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German Military Incompetence Through Italian Eyes

Galeazzo Ciano, Umberto Nannini ed altri aviatori sul campo di aviazione di Pisa il 14 giugno 1940 prima dell’azione di bombardamento aereo dei campi di aviazione della Corsica


Dr James Sadkovich,

European History, University of Wisconsin.

‘German Military Incompetence Through Italian Eyes’

War In History 1994 1: 39



 In his insightful article, ‘German military incompetence through Italian eyes’,  Dr James Sadkovich has given us a long overdue reevaluation of the Italian-German alliance. He begins with a quote from Gaetano Salvemini who in 1969 believed Anglo-Saxon racism less severe than German racism owing to “Anglo-American priggishness”.  But in the final analysis, the two types of racism – German and British – have over the years succeeded in bouncing off and validating each other with centrifugal acceleration to the extent that so-called “Italian military incompetence” has become an inseparable corollary of perceived German “efficiency”. Even supposedly more balanced Anglo-Saxon writers like MacGregor Knox still maintain this binary view of the Italian military as the mirror-opposite of the German. They seem incapable of analyzing the Italian military effort in its own terms. As an exasperated Guiseppe Mancinelli, a liason officer between the Italian and German armored forces in Africa declared, “The perception of Italian inferiority inevitably was applied to every unfavorable and unfortunate episode from which the Germans were certainly not immune… and the responsibility of failure was thus assigned solely to the Italians.”  Interestingly, he accuses the Germans of being easily discouraged, refusing to confront the British whom they saw as formidable racial cousins but instead foolishly attacked the Russians, whom they perceived as genetically and culturally inferior. Arrogant and blinded by their ideologically racist beliefs, their refusal to take Italy as a serious ally made defeat in the Mediterranean inevitable while “their inability to assess their enemies accurately led them to botch the diplomatic preparation and military planning for every major operation they studied, from Sealion to Barbarossa.”

Diplomatic Incompetence

In the Spring of 1943, Vittorio Ambrosio compiled a list of German deficiencies. It was a long list which included their failure to invade Britain in 1940; their botched effort to bring Spain into the war and seal off the Mediterranean by taking Gibraltar; denying Italy the use of Tunisian ports in 1941-42; postponing the invasion of Malta until it was too late; foolishly attacking the Soviet Union in 1941 and resisting Italian attempts to obtain a separate peace; woefully inadequate intelligence and finally, for provoking war in 1939 despite Hitler’s promises and Italian warnings not to do so before 1942. Moreover, from 1940 to 1943, the Italians were constantly repeating to the Germans after each of their fiascoes a belated “I told you so”. In fact it was Mussolini who had a better grasp of the international environment than Hitler, whose strategic view of the world was parochial and provincially Austrian. 

Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 left a bitter taste in the mouths of Mussolini and Ciano, who realized early on that here was a ally they couldn’t trust. Ciano considered the Germans “arrogant and reckless” scoundrels. It was Mussolini who displayed a keener understanding of the British than the generally clueless Germans. For example, while they were at a loss to explain British reactions, the Italians correctly predicted British reactions in the Mediterranean. The Italian diplomatic corps considered the Germans amateurish newcomers, dumb Teutons wrecking havoc wherever they went. The Italian ambassador in Berlin, Bernardo Attolico was generally disgusted by their “absolute lack of any moral sense”. 

It was the Italians who warned Hitler that an attack through Belgium would alienate the US. But as usual, their advice fell on deaf ears. German deficiency in common sense was also revealed when they gladly sold weapons and machinery to Yugoslavia instead of their real ally, Italy. Nor could the Germans admit that their attack on Poland was a tragic mistake which was to have severe repercussions. 

The Germans consistently broke promises to their Italian ally, made worse by their interference and overweening nature in Italian affairs and spheres of influence, particularly in the Balkans.

Strategic incompetence.

 Rather than cooperate activity and energetically with their Axis partner, the Italians found the Germans to be mentally sluggish and perfidious. As Attolico and other Italian diplomats got to know the Germans better, they found them to be without wit or charm, moderately intelligent, boastful and  arrogant.  They considered Ribbentrop a fool.  

The Germans delayed their promised material support to Italy, finding one excuse after another, while at the same time, demanding workers and raw materials from their poorer ally. The Italian diplomat Lanza noted that while the Germans might blindly obey the Nazis, they actually despised them as “petty individuals, vulgar, ignorant, greedy and immoral”.  While Hitler dithered in the Fall of 1940, the Italians were busy expelling the British out of Somaliland and invaded Egypt. The failure of nerve displayed by the Germans in dealing with Britain added to Italy’s woes. Rather than invade Britain and knock it out of the war quickly, the foolhardy Germans decided to invade the USSR instead! The inanity of the Germans was, for the Italians, beyond belief!  As Sadkovich caustically observed: “In the end, the Italians wasted three months waiting for Operation Sealion, whose cancellation allowed Britain to rebound, gave France hope, and caused other states either to gravitate to the British orbit or, like Spain, to remain neutral.” By September 1940, even the German public were demoralized by the war and by British raids on their cities.

 Had the Germans lent the Italians adequate material support; had they attempted seriously to plan with the Italian general staff, or had they risked an action across the English Channel in 1940, the war could have taken a very different turn. Even a German failure would have disrupted Britain’s buildup in the Mediterranean, and a partial success might have led to a negotiated peace. Instead, mixed signals from Hitler and Ribbentrop, Germany’s invasion of its ally’s sphere of influence, and Berlin’s indifference to Italian requests for raw materials and weaponry at a time when the German army was idle, triggered an Italian attack on Greece and distracted Rome’s attention from Africa just as Germany’s failure to invade Britain allowed London to reinforce Egypt. 

In short, Sadkovich rightly points out that it was German timidity that botched the Axis war effort in 1940; German arrogance that led to the invasion of Russia before dealing adequately with Britain; and German duplicity that kept the Italians in the dark and generated suspicion. The German reassurance that the war would soon be over, that Britain was finished and they had won, made them look foolish in the eyes of their supposedly “valued” allies, the Italians. 

The Italians were no fools. They had a better grasp of the strategic and diplomatic realities than the Germans. They looked upon their “Teutonic ally” and their antics with growing horror and nervousness. But by September 1940, it was too late for the Italians to get out of the alliance with their unreliable and erratic ally. All the Italians could do was to grit their teeth and hope for the best. But the best never came. Rather than improve, their German allies became worse as the war progressed. 

By mid-July 1941, the wife of at least one German diplomat in Rome was referring to Hitler as that ’idiot’. As with the Italians underestimating Greek determination and fierce resistance in their invasion of Greece, likewise the Germans woefully underestimated the Russians. But rather than admit their mistake, the Germans had no choice but to persevere.  As one Italian diplomat said of Hitler’s headquarters in late August 1941, “Reality ceases and a detached and isolated world begins here.” Ribbentrop and Dietrich were continually announcing the defeat of the Soviet Union in a matter of weeks. Such pronouncements were considered absurd by Italian generals, while Ciano ridiculed the Germans for singing their “hymn of victory too soon”. 

As Sadkovich noted, “a disastrous situation in the east was particularly embarrassing to Berlin because as racially inferior Russian troops routed German armies outside Moscow, well-disciplined Italian forces stymied a superior British opponent in Africa where Auchinleck’s offensive only barely succeeded” no thanks to Rommel’s recklessness and Hitler’s veto of Rome’s request to ship supplies through Tunisian ports. 

By Christmas of 1941 and with the invasion of Russia stalled and looking more and more the fiasco it really was, Lanza and others began to see Hitler as a “nut and fantastic dilettante” while Otto von Bismarck in Rome remarked casually to Anfuso that Hitler was a “blundering ass”.  To the great amusement of both Mussolini and Ciano, the Germans overnight became “almost cordial” as they invented excuses for their failures.  A more contrite Hitler asked Mussolini (as well as the Hungarians and Romanians) for more Italian divisions to bolster the Russian front. Both the Hungarians and Romanians balked at his request, but the genial Mussolini took pity on the Germans and obliged while dismissing him as that “big jack-ass”.  Ciano underlined how ridiculous the Germans were becoming by February 1942 when he noted that every time the Germans issued a communiqué that things were going well on the Russian front, they get a thrashing. And by the Spring of 42,  Pavolini found the Germans depressed, the Nazi regime in crisis and jokes about Hitler’s incompetence circulating in Berlin. By now, there were those in the Italian leadership who were urging Mussolini to find a way out of the war and free Italy from its duplicitous and incompetent ally. Even the Japanese were having doubts about their supposedly “valiant” German allies. Ciano wryly noted that whenever things were going badly for the Germans, the normally overbearing Germans became more cordial and courteous! 

By the summer of 1942, most Italians were heartedly sick of their German “allies”.  In October, Mussolini bitterly complained to his son-in-law that “if we lose this war, it will be because of the political stupidity of the Germans.”  Luccioli, who accompanied Lanza, Alfieri, and Ciano to Hitler’s eastern lair, also despaired of the Germans, noting that “one could not discuss art and literature with the Nazis, and to discuss ’politics with Hitler and his men was like playing the violin in front of a rabid dog”. 

And the more the Germans failed, the more they blamed their Italian allies. Both in Russia and North Africa the Germans had a habit of deploying Italians in front-line positions whilst making their escape in Italian vehicles at the rear! 

While Mussolini and the Italians pressed for a separate peace, the incompetent and ideologically blinded Germans continued to pursue their dreams of world conquest as their “Aryan birthright”, even when it became clear to all, they were incapable of winning.  According to Sadkovich, it was Hitler rather than Mussolini who was the inept dilettante, who failed to grasp that war was as much a political as a military activity. Thus it was Hitler who was the “tragic buffoon”, not Mussolini. Whatever errors the Italians made, the Germans made just as many, but being the dominant power, the repercussions of their blunders were much more severe than any the Italians could have made.

The reality was that it was the Germans who were the bad allies of the Italians, and not the other way around. If they had listened to the more experienced Italians, especially in the political and diplomatic spheres in which Italian diplomats far excelled their German counterparts, then the Germans may not have made as many fatal mistakes and dragged Italy down with it.


10th August, 2014 


  1. Annales, I come to Comando Supremo erractically. The article seems to be more the pot calling the kettle black than substantive. It is an interesting perspective and I appreciate that.

    • Yes, if you mean by pot calling the kettle black, that Mussolini was also a paranoid like Hitler who mistrusted everyone, and that he was just as bad.

      There is no doubt the Italians have themselves to blame for entering the war unprepared and under-strength. But we see with hindsight. At the time, in June 1940, it seemed like a good idea to throw your lot in with the Nazis, with the “winning horse”. My article is simply to point out that the Germans also blundered and made mistakes that cost them dearly. They were way too arrogant with their racial ideology that blinded them to see what they were getting themselves into. Hubris is the word.

      If the British and the French were more flexible and realized that Italy had legitimate aspirations in the Mediterranean and that a naval blockade on Italy only drove the Italians further into the German camp,… . Well who knows. While Germany and Italy were clearly the aggressors, the intransigence and bloody-mindedness of the British did not help as well.

      However, you need to read Sadkovich’s article in full to appreciate it. My article is simply an introduction and review-summary of it.

      • This is a very interesting article, many thanks for this, Annales. As a longtime scholar of the World Wars I have long been of the opinion that German political and strategic expertise were lacking the whole time, indeed having been a root cause of the whole thing. Von Bismarck was really the only man who generally showed evidence of higher long-term thinking. The Germans were seemingly possessed of a single great tool: the Army. As a result of lacking necessary other tools such as realistic political/diplomatic leadership, AND failing to grasp the significance of that lack, all problems faced came to look like military problems, with a military solution.

        This of course is a terrible thing, a terrible way to conduct the affairs of a major country. It led to disaster on every level. On the level of the battlefield, this became a recurring theme, where operationally, and more often than not at the tactical level, the Germans would dominate, yet these men were being sent to objectives that made little or no strategic sense, thus wasting the blood and effort spent.

        The 1918 spring offensive on the Western Front is an excellent case study of this. The collapse of Russia at the end of 1917 granted the Germans a last temporary manpower advantage. The offensive that they launched however never seemed to have a clear objective. In many respects this is the old cliché, “If you aim at nothing that is what you will hit.

        Hitler very occasionally displayed some strategic sense, but constantly changing his mind largely nullified this. And an you note, the Germans were the biggest consumers and victims of their own propaganda, willfully deluding themselves, even most of those who claimed to be anti-Hitler.

        We can learn much, particularly what not to do, from the cataclysms.

        Nota bene: By the way, a small group of us is undertaking what may be the most detailed study and simulation of the 1940-1943 campaign in Libya and Egypt. Anyone with interest in the primarily military aspects of this theater of the Second World War can find us at
        For reference, my role is that of the Axis commander in chief. I hope I exhibit more sense than the historical figures, particularly since my victory is unlikely to lead to worldwide imposition of fascist rule (that seems well underway regardless).

        Best regards,
        Michael Miller

  2. Excellent article!!

  3. Thanks for an interesting article, Annales. I’m now seeking out Professor Sadkovich’s work on the web & beyond.

  4. targaflorio says:

    Agree with a lot of what has been written.

    However, the Nazi’s decision to invade Russia was always on the cards. As we all know, it was part of Hitler’s quest for “living space” for his people. He was never going to NOT attack Russia. So from that perspective, Germany was always going to be committed to fight a war on that front, regardless of the tactical/logistical problems it presented.

    My own view is that the Italians have, by and large, been painted in such a poor light by historians:

    A) Because the victors write history and with that, comes bias
    B) There were several fronts the Italians performed poorly. The mass surrenders in the early days against GB in North Africa. The calamity in Greece.

    • Yes and no. The victors write history, but so too can the vanquished. As a history teacher myself, I know only too well, how nationalism can distort history: by and large, it sounds the trumpets of victory, no matter how small or ambiguous, while at the same time, it quietly buries its humiliating defeats and set-backs. And it seems that the British are masters at this game.

      The Italians did not perform poorly in Greece. It’s only that the Greeks performed well, to everyone’s surprise. They literally massed their entire army against the Italian invading force. The Italians were pushed back into Albania, but as some writers like Sadkovich have argued, the Italians regrouped, and halted the Greeks. What eventuated was a slugging match. There was no way the Italian army was going to give up and go home. Just at the point where the Greeks themselves were over-stretched and exhausted, the Germans then entered the fray, outflanking them and the British.

      Since the Italians did not give up, but continued the fight, they can rightly be seen as “victors”, and were rightly given most of Greece and its islands. The Greeks fought hard (and no shame to them) but the Italians did not surrender and did not give up, so for the life of me, I can’t see how it was a “fiasco” as so many Anglo historians are keen to portray. The real “fiasco” was the British involvement in Greece. They really let the Greeks down badly.

      The “mass surrenders” in North Africa? Well, one can only point to Singapore where the “mass surrender” of 75,000 well armed and well-fed British troops to a Japanese army half it’s size, much surely go down in the annals of history as a humiliating defeat par excellence.

      • targaflorio says:

        Some very good points as always Annales. Agree with a lot of what you say. Especially the part about the victors burying their humiliating defeats.

        The XMas exploits in Alexandria took me years to discover…and not because I read it in a history book, but due to my attraction to the Panerai watches the elite Italian frogmen used!

        Concede the Greece theater may have been too harshly dealt with. But you have to admit, the Italian Army did themselves no favours in the early days of North Africa. On the flip side, they did fight well with the Afrika Korps. Even if the Germans gained all the credit for their successes.

      • Agree with much of what you write here. As for mass surrenders, I’d like to see a British army perform as well in Russia as the italians did. In Narvik the British army weren’t even near the Germans, had to be withdrawn after a first little skirmish. The job on the ground was done by Norwegians, Poles and French.


      • Great article!!
        Just a note, the British surrender in Singapore figure was more like 85,000 prisoners.

        You can also add to the list these other British, Commonwealth mass surrenders:

        1. Hong Kong December 25, 1941, 11,000 prisoners
        2. Battle of Crete June 1, 1941, 12,254 Commonwealth and 5,255 Greek prisoners
        3 Tobruk June 21, 1942, 35,000 prisoners
        4. Arnhem September 1944, 7,000 prisoners

        Also, let us not forget the MASS GERMAN SURRENDERS:
        1. Stalingrad December 1942, 90,000 prisoners
        2. Minsk summer 1944, 160,000 prisoners!!!!!!

        • Good list Vinman! Let’s not forget the mass surrenders of the British, the Russians and the Germans. It has absolutely nothing to do with cowardice. The idea in warfare is precisely this: to force an enemy to surrender en masse, and not to kill as many as possible. A good general will always prefer the former to the later when fighting the enemy.

          Have you thought about writing your own article on this very topic and posting it here? We would love to receive it.

          • Another fact that is never mentioned by the Anglo-American press when writing about Operation Compass, is the surrender of Italian Forces in that campaign was over a period of three months and not at one time.
            Whenever we read about this, the author always writes 130,000 prisoners captured, making it sound like it took place in one battle!
            When reading Italian sources about the campaign, one will find that first, the figure of prisoners taken was between 110,000-115,000 and not 130,000 as written by Anglo Wikipedia and other sources.
            Second, the prisoners were captured in three different battles and not one Mass Surrender like the BRITISH FORCES IN SINGAPORE (85,000)!!!!!!!!!
            Sid Barrani, Dec. 10 38,000
            Bardia, Jan.10 45,000
            Tobruk, Feb 9 25,000
            Lastly, probably the most interesting and least talked about fact is that around 30-40% of the Troops in this campaign were Colonial troops and not mention the fact that Infantry divisions facing Armored ones stand little chance of winning without and armor and anti tank guns themselves.

    • 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, how their leadership, training and equipment was “inadequate”, etc,.

      But let’s take a step back.

      They “failed” in France, and yet they end up controlling and annexing French territory and gaining important concessions from the armistice agreement.

      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 and controlling 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 primary mission of protecting its convoys to North Africa and the Balkans, much to the chagrin of the British.

      They certainly did well in Somalia, driving the British out.

      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. bandenere01 says:

    Annales, your article is amazing !!

    Finally Italy is recognized as the wise one in the German- Italian belligerant partnership during the WWII. Germans acted insanely by all the points of view. They were the illogic, hot blooded, reckless, foolish and not the “latino” italians.

    Maybe it was a blessing that they ignored the italian “Comando Supremo”, surely history woud have had another outcome….

  6. Curious. I expected a lot more comments than “zero” to this article. Could it be a general disbelief or shock that the Germans could have been incompetent in many areas, especially as Axis allies to their Italian partners?

    The truth of the matter is that Germany was not a good ally to Italy. In fact, a strong case can be made that the so-called “ineffectiveness” of the Italian military was due largely to lack of support on the part of the Germans, particularly material support, but also political, strategic and diplomatic.

    The war that should have been won, was the Mediterranean! The enemy that should have been defeated, was England! The Germans, in particular Hitler, blundered seriously here. Some of his generals knew better of course, and favored the Italian strategic view as the right one. But, as usual, how could those “dagos” possibly know better than the Aryan “master-race”?

    Mussolini told Hitler Italy was not ready for a prolonged war until 1943. Hitler promised not to start war before then. But as usual, Nazi promises meant little, as Italy was to find out. Therefore, one could argue successfully that whatever military defeats and set-backs Italy had, can be laid at the feet of the Germans.

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