Sunday, March 29, 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.

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.

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.

General 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.

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.

Italian offensive in north Africa
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.

Italian submarine heroes
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.

Italian militia fighting in Albania
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.

Savoy Household Cavalry attack
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”.

General Heinz Guderian
I should also add, just because so many people, including uninformed or dishonest historians continue to bring it up, that Italy was not to blame for the failure of the German-led, Axis invasion of Russia. This is something that has been repeated over and over again, that the Germans were all set to invade Russia but were diverted by having to rush to the rescue of the Italians in Greece and that the campaigns in Greece and Yugoslavia pushed back the German timetable, which caused the invasion to grind to a halt due to the Russian winter. This is simply untrue. In the first place, as explained above, the Germans did not rush to rescue the Italians on the Greek front, the Italians were not in need of rescuing but had been holding well and were starting to make a comeback on their own. The Germans reacted to the overthrow of Prince Paul in Yugoslavia, not the Italian campaign in Greece. Secondly, the idea that the Balkan campaign prevented German success by throwing off their timetable is simply not true. The invasion would have had to be postponed in any event because of the weather. German General Heinz Guderian said this very clearly to Allied interrogators after the war. Heavy rains had set in that would have swamped the Axis forces if they had gone in earlier as planned and so the invasion had to be put off. It was simply bad luck that winter then began to hit rather earlier that year than had been expected. The Italians were not responsible for delaying the invasion of Russia, and you don't have to take it from me, you can take it from General Guderian himself. The Italians made a large contribution to that campaign, fought extremely well and earned the respect of both their friends and their enemies in doing so.

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.

7 comments:

  1. 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.

    As mentioned in my letter to Bush, so does posing an ultimatum to the Taliban régime involving exactly same terms about Osama Ben Laden as the ultimatum of Austria to Serbia involved about Gavril Princip. After his predecessor insisting on War Guilt due to that ultimatum.

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    1. Well, not exactly the same terms at all. Austria-Hungary already had Princip in custody, that's not what their ultimatum to Serbia was about. Secondly, the treaty ending the war with Austria, which assigned guilt to Austria for starting the war, was negotiated by the PM of France, not the President of the United States. The USA never ratified the treaty at all. The U.S. signed its own treaty with Austria in 1921 and actually assisted Austria in paying the reparations demanded by the other Allies.

      The Taliban was harboring a terrorist that killed thousands of innocent people. The U.S. demanded he be turned over, the Taliban refused and even voiced support for his actions. They got what they deserved.

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  2. Excellent post. The Italian reputation is very undeserved.

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  3. Me and my friend are always in awe of the royal Italian cavalry that overran the 2,000-men Soviet position which was bristling with machine guns, but the Italians only used swords. I also admired their paratroopers, combat engineers, and some motorized troops.

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  4. Grandpa served in 12th Waffen-SS HJ during the war. He wasn't too favorable of Italian soldiers (albeit liked the country / culture), but then he had little personal contact with the soldiers. There were lots of jokes told among the troops which would also foster a certain view on Italian troops. ("Wanna buy an Italian rifle? Just one time dropped!") For most German soldiers it would seem that the Italians start an operation, then can't handle it alone and then call for German assistance. That might or might not be true, I cannot judge. But I am sure that among our past allies there were many brave men fighting against the overwhelming enemy and giving all they got. May their courage never be forgotten!

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    1. Such attitudes display the brilliance of the British. That was exactly the goal of the anti-Italian propaganda, which those who had fought them knew perfectly well to be false, but which was put out to encourage Italo-German animosity and drive a wedge between the Axis powers. For a more professional view from Germany:

      "Before the days of Mussolini, Italy was not averse to war. How otherwise could it have successfully borne the heavy and protracted battles of the Isonzo during the First World War? Piedmont is the cradle of Italy’s military prowess. With the exception of Prussia, no dynasty was ever as militant as the House of Savoy. It was the campaigns of the Piedmontese battalions that unified Italy, thereby fulfilling the dreams of many generations. Everywhere the memorials bore witness to this fact.

      "At Turin and in that neighborhood were a number of military schools. The Peidmontese nobility, like the Prussian one, put service in the army on a higher plane than any other service to the state. The discipline was good. In Piedmont there were also many alpine units, the best that the Italian Army could produce---proud, quiet, outwardly not very disciplined troops, but reliable types, brought up the heard way, accustomed to camping in the eternal snows with only the barest supplies. They were magnificent soldiers, to whose pride and modesty I paid tribute whenever I happened to encounter an Alpino. The Navy, too, was good, though I had few contacts with it."

      -From the book "Neither Hope Nor Fear" by the commander of the German XIV Panzer Corps, General Frido von Senger und Etterlin who was responsible for the defense of Monte Cassino and the Gustav Line, who had also earlier fought in the defense of Sicily.

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  5. And dont froget the Italian Naval victories of Operation Harpoon and Operation Agreement in 1942, and they played a major role in the Gazla battles and fall of Torburk.

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