When Mussolini was reinstated into power by the Nazi regime in 1943, a new flag was instated over the original tri-color banner that had been Italy’s penant. Emblazoned with an eagle with flared open wings and clutching a long handled halbred, the banner’s intent was to indicate that Italy was prepared to war with its foes, although the gesture itself was an empty one. More than seven hundred thousand standing troops flat refused to serve alongside the Nazis after the attempt to secede from the Axis. These soldiers were rounded up and imprisoned in labor camps in Germany, with many casualties from the increasingly bad conditions the men were forced to endure.
Meanwhile, the Italian Navy, heavily sought after by the Allies, was still mostly intact, with more than two hundred ships. The fleet was originally to be sailed to Malta, but portions of the fleet including that which was under the direct command of Admiral Bergamini sailed instead for the strait between Corsica and Sardinia for reasons undisclosed. Vessels which could not be brought underway in time to escape the German advance were scuttled or sabotaged to render them unfit for fighting.
This is not to say that the military forces of Italy were completely toothless, even after the disbanding and imprisonment in slave labor camps of nearly nine out of ten of its soldiers. What military forces that remained fighting alongside the Nazis did so more out of loyalty to their word, honor to their commitments, than any real desire to support the Nazi agenda or ideals. While frequently lightly armed or equipped due to the shortage of war materials coming out of Italy, RSI units still served in a few combat roles in the fighting that came thereafter. The soldiery who remained to fight alongside the Nazis were bolstered by a large wave of volunteers, who endured terrible conditions, minimal food, and grueling training, to eventually form four front line divisions.
Despite the newly reinforced RSI’s intentions of keeping their word and refusing to fight against those who they swore to fight alongside, however, Germany didn’t trust these units after the short lived attempt to depart the Axis, and most of these units were impressed into counter insurgency or coastal patrol roles. As morale plummeted, operational effectiveness dropped, and many of these units began seeing very high desertion or even defection rates. As their own effectiveness continued to deteriorate, the Italian forces’ morale was further decimated by the evolution of Yugoslavian partisans into an organized army.
The only major offensive operation that the RSI military engaged in was in the winter of 1944, which involved a regiment sized attack against US forces in the Appenines. While the engagement was brief, the RSI forces proved themselves highly skilled and aggressive.
RSI troops received little quarter at the end of the war; civilians posing as partisans killed thousands of RSI troops, whose only real defense was to surrender to American forces or legitimate partisan groups before they could be caught by the murderous civilian populace. This period spelled the end of the RSI’s military history.