|Mussolini announcing the declaration of war|
In the conduct of the war, the Kingdom of Italy did not do well in the opening attack on France but then neither did Britain in their opening clash with the Germans or the Japanese in France and Malaysia nor did the Americans in their opening clashes with Japan in the Philippines or the Germans in north Africa. In Italian East Africa the Italians performed very well and were under the leadership of Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta who proved a very capable battlefield commander. His forces launched such a sudden and overwhelming offensive against British Somaliland that Churchill was furious at how quickly his forces had retreated with so few losses (his commanders rightly pointed out that suffering needless losses in a hopeless battle was not the mark of good leadership). Italian forces conquered British Somaliland as well as occupying border areas of the Sudan and British East Africa. When the Allies finally gathered overwhelming forces to take on Italian East Africa, the Italians offered fierce resistance that gained them the respect of the British and, when the end finally came, the Duke of Aosta won further admiration for the gallantry he displayed in surrender.
|Marshal Rodolfo Graziani|
In the first place, Italian resistance did not simply collapse and, if one cares to look, there are numerous accounts -from the British- of Italian forces fighting effectively and with immense determination, fighting to the death against impossible odds, not in numbers but with shells that were ineffective, outclassed tankettes and artillery that was incapable of penetrating British armor. As for those who surrendered, many of them were colonial troops who were reliable enough under ordinary circumstances but who were not going to go above and beyond to maintain the Italian empire. However, again, we have a double-standard clearly at play. 100,000 Italians were taken prisoner by a numerically smaller enemy force and so they are dismissed as cowardly. Does that mean that the British, Indians, Australians etc were “cowardly” for surrendering 100,000 men to a much smaller Japanese army of 36,000 men at Singapore and Malaysia? Of course not, nor should they be. Japan had many advantages they lacked and the British were unaware of certain pivotal Japanese weaknesses. Numbers alone do not tell the whole story. And, finally, the Italian forces did rally in the end to bring the British advance to a halt, though, again, most mainstream histories do not tell this story, preferring to portray the arrival of the German “Afrika Korps” as the only thing that saved Italian north Africa.
|General Valentino Babini|
At that point, of course, the situation changed considerably and Rommel has gone down in history as one of the greatest military leaders of all time for his stunning victories over the British in north Africa. What many fail to realize though is that the forces effectively under his command, which he used to win these masterful successes, were 2/3 Italian and the large majority of his armored forces were Italian tanks. His most able counterpart in this was Italian Marshal Ettore Bastico who had proven himself a very capable commander in his career, particularly his victorious campaign during the Spanish Civil War. The two often clashed (Rommel was notoriously critical of his superiors) but he was one of the few Italian officers that Rommel would at least listen to and Marshal Bastico correctly predicted that the second invasion of Egypt, that ended at El Alamein, would fail and exactly why. Unfortunately, his warnings, along with others, went unheeded.
|Italian offensive in north Africa|
|Italian submarine heroes|
|Italian militia fighting in Albania|
|Savoy Household Cavalry attack|
|General Heinz Guderian|
There were other victorious Italian engagements in Tunisia and in Italy itself after the 1943 armistice but, I hope, what has been said so far will be more than enough to illustrate just how ridiculous the popular portrayal of Italian military forces in World War II has been. Yes, some in the leadership were woefully inadequate to their tasks, yes, their weapons and equipment were often sub-standard and yes, Italian forces lost plenty of battles. However, the same could be said for every other power to one degree or another and the Italian forces also had some brilliant leaders, won some stunning victories and fought with great courage and tenacity time and time again. I have touched on this before but it is only because there are very few things that infuriate me more than those who have fought and died being denigrated and insulted, be it the Italians in World War II or the Austro-Hungarian forces in World War I. It is disgraceful behavior, it is unjust and, as I hope I have illustrated, it is just plain wrong and factually incorrect. They did not win, everyone understands that, but the royal armed forces of Italy in World War II had many achievements to their credit and many victories that they can be proud of.