Tuesday, February 18, 2020

What Was Italy's Biggest Error of World War II?

Italy Made Some Colossal Errors During World War II

Benito Mussolini worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Mussolini announces that Italy is at war from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia on 10 June 1940.
Italy’s biggest error in World War II obviously was declaring war against Great Britain on 10 June 1940. Without an advanced industrial base (most Italian vehicles and aircraft were hand-made, a very slow and inefficient process) and with a poorly trained-and-paid army, Italy had no business being in a general war. Churchill, known for his wisecracks at the expense of Italian military ability, quickly joked:
People who go to Italy to look at ruins won’t have to go as far as Naples and Pompeii again.
Churchill really didn't lose much sleep about the Italian declaration of war.

WInston Churchill during World War II worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Italian leader (Duce) Benito Mussolini, of course, did not see it that way. He felt that Italy could regain the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. However, he hedged his bets slightly by waiting until 10 June 1940 before declaring war. Germany defeated France so soon after that (under two weeks) that Italy did not have time to prove whether its troops were capable or not. However, any unbiased observer of the state of the Italian military in 1940 would have to have concluded that Italy should not have declared war on any major powers. Later events would have justified this view.

Since that is such an obvious answer, I’m going to continue on and look at some strategic and tactical mistakes that Italy made during the war. Well, there are plenty of mistakes to choose from.

I’m going to cheat and pick the errors made during a single day instead of a single bad strategy or something like that because two of Italy’s biggest blunders began on 10 September 1940.

An Italian fighter during the Battle of Britain worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Italian fighters were no match for Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes.
First, that was the day that the Italians began forming the Corpo Aereo Italiano (literally, "Italian Air Corps") to operate against the RAF on the Channel Front. This force in Belgium under the command of Generale sa (Air Marshal) Rino Corso-Fougier proved to be an unmitigated disaster. It accomplished nothing and diverted Italian resources from the Mediterranean where they could have been somewhat handy.

Greek soldiers in November 1940 defending against the Italian invasion worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Italians apparently forgot that Greek soldiers such as those shown above in November 1940 could shoot back.
Second, 10 September 1940 was the day the Italian Commando Supremo begins transferring its Greek Expeditionary Corps (40,310 men, with 7728 horses, 701 vehicles, and 33,535 tons of material) from Brindisi to Albania in preparation for an upcoming invasion of Greece. This was a completely boneheaded plan that caused Italy nothing but trouble. It was this invasion that proved to Hitler - too late - that Italy was not going to be of much help at all during the war. It vastly diminished Mussolini’s stature. His failures in Albania gave the Allies tremendous propaganda victories, representing their first victory on land against the fascists.

An Italian bomber during the Battle of Britain worldwartwo.filminspector.com
An Italian bomber of the Italian Air Corps during the Battle of Britain.
As usual, the Italian mistakes did not have much impact on the course of World War II because they were really only gestures of futility by an inconsequential military. The Battle of Britain ground on to its inevitable conclusion regardless of Italian efforts, and the Italian presence changed nothing. The Albanian farce actually proved of some use to the Germans because Mussolini’s men had attracted the majority of the Greek Army to the west. When Hitler invaded in the east, his panzers rolled in quickly. Of course, this Italian distraction was not the plan and was hardly worth the cost, but the Germans had a knack for taking advantage of the errors of others (though, of course, they made plenty of their own, too).

The Italian Julia Alpini Division worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Italian Julia Alpini Division marches into the mountains. 28 October 1940.
Of the two errors listed above, the Italian invasion of Greece of 28 October 1940 looms larger in history. Everything about it was just completely wrongheaded. Invading into heavily defended mountains at the onset of winter is just mystifying in its sheer audacity. Invading on a narrow front that naturally favored the defense defied all military orthodoxy. Opening another campaign when the first in North Africa and a second in East Africa were both facing dubious prospects was just inviting ultimate defeat. The only conclusion possible is that Mussolini just had no clue as to the true state of his military and how fiercely his enemies would fight him.

Benito, you had one job...

German motorcycle troops entering Greece on 6 April 1941 worldwartwo.filminspector.com Operation Marita motorcycle troops
Wehrmacht motorcycle troops enter Greece, 6 April 1941.
Hitler’s 6 April 1941 invasion of Greece was motivated in large part to bail out Mussolini troops, who had actually lost ground in their “offensive.”. There is a theory, which I think is largely false but is still touted, that this invasion (Operation Marita) diverted essential troops from Operation Barbarossa and prevented the Wehrmacht from taking Moscow in 1941. I personally don’t agree with that theory, but the Italian invasion of Greece did create a giant distraction that the Germans didn’t really need right before their do-or-die invasion of Russia. If Italy had any influence on the outcome of World War II at all, it was due to its completely unnecessary, hopelessly inept, and unexpected (including by Hitler) invasion of Greece.

So, the bottom line is that if you discount the declaration of war in the first place, then Italy’s biggest error was invading Greece.

An Italian CANT Z 1007 bomber during the Battle of Britain worldwartwo.filminspector.com
An Italian CANT Z 1007 bomber with the Corpo Aereo Italiano in Belgium.

2020

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