Junio Valerio Borghese: The Black Prince of World War II

By Arnaldo Teodorani

On this website we have covered the lives of so many Nazi officers and officials that we almost forgot about their Axis allies to the other side of the Alps: Italian Fascists. Their history may not be as well-known as the lives of other protagonists of WWII, and yet I can assure you they had some interesting characters marching about in their black-shirted uniforms since Mussolini founded the Fascist Movement in 1919.

One of them was today’s protagonist: a Roman aristocrat with a taste for action, a pioneer of naval special forces, a military leader loyal to Mussolini’s regime and the mastermind behind one of the most puzzling coups ever … This is the story of Junio Valerio Borghese, The Black Prince of Fascism. 

Before we start

Before we start, let’s clarify a couple of points.

Point 1 – At the time of the Fascist Regime and WWII, Italy was a monarchy and Mussolini shared leadership of the Country with King Victor Emmanuel the IIIrd. But: even if today’s protagonist was styled as “Prince” he was not the King’s son, he was not related to him in any way and certainly had no claims to the throne. In certain countries such as Italy or Russia before the 1917 revolution it could happen that certain high-ranking nobles were titled Princes even without a direct Royal lineage.

Point 2 – The nickname of “Black Prince” was given to Borghese only after the war (because of the black shirt used as a basic uniform by members of the Fascist party and Militia. During the war he was known as “The Frog Prince” because his tactics relied heavily on the use of frogmen. But: Frog Prince sounds like the title of a Disney movie, and this guy was no fairy tale hero. Plus, Black Prince sounds so much cooler, doesn’t it?

Finding a place in the world

Baby Junio was born in Artena [Ar-tay-nah], close to Rome, Italy on probably the most unfortunate date ever: 6th Of June 1906.

Before you get all excited about a Fascist Prince of Darkness being born literally on the day carrying the Number of the Beast, just consider that he came into an old aristocratic family, the Borgheses, who could boast Napoleon’s brother-in-law and a Pope among their ancestors. Moreover, he was baptised – with probably the most unfortunate name ever:

Junio Valerio Scipione Ghezzo Marcantonio Maria Borghese.

His father, Prince Livio Borghese was a diplomat and therefore young Junio grew up and studied first in Great Britain, then Portugal and finally back to Rome. As a second-born son he knew he was not going to inherit neither his family wealth nor the small castle in Artena, so he had to find his own place in the world. Tradition dictated that non-first born sons in the aristocracy made their fortune either in the clergy or in the military. Junio chose the latter, enrolling in the Livorno Naval Academy.

In 1928 he graduated with the rank of midshipman, with a specialisation in submarine warfare and an underwater diving certificate under his belt.

In 1931 he married Russian Countess Daria Wassilewria Olsonfieff. The couple would go on to have four children Elena, Paolo, Livio and Andrea Sciré [Shee-ray]

As a military man, he had grown very close to Mussolini’s ideology and regime, especially with the fear and hatred of communism, which was actually one of the few traits shared by hardline Fascists and Italian aristocracy. But most of all, he was inspired by the extreme nationalism of the Duce’s policies, which sought to establish an Italian sphere of influence from the Adriatic to the Southern Mediterranean.

A powerful Navy was vital to that objective. When Italy’s Navy, the Regia Marina entered WWII in June 1940, it outnumbered the combined British and French fleets in the Mediterranean 185 vessels to 144, although it suffered from a chronic lack of fuel.

However, back in the 1930s, Italian shipyards were still lagging behind the British, both in quality and quantity of vessels. Young officers like Borghese proposed speed, stealth and daring as an alternative: this meant investing in building small assaults vessels, manned by highly trained commandos.

The chief example of this new tactical approach was the SLC, the human torpedo.

[Subtitle on screen: ‘SLC = Siluro a Lenta Corsa – Slow Running Torpedo

Explosive pigs

The human torpedoes had been perfected by naval engineers Teseo Tesei and Elios Toschi who had nicknamed them ‘maiali’ or ‘pigs’ because of their strange grunting noise. Basically, these were miniature submarines on which two frogmen could sit astride. They were propelled by a small electric motor and the frogman at the front was in charge of steering. Their tactic was to infiltrate enemy ports at night, approach their target ship and attach a magnetic mine to the hull.

It begs for an Instagram meme: “Who would win, a Battleship or two dudes on a banana boat?”

Surprisingly – it worked! They sank a total of 200,000 tonnes of Allied shipping in the Mediterranean theatre only. So much so that the British Royal Navy stole the idea, but we called them ‘chariots’ instead of ‘pigs’. Because we are classier.

Underwater Prince

During the Spanish Civil War Prince Borghese was able to build up experience in stealth submarine warfare: he led several illegal actions, bordering on piracy, intended to damage neutral navies supplying the legitimate Republican Spanish government. On the night of the 30th of August 1937, aboard the submarine ‘Iride’, Borghese went one step too far: he ordered a torpedo attack against what appeared to be a Republican ship. It wasn’t. It was the British destroyer HMS Havock. The torpedo missed its mark and Havock gave chase, joined by three more destroyers and a light cruiser. Despite the first ever use of the sonar in wartime and deployment of depth charges the sneaky Prince evaded his pursuers and landed safely in Naples on September the 5th. But the ensuing scandal put an end to all submarine activities off the Spanish coast, meaning Borghese had to wait for at least two years before going back into action …     

On June the 10th 1940, Mussolini declared war on France and the United Kingdom. On the 12th of June the British light cruiser Calypso was sunk off the coast of Crete by an Italian submarine. The Battle of the Mediterranean had begun.

Prince Borghese had progressed in the ranks and was now a corvette captain in charge of submarine ‘Sciré’ [Shee-ray]. His unit was part of the Tenth Light Flotilla, the special forces of the Italian Navy, known also at the “Decima” MAS – where MAS stands for their motto in Latin ‘Memento Audere Semper’ – ‘Remember to dare always’.    

The Sciré’s modus operandi was to sneak as close as possible to enemy ports in the Mediterranean to launch two or three human torpedoes and sink Allied vessels.

And this is how they scored a strategically significant victory, Borghese’s greatest military success. On the 19th of December 1941, three of his ‘pigs’ launched off the Sciré and entered the port of Alexandria, Egypt, undetected. The frogmen made contact with their targets, the battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth, and placed their explosive charges.

The British sailors captured and interrogated two of Borghese’s men, but they would not reveal the nature of their mission until the last possible moment: they revealed the presence of mines allowing for most of the crew to disembark to safety. When the charges went off, Valiant, Queen Elizabeth and two other ships sank in the shallow waters of Alexandria. Overnight, the Axis navies had gained strategic superiority, albeit temporary, across the Mediterranean.

Borghese went to clock up more successes with the Sciré, sinking or damaging a total of 90,131 Tons of Allied shipping during the Battle of the Mediterranean.

 

Civil war

On the 1st of May 1943 Borghese was promoted to the rank of Ship-of-the-line Captain and Commander in chief of the Tenth MAS. Shortly afterwards, on the 25th of July, Benito Mussolini was deposed and arrested in a military coup backed by King Victor Emmanuel III. For a short period, the Italian Army continued its fight alongside Germany. Until on the 8th of September Mussolini’s successor, Field Marshall Badoglio announced completely unexpectedly that Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies.

*

The Country was split in two, and found itself plunged in a civil war, on top of the one it was already fighting.

The Southern half was loyal to the King and Badoglio, its armed forces saw the Germans as the invaders and as such sided with the Allies.

In the Northern half, the Germans and die-hard Fascists had installed Mussolini at the head of a newly founded Italian Social Republic. This side saw the Allies as the invaders and so maintained its alliance with the Nazis.

Prince Borghese decided to continue fighting on the German side, although he gave his men freedom of choice and awarded to everybody an unrestricted order of leave, in case some of them wanted to join the King in the South.

His behaviour so far was quite honourable, although what followed may be open to a different interpretation.

On the 14th of September he signed an agreement with Nazi Germany, which effectively made him autonomous from Mussolini’s newly founded Republic, yet placed the Tenth MAS in direct control of the German military.

As a result, during the following two years, Borghese mainly assigned his men to land operations. More precisely: counter-insurgency actions at the behest of SS General Karl Wolff, intended to cripple the anti-fascist resistance in Northern Italy. During his period the sailors – now foot soldiers – of the Tenth MAS garnered a reputation as ruthless killers and torturers of guerrilla fighters and civilians alike.        

In the spring of 1945 when it was clear that the war with the Allies was lost, General Wolff met in Switzerland with representative of the OSS, CIA’s predecessor, to negotiate a separate truce. One of Wolff’s requests was for Borghese to receive a

“honourable treatment”.

In other words: spare him reprisals from the resistance. The OSS kept their word. On the 25th of April 1945, the War in Italy was formally over and Borghese – ever the sneaky Prince – made it unscathed to Rome disguised as an American officer.

 

Post-War Years   

On the 30th of April 1945 the now democratic authorities in Italy apprehended Prince Borghese, charged with being a collaborator of the Nazi occupation. After three years he was finally trialled and in February 1949 sentenced to 12 years in jail.

Once again, the OSS came to the rescue. They lobbied the magistrates to reduce the sentence to three years – which he had already spent in jail waiting for the trial! So? Prince Junio Valerio etc etc Borghese was now free as a bird. The Americans were in need of ‘the right people’ – right-wing people, that is – to be active in Italy in balancing their perceived threat of a Communist take-over.

Having quit the military, the Prince channelled his nationalistic and anti-communist fervour into politics. First, he joined the MSI – Italian Social Movement, a right-wing party considered to be the heir of the Fascist Party. Borghese became the honorary president of the MSI, but his rabid rhetoric and desire for action clashed with the party leadership, in search of legitimacy to improve their image with the general public.

The Prince founded his own extremist, far-right movement, called the National Front. During this period Borghese became a sort of spiritual leader for young neo-fascists, especially one Stefano Delle Chiaie

 … from the National Vanguard faction, a terrorist group that espoused an ideology of violent action to counter communism and the perceived influence of the Soviet Union in Italy’s internal affairs.

We had the opportunity to speak with a retired government official who met Prince Borghese in private several times during the 1960s.

“Militarily speaking, he certainly did accomplish a lot until 1941, but I always found it curious that he finished the War, with a rank equivalent to Colonel – relatively low, for a 39 year old in a period of high mortality rate amongst officers.

After the war, I had the dubious fortune of meeting the Prince in private as I was friends with one of his sons and my father was active in the MSI. Borghese had a gift for inflammatory rhetoric, but deep down you could tell that the man was full of … himself”  

‘Our most dangerous foes’

During the 1960s Italy was gripped in the so called ‘Years of lead’ – a period of tension in which left and right wing terrorist groups alike carried attacks against the State and civilian victims. Borghese was not going to stand back and watch. He was going to seize power.

The first official record of preparations for a coup d’etat can be traced back to the 11th of May 1969. According to an enquiry from RAI, Italian Public TV, on that day in Genova, Borghese had a secret meeting with a group of influential captains of industry to secure funds for his anti-communist and anti-democratic coup. Among them, even one Mr Piaggio. Yep, the guy who brought you Vespa.

Next step: do you want to prevent a foreign power – the Soviet Union – to mess with your Country? Then get help from another foreign power – US of A!

 So Borghese dispatched his associate Adriano Monti, an Army doctor, to meet another unsavoury character in Madrid: Otto Skorzeny. This former Nazi and SS commando was famous for rescuing Mussolini from captivity in 1943 in a raid conducted by glider. This gentleman …

 … had escaped Nuremberg after the war and was thriving in Francoist Spain, in good relationship with the CIA. During their meeting, Skorzeny reassured Monti that the US would be supportive of the coup, as it was part of their Cold War strategy to establish a “belt” of reliable, authoritarian governments in Southern Europe to prevent the Warsaw Pact from gaining access to the Mediterranean. Think about it: by the late 1960s Portugal, Spain and Greece were under military dictatorships. Italy was the last piece of the puzzle.

Plans for the coup were ready: Borghese and his co-conspirators had managed to draft in General Miceli [Mee-tchay-lee], head of the Military secret services. And on the other end of the spectrum: some Mafiosi whose job was to assassinate the Chief of Police. Finally, the Prince pre-recorded a radio address to the nation, which read:

“The long-awaited coup has taken place … the armed forces, the police, all the most competent men in this country, are all on our side. Our most dangerous foes, those who wanted to enslave Italy to foreign powers, have been made harmless … Long live Italy!”

The action – code name ‘Operation Tora Tora’ – took place on the 7th and 8th of December 1970, in the shape of a multi-pronged attack to the main institutions.

On the 7th, a detachment of 50 National Vanguard thugs, headed by Delle Chiaie snuck undetected into the Ministry of the Interior in Rome and stole a cache of 200 sub-machine guns.

The same night, an armoured battalion under the orders of Colonel Piazzi [Pee-at-tsee] occupied strategically important barracks in Sesto, Northern Italy, also a famous communist stronghold.

In the early hours of the 8th, Colonel Berti [sounds like Bertie] led a motorised column to seize the main offices of public TV and Radio in Rome. But his men are not soldiers – they are Forest Guards (!). Park Rangers, in other words. Why? Beats me. But at least they were armed, I guess.

All seemed to be set for Borghese to turn Italy into another military dictatorship. Then, everything just collapsed, melted away.

First – Colonel Berti met two shadowy figures in front of the TV offices. According to a witness, the two men who appeared to be members of the Military Intelligence told him to go home, “boss’ orders”.

Then – the National Vanguard thugs, who apparently had received the same orders, snuck back into the Ministry and returned the sub-machine guns. Only 199. They kept one as a souvenir.

Finally – Colonel Piazzi, retreated, too.     

At the last minute, The Black Prince had given the order to abort the coup. But why? According to one of the prosecutors who investigated the coup in the ensuing years, Claudio Vitalone …

… this was the intention from the start. The coup was just a bluff intended to provoke a tough reaction from the government, in the hope that it declared the martial law to crack down on the conspirators, effectively becoming an authoritarian regime in the process.

The truth has never been established in a definitive way, some even claiming that the coup never actually took place. The investigations proved inconclusive – resulting in the prosecution of some National Vanguard terrorists, but the acquittal of most involved, including Piaggio and the other industrialists. Whatever it was that happened that night, luckily it didn’t work and Italy remained a democracy.

But let’s go back to the night of December the 8th. In his headquarters, after giving the order to retreat, Borghese stretched his right hand to his accomplices. Branding himself a traitor, he demanded for a pistol to shoot himself. He did not receive one and Borghese lived on.

The most incredible thing about this coup is that, apparently, nobody had noticed that it had taken place! It took an article published in March 1971 for the public opinion to realise that Italy was heading towards Banana Republic status. When the news broke, the Black Prince left for a self-imposed exile instead, moving to Spain, as many other former Nazi and Fascist officials had done before him. After a spell in Barcelona, he moved to Cadiz in Southern Spain.

On the 26th of August 1974, the Black Prince, Junio Valerio Borghese, who had escaped the clutches of the British Navy first, and the Italian Police later, could not fool a bout of acute pancreatitis. He died aged 68, leaving behind a trail of mysteries. Last but not least – his own death. As early as 1975 a magazine article suggested he may have died from arsenic poisoning … The alleged killer? Borghese’s own ‘spiritual heir’ Stefano Delle Chiaie – but that’s another story.

I hope you enjoyed this video, please leave your comments below and tell us what you think about today’s protagonist: war hero, war criminal or deluded schemer? Feel free to share, like and subscribe and as usual … thank you for watching!   

 

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