Military history of Italy during World War II

From Academic Kids

This page is intended to serve as a focal point for studying Italian military history during the WWII-era.

See also: List of World War II personas


The Beginning of WWII

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Following this event, Mussolini would change his mind repeatedly as to whether or not he intended to enter the war. The British commander in Africa, General Wavell, was correct in arguing that Mussolini's pride would ultimately cause him to enter the war. Wavell would compare Mussolini's situation to that of someone at the top of a diving board, "I think he must do something. If he cannot make a graceful dive he will at least have to jump in somehow; he can hardly put on his dressing-gown and walk down the stairs again."

Yet, despite Mussolini's description of the German-Italian alliance as an "Axis of Blood and Steel", his response to the German invasion was to declare that Italy was neutral and a "non-belligerent". However, on June 10, 1940, as Rommel reached the English Channel, Mussolini felt the war was coming to an end and declared war on Britain and France. As he said to the Army's Chief of Staff, Marshal Badoglio, "I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought." On June 21, France would surrender.

Mussolini's Under-Secretary for War Production, Carlo Favagrossa, had estimated that Italy could not possibly be prepared for such a war until, at least, October 1942. Italy was a minor industrial power (one of the poorest in Europe), one might not consider Italian industry to have equalled more than 15% of what was seen in France or Britain should one compare the number of automobiles in Italy (~372,000) to those of Britain and France (~2,500,000). The lack of a stronger automotive industry made it difficult for Italy to mechanize its military.

The Italian Army was comparatively weak and had been stressed by the April 1939 annexation of Albania. As Bierman and Smith wrote, "The Italians were, militarily, barely on the same planet." The Italian tanks were of poor quality. Italian radios were virtually non-existent. The Italian artillery was of World War I-era quality. The Regia Aeronautica's primary fighter was the Fiat CR-42, a biplane. The Regia Marina had no aircraft carriers. Bierman and Smith state (p. 13-14) that the Italian regular army could field only ~200,000 troops at the start of WWII. They estimate the Regia Aeronautica could field ~1,760 aircraft, of which only 900 are considered to be "front-line machines".

Italy Enters the War

Within a week of Italy's declaration of war, the British 11th Hussars had seized Fort Capuzzo and, in an ambush east of Bardia, the Tenth Army's Engineer in Chief, General Lastucci, was captured. Mussolini ordered Marshal Graziani, commanding the Tenth Army in Libya, to attack into Egypt. Graziani wondered how he was possibly expected to succeed, but tried anyway. On September 13, 1940, the Tenth Army crossed the border and the assault would eventually carry through to Sidi Barrani, ~95km inside the Egyptian border. The Italians would then begin to entrench themselves.

At this time there were only ~30,000 British troops available to defend against ~250,000 Italian troops, although it should be said that the Italian troops were not concentrated in one place, but rather spread out from the Tunisian border in western Libya to Sidi Barrani in Egypt. Graziani did not know how weak the British were and instead chose to stockpile fuel and ammunition, a task which the Royal Navy forces operating in the Mediterranean tried to obstruct by attacking Italian supply ships. However at this stage Italian losses was still minimal, but Royal Navy efficiency would improve as the war went on. In addition, Graziani lacked faith in the strength of the Italian military, one of his officers wrote (1 - p.28), "We're trying to fight thought it were a colonial war...this is a European war...fought with European weapons against a European enemy. We take too little account of this in building our stone forts...We are not fighting the Abyssinians now."

East Africa

In addition the well known campaigns in the western desert during 1940, an additional front was opened by the Italians in June 1940. That was around their colonies of Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland and Eritrea in east Africa.

As in Egypt, the Italian forces with ~70,000 Italian soldiers and ~180,000 native troops outnumbered their British opponents, but Ethiopia was isolated from the Italian mainland, and thus cut off from resupply, which seriously limited what operations the Italians would be able to undertake.

The initial attack was in three directions; into Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland. The British garrison in Somaliland had to be evacuated to Aden. In Sudan and Kenya a few tens of miles of territory was captured. A defensive posture was then adopted, against an expected counterattack.

A small squadron of the Italian Navy based at Massawa in Eritrea, consisting of a few destroyers and submarines. Nonetheless, and despite a shortage of fuel, it posed a threat to the British convoys heading up the Red Sea. An attack on a British convoy resulted in most of the surface ships of the squadron being sunk. The submarines escaped, and made an epic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to return to Italy.

The expected British counterattack arrived in the shape of the Indian 4th Infantry Division, which made a thrust from Sudan, with supporting attacks from Kenya and an amphibious assault. The Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa fell in May 1941. A final stand was made around the town of Gondar in November 1941.

Italy attacks Greece

In October 1940, Italy invaded Greece from the Italian colony of Albania. However the attack went badly; the Greeks were able to counter-attack onto Albanian soil. After British troops arrived in Greece, Hitler decided that he could not allow his ally to suffer a defeat and committed German troops to invade Greece via Yugoslavia. This operation, operation "Marita", was undertaken in April 1941, and was entirely successful. Although the Italians were spared defeat, the Germans now assumed control of Greece. An Italian dominated Mediterranean Sea would now be much more difficult to achieve.

The Naval War in the Mediterranean

The Regia Marina (Italian Navy) could not match the overall strength of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean Sea, and wisely declined to engage in a confrontation of capital ships. Since Britain's major problem was one of supply and protecting convoys supplying her outposts in the Mediterranean, the mere continued existence of the Italian fleet (the so called Fleet in being) caused problems to the British Navy, as they had to utilise warships sorely needed elsewhere to protect Mediterranean convoys.

On November 11 1940, Britain launched the first carrier strike of the war, with a squadron of Fairey Swordfish. The raid at Taranto left three Italian battleships crippled or destroyed; two British aircraft were shot down.

The Regia Marina found other ways to attack the British. One of the most successful was the use of frogmen, riding manned torpedoes, to attack ships in harbour. The 10th Light Flotilla, which carried out these attacks, was responsible for 28 ships sunk or damaged from September 1940 to the end of 1942. These included the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant, sunk in the harbour of Alexandria on 18 December 1941, and 111, 527 tons of merchant shipping.

On the defensive in North Africa

On December 8, the British Operation Compass began. Planned as an extended raid, a force of British, Indian and Australian troops succeeded in cutting off the Italian troops. Pressing their advantage home, General O'Connor pressed the attack forward and succeeded in reaching El Agheila (an advance of 500 miles) and capturing tens of thousands of enemy. The Italian army was virtually destroyed, and it seemed that the Italians would be swept out of Libya. However Winston Churchill ordered that the advance be stopped and troops dispatched to defend Greece. Weeks later the first troops of the German Afrika Korps were arriving in North Africa to reinforce the Italians.

German General Erwin Rommel now became the leading Axis commander in North Africa. Italian and German troops continued to fight each other. Under Rommel's direction the Axis troops pushed the British and Commonwealth troops back to Egypt; however at the Second Battle of Alamein the advance was halted and the Allies assumed the offensive. After the Operation Torch landings in West Africa, and the arrival of American forces, the Axis armies in North Africa were defeated.

The Soft Underbelly

A combined force of British, Commonwealth and American troops invaded Sicily in Operation Husky, 19 July 1943. German Generals again took the lead in the defence, and while the island was captured, succeeded in getting large numbers of German and Italian forces safely off the island to the Italian mainland. With the loss of Sicily, popular support for the war was diminishing in Italy. Benito Mussolini was ousted, and the new government began secret negotiations with the Allies to end the fighting and come over to the Allied side.

British troops crossed the short distance from Sicily to the 'toe' of Italy in Operation Baytown, 3 September 1943. Two more landings were carried out on September 9 at Salerno (Operation Avalanche) and Taranto (Operation Slapstick). An Italian surrender was agreed and announced on September 8; however German troops moved quickly to disarm Italian forces and take over critical defensive positions. The surrender meant that the landings at Taranto were carried out unopposed, and the troops were simply landed from warships at the docks rather than by assault.


See also


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