On this day in 1943, the United States bombs railway yards in Rome in an attempt to break the will of the Italian people to resist—as Hitler lectures their leader, Benito Mussolini, on how to prosecute the war further.
On July 16, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appealed to the Italian civilian population to reject Mussolini and Hitler and “live for Italy and civilization.” As an “incentive,” American bombers raided the city, destroying its railways. Panic broke out among the Romans. Convinced by Mussolini that the Allies would never bomb the holy city, civilians poured into the Italian capital for safety. The bombing did more than shake their security in the city—it shook their confidence in their leader.
The denizens of Rome were not alone in such disillusion. In a meeting in northern Italy, Hitler attempted to revive the flagging spirits of Il Duce, as well as point out his deficiencies as a leader. Afraid that Mussolini, having suffered successive military setbacks, would sue for a separate peace, leaving the Germans alone to battle it out with Allied forces along the Italian peninsula, Hitler decided to meet with his onetime role model to lecture him on the manly art of war. Mussolini remained uncharacteristically silent during the harangue, partly due to his own poor German (he would request a translated synopsis of the meeting later), partly due to his fear of Hitler’s response should he tell the truth—that Italy was beaten and could not continue to fight. Mussolini kept up the charade for his German allies: Italy would press on. But no one believed the brave front anymore. Just a day later, Hitler secretly ordered Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to take command of the occupied Greek Islands, better to “pounce on Italy” if and when Mussolini capitulated to the United States. But within a week, events would take a stunning turn.