Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Battle of the Italians: Victory in Russia

In 1812 the French and all those powers subject to or allied with Napoleon launched the invasion of Russia. It was one of the largest military operations undertaken in Europe up to that time. Among the forces included were those of the (Napoleonic) Kingdom of Italy led by Napoleon’s step-son Viceroy Eugene de Beauharnais. It was a considerable commitment for the country. With a total military strength of around 90,000 soldiers the Italian contingent of the invasion force sent to Russia numbered some 27,000 men and of these some 25,000 were fated never to see the sunshine of Italy again. However, they fought with extreme skill and courage and no battle showed their ability more than the Battle of Maloyaroslavets on October 24, 1812, a town in Kaluga Oblast, Russia. It was a stunning defeat for the Russians but failed to changed the overall strategic situation. Five days earlier Napoleon had abandoned the ruins of Moscow and began moving southwest with the Italian forces of de Beauharnais in the vanguard. The Russians, under the overall command of Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, thought this was only a minor force and not the lead elements of the entire French army. He dispatched forces to intercept them and both sides were pulled into a major battle.

Although the Franco-Italian forces initially held the numerical advantage, the Russians poured in more and more manpower until they had employed more than 25,000 men against the 20,000 French and Italian troops whose numbers were reduced in the early part of the battle. When the Russians arrived from the south, they found Maloyaroslavets already occupied by the Franco-Italian forces and the French held a key bridgehead that was vital for control of the battlefield. The Russians attacked relentlessly, but the French counter-attacked and control of the town shifted from French to Russian control some five times. Just when it seemed the French were victorious, Russian General Raevski arrived with 10,000 fresh troops and pushed them out of most of the town, though the soldiers holding the bridgehead stubbornly held on. When all seemed lost, de Beauharnais committed the Fifteenth (Italian) Division to the battle led by General Domenico Pino, Minister of War for the Kingdom of Italy. The Italian troops smashed into the Russian lines with reckless intensity and before nightfall had broken the Russians and forced them to retreat.

It was the courage and determination of the Italian troops that played the decisive part in the battle, so much so that it came to be known as the “Battle of the Italians”. The Italian troops fought largely unsupported by the French. The Italian Royal Guard under the direct command of Viceroy Eugene de Beauharnais acquitted themselves particularly well as one observer noted that the Italians ‘fought like lions’. Looking back on the campaign later, Napoleon himself said that, “The Italian army had displayed qualities which entitle it evermore to rank among the bravest troops of Europe”. When the Russian Marshal Kutuzov arrived on the scene, he decided against risking a larger battle by continuing the struggle the following day. However, he did not need to. The way of the French had been blocked and due to the defeat of French forces under Murat at Vinkovo, Napoleon decided to turn west and begin the long retreat from Russian soil. The Italian soldiers had won for themselves a matchless reputation for their heroism during the campaign in Russia, particularly at the Battle of Maloyaroslavets but the ruinous retreat decimated their ranks and left the Kingdom of Italy with only a skeletal army to defend themselves from the Austrian and British attacks that were to come later and which ultimately brought down the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. Still, some of the men survived and many people would remember what they had accomplished. The dream of a restored and fully independent Kingdom of Italy was one that would not die.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Today in History: Rhodes Was Lost

It was on May 1, 1946 that the Paris Peace Conference ruled that Italy should have over the Dodecanese Islands, the most important of which is the island of Rhodes, to Greece. Can this be called a just decision? Rhodes first aligned itself with Italy in 164 BC when they willingly signed a treaty with the Roman Empire. Later, along with Crete, they were formally annexed as the 18th Province of Imperial Rome. That is certainly a far-reaching root of history to draw upon. They were then part of the Eastern Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire, taking them away from Italy. However, by the XIII Century the Italians were back during the Fourth Crusade as the forces of the city-states of Venice and Genoa began to reassert control over the Dodecanese Islands. The following century the island of Rhodes came under the control of the Knights of St John (later known as the Knights of Malta). That was an independent entity but, of course, many of the knights were Italians and one of the ancestors of the Italian Royal House, Amadeus V Count of Savoy, was among those knights who defended Rhodes against the Ottoman Turks. Many believe that this was the source of the Savoy motto FERT for 'Fortitudo Eius Rhodum Tenuit' or 'his strength defended Rhodes'. Eventually though the islands were taken by the Ottoman Empire.

There they stayed until 1912 when the Kingdom of Italy gained the Dodecanese Islands after defeating the Turks in the Italo-Turkish War. The Italian government invested more in improvements and the infrastructure of the islands than anyone ever had. Obviously, the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference did not hand back the islands to the previous owner, otherwise they would have been given to the Turks as the Ottoman Empire had been the last to possess the islands before the Kingdom of Italy. How is it then that they were given to Greece? It doesn't seem to make much sense from a legal point of view. The islands had never belonged to Greece. At the time of Greek independence they were not included in the new Greek state but were retained by Turkey. The Greek element they possessed, in terms of the population, came from the era of the Byzantine Empire. Yet, that was an empire that was the "Eastern Roman Empire" and based all of its territorial claims on those of the original, undivided, Roman Empire of Rome, Italy. Moreover, the Italians had returned with the forces of Venice and Genoa and had held the islands for no small amount of time. Even after the Turks had taken control of most of the region, Italian control was maintained at times over various parts of the islands for a very long time.

Given all of that, it would be difficult to see how any country could have a better and more long-standing claim to the Dodecanese Islands than Italy.

Friday, April 17, 2015

First Savoy Reign Over Sicily

The island Kingdom of Sicily was first under the reign of the House of Savoy from 1713 to 1720 during the reign of King Vittorio Amedeo II. It came about as a result of Piedmontese participation in the War of Spanish Succession alongside Great Britain and Austria. At first, it was proposed to give the House of Savoy both Naples and Sicily (at the time separate kingdoms) but as the Hapsburgs still ruled in Naples this was finally dropped. King Vittorio Amedeo II was more interested in gaining Milan which the Savoy had been reaching for over many years but his Dutch and Austrian allies objected to this. The British, under Queen Anne, finally took decisive action and, being in command of the Mediterranean thanks to the success of the Royal Navy, announced that Sicily would be given to the House of Savoy and King Felipe V of Spain had little choice but to agree and renounce his claim on the island. The British tried to maintain a commanding influence but King Vittorio Amedeo II refused to grant British merchants any additional favors than they had known previously under the Spanish. Still, Britain was convinced that Sicily would be better off and the region more stable under the Savoy.

The King & Queen depart for Sicily
King Vittorio Amedeo II and Queen Marie d’Orleans arrived in October of 1713 to formally take possession of their new kingdom and were given a joyous welcome from the local population when they were delivered to Palermo by a British naval squadron. Early the next year the Sicilian parliament was assembled to officially swear their allegiance to the new king and the Savoy Crown. The Kingdom of Sicily was to remain legally separate from the continental realms of the House of Savoy but in personal union through King Vittorio Amedeo II. However, there did arise some complaints that the King was putting Piedmontese officials in positions of importance after being less than impressed with the state of affairs that he found on the island with widespread waste and corruption. Still, the Sicilians could not complain too much since financial aid also poured in from Turin to allow Sicily to balance its budget. A census was taken of all people and livestock and the King introduced beneficial reforms to the tax system and the customs office which had been riddled with corruption. Still, many groaned at the additional ‘special taxes’ that had to be implemented to carry out these changes.

The Hapsburgs did not recognize the treaty, the Treaty of Utrecht, by which the Savoy gained the Kingdom of Sicily and so, being just across the straights in Naples, King Vittorio Amedeo II placed priority on improving the coastal defenses of Sicily and raising a new army which consisted of two regiments of volunteers and a unit of royal guards. When King George I came to the British throne and the Royal Navy was withdrawn from the Mediterranean, King Vittorio Amedeo II also took care to expand the Sicilian navy to pick up the slack. The King, of course, ultimately had to return to Turin but left behind a Viceroy to rule in his place. The Viceroys had plenty of problems to deal with as, despite the renunciation of Felipe V, the Spanish maintained agents on the island who spread pro-Spanish and anti-Savoy propaganda and encourage resistance. The reconciliation between France and Austria also posed a potential threat. There was also a ridiculous and frustrating dispute with the Holy See over Savoy rule of the island.

King Vittorio Amedeo II
Problems with the Church came about when a local bishop objected to having to pay an import duty on chickpeas. He excommunicated the local customs officials, which some might call just a slight overreaction, but the Tribunal of the Monarchy, which was set up to exercise the special ecclesiastical authority traditionally given to the kings of Sicily since the Norman era, nullified the excommunications. The bishop then placed his entire diocese under the interdict and left to ask help from Rome. The issue was further complicated by the fact that the Pope, Clement XI, did not recognize the authority of the tribunal because he did not recognize the right of King Vittorio Amedeo II to the throne of Sicily because, claiming it as a papal fief and the King of Sicily his vassal, the change in royal leadership had happened without his approval. The King sent agents to Rome to reach an amicable agreement but the Pope refused to consent to the clergy paying any taxes or import duties and ordered the tribunal abolished. The King refused to disband the tribunal and refused to be invested as a vassal of the Pope, on the grounds that Sicily was a sovereign kingdom. The Pope then re-issued the excommunications and interdict as well as placing spiritual restrictions on the local clergy who were loyal to the King while the King had pro-papal clergy arrested. Finally, the Pope did consent to the existence of the tribunal if he could control it but as he still refused to recognize the King, there was no agreement.

The era of Savoy rule over Sicily started to come to an end in 1717 when the Spanish attacked Sardinia which was then ruled by the Hapsburgs. This set off the War of the Quadruple Alliance with Spain on one side and the British, French, Dutch, House of Hapsburg and House of Savoy on the other. The following year the Spanish also invaded Sicily. The British navy won a victory that stranded the Spanish forces and the Austrians sent troops in from Naples. Spain was finally forced to concede defeat but Savoy rule over Sicily would not be restored. Instead, the allied powers essentially forced King Vittorio Amedeo II to take the Kingdom of Sardinia in exchange for Sicily. Although his forces had held no control over the island since 1718, the official hand-over did not occur until 1720 and the King did not relinquish his title as ‘King of Sicily’ until 1723 and was still seeking compensation for the loss as late as the autumn of 1729. Of course, the Crown of Savoy did eventually return to Sicily in 1860/61 with the Expedition of the Thousand under Giuseppe Garibaldi in the name of King Vittorio Emanuele II.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Massacre of the Latins

Flag of the Republic of Venice
It is now about the anniversary of an horrific atrocity that most of the world has forgotten, a brutal killing spree known as the Massacre of the Latins. This occurred in April of 1182 in Constantinople, the first city of the Byzantine Empire. At the time, the Italian city-states were powerful forces in the Mediterranean and Italian cities such as Venice, Genoa and Pisa had their own territorial concessions in Constantinople to serve their networks of commerce. Italian states dominated the trade and shipping of the region during that time and, particularly for cities like Venice and Genoa, often served as navies-for-hire in the employ of the Byzantine Emperors. However, there was a great deal of jealousy and mistrust of the "Latins" (as all Roman Catholics were called in the east but in this case they were almost entirely Italian) on the part of the Byzantines and it was not uncommon for the various Byzantine emperors to play the Italian city-states off against each other. There was also always plenty of plots and intrigues within the Byzantine court as men fought for the throne and each faction would usually have the support of one Italian state that would be employed against the others on promises of preferential treatment when that particular contestant for the throne became emperor.

Empress Maria of Antioch
By 1180 the Emperor Manuel I died. He had opposed Venice and so favored Genoa and Pisa but after his death his widow Maria of Antioch (a princess from a French family in the Catholic crusader states) ruled as regent for his infant son Alexios II and she had a pro-Italian, pro-Catholic policy. That was not tolerated for long and in April of 1182 she was overthrown by Andronikos I who came to power on a wave of anti-Italian xenophobia. Byzantine mobs charged into the Italian concessions and began massacring everyone in sight. The new Emperor did nothing at all to stop them or to restore order and the result was butchery on an unimaginable scale. Some of the Italians, sensing the danger, managed to escape before the attack but the vast majority of the 60,000 were trapped and helpless in the face of the Byzantine rampage. Men, women and children were killed in horrific fashion. Homes were destroyed, Catholic churches desecrated, even charitable houses were looted. Priests were tortured and murdered, women and girls were raped and the papal legate was decapitated and had his head tied to a dog and chased through the streets. Sick and dying people were stabbed to death in their hospital beds. It was savagery on an unbelievable scale. Those who were not killed in the bloodbath were sold into slavery to the Muslim Turks. They may well have envied the dead. The boys might have been forced into any number of forms of servitude, the men as well, perhaps serving as galley slaves, the women and girls had it worst of all, many forced into sexual slavery in the harems of the powerful.

The death of Andronikos I
It is little comfort that, eventually, Andronikos I is deposed and delivered up to mob justice and killed by his own people, including a few Latins who had, by that time, returned. There can be little sympathy for someone with the blood of tens of thousands of helpless men, women and children on his hands. He also, after overthrowing Maria of Antioch, forced her own son to sign the order for her execution. It is important to remember such an atrocity in order to understand the depth of division that has existed between the Catholic west and the Orthodox east, particularly as it is so often glossed over. Whereas the undoubted outrages of the Fourth Crusade are well known to history, the Massacre of the Latins that came first is seldom mentioned at all. It is also worth noting that, whereas Pope St John Paul II apologized, on behalf of the Catholic west, for the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, the Ecumenical Patriarch, nor any other Orthodox leader, has ever acknowledged or issued a similar apology for the Massacre of the Latins. Little wonder then that efforts at reunification and Christian solidarity have yet to find success.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Buona Pasqua!

"He is not here; He is risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay."
St Matthew 28:6

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.