by John Gooch
New York: Pegasus Books, 2020. Pp. xl, 532+.
Illus., maps, personae, notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 1643135481
Fascist Italy at War
This beautifully written book provides something new to Anglophone readers: a concise yet thorough military history of fascist Italy in World War II. It begins with Mussolini’s seizure of power and build-up of his military during the 1920s and 30s, and ends with the chaotic collapse of his regime, and its armed forces, in 1943. John Gooch, a professor emeritus at Leeds University, and the author of Mussolini and His Generals and The Italian Army and the First World War, has an impressive command of official Italian government documents and the memoir literature of Italian leaders. This enables him to produce a history of the war from the top, concentrating on logistics, decision-making, and outcomes.
Gooch combines two approaches, chronological and geographical. He begins with the Italians’ success in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, fought between 1935 and 37. Thanks to their superior equipment and tactics, not to mention the use of poison gas and airpower, fascist forces were able to seize control of Ethiopia. This was followed by Mussolini’s decision to send troops, planes, and tanks to help General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Italian forces performed creditably against the poorly trained and organized Republican army. Mussolini was painfully aware that his armed forces were not ready for a “real war.” His generals and admirals had reminded him, repeatedly, that they lacked both equipment and resources. Not only did the army not have modern tanks and anti-tank guns; its artillery mostly dated from World War I. But beyond that, Italy could never produce enough machine guns, or even rifles, to meet its needs. At a more basic level, Italy did not have the iron ore and coal it needed to produce weapons. As for the Regia Aeronautica, most of its first-line fighters in 1939 were biplanes. On paper, the navy was the most impressive service, but its fleet of modern battleships, cruisers and destroyers not only lacked radar, it was also chronically short of fuel.
The bulk of Mussolini’s War consists of long sections on operations in each major theater. Italy occupied Albania and used it as a base to invade Greece, only to find that the Greek army, hardly a first-rank force, was easily able to defend its borders. With German help, the Italians were able to occupy Yugoslavia, but then spent the rest of the war caught up in fighting Tito’s partisans and the Chetniks, while dealing with Croat Ustasha allies bent on genocide. Gooch emphasizes Italian war crimes throughout, but they were especially egregious in Africa and Yugoslavia. Had its atrocities not been completely overshadowed by those of the Wehrmacht, Mussolini’s army would be notorious for burning villages and shooting hostages. The long section on the Italian campaign in North Africa underlines another surprising, and, in a way, impressive, characteristic of Italy’s armies in World War II. After initial defeats by British and Commonwealth forces, Italian divisions fought for months alongside Rommel’s Afrika Korps. But, unlike the German soldiers, they did so on foot. Italians marched into Egypt at El Alamein, and then retreated across what is now Libya to Tunisia. Their experience in Russia was the same.
By 1943, the handwriting was on the wall for Mussolini’s men. The question was where the Allies would strike: would they come up through Greece? Land on Sardinia? Or, as became increasingly likely, invade Sicily. When the invasion did come to Sicily, the Italian units quickly collapsed. Italian soldiers surrendered or deserted by the thousands, and the defense of the island was almost entirely a German affair. The last long section of Mussolini’s War is a chronicle of the confusing efforts by the top commanders, and the feckless king, Vittorio Emanuele III, to get out of the war and not fall victim to either the Allies or the Germans.
Mussolini’s War will not satisfy every reader. For all its strong points—a clear narrative, meticulous documentation, lucid descriptions of the decision-making at the top, emphasis on the crucial role of logistics—it is a bloodless history of a war in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians died. Yet none of these individuals are mentioned, much less quoted. And even the most dramatic battles—such as the naval battles of Matapan and Punto Stilo—are merely sketched in. This is history from the point of view of the generals and admirals (and the two dictators who ruled over them) rather than the soldiers, sailors and pilots who fought the war.
Note: Mussolini’s War is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium