Military history of Italy during World War II: Wikis


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During World War II (1939–1945), the Kingdom of Italy had a varied and tumultuous military history. While the Italian forces are widely viewed by the victorious nations as weak, historians believe this was largely down to circumstances such as poor equipment and ineffective political leadership, rather than to inherent inferiority.

The maximum extent of the Italian Empire.
Greatest extent of Italian control within the Mediterranean region (within green line & dots) in 1942. British control is delineated by red.


Outbreak of World War II

Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, but Italy remained neutral for the following ten months even though it was one of the Axis powers.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's Under-Secretary for War Production, Carlo Favagrossa, had estimated that Italy could not possibly be prepared for such a war until at least October 1942. This had been made clear during Italo-German negotiations for the Pact of Steel whereby it was stipulated that neither signatory was to make war without the other earlier than 1943.[1] Although considered a major power, the Italian industrial sector was relatively weak compared to other European major powers. Italian industry did not equal more than 15% of that of France or of Britain in militarily critical areas such as automobile production: the number of automobiles in Italy before the war ranged at ca. 372,000, in comparison to ca. 2,500,000 in Britain and France. The lack of a stronger automotive industry made it difficult for Italy to mechanize its military. Italy still had a predominantly agricultural-based economy, with demographics more akin to a developing country (high illiteracy, poverty, rapid population growth and a high proportion of adolescents) and a proportion of GNP derived from industry less than that of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Sweden, in addition to the other great powers.[2] In terms of strategic materials, in 1940, Italy produced 4.4, 0.01, 1.2 and 2.1 Mt of coal, crude oil, iron ore and steel, respectively. By comparison, Great Britain produced 224.3, 11.9, 17.7, and 13.0 Mt and Germany produced 364.8, 8.0, 29.5 and 21.5 Mt of coal, crude oil, iron ore and steel, respectively.[3] Most of the raw material needs could be fulfilled only through importation, and no effort was made to stockpile key materials before the entry into war. Also, approximately one quarter of Italy’s merchant fleet were located at foreign ports and given no forewarning of Mussolini’s rash decision to enter the war, and were immediately impounded.[4][5] Another handicap was the large number of weapons and supplies given by Italy practically free to the Spanish forces fighting under Franco during the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939.[6][7] The Italians also sent the "Corps of Volunteer Troops" (Corpo Truppe Volontarie) to fight for Franco. The financial cost of this war was between 6 and 8.5 billion lire, approximately 14 to 20% of annual expenditure.[7] Added to these issues was Italy's extreme debt position. When Benito Mussolini took office in 1921 the government debt was 93 billion lire, un-repayable in the short to medium term. Yet only two years later this debt increased to 405 billion lire.[8]

The Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) therefore remained comparatively depleted and weak at the commencement of the war. The Italian tanks were of poor quality, and radios were few in number. The bulk of the Italian artillery dated from World War I. The Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica's) primary fighter was the Fiat CR-42, though an advanced design for a biplane with excellent performance characteristics,[9] it was obsolete compared to the then current generation monoplane fighters of other nations. The Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) had several modern battleships, but no aircraft carriers. In addition, the Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) could field approximately 1,760 aircraft, of which only 900 of them could be considered as "front-line machines".[10]

Yet whilst equipment was lacking and outdated, Italian authorities were acutely aware of the need to maintain a modern army[nb 1] and were taking the necessary steps to modernize in accordance with their very own relatively advanced tactical principles.[nb 2][13][14] Almost 40% of the 1939 budget was allocated to military spending.[15] Awareness existed, albeit belatedly, of the need to have close air support for the Navy, and the decision was made to build carriers[nb 3] And whilst the majority of equipment was obsolescent and poor, appropriate steps were being taken whereby quality equipment was being developed. For example, the three series 5 fighters[nb 4] were capable of meeting the best allied fighters on equal terms,[17] but only a few hundred of each were produced; The Fiat G55 Centauro received much German interest and was defined by Oberst Petersen, advisor to Goering, as the “best Axis fighter.” The Carro Armato P40 tank,[18] roughly equivalent to the M4 Sherman and Panzer IV, was designed in 1940, but no prototype was produced until 1942 and developers/manufacturers not able to roll out any of these tanks before Armistice.[nb 5] This was owing, in part, to the lack of sufficiently powerful engines, which were themselves undergoing a development push. Unlike the Allies, Italian tank designers did not think to use old aircraft engines, which were available in relative abundance, and would have certainly facilitated more rapid tank development.[citation needed] Total tank production for the war (~ 3,500) was less than the number of tanks used by Germany in its invasion of France. The Italians were also reported to be the first to use self-propelled guns,[21][22] both in close support and anti-tank roles, and their, for example, 75/46 (& 75/32) , 90/53 (a peer of the German 88/55), 102/35 and 47/32 mm, and 20 mm AA guns were not obsolete.[14][23] Also of note were the AB 41 and the Camionetta AS 42 which were regarded as excellent vehicles of their type. None of these developments precluded the fact that the bulk of the equipment was obsolete and poor. However, it was this relatively weak economy, lack of suitable raw materials and inability to produce suitable quantities of armaments and supplies which was predominant reason for Italian military failure.

On paper, Italy had one of the largest armies,[24] but this was far from reality. According to the estimates of Bierman and Smith, the Italian regular army could field only about 200,000 troops at the start of World War II.[10] Irrespective of the attempts to modernize, the majority of Italian army personnel were lightly armed infantry lacking sufficient motor transport.[nb 6] There was insufficient budget to train the men in the services such that in World War II the bulk of the personnel received much of their training at the front, when it was too late to be of use.[25] Air units had not been trained to operate with the naval fleet and the majority of ships had been built for fleet actions, not the convoy protection duties which they were mostly employed for during the war.[26] Regardless, a critical lack of fuel kept naval activities to a minimum.[27]

Senior leadership was also an issue. Mussolini personally assumed control of all three individual military service ministries with the intention of influencing detailed planning.[28] Comando Supremo (the Italian High Command) consisted of only a small complement of staff that could do little more than inform the individual service commands of Mussolini’s intentions, after which it was up to the individual service commands to develop these into proper plans and execute.[29] The result was that there was no central direction for operations and the three military services tended to work independently, focusing only on their fields, with little inter-service cooperation.[29][30] The Army itself was essentially split into two different institutions; those institutionally loyal to the king (Regio Esercito) and those to Mussolini,[citation needed] and discrepancies in pay existed for personnel of equal rank, but from different units.

Following the German conquest of Poland, Mussolini would change his mind repeatedly as to whether he would enter the war. The British commander in Africa, General Archibald Wavell, correctly predicted that Mussolini's pride would ultimately cause him to enter the war. Wavell would compare Mussolini's situation to that of someone at the top of a diving board: "I think he must do something. If he cannot make a graceful dive, he will at least have to jump in somehow; he can hardly put on his dressing-gown and walk down the stairs again."[31]

Some historians believe that Italian leader Benito Mussolini was induced to enter the war against the Allies by secret negotiations with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with whom he had an active mail correspondence between September 1939 and June 1940.[32] The journalist Luciano Garibaldi wrote that "in those letters (which disappeared at Lake Como in 1945) Churchill may have extorted Mussolini to enter the war to mitigate Hitler's demands and dissuade him from continuing hostilities against Great Britain as France was inexorably moving toward defeat. In light of this, Mussolini could urge Hitler turn against the USSR, the common enemy of both Churchill and Mussolini".

Initially, the entry into the war was clearly political opportunism, which lead to a lack of consistency in planning, with principal objectives and enemies being changed with little regard for the consequences.[33] Mussolini was well aware of the military and material deficiencies but thought the war would be over soon and did not expect to do much fighting. This led to confusion amongst ordinary Italians and soldiers who had little idea of what they were fighting for and, hence, had little conviction and saw little justification for it. As the war progressed and one disaster followed another, Comando Supremo were forced to take more serious steps in their planning.

Italy enters the war: June 1940

On 10 June 1940, as the French government fled to Bordeaux before the German invasion, declaring Paris an open city, Mussolini felt the conflict would soon end and declared war on Britain and France. As he said to the Army's Chief-of-Staff, Marshal Badoglio:

I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought.[34]

Mussolini had the immediate war aim of expanding the Italian colonies in North Africa by taking land from the British and French colonies.

Of Italy's declaration of war, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, said:

On this tenth day of June 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.[35]

Italian forces in France: 1940–1943

In June 1940, after initial success the Italian offensive into southern France stalled at the fortified Alpine Line. On 25 June 1940, France surrendered to Germany. Italy occupied some areas of French territory along the Franco-Italian border. During this operation, Italian casualties were 1,247 men dead or missing and 2,631 wounded. A further 2,151 Italians were hospitalised due to frostbite.

In November 1942, the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) participated in invading south-eastern Vichy France and Corsica as part of what was known as Case Anton. From December 1942, Italian military government of French departments east of the Rhône River was established and continued until September 1943 when Italy quit the war. This had the effect of providing a de facto temporary haven for French Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

The Italian Navy established a submarine base at Bordeaux, code named BETASOM and thirty two Italian submarines participated in the Battle of the Atlantic

Hostilities commence in North Africa: 1940

Things did not go well for the Italians in North Africa almost from the start. Within a week of Italy's declaration of war on 10 June 1940, the British 11th Hussars had seized Fort Capuzzo in Libya. In an ambush east of Bardia, the British captured the Italian Tenth Army's Engineer-in-Chief, General Lastucci. On 28 June, Marshal Italo Balbo, the Governor-General of Libya was killed by friendly fire while landing in Tobruk.

Mussolini ordered Balbo's replacement, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, to launch an attack into Egypt immediately. Graziani complained to Mussolini that his forces were not properly equipped for such an operation. Graziani further complained that an attack into Egypt could not possibly succeed. Mussolini ordered Graziani to attack anyway.

On 13 September, elements of the Italian Tenth Army retook Fort Capuzzo, crossed the border between Libya and Egypt, and advanced into Egypt as far as Sidi Barrani. Sidi Barrani was about 100 kilometers inside Egypt from the Libyan border. The Italians then stopped and began to entrench themselves in a series of fortified camps.

At this time, the British had only 36,000 troops available (out of ~100,000 under his Middle Eastern command) to defend Egypt against 236,000 Italian troops.[36] However, the Italians were not concentrated in one place. They were divided between the 5th army in the west and the 10th army in the east. Hence, they remained spread out from the Tunisian border in western Libya to Sidi Barrani in Egypt. With reluctance Graziani’s invasion of Egypt commenced on September 13 with four divisions and one (ad hoc)[37] armoured group crossing the border.[38] The advance stopped at Sidi Barrani, where Graziani, not knowing the British lack of numerical strength,[nb 7] planned to build fortifications and stock them with provisions ammunition and fuel, establish a water pipeline and extend the via Balbia to that location, which was where the road to Alexandria began.[38] This task was being obstructed by the British Royal Navy forces operating in the Mediterranean by attacking Italian supply-ships. At this stage Italian losses remained minimal, but the efficiency of the British Royal Navy would improve as the war went on. Mussolini was fiercely disappointed with the sluggishness of Graziani. However, according to Bauer[38] he had only himself to blame as he withheld the trucks, armament and supplies that Graziani had deemed necessary. Wavell was hoping to see the Italians over-extend themselves before his intended counter at Marsa Matruh.[38]

In addition, Graziani and his staff lacked faith in the strength of the Italian military. One of his officers wrote: "We're trying to fight this... as though it were a colonial war... this is a European war... fought with European weapons against a European enemy. We take too little account of this in building our stone forts.... We are not fighting the Ethiopians now."[40](This was a reference to the Second Italo-Abyssinian War where Italian forces had fought against a relatively poorly equipped opponent.) Balbo had previously documented: "Our light tanks, already old and armed only with machine guns, are completely out-classed. The machine guns of the British armoured cars pepper them with bullets which easily pierce their armour."[38]

Italian forces around Sidi Barrani had severe weaknesses in their deployment. The five fortifications were placed too far apart to allow mutual support against an attacking force and the areas between were weakly patrolled. The absence of motorised transport did not allow for rapid reorganisation, if needed. The rocky terrain had prevented an anti-tank ditch from being dug and there were too few mines and 47 mm anti-tank guns to repel an armoured advance.[39]

Battle of Britain: 1940–1941

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini insisted on providing an element of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) to assist his German ally during the Battle of Britain.[41] Mussolini's expeditionary air force was called the Italian Air Corps (Corpo Aereo Italiano, or CAI). The CAI went to Belgium on 10 September 1940 and first saw action in late October 1940. The Italian aircraft took part in the latter stages of the battle. The Italian equipment, which included biplane fighters, did not compare favorably with the aircraft of the British Royal Air Force or of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). As a result, the CAI achieved limited to no success. The aircraft of the CAI were redeployed in early 1941. The last Italian fighters were redeployed by mid-April.

Campaigns in East Africa: 1940–1941

In addition to the well-known campaigns in the western desert during 1940, the Italians opened an additional front in June 1940 from their East African colonies of Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland, and Eritrea.

As in Egypt, the Italian forces with ~70,000 Italian soldiers and ~180,000 native troops outnumbered their British opponents. But Italian East Africa was isolated and far away from the Italian mainland. The Italian forces in East Africa were thus cut off from re-supply. This severely limited the operations that they could seriously undertake.

The initial Italian attacks in East Africa took two different directions, one into the Sudan and the other into Kenya. Then, in August 1940, the Italians advanced into British Somaliland. After suffering and inflicting few casualties, the British and Commonwealth garrison was evacuated from Somaliland by sea to Aden.

The Italian invasion of British Somaliland was one of the only successful Italian campaigns of World War II accomplished without German support. In the Sudan and Kenya, Italy captured small territories around several border villages. After doing so, the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) in East Africa adopted a defensive posture against an expected British counter-attack.

The Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) maintained a small squadron in the Italian East Africa area. The Italian "Red Sea Flotilla" was based at the port of Massawa in Eritrea. It consisted of seven destroyers and eight submarines. Despite a severe shortage of fuel, the Red Sea Flotilla posed a threat to British convoys traversing the Red Sea. However, Italian attempts to attack British convoys resulted in the loss of four submarines and one destroyer.

On 19 January 1941, the expected British counter-attack arrived in the shape of the Indian 4th and Indian 5th Infantry Divisions, which made a thrust from the Sudan. A supporting attack was made from Kenya by the South African 1st Division, the 11th African Division, and the 12th African Division. Finally, the British launched an amphibious assault from Aden to re-take British Somaliland.

From February to March, the outcome of Battle of Keren determined the fate of Italian East Africa. In early April, after Keren fell, Asmara and Massawa followed. The Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa also fell in April 1941. The Viceroy of Ethiopia, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, surrendered at the stronghold of Amba Alagi in May. He received full military honors. The Italians in East Africa made a final stand around the town of Gondar in November 1941.

When the port of Massawa fell to the British, the remaining destroyers were ordered on a suicide attack in the Red Sea. At the same time, the last four submarines made an epic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to Bordeaux in France.

Some Italians, after their defeat, waged a guerrilla war mainly in Eritrea and Ethiopia, that lasted until summer 1943.

Italian forces in the Balkans: 1940–1943

In early 1939, while the world was focused on Adolf Hitler's aggression against Czechoslovakia, the Italian dictator set his eyes on Albania, across the Adriatic from Italy. Italian forces invaded Albania on 7 April 1939 and despite some strong resistance, especially at Durrës, swiftly took control of the small country.

Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

On 28 October 1940, Italy started the Greco-Italian War by launching an invasion of the Kingdom of Greece from Albania. In part, the Italians attacked Greece because of the growing influence of Germany in the Balkans. Both Yugoslavia and Greece had governments friendly to Germany. Mussolini launched the invasion of Greece in haste after Romania, a state which he perceived as lying within the Italian sphere of influence, allied itself with Germany. The order to invade Greece was given by Mussolini to Badoglio and Roatta on October 15 with the expectation that the attack would commence with 12 days. Badoglio and Roatta were appalled given that, acting on his orders, they had demobilised 600,000 men three weeks prior.[42] Given the expected requirement of at least 20 divisions to facilitate success, the fact that only eight divisions were currently in Albania, and considering the inadequacies of the Albanian ports and connecting infrastructure, adequate preparation would require at least three months.[42] Nonetheless, D-day was set at dawn on October 28.

The invasion went badly for the Italians. The initial Italian offensive was quickly contained, and the Greek Commander-in-Chief, Lt Gen Papagos, taking advantage of Bulgaria's neutrality, was able to establish numerical superiority by mid-November,[nb 8] prior to launching a counter-offensive that drove the Italians back into Albania. In addition, the Greeks were naturally adept at operating in mountainous terrain, while only six of the Italian Army's divisions, the Alpini, were trained and equipped for mountain warfare. Only when the Italians were able to establish numerical "parity" was the Greek offensive stopped. By then they had been able to penetrate deep into Albania.

The following passage aptly summarizes the episode from the perspective of both the brilliant Greek defence of their homeland and the ill-prepared Italian debacle:

No one can deny the victor's laurels to the Greek soldier. But under conditions like these one can only say that the Italian soldier had earned the martyr's crown a thousand times over.[45]

An Italian "Spring Offensive" in March, that tried to salvage the situation before the German intervention, amounted to little. The Italian Army was still pinned down in Albania by the Greeks and the Albanian resistance when the Germans invaded Greece. Crucially, the bulk of the Greek Army (fifteen divisions) was left deep in Albania, while the German attack approached.

After British troops arrived in Greece in March 1941, British bombers operating from Greek bases could reach the Romanian oil fields, vital to the German war effort. Hitler decided that he had to help the Italians and committed German troops to invade Greece via Yugoslavia (where a coup had deposed the German-friendly government).

On 6 April 1941 the Wehrmacht invasions of Yugoslavia (Operation 25) and Greece (Operation Marita) both started. Together with the rapid advance of the German forces the Italians attacked Yugoslavia in Dalmatia and pushed the Greeks finally out of Albania. On 17 April Yugoslavia surrendered to the Germans and the Italians. On 30 April, Greece too surrendered to the Germans and Italians, and was divided into German, Italian and Bulgarian sectors. The invasions ended with a complete Axis victory in May when Crete fell. On May 3, during the triumphal parade in Athens to celebrate the Axis victory, Mussolini started to boast of an Italian Mare Nostrum in the Mediterranean sea.

Some 28 Italian divisions participated in the Balkan invasions. The coast of Yugoslavia was occupied by the Italian Army, while the rest of the country was divided between the Axis forces (an Italian puppet State of Croatia was created, under the sovereign of an Italian Savoia). The Italians assumed control of most of Greece with their 11th Army, while the Bulgarians occupied the northern provinces and the Germans the strategically most important areas. Italian troops would occupy parts of Greece and Yugoslavia until the Italian armistice with the Allies in September 1943.

In spring 1941 Italy created a Montenegrin client state and annexed most of the Dalmatian coast as the Governorship of Dalmatia (Governatorato di Dalmazia). Yugoslavian partisans fought a guerrilla war against the occupying forces until 1945.

The Italian Navy in the Mediterranean: 1940–1943

In 1940, the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) could not match the overall strength of the British Royal Navy in the Mediterranean Sea. After some initial setbacks, the Italians Navy declined to engage in a confrontation of capital ships. Since the British Navy had as a principal task the supply and protection of convoys supplying her outposts in the Mediterranean, the mere continued existence of the Italian fleet (the so called Fleet in being) caused problems to Britain, which had to utilise warships sorely needed elsewhere to protect Mediterranean convoys. On 11 November 1940, Britain launched the first carrier strike of the war, using a squadron of Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers. This raid at Taranto left three Italian battleships crippled or destroyed for the loss of two British aircraft shot down.

The Italian Navy found other ways to attack the British. The most successful involved the use of frogmen and riding manned torpedoes to attack ships in harbour. The 10th Light Flotilla, also known as Decima Flottiglia MAS or XMAS, which carried out these attacks, sank or damaged 28 ships from September 1940 to the end of 1942. These included the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant (sunk in the Harbor of Alexandria on 18 December 1941), and 111,527 tons of merchant shipping. The XMAS used a particular kind of torpedo, the SLC ("Siluro a Lenta Corsa"), which crew was composed by two frog men and a strange motorboat, called MTM ("Motoscafo da Turismo Modificato").

Following the sinking of these two battleships, an Italian-dominated Mediterranean Sea appeared much more possible to achieve. However, this was only a brief happy time for Mussolini. The oil and supplies brought to Malta, despite heavy losses, by Operation Pedestal in August and the Allied landings in North Africa, Operation Torch, in November 1942, turned the fortunes of war against Italy. After years of stalemate, the Axis forces were ejected from Libya and Tunisia in six months after the Battle of El Alamein, while their supply lines were harassed day after day by the growing and overwhelming aerial and naval supremacy of the Allies in what had just been the Mussolini's Italian Mare Nostrum.

Italy in North Africa: 1940–1943

Semovente 75/18 during the North African campaign.

On 8 December 1940 the British Operation Compass began. Planned as an extended raid, it resulted in a force of British, Indian and Australian troops cutting off the Italian troops. Pressing the British advantage home, General Richard O'Connor pressed the attack forward and succeeded in reaching El Agheila (an advance of 500 miles (800 km)) and capturing tens of thousands of enemies. The Allies nearly destroyed the Italian army in North Africa, and seemed on the point of sweeping the Italians out of Libya. However, Winston Churchill directed the advance be stopped, initially because of supply problems and because of a new determined effort that had gained ground in Albania, and ordered troops dispatched to defend Greece. Weeks later the first troops of the German Afrika Korps started to arrive in North Africa (February 1941) to reinforce the Italians.

German General Erwin Rommel now became the principal Axis field commander in North Africa, although the bulk of his forces consisted of Italian troops. Under Rommel's direction the Axis troops pushed the British and Commonwealth troops back into Egypt but were unable to complete the task because of the exhaustion and their extended supply lines which were under threat from the Allied enclave at Tobruk, which they failed to capture. After reorganising and re-grouping the Allies launched Operation Crusader in November 1941 which resulted in the Axis front line being pushed back once more to El Agheila by the end of the year.

In January 1942 the Axis struck back again, advancing to Gazala where the front lines stabilised while both sides raced to build up their strength. At the end of May Rommel launched the Battle of Gazala where the British armoured divisions were soundly defeated. The Axis seemed on the verge of sweeping the British out of Egypt, but at the First Battle of El Alamein (July 1942) General Claude Auchinleck halted Rommel's advance only 90 miles (140 km) from Alexandria. Rommel made a final attempt to break through during the Battle of Alam el Halfa but Eighth Army, by this time commanded by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, held firm. After a period of reinforcement and training the Allies assumed the offensive at the Second Battle of Alamein (October/November 1942) where they scored a decisive victory and the remains of Rommel's German-Italian Panzer Army were forced to engage in a fighting retreat for 1,600 miles (2,600 km) to the Libyan border with Tunisia.

After the Operation Torch landings in the Vichy French territories of Morocco and Algeria (November 1942) British, American and French forces advanced east to engage the German-Italian forces in the Tunisia Campaign. By February the Axis forces in Tunisia were joined by Rommel's forces, after their long withdrawal from El Alamein, which were re-designated the Italian First Army (under Giovanni Messe) when Rommel left to command the Axis forces to the north at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. Despite the Axis success at Kasserine, the Allies were able to reorganise (with all forces under the unified direction of 18th Army Group commanded by General Sir Harold Alexander) and regain the initiative in April. The Allies completed the defeated the Axis armies in North Africa in May 1943.

Italian troops on the Eastern Front: 1941–1943

In July 1941, some 62,000 Italian troops of the "Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia" (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia, or CSIR) left for the Eastern Front to aid in the German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa).

In July 1942, the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) expanded the CSIR to a full army of about 200,000 men known as the "Italian Army in Russia" (Armata Italiana in Russia, or ARMIR). The ARMIR was also known as the "Italian 8th Army."

From August 1942 to February 1943, the Italian 8th Army took part in the Battle of Stalingrad. At Stalingrad, the 8th Army suffered heavy losses (some 20,000 dead and 64,000 captured) when the Soviets isolated the German forces in Stalingrad by attacking the over-stretched Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian forces protecting the German's flanks.

By the summer of 1943, Rome had withdrawn the remnants of these troops to Italy. Many of the Italian POWs captured in the Soviet Union died in captivity due to the harsh conditions in the Soviet prison camps.

The fight for Italy: 1943–1945

On 10 July 1943, a combined force of American and British Commonwealth troops invaded Sicily in Operation Husky. German generals again took the lead in the defence and, although they lost the island, they succeeded in ferrying large numbers of German and Italian forces safely off Sicily to the Italian mainland. On 19 July an Allied air raid on Rome destroyed both military and collateral civil installations. With these two events, popular support for the war diminished in Italy.

On 25 July 1943, the Grand Council of Fascism ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and a new Italian government, led by General Pietro Badoglio and King Victor Emmanuel III, took over in Italy. The new Italian government immediately began secret negotiations with the Allies to end the fighting and to come over to the Allied side. On 3 September, a secret armistice was signed with the Allies at Fairfield Camp in Sicily. The armistice was announced on 8 September. By then, the Allies were on the Italian mainland.

On 3 September 1943, British troops crossed the short distance from Sicily to the 'toe' of Italy in Operation Baytown. Two more Allied landings took place on 9 September at Salerno (Operation Avalanche) and at Taranto (Operation Slapstick). The Italian surrender meant that the Allied landings at Taranto took place unopposed, with the troops simply disembarking from warships at the docks rather than assaulting the coastline.

German troops, once they had discovered that the Italians had signed an armistice, moved quickly to disarm the Italian forces and to take over critical defensive positions (Operation Achse). These included Italian-occupied south-eastern France and the Italian-controlled areas in the Balkans.

On 9 September, a German Fritz X guided bomb sank the Italian battleship Roma off the coast of Sardinia.

In the Greek island of Cephallonia, General Antonio Gandin, commander of the 12,000-strong Italian Acqui Division decided to resist the German attempt to forcibly disarm his force. The battle raged from September 13 to 22, when the Italians were forced to surrender after suffering some 1,300 casualties. The ensuing massacre of several thousand Italian POWs by the Germans stands as one of the worst war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht.

About two months after he was stripped of power, Benito Mussolini was rescued by the Germans in Operation Oak (Unternehmen Eiche). This was a spectacular raid planned by German General Kurt Student and carried out by Senior Storm Unit Leader (Obersturmbannführer) Otto Skorzeny. The Germans re-located Mussolini to northern Italy where he set up a new Fascist state, the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI).

The Allied armies continued to advance through Italy despite increasing opposition from the Germans. The Allies soon controlled most of southern Italy, and Naples rose against and ejected the occupying German forces. The Allies organized some Italian troops in the south into what were known as "co-belligerent" or "royalist" forces. In time, there was a co-belligerent army (Italian Co-Belligerent Army), navy (Italian Co-Belligerent Navy), and air force (Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force). These Italian forces fought alongside the Allies for the rest of the war. Other Italian troops, loyal to Mussolini and his RSI, continued to fight alongside the Germans. From this point on, a large Italian resistance movement located in northern Italy fought a guerrilla war against the German and RSI forces.

Winston Churchill had long regarded southern Europe as the military weak spot of the continent (in World War I he had advocated the Dardanelles operation, and during World War II he favored the Balkans as an area of operations, for example in Greece in 1940 and so on).[46][47][48] Calling Italy the "soft underbelly" of the Axis, Churchill had therefore advocated this invasion instead of a cross-channel invasion of occupied France. But Italy itself proved anything but a soft target: The mountainous terrain gave Axis forces excellent defensive positions, and it also partly negated the Allied advantage in motorized and mechanized units. The final Allied victory over the Axis in Italy did not come until the spring offensive of 1945, after Allied troops had breached the Gothic Line, leading to the surrender of German forces in Italy shortly before Germany finally surrendered ending World War II in Europe.

Italy's declaration of war on Japan

Although Italy and Japan were part of the Axis Powers, Japan reacted with shock and outrage to the news of the surrender of Italy to the Allied forces in September 1943. Italian citizens residing in Japan and in Manchukuo were swiftly rounded up and summarily asked whether they were loyal to the King of Savoy, who dishonored their country by surrendering to the enemy, or with the Duce and the newly created "Repubblica Sociale Italiana", which vowed to continue fighting alongside the Nazis. Those who sided with the King were interned in concentration camps and detained in dismal conditions until the end of the war, while those who opted for the Fascist dictator were allowed to go on with their lives, although under strict surveillance by the Kempeitai.

The news of Italy's surrender did not reach the crew members of the three Italian submarines Giuliani, Cappellini and Torelli traveling to Singapore, then occupied by Japan, to take a load of rubber, tin and strategic materials bound for Italy and Germany's war industry. All the officers and sailors on board were arrested by the Japanese army, and after a few weeks of detention the vast majority of them chose to side with Japan and Germany. The Kriegsmarine assigned new officers to the three units, who were renamed as U-boot U.IT.23, U.IT.24 and U.IT.25, taking part in German war operations in the Pacific until the Giuliani was sunk by the British submarine Tallyho in February 1944 and the other two vessels were taken over by the Japanese Imperial Navy upon Germany's surrender.

Alberto Tarchiani, an anti-fascist journalist and activist, was appointed as Ambassador to Washington by the cabinet of Badoglio, which acted as provisional head of the Italian government pending the occupation of the country by the Allied forces. On his suggestion, Italy issued a formal declaration of war to Japan on 14 July 1945[49]. The purpose of this act, which brought no military follow-up, was mainly to persuade the Allies that the new government of Italy deserved to be invited to the San Francisco Peace Conference, as a reward for its co-belligerence. However, the British Prime Minister Churchill and John Foster Dulles were resolutely against the idea, and so Italy's new government was left out of the Conference.

Although Italy and Japan negotiated the resumption of their respective diplomatic ties after 1951, and later signed several bilateral agreements and treaties, a formal peace treaty between the two nations was never sealed.


Nearly 4 million Italians served in the Italian Army during the Second World War and nearly half a million Italians (including civilians) died between June 1940 and May 1945.

The Regio Esercito suffered 161,729 casualties between 10 June 1940 and 8 September 1943 in the war against the Allies, and 18,655 casualties in Italy plus 54,622 casualties in the rest of Europe in September/October 1943 against the German Army after the Italian Armistice.

There were even 12,000 casualties in the northern Italian guerrilla war (Guerra di Liberazione) and in the "Army of Badoglio" on the side of the Allies. In the fascist Army of Mussolini's Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI there were 45,424 casualties.

Nearly 60,000 Italian POWs died in Nazi labour camps[citation needed], while nearly 20,000[citation needed] perished in Allied Prisoner of War camps (mainly Russian: 1/4 of the 84,830[citation needed] Italians officially lost in the Soviet Union were taken prisoners, and most of them never returned home).

Reputation of Italian fighting efficiency during World War II

Allied press reports of Italian military prowess in the Second World War were almost always dismissive. This is primarily the result of British wartime propaganda produced when the Italian 10th Army was destroyed by significantly smaller British forces during the early phase of the North African Campaign.[50] The propaganda from this single event, which was designed to boost British morale during a bleak period of the war,[51] has left a lasting impression. Prior to this, due largely to their exploits in World War I, Italian soldiers were generally considered to be brave fighters,[52] and their feats exceptional.[53]

Like any other army, the Italians suffered their fair share of reversals,[7] but it should be remembered that their equipment was not up to the standard of either the Allied or the German armies.[10] More crucially, they lacked suitable quantities of equipment of all kinds and their high command did not take necessary steps to plan for most eventualities.[54]

Italian forces displayed stubborn resistance at the Battle of Keren in East Africa,[55][56][57] for which the participating Italian Savoia battalions, Alpini, Bersaglieri and Grenadiers were acknowledged as being equal to the best opposition the British and Indians had faced during the war with the possible exception of the German parachute division in Italy and the Japanese in Burma.[58] In the account of the battle by Compton Mackenzie in Eastern Epic, an officially sponsored history of the British Indian army in World War II, Mackenzie wrote:

Keren was as hard a soldiers' battle as was ever fought, and let it be said that nowhere in the war did the Germans fight more stubbornly than those [Italian] Savoia battalions, Alpini, Bersaglieri and Grenadiers. In the [first] five days' fight the Italians suffered nearly 5,000 casualties - 1,135 of them killed. Lorenzini, the gallant young Italian general, had his head blown off by one of the British guns. He had been a great leader of Eritrean troops.[59]

The unfortunate licence of wartime propaganda allowed the British Press to represent the Italians almost as comic warriors; but except for the German parachute division in Italy and the Japanese in Burma no enemy with whom the British and Indian troops were matched put up a finer fight than those Savoia battalions at Keren. Moreover, the Colonial troops, until they cracked at the very end, fought with valour and resolution, and their staunchness was a testimony to the excellence of the Italian administration and military training in Eritrea.[58]

The Italian army in Russia fought stubbornly under General Giovanni Messe, winning various accolades from Berlin Radio.[60][61] Italian soldiers also fought with determination at the battle of Mersa Matruh, in which the Littorio, Brescia and Trento Divisions, and 7th Bersaglieri Regiment played an important part [62] and at El Alamein in the North African Campaign. Bierman and Smith[63] indicated that Italian artillery gunners of the North African campaign tended to serve their guns until they were overrun, an observation similarly made by others.[64]

Rommel was later to write about the fighting at Alamein in July:

the Italians were willing, unselfish and good comrades in the frontline. There can be no disputing that the achievement of all the Italian units, especially the motorised elements, far outstripped any action of the Italian Army for 100 years. Many Italian generals and officers earned our respect as men as well as soldiers.[65]

The Italian soldiers were unlucky to have been left stranded without water or transport, deep in the southern sector at the Second Battle of El Alamein. The 7th Bersaglieri Regiment, in particular, exhibited a strong regimental spirit which impressed Rommel as he observed the battle for Hill 28 at El Alamein.[66] The German soldier has impressed the world, Rommel wrote in a plaque dedicated to the Bersaglieri that fought at Mersa Matruh and Alamein. However the Italian Bersaglieri has impressed the German soldier.[67]

The Italian Royal Army fought this battle in a way that can be summarized by the sacrifice of the Folgore Division: the historian Renzo De Felice wrote that "...of the 5.000 "Folgore" paratroopers sent to Africa 4 months before, the survived were only 32 officers and 262 soldiers, most of them wounded. Before the surrender, they shot until the last ammo and the last hand-grenade...".[68]

When the British attack in El Alamein came on 23 October 1942, four Allied divisions (44th and 50th British Infantry, 7th British Armoured (British Rats), and 1st Free French) attacked the Division Folgore’s lines. The Italian paratroopers repulsed repeated attacks, routing the French and driving back the British. After three days of heavy fighting, the British abandoned their assaults on the southern end of the Axis line where Folgore stood and re-focused on the opposite flank. They broke the Axis lines in the German sector.


Winston Churchill speech to the Chamber, Nov. 21 1942:"We really must bow in front of the rest of those who have been the lions of the Folgore Division"


BBC, Dec. 3rd 1942:" The last survivors of Folgore have been gathered without forces in the desert, none of them surrendered, no one left his weapon"

The Folgore paratroopers used in this battle everything at their disposal, including Molotov cocktails - from small hidden holes where they buried themselves in the ground - to knock out the advancing tanks after they passed over them.[69]

At the end of the Second Battle of El Alamein, on November 4, 1942, the Ariete division was able to fight a dramatic day-long rear-guard action to prevent the Allies from encircling the bulk of the retreating Axis armoured formations.[70]

Whilst both German and Allied records leave the impression that the Ariete voluntarily immolated itself, Walker,[71] points out that remnants were successfully able to disengage, as they later, with elements of the Centauro division on 12 December 12, successfully fended off further Allied armoured attacks to the rear of the Axis forces.

In the Tunisian Campaign, at Kasserine Pass, Mareth, Akarit and Enfidaville, as the North African campaign drew to its close, Italians fought with courage and determination. In fact, it was observed by General Alexander that:

...the Italians fought particularly well, outdoing the Germans in line with them.[72]

The Italian's German allies often blamed them for any Axis failure but they nevertheless widely praised their bravery.[7] Ripley has asserted:

The Italians supplied the bulk of the Axis troops fighting in North Africa, and too often the German Army unfairly ridiculed Italian military effectiveness either due to its own arrogance or to conceal its own mistakes and failures. In reality, a significant number of Italian units fought skillfully in North Africa, and many "German" victories were the result of Italian skill-at-arms and a combined Axis effort.[73]

Steinberg wrote that:

With almost no exception, however, those Germans closest to the Italian troops in the field, the liaison units and attached officers, or at higher level the generals attached to the Italian Supreme Command respected and admired their Italian counterparts.[74]

Interestingly, the special study (German Experiences in Desert Warfare During World War II) from Generalmajor Alfred Toppe of the Wehrmacht, written with the assistance of nine middle-rank officers who served in the Afrika Korps is very positive in regard to Italian fighting abilities.[75]

The following passage from Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts praises the courage of Italian tank crews at El Alamein: is perhaps simplest to ask who is the most courageous in the following situations: the Italian carristi, who goes into battle in an obsolete M14 tank against superior enemy armour and anti-tank guns, knowing they can easily penetrate his flimsy protection at a range where his own small gun will have little effect; the German panzer soldier or British tanker who goes into battle in a Panzer IV Special or Sherman respectively against equivalent enemy opposition knowing that he can at least trade blows with them on equal terms; the British tanker who goes into battle in a Sherman against inferior Italian armour and anti-tank guns, knowing confidently that he can destroy them at ranges where they cannot touch him. It would seem clear that, in terms of their motto Ferrea Mole, Ferreo Cuore, the Italian carristi really had "iron hearts", even though as the war went on their "iron hulls" increasingly let them down.[7]

See also


  1. ^ The decision to continue with a frontline biplane fighter, due to the success of the highly maneuverable Fiat CR.32 during the Spanish Civil war was probably one of the most glaring strategic oversights. Another was the mistaken belief that fast bombers need no fighter escort, particularly modern aircraft with radar support.[11]
  2. ^ Italian doctrine envisaged a blitzkrieg style approach as early as 1936-8, considerably beyond what most theorists discerned at the time. This stressed massed armour, massed and mobile artillery, action against enemy flanks, deep penetration and exploitation, and the ‘indirect’ approach. Their manuals envisioned M tanks as the core, P tanks as the mobile artillery and reserves for the ‘Ms’ and L tanks. These were to be combined with fast (celere) infantry divisions and forward anti-tank weapons. The Italians were never able to build the armoured divisions described in their manuals – although they often attempted to mass what they had to make up for the poor performance of some pieces.[12]
  3. ^ This was being expedited through the conversion of two passenger liners and the scavenging of parts from other vessels. The SS Roma, converted into the Aquila, received 4-shaft turbine engines scavenged form the unfinished light cruisers Cornelio Silla and Paolo Emilio. She was to have a maximum compliment of 51 Reggiane Re.2001 fighters. The decision to build carriers came late. The Aquila was virtually ready by the time of armistice with the Allies in 1943. She was captured by the Germans, who scuttled her in 1945.[16]
  4. ^ Fiat G.55, Macchi C.205, & Reggiane Re.2005; Italian fighters build around the Daimler-Benz DB 605 engine.[16]
  5. ^ The M13/40s and M14/41s were not (initially) obsolete when they entered service in late 1940/1941. Their operators (in the form of the Ariete and Littoro divisions) met with much unaccredited success. Yet they became obsolete as the war progressed. It was necessary to maintain production and they suffered unduly as a result of the Italian’s inability to produce a suitable successor in time and in numbers.[19][20][21]
  6. ^ In light of the economic difficulties it was proposed, in 1933, by Marshal Italo Balbo to limit the number of divisions to 20 and ensure that each was fully mobile for ready response, equipped with the latest weaponry and trained for amphibious warfare. The proposal was rejected by Mussolini (and senior figures) who wanted large numbers of divisions to intimidate opponents.[25] To maintain the number of divisions, each became binary, consisting of only 2 regiments, and therefore equating to a British brigade in size. Even then, they would often be thrown into battle with an under strength complement.
  7. ^ Graziani believed the British were over 200,000 strong.[39]
  8. ^ Walker states[43] that the Greeks had assembled 250,000 men against 150,000 Italians; Bauer [44] states that by November 12, General Papagos had at the front over 100 infantry battalions fighting in terrain to which they were accustomed, compared with less than 50 Italian battalions.
  1. ^ Walker (2003), p.19
  2. ^ Steinberg (1990), pp.189,191
  3. ^ Walker (2003) p.12
  4. ^ Bauer (2000), p.231
  5. ^ Walker (2003), p.26
  6. ^ Beevor (2006) pp.45,47,88-89,148,152,167,222-4,247,322-6,360,405-6,415
  7. ^ a b c d e Walker (2003), p.17
  8. ^ Bonner and Wiggin (2006), p84
  9. ^ Eden & Moeng (Eds.) (2002), pp.680-681
  10. ^ a b c Bierman & Smith (2002), pp.13-14
  11. ^ Walker (2003) p.22
  12. ^ Sadkovich (1991) p.290-91; and references therein
  13. ^ Walker (2003) p.30-53
  14. ^ a b Sadkovich (1991) pp.287-291
  15. ^ Steinberg (1990), pp.189
  16. ^ a b Bauer (2000), p.146
  17. ^ Eden & Moeng (Eds.) (2002), pp.684-685,930,1061
  18. ^ Bishop (1998) p.18
  19. ^ Bishop (1998) pp.17-18
  20. ^ Walker (2003) p.48
  21. ^ a b Sadkovich (1991) p.290
  22. ^ Walker (2003) p.109
  23. ^ Bishop (1998) pp.149,164
  24. ^ Mussolini, Peter Neville, pg 140, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0415249899
  25. ^ a b Walker (2003) p.23
  26. ^ Walker (2003) p.21
  27. ^ Bauer (2000), p.96,493
  28. ^ Walker (2003) p.11
  29. ^ a b Walker (2003) p.20
  30. ^ Bauer (2000), pp.90-95
  31. ^ Quoted in Axelrod, Alan 2008, The Real History of World War II, p. 180, Sterling Publishing Co. ISBN 9781402740909
  32. ^ Garibaldi (2001), p.142
  33. ^ Walker (2003) p.25
  34. ^ De Waal (1990), p.244
  35. ^ "Voices of World War II, 1937-1945". Retrieved 2008-08-14. 
  36. ^ Bauer (2000), p.93
  37. ^ Walker (2003) p.62
  38. ^ a b c d e Bauer (2000), p.95
  39. ^ a b Bauer (2000), p.113
  40. ^ Jowett, Philip S., The Italian Army 1940-1945 (2): Africa 1940-43, page 11, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-85532-865-8, url:[1]
  41. ^ Haining (2005), p.2; entire book covers topic
  42. ^ a b Bauer (2000) p. 99
  43. ^ Walker (2003), p.28
  44. ^ Bauer (2000), p.105
  45. ^ Bauer (2000), p.106
  46. ^ "Channel 4 - History - Warlords: Churchill". Retrieved 2008-08-14. 
  47. ^ "Battle At Gallipoli, 1915". EyeWitness to History, Ibis Communications, Inc.. 2001. 
  48. ^ "Sicily July 10 - August 17, 1943 - World War II Multimedia Database". Retrieved 2008-08-14. 
  49. ^ Doody, Richard. "Chronology of World War II Diplomacy 1939 - 1945". The World at War Retrieved 2008-08-14. 
  50. ^ Walker (2003), pp.6-8
  51. ^ Walker (2003), pp.60-61
  52. ^ Rothenberg (1981), p. 160
  53. ^ Weinberg (1995), pp.256-257
  54. ^ Walker (2003), pp.11-29
  55. ^ Mackenzie (1951), pp.52-64.
  56. ^ Spagnoletti, Gian. "The Rise and Fall of Italian East Africa and the Battle of Keren". Commando Supremo: Italy at War website. Retrieved 2008-06-17. 
  57. ^ Brett-James, Antony (1951). Ball of fire - The Fifth Indian Division in the Second World War. Gale & Polden.  Chapter V
  58. ^ a b Mackenzie, (1951), p. 64.
  59. ^ Mackenzie (1951), p. 60
  60. ^ German High Command (communique) (27 October 1941). "Text of the Day's War Communiques.". New York Times (28 October 1941). Retrieved 2008-06-30. 
  61. ^ German High Command (communique) (10 November 1942). "Text of the Day's War Communiques on Fighting in Various Zones.". New York Times (10 November 1942). Retrieved 2008-06-30. 
  62. ^ Zabecki (1999), p. 1578
  63. ^ Bierman & Smith (2002), p.14
  64. ^ Johnston (2000), p. 13
  65. ^ Rommel & Pimlott (1994), p. 128
  66. ^ Jon E. Lewis (1999), The Mammoth Book of True War Stories‎, p. 318
  67. ^ "El Alamein 2" (in in Italian). Ardito2000 website. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  68. ^ De Felice, p.115
  69. ^ On November 11, 1942 "London Radio" transmitted this official announcement: The remnants of the Folgore division put up a resistance beyond every limit of human possibility
  70. ^ Walker (2003), p.174
  71. ^ Walker (2003), p.174,179
  72. ^ Bauer (2000), p. 428
  73. ^ Ripley (2003), p.136
  74. ^ Steinberg (1990), p.208
  75. ^ Toppe (1947)


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