Monday, June 6, 2011

Monarchist Military: The Royal Italian Armed Forces

I am a sucker for hard-luck cases (as most know) and one group that had some very hard luck in its day was the Royal Italian Military. Much of this, it must be said, is due to an over-emphasis and exaggeration of their role in World War II in which the only thing most remember is the failed invasions of Egypt and Greece after which Germany had to come to the rescue. However, this gives us a rather skewed picture of the armed forces of the King of Italy and to get a better understanding it is necessary to go back and look at the broader history of their exploits and accomplishments. The Royal Italian Army had its roots in the Savoy army of Piedmont-Sardinia and their rise to preeminence on the peninsula was due in no small part to the fact that the Savoyard army was the best and most professional of all the Italian states. Their victories over the Austrians were critical though they are often glossed over as the French or other Italian states were usually fighting alongside them.

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.

In the early days of independence the Royal Italian military fought a successful war against Ottoman Turkey, participated in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China and aside from the embarrassing mishap in Ethiopia in 1896 fought to a successful conclusion a number of colonial campaigns in north and eastern Africa. The Italian forces were also innovators on a number of fronts. It was in 1911, during the war with Turkey, that the Italians became the first to use aircraft in combat, bombing Turkish bases in what is now Libya with both planes and air ships. They were the first to use armored cars in combat, were pioneers in the area of fast-attack torpedo boats and they were some of the first to understand the true potential of aerial warfare and the versatility of armored warfare. The Italian innovations in the field of military history truly are remarkable and few would try to deny them even if critical of other areas.

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.

First, the Italians definitely had the superior force in terms of quality. They were better trained, better disciplined and better equipped. That does not diminish the fact that the Ethiopians also had some advantages of their own. They were fighting on their own ground, which is always an advantage, they had a definite numerical superiority to the Italians and, despite popular perception they were not a bunch of primitives fighting with sticks and stones. They had modern rifles, machine guns and artillery, just not in the numbers necessary nor did they have any practical experience at modern warfare. However, it is a disservice to condescendingly dismiss them. They were fierce fighters who had been used to almost constant warfare in the many tribal conflicts that long troubled the Ethiopian Empire. Certainly they were at a clear disadvantage but defeating them was no walk in the park for the Italians, it was no small accomplishment. Likewise, as much if not more than the battlefield accomplishment, was the astounding logistical feat carried out by the Italian Royal Army. Ethiopia is a country roughly twice the size of France, with a hostile climate, extremely rugged and inhospitable terrain and absolutely no modern infrastructure. It may be hard for civilians to understand just what an accomplishment it was to move, supply and maintain multiple military forces in a country that, prior to the Italian invasion, had not one set of train tracks or one modern road.

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.

The Kingdom of Italy reached its peak in terms of size during those years but, as we know, following those early days, things went quickly downhill. However, that should not be used as an excuse to denigrate the Royal Italian Armed Forces. Concerning the botched invasion of Greece (which again, the military high command advised against) there was a big piece of simple bad luck involved. It just so happened that prior to the Italian invasion the Greek dictator Metaxas had implemented a huge program of reforming and strengthening the Greek armed forces, so aside from the problems of weather and terrain the Italians were hitting the Greeks when they were at their best while the Italian forces had been worn down by numerous campaigns during and before World War II. It should also be remembered, since the brilliant exploits of German Field Marshal Rommel in North Africa are so famous, that the Africa Corps Rommel led so well and to such stunning success was 2/3 Italian and there were a number of units that performed heroically throughout the war.

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.


  1. A splendid essay on the history of the Royal Italian Army. It is interesting to me that, in general, the Italians made a better military showing in the First World War than the Second (the great exception, Caporetto, can largely be explained by the novelty of the German infiltration tactics and the fact that General Cadorna had ruined his front line troops in the Isonzo battles).

    The Italian problems in the Second War were due in no small part to Mussolini and his place-men's interference in the force structure -- Mussolini wanted larger numbers of divisions so he denuded the infantry divisions of an infantry regiment each (meaning they had no reserves) and supporting troops to match. He then exported too many of their better arms at the expense of his own force.

    Finally, the troops the Italians employed in Libya in 1940-42 (where the Royal Army got its somewhat undeserved bad reputation) had insufficient motor transport for that environment, and were often left in the lurch by the Germans.

    The Italians performed credibly enough in Yugoslavia in early 41 (although the earlier offensive into Greece from Albania was a monumental lash-up.

    Late war, the record is more mixed: by 1942 it was clear to most Italians that they had picked the wrong side. The units in Russia (the Alpini and Bersagliere generall excepted) weren't equipped to perform well. But the units in the Royal Army after Italy changed sides were useful enough, and so, it must be said, were some of the pro-Mussolini German puppet units.

  2. Thanks for your clean analysis, I did appreciate the impartiality that too often is lacking, talking about Italian military history. About WW1, I would add that General Cadorna was bonded to Napoleonic tactics, unable to pursue any dynamic action, wearing out his armies on the static front of Isonzo river, where hundreds of thousands of lives were spent, with no significant results. General Armando Diaz took over the command after Caporetto retreat, October 1917, changing the rules of the game. In WW2, I would add that before the break out and during the initial phases, Mussolini incredible ambitions were not limited by the military high commanders, who were too complaisant with the Duce, in order to keep their top chairs. Industrials played a negative heavy role, inducing the military establishment to accept old fashioned and low quality materials, that put the front lines in a dire condition of inferiority.
    Thanks, Roberto


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...