Strengths and Limitations of the Italian Military in WWII

19 Mar

The strengths of the Italian military leading up to and during the Second World War were scant few; their limitations and inadequacies, abundant. The Italian military complex’s lack of success was a reflection of an insular Italian agrarian society whose centuries-old roots in agriculture was the least industrialized of the Axis members. Hampered by illiteracy which fueled mistrust for authority, the populace felt stronger local ties and less national patriotism – all which contributed to weakening an already challenged military infrastructure which lacked a well-developed culture and tradition. Inter-service cooperation was non-existent between the three branches which only exacerbated their individual deficiencies.[1]

The Italian Royal Army
The Italian Royal Army, or Regio Esercito, suffered from poor and unqualified leadership whose greater numbers were heavily out of balance with the men they were to lead. Although the Army had large numbers overall (3.7M), their slow adoption of mechanized warfare placed Italy in a precarious position before hostilities in Europe began. MacGregor Knox in Hitler’s Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime, and the War of 1940-1943 notes: “[Prime Minister Pietro] Badoglio was so uninterested in mechanized warfare that his only recorded comment on a perceptive army intelligence analysis of German methods in July 1940 was ‘we’ll study it when the war is over’.”[2] What elements of mechanized warfare Italy did have was substandard; inferior and under-engineered equipment and armaments from FIAT and other Italian manufacturers put the already imperiled Italian troops in further danger. Italian-made tanks, whose inferior armor plating was penetrable by small-arms fire put an immobile infantry at increased risk. This armor lacked communications until 1941 – depriving tank crews the critical capability of inter-armor communications as well as with infantry. This, paired with outdated artillery whose range was roughly one-third that of British and French artillery, established an army which had difficulty in defense of itself and mainland Italy – let alone an army with imperialist ambitions (see Greece).

The Royal Italian Navy & Royal Air Force
The Royal Italian Navy, or Regia Marina, was only slightly better positioned than its Army counterpart – which is saying little. Lacking any carriers early in the war, owing to the notion by Mussolini that “Italy itself was an aircraft carrier,” Italy lacked the essential capability of naval airpower at sea.[3] The Italian Navy did possess an adequate submarine fleet at 113 boats. Its challenge was not in numbers, but rather in level of sophistication and a lack of any adequate war-fighting doctrine. They were slow to dive, had inferior if not deadly air conditioning systems, and lacked any type of attack computers.[4] Italy, a peninsular nation, should have possessed a more-than-adequate navy with its imperialistic agenda – that coinciding with Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the navy did not meet this minimum “bar.” The Italian Royal Air Force, or Regia Aeronautica, faced similar challenges and the fate as the Army, hostage to sub-standard technology which put them behind their German and Japanese allies in terms of performance and airworthiness. Unable to produce any reliable long range four-engine bombers early on, the Royal Air Force relied on open-cockpit biplanes such as the FIAT CR 42 as their standard “fighter” – a key aircraft in a large fighter force. A staple of the bomber force, the Savoia-Marchetti s.79 was Italy’s three-engine medium monoplane; fast and maneuverable, it was a liability due to its instability in turbulent conditions.[5] Italian air power suffered due to a viable doctrine, under-engineered aircraft, and cohesive inter-military cooperation and planning.

1 MacGregor Knox, Hitler’s Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime, and the War of 1940-1943 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 27-29.
2 Ibid., 57.
3 MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed 1939-1941: Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy’s Last War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 20.
4 Ibid., 21.
5 Ibid., 23

Knox, MacGregor. Hitler’s Italian Allies: Royal Armed Forces, Fascist Regime, and the War of 1940-1943. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Knox, MacGregor. Mussolini Unleashed 1939-1941: Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy’s Last War Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Page references are to the 1999 edition.

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Posted by on March 19, 2012 in WWII in Europe


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