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Why Study Italy in World War II?

By Jim Heddlesten 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: May 27, 2010 
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Jim Heddlesten, creator of Commando Supremo Website.
Jim Heddlesten, creator of Commando Supremo Website.
So, you may be asking yourself why this guy is so interested in Italian World War Two history. If the drama and intensity of warfare are what draw an individual to study it, surely other countries involved in the conflict would have more to offer.

The answer is really quite simple: It's because I was born and raised in Italy.

As a young child growing up in Naples, Italy, I was able to see and hear the Italian perspective of the war. I was able to view the remaining relics and bunkers, hear first-hand testimony from my grandfather and his friends, and the eternal argument from those who still maintain respect for Benito Mussolini in shaping Italy into a superpower and disdain from those who blame him for Italy's destruction in the war.

Italy was an Axis nation aligned with Germany and Japan in what is referred to as the "Pact of Steel." Although Italy was able to achieve some tactical victories in WWII, it's economy was never able to obtain a war footing and the Italian military forces—for the most part—had little interest in fighting and winning a war they did not believe in. Much can be said about the poor military leadership as well.

The Germans viewed the Italians as a drain on their resources, and the Italians viewed the Germans as hardheaded fanatics continuing to fight a lost war. The government toppled Mussolini, and Italy joined the Allies as a co-belligerent force against Nazi Germany in 1943.

I never viewed Italy as the soft underbelly of the Axis—as Winston Churchill called it—or the essence of ineffective combat as so many others have described it. Ultimately, I viewed Italy no different than any other nation at war during this dark period in modern history.

But curiosity did force me to question Italy's role in the war. Were they the cowards claimed by so many of my classmates? Was Mussolini really the buffoon that school teachers and various television programming made him out to be? Unbiased literature about Italy's part in this war was hard to come by, especially during the dawn of the Internet in the 1990s. It was the frustration at finding factual information that led me to create a Website to help others in a similar situation.

It has been 10 years since my Commando Supremo Website went online. Although I have never claimed to be an expert on Italy in World War Two, it is nice to know that I have developed a Website for those who have a passion for military history and an interest in Italy's role. I can proudly say that individuals with much more historical knowledge than me regularly contribute to the site and continue helping it grow.

Everyone has their preference in what appeals to them regarding World War Two. But I urge readers to view some of the Web sources listed in this section. You may find some information that will give you a fresh perspective on this often-overlooked Axis (and Allied) participant.

—Jim Heddlesten


28 Responses to “Why Study Italy in World War II?”


  1. 1

    [...] more from the original source:  Why Study Italy in World War II? » HistoryNet Post a [...]

  2. 2
    JIMBO says:

    As a WW II Historian I have been mostly concerned with the Pacific theater but my wife's Grandparents were from Palermo Sicly and they came to the US in the early 1900's. Everyone I have read about has written that the Italians as a whole were poor soldiers, Poorly trained and equipped they were quicker then the French to throw up their hands and weapons to surrender to the US and to a lesser extant the Brits. The Italians thought of themselves as lovers not fighters and hated the Germans.

  3. 3
    DA says:

    Just goes to show you Jim by this guy's comment that posting on here is a waste of time. Matter of fact discussing anything about Italy is a waste of time with any English speaking people. I have determined over the last few years that America is no ally of Italy, especially after the Soviet Union fell. The friendly charade is no longer necessary. And it shows. And this is to Jimbo, do yourself a favor and forget about us as we want to have nothing to do with the likes of you. BTW, I like your site and have checked it out several times and it gave me some interesting information. Grazie. (That's Thank you, Jimbo).

    • 3.1
      Tim Chirnin says:

      Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, the US outwardly held Italy in contempt in spite of Italians being the 4th largest ethnic group in the US. A good example of this is when I believe it was President Reagan had suggested that Frank Sinatra be named US ambassador to Italy. The Italians let it be known to the Americans that Sinatra would be welcomed as an entertainer but definitely not as an ambassador. I believe that is just one indicator of the condescending, contemptuous and patronizing attitude toward Italy by the US government, in spite of the many current Italian- American government and military officials not withstanding.
      Also, I must commend you on your great reply to the fool, bigot who said that his wife is of Sicilian origen which I doubt. Italian haters will claim that their grandmother is Italian or some other such relative as he or she thinks that will gives them the right to spew forth their anti Italian bigotry with impunity as did the jerk to whom you responded. I can honastly say that it only makes me more angry toward them and I let them know it.

      • 3.1.1
        Tim Chirnin says:

        Sorry for my spelling mistakes as I mistakenly posted my reply w/o proof reading it.

  4. 4
    kaks says:

    Why study italy in WWII?Thanks Jim,Excellent website,Enjoyed the story & yes that bit of history was sorely lacking for us english speaking folks,i had a chance to crawl all over Europe & italy was the best for old bunkers & battlefields.but finding any info was hard.Most american history books spend very little time on Italy in ww2 muchless ww1.

  5. 5
    Anne Saunders says:

    I am the author of new book titled "A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy." This guidebook describes and gives directions to WWII museums, monuments, cemeteries, and former battlegrounds in central and northern Italy.

    For more information please see the website of Travel Guide Press.

    Thank you for your excellent and very informative website.

  6. 6
    James Patuto says:

    Been checking Commando Supremo for years great site, But you Historians. There needs to be an unbiased scholarly study of Italy's military participation in World War II. So many of the general histories buy the British and German line that Italians were simply inept . While the revisionists are poorly sourced and strain to present the other side. O'Hara's " Struggle for the Inner Sea [I think that's the title] is the best of the revisionist histories dealing mainly with Surface Fleet actions in the Med. I'm amazed that with all that has been written about every aspect of World War II , that this subject hasn't yet been truly broached in a well done study in English

  7. 7
    mark cordasco says:

    Singapore malaya tobruk dunkirk greece burma great victories for the british hundreds of thousands of prisoners taken. three afgan wars maroon wars cartegina di indies counter armada hundred years war american war of independece war of 1812 wellingtons victories what about the spanish and portuguese wateroo what about the prussians you guys know a lot right now the yanks somalia beirut vietnam not counting present mess in afganistan and iraq yeah you guys call the frnch and italians go tell them there cowards to there faces go and learn history not propaganda

    • 7.1
      James Patuto says:

      New book coming out about the Alpini at Stalingrad "Sacrifice on the Steppe" by Hope Hamilton. I suggest that anyone who feels that Italy only produced mediocre soldiers read it. The story of the Alpini's retreat through a brutal winter while surrounded by Russian armies is amazing.

      • 7.1.1
        Anne Saunders says:

        I look forward to reading Hope Hamilton's book about the Alpini at Stalingrad.
        Has anyone looked at my book, which focuses memorials to the Italian campaign (title: "A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy.")?? Would appreciate your input if so.
        Have just finished translating an Italian account of the battle at Sommocolonia (92nd Division was involved). That book will be published next year.

  8. 8
    Dennis Weidner says:

    It is absurd to call Italians in World War II cowards. Any one who writes that is someone who does not want to dialog and has little of interest to offer. The same is true with the person who writes that America is not a friend of Italy. It is a simple fact though that much of the Italian Army did not want any part of the War. There were exception of course, but hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers were quite happy to be captured by the Allies and out of the War. The interesting question for historians is why. Certainly inadequate equipment and poor leadership were part of the reason. Another part of the equation was the failure of officers to look after the welfare of their men. There was also the problem of who they were fighting. The Italians had no great affection for the British, but they did for the Americans. Very few Italians understood why they were fighting the Americans. And for most Italians, especially those from southern Italy being drafted and sent off to war by an uncaring state was the same kind of treatment that they have endured fir centuries by landowners. And unlike Germany and Italy, Mussolini never seems to have have sold the the bulk of the Italian people with hyper-nationalism. There are likely other factors, but unfortunately this topis is not well discussed beyond simplistic formulations.

    • 8.1
      Larry C says:

      I agree with Dennis! The Italian soldier fought hard during WWI. It was a cause in which he believed. WWII was a totally different story. WHy should he fight for a cause that was contrary to his belief. Only an idiot would do that. The Nazi and El Duce's cause were against his religeon, against he family members that lived in the USA, against his entire way of life.
      The typical Italian soldier would have much prefered to join the Allied cause and fight angainst Hitler. He was not a coward by any indicator. He just did not believe in killing those who were for what he believed.
      Some Allied countries accepted that attitude. Italian POW's in Canada for the most part were not even fenced in. They had leave to go to town, date local girls,even take jobs. Some went back after the war, some stayed.

      • 8.1.1
        Irving says:

        Since you mention Italian prisoners here in Canada I have something to add to this. (Slightly off topic) My barber is Italian. He is a son of an Italian who was captured by the British in North Africa and eventually sent to Canada but his son – my barber, hates the British but loves the Canadians.

  9. 9
    Larry C says:

    It is not only against the Italians that official America shows contempt. It is also against most of Eastern Europe. Roosevelt gave all of Eastern Europe to Stalin at the Treaty of Yalta. He have once said that,\There is nothing and no one worthwhile fighting for over there.\ That contemp lasts through today. The present administration has renaged on several agreements with several countries of Eastern Europe.

    Italians, You are in good company!

    • 9.1
      Dennis Weidner says:

      By the way Larry,

      I think you are correct about the Obama Administration and the decision under Russian pressure to pull out of the Missile shield arrangement with Poland and Czechoslovakia. And of all things, the decision was announced on the anniversary of the Soviet World War II invasion of Poland (September 17).

      But we are getting far a field from Italy.

      Dennis

  10. 10
    Dennis Weidner says:

    Larry,

    I suggest you read a little history. President Roosevelt did not 'give' Easter Europe to Stalin. You can not give away what you do not possess. Eastern Europe was conquered at great cost by the Red Army. Nine out of every 10 German soldiers killed in the War were killed by the Red Army in the East. Without the Soviets as an ally, it would have been impossible for America and Britain to reenter and liberate Western Europe.

    Sure it would have been wonderful if the Western Allies could have liberated Eastern Europe as well, but that would have required another War. Very few Americans at the time would have wanted to fight such a War and Larry I doubt if you would have been all that excited about personally fighting in such a campaign.

    The big issue at Yalta was Poland. Given the commitment of Poland to fight the NAZIs, one can not but wish we could have not done more for the Poles. Perhaps a healthier FDR or a president more aware of the character of Stalin could have done more, but Truman at Potsdam even with the A-Bomb did little better.

    And it is not true we did nothing for Poland. Look at what Stalin did in Poland (1939-41). They behaved much as the NAZIs did in their occupation zone. The Katyn Forest massacre is the best known. Both Hitler and Stalin moved to destroy the Polish nation. Stalin was brutal in Poland after the War, but no where as brutal as he was in 1939-41. And he agreed to reestablishing a Polish nation, albeit moving it to the West. This shift in Soviet policy is largely due to the American-British support for Poland. This is too often forgotten. And of course it was this Polish nation where the unraveling of the Soviet empire began.

    Dennis

  11. 11
    Larry C says:

    I beg your pardon but it is you who either does not know history or is doing the revisionst thing with history.

    The area of occupation by the Soviets was determined not by how far any army advances but by the agreement of Roosevelt and Stalin. The western Allied armies (Canadian, British, USA) were being purposely held back to let the Russians take what had been agreed. Inspite of this they still advance into the zone that was to be Soviet occuppied.
    It is a historical fact that in 1945 on the westen front the Germans gave only mild resistance while fighting to the maximum against the Soviets. In the 1960's I met numerous German officers that said that in many places the Allies could have easily advanced as there was no resistance. I also met a number of USA and British senior officers that told me that they were ordered to not advance or advance only a minimum.
    In the Czech Republic I met several person that told me how their parents pleaded (in some cases on their) knees with USA officers not to leave their land to the Russians.

    You would have to travel much more of the world and speak the 6 languages that I do and study much much more to match my knowledge of European, especially East European history.

    Spinning history to whitewash Roosevelt does not fly with me!

  12. 12
    Dennis Weidner says:

    Larry,

    You are letting your ideology control your view of history. You mix fact with fantasy in your message.

    The Yalta conference which seems to obsess tou was held in held in February 1945. By this time the outcome of the War was determined. Occupation zones were established to make sure there would be no conflict between the Allies when they met. There was no way in February to perfectly assess where the Soviets and Western Allies would meet

    What primarily held the Western Allies back was 1) the German Bulge offensive and 2) the Rhine. After crossing the Rhine, the Allied armies rapidly moved to occupy the Reich. There is no historical evidence that the Western Allies held back. There were no orders from Washington to that effect which is why you would benefit from reading a little history. Where is your evidence. If Western armies 'held back' there would be orders which could be easily documented by historians. Where are they?

    Now you are correct that after the Bulge, the Wehrmacht primarily fought in the East. And in the final months were primarily concerned with getting its men west so they could surrender to the Western Allies.

    Eisenhower did not, however, hold back, but he did redirect military movements. Your concern should be with Ike not FDR. Historians differ on this. Some say Ike was bamboozled by Stalin who insisted he had no interest in Berlin. Montgomery and Patton were furious, but Ike decided not to drive to Berlin, knowing it was to be in the middle of the Soviet occupation zone. His decision is a matter of historical controversy, but probably reflected a desire not to suffer heavy casualties for land he would soon have to turn over to the Soviets. And he was concerned about reports of a NAZI redoubt in the south.

    .But here you are covering up your obvious misstatement in your previous posting.. You were talking about Eastern Europe not eastern Germany. And all of eastern Europe except for a sliver of Czechoslovakia was conquered by the Red Army. You may not like it because you cling to the fantasy that FDR gave away Eastern Europe, but it is a simple historical fact that Stalin and the Red Army was in full control of Eastern Europe and thus something that President Roosevelt could 'give away'.

    Dennis

  13. 13
    Larry C says:

    I have read a lot of history. My library of history books of WWII include over 2000 books; not just in the sanitized American and British versions but also from multiple authors, in several languages of several different countries. To add to it, I have several members of my extended family (most are now passed on) that were rather high up in the processes at the time. (Go to the Patton Museum in the High Desert and you will see a picture of one.)
    There is some information that Ike had verbally receiving orders from FDR. This comes from persons that were near Ike. I cannot at the moment put my finger as to where I had seen this.
    I do not have a political dog in the fight. It is what it is! You will have your version and I will have mine. I guess we shall not agree. Let us stop this pi$$ing match and agree that neither shall convince the other.

  14. 14
    Dennis Weidner says:

    Larry,

    My general experience is that people who say FDR 'gave away' Eastern Europe are part and parcel of the conspiratorial crowd. Some 35 million Soviets died in that effort and made possible the Allied liberation of Western Europe. They deserve more than this gave away business.

    Congratulations on your study of World War II, but I must say that \I cannot at the moment put my finger as to where I had seen this\ is not exactly a ringing endorsement of your scholarship. I am sorry to be so blunt, but you make very serious charges against two great patriots. FDR was a masterful war leader and Eisenhower the glue that held the vital Anglo-American coalition together. Now I am not against criticizing either and both made mistakes–after all they were human. And your criticism would be justified if there was any real evidence, but you present none. And of course FDR would never have given such orders without going through Marshall another great patriot.

    I agree that this conversation had ended its usefulness, but I repeat–where is your evidence?

    Dennis

  15. 15
    P. Bertolucci says:

    And another reason to study Italian WWII history is in order to understand how much was destroyed by the Germans and the Allies. The horrendous effects of Allied bombing are glossed over in histories of the Italian campaign, with their terrible cost in human lives and loss of cultural heritage. For example, as is well known, nearly half of ancient Bologna was leveled by Allied bombing, as was most of Salerno, part of Naples, and the list goes on and on. A historical recounting of these immense losses is sorely needed. I suppose the fate suffered by one of my ancestral villages was shared by numerous others without meriting even a footnote in any history of the war: it was bombed to smithereens because the German occupiers had set up anti-aircraft guns. The population fled to the hills while this happened, and now all the buildings are post-war.

  16. 16
    Dennis Weidner says:

    Thus is no doubt true. There was enormous destruction in Italy. World War II ordinance was delivered by weapons that were notoriously inaccurate. Several shells/bombs were delivered for every one that struck the target. And American tactical doctrine was to blast an area before committing infantry.

    Destruction of course is part of war. Notably the reader does not mention the destruction committed by Italian armies that invaded other countries during the War, not only in the Mediterranean, but in the Soviet Union. And the Italians joined the Luftwaffe in bombing Britain. Is the commenter only interested in damage in Italy?

    The destruction described above should be viewed with two caveats:

    1. It was done in the process of liberating the Italian people from Fascist/NAZI oppression, both committing atrocities against the Italian people.

    2. It was not America's idea for Italy to join the NAZIs in the War. If Italy did not want buildings and cities destroyed than they should not invade and bomb other countries.

    Dennis

    • 16.1
      Larry C. says:

      Dennis, your comments are right on!
      The same goes for the Germans complaining about the bombing of Dresden. If the first bombs had not fallen on Warsaw and Rotterdam, I guarantee that not a single one would have fallen on Dresden.

  17. 17
    Anne Leslie Saunders says:

    Most war memorials in Italy commemorate the people who were killed in the war, rather than buildings destroyed (for more about these monuments, please see my book \A Travel Guide to World War II Sites in Italy\). However, there are many books in Italian about the destruction of towns and cities in Italy, and some in English also. I can post a short list of those later this week.

  18. 18
    Anne Leslie Saunders says:

    To those interested in the Italian campaign:

    This website describes the nature and purpose of Allied bombings in Italy. http://centres.exeter.ac.uk/wss/bombing/britainexhibition/italy.htm

    A great deal has written on that subject in Italian; less in English.

  19. 19
    MKB says:

    I'm from Slovenia(ex-Yugoslavia republic). I live in Istria, near Italian border(some 400 meters from it, looking from my house on Trieste). All my grandparents were fighting in WWII against Italian and against Germans. Yugoslavia was also one of the sole two countries in Europe, who freed themselves from Germans(the other one is Soviet Union) with its troops(we received little help from allies and little from Russians). I'm interested in Italian history in WWII, but I also spoke with people, who lived under Italian occupation in WWII, and I heard a lot of stories about partisan fighting against Italians and Germans. I see every day, what Italian propaganda says about after-war atrocities in Istria and Trieste against Italians, but never heard about atrocities made by Italians against Slovenes, Croats, Greeks and others during the war(in Istria and Trieste also before the WWII). In my wiev of those times, Italians started the ethnic cleansing in Istria(between the two wars and during WWII) of the non-Italian people; so italians are now horrified about post-war atrocities! But OK, let's talk about Italians in the WWII. My grandfathers said, that fighting against the Italians was not half as difficult as the fighting against the Germans. Also Italians organised people militias, to fight against partisans. If you little browse through Web, you will find pictures of what the Italian forces were doing on our territory during WWII. If that is fighting, I don't know, what you call atrocities. You can find pictures of Italian soldiers with axes, cutting heads of captured Slovenian partisans. So, I don't have any respect for the Italian army during WWII.
    some links: http://muceniskapot.nuovaalabarda.org/galleria-slo-1.php ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rab_concentration_camp ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gonars_concentration_camp

  20. 20
    Dennis Weidner says:

    You rise an interesting point. World War II histories focus on the Germans, we know much less about the Italians and what they did in their occupation areas. Anything you can add would be very useful.

    First a point of clarification. It is not really accurate to say that Yugoslavia liberated itself. I was the advance of the Red Army in the east and Allies in the West that forced the German to withdraw.from the Balkans off to avoid bung cut off.. It is accurate that with the exception of the Soviets that the Yugoslavs at great cost conducted the most effective resistance campaign in Europe.

    I have never see photographs of Italians cutting people' head off, the Ustaše yes, but not the Italians.

    From what little I have been able to learn, the Germans set a goal of eliminating vast numbers of people, see Generalplan Ost and the Hunger Plan. The Italians seen more focused on turning the occupied people into loyal Fascist not in murdering thdm. A Slovene friend ho participated in the Resistance described Italian cruelty, but not an organized plan to murder the Slovene people. But a description of Italian occupation policies would be a useful addition to the historical record. We do know that they did not go after Jews in their occupation areas.



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