The Italian Army

The Italian Army holds a practically unique place in the story of World War Two.  It is also one of the most maligned.  This is unfortunate, as of all the major combatant nations, it is probably the most neglected and misunderstood.

Italy was the first European nation to abandon democracy in favour of the scourge of Fascism.  The daily chaos which faced the ordinary citizen in the wake of the Great War and the economic collapse of the previous decades, were sufficient to persuade the majority that drastic action was needed.  This was personified in the form of Benito Mussolini.  Like many dictators, Mussolini's promise of content at home was reliant upon inflicting misery abroad to attain the wealth they sought.  In this instance, Africa was again to bear the brunt of European aggression, and the Italian Army was duly despatched across the Mediterranean Sea to subdue the distant lands of Abyssinia.  Here they gained rapid victory against an unequal foe while the growing relationship with Nazi Germany was being cemented at home.  But what Mussolini planned as a partnership quickly saw Germany take the majority holding, and the Italian Army in particular were made to feel the inferior party.

This was certainly true of the weapons and equipment which the Italian Army had at its disposal at the outbreak of war in Europe.  Little progress had been made on modernisation, especially apparent in the armoured and artillery arms.  The infantry were also particularly devoid of effective small arms and anti-tank weapons.  In general, the Italian Army still looked very much like a force armed and equipped for combat in the early 1930's, even at the height of their commitments in 1942.

The success in Africa and the seeming collapse of all organised resistance to Hitler's legions persuaded Mussolini to embark on his own series of conquests.  Key among these was the elimination of the small and vulnerable garrisons of British and Commonwealth troops in North and East Africa.  It was upon these relatively minor obstacles that the reputation of the Italian Army was to founder.  The Italians enjoyed numerical superiority in all areas.  To paraphrase a quote from an earlier war against the British, the acquisition of Africa should have been merely a matter of marching.  For most of the Italian troops involved though, the marching was into captivity.  The polyglot collection of troops they faced fought back with both tenacity and intelligence.  Warnings regarding the ineffectiveness of weapons, equipment and most importantly command and control, had been evident in the invasion of southern France, launched in the dying days of the German invasion.  In the vast expanses of the desert war the Italians were now engaged in, these shortcomings were acutely magnified.  

The same sorry story was played out both in North Africa and Greece.  In these theatres, the only thing which prevented total defeat was the intervention of German forces.  They possessed modern and reliable weapons and equipment, and sophisticated command and control tied in with a clear doctrine.  Much work to eradicate these failings was still pending when the Italian Army was committed to a major new front in the East with the invasion of Russia in 1941.  What was a relatively small army was now split between North Africa, the Balkans and suddenly southern Russia.  

As the war progressed, the Italian Army, which was intimately entwined with their German counterpart, began to suffer the same reverses with the Wehrmacht as they had without them.  The resurgent Red Army inflicted crippling losses in the East, while in North Africa the march to evacuation across the Mediterranean dragged on into 1943.  Then came the unthinkable, the landing of Allied troops in Sicily which resisted only briefly, before the invasion of Italy itself.

By comparison to Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy did not exert quite the same thrall over its people.  There was still, some form of government divorced from Il Duce, and it was this government which negotiated a surrender with the Allied powers following the landings in Italy.  At a stroke, one of the founding members of the 'new Axis' upon which the world would turn had been removed from the war.

That is the general view at least.  Casual study of the conflict pays little attention to the fate of Italy after her surrender up until the ultimate victory in Europe.  Opinion splintered into two distinct factions, those who saw the Germans as occupiers long before they officially assumed the role, and those who remained loyal to the ideal of Fascism.  With the surrender of Italy, the Co-Belligerent Forces were established, encompassing those men who sided with their former foes to fight the Germans in Italy, and the Republican forces who stood against them.  There was also an active Partisan resistance movement.

A question of courage

If there is one charge which dogs the Italian Army, indeed all her forces, from World War Two, it is that of cowardice.

It is glibly supposed that the average Italian soldier offered the merest resistance to the allies before proffering his surrender.  The reality is not so simple.  Mention has already been made of the inadequacies of weapons and equipment, which as the British found in 1940 forced withdrawal.  A large army, poorly maintained and with low morale, will always prove prey to a smaller, motivated enemy already perceived as the losers.  A blanket charge of cowardice cannot, in all reality, be levelled at the entire Italian Army.  Anyone who has read an account of the desperate action at Keren cannot doubt the stubbornness of the Italian defenders.  Likewise, Italian soldiers in Russia were treated with no greater mercy by the Red Army than their German allies if captured.  Rommel's German troops always accounted for the minority of his command, and he utilised his Italian contingent to the full.  

Perhaps the problem is one of perception.  The German Army continued to fight right until the end in both the East and the West.  That the Italian Army did not follow suit may reflect better upon it.  The average Italian soldier was not quite so as enthusiastic about the founding of a new 'Roman Empire' as his leader once the reality of the task became clear.  The arduous conditions of the desert and the lack of preparation for the endeavour did nothing to instil him with duty to a distant dictator.  That tens of thousands of Italians chose, voluntarily, to join with the Allies and fight the Germans in the equally inhospitable terrain of their homeland should not be overlooked, yet often is.  That the average Italian soldier chose not to lay down his life in pursuit of Mussolini's dream of conquest should stand their memory in rather better stead than it has done.

Over 240,000 troops did die across the the Army, Navy and Air Force, fighting on both sides of the struggle.  Another 150,000 plus civilians also perished, many at the hands of their former ally.  Both the Co-Belligerent and Republican forces fought to the bitter end in Italy, which provided one of the harshest tests for any soldier during World War Two.

The below link leads to a slightly improved, but still unsatisfactory, description of just a few of the Italian Infantry Battalion organisations, along with some information on the Divisional formations they served in.


The Italian Infantry Battalion

Italian Divisional Organisations


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