Added March 1 2006.


Ian W Walker: Iron Hulls Iron Hearts

Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa

Ian Walker declared that his aim in writing this book was to fill a gap in the otherwise large corpus of literature on the North African campaign of 1940-43. As he notes in the introduction, although the Italians were in fact the most numerous Axis partner in the theatre, their usual role in most histories to be appear as unsuccessful supporting actors in the British offensive of 1940-41 and thereafter to play a distinctly secondary role to the more famous Afrika Korps. Part of this, at least from the British side, stems from a perception of the Italians as hopeless opponents following the destruction of Graziani's army, while the large amount of material from the German side, as well as the prestige of Erwin Rommel, has caused far more attention to be paid to the handful of German units in the theatre.

Although Walker wishes to redress the balance, particularly in the British perception, the opening chapter, "Mussolini's War", addresses the principal reasons for the Italian failure of arms in the Second World War. This subject has been covered quite thoroughly in MacGregor Knox's Hitler's Italian Allies, but Walker raises some salient points for the reader. Noteworthy in his analysis is Mussolini himself, who not only was a military dilettante, but also (like many dictators) took on far more offices than he could reasonably and competently fill, and who in addition diverted troops to different theatres for reasons of prestige and desire for glory rather than sound strategy. This cavalier attitude towards the war meant that the ordinary Italian often had only the vaguest idea of why and for what he was fighting. The Army was in addition the poor relative of the Navy and Air Force, both of whom had problems of their own that also needed redressing. Mussolini's desire for sheer numbers of armed men (the vaunted "eight million bayonets") eventually gave him 72 divisions, but this was a sham: many were poorly equipped or at skeleton strength, and only three would be eventually full armour divisions. Marshal Balbo, probably the most intelligent and forceful of the Fascist leadership, suggested a reduction to 20 divisions which would however be properly armed and kept at full strength: however, this suggestion came to nothing, and Balbo was killed in 1940 before he could make any further impact on the war. Italian industrial and natural resources were limited and meant that any military modernisation programme would be slow. Finally, it is worth noting (and Ciano's diary confirms this) that the Italian leadership had banked on not entering the war before 1942-43, and had thought that their German allies in the Axis had similar intentions. Thus Hitler's aggressive precipitation of war caught them off guard, and Mussolini maintained a non-belligerent posture until June 1940, when it seemed that Britain and France had been decisively defeated and that to delay any longer would mean being denied a place at the victory table. This of course proved to be a miscalculation, and within 2-3 years the Italians found themselves fighting not only the British and Free French but also the Soviet Union and United States, both of whom had gigantic resources that dwarfed those of Mussolini's Fascist state.

The second chapter, "Birth of the Armoured Divisions", is an interesting history of Italian military thought and development of armour between the wars. Although the Italians were indeed somewhat behind countries such as Germany and Britain in the development and use of armour, it is probably true to say that they were no worse off in this respect than the US or the French. Furthermore they expected to be fighting any future war in either the French or Austrian alps, both areas in which the use of armour was limited. Men like General Bitossi did give some thought to a more imaginative use of armour, but there were also some false starts, such as the development of Celere (mobile) divisions, which combined horse cavalry with infantry and supporting armour rather than being true armoured divisions. Actual combat experience was to prove this combination somewhat ineffective. The CTV in Spain fought reasonably well, most of the Italian casualties in the Spanish Civil War being taken by Blackshirt infantry. The L3 tankettes were a reasonable first effort at modern armour and allowed some experimentation, but their low cost and large numbers meant that they were retained as main AFV long after they should have been retired to secondary roles. However, it is worth pointing out that the British and Soviets also suffered huge losses in such vehicles in the early years of the war.

The subsequent chapters deal with the experience of Italian armour, and particular the three armoured divisions - Ariete, Littorio and Centauro - in the North African campaign. Again Walker points out that despite their numbers, the Italian Tenth Army were actually poorly disposed at the outbreak of the campaign, partly through poor strategy but also because there was very limited armour or indeed automotive transport available. In fact the armoured divisions were still in Italy when the British whirlwind struck, and what little armour there was - mostly the lightweight L3s and the less than satisfactory M11/39s - was swept away. The M13/40 was a comparable tank with British designs, but Italian crews were hampered by lack of radio equipment or proper vehicle compasses at this stage of the war, and thus responded slowly to the British initiatives. After the final rout of the Tenth Army at Beda Fomm, the British could be forgiven for esteeming Italian fighting capacity lightly. But with the arrival of Ariete in North Africa to fight alongside the small German holding force the picture changed somewhat, with Italian armour, properly used and supported, managing to at least pin down or successfully defend against the British. Perhaps Ariete's greatest moment was when the division stopped dead the 22 Armoured Brigade, who overconfidently swept up against the Italians at Bir-el Gubi near Tobruk. Interestingly, in a couple of incidents in the campaign the Commonwealth forces involved refused to believe that they were being fought to a standstill by Italians, and decided that their opponents must be Germans instead! The narrative does also lay to rest the myth of Italian cowardice, at least among the tank crews, gunners and Bersaglieri, many of whom made brave and determined attacks against their opponents. He also notes that some German criticism of their Axis allies, including some from Rommel himself, was misplaced or unfair. By mid-1942, however, the very height of Axis success in North Africa masked more serious weaknesses, particularly for the Italians whose improved M13/40s, the M14/41s, were now being more seriously outmatched by the Shermans and Grants being used by the British. The Semovente 75/18 had better firepower and was liked by its crews, but was still underarmoured in comparison with Allied vehicles. Walker suggests that with the British pouring reinforcements into Egypt, Rommel's offensive towards the Nile was most likely foredoomed to failure in any event, and yet to forego the risk would have simply meant a war of attrition which he could not afford. As we know, this is indeed what happened, and after El Alamein Ariete and Littorio were but shadows of themselves. Despite being joined in Tunisia by Centauro, neither they nor the German panzer divisions could ultimately hold the line against the Anglo-American-French forces, who by now enjoyed not only equipment superior to that of the Italians but also almost complete air superiority and a stranglehold on the sea lanes. All three armoured divisions were wound up in the surrender at Tunis in May 1943, although an Ariete II was to be reconstituted a few months later, ironically just in time to fight the Germans. At the end of this final chapter in Tunisia, Walker assesses the successes and failures of the Italian armoured divisions in North Africa and suggests,

In this difficult matter, it is perhaps simplest to ask who is the most courageous in the following situation: the Italian carristi, who goes into battle in an obsolete M14 tank against superior enemy armour and anti-tank guns, knowing that they can easily penetrate his flimsy protection at a range where his own small gun will have little effect; the German panzer soldier or British tanker who goes into battle in a Panzer IV Special or Sherman respectively against equivalent enemy opposition in the knowledge that he can at least trade blows with them on equal terms; the British tanker who goes into battle in a Sherman against inferior Italian armour and anti-tank guns, knowing confidently that he can destroy them at ranges where they cannot touch him. It would seem to be clear that, in terms of their motto Ferrea Mole, Ferreo Cuore..... the Italian carristi really had "iron hearts", even though as the war went on their "iron hulls" increasingly let them down.

There are some areas which this reviewer would have liked to see covered, such as more information on the other AFV used by the Italians in North Africa (the L6/40, for example, is mentioned but no details given of its capabilities or comparative standing with other tanks). Also, although probably outside the scope of this book, it would have been interesting to read about Italian armoured operations in Russia, even if only briefly, or the use of armour in the clashes in Sicily and against the Germans in Rome. However this is overall a highly readable book that goes into sufficient detail without bogging down for the layman, and contributes towards a better understanding of the Italian armed forces in the Second World War.

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