Monday, June 6, 2011
Monarchist Military: The Royal Italian Armed Forces
This always bothered me; the idea that some would try to rob the military of one side of their laurels just because they had allies. It doesn’t seem to happen with anyone else. Take World War II; would anyone denigrate the heroic contribution of the forces of the British Empire just because the American forces made up the bulk of Allied strength in the west or that the Russians did most of the heavy-lifting? I would certainly hope not. Such a double-standard does seem to often be applied to the Italians however. Nonetheless, this is an injustice. From northern Italy to the Crimea the troops of Piedmont-Sardinia fought tenaciously and were on the winning side and as such should deserve their share of the credit for the victories won.
During World War I the Italian armed forces fought in terrible conditions and suffered very heavy losses against the Austrians but ultimately emerged victorious. Again, however, being one of many Allied powers, they are often denied much credit for this. However, the Italian contribution was significant. Italy lost considerably more men in World War I than they did in World War II, despite fighting major campaigns on various fronts. The Battle of Caporetto was certainly a disaster but the turn-around after that, following a change in command, was truly remarkable and a credit to the Italian fighting man. Few other armies in history have come back from such a disintegration, stood their ground, halted a previously victorious offensive and recovered sufficiently to go on to final victory. They also were fighting on a front, deemed by even the likes of Hindenburg, as the most dangerous and difficult of the war, worse even than the western front due to the extreme cold and mountainous topography. It is also often forgotten what hard fighting was done by the Italian colonial forces in World War I. The Turks had not forgotten their earlier defeat and were eager to encourage Islamic forces to rise in rebellion against the Italians in the hope of restoring Ottoman Turkey as master of the eastern Mediterranean.
Italy came out of World War I bloodied, exhausted but victorious and having learned some hard lessons about the realities of modern warfare. They were disappointed when the other Allies failed to deliver on the promises they had made to induce Italy to enter the war though and that would play a pivotal part in the souring of relations between the Italians and Great Britain and France particularly. In the inter-war years one of the most major military campaigns undertaken by the Royal Italian Armed Forces was the intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Again, people forget this, but the Italians contributed more fighting men, more planes, more naval forces to that conflict than any other power. They were there to support the success of General Francisco Franco and I have no qualms about saying I think this was the right side to support. The fighting was fierce but Franco finally won the day. The Italian contribution to this was not minimal, neither the considerable land forces or the often-overlooked naval contingent where Italian submarines provided vital service by sinking republican supply vessels from the Soviet Union.
The only other major military operation before World War II was the conquest of Ethiopia (some may mention Albania but that was not a major operation as, though the fact is often ignored, the country was already an Italian protectorate to begin with). The conquest of Ethiopia was, of course, controversial, but we are not dealing with politics here, simply the military situation. For years the basic facts of this war have been exaggerated to the point that armchair historians smugly shrug off the whole affair as little more than a large-scale massacre with the Italians trampling to an easy victory over a handful of defenseless primitives. This annoys me. Not only is it factually inaccurate but it is extremely insulting to both the Italians and the Ethiopians. Even more so to the Ethiopians really. One side (the Italians) was clearly superior to the other (the Ethiopians) but that does not, by any means, imply that the war was easy for anyone. To understand this, a few things have to be considered.
And so, finally we come to World War II, the last conflict the Italian military would ever fight in the service of a monarch. It was, ultimately, a defeat but, again, aspects of this are often exaggerated to the point that most have, I think, an inaccurate view. Undoubtedly, the Royal Italian military was unprepared for World War II and the military leaders tried (in vain) to persuade Mussolini of this fact. In terms of industrial capacity the other nations of Western Europe simply had too much of a head-start over Italy. In areas where industrial capacity had less of an impact, the Italian forces did quite well. For example, the Italian conquest of British Somaliland and French Somaliland was a resounding success with Italian forces even occupying border areas of British East Africa and the Sudan. Likewise, when the Allies launched their eventual counter-offensive in this area the Italian colonial forces put up a tenacious fight (with considerable local support as well) despite the odds against them. Egypt would be a different story.
Most who know something about World War II know the basics of the first Egyptian campaign. An over-confident Mussolini orders the Royal Italian Army to invade Egypt, expecting an easy victory over the vastly outnumbered British garrison only to have the British soundly defeat the invasion force and launch a counter-attack of their own that pushed all the way into Libya. This forced Mussolini to turn to Germany for help and so was dispatched the soon-to-be famous German Africa Corps under General Rommel. The invasion of Egypt was a disaster for the Italians, no doubt about it. Their equipment was decades behind what the British had, much of it being little beyond what was used in World War I and technology had advanced at breakneck speed between the wars. What I find interesting is the different attitudes concerning the defeat in Egypt versus the conquest of Ethiopia. In both cases you had one side with a clear numerical advantage and another side with a clear technological advantage, yet many shrug off the Italian victory while applauding the British victory over such a larger force.
Finally, one quality which should not be overlooked when evaluating the Royal Italian Armed forces was their staunch loyalty to their King. Even those brought to the height of their careers during the Fascist era almost invariably put their first loyalty with King and Country. Of all the Marshals of Italy, only one, Rodolfo Graziani, continued to support Mussolini after King Victor Emanuel III dismissed him. In fact, the man widely considered the best Italian general of the war, Marshal Giovanni Messe, was a staunch royalist who had won battles in Greece, Russia and Tunisia and who later led the forces loyal to the King in the Allied cause against the German occupation of Italy. This was a key difference between Germany and Italy in World War II. In Nazi Germany, the first allegiance of the military was given to Adolf Hitler personally. In Italy, where a monarchy still existed no matter how suppressed, the military was loyal to the King, not the government, and thus the Italian armed forces were not obliged to follow one man intent on dragging their country down to ruin alongside him as was sadly the case across the Alps.