Operazioni Speciali

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…

A pair of CR42 biplanes.

…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.

An Italian manned torpedo. It was designed to carry two men, and a demolition charge, to the target; the men would swim to shore and attempt to escape.

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.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

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.

6 thoughts on “Operazioni Speciali

  1. As usual, a well researched entry with few “Well, but”s to cover. The monoplane fighters built by Macchi and Fiat, as well as the various bombers, had a common problem, which was that Italian aero engines, as a rule, were lacking in both horsepower and production.
    Tanks were short on manufacturing capacity for armor, engines and weapons.
    In a classic display of poor timing, the Italians were in the midst of changing from a 6.5 mm cartridge to a 7.35 mm cartridge at the beginning of the war and were still using both .303 British and 7.9mm Mauser ammo in machine guns. The Mannlicher-Carcarno was no older than or less effective than the Lee-Enfield ca.1886 or the system Mauser ca.1888 when they had the correct ammunition. As far as automatic weapons and grenades go, I think it sufficient to note they ranged from unspeakable to adequate and let it rest.
    The Italian Navy tried, but they just didn’t have the Nelson touch. The bright spot was their spec. ops. people. Luigi de la Penne and back seater were held in a below the waterline compartment on the Queen Elizabeth to persuade them to tell the Brits where the charges had been laid. They finally “broke” and “gave up” the location. About 10 minutes before the really loud noises happened. Got more to say, but I think it to be in bad taste to post more than the blog host. TTFN

  2. Nah, Larry, I’m glad you added what you did. The rather sparse section on the actual raid should tell you that I ran a bit short of time for “fit and finish” on this piece (which, unlike most of my WWII pieces, was actually written very recently; most of the series was written well over a year ago).

  3. Good stuff. The Poles actually decimated a German division early on, and the French did likewise not that long before Dunkirk. The Italians didn’t have a whole lot of stomach fighting for Mussolini and by proxy for Hitler. The fate of Italians captured near Stalingrad was horrible. The Finns had the unenviable burden of fighting with the Germans against the Soviets, though the rest of the Allies were more or less sympathetic to the Finns. Much of the same thing in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia… being pressed into service to fight against both your enemies and often each other. And then there were the Swedes, who sat it out by selling iron ore and perhaps more importantly for them, arming themselves to the hilt so that neither Hitler or Stalin would dare attempt taking them on. The French Foreign Legion was full of Germans, who were sent way south in Africa to avoid contact with Rommel’s army.

  4. Regarding the Italians under Mussolini, don’t forget his invasion of Ethiopia, which was greatly slowed by a defending army using SPEARS.

    Yeah, I’m thinkin’ that it wasn’t just equipment, but rather a crisis of motivation on their part.

  5. Regarding the Italians under Mussolini, don’t forget his invasion of Ethiopia, which was greatly slowed by a defending army using SPEARS.

    Okay, I can’t let that last comment go by without responding.

    Much like the whole myth that the Poles rode cavalry units into combat against tanks, so too have a number of myths survived about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

    The Abyssinian army in 1935 had anywhere from 500,000 to 750,000 troops, armed with a collection of new and old equipment. Against them were roughly 680,000 Italian and Eriteran soldiers. The Abyssinians actually were better equipped than the Italians in the first Italo-Abyssinian War in the 1890s – unfortunately for them most of the same weaponry was being used nearly 40 years-plus. But an army of half a million or more doesn’t disappear from the battlefield easily.

    The Italian invasion was plagued by engineering problems – huge ravens, mountain ranges and other natural barriers slowed the fascist advance which moved cautiously due to the Battle of Adowa in the first war that destroyed an entire Italian army and nearly lost all of Italian East Africa. The Italians were literally building a modern infrastructure as they advanced – building roads and bridges while they blew up the (relatively) few the Abyssinians had.

    To complicate matters, the Abyssinians launched a massive Christmas offensive in 1935, throwing nearly 200,000 troops against the weakest part of the main Italian army corps. The offensive set back Italian war plans weeks.

    In the end, the Italians took 6 months to occupy Abyssinia because they faced a determined opponent in one of the largest under-development countries in Africa at the time. Italian military thinking couldn’t envision a “blitzkreg” style attack against a weaker opponent, preferring the safer route of supplying a massive military based largely on their own colonial experiences (the Italians also needed huge numbers of troops to subdue Libya in the 20s & 30s).

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