One of the most enduring myths of World War 2, along with “the cowardly French” and “the incompetent Poles”, is “the inept, gutless Italians”.
Of course, with the Italians there is plenty of circumstantial evidence.
In 1940, Italian troops were routed in Mussolini’s attempt to invade Greece. The Germans had to rescue the Italians – a humiliating setback for Mussolini.
The Italian attempt to join Germany in invading France was stopped cold by France’s line of border fortresses. Italian gains in France were measured in yards, not miles.
Then, early in 1941, the Italian army in North Africa was demolished, with hundreds of thousands of POWs, by a much smaller British force. This required the Germans to send Erwin Rommel – the leader of the Panzer group that had cut France in half the previous summer – to intervene with the German “Afrika Korps” – leading to a seesaw year and half of battling across Egypt and Libya.
Italy had several strikes against it, militarily.
Socialism: “But wait, Merg – Mussolini was a fascist! Literally! Fascists are the opposite of communists!” Only if you’re a professor with Marxist leanings. Fact was, Mussolini made the trains run on time by nationalizing them – and much of everything else. Since he seized control in 1922, Mussolini latched onto a vision of building a bigger, stronger Italy through aggressive government intervention in industry and economy.
As a result, Italy was deeply in debt when the war began; money that Italy could have used to modernize its military – to say nothing of its economy – was being paid out in debt servicing.
Just like in Obama’s USA.
Evolution: Italy was still a developing country in 1940. Italy’s industrial GDP was only a sixth that of France or Britain. It was still primarily an agricultural nation.
Bad Gear: In part because of industrial backwardness, but more because of the crushing debt burden, Italy’s military equipment was backward and largely obsolete, and sparse even so.
Not only was Italy’s primary tank during the war – the Fiat – yes, Fiat – Carro Armato M13/40 - a hopelessly obsolete mid-thirties antique even though it was built in 1940…
…but only 3,500 of them were built during the entire war – less than two months’ worth of production for the American Sherman tank.
Italy’s main fighter plane? The Fiat (!!!) CR42…
…which was distinguished by being the last biplane in first-line service with any major air force. It was, by the way, an excellent biplane fighter – which, in the life-or-death of air combat, is a poor consolation prize.
Italy’s rifle? The “Terni”- the Mannlicher-Carcano M1891 – was, as its model number shows, entering its fiftieth year of service.
It was a small, underpowered turnbolt rifle with an obsolete and troublesome mechanism. Worse, Italian doctrine and industry felt it sufficient for the Italian infantryman to be issued with 36 rounds of ammunition as his basic combat load. Bubba Schlockdorf carries more ammo into the woods to hunt deer in the fall.
Bad Leadership: All armies to one extent or another distinguish between officers and enlisted men. Officers are usually separate from the men – largely so life-and-death decisions don’t get colored by being excessively close to the men.
The Italian military took this to a highly dysfunctional extreme. Officers in the Royal Italian Army – remember, fascist government aside, Italy was still technically a monarchy – subscribed to many of the worst habits of militaries in monarchies; the enlisted men combined terrible living conditions, lousy pay and miserable status as draftees with a fairly weak non-commissioned officer corps.
As a result, Italian regular units’ morale often collapsed in the field under fire.
But Italian non-regular units – units selected from men who wanted to be there, and who were motivated to kick ass – fighter pilots, and especially men who fell under the very loose category “specal forces?” That was another story.
It was seventy years ago tonight that Italian “special forces” carried out one of the most devastatingly successful special missions in the history of warfare – one that very nearly changed the course of World War II.
Ever since the Italian fleet had been gutted at Taranto the previous winter, the British fleet had kept the Italian Navy bottled up in harbor.
But seventy years ago tonight, a tiny team of six Italian Navy frogmen riding three torpedos that had been converted into transports launched from an Italian submarine.
They slipped past the harbor defenses, and left a set of demolition charges underneath the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, as well as a Norwegian oil tanker.
And in the wee hours of the morning, all three charges exploded, ripping the stern off the tanker, and sinking the two battleships. They sank in shallow water, and both were recovered and returned to action…
…after a year during which their absence was badly felt in the Mediterranean.
The six Italian marines were captured by Egyptian police and turned over to the British.
At any rate – one of the enduring myths of World War II was “the Italians were incompetent cowards”. And – like “The French ran like scared bunnies” and “the Poles rolled over” – it’s as true as any wartime oppo propoganda ever is.