Italy in World War II

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Benito Mussolini had territorial and imperial ambitions and saw an alliance with Nazi Germany as a chance to achieve these goals. When Fascist Italy joined the war, the main part of the fighting between Germany and the British concentrated on the Battle of Britain, too far north for the Italians to be of much use. But Italy's entrance brought the war to the Mediterranean. Italy invaded British-occupied Egypt, then invaded Greece without consulting Adolf Hitler, with Germany eventually forced to intervene in both campaigns with forces that it needed for the execution of Operation Barbarossa. Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941 in order to get to Greece to abandon Albania. After the Allies invaded Sicily, the other Italian Fascist leaders removed Mussolini from power. Then, they withdrew from the alliance with Germany and signed a peace treaty with the Allied powers. From 1943 to 1945, the Allies fought a protracted campaign to force the German occupation forces and supporting Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) Divisions out of Northern Italy.

In 1939 Italy invaded Albania and soon afterward Rome signed a military alliance with Berlin (the Pact of Steel). However, Mussolini did not declare war on Britain and France until June 10, 1940. In October 28, 1940, Benito Mussolini declared war on Greece.

Rise of Fascism

In October 1922, out of a fear of a communist takeover, Mussolini gathered his Black Shirts and marched on Rome. Once there, King Victor Emmanuel III asked Mussolini to form a government and restore order. Over the next three years, Mussolini dismantled the democracy , and in 1925, he declared himself dictator of Italy. He took the title Il Duce - literally, "The Leader".

Spanish Civil War

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini backed General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces and during the first three months of the fighting sent 90 Italian aircraft and modernized the cruiser "Canaris".

During the Spanish Civil War, Italy sent 80,000 men, of whom almost 6,000 belonged to the Regia Aeronautica (RA or Italian Air Force), 45,000 to the army and 29,000 to the Black Shirts. Italy also supplied 1,800 artillery guns, 1,400 mortars, 3,400 machine-guns, 6,800 motor vehicles, 157 tanks, 213 bombers and 414 fighters.

Balkans

For Mussolini, the Balkans, offered tremendous mineral wealth and strategic geographical position, but more importantly, he wanted to keep pace with Hitler who had already annexed Czechoslovakia.

On April 7, 1939, in response to Hitler’s conquest of Prague, Benito Mussolini’s troops, invaded and occupied Albania.

On October 28, 1941 the Italians invaded Greece, expecting a quick victory. The Greeks, retired from several advanced posts to previously prepared positions. The Italian forces on the Greco-Albanian frontier comprised seven divisions, with a considerable amount of artillery and tankettes, but without proper air support. This allowed Greek forces to hold their own and counterattack the Italians in Albania, overrunning one-quarter of the country.

The Italians reinforced their positions with a total of 28 divisions (4 Alpine, 1 Armoured and 23 Infantry) totalling 526,000 men. On March 9, 1941 their Operazione Primavera (Operation Spring) used seven divisions in a determined attack between the Vijose River and Mount Tommorit. The 14 Greek divisions holding the Albanian front gave some ground until the attack was called off on 19 March after heavy casualties on both sides. This remained the position until April when the Italian second spring offensive captured Koritza and Alpini spearheads moved through the Pindus in Greece, sealing the Greek Army in Albania.

Italian military operations in the Balkans, compared with the Germans in the rest of Europe, had not gone well. Italy had invaded Greece in October but was pushed back into Albania. Germany then put pressure on Yugoslavia to join the Axis, as Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria had done earlier. Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia relented and signed the pact on March 25, 1941.

However, nationalist forces opposed the Axis nations and carried out a coup. That led Hitler to view Yugoslavia as a hostile state; he decided to bomb Belgrade in retribution. On April 6, 1941, the Axis powers (Italy, Hungary led by Germany) invaded Yugoslavia, killing thousands of soldiers and civilians and capturing another quarter million; Yugoslav forces were unable to stop the Regia Aeronautica bombardments or the advance of Italian ground forces. The Axis invasion ended with the unconditional surrender of the Royal Yugoslav Army on April 17.

East Africa

Italian troops invaded Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, in October 1935, but at that time Italy already occupied Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, in addition to much of present-day Libya. Benito Mussolini saw his African colonies as a way of uniting Italian citizens at a time of great financial uncertainty. He also aimed to create a modern Roman Empire that would increase Italy’s standing in Europe. The Italian defeat in World War II formally ended colonial rule in 1945.

North Africa

Military commentators on the North African Campaign, in general focus on the actions of General Erwin Rommel who was an acknowledged master of maneuver. His Afrika Korps became legendary, so much so that in many accounts of the fighting, Italians seem relegated to support roles and they were much depreciated in the Allied Official Histories of the war.

During Operation Compass, the British commanders were able to capitalize on the initial success in December 1940, plan and execute the next phase of the advance in January 1941, before the Italian commanders had fully grasped the implications of the British offensive. The Italian command was consequently continually off balance, reacting to information that was already out of date. The same thing happened to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the Fall of France (1940) and the Russian Army in Operation Barbarossa. Equally large numbers of Allied and Russian soldiers were forced to retreat or surrender as a result. But the British, and Russian Armies have largely escaped criticism, their soldiers, according to Allied official war histories, being defeated because of the untenable positions they were placed in.

Not all the British commanders depreciated the fighting skills of their Italian adversaries. During the Battle of Calabria in mid-June 1940, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, called off further operations when Italian bombers appeared. The British commander never underestimated the Italian airmen in this type of attack. with Cunningham writing that, '"Italian high-level-bombing was the best I have ever seen, far better than the Germans."[1]

Italian armored divisions fought well despite having few tanks, and those aptly described as 'steel coffins' by Germans soldiers. During Operation Crusader in late 1941, a US Army report to Washington noted the defiance of the Savona Division:

All Italians captured on November 22 and 23 in the Omars belonged to the Savona Division and were reported to be tougher on the whole and better disciplined than the Italians of the Trento Division captured in December 1940 and June 1941. The prisoners were a well-clothed, well-disciplined group, who had put up a good fight and knew it. The 6 German and 52 Italian officers, as well as the 37 German technicians, were very bitter about their capture and would not speak.[2]

Operation Agreement, the defeat of the British commando raid on Tobruk on September 14, 1942, was an Italian victory. It was their marines from the 1st San Marco Regiment, coastal artillery and Italian fighter-bombers that did the most damage to the supporting Tribal Class Destroyer HMS Sikh (F82), her sister ship HMS Zulu and Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) involved, yet still today you can find countless fictional accounts of how it was a couple of German 88mm anti-aircraft guns and Luftwaffe aircraft that won the battle and sank the destroyers Sikh, Zulu and MTBs.

Despite the often heroic efforts by the Italian Navy and Merchant Marine, described by Professor James Sadkovich, fuel and other vital supplies were gradually denied to the Axis troops. Half of the convoys to North Africa were sunk by the Allies.

The fall of the Tunis and Bizerte ports in Tunisia was inevitable, but US Army General Omar Bradley admitted that the American formations encountered serious opposition in the advance, writing that the Axis defenders were, "the elite of the German and Italian armies, desert hardened young men."[3]As a junior officer in the final stages of the North African fighting, future Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency General (CIA) Vernon Walters interrogated captured Germans and Italians and concluded after one battle, "The Italians were from the Wolves of Tuscany Division, very tough."[4]

The war in North Africa ended on May 13, 1943. American losses in the Tunisian Campaign were 2,715 dead, 8,978 wounded and 6,528 captured/missing. British Commonwealth losses were 9,233 dead, 21,528 wounded and 10,599 captured/missing. After the surrender there were 101,704 German POWs and 89,442 Italian POWs.

Russia

On May 30, 1941, three weeks before the start of Operation Barbarossa, Mussolini told Army Chief of Staff General Carlo Cavallero to mobilize the Italian Army in preparation for forthcoming operations in Russia: "We must assemble one new motorized division and a second one to be attached to the Grenadier Division near Zagreb."

This corp, the Corpo Spedzione Italiane in Russia (Italian Expeditionary Corps or CSIR) became the most successful Italian army formation in the war. The CSIR advanced the greatest distance, more than 1,100 kilometers, won many victories, and lost just two battles.[5]But like General Friedrich von Paulus's German 6th Army, the Fascist ground forces in Russia now renamed Italian 8th Army was overrun during the Battle of Stalingrad and has largely been forgotten by historians.

In an order of the day to the surviving formations of the 8th Army, Mussolini (on March 3, 1943) said:

You have given innumerable proofs of stubbornness and courage, and have fought against numerically superior forces, drenching your flag with blood.[6]

The performance of the Cosseria, Ravenna and Sforzesca Divisions during the Battle of Stalingrad speaks volumes about the courage of Italians fighting men under the worst possible conditions, with poor equipment and against General Vasily Ivanovich Kuznetsov's better armed and more numerous 1st Guards Army. The Cosseria and Ravenna defensive line outside Staligrad was attacked on December 16, 1943 and along with the supporting Sforzesca encircled by the Russian 17th, 18th and 25th Tank Corps on 20 December, but fought their way back to friendly lines over the next two weeks, suffering heavy casualties in the process. The Italian 8th Army suffered about 50% overall casualties and much higher casualty rates in the combat formations but 45,000 still managed to fight their way out of a trap which completely defeated the Germans, Hungarians and Romanians. The grit and determination of the CSIR and the ARMIR should be considered when evaluating Italian fighting prowess in WWII.

Sicily

The Allied Forces invaded in Sicily in July 1943 during Operation Husky that toppled Mussolini from power. US Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Commander-in-Chief of the operation. He wrote: "The successful conclusion of these operations will not only strike closer to the heart of the Axis, but also will remove the last threat to the free sea lanes of the Mediterranean." Allied commanders still had a great respect for the Italian Navy.[7][8]

Fall of Mussolini

During a war filled with death of family members ones and air raids, historian Gerhard Weinberg concluded that, "The astonishing thing is ... that the home front held together as long as it did, and that elements of the armed forces often fought valiantly and effectively."[9]

On July 24, 1943 the Grand Council of Fascism voted to oust Benito Mussolini as Prime Minister of Italy. Mussolini ignored the vote of no confidence but soon after meeting with King Victor Emmanuel III he was arrested.

Republic of Salò

n October 1943 Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler made a last-ditch attempt to rally Fascist Italy in the face of the advancing Anglo-American Army, establishing the Italian Social Republic between Salò and Gargnano.

Civil War

The Italian Civil War (La Guerra Civile) is the period between September 8, 1943 and May 2, 1945 in which the Italian Resistance, principally in the form of Italian Communist Partisans and the Italian Co-Belligerent Army fought against the Italian RSI and German occupation forces.

Liberation

The contribution of Italian Communist Partisans in the Italian Campaign has long been overlooked. The Italian Resistance kept as many as seven German divisions out of the line.[10]They also obtained the surrender of two full German divisions, which led directly to the collapse of the German forces defending Genoa, Turin, and Milan.

Postwar

Notes

  1. "The Commander-in-Chief never underestimated the Italian airmen in this type of attack. "Italian high-level-bombing", he wrote, "was the best I have ever seen, far better than the Germans."" Forgotten Battles: Italy's War of Liberation, 1943-1945, Charles T. O'Reilly, p. 31, Lexington Books, 2001
  2. THE BATTLE OF THE OMARS
  3. "Allied victory was inevitable, General Omar Bradley said, but it was not an easy victory. "The trapped enemy was the elite of the German and Italian armies, desert hardened young men who, "as the official British historian wrote, "fought with desperation of men who knew they could not retreat." Forgotten Battles: Italy's War of Liberation, 1943-1945, Charles T. O'Reilly, p. 31, Lexington Books, 2001
  4. "As an officer in North Africa, Vernon Walters interrogated captured Germans and Italians and concluded, "The Italians were from the Wolves of Tuscany Division, very tough." Forgotten Battles: Italy's War of Liberation, 1943-1945, Charles T. O'Reilly, p. 31, Lexington Books, 2001
  5. Italians on the Eastern Front: From Barbarossa to Stalingrad
  6. ITALIANS WITHDRAW FROM RUSSIA
  7. "The Regia Marina closed the direct passage through the Mediterranean for thirty-six months, almost its entire war, to all but eight fast freighters in three massively protected convoys, Collar, Excess, and Tiger, which ran between November 1940 and May 1941. This forced Great Britain to build and supply an army in Egypt around the Cape of Good Hope rather than the Strait of Gilbraltar, a twelve-thousand-mile voyage, nearly four times longer than the direct Mediterranean passage." On Seas Contested: The Seven Great Navies of the Second World War, Vincent P. O'Hara, W. David Dickson, Richard Worth, p. 156, Naval Institute Press, 2014
  8. "Going into the war, the Regia Marina had several primary missions. Foremost was maintaining communications with Libya in North Africa and the Balkans. This required the movement of regular convoys to those areas. Another important task was the control of the central Meditteranean, thus denying its use to the British. This was a key strategic factor during the war, as it dramatically increased the shipping requirements to maintain British forces in the Middle East. Unable to use sea lanes through the Mediterranean, the British were forced to use the Cape of Good Hope route around Africa, a total distance of 12,000 miles. This quadrupled shipping requirements compared with the Mediterranean route and had strategic implications for Allied capabilities and plans worldwide. Instrumental to being able to move convoys to Africa and keeping the Mediterranean closed to Allied shipping was the maintenance of Italy's battle fleet." Italian Battleships of World War II, Mark Stille, pp. 4-5, Osprey Publishing, 2012
  9. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, Gerhard L. Weinberg, Cambridge University Press, 2005
  10. The OSS and Italian Partisans in World War II