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Italian Army - World War II

After the demobilization of a great part of the infantry and cavalry regiments and the dissolution of the “Courageous” departments, the Army faced the postwar by reducing times and peace tasks. The postwar period led to open conflict between the antiwar socialist parties and the populist, nationalistic Fascists led by Benito Mussolini, culminating in the "March on Rome" in October 1922. There is little doubt among historians that many former officers were in sympathy with Mussolini's nationalism but not his politics, and could and would have kept him from power. Mussolini was, however, invited to usurp power by King Victor Emmanuel III, to whom the army was unconditionally loyal; the army did not resist Mussolini's ascendancy.

In 1922 the operations in Libya started in order to reconquer the territories that had been occupied by the rebel Arabs during the World War. They were years for the study and the development of new battle strategies. The advent of tanks on the battlefields in the last period of the Great War led to the constitution of armoured units. In 1927 the Air Force became independent from the Army, becoming the third Armed Force. The technological development led to the constitution of the first paratrooper units.

In many ways, the nation served the same function for fascism as class did for Marxism. It follows, therefore, that international struggle was inevitable. Fascism adopted from the national- ists the concept of Italy as a "proletarian nation," oppressed by the richer, more highly developed capitalist nations. The fascist state's prime directive, therefore, was to promote the development of the Italian economy's productive capacity through industrialization and rationalization in the context of social unity in order that it might soon compete with its oppressors on equal terms.

To the extent that the masses voted on issues, they were almost exclusively local, rather than national, economic issues — local jobs, public works, and civil improvements — whereas the elite, divorced from the social and economic realities, historically focused on more abstract and dramatic—almost philosophical — issues of national honor and prestige. The concern with national honor led to a series of foreign policy adventures for which Italy, saddled with a perpetually uneven and relatively underdeveloped economy as well as a notoriously inefficient administrative system, was almost totally unequipped to pursue successfully, culminating in Benito Mussolini's disastrous entrance into World War II.

International conflict and imperialism were essential features of the fascist ideology, and military prowess was valued as the highest expression of manliness and courage. Some analysts even define fascism as militarism, pure and simple. It was inevitable, therefore, that Mussolini would embark on a colonial enterprise. The armed forces came to regret their complacency; the imperial foreign policy of Mussolini allowed the armed forces to avenge the defeat at Adowa by the successful invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-36, but Mussolini also obliged the military to accept the Fascist militia as coequals.

Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, citing its need for living space to allow emigration from the seriously overcrowded south, an especially critical need since the United States had restricted immigration. By early 1936 over 650,000 troops had been sent, and the entire nation was mobilized to provide materials for the war. By May 1936 Marshal Pietro Badoglio's army, employing the latest in modern war technology, including mustard gas, defeated the Ethiopians. Mussolini proclaimed the founding of the new Italian Empire.

The action might have been passed over except for Ethiopia's protest in the League of Nations, but the league's condemnation was dismissed by Mussolini, saying that Italy had done no more in Africa than other powers had done earlier. Neither France nor Britain wanted to risk another war over Ethiopia, and the economic sanctions imposed were only half heartedly applied and were eventually withdrawn. The sanctions did little except to rally the nation.

Europe was rapidly succumbing to a wave of right-wing dictatorships, and an informal alliance among them began to form. Mussolini, along with Germany's Adolf Hitler, sent more than 50,000 Italian troops to aid Francisco Franco's forces during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, as well as supplies and naval and air support. This war, in which the most advanced technology was tried out, served as a rehearsal for World War II.

The regime became suddenly obsessed with militarism and the Roman past and imposed a "reform of customs," including the substitution of the "Roman salute" for a handshake, and changes in popular speech. Civil servants were forced to wear uniforms, and the army had to adopt the passo romano, or goose step. The regime, which had been relatively unobjectionable, suddenly began to antagonize everyone.

Mussolini had pompously bragged about the "8 million bayonets" at his disposal but, as was the case so often during the regime, propaganda had taken the place of actual preparation, and Italy was no more ready for a major war than it had been in 1915. In 1940 the armed forces were committed, but unprepared and underequipped, to fight at the side of Hitler's Germany against first, Britain and France, then Greece, then the Soviet Union, and eventually against the United States.

On 10 June 1940 the operations of the 2nd World War started and they continued on fronts different for latitude and characteristics. The Italian armed forces suffered major defeats, particularly along the French front against the British in Libya, and in the campaign for Stalingrad against the Russians. From France to Albania, Yugoslavia, Greece, Northern and Eastern Africa, until Russia, our soldiers fought a war of aggression against determined and well equipped enemies.

Stung by Hitler's lack of respect, Mussolini decided to invade Greece through Albania (annexed in 1939) in the fall of 1940 without prior notice to Germany. In the Balkans, the Italian offensive started in October 1940. The invasion was a fiasco, as the Greeks, unprepared, unexpectedly counterattacked, not only stopping the Italian advance but driving them back into Albania. Hitler was forced to intervene to secure his right flank, thereby fatally delaying his invasion of the Soviet Union. Italian campaigns in North Africa and in the Soviet Union were equally undistinguished, due largely to failures of the political and military leadership rather than to the poor performance of the troops. After hard clashes and alternate events, the operations ended in Epiro and, almost simultaneously, in Yugoslavia where another front had been opened.

In Eastern Africa, after the initial operations along the border and the conquest of Somaliland, the Italian troops lost the initiative without logistic contacts with their homeland; they concluded, with the army honour, the resistance to the British troops on Amba Alagi. In the defensive perimeter of Gondar the resistance, wanted by General Nasi, continued for some months.

In Northern Africa, the conflict oscillated and, after glorious and unsuccessful events in El Alamein (October 1942), the units retreated until Tunisia where in May 1943 they were forced to surrender. In the same period, after the allied disembarkation in north Africa occurred without any resistance by the local troops of the Vichy France, the Italian and German departments occupied the Southern France and Tunisia. In Russia, the offensive began supporting the German allied; the defeat was terrible on Don (Winter 1942-1943) and the retreat was epic, with about 80.000 fallen Italians and missing prisoners.

It became fashionable to decry the value of Italy's contribution to the Axis war effort; at times the Italian forces fought very badly, or not at all. Nevertheless, those units with a modicum of modern equipment fought well.

On 08 September 1943 the Italian Army was defeated and it was forced to sign the armistice. The events that came in succession between the summer and the autumn in 1943 damaged Italy deeply and they opened the way for the change, after twenty years of a totalitarian regime. After the arrest of Mussolini in 1943 and the formation of a nonfascist government, Italian units fought enthusiastically as cobelligerents on the Allied side. These units consisted of the 1st Raggruppamento Motorizzato, formed in September 1943 after the armistice and attached to the United States Fifth Army, the Corpo Italiano di Liberazione and, eventually, six formations of division strength that formed the nucleus of the postwar army: Cremona, Legano, Friuli, Folgore, Mantova, and Piceno.

In October 1943 the Italian soldiers and the survived departments started the War of Liberation with the 1st Motorized Division and the auxiliary Units. Monte Lungo (December 1943) and Monte Marrone (April 1944) were the steps of the recovery. Later, from the 1st Division the Italian Corp of Liberation was constituted (April-October 1944) and in December 1944 five Fighting Groups were formed and they traversed Italy with the allied arriving to Milan and Venice. The breach with Germany also resulted in the development of partisan groups in northern Italy that became genuine expres- sions of popular resistance and impressed the Allied officers sent to advise them. Italy contributed to the conflict against the Germans abroad, particularly in the Balkans (1943-1944) where the partisan divisions “Garibaldi” and “Italy” (composed of the Departments and the survivors escaped from the German deportation) stood out.

The tribute of sacrifice and blood of the 2nd World War can be summarized as follow: 161,729 dead and missing soldiers on the different fronts until the end of the hostilities on 8th September 1943; 18,655 dead in Italy and 54,622 dead on the foreign fronts in the period September-October 1943 because of the Germans’ reaction; about 12,000 dead between soldiers in the regular units and soldiers in the partisan groups during the Liberation War; finally about 60,000 soldiers dead in the internment camps. These numbers were high and not definitive.

Despite the participation of Italian forces with the Allied powers, Italy was regarded as a defeated power and required to sign the Italian Peace Treaty in 1947. The treaty limited the size of the Italian armed forces and divided part of the Italian fleet among the victorious powers. These limitations were removed in 1949 when Italy joined the United States, Britain, and nine other European states as an initial signatory of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In committing itself to the new alliance, Italy pledged to expand its army to 12 divisions and to rebuild its air force and navy by 1953. As a NATO partner, Italy received assistance from the United States to rebuild war-damaged military installations, and in 1950 the two countries signed a bilateral military assistance agreement through which Italy received about US$3 billion in military aid over the next 30 years.

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Page last modified: 24-11-2018 18:46:59 ZULU