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Anglo-American bias and the Italo-Greek War of 1940-1941

James Sadkovich, ‘Anglo-American bias and the Italo-Greek War of 1940-1941’,  The Journal of Military History  58.4 (Oct 1994): 617.

by Annales.

In his article and much of his work, James Sadkovich has succeeded in exposing a long held historiographical tradition of bias toward the Italian war effort. For too long, popular writers and academic historians of the Second World War have dismissed the Italian military as largely ineffectual and its leaders as incompetent and clueless about what they were getting themselves into. The truth could not be more different. Mussolini and his general staff knew exactly the risks they were taking to ally themselves to the Germans as well as being fully aware of the limitations and vulnerabilities of their country’s economy and military in the event of a protracted war. Mussolini took that enormous gamble in June 1940 when he ordered the incursion into France, thereby aligning Italy for good or for ill, with the fortunes of Nazi Germany. It was a calculated gamble, one that did not pay off in the end. But contrary to many Anglo-American writers, it was not a harebrained or foolish decision at all: it was simply that, a risky and calculated gamble that in the end, left his country devastated.

To begin with, Sadkovich argues that most monographs and translations available in English discount the Italian role and place Italian strategic interests in either a German or British context. In his article, he specifically deals with the Italo-Greek war, but what he writes can be applied to North Africa and the Mediterranean in general. The Italians were there in great numbers, but their presence was shadowy, under-reported and given short shrift by Anglo-American historians who often describe the Italian soldier as lacking in martial skills and not having their heart in the war, preferring instead to stay home and eat pasta and drink wine and play mandolins and sing romantic songs to their mistresses, and so on. It is a perpetuated but carefully contrived stereotype and hardly reality. The vast majority of Italian men neither know how to play a mandolin nor do they sing to their mistresses, whatever Hollywood and popular imagination may dream up. The Italian soldier was no braver nor more cowardly than any other. Of course there were instances of cowardice and lack of will to fight, especially if one’s belly is empty, or you’re literally dying of thirst, suffering from frost-bite or cooking in 45 degree heat with little ammunition left. But there were episodes, numerous episodes, of brilliance, courage and daring by either individuals or battalions as well.

Secondly, according to Sadkovich, Anglo historians often portray Mussolini as a clownish second fiddle to Hitler and that Italians were in a subservient role to the Germans and should behave themselves lest they upset German plans. In other words, Italian war policy and goals were seen as a source of irritation and should be subsumed under German war policy and goals. In his article, Sadkovich mentions one historian who depicted Mussolini as an “unwelcome nuisance who had to be ‘carefully watched and kept in line’ so that his ‘irresponsible aspirations’ would not ‘endanger German long range plans.’’’ So the Italians were simply expected to go along with the Germans and if they didn’t, they were labeled as a “nuisance.”  As Sadkovich adroitly explains, “such a fixation on Germany and such denigrations of Italians not only distort analysis, they also reinforce the misunderstandings and myths of the Greek theater and allow historians to lament and debate the impact of the Italo-Greek conflict on the British and German war efforts, yet dismiss as unimportant its impact on the Italian.” Again I would extend Sadkovich’s argument as applicable to the entire Mediterranean and North African theatre. Sadkovich gives the example of one writer, a certain Alan Levine, “who even goes most authors one better by dismissing the whole Mediterranean theater as irrelevant, but only after duly scolding Mussolini for ‘his imbecilic attack on Greece,’” a view that would have surprised both Churchill and Hitler. The Mediterranean was no side show, but fought in deadly earnest by all parties.

In exasperation with this view, Sadkovich goes on to explain that:

Anglo-American historians have depicted the purportedly inept Italians as doubly culpable, first for sabotaging Hitler’s efforts to dominate the Balkans without war, and then for their supposedly brutal occupation of the Balkans, which triggered massive resistance and tied up large numbers of troops. By repeatedly asserting that Mussolini and the Fascist regime corrupted the military, provoked the conflict with Greece for frivolous reasons, and thus caused the debacle there, it is possible to avoid discussing the military reasons for the Italian check in the Pindus mountains, including the performance of Greek forces, and to lay the blame for Hitler’s errors on Mussolini rather than censuring the Nazi leader for provoking havoc by trespassing on his ally’s sphere of influence. But beyond seizing the opportunity to make glib generalizations and reiterate stereotypes, most Anglo-American historians have little interest in the Italo-Greek war and are satisfied to repeat the story of the inferior ‘Eyeties,’ who – misled by a ‘blundering’ and ‘inept’ Mussolini – were saved by the genial Hitler and his superior German war machine, which met its own ruin as a result of its generous aid to its pitiable and ridiculous ally.”

Sadkovich further maintains that this relentless tendency to place any Italian initiative into a British or German context and their tacit assumptions about Italians, is essentially racist. He maintains that there is a continuous campaign by writers such as J. R. Thackrah and Denis Mack Smith (to name a few) to denigrate and downplay any achievements while at the same time, exaggerating Italian defeats and deficiencies at every opportunity. And when there are no defeats to speak of, Anglo-American historians have even made them up!  There is this underlying distaste to admit that perhaps the Italians had worn down the Greek army and bled them white, allowing the Germans an easy walk into Greece, or that the British were so worn down in North Africa that it prevented their capture of Tripoli in 1941. The British, as Sadkovich continues, have found it very hard, almost distasteful, to admit “being bettered in any way by the inferior Italians.”

If the British could not hide or explain away a defeat or rout, then it had to be a defeat or rout inflicted on them by the Germans, occasionally the Germans and Italians as Axis partners, but certainly not by the Italians alone. It would be too humiliating to admit that. And yet, between 1940-43 much of the war in the Mediterranean was actually an Anglo-Italian one.

Sadkovich doesn’t have much time for the British historian MacGregor Knox either. He sees Knox as being particularly “censorious” and supercilious towards the Italians when he, Knox, concludes that after Italian setbacks in Greece and North Africa, “the war once more became an Anglo-German duel.” In other words, it was back to the serious business of war now that the clownish Italians had left the stage. And yet, the Italians had never really left the stage at all, but continued to fight and fight well until 1943.

As mentioned, Knox in Sadkovich’s eyes, took an unnecessary censorious and over-critical stance where he “seized every opportunity to criticize [the Italians], even when there was little reason to do so.”  In fact, he evens blames the Italians for things that were hardly their fault, such as Germany’s steady encroachment into the Balkans, Italy’s sphere of influence.  Like many other Anglo-American writers, Knox blames the Italians for being bad allies to the Germans. In fact, it was Nazi Germany who was the bad ally to Italy. For example, the Germans deceived the Italians about their real intentions with the Soviet Union, Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece, and who were stingy in giving Italy material aid such as trucks and weapons once the war started, as Hitler had promised Mussolini he would do. Knox criticizes the Italians for being parochial in 1940 and not understanding or predicting the repercussions of America’s involvement in the war, when in fact, it was the Germans whose continental strategy was parochial for “precluding any sort of viable Axis attack on the British empire”, particularly in the Mediterranean, where the British were at their most vulnerable. Mussolini and his generals knew the great strategic value of knocking the British out of the war as soon as possible, while Hitler dithered. Perhaps Hitler should have listened more carefully to his Italian allies about long term continental and Mediterranean strategy rather than go off and invade the Russian steppe unilaterally, with all the disasters that entailed.

Like so many Anglo-American historians before him, Knox behaved more like a barrister than an historian in his “intent on building a case against the Italians.” Knox follows the traditional line of scolding Mussolini, berating his Italian generals, accusing them of incompetence and lacking strategic vision, calling the invasion of Greece a “farce” (a oft-used word beloved of such writers), “imbecilic” and all sorts of synonyms that would make a barrister pleading a case, proud. Knox even proclaimed that it was Domenico Cavagnari (chief of staff Italian Navy 1933-40) who singlehandedly “had lost Italy’s war at sea.” But as Sadkovich explains, many of Knox’s lawyer-like accusations and judgments don’t actually stand up to the reality. The battle of Taranto was not the great defeat and disaster the British were so quick (and desperate) to claim and the Italian Navy continued the fight for the Mediterranean for another two and a half years while protecting supply routes to Greece and North Africa with a minimum of German support. Even in Greece, Knox mislead his readers into believing that the Italians were about to be run out of Albania by the Greeks when in fact, the Italian army had stabilized the front there and was actually pushing the Greeks back into Greece and were on the verge of smashing through the Greek lines just as the Germans entered Greece in time to claim the glory for themselves. Like those before him, Knox goes into loving detail about the inadequacies of Italian equipment, arms, training and leadership ad nausea, but neglects to mention that most Italian divisions on the Albanian-Greek front did not break but remained steadfast even through severe deprivations and difficulties. Rather than command comfortably at the rear as Knox slyly suggests, “the vast majority of Italian officers from the regimental level down fought and died with their troops.”

In his conclusion, Sadkovich maintains that many Anglo-American writers like Knox have not only selectively used Italian sources, they have gleaned negative observations and racist slurs and comments from British, American, and German sources and then presented them as objective depictions of Italian political and military leaders, a game that if played in reverse would yield some interesting results regarding German, American, and British competence.

Sadkovich’s article is a damning indictment on a whole bevy of Anglo-American historians that is only slowly, very slowing, beginning to change. Sadkovich and other more enlightened revisionist historians are attempting to set the record straight, using more hard primary evidence from Italian archives and much less on stereotypes,  myth and blatant lies.


  1. This is a bit of a departure on this topic but it is on the topic of Italian military history conveniently forgotten by both Italy and the world.
    I believe that the last time a monarch rode into battle with his troops was the Italian King Victor Emmanuel II in the Battle of Palestro in May 1859 in the Italian War of Independance against the Austrians. The last time a British Monarch rode into battle was George II in 1743 in the battle of dettingen.
    George II was famous for leading his troops in that battle,Victor Emmanuel II efforts forgotton in the pages of military history.
    If anyone has knowledge of another monarch personally participating in a battle since 1859 then I would be interested to know?

  2. Wow,how refreshing to hear these extradinary comments regarding Italian Military History.
    Indeed the victors write the history books,none worse than here in Australia where it’s own military record reaches almost superhuman level! Case in point when you read of Australia’s famous Tobruk campaign,hardly any word is mentioned of Italian involvement,as apparently “any Italian gains were discouraged in dispatches…” As in fact it was Italian heroism and not German that the AIF suffered most of its lost ground in hand to hand combat.
    I believe that it was the intention of hitler never to properly arm Italy as he would of preferred a week ally than a strong one as it would of created a possible threat to his belligerent policies.
    In my view the Italian soldier fought just as courageously as All other belligerent nations of WW2 as long as the correct conditions existed which applies to all,but to tag an entire nation as cowards etc is nonsense.

    • Yes, it does seem that the Australians are the worst offenders here. They highlight their own achievements to an absurd degree while putting down the “eyeties” – the Italian. A lot of it has its basis in racism. Those who cannot be gracious to their opponents are not worthy of much anyway.

      The ANZAC myth is just that – largely myth. But try telling that to an Australian. One should read The Anzac Legend and the Battle of Bardia (journal article) by Prof Craig Stockings for an insight into how myths are created and sustained and the great psychological need for them. Here is his conclusion:

      In itself, Bardia is an important and illustrative example of the obscuring effect of
      national mythology on interpretations of battlefield outcomes. In this case, when subjected
      to critical analysis, Anzac-oriented explanations are found wanting. The wider
      importance of this investigation, however, is not so much what we can learn from the battle of Bardia
      as an individual case-study but what it might represent to the wider field of Australian
      military history. How many other battlefield ‘truths’ have been coloured by the legend?
      To what extent, for that matter, is this phenomenon reflected across the globe? What
      conclusions can be drawn in a more general sense when national mythology meets military

      I would read nearly all accounts of the war from an Anglo-American view with a great deal of skepticism. It’s like reading about Afghan fighters solely from the point of view of the Americans. Bias and half-truths will be there, either intentionally or unintentionally.

  3. vato_loco says:

    Because of articles like this in particular and Comando Supremo in general, the Italian role in WW2, disparaged in English-language accounts of the conflict, is finally being reassessed. No one is looking for an apology for the disaster that was fascist era, but all welcome a new look at the Italian soldier under arms. Good job, Annales.

  4. says:

    I have been reading Anglo/American literature regarding WWII and Italy’s role in it for the best part of 25 years now. And I must say, a lot of what has been written here resonated with me strongly.

    Whilst I have no doubt the Italians did perform poorly, any success they did have seems to be completely buried or ignored.

    Just casually reading the “War in the Med” article on this site is proof positive of this. For the first time, there’s a detailed list of the British military/merchant ships the Italian Navy sunk. These are more or less ignored in many articles I’ve read so far.

    The Victors write history. Never a truer word said. From my experience, pick up most Anglo/American historical accounts of Italy’s participation in WWII and you would seriously think not one single Allied solider, pilot or sailor died at the hands of an Italian bullet.

    • Annales says:

      There are I think several reasons or causes for this Anglo-American bias.

      1. Lack of knowledge of Italian by historians. Lacking Italian is a big disadvantage when the bulk of archival and primary material, 90% (documents, personal and official letters, diaries, telegrams, reports, etc,.) are written in Italian.

      2. Difficulty of access to the above sources because it is dispersed in several archives around Italy and overseas. But of course, none of this would matter if you can’t read Italian in the first place. It reminds me of the film, the “da Vinci Code”. Remember it, with Tom Hanks playing Robert Langdon? In one scene Langdon is complaining that access to the Vatican archive has been denied him for years, and yet, when he was allowed in, he had to ask his side-kick to translate the documents because “they were all in Italian!”
      That really cracked me up!

      3. Coupled with the above is having to handle Italian bureaucracy as well!

      4. I don’t think the Italians have a military story-telling tradition like the Brits and Germans. Italy has never been a military-obsessed nation. Italians are usually too busy enjoying life to worry too much about war! Though I could be wrong here.

      5. Anglo-American historians often just quote each other, so the untruths and misinformation tend to grow over time. Most historians just take on face value what other historians have written, and by quoting them, their backs are covered. eg. “This must be true because A and B wrote it, and they got it from C who supposedly got it from Count Ciano’s tailor who overheard a conversation between him and Mussolini one day.” Talking about Ciano, the Italian foreign minister and son-in-law of Mussolini, isn’t there suspicion that his diary was tampered with by the British? So even so-called primary evidence can be tampered with and falsified.

      6. Good old racism. Much of this misinformation is driven by racism and a deep resentment against the “southerners”, the Italians. The Germans were often racist with their so-called gallant allies – the Italians, and would often blame them when things went wrong, and take all the credit when things go right!! AND GUESS WHERE THE ANGLO WRITERS GET MUCH OF THEIR INFO ABOUT THE ITALIANS FROM? Three guesses? The Germans!!! – Wonderful source for unbiased and objective information!!

      Have I left anything out? Please let me know.

      • Annales says:

        Oh, and I forgot to mention that my next article will be another review/summary of James Sadkovich’s, ‘German incompetence through Italian eyes’. Yes, that’s right. German incompetence. So while we hear ad nausea about how incompetent the Italians were and what “bad” allies they were for the Germans, Sadkovich will blow your mind away about who really were the incompetents and bad allies. In summary, it was the Germans who basically lost the war and brought Italy down with it. If Hitler had listened to Mussolini more, there may still be a greater Germany today. But the Nazis were an arrogant bunch of thugs who thought they knew better. Mussolini thought Hitler was a paranoid “nut-case” and Ciano thought the Nazi leadership ridiculous.

        I hope to have this article posted here in a couple of weeks.

      • Pietro Raso says:

        Only one consideration from an italian about one of the sentence above: “Italy has never been a military-obsessed nation. Italians are usually too busy enjoying life to worry too much about war!”. This is a quite stereotypic consideration based on a real fact: from WWII until now, italians does not like so much to write or read about a war they have lost so soundly; after the defeat (and the following civil-war) they reject militarism and all the militar topic together. This is a common and understandably reaction that last until today. But this not means that Italy rejected militarism themes during all the times; military history is full of italians, like other countries. So, do not confound a contingent situation (e.g. “today italians do not like to write or read about wars”) for a rule of nature (“Italy has never been a military-obsessed nation…”). Only my two cents (sorry for my english)…anyhow, this is a great web-site, keep going!!

        • I agree with you Pietro! I wish I could delete that sentence because on reflection, Italy has a very long military tradition going back centuries. In fact, before WW2 it was involved in too many wars, Ethiopia and Spain being the two prime examples.

          So yes, I totally agree with you. But even though Italy lost the war, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. Italy did the best it could under extreme conditions and continued fighting for over 3 years even though it only had the resources to fight for 6 months. For a while it gained territory and achieved results, albeit with timely help from the Germans. But didn’t the British received their help from both the US and Russia? If the British think for one second they alone defeated its enemies, they are under a severe misconception and hubris.

          The short of it is that the Germans made a terrible miscalculation when they invaded Russia, among other critical mistakes, and as Italy was tied to her, when she went down, she took Italy as well.

          Secondly, the lack of a strong industrial-military base for Italy was crucial. She simply could not replace losses quickly and she got further behind the technological race. The fighting and the demands were simply too big for her limited resources.

    • But the truth of the matter is that the Italians didn’t perform poorly. They actually performed reasonably well considering their limitations in materials and resources.

      Anglo-American historians are very good at proclaiming how badly the Italians performed, how they “failed” in this or that, but let’s take a step back.

      They “failed” in France, and yet they end up controlling and annexing French territory.

      They “failed” in Greece and yet they end up with two-thirds of the country and its many islands.

      They “failed” in Yugoslavia and yet they end up garrisoning large chunks of it.

      They “failed” in North Africa and yet the British were hard-pressed to keep them out of Egypt and were unable to defeat them for 3 years.

      The Italian Navy “failed” and yet it succeeded in its mission of protecting its convoys to North Africa and the Balkans, much to the chagrin of the British.

      No, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see where the Italians “failed” as many Anglo-American writers are fond of repeating ad nausea like a mindless mantra.

  5. The bias seems still strong.
    You can read from a recent book about WWII ” The Second World War” – A Military History by Gordon Corrigan- pg 42-:
    Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 2011/ ISBN: 978-0-312-57709-4

    ” ….despite attempts by her founding father [Italy] to link her with the glories of Roman Empire, the truth was that 1500 years of invasion, fragmentation and immigration had left precious few of the once rulers of the known world and had replaced them with a dinstillation of a variety of BALKAN TRIBE ….”

    So, being downgraded to the level of balkan tribe is definetely a new low for us, wondering what will come out in the next biblical WWII book written by a brit.
    Anglosaxon war writers never cease to surprise !!!!

    • yes, the bias is still strong. One just has to scan websites and Wikipedia to realize this. But the sad part is that many Italians have also swallowed the misinformation.

      I would urge bilinguals, that is, those who can read and write both Italian and English is ease, to start translating primary source documents held in various military and non-military archives in Italy. Even in the US, Russia and Germany, Italian documents written during the war can also be found in their archives too in the original paper or microfiche.

      There is a very good article written by Trani and Battistellli (2010) in their article titled: The Italian Military Records of the Second World War. The abstract reads:

      The paper provides a summary and overview of Italian records related to the Second
      World War held in Italian archives, with particular emphasis on the military records
      which may offer detailed insights, at every level, into Italian politics, strategy, and conduct
      of the war. Until recently these have been seldom used by non-Italian historians, and
      their wider use will help to fill a major gap in historical research, though limited access
      to many archives and the dispersal of records are still likely to hamper any large-scale
      DOI: 10.1177/0968344510365242

      So if any bilingual speaker has the time and inclination, he or she can visit these military museums with their archives and do the world a favor and start translating world war two documents from Italian into English and post them on this site to set the record straight. I don’t think copyright would be a problem by now. Can anyone enlighten me on this? Does the 70 year rule apply in Italy also?

    • Annales says:

      ” ….despite attempts by her founding father [Italy] to link her with the glories of Roman Empire, the truth was that 1500 years of invasion, fragmentation and immigration had left precious few of the once rulers of the known world and had replaced them with a distillation of a variety of BALKAN TRIBE ….”

      Jumoss, apart from the strained grammar and poor writing, the above drivel really doesn’t make sense at all. I suspect, and it is a theory I have, that the English have never quite forgiven the Romans (Italians) for having invaded and colonized Britain.

      Seriously, this so-called historian – Gordon Corrigan – is a good example of how historians are affected by their present when writing about the past. Notice the words “immigration” and “Balkans”. It is obvious to me that the writer is deeply worried about the current levels of immigration to the UK and that a lot of these immigrants come from “the Balkans” or are Balkan types.

      Can you see it now? hen you analyse a text closely, you begin to see connections with what is obsessing an historian.

      I lecture in history, and believe me, anyone can call him or herself an historian. To write bad history is easy; to write good history, is very difficult. To write history well is one of the hardest disciplines to master.

      History is 10% fact and 90% interpretation of those facts.

      Historians are not god-like nor do they have a god-like, perfect view.

  6. It’s about time for some pro-Italian bias. I cringe every time I see a movie from that era, or even this era, that inevitably portrays Italians as idiots and Germans as the Worthy Enemy. Rommel despised the Italians so much that he left them to die of thirst in the desert so his Germans could retreat to safety. We don’t hear about how the Italians continued to fight on in spite of terrible deprivation.

  7. Sadkovich himself has a pro-Italian bias. Most of what is said in the article is agreeable, but the calims about the Greek-Italian front are rubbish. Neither was the Greek army bled white, nor would that fact play any role in the German invasion. Without the German invasion the Italians were not going to achieve any meaningful success.

    • What is your evidence for this? The problem is that many Anglo-American writers have so overplayed their hand, have taken things at face value, mindlessly quoted each other, and have shown such a marked anti-Italian bias that the problem now is credibility. I for one can no longer trust what Anglo-American authors and historians have to say.

      I for one now demand hard archival evidence for either an imminent Italian or Greek victory. And for such hard evidence, I suggest you better brush up on your Greek and Italian, get on a plane to Rome or Athens and be prepared to spend weeks visiting their military archives.

      Anglo-American historians have only themselves to blame for this sorry situation. I am not saying you are right or wrong. But provide us with archival evidence to back up what you say.

      I would go as far as to say that 50% of books about the Italian war effort, can be more productively used as door-stoppers or for lighting one’s backyard barbecues.

      We need to start again from the beginning.

      • 1) “demand” is too strong a word
        2) I never said there was going to be any “imminent” victory, for either side.
        3) evidence that the Greek army hadn’t been “bled white” are the losses it had sustained (less than 100,000 for a 7mil nation) that do not justify the claim, and that the Greek army was still raising divisions (two new divs in March ’41).
        4) evidence that the Italians weren’t going to “smash through” Greek army anytime soon is the fact that during the Italian spring offensive it barely moved, and commited only one regiment from its tactical reserves. In fact, there were a few divisions in reserve, and the Greek army was planning its own offensive, although admittedly with dubious prospects, given the Italian numercal superiority.
        5) the German offensive was based on mobility and great firepower superiority over the Greek and Yugoslav armies. With the -half mobilised and not yet deployed- Yugoslav army rapidly collapsing, the German offensive struck into the soft unfortified flank of the Greco-British armies, where their superiority came into full play. It was nothing like the Greco-Italian war. It was fought by small, fast moving and well equipped battlegroups, with complete air superiority. The Greeks simply did not have the equipment to defeat the Germans in mobile warfare. No motor transport, no antitank guns, no antiaircraft guns.

  8. Excellent article!! For too long has the italian soldier been misrepresented. History shows us that they fought as hard, if not harder and braver with inadequate equipment and stil made progress.

    • Annales says:

      I don’t think that any serious historian today would dispute that the Italian soldier was inferior. All the evidence seems to point to lack of materials and an industrial base strong enough to replace losses. That was Italy’s one and only lack (apart from oil). As for the quality of its generals and officers, I really don’t know enough. But there is one thing I do know: I wouldn’t take on face value what’s written about them by Anglo-American writers. It would be like asking the Americans what they think of the Afghans. The answer’s going to be biased one way or another. I’m not saying that we should disbelieve everything. Far from it. Historians have to hear all sides and there are some very good and fair Anglo-American authors out there. But bias will creep in because much of it is unconsciously received.

      • Oops. I meant to say: I don’t think any serious historian today would make the claim that the Italian soldier was intrinsically inferior to any other, including the German. The Germans may have been better trained, overall. Any soldier can be “better” with better training and equipment.

  9. Bravo

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