Italy in World War II

An Italian tank rolls forward on the Tunisian Front. National Archives.
An Italian tank rolls forward on the Tunisian Front. National Archives.

When it comes to World War Two, most subjects discussed, debated or researched involve the political and military actions of the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan or the Soviet Union. Events associated with the Italian war effort are usually limited to a footnote or as a punch line to a joke.

The problem with overlooking the Italian involvement in World War II is much like watching “most” of a movie. Although you may understand the overall plot and storyline of the picture, you will miss the finer details and subplots that could make an otherwise good movie great.

The following snapshots of the Italian actions in World War Two may come as a surprise to some. I hope each reader will develop a better appreciation of the lesser-known Axis country, Italy.

NORTH AFRICA
The Italian attack on British forces in Egypt was initially to coincide with Operation Sealion, the proposed-but-never-attempted German sea invasion of Britain in 1940. When it became apparent to Mussolini that Sealion was postponed indefinitely, he ordered Marshal Rodolfo Graziani to launch his 10th army, comprised of 7 divisions, into combat across the Egyptian border from Libya. Field Marshal Graziani led his numerically superior Italian force across the Libyan-Egyptian border in September 1940 against a smaller but highly mobile British enemy. The campaign was a disaster, and by December of that year the Italian forces in North Africa were on the verge of certain collapse.

Historians note that German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel arrived in Tripoli, Libya, in February 1941 and over the next month assembled an ad hoc German light infantry division with panzer and motorized infantry, to give the Italians the firepower and leadership needed to defeat the British. He assumed command of the Deutsches Afrika Korps and received assistance from the Fliegerkorps X and long-range aircraft from Sicily to fight the exhausted British.

Although Rommel’s leadership ability and German firepower certainly helped the struggling Italians, the Italian military footprint also significantly changed in North Africa to counter the advancing Commonwealth forces.

The Italian Ariete and Trento divisions made their debut in North Africa in February 1941 in conjunction with Rommel. The Ariete was composed of 6,949 men, 163 tanks, 36 field guns, 61 anti-tank guns and the Brescia infantry division. Rommel now had 100,000 Italians, 7,000 Italian trucks supplying munitions to the front, 1,000 Italian guns and 151 Italian aircraft under his command.

After January 1941, the Italians introduced the more modern M-13/40 tanks, grouped in motorized units and not thrown together as was done in the initial offensive. They also utilized their first company of armored cars, Reparto Esplorante di Corpo d’Armata di Manovra (RECAM). By early 1942, each armored division nominally had 47 armored reconnaissance cars and each motorized division had a battalion of M13/40s.

Also in 1940 the Italian forces in North Africa had 6:1 ratio of artillery to infantry battalions, while the British had a superior 8:1 The British had seventy-five 25 pounders (88mm artillery pieces) per division; Italian divisions had twenty-four 75mm and twelve 100mm guns. By the end of 1941, the Italians doubled the amount of 100/17 mm guns to 24, and added 12 88/55s or 90/53’, giving each Italian division a total of 60 guns for a ratio of 10:1. This almost doubled the amount of firepower available for Rommel, which was not available to Graziani’s forces in the initial invasion.

BATTLE OF BRITAIN
Some may be surprised to learn Italy participated in the Battle of Britain. In October 1940, Mussolini sent some 200 aircraft including 73 Fiat BR.20 Stork medium bombers into occupied Belgium to conduct Italy’s share of the bombing of England.

Because of the inferior quality of the Italian aircraft against their British rivals, Italian sorties—with just 1,500 pounds of bombs per aircraft—had to be conducted at night or as sporadic daylight raids.

Italian pilots also found British radar a difficult obstacle to overcome. Within four months, the number of Italian BR.20 Storks in the battle had been cut by 25% due to British interceptions. At the unsuccessful conclusion of the Battle of Britain, a total of 54 tons of Italian ordnance had been dropped on England. A total of 883 sorties were completed, in which nine Regia Aeronautica aircraft were lost in combat.

EASTERN FRONT
Italy’s Eighth Army, formed in July 1942, served as part of the German 29th Army Corps of Army Group B in the Soviet Union. Originally, the Italian Alpini Corps was to be used on the Caucasus Front, where its mountain-warfare training would have been very helpful to the German offensive, but instead the entire Eighth Army was deployed on the Don Front. It was stretched too thinly to effectively resist the Soviet counterattack in December 1942. Outnumbered and under-equipped, most its divisions were destroyed in the fighting of the next few weeks.

SUBMARINE WARFARE
The importance of submarines was always known to the Regia Marina, Italy’s navy. Italy had one of the largest submarine forces in the world. At the beginning of the war, Italy had 117 submarines, of which only seven could be considered out of date. Italian submarines were used throughout the war and patrolled the, Atlantic, the Mediterranean, Red, and Black seas, and even the Indian Ocean. Their success rate was diminished by a number of factors, but was still comparable to the German U-Boats when considering the ratio of attacks-to-ships sunk.

Out of 173 documented attacks, Italian submarines sank 129 merchant ships totaling 668,311 tons. They also sank 13 warships totaling 24,554 tons.

REGIA AERONAUTICA
Italian aircraft technology peaked in the 1930s, but their agile aircraft and daring pilots were well respected by the enemy. The Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero was considered one of the best torpedo bombers manufactured during the war. Although Italy continued to utilize the biplane well into World War II, many people are surprised to learn that Italy was the second country to test a jet-powered aircraft: the Campini Caproni CC.2 made its debut flight May 28, 1940.

Italy was only able to produce 11,508 aircraft between 1940–1943. During that timeframe, the RA was able to shoot down 2,522 aircraft and destroy another 398 aircraft on the ground. In the war at sea, the RA was noted for sinking 196 merchant ships and, in cooperation with the Luftwaffe, the RA was credited for sinking 100 enemy warships.

DECIMA FLOTTIGLIA MAS
Considered the most devastating and effective unit in the Italian arsenal, the Decima Flottiglia MAS (also known as the 10th Light Flotilla or the Xa MAS) was responsible for sinking or severely disabling 86,000 tons of allied warships and 131,527 tons of merchant shipping.

The men of the 10th Light Flotilla were the precursors of the elite naval assault units of today and were credited with sinking or damaging 28 ships in World War Two, including the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant and cruiser HMS York.

As you can see, limiting the Italian involvement in the Second World War to a footnote or the butt of a joke diminishes the contributions of not only the Italians who fought and died but also the valiant Allied men and women who lost their lives opposing Mussolini’s thirst for power.

The purpose of this article is not revisionist history or defense of Italian actions in World War II. Whether you are a historian or a history buff, it is important to understand that history is written by the victors, and this sometimes does a disservice to the future generations, who may develop a mistaken conclusion of events, nations and their people.

18 Responses

  1. Mr. Hasan Abdulla

    A very well written article highlighting an important feature of the Second world War. I think more should also have been written about the opposition to Mussolini though I do appreciate Jim’s difficulty in obtaining such material about the resistance to Nazi rule.
    Overall I think the point is well made.

    Reply
  2. l sartori

    Anyone know where I can obtain copies of letters between Italian soldiers (not officers) and their loved ones between 1943-45? Can be a compilation in book form or a directiron to archives. Can be translated or in Italian.

    Reply
  3. Dennis Weidner

    The author suggests that the Italian failure in Egypt (October 1940) was due to the lack of firepower. It is true that they received better arms later, but compared to the very small British force in Egypt at the time, the Italians had an overwhelming advantage in men and material.

    And it is true that when integrated with German units, the Italians in North Africa fought fairly well., but any assessment of the Italians in World War II needs to address the simple fact as to why so many Italians on so many theaters fought so poorly. Pointing out examples of reasonable performance does not answer this basic question. .

    It would be interesting to know a little about the Italian homefront during the War.

    Reply
    • pat digesu

      Same reason the germans lost the battles on each and every front that the Italians were situated, the same reason why the US marines lost so many men in the Phillipines chaseing McArthur out, the same reason why the French and British lost so many men at Dunkirk, the same reason why the American 1 armour was chased and almost routed in their initial encounter with the Littorio armoured division in K valley Tunisia. They were all overwhelmed.

      Reply
      • Jess

        Were they overwhelmed in Greece as well? Britain was fighting on multiple continents while still keeping the Germans from occupying their homeland. Italians have no excuse for their repeat poor performance. The reason is simple: Italians have been absolute garbage at war since the fall of Rome. The difference between Rome and the present is Italians had a lot of foreign help back then as more than half of the Roman army was of non italic origin.

      • Been Benuane

        LOL this “Jess” has no idea whatsoever about military history.

        The Italians fought well in the first world war, let alone in most for he wars that Italian states fought in the two millennia since Rome.

        And if he/she’s an American, then that’s even funnier. As poor as the Italians performed in the war: they still weren’t as awful as the US army. Kasserine pass anyone? Or how about Salerno? Rapido river? Anzio? Hurtgen forest? Aachen? The battle of the bulge? Always getting rescued by the British LOL.

        In fact I’m pretty sure that Graziano embarrassed Lucian Truscott with a bunch of half-armed Fascist near-irregulars…

  4. Fredrik Nilsson

    sorry iit may seem as a very simple question but i can’t find the answer anywhere. i wonder when and under witch circumstances the italian regim became overpowered by the people.

    Reply
    • Dennis Weidner

      I’m not sure understand your question. If you mean when were the Fascists defeated by the Italian people, the simple answer was they were not. The Fascist Grand Council removed Mussolini, but that left the Fascists still in control.

      During the War there was very little resistance to the Fascist regime. The Italian people (as best shown in the Army) may not have been enthusiastic about the War, but there was little resistance to the regime. This probably reflects: 1) support for the regime and 2) the forces of coercion the regime possessed.

      The Fascist regime was overthrown nor by the Italian people, but Allied boots on the ground. The Allies (America, Britain, and forces from several other countries) invaded Italy (September 1943).

      Italian resistance groups aided the Allies, but it was American and British blood that liberated Italy and destroyed the Fascists.

      Reply
  5. George Stanton

    The reason why the Italians fought so half-heartedly in World War Two was because of the long-standing Italian and German rivalry, which can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when the Germans dominated the Holy Roman Empire, which included northern and central Italy. The Italians had a special enmity with the Austrian German Habsburgs, who once ruled northern Italy, until the Italian wars of unification fought from 1859-1870. The Italians again fought against the Austrians in World War One, who were then allied with Germany.

    Mussolini had thwarted Hitler’s attempt to annex Austria in 1934, when he sent the Italian army up to the Brenner pass to deter the Germans. However, Mussolini in 1938 acquiesced in the Nazi German annexation of Austria, because of prior German military support for Italian involvement in the Spanish Civil War and its diplomatic support for Italy’s colonial conquest of Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia. However, the Italian people as a whole resented Italy becoming a German satellite, and unlike Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, Mussolini coped poorly with the economic Great Depression, leaving many Italians disenchanted with his Fascist regime.

    When the Italians switched to the Allied side in 1943, the Germans occupied northern Italy and annexed the South Tyrol where a large Austrian German minority lived. South Tyrol had been ceded to Italy at the end of the First World War. That is why the Partisans first emerged in Italy in 1943, as a response to the direct German military occupation of Italian soil, and with the increasing likelihood of a victory by the invading Allies.

    Reply
  6. The Papal Bracket | One Minute Remaining

    […] 6. Gianfranco Ravasi (Italian Conference) vs 11. Oscar Maradiaga (South American Conference): The final match up of the day looks to be a good one, pitting another Italian against South America, which is number 2 in Papal RPI. But no one beats Italians. Besides the Allies, I guess. […]

    Reply
  7. Richard Grande

    This is a of bunch of Bull****. I have to find ten facts for a timeline and none of these work. Can someone help me why they got into the fight?

    Reply
  8. Williams

    @Dennis Weidner I agree with you mate, Italy played a crucial part in WW2 but the fighting quality of Italy was not even close to what Mussolini expected (or spoke about). The problem was very simple although to some extent the Italians kept upto the technologies of other nations they never kept up with strategies, planning and training to match that of the newly developed technologies. For example although the Italians at one point had the world’s largest airforce they never used it properly on Greece or in Africa till Germans took over.

    This gap between tech and strategies (includes planning and Training) resulted in poor performances of Italian armed forces…!!

    Check this article out, it is not yet fully complete but speaks more about the possible impacts of Italy in the ww2..!!
    http://www.twistyhistory.com/italy-remained-world-war-2/

    Reply
  9. Matt Crawford

    The contribution of the Italian forces was mitigated by incomprehensible strategic flaws, particularly the unnecessary attack upon Greece and the failure to immediately conquer Malta. The primary contribution of the Italians should have been the conquest of Egypt, a war-winning victory by severely inhibiting British access to petroleum and other resources in India. Had Mussolini immediately taken Malta with his parachute division supported by his 7 battleships, the British logistics debacle in Egypt would have allowed the equipment deficient but numerically superior Italians to overwhelm them, especially with the troops that should never have gone to Greece. Where would Britain have been then? Defeated in France, defeated in Egypt and now on the verge of losing its oil supplies in Iran and all the material from India now having to come round Africa … and with the Germans pounding her by air and on the brink on invasion … she would have listened to Halifax and not Churchill – and the world would have been spared WW2 through the generous armistice Hitler was willing to give.
    So we have to ask ourselves – What was Mussolini and the Italian High Command thinking? They had the key to the war in their hands!

    Reply
  10. Been Benuane

    Italians did the lion’s share of the fighting for Rommel, yet got little of the glory and recognition.

    The Italian army of the second world war had many shabby aspects, mostly due to fascist interference. But they were not the total pushovers that propaganda portrayed them as. Their gunners were first-rate and always a headache for the British. And their elite units were as good as anyone’s. And the British army they fought against were really very good.

    Nor were the Italian soldiers “cowards”. If anything; they went into battle knowing their disadvantages in material which indicated courage.

    Reply
  11. Bruce

    I once talked to a WW2 veteran in St. Louis about his involvement in the war. He started talking to me about it, not the other way around. I did want to hear what he had to say, and I really think there was relief from him to get some things said. His assignment in the war was in Italy and Africa, and it must have been just as brutal as anywhere else in that he became very emotional while showing me pictures. I don’t even remember his name. I just feel honored in hearing his story.

    Reply

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