Daily Archives: December 8, 2009

The Italian Military at War in the Second World War

Italian Armor in North Africa

The Italian military had very little combat power with which to fight a modern war, apart from the sheer size of its Army and Navy. The size of its military made it one of the larger military powers in Europe in the late 1930s but this would prove no advantage during the war.  Following the First World War Italy did little to modernize its forces or learn from the experiences of the war. This was not confined to the institutional military services but to the armaments industry that developed and supplied the weapons systems that Italy would use in the war. All services were hampered by Italy’s poor literacy rate, lack of national identity, poor industrialization and lack of natural resources. Despite attempts to build a modern military and even having the leading exponent of strategic bombing in their air force the Italian military was woefully prepared to engage in combat operations during the Second World War.

Italian First Line Aircraft Such as the Savoia-Marchetti SM79 and the Fiat G.50 (below) were obsolete by any standard and suffered badly at the Hands of the Royal Air Force


The Italian Air Force produced one of the most influential thinkers on modern warfare Marshall Giulio Douhet. Douhet’s theories on strategic bombing would become the staple of the American Army Air Corps (and later Air Force) and the British Royal Air Force.  Although Douhet was influential in other air forces and even on Mussolini’s thought the Italian Air Force constantly invoked Douhet’s theories but never grasped really grasped them. This was evidenced by having never built or trained a bomber force that could even remotely attempt to execute them, including building the types of aircraft and the bombs needed to carry out such a strategy. The Air Force neglected tactical air support to the Army and only late in Italy’s War began to produce fighter aircraft that could compete with Allied designs. Part of this was due to Italy’s Air Force leadership’s lack of understanding of modern air warfare and design and the need for high octane fuels and petroleum needed to power modern aircraft and instead “sought to make a virtue of these deficiencies by standardizing them,” by continuing to produce substandard aircraft even when modern designs were available.  As a result Italy’s Air Force failed in every way during the war.

Despite Fast Modern Battleships Like the Vittorio Ventio the Italian Navy waged a Timid Campaign in the Mediterranean against the British

Like the Air Force the Italian Navy enjoyed Mussolini’s favor.  Mussolini saw an offensive minded fleet which would dominate the Mediterranean.  He did succeed in building up the strength and tonnage of the Navy during the 1920s and early 1930s. Italy entered the war with the largest submarine for in the world, but despite their superior numbers this force was hampered by bad designs with numerous combat deficiencies, as well as poor tactical doctrine. Light forces which could have been used extremely effectively in the confines of the Mediterranean in conjunction with air power and submarines were neglected.  The Italian Admirals favored capitol ships and focused on battleships and large cruisers.  While many of these were good designs with adequate speed and armor to fight, they also had numerous flaws related to ammunition, fire direction and control systems and lack of radar.  Added to this was the lack of offensive mindedness on the part of the Italian Naval leadership that contradicted what Mussolini desired and which focused on preserving the fleet vice seeking maritime supremacy.  The Italian Navy also was hampered by shortages of fuel oil to conduct naval operations.  The Navy had one weapon that provided some measure of success, the manned torpedo.  The Navy’s operations were never integrated with the Air Force on which it depended for air cover having no naval air arm and failed to support the Army by keeping the Italian forces in North Africa supplied.  The Navy lost a number of opportunities during the early part of the war to deal heavy blows on British naval forces but were dealt significant defeats at the Battle of Cape Matapan and the British Naval Air Strike on the major Italian Naval Base at Taranto, an action which helped inspire the Imperial Japanese Navy to attack Pearl Harbor.

Captured Italian Tanks in Australian Service in North Africa

The Italian Army could best be characterized as a large an ineffective force bent on maintaining a bloated and antiquate force structure. Italian Army leaders put their faith in numbers and the strength of the human will rather than in the technological revolution that was beginning in the 1930s.  It had not evolved in the inter-war years as had other armies in use of modern artillery, mechanized forces, motor transport and armored forces.  It built up a large number of divisions, almost all of which were non-motorized infantry divisions. The Army’s “armored” divisions were poor in comparison to British, French or Russian equivalents with obsolescent tanks and poor tactical doctrine . Italian artillery remained dependant on horse and mule teams to transport the gun carriages that mounted obsolete World War One vintage gun designs, despite newer weapons being available as well as motor transport. Italy had the lowest vehicle to personnel percentage of any of the major European powers making her forces nearly immobile in terms of modern war.  Tank designs were limited by lack of team planning and obsolete designs which were unable to compete with allied designs of even the early war years.  Italian tanks were small, underpowered, under armored and under gunned. Italian units at all levels suffered from lack of heavy weapons, machine guns and anti-tank guns. As such in nearly every theater they were outclassed by their opponents and defeated even by weak powers, notably the invasion of Greece.  Italian Army leadership was most often inept and produced only one notable combat commander, General Messe who commanded Italian troops in the Soviet Union and later assumed commanded of Panzer Army Afrika when Field Marshal Rommel was ordered back to Germany by Hitler. .

The Italian Army’s performance in the new forms of mechanized warfare seen in the Second World War was abysmal in most cases with the exception of a few units such as the Arête Armored Division in North Africa which won both the respect and admiration of the Germans and their British opponents.

The stage for this debacle was set by the Army’s senior leadership whose credo was that men were the invaluable resource not machines.  It was a illogical “mind over matter” mindset that was a military and cultural that predated Mussolini and Fascism and was almost impervious to change even in the wartime conditions.  This mindset emphasized a large number of divisions, almost all of which were unmechanized.  These were nearly immobile infantry divisions with weak artillery, limited anti-tank and automatic weapons capabilities which were numerical inferior (2 regiments with only 7000 troops) when compared to German or British infantry divisions which averaged 14,000 to 17,000 full strength in the early war years.  They also suffered a dearth of communications capability or means to coordinate close air support from the equally unprepared Italian Air Force.  It was in short an army incapable of waging a modern war.

Had the army been well trained and equipped, the troops better led and their commanders competent their performance might have been better.  However the training was poor, leadership bad at every level, especially at junior levels where the Army made “virtually no attempt to select its reserve officers for military aptitude or to train them to acceptable standards of tactical or technical competence.”  The Italian High Command failed to organize train or equip mechanized divisions even when they realized that one motorized division had the capability of 4 non motorized divisions. The few Italian mechanized divisions such as the Trieste suffered from an inability to fight mounted operations and a lack of armored cars and support vehicles, while Armored divisions had to make do with poor quality tanks that had neither the firepower, protection or mechanical reliability and speed of either their German allies or British and Russian opponents.  The armored divisions also suffered from a lack of armored cars for reconnaissance, mobile modern artillery and inadequate numbers of radios for communication. Any attempt at mechanized warfare was also hampered by the backward Italian logistics system which was incapable of supporting a mobile army.

With all of these limitations it is not surprising to see how the Italian Army failed to effectively wage modern mechanized war, despite having done so against the Ethiopians in 1936. In that campaign they employed tanks, mechanized forces and aircraft, as well as chemical weapons against the valiant but ill equipped Ethiopians to a devastating effect.  These lessons were not learned by the Army. In the three major theaters where it was engaged the Italians had an opportunity to use mechanized forces yet failed in every case. In Greece the Italian Army fought a disjointed campaign.  They failed to concentrate forces against the Greeks or to make use of mechanized forces.  Neither did they coordinate air support and were handily defeated by the Greeks. This was the result of poor planning, poor leadership and poor execution and forced the Germans to come to the aid of Italy.

In North Africa the Italian 10th Army a mostly infantry force was defeated in detail by one British armored and one motorized infantry division under General O’Connor in the fall of 1940. The Italian defeat again ended with German intervention in the form of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

Italian performance in mechanized warfare in North Africa remained poor mainly due to the inability of the Italian high command to rectify shortfalls in vehicles, tanks, mobile artillery, anti-tank units and provide adequate communications systems.  Despite all the handicaps imposed on them the leaders of Italian mechanized forces in North Africa learned “far more quickly than the British the lesson that armor, artillery and infantry must function as a team both operationally and tactically.” These forces gave a good account of themselves in the Battle of El Alamein.  In Russia the Italian forces had great difficulty and the 8th Army was decimated during the Stalingrad campaign and following actions.  Only a few leaders grasped the need for an effective mechanized and armored force and these leaders such as General Messe (Italian Corps in Russia 1941 and Panzer Army Africa 1943) were not in position to influence policy despite being effective combat leaders.

In the end it must be said that the Italian Army was ill-prepared to re-fight World War One much less the mechanized war that was the Second World War. This was a key factor in Italy’s battlefield failures and ultimate defeat.  Italy’s strategy was ineffective and poor leadership at all levels coupled with poor command and control, power struggles between Mussolini and his Generals and poorly executed operations all led to defeat. In Greece insufficient forces were used in conjunction with bad assumptions of how the Greeks would deploy their forces and the effectiveness of the Greek Army.  In North Africa a timid advance and failure to use what armored forces were available left the Italian 10th Army in a bad tactical position from which it was routed. Likewise Italian reluctance to ask for or accept German help when offered in the form of a Panzer division contributed to this defeat.

On the land, sea and air the Italian military failed to coordinate the grand strategy of coordinating land, air and sea operations and the economic, mobilization and war production issues needed to win the war.  Italian participation in the war proved to be a liability to the Germans despite the “paper” strength of the Italian military.  Mussolini’s lust for power and dominance in southern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa brought Italy into a conflict that its military was doomed to lose.

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