*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- Italian military campaigns

World War II: Italian Military Campaigns

Italy World War II
Figure 1.--This wire service photo shows Italian boys drilling in 1938. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had pompously bragged about Italy's the "8 million bayonets". He did indeed have 8 million bayonets, he did not, however, have a heavily indusdtrialized nation prepared or even capable of wageing modern war. Rather, banking on German strength, he calculated that the War would be short and decisive. He told confidants that it would be humiliating "to sit with our hands folded while others write history." He declared war on France after the Germans had essentially defeated the French Army and even then the French managed to stop the Italian invasion. This was only thebeginning of a series of Italian military fiascos. One matter that never seems to have occurred to Mussolini was what would be the future of Italy in Europe dominated by race-obsesssed NAZIs.

Mussolini was dazzeled by the military success of the NAZIs in Poland (1939) and in the West (1940). Mussolini ordered his own invassion in 1939 by seizing Albania. America and Britain tried to convince Mussolini to stay out of the War. Finally he joined Hitler in 1940 with an invasion of France, but only after France had been essentially destroyed by the Wehrmacht. President Roosevelt commented, "The hand that held the dagger has plunged it into the back of its neighbor." Even though France was near collapse, the Italians trrops performed poorly and had to ask for German support. Mussolini hoped to achieve territorial gains in North Africa (Tunisia) and southern France such as Turrin (figure 1), but Hitler would not allow it as the Italians had made no real contribution to the German victory. Perhaps miffed that Hitler did not consult with him, Mussolini carried out another invasion without consulting with Hitler--the invassion of Greece in 1940. After an extremely painful confrontation with Franco, Hitler arriving at the train station in Rome was told by an enthuiastic Mussoline, "Führer, we are on the march." It proved to be a dissaster. The Greeks drove the Italians back accross the Albania border. Even worse, it turned the Greeks which had a Fascist Government from a potentiall ally to an opponent from which the key Romanian oil fields could be threatened. Finally the Germans has to interced in 1941. Yugoslavia and Greece were quickly crushed, but Operation Barbarossa, the invassion of Russia, had to be delayed. The Italain attack on the British in Egypt proved to be another dissaster and Hitler had to send Rommem and the Africa Corps to prevent thh British from seizing Libya. Mussolini sent Itlaian forces to aid Hiter in the invassion of the Soviet Union. Few ever returned. The Italian people turned on Mussolini as the illconceived War turned against the Italians and their German allies.

The Axis

The Tripartite Pact was signed September 27, 1940. The agreement allied Germany and Italy (which were at war with Britain) and Japan (which was at war with China). Germany and Italy has since 1939-40 been at war with Britain. Japan since 1937 had been at war with China. The alliance did not require the partners to join these wars, but it did require them to come to each other's aid if attacked. The alliance became known as the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis alliance, or commonly the Axis. The three Axis partners German hegemony over most of Europe; Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean, and Japanese hegemony in East Asia. After the Axis agreement was signed, several German allies joined the Axis, notably Vichy France and Fascist Spain refused to do so. Japan had no Asian allies, except or the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Albania (April 1939)

Mussolini ordered the invasion of Albania as part of his efforts to build an Italian Empire in the Mediterrean (April 7, 1939). Although not given great attention at the time, because of the greater focus on the Germans and Czechoslovakia. The Italians deposed King Zog. There was no real Albanian resistance to the Italians. Albania did not participate in the war as an independent country because it was annexed to Italy (1940). Mussolini then used Albania to launch an invasion of Greece (1940). This was an action of some importance because it would then draw the Germans into the Balkans. The Greeks resisted and pushed the Italians back into Albania. The Italians were ultimately rescued by the NAZI invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece (1941). Under Italian occupation a ressistance movement dominated by the Communists. The Italians did not persue the Holocaust against Albania's small Jewish population. After the Italian surrendr and German occupation (1943) the Jews were argetted, but many were sheltered by Albanians. The Germans reeling from Red Army offensives withdrew from the Balkans (1944). Guerilla leader Enver Hoxa seized power and established a Communist dictatorship, one of the most reclusive of the post-War Communist countries. .

Italy Declares War (June 1940)

Hitler urged Italy urged Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini to join him and Stalin when they launched the War (September 1939). Hitler again met with Musolini at the Brenner Pass, but the Duce still declined to enter th War (March 1940). Defeating Poland was one thing, defeating the British and French was quite another. Britain tried to convince Mussolini to stay out of the War. The stunning succes of the German Western Offensive changed everything. Finally Mussolini he decided to join Hitler by declaring war on Britain and France (June 10, 1940). By this time the French had been essentially defeated by the German Wehrmacht which after Dunkirk had turned south. Banking on German strength, he calculated that the War would be short and decisive. Both he and Hitler expected the British to also quickly capitulate. Mussolini told confidants that it would be humiliating "to sit with our hands folded while others write history." Hitler was not impressed and tells confidants, "First they were too cowardly to take part. Now they are in a hurry so that they can share in the spoils." The thought of Hitler on his own conquering the Continent was too much for Nussolini's expansive ego to bear. He told his Armed Forces Chief, Marshal Badoglio, "I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought." Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister and Mussolini;s son-in-law, wrote, "Mussolini speaks from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia. The news of the war does not surprise anyone and does not arouse very much enthusiasm. I am sad, very sad. The adventure begins. May God help Italy." [Ciano] At this late date such intervention was of no real value. Mussolini hoped to achieve territorial gains in North Africa (Tunisia) and southern France such as Turrin, but Hitler would not allow it as the Italians had made no real contribution to the German victory. And he not only had allowed France to retain's its empite as a part of the armistice agreement, but hoped to convince the French to join his war. One matter that never seems to have occurred to Mussolini was what would be the future of Italy in Europe dominated by the all-powerfull race-obsesssed NAZIs. President Roosevelt commented, "The hand that held the dagger has plunged it into the back of its neighbor." This was a vivid metaphor, but not well chosen--an uncommon political miscue for Roosevelt in an election year. Many Italian Americans considered it an ethnic slur. And Italian Americans were an imortant part of the Democratic coalition.

Invasion of France (June 1940)

Mussolini ordered Italian forces to invade southern France. It wasknown as the Battle of the Alps and the first Italian engagement of World War II. Even though France was near collapse, the Italians troops performed poorly. The whole operation was badly though out. The border was mountanous and heavily fortified. The Germans had avoidd the heavily fortified Maginot Line. The Italians attacked not only against strong defenses, but ober mounaneous terraine. The battered French managed to stop the Italian invasion. The Italiand had to ask for German support. This was only the beginning of a series of Italian military fiascos. The Italians lost 631 men killed and 2,631 wounded, with an additional 616 reported missing. Some 2,151 men were stricken by frostbite during the campaign. French losses totaled 229 casualties. After the French had surrendered to the Germans (June 22), Italy and France signed the Franco-Italian Armistice (June 24). The French agreed to a minor Italian zone of occupation. Mussolini learned nothing from the fiasco of his Grench offensive. A few months later he would not only order another poorly thoughout and prepsred offensice against mounntenus defenses -- Greece. And this time he woukd order it just as winter was setting in.

Battle of Britain

Having played no real role in the defeat of France, Mussolini ordered the Italian Air Force to aid the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. The Italians again place no real role. They arrived after the Royal ir Force had essentially defeated the Luftwaffe. The Italians soon realized they were outclassed. As a result, the Germans gave them airfiels in Belgium and and assigned them targets along the eastern coast. This meant that the Italians did not have to go inland. Theu could drop their bombs and retire before the RAF could engage them. After a few months of minimal activity, the Italians withdrew.

Invasion of Greece (October 1940)

Mussolini invaded Greece through Albania (October 28). Perhaps miffed that Hitler did not consult with him as he invaded Poland and France, Mussolini carried out another invasion without consulting Hitler. Unlike Albania, the poorly armed Greeks fought. After an extremely painful confrontation with Franco, a surprised Hitler arriving at the train station in Rome was told by an enthuiastic Mussolini, "F�hrer, we are on the march." Hitler was furious although he did not show it in public. And we do not know wjhat he told Muoini in private. Hitler was angry because having been frustrated by Britain, he was had decided to strike east. And to concentrate his strength he wanted a safe southern flank. He had already made progress in brining the Balkan countries into the Axis. Greece was a Fascist country, albit with ties to Britain. The Greeks, however, were primarily concerned with their independence and would have been happy to have remained neutral a left alone. But now Mussolini has stirred opened up a new front and stirred up a beesnest. Hitler wanted Mussolini to focus on Egyot, but now the Italian army ha two fronts on its hands and not doing well on either. The Greek in vasion proved to be a dissaster from the onset. And only got worst as the winter set in. The weather proived to be a factor. Musolini, genius as it was, had launched an attack though mountnous territiry just as the fall weahger began to turn cold. The Greeks not only resisted, but drove the vaunted Italians Armny back accross the Albania border. Even worse, it turned the Greeks which had a Fascist Government from a potentiall ally to an opponent from which the key Romanian oil fields could be threatened. Ultimately the Germans has to interceed. But for 9 months the Italians wre stuck in draining campaign in the albanian mountains while the Britih in Egypt laujnched a counter attck and nearly destroyed Italian forces in Liby (December 1941). Hitler intervened to sabe the Italians. Firstr he sent ERwin Rommel and a small armored force to Libya (March 1941). Thgen after a copp in Yugoslavia, Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941). It was a text book Blitzkrieg Grman campasign. Yugoslavia and Greece and a British expeitionary force were quickly crushed, but of much more importance, Operation Barbarossa, the invassion of Russia, had to be delayed a few critical weeks.

The Western Desert (1940-42)

The Italain attack on the British in Egypt proved to be another dissaster and Hitler had to send Rommel and the Africa Corps to prevent the British from seizing Libya. Once it was clear that the French Army was defeated, Mussolini decided to join Hitler and declared war on France and Britain. Even though German armies were pouring through France, Mussolini's attack in the south was unsuccessful. Mussolini also invaded Egypt from Libya, hoping to seize the Suez Canal (September 13, 1940). Although badly outnumbered the British 8th Army not only stopped the Italians but counter attacked (December 9, 1940). The British move toward Benghazi with a series of victories. The Italians are near collapse. Hitler in order to prevent the fall of Libya orders a small armoured force to Libya to support the Italians. The force under Erwin Rommel begins to arrive March 22, 1941. Rommel and his Africa Korps stop the British and even though he has only a small force launches a counter-attack (March 30, 1941). Rommel drives the British back into Egypt. Here Rommel's inovatic tactics and the superority of the German Panzers were critical. ANZAC resistance at Tobruck helps to stop Rommel. A British counter offensive drive Rommel and the Italians back into Libya (November 18, 1941). It is at this time that Churchill honors a pledge to assist Greece weakens the 8th Army. Rommel strikes and again drives into Egypt (January 21, 1942). This time Rommel takes Tobruk (June 21, 1942). He moves toward Suez, but is stopped after a ferocious battle at El Alemain (July 2, 1942). A standoff occurs as the two armies prepare for a show down. Churchill gives Montgomery command of the 8th Army (August 13, 1942). This is the highwater of the German war effort. Rommel is only a few miles from Suez and Von Paulitz's 6th Army is investing Stalingrad. Here America's entry into the War begins to swing the ballance. American industry provided Montgomery, with supplies and equipment in massive quantities. The Germans bogged down in the Soviet Union can not devote the men are material needed by Rommel. The British defeat of the Italian Navy in the Mediterrean means that much of the supplies sent to Rommel are sunk. The British are assisted in this effort by Ultra.

East Africa (1941)

On paper it looked like the Italians also had a large force in Ethiopia. The Italian forces were, however, weak and their Ethiopian auxileries of questionable loyalty. It was the British, despite their numerical inferiority, who attacked the Italians. The British put together a small force of South African and African colonial troops. They were supported by Ethiopian insurgent guerrillas. Colonel Orde Wingate, who was later to play an important role in Burma, coordinated the operations of the Ethiopian guerrillas forces. Behind the British forces, Emperor Haile Salassie returned to Ethiopia, arriving in Gojam (January 20, 1941) and began organizing the resistance groups. The British launched a southerm and northern offensive. The southern offensive involved moving north from Kenya into Italian Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia. The initial objective was to isolate the Italian forces in the Ethiopian highlands. Unlike the Italian Army in Libya, the Italians in East frica had no way to obtain supplies and refinforcements as a result of the Royal Navy control of the Indian Ocean. The major British offensive was directed at the Harer and Dire Dawa, which was designed to cut the rail line between Addis Ababa and French Djibouti which at the times was in Vichy hands. The British were incontrol of Italian Somaliland (March 3). A scond prong of British troops from Sudan drove into Eritrea which cut the Italians off from the Red Sea. The northern campaign climaxed with the Battle of Keren and the defeat of Italian troops in Eritrea (March 27). The Italian governor initiated negotiations for the surrender of the remaining Italian forces. Haile Selassie triumphantly reentered Addis Ababa (May 5). Isolanted Italian forces continued to resist. The final Italian forces surredered at Gonder (January 1942). Ethiopia thus became the first country the Allies liberated from Fascist invaders in World War II.

The Mediterranean Naval Campaign (1940-43)

The Mediterranean became an active theater of war when Italy entered the war (June 1940). Italy had a modern fleet and with France out of the War, immediately challenge the beleagered Royal Navy for control of the Mediterranean . The Italian fleet supported by air bases in Libya, Sicily, and Italy posed a formidable challenge. The British controlled the two entances to the Mediterrean (Suez and Gibraltar). In between and in many ways the key to the Mediterranean was the small British bastion at Malta. When the Italians faltered, they were bolstered by German first by the Luftwaffe and then by Rommel's Aftrika Corps. Italy's entrance into the War brought important asetts into the NAZI war effort which could be arrayed against Britain. It also meant, however, that Britain was able to bring its greatest assett, the Royal Navy, to bare against the Axis. The Mediterranean can not be viewed as entirely a naval war. The relatively small size of the Mediterranean meant that air power in particular could be borought to bear against naval forces and ground fotces seized naval bases as well as knocking two major powers (France and Italy) out of the War.

Air War

The Regia Aeronautica Italiana (Italian Royal Air Force--RAI) was the air force of the Kingdom of Italy. It had operated as a unit of the Royal Italian Army during World war I, but was created as a independent service (1923). The RAI played a major role in the Italian invasion od Ethiopian (1935), porimarily by using poison gas in the country side and bombing cities, especially Addis Ababa. The RAI was poorly equipped in European terms, but Ethiopia had no air force with which to oppose the Italians. Without these terror operations, it woukd have taken much more time for the Italians to occupy Ethiopia. The RAI along with the Luftwaffe was deployed in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). At the onset of World War II (1939), the RAI had an impressive 3,300 aircraft, but only about 2,000 were operational and most were obsolete types. The RAI was the smallest and most poorly equipped of the three Axis air forces. The RAI had, for example, only 166 modern fighters. The Macchi MC-200 and Fiat G-50 were the best Italian fighters, but were slower than Allied fighters. The RAI's primary fighter was the obsolete Fiat CR-42 biplane. The RAI was illprepared for a modern European war. And the small national aircraft industry was unable to improve that situation during the War. Notbonly was the Italian aviation industry small, but it used inefficent production methods. Their German allies offered technical assistance, but this did not materially improve the sitution, in part because the Italians did not want to admit their technical inferiority. Fortunately for Italy, the Germans at the time Italy declared war had largely defeated France which had a modern airforce, but this left Britain to contend with. Despite its small size and inferior aircraft types, the RAI could have played an important role in the War if it had been effectively used to support the Italian Navy in the Mediterranen sea battles with the British Royal Navy (1940-41). It was not. There were no effort to tran with the Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy-RM)before the War. And much of the RM was destroyed before such cooperation could be improved. And the obsolete RAI aircract could offer littke support to the Italian Army in the Western Desert when it attacked (September 1940). The RAI did not even protect RM naval bases, such a Taranto which was struck by British carrier aircraft (November 1940). The importance of Malta soon became apparent in the Axis effort to take Egypt. Malta threatened the critical supply convoys to Italian-occupied Libya. The RAI began bombing Malta, but had littkle impact. This changed after the Germans inserted ground forces to prevent the British from taking Libya (March 1941). This was followed by the deployment of the Luftwaffe to southern Italy, Sardinia, and Sicily. The first Luftwaffe bombers arrived in Sicity (September 1941). The main focus becane Malta and the protection of convoys suppyling the German and Italian forces in the Western Desert. This meant reducung the ability of the Luftwaffe to support the critical Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union. Mussolini followed Hitler's declaration of war on the United States which meant that the RAI now faced the rapidly expanding American air forces (December 1941). Hitler used Italian air bases when he ordered the Luftwaffe instead of supportng the Staligrad pocket was to rush German troops to Tunisia (October 1942). The fall of Axis air bases in North Africa meant that the United States coud begin bombing Italy. The RAI was unabke to offer effective resistance. After the Italian surrender (September 1943), the United States used Italian bases to both bomb the Romanian oil fields (Germany's primary source of petroleum) and the Reich itself, opening a new front in the stategic bombing campaign.

Operation Barbarossa (June 1941)

Mussolini sent Itlaian forces to aid Hiter in the invassion of the Soviet Union. Few ever returned. Hitler launched his long-planned attack on the Soviet Union--Operation Barbarossa (June 22, 1941). As with other German offensives, there had been no consultation with their Axis ally before the attack. The Germans did not trust Mussolini and the Italians to keep the plans secret. Upon learning of the invasion, Mussolini immediately ordered Italian units to join the attack. This was at a time when the Italian Army in Libya had been badly mauled by the British Army in the Western Desert. The Corpo de Spedizione Italiano in Russia" (CSIR) was hastily organized. The CSIR initially consisted of three divisions with about 60,000 men. The CSIR was assigned to the southern sector of the Eastern Front. The CSIR was redesignated the Italian 8th Army (July 1941). The inintial units were reinforced with additional units including the newly the Alpini Army Corps made up of three Alpini Divisions. The 8th Army eventually totaled 250,000 men. Little serious preparartion was made to fight in Russia or adequately equip the 8th Army. Mussolini's primary concern was to deploy the 8th Army in time to make a contribution before the Soviet Union collapsed. This would allow him to claim a share of the spoils. Hitler had denied Mussolini a share of the spols in France because Mussolini only declthe ared war after France had already been laregly defeated. Hitler had even refused to reward the Italians with Tunusia. Mussolini at Verona reviewed the first motorized division moving for deploment (June 26, 1941). The Italian people turned on Mussolini as the illconceived War turned against the Italians and their German allies.

Operation Torch: North Africa (1942-43)

British and Italin/Germany armies launches offensives which swung back and forth between Egypt and Libya. It looked like Rommel's Africa Corps might reach Suez in 1942, but the British stopped him at El Alemain. Here the two armies prepared for a decisive battle. The Africa Corps supply lines crossed the Mediterranan where with the help of Ultra, the British destroyed large quantities of supplies. The British in turn had longer supply lines, but their new American allies delivered vast quantities of weapons and supplies. This enabled Montgomery's 8th Army to smash the Africa Corps (October 1942). This was followed by Operation Torch, Amercan and British landings in North Africa, driving east to link up with the British advancing west (November 1942). While generally given less attention than other campigns, the Anglo American offensive, joined by the French French played an important role in the Eastern Front. The Wehrmacht's strategic reserve had not yet been committed in November 1942. All rational calculations argued for it to be committed against the Soviets in the struggle over Stalingrad. Hitler instead used major components to hold Tunisia. The Luftwaffe was ordered to launch a massive operation to transport troops to Tunisia and support them. More than 1,000 Junkers transport planes were loss in the effort, planes and crews which could have been used to supply the 6th Army at Stalingrad. The Axis lost 200,000 soldiers at Stalingrad, but 250,000 in Tunisia--about Half Germans. These were losses of such magnitudes that the Germans could not replace them. [Atkinson] North Africa was also notable because the Anhlo-American military operation was worked out and the American army obtained its first combat experience.

Sicily (July 1943)

The Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation Huskey, was the next step in the Mediterranean campaign after the Axis surrender in Tunisia. Control of sicily would mean Allied control of most of the Mediterranean. The Allies had two other goals. Sicily would provide critical bases for an invasion of Italy. An Allied invasion of Italy in turm would maintain pressure on Germany and force it to divert forces from the Atlantic Wall in France and the Eastern Front in Russia. The invasion was Operation Husky and involved risks. Unlike the Torch invasions, the Axis had strong forces on Sicily that could be expected to vigorous contest the landings. The landing flotilla had to brought from England exposing it to U-boats nd Luftwaffe attacks. The island was defended by the Italian 6th Army, with over 200,000 men, and two German divisions, the 15th an 90th Panzer Grenadiers. The Italians had performed poorly in North Africa. It was unclear how they would fight on actual Italian ground.

Allied Invasion of Italy (July 1943-April 1945)

Marshall Bodaglio arrested Musollini (July 25). Bodgalio and the King tried to convince Hitler that they were committed to the War. Hitler did not belireve them for one minute and 12 divisions, despite the deteriorating conditions on the Eastern Front, were rushed south into Italy. With the Italian surrender, the Germans occupied Italy (September 1943). Several months of very diffifult fighting followed the Allied landinfs at Salerno. Kesserling very effectiently organized the German defenses. The Germans while in control of Rome seized more than 1,000 Jews who were deported to Auuschwitz. American intrcepts recently released reveal that Hitler himself overrode his local commanders on arresting the Jews. These intercepots also make it clear that Pope Pius XII's policy of silaence primarily stemed from a cponcern to protect the physical integrity of the Vatican. [Katz] Rome was liberated by the Americans on June 4, but the Allied failed to trap sizeable German units. The world's focus turned on July 6 to the coast of France and the D-Day invasion. The final NAZI defensive line in northern Italy, the Gothic Line in the Apennine Mountains was assaulted by the American 10th Mountain Division (February 1945). [Jenkins]

NAZI Rescue

After the fall of Sicily, Mussolini was removed from power by the Fascist Grand Council (July 1943). Even his son-in-law Count Ciano voted to renove him. He was arrested and detained in remote locations as the Italians were fearful that Hitler would try to rescue him. Which is precisely what he did. A small German paratrooop unit used gliders to free Mussolini from the Gran Sasso mountain top in the Abruzzi Mountains during the Badoglio putsch in 1943. It was a daring operation conducted by SS Major General worthwhile to make a Hollywood movie about it, inconceivable of course, because that would glorify the NAZIs. He did it with 90 soldiers who used gliders. The Italian garison of 250 men, who were guarding Mussolini, were taken by surprise and surrendered within minutes. One year later Skorzeny was ordered to kidnap the Hungarian Regent Admiral Horthy who was planning to negotiate an armistice with the Russians. This was to doom the Hungarian Jews. He also brought this to a successful conclusion for Hitler. In 1944-45, during the Ardennes offensive, he commanded a special brigade of 2000 English-speaking Germans disguised as American soldiers to cause chaos behind the Allied lines. Skorzeny died in Madrid in 1975. He was one of those fanatic Austrian NAZIs of Czech or Hungarian descent, like SS Obergruppenfuehrer Odilo Globocnik who was largely in charge of the extermination of Polish Jews, and SS Major Dieter Wisliceny , the man responsible for the mass deportation and murder of Jews from Slovakia, Hungary and Greece.


Ciano, Galeazzo. Hugh Gibson, ed. The Ciano Diaries, 1939-1943 (Garden City Publishing: New York, 1946), 582p.


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Created: March 17, 2004
Last updated: 10:16 PM 2/4/2017