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Mussolini and His Generals: The Armed Forces and Fascist Foreign Policy, 1922–1940

By John Gooch. 642 pp. Cambridge University Press, 2007. $35.

American war correspondent Ernie Pyle once mused that Italy reminded him of a dog that got hit by a truck because it tried to bite the tires. The comment reflected his ground’s-eye observation of the destruction wrought on the peninsula by foreign armies during the attritional Italian campaign. But it can be applied just as well to the whole story of Italy’s participation in World War II, which can be summed up as a mixture of tragedy and farce.

Responsibility for this debacle has been widely distributed. But in this book, John Gooch targets the relationship of the armed forces to foreign policy from Benito Mussolini’s assumption of power in 1924 to Italy’s entry into World War II in 1940. His time frame is well chosen. By stopping before the catastrophic sequence of defeats in 1940 that broke the back of Italy’s military power and reduced the Fascist state to a client of Nazi Germany, Gooch is able to focus on the structural aspects of Italy’s preparation for war, in particular the relationship between Mussolini’s foreign policy and the armed forces ultimately responsible for its implementation. It proves to be an enlightening approach.

Benito Mussolini was not merely a posturing fool. Had he been, he could not have maintained his domestic position as long as he did. Like Stalin’s, Gooch argues, Mussolini’s calculations were single-minded to the point of solipsism, but they were ultimately rational. Nor did the Italian armed forces manifest what MacGregor Knox (in German Nationalism and the European Response) calls “institutionalized incompetence” to a degree that made them prima facie unable to fight and win the wars Mussolini considered essential for his long-term goal of restoring Italy’s greatness. Gooch, a professor of history at Leeds University, provides an impressive spectrum of archival evidence to show that Italy’s military establishment was more than the hollow threat described in so many standard accounts.

In fact, Italy’s underlying problem was the enduring disconnect between its foreign policy and its military policies. Mussolini was never fully in control of the armed forces. As long as Italy remained an active monarchy, the military’s loyalty and obedience could be called into doubt. That by itself was not enough to affect the strategic planning or institutional development of any of the services. It could and did, however, exacerbate the frustration with which military circles frequently reacted to the Duce.

To his role as Italy’s military master Mussolini brought his limited front-line experience in World War I, plus a comprehensive, profound ignorance of higher-level military issues. That in turn translated into a blustering assertiveness with no deeper roots than his immediate reactions to immediate events. The Duce’s efforts to prepare Italy for war by what James Gregor, in his Italian Fascism and Developmental Dictatorship, describes as using a command economy to pull up the country by its bootstraps, foundered on its scarcity of boots. Italy simply lacked the natural resources to be a first-line competitor in an industrial age. The primary objects of Mussolini’s imperialist ambitions—Libya, Abyssinia, Greece—were more likely to drain Italy’s strength than enhance it.

From 1925 to 1932, events conspired to keep Italian military development somewhat in balance with the state’s capacity to sustain it. Domestic problems, like expanding the military budget and balancing interservice rivalries, accompanied Italy’s transformation into a Fascist state. Diplomatic constraints like naval disarmament treaties restrained a Duce as yet unwilling to risk international outlawry. After 1932, however, Mussolini moved to realize his expansionist visions. But his military advisors failed—or perhaps refused—to understand that the next major war would be resource-intensive and resource-dependant. The plans they developed were narrowly technical, taking no account of political and economic factors. Instead of working together, each service went its own way. As Gooch aptly describes the situation, the one thing the services shared was a reluctance to cooperate with each other.

The army, insisting on its primacy in the defense system, eventually developed something like a regional short-war capacity based—in principle— on mobility and firepower. In practice its firepower depended heavily on guns captured from Austria in World War I. Its mobility was confined to a small number of divisions using small numbers of tanks that were obsolescent in the mid- 1930s; it lacked such basic assets as trucks and maintenance facilities. Italy’s naval designers turned out a generation of reasonably effective warships. Naval planners, however, were torn between a cautious strategy of sea control in the Mediterranean and aggressive dreams of decisive victories won by taking great risks— both developed in the context of a fleet too small to implement either. For a while at least, Italian aircraft were state-of-the-art. They made a brave show flying in mass formations above Fascist parades. The air force was correspondingly caught up in technical factors like aircraft range and performance, and in competition with the senior services for funds. Planning reflected an institutional fear of being coopted to support the army and navy, as opposed to developing a coherent doctrine for waging air war with limited air assets.

There was nothing unusual about any of these behaviors —they were, indeed, common to the armed forces of interwar Europe. But if a solution to Italy’s strategic conundrum existed, it depended on rigid prioritization and strict adherence to programs. Instead, what Gooch calls “Piedmontese military loyalty, Fascist ardour, and professional positivism” contended for a mastery none achieved.

That quotation, though specifically aimed at the army, applies no less to the navy and air force. Its effects were first demonstrated in Abyssinia. After the failure of an initial proto-blitz, the army completed the operation with a methodical combination of brutality and efficiency, but failed utterly to pacify the population. In Spain the army’s mobile divisions and the air force’s favorite biplane fighters alike floundered against the Spanish Republic’s improvised armed forces and their Soviet equipment. Ignoring pessimists and realists, Mussolini strengthened his ties to Adolf Hitler and prepared for a war Italy’s armed forces increasingly recognized they were unprepared to fight. By 1940 Mussolini’s wishes and decisions and the military’s plans and capabilities were completely out of sync. Italy’s limited resources and fragile structure made this a recipe for immediate disaster and eventual collapse.

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.