Ian W Walker: Iron Hulls Iron Hearts

Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa

An old joke at school used to go something like this: "How many gears has an Italian tank got? - One forward and four reverse". At the time I wondered if this was entirely fair, although the military record of Italy's armed forces in the Second World War was admittedly rather patchy. At the same time, finding the reasons for this surprisingly lacklustre showing has been rather difficult for the layman. While there has been a flood of books produced on Germans and by Germans and their victories and defeats in the terrible conflict, information on the other Axis partners has been patchy and seems to have mainly consisted of accounts from the Western Allied side, whether of flushing out fanatical Japanese or rounding up hordes of Italian prisoners.

MacGregor Knox's book is a short but scholarly attempt to establish the reasons for Italy's record in World War Two as the weakest partner in the Axis alliance. Although it is well referenced, the author showing an apparent knowledge of the language, it is eminently readable and never dull. Knox, the Stevenson Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Politics, has produced other works on Mussolini and Italy, so this is something of a well-read subject for him.

The book, a brief 200 pages long, is divided into 6 chapters, covering the course of the war, Italian society and industry, the Italian armed forces and modern warfare, and strategy, operations and tactics. It is fortunate that Knox comes as a scholar rather than a tabloid columnist, since his conclusion is somewhat piquant: avoiding the easy temptation to blame the hapless Mussolini for everything, he deduces that Italy's failures were primarily a failure of military culture. He points out the lack of training of the ordinary troops, the lack of experienced officers, jealously and infighting among senior commanders, the impossibility of NCOs gaining field promotion to officer and the scandalous ability of university students to avoid call up until the age of 26, among other things, not to mention the differential scale of rations for officers while the enlisted men ate poor food (their German allies, officers and men, ate the same rations). At the same time there were sociological and political reasons for failure as well, and one suspects that some of these may linger in other ways today. For example, in southern Italy in particular there were low rates of literacy (not conducive to producing individuals capable of operating complex weaponry), and a man's primary allegiance was in those days anyway primarily campanilismo - loyalty to the lands within sight of the local church steeple, although Knox points out that parochialism was in fact present to some degree in all sections of Italian life, including the educated. Even worse were the industrial practices adopted by the state under Mussolini. Whereas Hitler had several firms competing to produce arms for the Wehrmacht - rival tank and aircraft designs in particular were tested - the army and air force complacently accepted the primacy of FIAT-Ansaldo, who gained the monopoly on tank production but proved incapable of producing vehicles that were a real match for enemy armour. The naval situation was just as bad, involving as it did firms corruptly faking test results or welding to cover defects. Nor were workers placed on a war footing, with the result that Fascist Italy produced a trickle of tanks, guns and aircraft when set against the output of the other combatants. The situation regarding day-to-day equipment was in some ways worse, with enlisted uniforms being received unsewn and shoes being produced with cardboard soles that, needless to say, did not last long.

All this might have been tolerable in a short defensive war, but Mussolini's reckless strategies plunged the Italian armed forces into several theatres of war beyond their capability. Such was Il Duce's desire to compete with Hitler (who had at one point been the junior partner in the Axis) that he committed the forces to widely separate points on the map (France, North Africa, Somaliland, the Balkans and Russia), thus ensuring they could adequately deal with none of them. The case of Russia is particularly pertinent, since Hitler had not requested any Italian help and acceded to Mussolini's insistent request apparently more out of consideration for the feelings of his Italian ally rather than any perceived military need. This proved to be a disaster, since the Italian 8th Army in Russia had even less capacity for dealing with the formidable T-34s than the hard-pressed Germans did, and something in the region of 80,000 men were to be lost on the River Don in the Russian offensive to seal off Stalingrad, encapsulating in a nutshell the tragedy of Mussolini's folly of dragging his country into the conflagration.

Knox is scrupulously fair in his treatment of the Italians. He acknowledges there were also strengths in Italian society, such as the role of the Church, notes that some units, notably Ariete and Trieste, learned from the Germans and fought reasonably well, and also that the Italians at least had some concept of the integration of arms, more so than their British adversaries. He also observes that the "readiness to surrender", despite the debacle of Graziani's efforts in North Africa, is more the stuff of legend: many units in fact doggedly threw themselves into frontal assaults on enemy positions. In conclusion, however, he claims that while most observers have blamed either Mussolini's "sham facade" or else the disinterest of the ordinary Italian in fighting the dictator's war, the real reasons are firstly, Germany's inability to bolster Italy fully in the way that the Western Allies had done in WWI, and secondly, the parochialism and conservatism of Italy's senior military circles, who believed that the coming conflict would simply be a rerun of the previous one with the rifleman and mule having the same importance in 1940 as they had done in 1918 - ignoring evidence of change as evinced by Germany's blitzkrieg in Poland, for example, or Japan's adoption of aircraft carriers. Perpetually starved of raw materials, the nation lacked leadership with enough strategic or tactical vision to overcome the hurdles.

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