Contrary to popular misconceptions, some units of the army fought well in World War II, but the army itself was basically a light infantry force lacking in equipment and poorly prepared for a modern European war. In 1940, it numbered 73 divisions—43 infantry; 5 Alpine; 3 light; 2 motorized; 3 armored; 12 "self-transportable," with a regiment of truck-drawn artillery; 3 militia, and 2 Libyan. Many military formations were understrength, and much of the army's equipment was obsolete at best. Morale was not always optimal, for many Italians thought their nation was on the wrong side in the war. The men were often indifferently led, as many officer appointments were made on the basis of party loyalty rather than ability.
An Italian infantry division was composed of two infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, an engineer company, and occasionally an attached Blackshirt (Voluntary Militia for National Security, or MVSN) legion. The "binary" division had only about 10,000 men at full strength. The royal infantry regiments pledged allegiance to the king, but the highly motivated Blackshirt legions, which numbered about 1,300 men each, swore loyalty to Mussolini. Many regular army officers deeply resented the inclusion of Blackshirt regiments in the army. In 1940, the equivalent of four MSVN divisions were destroyed in fighting in North Africa. Eventually, "M battalions" made of Blackshirts fought in the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia. They also manned antiaircraft artillery batteries throughout the Italian Empire.
In 1940, the Italian army had more than 8,000 artillery pieces, which were classified as divisional (field), corps (medium), and army (heavy). Much of the artillery was left over from World War I, and some guns were modernized World War I prizes, such as pieces manufactured at Skoda. In 1940, Italy had more than 1,200 tanks, but most were only two-man light "tankettes." Many of the larger models were too thinly armored to stop armor-piercing bullets, let alone stand up to northern European armor.
On 20 June 1940, Mussolini entered the war by attacking France in the western Alps with 32 divisions. The Italians did poorly, being largely held at bay by 5 French divisions. When the leaders in Paris surrendered on 24 June, the Italians took a small portion of southeastern France. The French admitted to having 37 soldiers killed in the campaign; Italian losses were 631.
On 28 October 1940, on short notice, Mussolini sent Italian troops into Greece from Albania. The invasion involved fewer than 100,000 Italian troops, and by late November, the Greek army had driven the Italian army back into Albania, where both forces suffered heavily in a bloody stalemate during the winter. Hitler came to the rescue of his ally on 6 April 1941, when German forces invaded Greece and conquered it in a few short weeks. Italian forces, chiefly the Second Army, also participated in the invasion and conquest of Yugoslavia that same month.
Italy's subsequent occupation of portions of Yugoslavia, France, Corsica, and Greece tied down numerous divisions. Resistance efforts created an ever growing list of casualties. During their occupation of Yugoslavia, the Italians raised a number of units usually organized on religious lines—Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim—from men seeking to fight the Partisans.
After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Mussolini eagerly offered Italian forces. Eventually, Italy sent more than 250,000 men to the Soviet Front. Most of the Italian Eighth Army was lost in the Battle of Stalingrad. Included in Italian forces operating mainly in the Ukraine was a Croatian legion raised in Croatia. The Italians also helped organize a small Cossack anticommunist volunteer group. If the units sent to the Soviet Union had been added to forces in North Africa, they might well have affected the outcome of the struggle there.
Italy made a major military effort in North Africa in order to fulfill Mussolini's dream of establishing a great Italian empire. Before the war, Italy had colonized Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia (Abyssinia). Italian forces there were, however, underequipped and undergunned compared with the British forces they had to fight.
Amedeo Umberto di Savoia, the duke of Aosta, commanded forces in Italian East Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea). Of his 256,000 men, 182,000 were "indigenous" levies. European colonists, including some Blackshirt troops, formed part of the units under the duke's command. Fighting there began in early July 1940 when the Italians captured a number of small British posts, but they halted their offensive in the Sudan when intelligence estimates magnified the actual British forces arrayed against them.
On 4 August, the Italians invaded British Somaliland from Ethiopia. They were able to overwhelm the small British forces defending that colony. The British withdrew to Aden, and their losses were only one-tenth those of the Italians. During the 1940–1941 winter, the British built up their resources, and beginning on 19 January 1941, they went on the offensive. By the end of 1941, the British had secured control of Italian East Africa.
In North Africa, Field Marshal Rodolfo Graziani commanded some 236,000 Italian troops. After the defeat of France, Italian forces were shifted to eastern Libya to face the British in Egypt. Major General Richard O'Connor, the British commander in Egypt, had only 31,000 men—largely from the 4th Indian Division and the 7th Armoured Division, later reinforced by the 6th Australian Division. Graziani appeared to be in position to overwhelm the outnumbered British; however, his troops were short of heavy artillery, tanks, and antitank and antiaircraft weapons, as well as transport and logistical support. A shortage of radios often reduced communications to relaying information by messenger.
On 13 September 1940, Graziani, pressed to act prematurely by Mussolini, launched an offensive against the British. The Italians fared badly, and by December, the British had penetrated the Italian chain of forts that were protecting the Libyan border but set too far apart to be mutually supporting. Many Italian units fought effectively but to no avail. By January 1941, the British had taken some 100,000 Italian prisoners.
In February 1941, General Erwin Rommel arrived in Libya with his Afrika Korps (Africa Corps). Although smaller in number than the Italian force and officially under Italian control, the Afrika Korps quickly became the dominant partner. The Germans were far better equipped and more effectively organized and led. By contrast, the Italians lacked mobility, adequate staffing, and an effective system of command and control.
The Italians fought back and forth across northern Africa until they were finally defeated at Tunis in May 1943. A major factor in the Axis defeat was Britain's control of Malta, which enhanced the British ability to intercept by sea and air supplies destined for Axis troops in North Africa. British communications intelligence, notably ultra intercepts, also played a role in the Allied victory.
In July 1943, the British and Americans invaded Sicily, held by 190,000 Italians and 40,000 Germans. The performance of Italian units varied widely. The newly formed and indifferently equipped coastal divisions, composed of middle-aged home guards, often surrendered without a fight. Certain defeat in Sicily led the Fascist Grand Council to strip Mussolini of power in July. Marshal Pietro Badoglio then formed a new government, and on 3 September, he signed a secret armistice with the Allies, to go into effect five days later. The Germans, well aware of Italian efforts to switch sides, immediately implemented plans to take control of Italy. When the Germans occupied Rome on 10 September, King Victor Emmanuel III and Badoglio fled south and made Brindisi the new seat of government. Meanwhile, German troops arrested and disarmed Italian army units. More than 600,000 Italians were deported to labor camps in Germany.
German commando units rescued Mussolini on 12 September 1943 and set up the Italian Social Republic (RSI), with its capital at Salo in the north. Many Fascists joined the new RSI army. New units and those from the former Italian army that remained loyal to fascism were formed into various bodies. The first of these was the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (ENR, National Republican Army), arranged into four divisions composed of formations newly raised by officers still loyal to Mussolini and mixed with some autonomous older units. Many thousands were recruited into the ENR divisions from among Italian soldiers interned by the Germans. These formations were usually trained in Germany and then deployed to Italy. Most of their fighting was against partisans.
The Guardia Nazionale Repubblicano (GNR, National Republican Guard) replaced the old Blackshirts. Basically a policing unit, it ultimately numbered 80,000 men. It was assigned to local security duties and fighting the partisans. Some GNR units in occupied France and Yugoslavia continued occupation duties in cooperation with the Germans.
As the struggle with the partisans intensified, all able-bodied Fascists were organized into a new militia, the Brigate Nere (Black Brigades). Formed in June 1944 as an armed branch of the RSI's new Fascist Party, this militia eventually numbered some 30,000 men. Composed of fanatical Fascists, it engaged in a no-holds-barred struggle with the partisans. The members of the Black Brigades were motivated by the belief that they would be killed in the event of a Fascist defeat.
The "x" mas (Decima Mas) unit was an autonomous force organized by Prince Julio Valerio Borghese. Composed of 25,000 volunteers, it gained a reputation for effective and hard fighting against the partisans, primarily Tito's Yugoslav Partisans in Istria. It also included a women's unit. In addition, the Germans recruited Italian volunteers into the Waffen-SS. These units had both Italian and German names and usually were commanded by German officers. They performed well on the Anzio Front and against partisans.
In the south of Italy, the newly reorganized government led by King Emmanuel and Badoglio established an "army of the south," with the status of a cobelligerent force. It was organized as the Corpo Italiano di Liberazione (CIL, Italian Liberation Corps). Composed of old Italian Royal Army men and units, to which new recruits were added, the CIL was formed into six weak divisions, known as "combat groups." With the transfer of some Allied units to participate in the Riviera landings in France, four of these divisions were brought into the line and saw combat. They fought well and sustained casualties of 1,868 dead and 5,187 wounded. Many Italians also served with the Allied forces in support units, handling transportation and ammunition and other supplies. Some of these units were muleteers working in the rugged mountain tracks. Partisan forces also fought in the north, behind German lines. As the war drew to a close, thousands joined partisan groups in order to sanitize their pasts or ensure their futures.
The Italian army suffered substantial casualties in the war. The total of those in the army who died fighting the Allies, in German reprisals following the armistice with the Allies, and in fighting the Germans probably exceeded 300,000 men. In addition, an unknown but large number were wounded, and some 600,000 were taken as prisoners. A. J. L. Waskey
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A. J. L. Waskey