Saturday, January 19, 2013

Italy in World War II

Of all the major participants of World War II, probably none have been so unjustly deprecated in terms of their fighting ability as the royal armed forces of Italy. Part of this was an intentional propaganda effort on the part of the Allies (mostly the British) to both demoralize the Italians and to stir up resentment among the Germans toward their partner on the battlefield. However, there was also a wider sort of prejudice on the part of north Europeans (mostly Germanic peoples) toward the Latin nations of southern Europe and this can be seen far beyond World War II in the way that the military accomplishments are shrugged off and defeats exaggerated when it comes to countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and even France. It is true that things were far from ideal for Italy in the Second World War, there were many defeats and infinite frustrations. However, it was not the constant string of disasters many people think it was and when considering the immense material disadvantages Italy had to deal with, the courage and determination of the Italian fighting man should be seen as all the more remarkable. Despite weak logistical support, inferior weaponry, political interference and being forced to fight over a greater area than any Italian armed force since Roman times, the royal Italian military performed quite well on numerous occasions, gaining victories (temporary though they might have been) over enemies that had them outmatched in most every way.

Perhaps the biggest problem Italy had at the outset and throughout the conflict was simply being unprepared. There were reasons for this of course. Industry was severely handicapped after World War I, the strain and stress of that conflict was followed by unrest all over the country, the Fascist takeover, a rebellion in Libya, the war in Ethiopia, the intervention in Spain and then the occupation of Albania. The Italian armed forces had hardly any time to take a breath between fighting two world wars and they would be much more hard pressed in the second than in the first, fighting on fronts from East and North Africa to the Balkans to southern England to the steppes of Russia. The King was well aware that the country was not ready for a large-scale war and strongly advised Mussolini to stay out of it, however, the Duce was eager to believe those who painted a fictitious image of an Italian military that was as powerful and advanced as any other. Mussolini was also concerned with making good on his oft-repeated boast that Italy could, at any time, mobilize “8 million bayonets” to sweep their enemies away. He would be in for a rude awakening when he finally took Italy into war in June of 1940.

The first campaign was an offensive into southern France under the nominal command of HRH Crown Prince Umberto with General Emilio Battisti as his chief of staff. The troops fought bravely but were woefully ill-equipped and un-prepared. The French also offered determined resistance in spite of the rapidly crumbling situation in their own country. There was nothing really wrong with the Italian plan but the logistical support simply wasn’t there. Italian forces lacked proper equipment for the terrain, lacked artillery sufficient to penetrate French fortresses, even pots and pans to cook their food. The Italians struggled ahead, taking a few mountain villages and the town of Menton on the coast before France finally surrendered due to the German onslaught in the north. In many ways, the French campaign was a microcosm for the wider war; Italian bravery being wasted due to a lack of proper planning by the government and a near total lack of proper logistical support. Fortunately, things would go better elsewhere.

In Italian East Africa, under the command of the Viceroy, Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, a general in the royal Italian air force, there were the first victories for Italian arms and won without any outside assistance. The Duke of Aosta knew that in any protracted conflict, Italian East Africa would be doomed as it was geographically isolated from the rest of the Italian empire and surrounded by British possessions. However, he attacked early and captured several towns in Kenya and the Sudan. In fact, had the weakness of the British position in the Sudan been known to him, the Duke might have been able to launch a major campaign through the Sudan to take Egypt from the south in conjunction with the planned offensive out of Libya. However, while that was not to be, what did happen was a swift and successful Italian conquest of British Somaliland by the Italian colonial army. The British retreated quickly and abandoned the colony, seeing no hope against the Italian forces moving against them. Prime Minister Churchill was outraged by this, saying that the meager British losses implied they did not even try to put up a fight. His region commander, General Wavell, replied that they were outmatched, that retreating was the only sensible thing to do and that, “A bloody butcher’s bill is not the sign of a good tactician”. And he was right, later the British would be able to return with vastly superior forces of their own and the Italians would not be able to retreat as they had done. The following year the Allies would conquer Italian East Africa (though it would take them longer than it had the Italians) in a spirited campaign in which the Duke of Aosta earned the respect of his enemies for both his skill and gallantry in fighting a campaign against hopeless odds and cut off from support from Italy.

Toward the end of 1940 was also the beginning of the Italian campaign in North Africa led by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani who was charged with the conquest of Egypt and the capture of the Suez Canal. The numbers all seemed to favor Italy but the numbers alone can be deceiving and Graziani had a hard time getting Mussolini to grasp the concept that infantry are practically useless in the desert if you have no trucks and fuel to move them. The British were lacking in numbers and their equipment was not very good but it was still of a higher quality than what the Italians had to work with and while Graziani had more men in the field, the British had more and better of the things that mattered most in the desert, especially trucks and tanks. Mussolini wanted a quick advance that might have been costly but which he was confident would succeed in overwhelming the British at which point they could seize the Suez and he could have his victory parade through Alexandria. Marshal Graziani, however, refused such brash action and advanced slowly into Egypt then stopping and setting up a defensive position. Perhaps partly as a way to draw British forces away from Egypt (and perhaps not) Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece from Albania in October of 1940.

The British were distracted by this, transferring forces to what would prove to be a lost cause in Greece but it still wasn’t enough to ensure the conquest of Egypt. British forces counter-attacked in north Africa, pushed the Italians out of Egypt and across Libya until the situation was desperate. It was at that point that the first German assistance was sent in under the soon to be famous General Erwin Rommel. Back in Greece the Italians faced heavy counter-attacks as well by forces far more formidable than they had been led to expect. However, it was not the disaster it is often portrayed as. The lines stabilized, Greek attacks were repulsed and Italian forces began to make modest gains again. It was, at worst, a stalemate but Italian forces were nowhere near collapse or total defeat. In 1941 the Germans intervened, again, not because Italy was in dire need of immediate help, but because of a coup in Yugoslavia that took that country out of the Axis and into the Allied camp. Once the Germans became involved, German and Italian forces together had little difficulty in subduing Yugoslavia and Greece.

Back in north Africa, the situation quickly turned around thanks to the aggressive leadership of General (later Field Marshal) Rommel. Particularly when Marshal Ettore Bastico was appointed to the top command in Libya, the German and Italian forces seemed almost unstoppable. The British were driven out of Libya, Tobruk was retaken, Malta was isolated and for a time the Italian navy totally dominated the central Mediterranean. British counter-attacks gained only momentary success and by 1942, with British forces weakened by the entry of Japan into the war, German and Italian forces cleared Libya and invaded Egypt. That this was a joint effort is lost on many people but, in fact, the bulk of Axis forces in north Africa were Italian rather than German, most of the armor was Italian and, at times, Italian units came to the rescue of German ones. Rommel was even, officially, subordinate to the Italian command but usually got his own way in determining strategy. A major dispute was his decision to invade Egypt before Malta had been seized as planned. Marshal Bastico warned that their cause would be ruined by logistics and, indeed, he was ultimately proven correct. British interdiction slowed the movement of supplies and the lines of support for the Italo-German forces became severely stretched until everything came to ruin with the British victory at El Alamein in late 1942.

By that time the war had expanded greatly and Italian forces were really over-extended. Italian air forces had been sent to Belgium to aid in the “Battle of Britain” where, again contrary to what most think, they actually gave as good as they got which is all the more remarkable considering their outdated equipment. 1941 was also when Hitler launched his great invasion of the Soviet Union and, despite being stretched to the limit already, Mussolini could not resist sending an Italian army to participate. The forces were woefully ill-equipped but still fought very well, winning a number of engagements before the war situation forced Mussolini to call them back. It was while fighting in the USSR that Italian forces launched one of the last cavalry charges in history, against Red Army artillery units, that proved a stunning success. Still, losses were heavy and they were losses that Italy could not replace until finally the Italian army in Russia was all but wiped out. It was simply beyond the ability of the country to supply and fully man a significant force in southern Russia while also maintaining huge garrisons for occupation duty in Greece and the former Yugoslavia as well as a large army in North Africa. Still, given the odds against them, they performed well and were commanded by Giovanni Messe, one of the finest Italian commanders the war would produce.

In north Africa, to the disgust of Italians who wanted to fight for Libya, Italo-German forces were pulled back all the way to Tunisia where they essentially, from that time on, fought a delaying action against the British from the east and the Americans from the west. Although often overlooked, from El Alamein to the end of the war in Africa, there were Italian units that performed with exceptional skill and bravery, such as the elite airborne Folgore Division. However, it was to no avail as the military situation had clearly become hopeless by the time the last foothold in Tunisia fell to the Allies in 1943. The next target was Sicily which was defended by General Alfredo Guzzoni with some German support. However, by this time, many of the defenders were old men and young boys with the most inadequate and substandard equipment possible and it was not that great a surprise that these forces were eventually defeated. Among those lost was the veteran and hard-fighting General Enrico Francisci. As most know, this was the last straw for the Kingdom of Italy and the Fascist regime and in the aftermath HM King Vittorio Emanuele III dismissed Mussolini from office and took him into custody.

That was still not quite the end of the war for the Kingdom of Italy, however, for as soon as Italian efforts to arrange an armistice with the Allies began, the Germans began attacking Italian forces still in the field. Many were isolated and completely surrounded by German forces and were unable to offer any resistance. Some, nonetheless, still did so, such as the Italian garrison on Cephalonia island in Greece where the hopelessly outmatched Italian garrison fought heroically against German attacks in defense of the local population and their own honor as soldiers. Sadly, by the time an arrangement was made with the Allies, the Germans had occupied most of Italy and the city of Rome itself. Although Italian co-belligerent forces would serve alongside the Allies, for the most part they were sidelined from the major events of the campaign. The last great military action of the Kingdom of Italy or any Italian armed forces under the House of Savoy had come to an end.

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