Italy’s World War Disaster November 15, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Italians and World Wars don’t really get on. A combination of poor military culture and one of the most macho yet incompetent political classes on the planet made for messy interventions, and amputations rather than extrications. However, even by sorry Italian standards, the six weeks beginning 28 Oct 1940 and ending 7-8 Dec 1940 were appallingly bad. First, though take a step back and get a broader sense of the trajectory of defeat for Italy in WW2. WW2 breaks down, in fact, into four pretty discreet phases for the people that the British Foreign Office called ‘the Ice-Creamers’. I) Sept 1939 to early June 1940 Italy sits happily on the sidelines, giving moral support to Hitler and shouting the odd insult at the western democracies. II) 10 June 1940 to 27 Oct 1940 Italy enjoys its only successes. It occupies British Somali-land and pushes some way into Egypt; it joins Germany in armistice negotiations with France and it holds its own against the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. III) 28 Oct 1940- July 1943, Italy experiences a period of defeat. IV) 10 July 1943 to war end, Italy collapses under Allied, then German invasions. The key to the Italian experience is the third phase and the tone for that phase comes from three only loosely connected disasters. With the exception of France in May June of 1940 no major power has ever gone down in the ring so fast and so hard.
Disaster one: Let’s go to Greece!
This one was entirely self inflicted. 28 October Mussolini, having given his armies about two weeks to prepare for an invasion of Greece, sat back and watched the results. As the stubborn Italian troops, their brave but incompetent officers and their execrable generals began the attack all hell was let loose. The problem was that the thunderbolts came crashing down from the Greek heavens. The Italian high command seems not to have noticed that they were facing a foe that was numerically superior, that had far higher morale and who were defending their homeland (‘desperate men’), and who were, too, arguably better armed. The Italian attack came to an almost immediate halt and then the Greeks did what third rate Mediterranean powers should never do, they counterattacked. On many parts of the front Italians were pushed back beyond their starting place. Not the least interesting fact about the war in Greece is that Mussolini organised it because he felt slighted by Hitler freelancing in Romania…
Disaster two: 21 obsolete bombers
The night of St Martin’s day, 11 Nov, long may it live in glory, the British staged an attack on Italy’s chief port, Taranto, where most of the Italian battle fleet stood at rest. Twenty-one, for the most part, obsolete planes flew from HMS Illustrious, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Carrier and in two waves, in an eerie if small scale premonition of Pearl Harbor (which was already being war gamed), flew low at Italian targets. Half of Italy’s major vessels were knocked out of action in just over an hour. Two of the twenty-one planes were shot down: and only one crew killed; the other crew became POWs and, anyone who knows the Italians will not be surprised, were treated well. The Italian navy had been warned to move the fleet from Taranto once the attack on Greece began, as British carrier planes would be able to enter Greek waters and come within range. Yet two weeks later… The German War Diary noted that the Royal Navy had pulled off the biggest coup of the war at sea thus far: high praise, indeed. Certainly, in a single evening, Andrew Cunningham, Britain’s best admiral had shifted the balance of power in the Mediterranean decisively in Britain’s favour.
Disaster three: Running for Tripoli!
Britain had a concentration of talent in the Mediterranean for as well as Cunningham there was Richard O’Connor, one of a handful of impressive British generals from the last war, and the crown’s go-to-man in Egypt. 7-8 December O’Connor began Operation Compass, the British counter attack in the western desert against the small Italian gains of the late summer. O’Connor carried out a classic WW2 action, with interdiction against enemy airfields, followed by a rapid armoured advance. (An Italian reconnaissance plane picked up British concentrations but news never got to the general…) The biggest problem the British faced was the sheer number of prisoners, 115,000, who tumbled like ripe fruit into their hands: the picture at the head of this post shows some of those unfortunate men. Graziani, the Italians’ incredibly vain and foolish warleader promised Mussolini that he would retreat to Tripoli and defend the citadel there. When Mussolini read his dispatch he must have understood that the war was over.
Fascist Italy never got over the triple whammy of Greece-Taranto-Compass. In Greece and in Northern Africa Italy would, in fact, have to enlist German help (which had previously been refused) to stem the Allied tide: by the spring Italy was no longer an independent great power, it was a German satrap much like Hungary or Romania. The Italians could have clawed back advantage at sea, their navy was a capable one, but at the Battle of Cape Matapan 27-29 March 1941 the Royal Navy, in the last fleet action in its history, would show again that it had the edge over the Italians. At about the same time the British begin to tear apart the Italian Empire in the Horn, where the Italians, it transpired, had their most capable warriors (naturally unsupplied by the motherland). Mussolini had made three mistakes: first, he should never have entered the war; second, he should have understood that his attacks in the period of success showed signs of Italian incompetence (worryingly high casualties etc); and third, he should have swallowed his pride over Romania and not touched the brave Greeks.
Any counterfactual lovers out there might like to ask the question: what would have happened if Mussolini had done the sensible thing and not declared war 10 June 1940: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
29 Nov 2014: DouglasY writes, ‘Reading your latest post reminded me of a story that I was told only a week ago about the Irish Guards in North Africa and the many Italian POWs taken there. Apparently after one successful battle against the Italians the Guards were watching whilst a long line of Italian POWs were being marched past, when up pipes a voice form the prisoners ‘Anybody here belong to Whites?’ The Guards officers were taken aback; of course they all belonged to Whites and, harrumphing, hauled the questioner out of the column of POWs. Who the devil are you?’ ‘I was a sous-chef at Whites’ So the Commanding Officer made the kind of instantaneous decision that is essential to winning a war… ‘Right then, you aren’t a POW any more, you are now the regimental chef.’ And so he remained for rest of the war.’ And Leif with a more general comment, which is difficult to gainsay. ‘In ‘War and peace, Lev Tolstoy considered Napoleon and other ‘great men’ insignificant– flotsam to be scattered by the sea of history. According to this view, Mussolini’s 1940 declaration of war cannot be taken in isolation. Mussolini lead Fascist Italy as a dictator who could remake a society according to his will, aided by a personality cult and unencumbered by any opposition or law. Fascism gave us the term ‘totalitarianism’, defined according to Mussolini: ‘Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.’ [Speech to Chamber of Deputies (9 December 1928), quoted in Propaganda and Dictatorship (2007) by Marx Fritz Morstein, p. 48] What’s sensible about any of this? Rotten blossoms bear rotten fruit.’ Thanks Leif and DouglasY