Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse, 1935-1943

-John Gooch


What was Mussolini thinking?


Italy’s performance in the Second World War is often taken as the stuff of light comedy.  The Italians were, we are told, comic opera actors who ran away when the first shots were fired and needed to be bailed out, repeatedly, by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.  Their participation in the war was a net drain on German resources, to the point they played a role in Germany’s ultimate defeat by fighting alongside them.  In the (possible) words of Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, being allied with Italy meant being shackled to a corpse.  The best thing the Italians could have done for their allies was staying out of the war.


The misconception the Italians were always nothing more than cowards and incompetents has made it hard for anyone to assess their participation with a clear eye.  Mussolini was – is – a figure of fun, a harmless blimp who could be mocked relentlessly while there was and remains very little funny about Adolf Hitler.  And yet, John Gooch has attempted to peer through the myths and legends of Italy’s war and ask precisely how and why the Italians did so badly.  It is a dense tome, but none the less important if you want to get into the nuts and bolts of the war.


On a operational level, the Italians were never as bad as their detractors claimed.  When they had a workable plan, and the support they needed, they tended to do a great deal better than the stereotype.  Their invasion of Ethiopia was reasonably well planned and conducted with a certain degree of competence.  Their participation in the Spanish Civil War was, again, reasonably competent.  They made an attempt at an early blitzkrieg-style offensive that worked better than anyone had a right to expect, although not enough to prove Italy’s military might by winning the war.  Their early contribution to Operation Barbarossa involved a number of reasonably well-equipped divisions that did fairly well, up to Stalingrad.  They did not, of course, face the Red Army alone, but they did better than one might think,


When they lacked support and planning, the Italians tended to do very badly.  The plan to invade Egypt was poor and the planning for Greece almost non-existent, to the point the offensive barely got off the ground and – in both cases – the Italians came very close to a decisive defeat.  Morale crumbled when senior leadership was not up to the task – and it rarely was – leading to countless Italians simply throwing down their guns and walking into POW camps.


Italy’s strategic thinking was almost non-existent too.  There was no clear-eyed assessment of Italy’s power relative to Britain, France (even in 1940, after the French were effectively beaten by the Germans), Russia and America.  The result was strategic chaos.  Italy might have made a far more worthwhile contribution to the war by invading Malta in 1940, which would probably have been a walkover, but instead Mussolini tried to invade France and Egypt, in hopes of securing claims to territory when Britain sought terms with Nazi Germany.  Britain did not, of course, seek terms and so the Italians found themselves out on a limb.


Many of these problems can be blamed on Mussolini.  He was shrewd enough to make a bid for leadership, when Italy found itself in economic trouble, but he lacked the intellect and realism to understand the reality of his position.  His country was incredibly dependent on outside trade, ensuring the war would swiftly lead to Italy’s industries grinding to a halt.  He lacked the forward planning to compensate, insofar as it was possible, and even if he had the Italian economy probably couldn’t have adapted.  The Germans offered Italy plans for advanced tanks and aircraft, which were rejected as Italy couldn’t afford to churn them out even with the plans. 


These problems pervaded Italy’s power structure.  There was very little formal cooperation between the army, the navy and the air force.  Mussolini lacked a general staff capable of forcing his officers to work together, let alone point them at a single goal.  Italy had too many incompetents in high places, not all of whom could be removed when their incompetence was too clear to be missed. 


In a sense, Mussolini shot his bolt too soon.  Italy helped Franco win his war at a very high cost, very little of which was ever repaid.  (The author points out that the ultimate effects of Italy not trying to help Franco are unknowable.)  Italy burnt up too much of its deployable forces and military stockpiles, ensuring the armies that tried to seize Egypt and Greece were dangerously weak.  Italy lacked the resources to experiment with better weapons and tactics and rapidly found itself outmatched by both Britain and Russia.  The fact the Germans had more and better of everything was a constant source of resentment amongst the Italian military.


The combination of operational, tactical, strategic and geopolitical weaknesses ensured Italy would eventually become more and more dependent on Germany.  Mussolini’s dreams of fighting a separate war were rapidly proved to be nothing more nothing more than delusions and the Germans, despite Hitler’s personal affection for Mussolini, were quick to understand it and gave the Italians very little freedom of movement.  Even without that, the Germans simply lacked the resources Italy needed.  The Italians cut themselves off from the sources of supply they needed to survive. 


The book also sheds new light on Italian anti-partisan efforts, which were – like the rest of the country’s war effort – a very mixed bag.  The Italians did better than the Germans on anti-partisan efforts in Russia – they had the advantage of being neither Nazis nor Communists – but their anti-partisan efforts in the Balkans were marked with the same savage brutality as the Nazis, Russians and Japanese efforts elsewhere.  The problem was made worse by deeply corrupt military leadership, who preferred to loot and enjoy themselves rather than trying to solve a problem that was probably beyond solving.  These efforts came to an end when Italy left the war, with a surprising number of Italians joining the partisans and fighting the Nazis. 


Italy’s departure from the war was marred with the same incompetence that marked its entry.  It was hard for anyone to plot Mussolini’s ouster, both because he was still surprisingly popular and because Hitler would be sure to react badly.  Ironically, it was the Fascist Party that moved against him first.  The timing was badly handled and what hope there was of allied troops entering Italy in time to deter a German invasion was rapidly lost.  Italy became a battleground for the rest of the war, a problem that could have been avoided if their leader had shown a certain amount of common sense.


Could Italy have done better?


The short answer is yes.  Staying out of the war would have been better for Italy and Nazi Germany.  If Italy had been determined to take part in the fighting, in hopes of snatching booty before the peace treaty, it would have been better to concentrate on Malta and North Africa rather than France or Greece.  Malta was barely defended in those days, while a reinforced and mobile Italian army might have been able to push to the Suez Canal and occupy Egypt before the British redeployed their forces to keep the Italians out.  If Italy had done so well, it would have offered the best chance for Italy to keep its gains and avoid being overshadowed by the Germans.


This would, however, have required Mussolini to be the thing he wasn’t – a practical man who understood his limits, and that of his military, and stayed within them.  Instead, he set his country on a path that led to its inevitable destruction, the downfall of his regime and his own execution.


This is not a biography of Mussolini.  But if you want to know why Italy did so badly, this is the book for you.  It does jump around a little, and it can be a bit wordy at times, but overall it is well worth a read.