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Italian Military of 1940: Facilitator or Victim of Mussolini’s Failed War Strategy?

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Part One  – Mussolini’s Failed Gambit

G. Boccasile’s propaganda postcard depicting the brotherhood between Italy and Germany.

The human cost of this war is incalculable. I can not understand how, after so much organizational effort, we are still to this: to rely solely on the “poor man” ( the private). And the poor man endures well, with superb moral energy. But, but …. If anyone of you hear dubious judgments about the privates, from here we enjoin you to attack these detractors and bite them to the death!
There will be many military trials to do, after, but not even one for the common soldier
.”  ~ Giuseppe Bottai in a letter to his wife sent from the Greek front. March, 1941

Perhaps no other set of events in recorded history have been as analyzed or discussed more thoroughly than those that transpired during the Second World War.  From scholars and historians to the common man, millions have poured over the volumes of accounts written on this pivotal moment in time in an attempt to gain insight and understanding into almost every aspect of what transpired during this momentous period in human history.

An almost universal commonality for writers and researchers that have put pen to paper to define the Italian military of 1940 has been the appreciation that it was totally unprepared to face the great conflict it seemingly dove headlong into.  This has now become the judgment of history.

During the years since the War’s final shots fired in anger rang out, and the world eased into the new age of the ‘Cold War’ and beyond, military historians have used gallons of ink to chronicle the shortcomings of the Italian armed forces, and in general the perceived poor results that it obtained during the conflict. While recently there has been a flux of information begin to emerge from previously untapped sources which now gives a more accurate appraisal of the Italian military’s performance during the war, the core reasons often referenced for the unpreparedness of the country’s fighting force has remained constant.

However, the reasons most often cited for these deficiencies are repeatedly drawn from a very restricted range of factors:  poor and outdated equipment, insufficient training of its soldiers, and the ineptitude in planning by the higher command.  While without a doubt these factors are unarguably true, at the same time they are too limiting to explain fully the cataclysmic break down of the Italian military, which ultimately led to the collapse, or eventual salvation depending on your perspective, of the nation in whole within approximately three years time.

The true question when searching to elucidate the performance of the Italian military, one that is scarcely discussed, is if it’s state of disorder was the cause or the effect of the nation’s ruination.  In other words, did the uneven military performance cause the collapse of the nation, or was it merely the expression of a society and government that was already teetering on the precipice of implosion?

Starting with this question, the aim of this article is to attempt to determinate the factors which caused the unpreparedness of the Italian military, focusing on the years that preceded the Second World War.  Of particular interest will be the shaping influences of the political and economic circumstances of that time, as the Second World War was to closely corresponded to the Clausewitzian view of war, which was perfectly summed up in the famous phrase uttered by the French statesman George Clemenceau “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men”.

The feelings of both the Italian people and its army

History has shown on numerous occasions that to win a war, particularly one of attrition, a nation requires not only a great military force, but also a popular and supportive consensus from its people. The backing of a country’s citizens is a critical component in a belligerent nation’s ability to successfully wage war.  The importance of this has never been underestimated by good national strategist and political decision makers, often viewing the challenge of winning public support akin to fighting on an internal front of the war; the more the citizens of a nation consider a war just or necessary, the more they are disposed to endure the sacrifices that inevitably arise from the endeavor.

Starting from this concept, we must consider that according to the Italian mentality of the time, a war was considered just or necessary when the following criteria were met:  It served to defend the borders of the nation and or to expel an invader, or if it was fought for a cause supported by the majority which plainly served the greater common good of Italy.  If Risorgimento and the First World War met both of these requirements, then the Colonial wars met at least the second; territorial expansion was considered as a real necessity by the Italian people at that time.  But in 1939, not having their borders under an imminent threat, and facing the daunting prospect of a vast empire that presented minimal short term benefit while requiring perhaps years to be settled, most Italians had not the slightest interest in going to war.

Also of importance in the years immediately preceding the war was that of the overall ‘feelings’ the majority of Italians maintained towards the citizens of other European nations.  Fascist directed propaganda continuously exalted Italy’s ‘brotherhood’ to Germany and her people, while at the same time it looked to whip up anti French and British feelings amongst the Italian populace. Despite the regimes best effort to alter the country’s perspective on who they viewed as their nation’s allies, for the common Italian citizen his feelings on the matter remained just the opposite of the government’s line. The heart of the explanation lay in the fact that for the average Italian man of 1940, he most likely had a grandfather or a great grandfather who had fought against the Germans in the Risorgimento, and whose father had most likely fought against the Germans in WWI.  To many the thinking was that the French, British and Americans were the allies who shared with Italy victory in the greatest war ever fought in the history of the world.

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  1. Spiritoromano says:

    The story was very simple. Unlike many western armies, the italian military on 1940 was a very spent force after the several victorious wars fought during the thirties in Africa and Spain. The last one, the spanish civil war, just ended on 1939 and there weren’t neither time nor resources to prepare the WW2. On 1939 there were even negotiations with Germany to obtain raw materials, but no agreement was accomplished. On the other side, even Usa had to wait some years before to restore properly the military and to be able to supply also many allies who were unprepared too for a world war. But Mussolini, despite the problems and the military isolation, decided to force the army to go to war. He thought that Germany would have won the WW2 in few months and that the italian support would have assured him to be a co-winner. The facts were different. The axis lost the war also because of the german wrong strategies that, for example, snubbed a bit the allies in north Africa (who invaded Italy later) and unilaterally chose to open a second unsustainable battlefront in Russia.

  2. The Italians also made it difficult for themselves by the spreading of their forces as they did. They had large, difficult to supply forces, in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia when the war started, as well as in Albania. I believe the Italians would have done wisely in concentrating their forces in their North African colonies only.

  3. Excellent article and sadly so true. If I can be so bold, I would highly recommend Bardia – myth, reality and heirs of the Anzacs by Craig Stockings. It covers in some detail Italian problems at the start of WW2.

    • Hi Peterg, Lorenzo the author of the article asked me to respond back to you, he is having difficulty logging in. Thanks, and Lorenzo wanted everyone to know that this was only part one of the article, and hopefully part two will be even better!!!

      Thanks for the info on the book also.