Italy in World War II

By Jim Heddlesten
5/27/2010 • Italy in WW2

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tags: , ,