Most Brits will know that the first invasion of Britain that we are aware of from a historical point of view came about because of a bunch of Italians (and others) led by one Julius Caesar. Caesar was fortunate in terms of his reputation in writing his own history. People’s idea of his invasion of Britain is largely based on what he himself wrote. Imagine if all history was like that, relying on the verdict of the generals and politicians involved. The fact is that he didn’t achieve that much over here, despite what he wrote, and eventually, after two stabs at us, he disappeared back over the Channel never to return (though the Romans did, almost 100 years later).
Over the centuries we’ve got our own back on the Italians and, in fact, we started to do so even before the end of the Roman Empire. Constantine launched his bid for imperial power from Britain and in 312 was marching towards Rome. Ahead lay a sort of Northern Europe versus Mediterranean confrontation, which, on this occasion, Northern Europe was to win decisively. According to Zosimus, with a force drawn from Britain, plus assorted Germans, Celts and others, Constantine smashed Maxentius’ larger force consisting of Romans, Italians, Tuscans, Sicilians and Carthaginians, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and subsequently took Rome and transformed the empire and the world by making Christianity the official religion of the empire.
Towards the end of the fourth century, Magnus Maximus tried the same thing. He wasn’t anything like as successful as Constantine, as it turned out, but he did set off from Britain and make it as far as northern Italy. He didn’t end up with happy memories of an Italian holiday, since he was defeated and executed. At least he’s remembered in Welsh legend as Macsen Wledig.
Constantine III tried the same thing at the beginning of the fifth century. He had the same name as Constantine and made his bid almost exactly a century after the first Constantine, so he may have thought he was in for the same kind of success. He wasn’t. He made it to Liguria before withdrawing to Gaul. By 411 he was dead, and back in Britain we had rebelled and resigned from the Roman Empire permanently.
After that we left Italy alone for a while. Well, we had quite a lot of other things to think about back home. In the late eleventh century the Normans took control of Sicily, but you couldn’t really call it a British invasion since it was more like a parallel invasion to the Norman invasion of England, just in a different direction.
In September 1190, Richard the Lionheart turned up in Sicily with his army. He wasn’t in a good mood, since his sister Joanna was in prison there. She had been married to King William II of Sicily, but when he died, his cousin Tancred (not Tankard, even though he may have liked a drink or two) had taken over and imprisoned Joan. Tancred wasn’t very happy about Richard turning up and neither were the locals. In October there was trouble in Messina. Richard attacked Messina, captured it, did a bit of looting and burning, and established his base there. Finally, in March 1191, a deal was done with Tancred, and Richard could set off for the main event, for which he had ventured into the Mediterranean, the Third Crusade.
British knights spent a fair amount of time fighting in Italy later in the Middle Ages as mercenaries. Some of the best-known mercenary units and commanders in medieval Italy were English, like, for instance, John Hawkwood and his company.
As British sea power in the Mediterranean expanded through the eighteenth century, we found ourselves frequently in Italian waters and on Italian soil. In 1718, a British fleet under Sir George Byng attempted to force the Spanish out of Sicily and our victory at the Battle of Cape Passaro and subsequent blockade of Sicilian ports played a significant role in achieving that goal. At least temporarily. In 1742, Captain William Martin arrived off Naples with a squadron and demanded that Charles IV, king of the Two Sicilies (it’s a long story as to why there were Two Sicilies, to do with containing a bit of southern Italy as well as Sicily, and to do with at one stage there being two different kingdoms both claiming Sicily), get out of a war that we didn’t want him in, within half an hour. Charles found Martin’s arguments, or at least his guns, highly compelling and accordingly did so. By the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century, we were spending a lot of time in the area. Nelson himself was a regular there, and not just because our ambassador to the King of Naples, one William Hamilton, had a rather attractive and very friendly wife called Emma. In the 1790s, Nelson and other Brits also spent a fair amount of time in the seas to the west of Italy. We won the Battle of Genoa in 1797. We were, however, unable to prevent the French advancing overland, and were reduced to doing things like blockading cities after the French had taken them. Something about stable doors, horses and bolting comes to mind Interestingly, considering we don’t normally think of Russians fighting in the Western Med, we did conduct a number of these operations in coordination with Russian forces. Nelson worked alongside Admiral Ushakov to reconquer Naples in 1799. And who could forget the Anglo-Russian Invasion of Naples in 1805?
But all that wasn’t the end of operations in Italy by any means. In 1806, for example, we landed a force over 5,000 strong in Calabria under Major General John Stuart to help a local insurrection against the French and to protect our strategic interests in Sicily. On 4 July 1806, a similar-sized French force met them at Maida in Calabria. The French advanced, the British shot them and then bayoneted them, and it was pretty much all over in about a quarter of an hour. After that, Stuart marched around Calabria for a bit, mopping up French garrisons. The campaign didn’t have any long-term strategic consequences, but the victory at Maida was jolly popular in Britain, and if you’re thinking at this stage that the name sounds familiar, it does. The victory was so popular that a pub and then the Maida Vale area of London were named after it.
And it wasn’t just Italy’s western side we were interested in. We did a lot of fighting on its eastern side as well. In 1808, HMS Unite started lurking in Venetian waters looking for French targets and other British ships were to follow shortly after. Fairly soon we were raiding coastal towns and sending landing parties ashore to destroy fortifications. Eventually, it reached the stage where we were roaming up and down the Adriatic attacking targets pretty freely; HMS Bacchante raided Apulia; HMS Eagle blockaded Ancona; and a British squadron under Rear Admiral Fremantle attacked Fiume, destroying ships and stores and fighting in its streets. Later, Fremantle attacked Trieste and helped our Austrian allies capture it.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars we gave it a rest for bit, but then in 1860 we helped the Italians themselves invade Italy. This is in the sense that the British Navy lent a certain amount of quiet assistance to Garibaldi in his attempts to liberate Italy from foreign dominance and unite it. Our navy, for instance, helped organise an armistice to end the fighting in Palermo and leave Garibaldi in charge there.
In the First World War we were once again back in Italy helping the Italians invade their own country. At the beginning of the war, big chunks of what is now northern Italy were under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Italians fought to free these areas and we sent troops to help. In October 1917, the Italians suffered a severe defeat at Caporetto and British forces were rushed out to Italy to help save the situation. British troops played a brave role in the Battle of Asiago in 1918. Edward, brother of author Vera Brittain, was killed here. And they played a significant part in the final decisive victory at Vittorio Veneto in October 1918. Three of the fifty-seven divisions in the victorious force were British.
Early on in the Second World War we found ourselves on the other side from the Italians, after Mussolini declared war on us on 10 June 1940. We were soon, however, hitting back at Italian territory itself. On the night of 11/12 November, in Operation Judgement, Swordfish biplanes from HMS Illustrious launched a devastating attack on the Italian battle fleet in the Italian port of Taranto. Other actions, including the Battle of Cape Spartivento, off Sardinia, followed, and then by 1943 we were ready for the final invasion of Italy.
Operation Husky was the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. In just over a month British, Canadian and American troops took the island from the German and Italian defenders. Then it was on to the mainland. A detailed account of the grim fighting that followed as British and other Allied troops battled their way through Italy is beyond the remit of this book and has been covered in great depth elsewhere. Basically, our Eighth Army crossed the straits of Messina on 3 September 1943. The Italian armistice with us was announced on 8 September. On 9 September British forces were back in Taranto, landing there in Operation Slapstick, while the Americans landed at Salerno. Bitter fighting against the Germans followed, including the grim struggle for Monte Cassino and the landings at Anzio. Rome fell in June 1944, and by spring 1945 British forces were fighting in northern Italy.