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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume I

12 — The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs1 to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs1 to the Prime Minister of New Zealand

26 May 1940

During the recent week Italy has been preparing for war. The Italian Army has been mobilised for the last fortnight, and she has increased the number of her troops in Libya and has brought those in Albania up to war strength. The Italian Navy is fully prepared and reinforcements have been sent to the Dodecanese. Movements of the mercantile marine are to some extent controlled. The Italian Air Force will be ready for war by the end of the month; ARP2 measures, however, are not well developed. Endeavours have also been made to whip up public opinion by organising demonstrations and by an inspired press campaign.

Signor Mussolini,3 on whose decision all depends, has publicly placed himself on Germany's side. He wishes to obtain rectification of Italy's position in the Mediterranean. He is deeply impressed by Germany's strength and seems to believe that the Allies cannot win. He is afraid of Germany.

German influence over the Italians, already great since the Italo-German military alliance,4 is increasing through control of Italy's police system and fifth column activities. All these considerations point to Italy's entry into the war against the Allies at the moment which suits her or, more accurately, suits Germany. The likelihood of this taking place in the next few days will probably depend on whether in that period Germany achieves a sweeping victory or suffers a set-back.

In view of certain factors, these considerations might, however, equally point to Mussolini's intention to satisfy Germany, and perhaps gain his own ends in the Mediterranean, by exercising the maximum pressure on the Allies, short of war. Among these

1 Viscount Caldecote, who had succeeded Mr. Eden in the Cabinet re-shuffle earlier in May 1940.

2 Air Raid Precautions.

3 The portfolios held by Mussolini were: Head of the Government, Prime Minister, Secretary of State, 1926–43; Minister of Internal Affairs, 1922–24, 1926–43; Minister of War, 1926–29, 1933–43; Minister of Marine and for Air, 1943; Minister and Secretary of State for External Affairs, 1943.

4 Signed in Berlin on 22 May 1939.

page 10 factors are the known reluctance of the King1 and prominent persons like Marshals Balbo2 and Badoglio3 to fight England; the desire of public opinion for peace (though this cannot be stressed too far in view of Mussolini's hold over the public); the relative lack of reserves of material in all three fighting services; and the extreme vulnerability of Italy from an economic standpoint, and of the Italian Empire from a military standpoint.

Viewed as a whole and independently of other considerations, these factors would constitute an argument for believing that Signor Mussolini will confine his activities to extreme pressure short of war. They almost suggest that it might be possible at a price to postpone temporarily the entry of Italy into the war against the Allies. It is quite possible that demands of a far-reaching nature may be presented shortly to the Master of the Rolls4 during negotiations on contraband control.

The evidence suggests, however, that Mussolini has reached the conclusion that it is possible and/or necessary for him to override the difficulties which stand in the way of Italy going to war with the Allies. If this is so, he is to some extent under German control. In that event, the actual date of Italy's entry into the war will depend almost entirely on the moment when it best suits Germany. Only then will it be possible to see whether the German hold over Italy is so strong that Italy is unable to stay out, even if in the circumstances she desires to do so.

Italy has now reached such a stage of dangerous equilibrium between peace and war that a minor incident, which she would construe as an affront, might well precipitate her into war.

The indications are that Signor Mussolini has at present made up his mind to enter the war on the side of Germany, but there is no evidence available from which the date of that entry may be deduced.

1 King Victor Emmanuel III. Abdicated 9 May 1946; died in Egypt, 28 Dec 1947.

2 Air-Marshal Italo Balbo; Italian Minister of Aviation, 1929–33; Governor-General, of Libya, 1933–death, Jun 1940 (in aircraft accident).

3 Field-Marshal Pietro Badoglio, Marchese del Sabotino, Duke of Addis Ababa; Governor-General of Libya, 1928–33; Viceroy of Abyssinia, 1936; Italian Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jul 1943–Jun 1944.

4 Master of the Rolls. Originally chief of the twelve clerks or masters in chancery, and as such, keeper of the rolls, especially of the register of original writs and of all patents and grants under the Great Seal. With later modifications in his duties, the Master of the Rolls became in fact the deputy of the Chancellor; he is now also chairman of the State Papers and Historical Manuscripts Commissions. The present Master of the Rolls is Lord Greene (Rt. Hon. Wilfrid Arthur Greene, PC, OBE, MC) who was appointed in May 1937.