One of (or should that be two of?), the most unusual objects in the collection of the REME Museum are Benito Mussolini’s boots. They are not a pair of boots he actually wore, but were once part of a bronze statue that stood in Tripoli’s Piazza Castello, a grand public square near the harbour of the Libyan capital. The story of REME’s connection to the boots is a fascinating tale.

As part of its policy to create an empire, Italy began to try and forcibly colonise Libya in 1911. These efforts intensified from 1922 onwards, as Mussolini became the Italian Prime Minister in October of that year. The second Italo-Senussi War (the Senussis are a Muslim political group who led the fight against the Italians), was fought for the next ten years, but was eventually won by Italy (significant war crimes were committed by the Italian military during this period, and the government agreed to pay compensation to the Libyan people in 2008).

Not long after coming to power, Mussolini began to impose the concept of Fascist rule on Italy and the lands under its control. He used art, architecture and iconography to deliberately connect his new Italian empire to Rome at its imperial height, in an effort to inspire Italians and to impress the world. Photographs and posters of Il Duce, as he liked to be known (a word derived from the Latin for leader, dux), appeared everywhere, and architecture and art was consciously used to emphasise the link between modern Italy and ancient Rome.

What particularly appealed to Mussolini was installing enormous contemporary statues in the public places of Italy and its empire. The statues were usually either of himself, copies of figures from the Roman period or a race of idealised “Aryans”, to which Mussolini believed the Italian people belonged (Aryanism was a popular ideology among Fascists like Mussolini, as it suggested Europeans are a group of humans naturally superior to all other types. It is an idea that has long been discredited as nonsense).

Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, a building in Rome’s EUR district, inaugurated 1940. Romans have been said to call it The Square Coliseum. Photograph by Jeremy Thompson, reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

Roman mosaics are known and revered throughout the world. Mussolini’s government purposefully used the same art form, both to link his regime to Italy’s early forbears and also to extol their own virtues. Photograph by Michael Tinkler, reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

There were a number of reasons for this approach. He knew ancient Roman leaders commissioned many marble statues of themselves, both to remain in the public eye, and to ensure both Romans and those they oppressed knew who was in charge. Mussolini followed this same approach for exactly those reasons. He was also, like many dictators since, very concerned with his country’s image abroad. He thought the rest of the world would come to admire him and Italy if he portrayed Italians in stone and metal as perfect human beings.

Sculptures surrounding Rome’s Stadio dei Marmi, one of the stadia in what was originally called the Foro Mussolini (now named the Foro Italico). Photograph by Florence, reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

The Tripoli statue of Mussolini on horseback is a perfect expression of this political and cultural policy. It was cast in bronze by the sculptor Quirino Ruggeri (1883 – 1955), and unveiled in 1933 by Marshal Italo Balbo, Governor General of Libya. It is a typical example of the Fascist statuary so admired by Mussolini: large, deliberately exaggerated, stilted, lifeless and devoid of emotion or humanity. He probably saw the statue for himself in 1935 when he made an official visit to Tripoli, and no doubt he approved.

The Mussolini statue (with boots) photographed at the formal parade of a Panzer Division of the Afrika Korps, Tripoli 1 March 1941. The Korps’ commander, Erwin Rommel, is said to have arranged for the Panzers to drive around the city a few times to confuse the Allies into believing he had more tanks than was actually the case. Photograph ©REME Museum.

What would certainly have been less agreeable to Il Duce was the fact that it did not remain in place for long.

Following victory in North Africa, the Allied leaders decided the next phase of the War would begin with the invasion of Sicily. This campaign, codenamed Operation Husky, began in July 1943 and used the Allied bases on the North African coast as launching points. Tripoli was home to 3 Advanced Base Workshop REME, and it was men from this unit that were given permission by the British Military Administration to melt down the statue for the bronze it contained. They removed it from its stone plinth in December 1943 and gave it to the RAOC to be used in the manufacture of spare parts.

Unfortunately it was discovered the quality of the bronze was so poor that the metal could not be used for any military purpose. All was not lost however, and typical British military ingenuity led to a series of napkin rings of various sizes being made (a number of these are in the Museum’s collection). The horse’s testicles were transformed into an ashtray; regrettably, history does not record what happened to this, nor what it looked like. One of the horse’s nostrils was also kept intact and is currently being sold by an antiques dealer in Suffolk. Taken together, these represent excellent early examples of recycling.

This is not all that was saved. The boots ended up with 693 Base Manufacturing Workshops REME in Naples, and were placed either side of the fireplace in the Sergeants’ Mess where they held the fire irons. The Workshops were disbanded in June 1946, and the boots were packed up and sent back to Britain. Each still bears a plaque that reads “Presented to REME Training Establishment by 693 Manufacturing Workshops REME C.M.F. 1946” (CMF stands for Central Mediterranean Force).

The boots as they currently appear on display in the Museum and a close-up of the commemorative plaque. © REME Museum.

A report written in December 1947 described the scene when the statue was pulled down in late December 1943:

“Ropes were fixed, the breakdown lorry pulled, the statue was down and placed on a trailer, cameras clicked, civilians cheered. Then followed what must have been the most undignified journey in the life of any statue. Arabs and Italians alike cheered wildly, as the trailer with its load passed through the streets to the foundry where Mussolini and horse were melted down.”

The scene described here is redolent of very recent events that have resulted in monuments to Britons involved with the slave trade or American Confederate generals forcibly taken down, covered up or simply removed. The symbolic power of such statues was equally not lost on Mussolini, nor on those he subjugated.