final score rather poor.

The offensive, whose aim was to destroy the partisan movement, lasted three months and eighteen days. According to the Italian data, 1807 partisans were killed, 847 people were shot, but there is no mention of the Italian casualties. Partisan leadership, on the other hand, estimated between 300 and 400 partisans killed, but they counted over thousand Italian soldiers wounded or killed.

Though the occupying forces managed to break up some of the partisan units, they were unable to destroy them, because in accordance with the instruction of July 25, partisan units dispersed when it was necessary, they helped other troops in their surrounding area, they attacked the not full formed enemy’s units, etc. Already two weeks after the end of the offensive, Italian forces again found themselves battling the partisans, since they failed to destroy them during the so-called cleansing operations. Their situation was even worse in Croatia. Much more than the partisan units, the offensive affected civilians and the national liberation movement in the field.

Polona Trobec Mlakar