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War in the Mediterranean – Part 4 – Italy on the brink – Regia Aeronautica

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How was the situation for the RA – Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) just before Italy entered into the immense event that became the Second World War? Did they have the equipment, the people, the organisation? Did they have a choice? What were the Italian intentions with the war? How was their Air Force meant to contribute to this?

On June 7th 1940 the following message was transmitted from the S.M.G. – Stato Maggiore Grande – the Italian Superior Command:

“In confirmation of the communication from today’s meeting of Head of S.M., I repeat that the order of the Duce is the following; Keep an absolute defensive attitude towards France (Alps, Corsica, Tunisia, Djibouti), both on land and in the air. At sea: If you encounter French and British forces together consider attack on all enemy forces: If you encounter only French forces only evaluate their intentions but be not the first to attack unless you are set in an unfavorable condition”.

Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 – queen of the Italian Air Force

 

Il Duce obviously saw the British as his most dangerous enemy. This was three days before Italy declared war on France and Great Britain, nine months after the German invasion of Poland. The British had just been driven out of France and the Germans were now on the verge of breaking the French defenses along the River Somme, which would be their last realistic defense line. Mussolini was ready. Or was he? It is interesting to see the similarities in the organizing of the German and Italian leadership. At the top of the pyramid were the two dictators, both acting as Supreme Commanders of their military establishments. Both had only a minimal immediate staff to support them in their strategic planning and coordination of the three main military branches, the Army, Navy and Air Force. Consequently, there was always the problem of integrating these forces efficiently in their operations. Hitler worked this system purposely to keep control over his generals, to separate them, so to speak. Mussolini probably did not understand the drawbacks of this system and he was very disappointed when in June the King stated that he would stand as the formal Superior-in-Command, even if the practical leadership was delegated to Mussolini. Mussolini was a not a military man as such, on this point he resembled Hitler, but saw his way forward mainly from a political point of view. The British, on the other hand, had gone the other way with an overly complex command network. For the fighting around the Mediterranean this would not complicate matters that much as much responsibility was delegated to the local commanders. There was another similarity between the Italian and German leadership. The leaders directly below the two dictators were vehemently opposed to entering into war – at the time. Mussolini’s aim was simple. He wanted to increase Italy’s stature in the Mediterranean and as a colonial Power. Like Hitler he saw a need to expand the territories available for Italian expansion – Lebensraum. To this purpose he was willing to compromise and endanger himself as to which partners he chose to achieve his aims.

The Ethiopian adventure had worked out well for him. Even if the other great powers had protested and the League of Nations voted for embargo on trade with Italy, this had resulted in but minimal practical problems. The same can be said about Italy’s engagement in the Spanish Civil War, followed by the superficially disguised inclusion of Albania into Italy. The nations that could have put a break on Mussolini in these places discreetly looked away, not to contribute to a further approach between Italy and the fast upcoming Germany. With Ethiopia safely in the bag, Mussolini could now look to his two other projects, North Africa and the Balkans. The relatively new Italian colony of Libya was firmly established after the subjugation of the domestic resistance in the beginning of the thirties, a resistance that had lingered on and off for twenty years. But, there were also large Italian minorities in French Tunis, the Western neighbor of Tripolitania. Here was a pretext to contribute to the downfall of France. If Great Britain did not follow France in her fall, Egypt, with the Suez Canal, would have to be an important target for Italy to secure its communication line to Italian East Africa. In the beginning of June, after the British headlong flight from Dunkirk, it was not unreasonable to think that England eventually would come to terms with the Axis.

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