By Paolo Morisi – I hail from northern Italy and – in the summer – I spend a lot of time in the mountains along the Austrian-Italian border, the Alto Adige and Veneto regions of Italy. In the 1980s you could still find artefacts and residues of the Great War all over the mountain ranges.
I recall that the first time I visited frontline positions on Mount Piana (which has now been turned into an open-air museum of the Great War), I was astonished to see and walk through trenches, gun pits, observation posts, artillery emplacements, underground caverns dug deep into the rock, barbed wire, coats of arms of the Kaiserjäger and the Alpini fixed to the entrances of tunnels, etc.
At the small mountain hut on the Piana, I purchased a book by Austrian officer Walther Schaumann (RIP) – a historical guide to tour all the major mountain paths and peak positions of the Dolomites that had been touched by the Great War. After reading the book and the tour of Mount Piana, I was hooked and there began a life-long fascination with both the beautiful mountain scenery and the Great War.
Every summer I would spend a month or more hiking these mountains in the day and enjoying a nice dinner with local lager at a stube/rifugio in the evening. There’s more to the story… several family members recounted their time during the Second World War and especially their experiences in the Greek Mountains and in the North African campaign. The Battle of El Alamein was another example of military history that captivated me. I always wanted to write something on the Battle, but was conscious that it has been covered in every angle by military historians. One of the topics of my research has been the role played by special forces such as the sturmtruppen, the commandos and the paratroopers during the war, and their efforts to introduce tactical innovation on the battlefield.
In Italy, the history of El Alamein is closely connected to the special unit Folgore parachute Division, which defended the southern flank of the Axis line during the great battle. I did some research and found that almost nothing had been written from a scientific and historical perspective on this special elite unit. I thought: ‘I might have something here, an idea that I could pitch’. I approached Duncan Rogers of Helion and Company and, from the onset, he was very enthusiastic and supportive about the idea.
After badgering Duncan with countless questions, I finally began my research, which took me first to Rome to the military archives of the Italian military, and then to the Imperial War Museum in London. While conducting the research, I was not only able to interview surviving members of the Folgore, but also to listen to very moving historical recordings of British soldiers that fought against the paratroopers. The reminisces by both sides told a story of extreme hardship in the desert, of brutal combat and of the overwhelming impact – especially upon foot soldiers – of mechanized warfare, led by steel hulks such as tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy mobile guns mounted on lorries.
In the spirit of European unity and reconciliation, I reconstructed the history of this unit at El Alamein. By drawing from archival sources from both sides, I hope to have furnished a more complete and balanced perspective on a critical juncture in the war, such as the Battle of El Alamein. An extensive collection of detailed maps and black and white photos are also part of the book to give the reader a multi-disciplinary perspective on the north African campaign.
For those visiting Italy, I highly recommend a hiking trip to Mount Piana with beautiful views over the Three Peaks of Lavaredo – probably the most fascinating mountains of the Dolomites.
Purchase your copy of The Italian Folgore Parachute Division, Operations in North Africa 1940-43 by Paolo Morisi here.