Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Truth About the Italian War Record

None of the major participants of World War II have suffered as much unjust and unfounded criticism as the military forces of the Kingdom of Italy. It really is just amazing how this false narrative has taken hold and grown ever stronger and more prevalent over time. According to most mainstream and popular histories, the royal Italian military and the overall part played by the Kingdom of Italy in World War II was totally inconsequential. In a way not seen with any other people, the Italian military is widely dismissed as a comic opera operation with cowardly troops, ignorant commanders and useless weapons totally dependent on their German allies for their very survival. It is truly astonishing that this stereotype has persisted as it is totally, completely, untrue in every way. Obviously, being on the losing side, Italy suffered plenty of losses but they also won their share of victories. It is true that a number of leaders in the Italian high command were incompetent but they also had generals with impressive records of success. The Germans did have to bail them out from time to time but, the truth be known, the Italians also came to the rescue of the Germans on several occasions. Likewise, while Italy was less industrially advanced than most other major participants and so often had to make do with antiquated equipment, there were also examples of Italian weaponry being well in advance of others. In short, as with any country, the Kingdom of Italy had both high and low points, successes and failures just like anyone else.

Mussolini announcing the declaration of war
In the first place, attacks on the Italian character display a blatant double-standard that most people simply never think about. For example, in entering the war, Italy started with an attack on southern France when the French were already, for all intents and purposes, defeated by the German blitzkrieg. American President Roosevelt famously referred to this as a ‘stab in the back’ on the part of Italy. Does this apply to other powers? The same President Roosevelt, even more famously, referred to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as, “dastardly and unprovoked”. That was certainly untrue (“dastardly” is a judgment call but calling it “unprovoked” is demonstrably false) but what of the simultaneous attacks on the British and Dutch? Britain was in a fight for its life but in particular the attack on the Dutch East Indies was an attack on the territory of a country whose homeland had already been completely defeated and occupied by the enemy. Was this then an even worse ‘stab in the back’ than the attack on France? The same standard does not seem to be employed in viewing the joint Anglo-Soviet invasion and occupation of neutral Iran, possibly because most people have probably never even heard of it. For the Soviets, this is not too surprising as it was a monstrous regime that committed many monstrous crimes but for Britain, under Churchill, to invade a neutral country because of military necessity in a wider war after going to war with the German Empire in the First World War for doing exactly the same in regard to Belgium shows an obvious double-standard.

The Duke of Aosta
In the conduct of the war, the Kingdom of Italy did not do well in the opening attack on France but then neither did Britain in their opening clash with the Germans or the Japanese in France and Malaysia nor did the Americans in their opening clashes with Japan in the Philippines or the Germans in north Africa. In Italian East Africa the Italians performed very well and were under the leadership of Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta who proved a very capable battlefield commander. His forces launched such a sudden and overwhelming offensive against British Somaliland that Churchill was furious at how quickly his forces had retreated with so few losses (his commanders rightly pointed out that suffering needless losses in a hopeless battle was not the mark of good leadership). Italian forces conquered British Somaliland as well as occupying border areas of the Sudan and British East Africa. When the Allies finally gathered overwhelming forces to take on Italian East Africa, the Italians offered fierce resistance that gained them the respect of the British and, when the end finally came, the Duke of Aosta won further admiration for the gallantry he displayed in surrender.

Ettore Muti
In the early days of the war in Africa, the Italian forces came closer to victory than most realize. One major success that went a long way to allowing the Italians to make a major fight in north Africa was the long-range bombing missions launched by Lt. Colonel Ettore Muti on Palestine and Bahrain which did severe damage to British port facilities and oil refineries. This caused the British considerable logistical problems but also forced them to divert resources to defend the Middle East which were badly needed elsewhere. It also helped relieve the threat to the shipping lanes in the Mediterranean, allowing Italian forces to be moved to north Africa with very few losses. Starting from Italian bases in the Dodecanese Islands, making a wide circle around British bases in Cyprus, the Italian bombers hit British possessions in the Middle East and put the oil refineries in Haifa out of operation for at least a month. British aircraft operating out of Mt Carmel responded but were too late to intercept the Italian bombers as no one had been expecting an attack so far from what most considered the front lines. Also in the field of long-range flights, in 1942 an Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 flew from the Ukraine, across Soviet airspace to Japanese-held Inner Mongolia and then on to Tokyo in an effort to warn the Japanese that the Allies had broken their codes. It did no good as the Japanese refused to believe that their codes could be cracked (though they were even before the war began) and were upset by the flight for fear that it would incur Russian anger and after the clash at Khalkhin Gol Japan had a lasting fear of the Russians. Still, it was a remarkable achievement, overcoming Soviet AA fire, air attack, inaccurate maps and a Mongolian sandstorm that all threatened to botch the mission.

Marshal Rodolfo Graziani
Much of the unfair criticism leveled at the Italian war effort undoubtedly comes from operations in the first part of the war in north Africa. Mussolini wanted a quick and crushing offensive against the British in Egypt but his commander in the area, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, was not supportive of such an operation and after advancing about sixty miles into Egypt successfully, stopped and established defensive positions that were later rolled up by much smaller British forces in “Operation Compass”. In the first place, Marshal Graziani is often held up as an example of incompetent Italian leadership because of this fiasco but, as distasteful as he is to modern sensibilities, Graziani was an extremely effective military commander. Looking at his career in total, the invasion of Egypt was his one and only failure. He had been misled about the strength of the forces opposing him while he knew all too well how deficient the Italian forces were in equipment and logistical support. The lack of sufficient transport alone would have been enough to cripple such an ambitious invasion as Mussolini envisioned. When the British counter-attacked and advanced so swiftly, taking 100,000 Italian prisoners in the process, many pointed to this as “proof” of incompetence and cowardice. Absolute rubbish.

Italian offensive, north Africa
In the first place, Italian resistance did not simply collapse and, if one cares to look, there are numerous accounts -from the British- of Italian forces fighting effectively and with immense determination, fighting to the death against impossible odds, not in numbers but with shells that were ineffective, outclassed tankettes and artillery that was incapable of penetrating British armor. As for those who surrendered, many of them were colonial troops who were reliable enough under ordinary circumstances but who were not going to go above and beyond to maintain the Italian empire. However, again, we have a double-standard clearly at play. 100,000 Italians were taken prisoner by a numerically smaller enemy force and so they are dismissed as cowardly. Does that mean that the British, Indians, Australians etc were “cowardly” for surrendering 100,000 men to a much smaller Japanese army of 36,000 men at Singapore and Malaysia? Of course not, nor should they be. Japan had many advantages they lacked and the British were unaware of certain pivotal Japanese weaknesses. Numbers alone do not tell the whole story. And, finally, the Italian forces did rally in the end to bring the British advance to a halt, though, again, most mainstream histories do not tell this story, preferring to portray the arrival of the German “Afrika Korps” as the only thing that saved Italian north Africa.

Generale Valentino Babini
In fact, the British were worn out from their long advance across the desert, their supply lines were over-extended and the Italians were fighting with the tenacity of people who had their backs to the wall. A crucial element was the formation of the Special Armored Brigade under General Valentino Babini. Where this unit is mentioned at all, it is often simply stated that it was formed in 1940 and then wiped out toward the end of 1941 but in the intervening time it did considerable damage to the British, especially considering the handicaps that Italian armor had to operate under. General Babini was an avid proponent of fast, mechanized warfare and his achievements should not be ignored. At El Mechili on January 24-25, 1941 Babini and his men stopped the British advance, inflicting considerable losses on the British Fourth Armoured Brigade. They were forced to fall back, reorganize, reinforce and then focus on trying to encircle the Italians. Babini had to fall back to avoid this but his men still fought valiantly at Bede Fomm where they faced an onslaught by the entire Seventh Armoured Division, fighting to the last against vastly superior British tanks until they were wiped out and the remnant taken prisoner. The Italians had, nonetheless, hit hard enough to force the British to back off from finishing off the Italian presence in north Africa altogether and this provided the ‘breathing space’ for the arrival of the Germans under General Erwin Rommel.

Rommel and Marshal Bastico
At that point, of course, the situation changed considerably and Rommel has gone down in history as one of the greatest military leaders of all time for his stunning victories over the British in north Africa. What many fail to realize though is that the forces effectively under his command, which he used to win these masterful successes, were 2/3 Italian and the large majority of his armored forces were Italian tanks. His most able counterpart in this was Italian Marshal Ettore Bastico who had proven himself a very capable commander in his career, particularly his victorious campaign during the Spanish Civil War. The two often clashed (Rommel was notoriously critical of his superiors) but he was one of the few Italian officers that Rommel would at least listen to and Marshal Bastico correctly predicted that the second invasion of Egypt, that ended at El Alamein, would fail and exactly why. Unfortunately, his warnings, along with others, went unheeded.

Folgore trooper
Certainly, no one can deny that German assistance in north Africa was essential but while there is no dispute that the Germans had rescued the Italian position on the continent, it is also true that the Italians rescued the Germans on more than one occasion. During the German invasion of Crete, early on things were rather difficult for the Germans and a major impediment to their operation was the presence of the formidable British heavy cruiser HMS York. The Italians came to the rescue with a daring attack by Italian motor boats that succeeded in sinking the York in Souda Bay, as well as a tanker, for the loss of only six Italian sailors taken prisoner. In north Africa, at Gazala, the German XV Brigade was in danger of being wiped out by the British when nearby Italian forces, acting without orders, saw their situation and came to the rescue, saving them from imminent defeat. At the battle of El Alamein, after the German attack had failed and a British counter-offensive was about to wipe out the Axis forces, it was the Italians who stood and fought while the Germans retreated (all the way to Tunisia) so as to ‘live to fight another day’. The airborne “Folgore” Division earned the highest praise for their tenacious defense, holding off repeated attacks by superior British forces until they had nothing left to fight with. Even when their guns were lost, their tanks were destroyed, they still fought on, taking out British tanks by the improvised use of land mines (over 120 tanks & vehicles were destroyed). They bought the time with their lives, holding off the Allies, so that the Germans could get away and carry on the fight in the Tunisian bridgehead.

Decima Flottiglia MAS at work
In the war at sea, the Italian Royal Navy won a number of engagements and succeeded in taking control of the central Mediterranean for a crucial period of time (this was when the invasion of Malta was supposed to happen but Rommel convinced the high command to postpone it while he invaded Egypt). In Operation Abstention the British tried to gain control of Italian possessions in the Greek islands but were defeated by a much smaller Italian naval force. In 1940, at the Battle of Calabria, Italian naval forces fought off a much superior British fleet (1 aircraft carrier and 3 battleships for Britain against 2 Italian battleships plus a number of smaller vessels on both sides). There were also smaller unit successes such as the 1943 Battle of Cogno Convoy in which 2 Italian torpedo boats sunk one British destroyer and badly damaged another. In the war under the waves, the most successful submarine commander of the war who was not a German was an Italian. The Italian boats operating in the north Atlantic alone sank about a million tons of Allied shipping and that was far from their most successful area of operations. In the Mediterranean, Italian subs sank the British cruisers HMS Bonaventure, HMS Calypso and HMS Coventry. Italian “human torpedoes” (which were not suicide weapons but more like modern-day SEAL teams) infiltrated the port of Alexandria and did severe damage to two British battleships. Similar attacks were also carried out in Gibraltar and were even planned for New York before Italy exited the war. Italian naval forces also provided valuable assistance to the Germans in Black Sea operations against Russia.

Macchi C.205
Italian pilots of the Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) had an impressive record in operations all over Europe and Africa. They operated against British shipping in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean from Italian East Africa early in the war, played a major part in the securing of the central Mediterranean and the neutralization of Malta. They also took part in the Battle of Britain though they are seldom given much attention. Their CR.42 biplanes were certainly slow and outdated compared to the magnificent British Spitfires but they actually gave as good as they got, taking losses certainly but inflicting some losses as well. Italian air attacks on British coastal facilities also provided a major distraction that drew RAF planes away from Luftwaffe strikes that were more significant. The Italians also had some very advanced aircraft, well beyond the CR.42 biplanes but simply lacked the industry and resources to produce many of them. The Kingdom of Italy produced the second jet aircraft in the world, had the best long-range bombers at the start of the war and produced some fighter planes that were superior to some of the best the Allies had to offer. The C.205 “Greyhound” was able to out fly the American “Mustang” and the SM.79 “Sparrowhawk” bomber destroyed 72 Allied warships and 196 Allied merchant ships in the course of the war. The Italian pilots who set up an “air bridge” from southern Libya to Italian East Africa, bringing in supplies and evacuating wounded, may not have had a very glorious job but it was a tremendous accomplishment. Italian pilots also performed very well on the Eastern front, another area where the Italian contribution is often discounted entirely.

Struggle on the Greek frontier
First, however, the war in Greece should be addressed. Usually this is portrayed as a total fiasco with over-confident Italians invading Greece, being badly beaten and only the timely arrival of the Germans rushing to the rescue prevented them from being driven entirely out of Albania by the Greeks. It is just not true. Here are the facts: Italian strength was overestimated and Greek strength was badly underestimated. The Italians invaded at exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, the Greeks had never been stronger and the terrain was entirely to their advantage. The invasion did not go well, due to weather, the terrain and most of all by the Greeks simply fighting with heroic courage and tenacity. That is probably the most important thing to remember: the Italians did not fight poorly, the Greeks fought very well. The Italian onslaught was pushed back into Albania as the Greeks went over to the counter-offensive but then the same elements that had worked in their favor began to work against them. The Italian lines held and later the Italians began to push back which had just begun when the Germans intervened and Greek resistance quickly collapsed. The Germans did not save the Italians from imminent defeat, they broke what was, at worst, a stalemate and it came about, not because the Italians were in danger of collapsing but because of the coup in Yugoslavia that took that country out of the Axis and into the Allied camp. The Italians also participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia and did quite well.

Savoia cavalry charge
Then, there was the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Italian war effort may have been better served to have not participated and concentrated solely on the African front but, for political and ideological reasons, Mussolini was determined to contribute as much as possible to the “Crusade against Bolshevism”. In the initial attack, the Italian forces performed extremely well under the capable leadership of General Giovanni Messe, a staunch royalist and possibly the best Italian commander of the war who won victories in Russia, Greece and Africa. They were able to accomplish some amazing successes, probably the most memorable being the Savoia cavalry charge at Isbusceskij in which 650 troops of the Savoia household cavalry under Colonel Alessandro Bettoni Cazzago launched a traditional, saber-wielding cavalry charge against over 2,000 Soviet troops and totally defeated them! Of course, not every engagement was so successful but in the air, the Italian pilots won 72 victories while losing only 15 planes. A massive Christmas-time offensive by the Soviets was successfully repelled by the Italian forces but, eventually, after the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad, the tide began to turn. Still, even then, there were examples of extreme skill and heroism, none more so than the elite Italian alpine troops (the Alpini) who fought their way through the Soviet lines to rescue a small pocket of Italian resistance at Nikolayevka. They reached them and then turned around and fought their way back out again on January 26, 1943. Even the Russians were astounded by their heroic achievement and Radio Moscow said, “only the Italian Alpini Corps is to be considered unbeaten on the Russian front”.

Messe and his men in Russia
There were other victorious Italian engagements in Tunisia and in Italy itself after the 1943 armistice but, I hope, what has been said so far will be more than enough to illustrate just how ridiculous the popular portrayal of Italian military forces in World War II has been. Yes, some in the leadership were woefully inadequate to their tasks, yes, their weapons and equipment were often sub-standard and yes, Italian forces lost plenty of battles. However, the same could be said for every other power to one degree or another and the Italian forces also had some brilliant leaders, won some stunning victories and fought with great courage and tenacity time and time again. I have touched on this before but it is only because there are very few things that infuriate me more than those who have fought and died being denigrated and insulted, be it the Italians in World War II or the Austro-Hungarian forces in World War I. It is disgraceful behavior, it is unjust and, as I hope I have illustrated, it is just plain wrong and factually incorrect. They did not win, everyone understands that, but the royal armed forces of Italy in World War II had many achievements to their credit and many victories that they can be proud of.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Italians in the Crimean War

World War II was not the first time that Italian troops met the Russians in combat:

General Alfonso La Marmora, commander of the
Italian forces in the Crimean War

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beware the Ides of March

On this day in 44 BC Julius Caesar, the duly elected Dictator of the Roman Republic, was assassinated by a group of conspirators jealous of his popularity and the power he might claim with such public support. It was a dark day with the loss of one of the greatest men Rome ever produced. However, it also set into motion events which led to the creation of the Roman Empire. As historian Sir Ronald Syme said, "Pietas prevailed, and out of the blood of Caesar the monarchy was born".

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Did World War II Doom the Italian Monarchy?

It seems a very simple question. Did World War II doom the Italian monarchy? Italy entered the war, lost, and the monarchy fell. Surely the answer is, “yes”. Yet, it is not quite that simple. What if the Kingdom of Italy had won the Second World War? Would it still have fallen? The end of the monarchy did not coincide with defeat in the war as in Germany or Austria in the first war. In fact, it survived a short time after the war was over. There is actually quite a diversity of views on this subject. Some critics of the monarchy state with absolute assurance that republicanism was inevitable and that the reign of the House of Savoy was doomed no matter what happened. Others, think that the monarchy was doomed in 1921 when the Fascists came to power and that, after that, it was only a matter of time. Still others do make the case that the monarchy always held the upper hand up until Italy entered the war and that this was the critical mistake that ended any hope of monarchy surviving on the Italian peninsula. Losing a war, particularly in the age of “total war” such as the world wars certainly brought down many monarchies, most younger than the House of Savoy but which, outwardly at least, seemed more secure. However, there was certainly significant support for the monarchy remaining even after 1945. That the republicans had to resort to chicanery to squeak out even a narrow victory in the referendum is proof enough of that.

Mussolini and the King
The first issue to look at is whether the Italian monarchy was on stable ground before the war. More than one historian has asserted that it would only the outbreak of war that prevented the Italian monarchy from being abolished even earlier. Benito Mussolini had been, for most of his life, a socialist and staunch republican who only lately embraced the monarchy and was viewed by not a few as being insincere in that conversion (rather like his baptism in the Catholic Church which was viewed almost universally as something purely for show and political convenience). There are a number of comments and actions on the part of the Duce to reinforce this view. As far as actions go, his attempt to take control of the succession (no doubt to disinherit Prince Umberto of Piedmont who was disliked by the Fascists) prompted a confrontation with the palace and Mussolini, ultimately, had to back down. An attempt to assassinate King Vittorio Emanuele III in 1928 was blamed on republicans in the Fascist Party and Mussolini was clearly uncomfortable at public functions when he had to surrender pride of place to the monarch. According to Mussolini himself, his regular meetings with the King were “cordial but never friendly”. Yet, as insulting as Mussolini could speak about the King and monarchy, when the two met he was always respectful and polite.

Although he complained about having to deal with the monarchy such as when Hitler visited the country (and Hitler, who was adamantly opposed to monarchy, warned Mussolini that the Royal Family was against him and that the monarchy should be abolished at the first available opportunity), the Duce always seemed willing to make use of the monarchy as a dynastic tool for the advancement of Italian interests. When the so-called Austro-fascists sounded him out about the possibility of restoring the House of Hapsburg he made no objection and even spoke of another Hapsburg-Savoy dynastic alliance to cement the ties between Italy and Austria. During the Italian intervention he also proposed Prince Amadeus, Duke of Aosta, as a potential Spanish monarch (as his ancestor had briefly been). The King disliked this idea and, no doubt to his relief, Franco turned it down. Yet, there were other confrontations when Mussolini tried to interfere with the army, confrontations which the King always won such as the proposal to abolish the carabinieri (the prestigious and very royalist military police) and another to fuse the army and the MVSN (the Fascist militia or Blackshirts). Were these simply efforts to expand the much-boasted totalitarianism of the regime or part of an on-going anti-monarchist agenda?

Duce & Re-Imperatore
Not long before the war, Mussolini was heard more than once to say that he would get rid of the King and the Pope as well when the time was right. Some suggest that it was only the outbreak of war that prevented this from becoming reality. However, could Mussolini have abolished the monarchy if he had really wanted to? In 1938, when many viewed Mussolini as being at the height of his power and prestige, some observers noted that the monarchy remained just as popular if not more so. In the anonymous darkness of the cinema, watching newsreels, crowds were silent when Mussolini appeared but cheered the King when he came on the screen. It may have been the fact that the monarchy was keeping pace with or even surpassing his own popularity that prompted his occasional republican outbursts. This would mean that while he may have increasingly wanted to get rid of the monarchy, the facts which most encouraged this feeling were also those which would prevent his ever making good on his threats. In terms of monarchist sentiment, the highest echelons of the Fascist Party were being won over by the King just as many were grumbling about the leadership and decisions of the Duce.

After Mussolini, there was no more elite group among the Fascists than the “Quadrumvirs”, men who had led the ‘March on Rome’ in 1921; Michele Bianchi, Emilio De Bono, Cesare De Vecchi and Italo Balbo. Of these, Bianchi was dead by 1930, De Bono and De Vecchi had always been staunch monarchists and only joined the Fascist bid for power after Mussolini endorsed the monarchy and even Italo Balbo, previously an ardent republican, had become a monarchist after becoming disillusioned with Mussolini’s leadership. Balbo, like the King, had been particularly distressed at the decision to ally with Nazi Germany. Count Dino Grandi, president of parliament and a member of the Fascist Grand Council also remained supportive of the monarchy and increasingly dubious in his attachment to Mussolini (he would ultimately raise the motion in the Grand Council to restore the King to his full powers, thus removing Mussolini). Given all of that, and the fact that the army remained staunchly royalist, later proven by the fact that only one Marshal of Italy followed Mussolini in his Nazi-backed puppet republic in the north after 1943, would indicate that even if there had been an effort to abolish the monarchy before the war it almost certainly would have failed disastrously.

Prince Umberto & Mussolini
So, if the war did not save the monarchy; did the war doom the monarchy? Would it have made a difference if Italy had won or lost in the course of the war? There are quite a few mentions in histories of this period that Mussolini, who never liked having to share public acclaim with the monarchy during moments of triumph, wanted to abolish the monarchy and take the supreme position for himself. Such people point out that, had World War II ended in an Italian victory, it would have been the perfect time for Mussolini to carry out such ambitions. As usual, there is some circumstantial evidence to support such an idea. Mussolini seemed very determined to allow no high-profile royal figures to have the chance to achieve any military glory. He had kept Prince Umberto out of the Abyssinian War and, though he was commander of the initial invasion of France (which was far from successful anyway), never allowed him to command any major military operation. Kept out of the campaigns in North Africa, Greece, Yugoslavia and Russia, Prince Umberto was forced to spend most of his time inspecting second-line forces in Calabria. It is at least possible that this was part of a plan on Mussolini’s part to make sure that he received all the credit for victory if Italy had managed to win.

Yet, again, even if that had been the Duce’s plan, it may not have been successful. For one thing, Mussolini was never able to have the purely Fascist military victory that he always longed for. The invasion of Abyssinia is illustrative of this. The original commander was Emilio De Bono who (though a staunch monarchist) was one of the Fascist Quadrumvirs and the Blackshirt legions were set to play the dominant role in the fighting. However, De Bono’s cautious advance was taking too much time and he had to be replaced by Marshal Badoglio who was seen at least as being more the King’s man as a traditional Piedmontese army officer (though, oddly enough, De Bono was probably more attached to the monarchy in fact than Badoglio was). The MVSN is often wrongly considered the Italian equivalent of the German SS but, in fact, it would have been more similar to the SA. It was a militia, not an elite force and mostly consisted of men who were “weekend warriors” rather than professional soldiers. Even then, by the time of World War II, many of its commanders were monarchist former army officers rather than committed Fascists.

General Giovanni Messe
During the course of the war, even while Mussolini kept the Savoy princes from important commands, the army continued to be dominated by men loyal to the King before they were loyal to the Duce. In Africa, early on, the most successful commander had been the Duke of Aosta who certainly would not have backed any attack on the monarchy. During the height of Axis success in North Africa the Italian commander was Marshal Ettore Bastico who put loyalty to the Crown before the Fascist Party. General Mario Roatta, commander of Italian forces in the former Yugoslavia, though regarded as an unsavory figure by many, remained with the Badoglio government rather than Mussolini after 1943, an indication of where his ultimate loyalty was and in Russia the Italian commander was General (later Marshal) Giovanni Messe who, aside from being probably the most capable Italian commander of the war, was a staunch monarchist who even got involved in politics as a royalist after the monarchy was abolished. Furthermore, during the course of the war, regardless of his motivations, Mussolini had continued to make use of the monarchy such as by going along with the elevation of the Duke of Spoleto as King of Croatia. This would certainly have complicated matters if there had been any post-war move against the monarchy by Mussolini.

Given how many monarchists remained in positions of authority in government, even within the Fascist Party itself, as well as the prevalence of royalist sentiment in the army, it is hard to see how Mussolini could have abolished the monarchy even if Italy had won the war. Part of the problem, for the Duce at least, with the royalist figures such as De Vecchi, De Bono, former leader of the predominately royalist nationalist party Luigi Federzoni (who was also on the Grand Council) was precisely that Mussolini had appointed them all to high positions. Previously, he had stated that there would, in the future, be “another” Fascist revolution and this time, “without contraceptives” (taken by most to mean casting aside the monarchy and Church) and that he was “plucking the chicken feather by feather to lessen its squawking” (referring to his diminishment of royal powers) which could certainly be added to the column of evidence that Mussolini intended to move against the monarchy at some point. However, if part of that “plucking” involved the removal of royalists from positions of power, particularly non-military officials like those mentioned above, it would have been all but impossible to do without destroying the Fascist myth of the Duce as the man who was “always right”. After all, if Mussolini is never supposed to make a mistake, how could he purge such men at the very highest echelons of the Fascist state without admitting the he had been spectacularly wrong on numerous occasions over so many years?

The whole thing would have revealed just how empty was the oft-repeated boast that Mussolini had made Italy a totalitarian state. It would have shown that despite decades in power, neither the government or the army were purely Fascist and absolutely loyal to him. It would have also hurt his “always right” line of propaganda simply because Mussolini had kept the monarchy in place for so long. His slights against the monarchy were always out of public view and the public never saw the Duce being anything but formal and correct towards the King so as to maintain the image of the “diarchy”. It would have shown him, in dramatic fashion, to be a liar and a hypocrite. Of course, we can also see what happened when Mussolini did turn on the monarchy after 1943 and the result was a shambles. With only the Nazis and die-hard republican Fascists supporting him, he was forced to back peddle and try to reach out to the radical leftists. This, of course, did him no good as they continued to view him as the socialist “heretic” they always had since his split from them over World War I. Had he been Duce of a country victorious in war, he certainly would have had a much stronger position to do as he pleased but it is hard to see how he could manage to pull off such a dramatic break with the past as abolishing the monarchy without destroying his own reputation in the process.

That, however, was never an option though as Italy lost the war and so the only question left is whether losing cost the House of Savoy their crown. It certainly made a huge difference. Contrary to the popular perception (based mostly on World War II), losing wars was not something Italians were used to. Ties between the military and the monarchy were old and strongly held but, prior to World War II, Italian military operations had been overwhelmingly successful, from the war in Abyssinia, the intervention in Spain, the pacification of Libya, World War I and the war against Ottoman Turkey. The Italian military had been extremely over-hyped by Mussolini but given the recent history, the stunning losses in World War II came as quite a shock to the public and as a terrible morale blow to the royal army in particular. Of course, we know that losing the war did not automatically bring down the monarchy but there were several key points about the loss that certainly undermined the monarchy and left it in mortal danger. Examples include the German alliance, the Salo Republic and the blundering of the Allies. There was also one way in which Mussolini himself actually benefited the monarchy, albeit inadvertently.

Italian Co-Belligerent Force soldiers
The problem with the German alliance was that Germany was not willing to cut ties and allow Italy to sit out the rest of the war. It was German intervention which caused the resulting Italian civil war within World War II that proved so damaging to the Italian nation on every level. The 1943 armistice was supposed to take Italy out of the fighting but because of the German reaction the country was forced back into the conflict on both sides, the Italian Social Republic forces fighting with the Nazis in the north and the Italian Co-Belligerent forces fighting with the Allies in the south. To the extent that ill-will towards the monarchy did arise in the Italian military, this was almost invariably the cause. Even some of those who put loyalty to the King first still felt very bad about suddenly being called upon to fight their former allies alongside those who had previously been their enemies and who had stripped Italy of all its pre-war possessions, even those gained long before the Fascists came to power. This was one of the major blunders of the Allies which went a long way to damaging the monarchy and destabilizing Italy. The Allies, trying to cling to their “unconditional surrender and nothing else will be accepted” strategy basically gave Italians who wanted to end the war absolutely no encouragement and every reason to go on fighting. Yet, with every passing day, the German grip on Italy grew stronger and so the need for some level of at least cooperation from the Italians became more and more imperative. The result was a situation that benefited no one.

Another problem caused by the Germans and their Salo puppet state was that it provided a huge shot in the arm to all the most anti-monarchy elements in Italy. It attracted the most diehard Fascists as well as attracting even more leftist opposition. Communist partisan guerillas were rampant and could count on strong backing from the Soviet Union. Inevitably, some aid from the western Allies to other non-communist partisans found their way into communist hands. So, while anti-monarchy elements gained a stranglehold on northern Italy thanks to the state of affairs caused by Germany, in the rest of the country, short-sighted Allied policies did nothing to bolster the monarchy which was the best defense against a communist takeover of Italy. Were it not for this confused situation and the Allied occupation there may well have never been a referendum at all. Finally, Mussolini inadvertently helped the monarchy by the previously discussed efforts of him to keep the Royal Family out of the war as much as possible. He did this because he did not want them to share any of the glory but, as it turned out, it meant that they could not be blamed for the ultimate defeat and most of the military remained loyal to the monarchy. This is evidenced by the efforts taken to keep as many members of the armed forces as possible from participating in the referendum by its republican organizers.

Did the war play a major part in the downfall of the Italian monarchy? Undoubtedly, and if Italy had stayed out of the war the monarchy would likely still be here. However, I don’t think the war doomed the Italian monarchy. Those who wanted King Vittorio Emanuele III to abdicate, which he proved reluctant to do, was mostly because he had been too long associated with the Fascists rather than the war, though it was certainly unpopular, particularly after all hope of victory was lost. If the Allied Control Commission had not been so unrealistic in their demands on the Italian government, things might have been very different -but of course they would not have been there in the first place were it not for the war. It is also true that the part played by the Allies in the lead-up to the referendum is often exaggerated, after a certain point (certainly after the first post-Fascist elections brought so many communists to power) they took a “hands-off” attitude, refusing to hinder or help either side. They certainly did harm the monarchist cause overall, but probably not as much as some (seeking a convenient scapegoat) like to think. The war did not doom the Kingdom of Italy but losing the war certainly made the fall of the monarchy possible and probable yet not inevitable.

If Italy had stayed out of the war, the monarchy would almost certainly have survived. There were too many monarchists in high places to make abolition of the monarchy in any way easy. If Italy had won the war, the monarchy would probably have survived, even with Mussolini triumphant, it was still too interwoven with the fabric of society and the regime to get rid out without trouble and a great deal of embarrassment. If, upon exiting the war, Germany had stayed out of Italy, it certainly would have made the retention of the monarchy more likely. If the Allies had enacted a coherent policy towards the Kingdom of Italy which was seeking an armistice, the monarchy could have survived. If Italy had been given some tangible benefit for joining the Allied cause, the monarchy might have been saved. It, of course, also goes without saying that if the Allies had behaved differently and if the referendum had been conducted fairly and by impartial authorities the monarchy could have been saved. I dislike saying so but if King Vittorio Emanuele III had abdicated and left the country at the time of the defeat, it may also have made preserving the monarchy easier. As it was, the Fascist era and World War II managed to at least make possible the downfall of one of the oldest Royal Families in the world so that, for the first time in over a thousand years, there was no patch of ground over which a Savoy reigned.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Italian Innovations in World War II

When it comes to military innovation and records of success in new fields, particularly in World War II, few probably would even consider the Kingdom of Italy. Yet, this is mostly due to how masterful the British were at another wartime tactic: propaganda. The Italians were actually extremely innovative even though, to their detriment, they did not always utilize the ideas of their best and brightest. Most will no doubt be very surprised to learn just how ahead of the curve the Italians were, what feats they were able to accomplish and how much more they might have. Far too many people have simply come to accept a grossly unfair caricature of the Italian military forces that has been repeated so often as to become accepted as a matter of fact. On land, sea and air the royal Italian military was far more advanced and innovative than most people realize. During World War II, the Italians accomplished some remarkable things and, again, contrary to popular perception, had some very expert and effective commanders. For example, when it came to the Blitzkrieg tactics later made famous by the Germans, to a large extent these were first put into effect by the Italian troops under General Ettore Bastico in Spain during the Santander offensive fighting for the nationalists in the civil war. He heavily trained his troops for specific objectives, managed coordination between infantry, artillery and air units for support and emphasized the need for speed in the advance, to keep advancing, to never stop and never allow the enemy a moment to reorganize himself. The result was a great victory for the Italian forces in Spain and a crushing defeat for the Spanish republicans.

Semovente da 105/25 Italian tank destroyer
Even though, on the ground, the Italian army was a predominately infantry formation with tanks that were not designed for the type of war Italy ended up fighting, and they always lagged behind the more industrially advanced countries, they were still able to hit above their weight on several occasions by improvising. One example was the formation of a “Special Armored Brigade” in response to the stunningly effective British Operation Compass. This unit was made up of L3/35 tankettes and M11/39 tanks and M13/40 tanks of which only the M13/40’s are usually deemed to have been even close to acceptable standards of quality. Yet, along with infantry trained in anti-tank tactics they were thrown in to confront 177 very heavily armored British Matilda tanks at Mechili. In an engagement on January 25 the Italian forces took out 15 British tanks in 15 minutes, forcing the enemy to retreat. When the British attacked again, they lost another six tanks before retreating. A month before a group of very outmatched M11’s managed to destroy 35 of 57 attacking British Matilda’s. Such engagements were not enough to be decisive but it showed what even outclassed Italian units were capable of. The Semovente 75/18 tank destroyer, and its variants, proved very effective weapons but were too few to be decisive and if the P40 heavy tank had been produced in time to work the bugs out, it could have made a very big difference to the Italian war effort.

One of the many factors that hampered Italian armored effectiveness was a lack of radios and this was also a problem for most Italian aircraft. This is all the more frustrating considering that an Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, is usually credited with inventing the radio. Similarly, the Italians invented a workable radar set but, for some reason, it was never widely employed which put Italian naval units at a disadvantage. However, one area of new technology where Italy did quite well was in submarine warfare. At the beginning of the war Italy actually had the largest submarine fleet, by tonnage, in the world and in the course of the conflict Italian submarines would sink more than half a million tons of Allied shipping. In fact, the most successful non-German submarine commander of World War II was an Italian, Captain Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia who took down 90,601 tons of Allied shipping. The Italians also excelled at special-forces type operations using small torpedo motor-boats, demolition frogmen and human-guided torpedoes (though not of the suicide-type such as the Japanese kaiten). These units (Decima Flottiglia MAS) were able to sink numerous ships, even major warships, in some of the most heavily defended Allied harbors in the world such as Gibraltar, Alexandria, Egypt and Sebastopol, Ukraine. During the naval war in general, it is often overlooked that for a considerable period of time in 1942 the Italian Royal Navy won total control over the central Mediterranean, the major opportunity for the invasion of Malta that never came.

Italian airborne division Folgore
When it came to the war in the air, the Italians again had a record of cutting edge innovation. The Italians were the first to use aircraft in combat (during the war with Ottoman Turkey) and it was the World War I Italian General Giulio Douhet who was the first to develop theories on air warfare by the large-scale use of bombers. Much of what the Allies accomplished in their bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan were based on the original ideas of General Douhet. The Italians were also pioneers in the use of paratroopers and carried out the first airborne drop in 1927. The Italian airborne divisions in World War II never had the opportunity to do what they were intended to (due to the cancellation of the invasion of Malta) but they more than proved their worth, particularly the Folgore Division which fought almost to the death, buying the time for the Germans to retreat at El Alamein. Fighting until they were reduced to using improvised weapons and until their ammunition was exhausted, the Folgore repelled numerous British attacks by vastly superior forces and destroyed over 120 tanks and armored vehicles. In terms of aircraft, lack of sufficient industrial capacity meant that Italy often lagged behind but the Italian forces did manage to produce planes such as the Macchi C.205 “Greyhound” that proved superior to the American “Mustang” fighter as well as the formidable Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 “Sparrowhawk” bomber that destroyed 72 Allied warships and 196 Allied freighters before the 1943 armistice. The Italians had also developed the Caproni Campini N.1 jet aircraft which first flew in 1940 and was believed at the time to be the first flight of a jet aircraft (the Germans had been first but had kept it secret). It was not terribly successful nor was more than one model ever produced but Italian engineers had developed jet engines for planes and boats as early as the 1930’s.

The Italian Royal Air Force also pulled off some very surprising long-range bombing attacks, including an air raid on the British-held emirate of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Most hair-raising of all was the plan to attack no less a target than New York City. The first idea was to use the “human-torpedoes” to be brought close to New York harbor by Italy’s most successful submarine, the Leonardo DaVinci which was specially modified for the task. However, after a postponement the sub was sunk and so another plan was hatched to use a large sea-plane to transport the craft to striking distance, stopping in mid-Atlantic to be refueled by submarine. However, the plan was postponed again because of some other secret weapon that was to be used instead. What could this have been? Italy also had a specially modified trans-Atlantic bomber that was being outfitted to carry an especially heavy payload. Some have speculated that this was part of an effort to deliver an Italian atomic-bomb and, as much as most dismiss the idea, there is at least some circumstantial evidence to suggest this may have been the case. As early as 1939 Italian atomic scientists at the University of Milan were issued a patent for a nuclear reactor they had designed and Italian scientists were later sent to Germany where they had better facilities to continue their nuclear research. We do know that at some top-secret German nuclear tests the only foreigner present was an Italian officer and Mussolini was one of only a dozen individuals Hitler informed about the operation, no doubt because of the participation of Italian scientists in the development of the weapons. How close they came to success we do not know due to much of the documentation being destroyed and much still being classified by the British government, however, there is no doubt that the oft-derided Kingdom of Italy was highly advanced in nuclear research.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Battle of Cheren

On February 5, 1941 the Battle of Cheren, Eritrea began when elements of the British Indian Army under Lt. General William Platt, advancing from the Sudan, clashed with the regular and colonial Italian forces under General Nicolangelo Carnimeo. The leading British unit, “Gazelle Force” of the 4th Indian Infantry Division under Colonel Frank Messervy came to the battle later than expected due to Italian forces blowing up bridges and obstructing the roads, buying precious time for reinforcements to arrive from Addis Ababa, including the Alpini battalion of the Savoy Grenadiers. The initial clash came when a regiment of Highlanders and a Punjab regiment attacked on the left side of Dongolaas Gorge, eventually seizing Brig’s Peak. However, a counter-attack by the Savoy Grenadiers drove them back and it was only with tenacious effort that they were able to hold on to their fall-back position on Cameron Ridge. The Italian forces kept up a heavy fire and persistent attacks on the British positions, stalemating the entire British advance in that area. Italian forces repelled other attacks as the British tried to find a weak point to exploit but it was to no avail. Hard pressed and running out of ammunition, after three days of hard fighting the British had to retreat back to their starting point.

After a brief respite, another Punjab regiment (the first) attacked Brig’s Peak again, coming under heavy fire from the defending Italians. General Carnimeo had set up a deep defense that made excellent use of the terrain with its many layers of ridges. Once again, the Indian troops fought their way to the peak, pushing the Italian colonial forces back. However, by the time they reached that point, so many men had to be detailed to carry and secure supplies over the rugged terrain that few were left to defend the front line and, once again, a fierce attack by the Savoy Grenadiers reclaimed the peak and forced the Indians to retreat. As before, they fell back to what the British called Cameron Ridge and only with great difficulty managed to hold the line there against the charging Italian troops. Likewise, another attack was launched on Acqua Col, one of the areas they had been repulsed from before. The Italian soldiers defending Acqua Col endured heavy artillery fire before the Rajputs, Sikhs and other Indian troops came charging forward. It was a hard and desperate fight but the Italians would not be moved. Expected British reinforcements had to be diverted to keep the Italian forces from overrunning Cameron Ridge so that finally the attack on Acqua Col had to be abandoned.

The British had thrown everything they had at the Italians and displayed no shortage of valor but the Italian troops had thrown back each attack. General Platt finally decided to halt, reorganize his forces, wait for reinforcements and further train his troops for a more intricate plan of attack. For General Carnimeo, on the other hand, the 6th Colonial Brigade arrived to lend support as did the 11th MVSN Battalion but he did not have the seemingly endless logistical support available to the British. He could only deploy his men to best effect and make the British pay for every step forward they took. He had superiority in numbers but also much more ground to cover along with inferior weapons and equipment. As February turned to March, the British began to move, reinforced by more troops, including mobile machine gun companies and units of the Free French army. Platt planned a broad, coordinated offensive that would have to include attacking the only fortified strongpoint in the area, Fort Dologorodoc which prevented the British artillery from moving forward to support an attack Acqua Col.

On March 15, 1941 the British assault began with Platt heading again for Sanchil, Brig’s Peak and then Hog’s Back and Mount Sammana. General Lewis Heath and Brigadier Messervy were to attack the fort. The Italians were resolutely determined to resist them and, at first, the Italian army repeated their past successes. Platt drove his men forward against the high ground from Cameron Ridge, took heavy losses but gained ground. Then the Italian troops counter-attacked and drove the Indians back. The bloody cycle went on all the rest of the day and into the night with losses mounting for both sides as the Italian and Indian troops fought back and forth, taking and retaking hill after hill. Italian troops were even more successful on the left (right from the British perspective) where the assault on Ft Dologorodoc by Highland light infantry was beaten back. Indian reinforcements likewise came under withering Italian fire and were pinned down, unable to advance or retreat. All they could do was stay under what cover they could find and wait until night fell when they were finally able to fall back under cover of darkness. The stalwart Italian troops had turned the first day of Platt’s operation into a bitter defeat for the British. However, the British were nothing if not persistent.

With the rising moon giving some visibility, the British renewed their attack on Ft Dologorodoc, taking two key approach points. When the Italian troops inside counter-attacked to drive them back, a West Yorkshire regiment crept up the rocky slopes and hit the fort from the other side. Only a skeleton force of the Italian garrison remained behind, fighting a desperate and bloody hand-to-hand battle for the strongpoint. However, after a great deal of fierce but gallant combat, they were overwhelmed and the fort was taken by the British as the new day began to dawn. Nearby Italian troops launched multiple counter-attacks to retake the fort but with supplies running low and the British holding the commanding position in the clear light of day, none were successful. Meanwhile, Platt and his attacks were less successful as their repeated advances failed to dislodge the Italian troops. Day after day they came forward, were repelled or made minimal gains only to face Italian counter-attacks that often ended, like the fighting in the fort, in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Platt finally decided he would have to find a new avenue of attack if he was going to have any success.

This took some time as his reconnaissance forces were chased away by heavy fire from the Italian lines even under cover of night. Still, they eventually found a more vulnerable gap (dubbed the “Railway Bumps”) which was attacked with British and Indian troops, the mobile machine gun companies and even 12 Matilda II infantry tanks against which the Italians had no defense whatsoever. The capture of the fort also meant that British artillery could devastate the Italian lines from almost any position. The Italian troops resisted fiercely but it finally became clear that the British had every advantage and any further combat would be to no avail. General Carnimeo ordered his men to begin falling back toward Asmara. Unfortunately, units of the Savoy Grenadiers and the Bersaglieri had been fighting so tenaciously that they had been completely surrounded and with the rest of the army pulling out, they had no choice but to surrender. Nonetheless, while the Battle of Cheren was a defeat for Italy, it was an honorable one. The Italian and colonial African forces had fought with incredible tenacity, skill and heroism.

Their gallant defense earned them the battlefield respect of their British enemies with Compton Mackenzie writing about the ridiculous portrayal of Italian troops by Allied propagandists and how the Battle of Cheren proved them false said, “…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.” It was a hard fought battle by two determined foes that could respect each other for the ability they displayed. It was a battle that should be long remembered in Italian military history and the annals of the Italian Royal Armed Forces of World War II.