Some myths concerning Italian leadership, morale and combat performance

Italian artillery officer in Russia
Italian artillery officer in Russia

There are several myths about the Italians in the Second World War that have been largely created by the Anglo-American-German fraternity. In my research it appears that many Anglo-American historians have simply taken German disparaging, prejudiced accounts of their Axis partners – the Italians – on face value and to heart. For example, the Rommel Papers, and many of the reports and memoirs from an array of German generals such as Keitel, Kesselring (who made the snide remark that  the Italians were “trained more for display than for action”), General von Thoma (who wrote to Hitler that Italian troops were useless, that “one British soldier was better than 12 Italian”), to Admiral Raeder and many others, were taken up by Anglo-American historians as the gospel truth. Indeed, the entire German hierarchy held, almost to a man,  such deprecatory beliefs about the Italians. Rommel himself brought such beliefs with him to North Africa. As one writer explained, “the Italians were widely believed by the Germans to be weak, lazy, cowardly, and militarily incompetent.”  I think this last statement pretty much sums it up.  With an ally like this, who needs enemies!

Of course, as we all know on Commando Supremo, and anyone with a scrap of intelligence, this is all hogwash and nonsense. But back in the 1930’s and 40’s, political correctness and multicultural tolerance hardly existed, and certainly not in the German high command, where they were nearly all good Prussians: efficient, direct, strait-laced, opinionated bigots to the core. However, beliefs die hard. Even today, many Germans still think that Italians are “weak, lazy, cowardly, and militarily incompetent.”

And since many Anglo historians share or have shared such racist sentiments, who were they to argue with the Germans, their racial cousins?

It is sad, but it is what it is. Fortunately, there is some light at the end of the tunnel from certain quarters: Prof. Richard Carrier of the Department of History, Royal Military College of Canada, Canada, being one.

In his very recent article, ‘Some Reflections on the Fighting Power of the Italian Army in North Africa, 1940–1943’ (War in History, 2015, Vol. 22:4 503–528), he makes a strong case that after the disaster of Operation Compass, Italian leadership and training dramatically improved. It was a steep learning curve, but one that by and large, the Italians succeeded in. Certainly the Italians improved their performance and learned from their mistakes much faster than the Russians, who in contrast, required several disasters and nearly a million prisoners before they started to learn from their mistakes. The Italians did not have the luxury of time and space. But improve, they did.

The myth of Italian military ineffectiveness

Carver has also exposed another myth for us: that of Italian military ineffectiveness, which he blames on two factors: the lack of familiarity of Italian military archives and official histories and the “Rommel legend”. Surprise, surprise! But wait? His article was written in 2015 and even today, Anglo and German historians are unfamiliar with Italian archives? Hard to believe isn’t it, but this is what Carver maintains.

So my question is: when are those weak, lazy and incompetent Oxbridge and Stuttgart professors ever going to get off their fat bottoms, leave their cushy little academia world, and fly down to Milan and Rome do some real research by reading the archives, instead of just quoting themselves ad nausea?  David Irwing had a point when he complained that often these university professors working in prestigious universities, often with several letters after their names and tagged as “world renowned experts”, simply publish books year after year just quoting each other!  Well, let’s see. Professor Jones quoted Professor Smith who quoted Professor Schwein who got that gem of wisdom from Mussolini’s barber forty years after the war! And so it goes. Those unfamiliar with academia are perhaps shocked, but that’s how it works, you see. Tenures at universities depend on professors publishing a certain number of books or articles each year, and if they don’t, they risk their cushy academic jobs.

But let’s get back to Carver, an academic who hasn’t sold out and has retained some degree of integrity. He writes that “unfortunately, few of them [historians] have taken into consideration Italian sources at all, and many still trust the Rommel Papers as the most reliable source on Italian military performance.” Sad, eh?

The myth of low morale

Another myth that Carver exposes is the myth that the Italian soldier was plagued by consistent low morale. “During the campaign, and contrary to common belief, Italian morale was not always low, even in the case of the infantry divisions.”  This does not mean that after the disaster of Operation Compass, Italian morale didn’t reach rock bottom. It would be very odd if it didn’t. But what it does mean is that morale was not always going to be low. Morale soon increased with the appearance of the Ariete and Trento Armored divisions, more infantry and motorized divisions, as well as the arrival of the Germans. Any help was going to be appreciated from any quarter. (However, the assistance the Italians received from the Germans was not free of nuances and complications, as we will explore later.) More importantly, the Italians became better trained. It is true that for the average Italian rank and file, the training they received in Italy was not always of the highest quality or sufficient.  But after the mauling of the 10th Army by the British, training improved markedly, training which occurred behind the lines in North Africa at Centri di Istruzione or training centers to increase their fighting performance for the fighting to come. Coupled with “on the spot training”, practical advice, real field experiences, plus armored reinforcements, as well as the help and example provided by the Germans, better tactics and better arms, the performance of the Italians markedly increased. As Carver states, training requirements and methods were reviewed and implemented, and the result was impressive. In addition,infantry units and divisions were upgraded and better trained, also with better than expected results. For example, they were trained on how to use the 47mm anti-tank gun more effectively at close range against vulnerable parts of an enemy vehicle, as well as using improvised explosive devices such as incendiary bombs. Even reputedly weak infantry units improved dramatically and gave a good account of themselves against the Australians at Tel el Makh Khad ridge.  Carver, having studied the primary sources from Italian military archives, attests that Italian generals and officers took the matter of training very seriously. The Italian army in Libya by the winter of 1941 was quite different to the Italian army of June 1940.

Italian- German collaboration

The presence of the Germans was initially welcomed by the Italians. As stated previously, any help from any quarter was always going to be welcomed. It was often assumed by the British that the new, improved performance of the Italians and higher morale was “due almost certainly to increasing German influence both in organization and tactics” (British General Staff Intelligence, Brief Notes, p. 5 cited in Carver, p.524). However, it wasn’t as simple as that.  As Carver observes, this assumption, while seemingly correct, is difficult to prove “as primary and secondary sources have little to offer.” Probably the Italians didn’t want to admit that the presence of the Germans did in fact boost morale, or more importantly, learning new tactics and ideas from their German allies, as well as having the energetic Rommel as their commander.  However, notwithstanding the German factor, the arrival of reinforcements of infantry and amour like the Ariete and Trento divisions, plus improved training, Italian morale and performance was recovering from the shock of their mauling from the 9th December 1940 to February 1941. It is my view that the presence of the German divisions under Rommel added to an increase in morale and performance, but was not the originator of them. Italian officers were not clueless ninnies and stuffed shirts as many Anglo-German historians like to portray them as, preferring to eat pasta and play the mandolin than fight. The Italian officer class had the leadership and knowledge skills to train their men up – they didn’t need the Germans for that. But certainly, having the Germans on the ground was the icing on the cake in that it contributed rather than caused a rapid increase in leadership, morale and combat performance. Carver notes that this proximity to the Germans, literally eating, fighting and dying shoulder to shoulder, allowed the Italians to learn new tactical and operational techniques, which contributed to an improved performance against their opponents, the British.

Carver’s conclusions: that the Italian army moved on from the disaster of 1940 to become in his words, “an effective fighting force”, even though its successes were often ignored or overlooked by the Germans and the British. However, the real tragedy or irony was this: that while the performance of the Italians improved substantially and they were often able to improvise with a serious lack of quality and quantity of the weapons they had, and to use what they had to maximum effect, over the course of the war, their weapons were becoming more and more obsolete, giving the Anglo-American forces that critical edge over them


The Myth of Rommel and Poor Italian Leadership 

No one is more scathing than Dr Sadkovich about the myth of Rommel. I will end this overly long article with him.  In his article ‘Of myths and men: Rommel and the Italian in North Africa 1940-42’ (International History Review, May 1991), Dr Sadkovich, like Dr Carver, argues that while German campaigns certainly influenced Italian doctrine, they did not create it. Rommel and the Germans were not “tutors” to the oft assumed hapless, incompetent Italians. Indeed, Sadkovich even goes so far as to hint that Germans officers like Rommel had a thing or two to learn from the Italians in  the 1930s. What the Italians lacked were tanks, artillery and aircraft rather than lack of military doctrine or leadership. Neither was Graziani the ignoramus he is often portrayed as being, in stark contrast to  Rommel – the “Teutonic genius” – since both had to resort to static defence and strong points.  The dual Rommel genius/ Italians incompetent myth depended on the assumption that the Italians had collapsed so badly in February 1941, they were only saved by the Germans. But Sadkovich makes the claim that this is nonsense: that the British  had neither the force nor the logistics to “waltz into Tripolitania”. In fact, the Germans would only agree to assist the Italians after the front was stabilized in Africa as they saw little chance of the Italians being kicked out of North Africa anyway. Apart from being a rash commander, careless with his logistics and men and  with a poor grasp of the grand strategy, Rommel had the undesirable trait of passing the blame for his mistakes to his Italian allies.  Reading Sadkovich’s article, one is left with the impression that Italian commanders had to cover up or ameliorate his mistakes as best they could. As leadership went, Italian generals like Bastico, Gambara or Cavallero  were more competent and experienced than Rommel. Commanders like Bitossi actually had more armored experience than Rommel himself.

Cooperation between the Italians and the Germans was difficult at the best of times. Both appear to have had a mutual dislike and fascination with the other. While the German presence was undoubtedly a boon and a boost for the struggling Italians, we have seen that the Italians were largely able to recover from the disaster that befell them in December to February 1941, with new infantry and armored divisions and better training and leadership. Rommel and the Germans were there to bolster the Italians, but one also feels they were an obstacle to the Italians as well. Personally, I believe that the Italians (as in Greece) could have managed well enough on their own, without the German presence. What the Italians needed were German weapons rather than German troops and  certainly not a rash and over-bearing general like Rommel who wanted to run the show himself.

Well, Rommel eventually ran the show. Since the Germans wanted to take over the war in Africa, ending unilaterally the guerra parallela, then we can safely blame the Germans for the eventual axis defeat in North Africa. If someone takes the wheel of the car away from you because he thinks you’re too incompetent to drive and eventually crashes it, then who really is at fault here? For my money, it’s the Germans.  As Sadkovich wryly commented, while Graziani lost Cyrenaica in three months, Rommel lost all of Libya in two years.

As I said: with friends like these,  who needs enemies?








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