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.