As with the Italian Air Force and Navy, writers have put much emphasis on seemingly major weaknesses in the Italian Army’s organization and equipment when Italy entered the war in 1940. However, as with the Navy and Air Force, when putting these weaknesses in a relative context, they are less obvious. The Italian Army was large, particularly when comparing it with what it first was to come up against, and as such had great potential for adjustment and streamlining towards specific missions.
We have seen from the earlier articles in this series that the Comando Supremo (Italian General Staff – Badoglio) leadership in the spring of 1940 had decided that in the case of war Italy should take an active stance in the air and on the sea, but act passively on the ground. Germany had not yet invaded the Low Countries and France with the resulting disastrous result for the Allies so this was a rather prudent choice to make for the CS. The reality at the time was an undefeated France supported by the British Empire, both potential enemies having several common borders with Italy. Italy’s North African colony, Libya, was hemmed in by a British-dominated Egypt on one side and the French colonies of Tunis and Algeria on the other. Its Eastern colonies, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia were, in the case of war, threatened by British forces in British Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya. As during the First World War British Dominion forces could be mobilized in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India for this purpose.
With the British in complete control of the Suez Canal and dominating the Seas outside the Mediterranean, Italy had one specific problem that needed to be solved relatively fast if it entered the war – the continued supply and support of their forces in AOI – Africa Orientale Italiana. Italy’s common border with France could be defended by mainland forces and there was only a short, direct route from Italy to its Libyan colony. AOI, however, was surrounded by potential enemy forces and very hard to support as long as the British controlled the Suez Canal. The Italian Air Force had developed a long-range transport capacity, by flying across British-held territory (Egypt and Sudan), preferably during night-time, they could reach the Italian bases in the AOI, but this capacity was nothing near what was needed to supply the garrisons there which numbered several hundred thousand men with large quantities of equipment – vehicles, aircraft and armaments in need of constant resupply and maintenance. There was also an Italian naval contingent in the Red Sea. To make the supply of these colonies dependent on overseas transport would be nearly impossible with the Royal Navy controlling both Gibraltar, the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, with a multitude of naval and air bases along the long route around the Southern point of Africa.
The Italian first priority therefore ought to be the conquest of Egypt by a concentrated assault with all available forces to open up the transport route through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. This, however, did not fit into a passive army strategy. Therefore, no real maritime transport plans had been agreed upon by the Navy and the Army for an eventual rapid build-up of the Army forces in Libya (Bragadin).