There are several enduring myths about the Italians in the Second World War that have been largely created by the Anglo-American-German fraternity. In my research it appears that many Anglo-American historians have simply taken German disparaging, prejudiced accounts of their Axis partners – the Italians – on face value and to heart. For example, the Rommel Papers, and many of the reports and memoirs from an array of German generals such as Keitel, Kesselring (who made the snide remark that the Italians were “trained more for display than for action”), General von Thoma (who wrote to Hitler that Italian troops were useless, that “one British soldier was better than 12 Italian”), to Admiral Raeder and many others, were taken up by Anglo-American historians as the gospel truth. Indeed, the entire German hierarchy held, almost to a man, such deprecatory beliefs about the Italians. Rommel himself brought such beliefs with him to North Africa. As one writer explained, “the Italians were widely believed by the Germans to be weak, lazy, cowardly, and militarily incompetent.” I think this last statement pretty much sums it up. With an ally like this, who needs enemies!
Of course, as we all know on Comando Supremo, and anyone with a scrap of intelligence, this is all hogwash and nonsense. But back in the 1930’s and 40’s, political correctness and multicultural tolerance hardly existed, and certainly not in the German high command, where they were nearly all good Prussians: efficient, direct, strait-laced, opinionated bigots to the core. However, beliefs die hard. Even today, many Germans still believe that Italians are “weak, lazy, cowardly, and militarily incompetent.”
And since many Anglo historians share or have shared such racist sentiments, who were they to argue with the Germans, their “racial cousins”?
It is sad, but it is what it is. Fortunately, there is some light at the end of the tunnel from certain quarters: Prof. Richard Carrier of the Department of History, Royal Military College of Canada, being one.
In his very recent article, ‘Some Reflections on the Fighting Power of the Italian Army in North Africa, 1940–1943’ (War in History, 2015, Vol. 22:4 503–528), he makes a strong case that after the disaster of Operation Compass, Italian leadership and training dramatically improved. It was a steep learning curve, but one that, by and large, the Italians succeeded in. Certainly the Italians improved their performance whilst learning from their mistakes faster than the Russians who in contrast, required several disasters and nearly a million prisoners before they started to learn from theirs. The Italians did not have the luxury of time and space – but improve, they did.
The myth of Italian military ineffectiveness
Carrier has also exposed another myth for us: that of Italian military ineffectiveness, which he blames on two factors: the lack of familiarity of Italian military archives and official histories and the Rommel legend. Surprise, surprise! But hang on? His article was written in 2015 and still, even today, Anglo and German historians are unfamiliar with Italian archives!! Hard to believe, isn’t it? And yet, this is what Carrier maintains.
So my question is: when are those “weak, lazy and incompetent Oxbridge and Heidelberg professors ever going to get off their fat bottoms, leave their cushy little academia and fly down to Milan and Rome to do some real research by reading the archives, instead of just quoting their peers? David Irwing had a point when he complained that university professors working in prestigious universities, often with several letters after their names and tagged as “world renowned experts”, simply publish books year after year quoting each other! Well, let’s see. Professor Jones quoted Professor Smith who quoted Professor Schwart who got that pearl of wisdom from Mussolini’s barber forty years after the war! And so it goes. Those unfamiliar with academia are perhaps shocked, but that’s how it works, you see. Tenures at universities depend on professors publishing a certain number of books and/or articles each year, and if they don’t, they run the risk of losing their jobs.
But let’s get back to Carrier, an academic who hasn’t sold out and has retained his integrity. He goes on to write that “unfortunately, few of them [historians] have taken into consideration Italian sources at all, and many still trust the Rommel Papers as the most reliable source on Italian military performance.” Sad, eh?
The myth of low morale
Another myth that Carrier exposes is the myth that the Italian soldier was plagued by consistently low morale and a distinct lack of will to fight. “During the campaign, and contrary to common belief, Italian morale was not always low, even in the case of the infantry divisions.” This does not mean that after the disaster of Operation Compass, Italian morale did not reach rock bottom. Of course it did and it would be very odd if it didn’t. But what it does mean is that morale wasn’t always going to remain low. Morale soon recovered with the appearance of the Ariete and Trento armored divisions, more infantry and motorized divisions, as well as the arrival of the Germans. Any help was going to be appreciated from any quarter. (However, the assistance the Italians received from the Germans was not free of nuances and complications, as we will see later.) More importantly, the Italian soldier received better training. It is true that for the average rank and file, the training they received in Italy was not always of the highest quality nor sufficient. But after the mauling of Graziani’s 10th Army by the British, training improved markedly, training which occurred behind the lines in North Africa at centri di istruzione or instruction centers in order to increase their fighting performance for the fighting to come. With on the spot training, practical instruction, real field experience, armored reinforcements, as well as the support and example provided by the Germans, coupled with better tactics and equipment, the performance of the Italians improved significantly. According to Carrier, training requirements and methods were reviewed and implemented, and the result was impressive. In addition, infantry units and divisions were upgraded and better trained, with good results. For example, men were trained on how to use the 47mm anti-tank gun more effectively at close range against vulnerable parts of an enemy vehicle and how to use improvised explosive devices such as incendiary bombs for maximum effect. Even reputedly weak infantry units improved dramatically and gave a good account of themselves against the Australians at Tel el Makh Khad ridge. Carrier, having studied the primary sources from Italian military archives, confirms that Italian generals and officers took the matter of training very seriously. The Italian army in Libya by the winter of 1941 was quite different to the Italian army of June 1940.
Italian- German collaboration
The presence of the Germans was initially welcomed by the Italians. As stated previously, any help from any quarter was always going to be welcomed. It was often assumed by the British that the new, improved performance of the Italians and higher morale was “due almost certainly to increasing German influence both in organization and tactics” (British General Staff Intelligence, Brief Notes, p. 5 cited in Carrier, p.524). However, it wasn’t as simple as that. Carrier argues that this assumption, while seemingly correct, is difficult to prove “as primary and secondary sources have little to offer.” Probably the Italians didn’t want to admit that the presence of the Germans did in fact boost morale, or more importantly, they had learned new tactics and ideas from their German allies, as well as having the energetic Rommel as their commander. Notwithstanding the German factor, the arrival of reinforcements of infantry and amour like the Ariete and Trento divisions, plus improved training, allowed Italian morale and performance to recover from the shock of their mauling from the 9th December 1940 to February 1941. It is my view that the presence of the German divisions and Rommel added to an increase in morale and performance, but were not the originator of them. Italian officers were not clueless ninnies and stuffed shirts as many Anglo-German historians like to portray them as, preferring to eat pasta and play the mandolin than fight. The Italian officer class already had the leadership and knowledge skills to train their men up – they didn’t need the Germans for that. But certainly, having the Germans on the ground was the icing on the cake in that it contributed to an increase in leadership, morale and combat performance for the Italians. Carrier notes that their proximity to the Germans, literally eating, fighting and dying shoulder to shoulder, allowed the Italians to learn new tactical and operational techniques, which contributed to an improved performance against their British and Commonwealth opponents.
Carrier’s conclusion: that the Italian army moved on from the disaster of 1940 to become in his words, “an effective fighting force”, even though its successes were often overlooked by the Germans and the British. For all that, the real tragedy or irony of the North African campaign for the Italians was this: notwithstanding the much improved performance of the Italians and their ability to improvise with inferior weaponry to maximum effect, as the war continued their weapons became outdated and less effective, thus losing the technological race that would end in their defeat.
The Myth of Rommel and Poor Italian Leadership
No one is more scathing than Dr Sadkovich about the performance and myth of Rommel. I will end this overly long article with him. In his article ‘Of myths and men: Rommel and the Italian in North Africa 1940-42’ (International History Review, May 1991), Sadkovich, in a similar vein to Carrier, argues that while German campaigns certainly influenced Italian doctrine, they did not create it. Rommel and the Germans were not “tutors” to the often assumed hapless, incompetent Italians. Indeed, Sadkovich even goes so far as to hint that German officers like Rommel had a thing or two to learn from the Italians. What the Italians lacked were both quality and quantity of tanks, artillery and aircraft rather than any lack of military doctrine or leadership. Neither was Graziani the ignoramus he is often portrayed as being, in stark contrast to Rommel the Teutonic genius, since both had to resort to static defense and strong points. The dual Rommel genius/ Italians incompetent myth depended on the assumption that the Italians had collapsed so badly in February 1941, they were only saved by the Germans. Sadkovich makes the claim this is nonsense: that the British had neither the force nor the logistics to “waltz into Tripolitania”. In fact, the Germans would only help the Italians after the front was stabilized in Africa as they evidently saw little chance of the Italians being kicked out of North Africa anyway. Apart from being a rash commander, careless with logistics and men and with a poor grasp of strategy, Rommel had the undesirable and ugly trait of blaming his Italian allies for his own failures. Reading Sadkovich’s article, one is left with the impression Italian commanders on the ground had to cover up and fix all his mistakes as best they could. As leadership went, Italian generals like Bastico, Gambara, Cavallero and others were more competent and experienced than Rommel. Commanders like Bitossi actually had more armored experience than Rommel himself.
Cooperation between the Italians and the Germans was difficult at the best of times. Both appear to have had a mutual dislike and fascination with the other. While the German presence was undoubtedly a boon and a boost for the struggling Italians, we have seen that the Italians were largely able to recover from the disaster that befell them from December to February 1941, with new infantry and armored units, better training and leadership. While Rommel and the Germans were there to support the Italians, one feels they were an obstacle to the Italians as well. Personally, I believe that the Italians (as in Greece) could have managed well enough on their own, without the German presence. What the Italians needed most were German weapons rather than German troops and a rash, inconsiderate, over-bearing general like Rommel who wanted to run the show himself.
Well, Rommel eventually ran the show. Since the Germans wanted to take over the war in Africa, ending unilaterally the guerra parallela, then we can safely lay the responsibility for the eventual Axis defeat in North Africa at their feet. If someone takes the wheel of the car away from you because he’s convinced you’re too incompetent and unfit to drive, and eventually crashes, then who is really at fault here? For my money, it’s the Germans. As Sadkovich wryly commented, while Graziani lost Cyrenaica in three months, Rommel lost all of Libya in two years!
As I said: with friends like these, who needs enemies?