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John Kettler

Reassessment of Italian Combat Prowess

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This Wiki talks about a reassessment of the historiography regarding Italian Army combat performance during WW II. Seems the Italians were done in on the historical accounts by both the victors and the Italians' dismissive, blaming German former allies. There are some excellent quotes regarding how well and long the Italians fought from both Allied and some German sources. Those used to thinking of the Italians as cowardly will be surprised. Indeed, there are some examples which will leave the readers in wonderment.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_history_of_Italy_during_World_War_II

"Controversies of historiography

Allied press reports of Italian military prowess in the Second World War were almost always dismissive. British wartime propaganda trumpeted the destruction of the Italian 10th Army by a significantly smaller British force during the early phase of the North African Campaign.[77][78] The propaganda from this Italian collapse, which was designed to boost British morale during a bleak period of the war,[79] left a lasting impression. The later exploits of Rommel and German accounts of events tended to disparage their Italian allies and downplay their contributions; these German accounts were used as a primary source for the Axis side by English-language historians after the war.[80][81] Kenneth Macksey wrote in 1972 that after the split in the Italian state and the reinforcement of fascist Italy by German troops, "the British threw out the Italian Chicken only to let in the German Eagle," for example.[82][nb 11]

Some more recent scholars have attempted to reassess the performance of the Italian forces, notably James Sadkovich, Peter Haining, Vincent O'Hara, and Ian Walker. Contemporary British reports ignored an action of Bir El Gobi where a battalion of Giovani Fascisti held up the 11th Indian Brigade and destroyed dozens of tanks,[85] and Sadkovich,[86] Walker,[87] and others[88] have found numerous other examples of actions where Italian forces performed strongly, yet are rarely discussed by most histories. During the Tunisian Campaign, where Italian units were involved in most encounters, such as Kasserine Pass, Mareth, Akarit and Enfidaville, it was observed by General Alexander that "...the Italians fought particularly well, outdoing the Germans in line with them".[89] Rommel himself also conceded praise on several occasions.[nb 12] Other times, German mistakes were blamed on Italians,[93] or the Germans left the Italians in hopeless situations where failure was unavoidable.[nb 13] Questionable German advice, broken promises, and security lapses had direct consequences at Matapan, in the convoy war and North Africa.[95] Rommel often retreated leaving immobile infantry units exposed, withdrew German units to rest even though the Italians had also been in combat,[96] would deprive the Italian's of their share of captured goods, ignore Italian intelligence, seldom acknowledge Italian successes and often resist formulation of joint strategy.[97]

In addition, Italian 'cowardice' did not appear to be more prevalent than the level seen in any army, despite claims of wartime propaganda.[98] Ian Walker wrote:

....it is perhaps simplest to ask who is the most courageous in the following situations: the Italian carristi, who goes into battle in an obsolete M14 tank against superior enemy armour and anti-tank guns, knowing they can easily penetrate his flimsy protection at a range where his own small gun will have little effect;[nb 14] the German panzer soldier or British tanker who goes into battle in a Panzer IV Special or Sherman respectively against equivalent enemy opposition knowing that he can at least trade blows with them on equal terms; the British tanker who goes into battle in a Sherman against inferior Italian armour and anti-tank guns, knowing confidently that he can destroy them at ranges where they cannot touch him. It would seem clear that, in terms of their motto Ferrea Mole, Ferreo Cuore, the Italian carristi really had "iron hearts", even though as the war went on their "iron hulls" increasingly let them down.[100]

The problems that stand out to all historians, however, pertain to Italian strategy and equipment. Italy's equipment was not up to the standard of either the Allied or the German armies;[11] an account of the defeat of the Italian 10th army noted that the incredibly poor quality of the Italian artillery shells saved many British soldiers' lives.[nb 15] More crucially, they lacked suitable quantities of equipment of all kinds and their high command did not take necessary steps to plan for most eventualities.[102] This was compounded by Mussolini assigning unqualified political favourites to key positions. Mussolini also dramatically overestimated the ability of the Italian military at times, sending them into situations where failure was likely, such as the invasion of Greece."

The notes and references make very good reading.

Regards,

John Kettler

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It certainly seems to be the case in FI that your Italian trooper is no better or worse trained, led, physically conditioned or motivated than any other army's trooper with the same "soft stats". The Italian army's shortcomings in doctrine and materiel, however, are modelled with frustrating fidelity :)

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I just got done reading a book "At All Cost" (good book) that I believe is the only story I have read that even mentions the Italian Air Force, and Navy. Very strange hearing about Italian subs. For some reason I didn't think they had any becuase I never heard anything about them.

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Vinnart,

Here's footage I've never seen before of Italian subs--as if I'd ever seen any!

As explained here by Ciro Paoletti in his A MILITARY HISTORY OF ITALY, one of the major problems in properly understanding this topic is that English speaking Western scholars generally don't know Italian and therefore can't read voluminous Italian material in that language. In turn, this means that most such studies rely on a handful of questionable English language sources. Consequently, there is a mere handful of English speaking military historians who are expert in Italian military history. He explains this here.

http://tinyurl.com/dx8vgul

Regards,

John Kettler

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The Italian navy was large but hopeless in its performance per major unit vs. the Brits. (Its frogmen had some exploits, but the major warships were uniformly dismal).

The Italian army in Libya before the German arrived was probably the most poorly commanded major field force in military history. They managed to lose their entire force when attacked at 1 to 5 odds, in a matter of a few months.

Italian military equipment was poor by international standards at the start of the war, and hopeless by the middle of it. Decent artillery and the odd and limited run of passable aircraft was about it. Your own quotes above about the alleged heroism of M13 drivers facing Shermans does not manage to mean what its writer intended it to mean. What is actually reveals is a military and an industrial nation completely out of their depth in a modern war against great powers.

To start the war with M13/40s is one thing, to still be driving them in 1942 is another. And they were the top end of a vehicle fleet filled with MG main armament tankettes that belong in 1918, not the 1940s.

And no, Italian infantry division performance was not notable successful despite these handicaps. It was much much worse than the average performance of e.g. commonwealth Indian divisions - to say nothing of German formations. When they faced the Russians, they were annihilated by the first major offensive directed at them.

Nationalist sentiment is trying to perform an act of revisionism here, but the evidence will not support it. The Italian army of WW II was a subpar army compared to any of the other major powers. It was badly equipped, the nation behind it did not have the industrial might or technical skill to do better or to keep up. It was atrociously led. Its morale was poor at best, for those reasons among others. And it performed poorly in the field, as a pretty much direct consequence of those factors.

Military reality is not an exercise in fairness. War is all about the most abymsal lack of fairness imaginable, and the devil takes the hindmost.

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...... And no, Italian infantry division performance was not notable successful despite these handicaps. It was much much worse than the average performance of e.g. commonwealth Indian divisions - to say nothing of German formations. When they faced the Russians, they were annihilated by the first major offensive directed at them.

Nationalist sentiment is trying to perform an act of revisionism here.

Well, everything is right about obsolescence and very very poor command (that has always been the real problem in Italy... you can see still today if you know italian politics).

But please, be informed when you talk about Italian army in Russia ... try to imagine a small thousands Italian troops there in the winter, with "summer" clothes and shoes, without tank or halftracks ... do you really think other armies could stand Russian winter with summer equipment ? i do not know any famous army stood russian winter (from Napoleon to German Army with winter equipment) so put italian army there in the right context.

And again, there is no nationalist sentiment in Italy, we never had it, nor revisionism because everything connected with fascism is a bad souvenir and nobody is interested in that era in Italy

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Sure Seamoountada is right.

If one thing is missing in Italy, is nationalism.

No one do revisionis, but how can you say that studying the battle at Nikolaevka, Kasserine pass or the heroic stand at caposaldo Ruspoli?

Bad generals and a very bad organization (just like today..) but no bad soldiers

I think FI does it right.

About equipments, that's the same. Very pporly organized but some very good techhical development was achieved: see for example the italian subs (BETASOM base), very good high sea vessels, or Semovente 90/53 or Saetta fighter.

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"What is actually reveals is a military and an industrial nation completely out of their depth in a modern war against great powers."

Absolutely correct. However, I interpreted what the original post was saying was that the fighting "spirit" and "heroism" of the Italian troops was not inferior, but their commanders and equipment were terrible.

I read a book about the exploits of Italian frogmen and their miniature subs. Their heroism in dealing with those equipment deathtraps was amazing. But, more akin to pre 20th century style heroism (charging at cannon etc) and disregard for their own safety.

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On the Italian Navy, one of its biggest problems was that its only source of oil was Germany which kept it almost all for its own needs, so the Italian Naval ops were severely restricted as a result.

As I recall, Italian submarines had a decent enough record in the Atlantic, I would have to recheck Blair's books on the U-Boat wars.

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Historiography naturally tends to shift in perspective over time.

We called Alexander 'the great'. The same individual today would be regarded as the most evil, genocidal dictator ever experienced.

The unfortunate reality of WW2 is not that the Italians were trounced every time, but that they were on the losing side.

The Dutch, and Belgians were trounced too, but being smaller and less relevant countries, and eventually on the winning side, they are little discussed by historians. Frankly the Dutch and Belgians consider themselves to have heroically stood up to Nazi aggression when the invasion finally happened.

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Italy had the misfortune of a leader whose ambitions outstripped the country's capabilities. Had Mussolini been wiser, Italy would have remained neutral until the tide had definitely turned against Hitler and then joined the Allies. But all that is obvious with hindsight now was not so obvious in the early summer of 1940. France was going down and it looked like Britain was next. Mussolini wanted to get in for some easy pickings while the getting in was good. Alas for Italy, when the smoke blew away the reality turned out quite a bit differently.

Michael

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Even when it had oil, the Italian navy was dramatically outperformed by the British. And their fleet air defense was ... Let's just say Taranto and leave it at that. Their subs were so-so, worse than an equal number of German u-boats, but the Med was a reasonably favorable environment for them.

As for the comments about Italians in Russia, I've studied it enough to have made CMx1 scenarios about the fate of the Italian 8th Army during Operation Little Saturn, and I know quite exactly what they did and didn't have, and faced. They did have tanks, for example, though in modest numbers and worse mix. What passed for a "fast" division tried to combine cavalry with motorized infantry, with tankettes and armored cars for armor. Common accounts mention their lack of heavy AT guns, without mentioning that they had plenty of standard field artillery that could be used that way.

They still got chopped to pieces pretty effortlessly. Their performance was not quite up to the standard of the Rumanians, let alone the small Slovakian contingent, about on par with the Hungarians. These are not great power comparisons.

As for fatehunter's comments, if he had said "Tamerlane" instead of Alexander he would have been on more solid ground. Anyone who pretended even today that Alexander was the evilist tyrant in history would be quite obviously lying to grind an axe. Which is not to say he was a fine fellow, but that the competition is pretty stiff.

And no, the Italians are not thought to have performed poorly in the war because they were on the losing side or because history is written by victors or any such revisionist and relativist tommy-rot. They were on the winning side by the end of it, come to that, though not very actively so. The Germans lost catastrophically but everyone agrees they fought well for what they had (some too much so, actually).

The Italians are thought to have performed singularly poorly in WW II in pure military terms for the simplest reason possible - because they did perform singularly poorly in WW II in pure military terms. Anyone who doubts it needs to study General Graziani and the 1940 campaign in Libya. A more astounding command failure due to inattention, sloppiness, timidity, paralysis, and blatant stupidity is difficult to even imagine in the history of warfare. It is really quite spectacular in its own way, when you consider it closely. A typical normal boy under the age of 10 could have done a far superior job.

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Poor Officers..extremely poor equipment (take for instance their motorized Inf, that was in name only so much so that the Germans got frustrated with their Italian Allies as they where always lagging behind. General Mario Roatta described the level of equipment and armaments of the Italian Army at that time:

“Everything modern is missing.”) and little motivation. However as a soldier they and the other minor Axis units had a torrid time on the East front and showed courage strength and determination. Really they had it far worse than the Germans.

Few Returned by E Corti is a great read. So is his novel The Red Horse. Both these books changed my opinion on the Italians in WW2 which upto that time where the usual mainstream opinion of surrendering and swapping sides etc etc. My eyes where open and I will defend the Italian soldier.

These two are also in my Amazon wishlist.

Mussolinis Death March by N Revilli

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mussolinis-Death-March-Eyewitness-Hardcover/dp/0700619089/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_nC?ie=UTF8&colid=2VYVCXQRXDQX1&coliid=I3RR6QX08KUW0Z

Sacrifice on the Steppe by Hope Hamilton

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sacrifice-The-Steppe-Hope-Hamilton/dp/1612000029/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_nC?ie=UTF8&colid=2VYVCXQRXDQX1&coliid=I1YWT3JO5YNWU

excerpt from Sacrifice on the Steppe..

"Nevertheless, in August 1941, Mussolini sent 62,000 Italian troops to join the German offensive in Russia. He only worried that they might not arrive soon enough to join a triumphant German victory over the USSR.

The Italian Expeditionary Corps, the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia 18(hereafter CSIR), under the command of General Giovanni Messe, joined the German invading forces in the Ukraine two months after the German offensive began. Although divisions sent to Russia were some of the best of the Italian army, there was a fundamental weakness of the force, because divisions were binary, composed of only two regiments, which meant they were slightly larger than reinforced brigades.

Moreover, the CSIR was equipped negligently: airplanes lacked deicing equipment, and the so-called “motorized divisions” (also called “self transportable divisions”) were motorized in name only. In fact, since there weren’t enough trucks to transport troops of the two infantry divisions, “this absurd euphemism was used to indicate they

could be transported, but if trucks weren’t available these troops could move from place to place on foot,” which is what actually occurred.

Soldiers left Italy that summer wearing lightweight uniforms and lightweight boots. When infantryman Alarico Rocchi (Torino Division), recalled the 500 kilometers he and his fellow soldiers traversed on foot to reach the Don River, he described boots issued to the infantry as being flimsier than scarpe da ballerina (ballerina shoes). Troops of the CSIR were also poorly equipped in terms of individual and collective weapons. Rifles dated from 1891. Although they were sturdy and functioned, they were no match against the automatic rifles used by the Russians. Few sub-machine guns were available and Italian machine-guns functioned poorly in Russia’s extreme winter weather.

Italian soldiers referred to their M-13 tanks as “sardine cans,” realizing they would have little impact when confronted by monstrous Russian tanks. During the summer of 1941, Mussolini accepted an invitation from Hitler to visit the Eastern Front in the Ukraine. On August 28 the two Axis leaders, and several German and Italian dignitaries, met with the

commander of the CSIR forces, General Giovanni Messe. Upon introducing Hitler to General Messe, Mussolini turned toward the General and said, “I am sure you deserve the trust which the Führer places in Italian troops.”

Later that same morning, in a private conversation with Mussolini, General Messe described the current conditions facing his soldiers, focusing particularly on the shortage of adequate transportation hampering the ability of his troops to keep up with German mobile divisions, as well as slowing the necessary flow of supplies from distant bases. Messe also referred to a shortage of fuel. Deliveries of fuel to Italian troops arrived late, causing a slowdown in the Italian advance. At the same time, the Germans were becoming increasingly impatient and frustrated with the pace of Italian units, which were unable to rapidly reach German forces on the front lines.

Throughout Messe’s report, Mussolini didn’t respond; in fact, he spoke not a word. Messe noted he appeared “absent.” Shortly after, several units of the CSIR forces arrived and proceeded to march in formation in front of the gathered dignitaries. Following a review of the troops, both Hitler and Mussolini expressed their pleasure at the “order and fine appearance” of the Italian units.

The Soviets were not completely mobilized when the German offensive began, and were caught off guard, even though intelligence had indicated an impending German attack. German forces scored one victory after another, advancing rapidly. Russian forces attempted to gain time by withdrawing, “prepared always to sacrifice their inexhaustible

assets—men and space.”

In his unpublished diary, Lieutenant Luciano Mela (Savoia Regiment) describes Russian tactics after the fall of the city of Kiev in September 1941. He claims the Soviets were imitating the withdrawal they conducted when Napoleon invaded their country: “They only leave ruins: they even wreck trails with an easy, practical method, causing

movement of [our] trucks to be delayed. When leaving a village without bridges to blow up, or roads to wreck, but only trails like the ones they have here, tractors follow them with plows making large zigzag ruts on the trail. This doesn’t seem like it amounts to much, but on such a trail [our] trucks can’t go more than 8–10 kilometers per hour.”

At first, CSIR forces were under the command of Germany’s Eleventh Army, then transferred to the control of General von Kleist’s First Panzer Army, and in June of 1942, CSIR was subordinated to the German Seventeenth Army. Although the Italians performed well, both on the offensive and defensive in the Ukraine, they were plagued with

logistical problems owing in large part to the fact they lacked adequate transportation for their troops and supplies. Troops were running out of provisions, and their shoddy shoes were falling apart. Lieutenant Mela describes the situation in his diary: “N on ne posso più! (“I’ve had it!”) I’m not afraid to say the person responsible for sending a division ahead in the condition in which ours finds itself is an assassin. We’re without food, with broken shoes, uniforms in tatters, with just a little ammunition issued to each individual, since the rest is on trucks stopped without fuel at a distance of two-hundred kilometers….”

Referring to words uttered by Mussolini, Mela writes, “In war it’s the spirit that counts; it’s enthusiasm that wins.” He continues: “To raise spirits and rekindle enthusiasm, soldiers are left with almost nothing to eat…without wool clothing, with broken shoes, and trousers falling to pieces. I talk to the soldiers, I live their life, and I listen to them.”

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<snip> ... do you really think other armies could stand Russian winter with summer equipment ?

<snip>..And again, there is no nationalist sentiment in Italy,we never had it

Didn't the German Army survive it's first winter in Russia in it's summer clothes?And there was nationalist sentiment in Italy. That was exactly what Mussolini and the fascists did - whip up nationalist sentiment about how Italy should have a New Rome and own the Mediterranean. One could also argue that the Romans, perhaps in their own way were quite nationalistic too..

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Wodin -and that is a picture perfect example of what makes a military pathetic and hopeless, rather than effective. No it is not heroic to fight in rags, it just reflects an officer corps asleep on the job and completely incompetent to maintain their force and get it the resources it requires to operate as an army. It is one thing to complain about not having Panther tanks - who does? - and another to complain of not having shoes. Like complaining about not having a job, it reflects extremely poorly on the complainer, rather than on his environment.

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What did the Italian army actually have to work with, if they had been remotely serious or professional, their officers especially?

In the 1940 campaign, they complain of facing Matilda tanks they could not defeat, because the latter have 70mm of armor. Despite being slow and armed with only an MG vs soft targets, these were devastating against the Italians.

When the Germans encountered Matildas in France in 1940, they quickly assembled a gun line of 88 Flak and 105mm howitzers. When the Germans encountered the far superior KV-1 is Russia a year later, they quickly countered them with 88 Flak, 105 guns (not howitzers), and 150mm howitzers.

The Italian gun park included 90/53 AA guns equal to the 88 Flak, just not nearly as many of them as the German had. They also had 75/43 AA guns with the muzzle energy of a German Pak 40 ATG. They did not have truly long 105 guns, but did have French Schneiders (L28) with 2.4 million joule muzzle energies, which would have been superior to British 25 pdrs in a direct fire AT role. They had 75L32 guns since 1937, but put a mountain howitzer with half its muzzle energy in their semoventes; the gun passed over has comparable power to the Russian 76 or US 75 (1.2 million joules). They also had hundreds of 149mm Skoda howitzers, not high velocity for direct fire work but dangerous even with HE to British cruisers and lights.

None of those weapons played any effective role in dealing with British armor in the 1940 fighting. (The Skodas were useful in static fighting around Tobruk later on, about the most that can be said). When the Germans showed up, they quickly showed what less than 50 88 Flak aggressively handled could do about the British infantry tank menace. (The Italians lost 1500 guns in the 1940 campaign alone, accomplishing precious little with them).

The army had poor equipment because its officers and ordnance types accepted mountain howitzer designs of WW I vintage as their standard field pieces, despite having all the types listed above available. They had allies who knew all about gun fronts to demonstrate effective tactics to them, but never really learned to use their artillery in that manner. Late in the war they built less than 200 semoventes with the longer 75s, but never used them in combat - they passed to the German in 1943, unfielded.

This is a truly epic string of unforced errors in doctrine and force design, any one of which would be a standing scandal in any other army. But when it is the Italians, we just accept it as supposedly set in stone somewhere, with no one in particular responsible for any of it - the Italian disease in such matters.

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Jason I agree they where poorly led. However I will say this..I'd rather have been with the Germans and their equipment than the Italians. No matter how good your troops are send them to combat with crap gear they'll be demoralized for starters and not have the tools for the job.

However the hell the Italians went through during their retreat aswell as being hounded all the way and desperately trying to fight the Russians off only leads me to admire those men.

As I said few returned opened my eyes to the Italian situation on the East front and I have the greatest respect for the men that went through that. Being in a Army and you know you have pathetic weapons and poor leadership must be far harder than one organised and with the tools for the job. I can't totally rubbish the Italian men that went to war and call them useless. there where many factors for their situation..but lack of courage wasn't one of them.

Oh quickly poor shoes\boots on the East front was or could be a death warrant. So I imagine to the individual soldier it was a huge thing and see nothing wrong in him complaining about it. I've read memoirs from all forces in many Wars where the soldier complains about equipment. I like looking at the individual soldier not just the operational or strategic view.thats where you get a better understanding of the men in the uniforms.

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Didn't the German Army survive it's first winter in Russia in it's summer clothes?And there was nationalist sentiment in Italy. That was exactly what Mussolini and the fascists did - whip up nationalist sentiment about how Italy should have a New Rome and own the Mediterranean. One could also argue that the Romans, perhaps in their own way were quite nationalistic too..

Not sure there was a huge fascist movement like in Germany..many where farmboys with little education. I imagine the university students and highly educated being more likely to be a fascist.

Then again in the UK before WW2 the working class where either communist or fascist. My Grandad was a blackshirt pre war. Something I only found out about a few years ago. He served in the Army service Corps driving the Tank transports in Africa. Though his dad and my nans dad and his brother served in WW1 all in the same regiment and battalion The Kings Liverpool 1\7th. My nans dads brother won the Military medal in 1917 only to be killed in action in April 1918. He was buried quickly by both my great grandads but the Germans attacked and the grave was lost. They where trying to hold of the German advance just south of the Portuguese.

Here is a link to the actual AAR of the battle he died in by the CO.

http://www.liverpoolregt.co.uk/1.7_1918.04.09.html

Here is the census record from 1911 and his service number etc..showing him and my great grandad john Costa and obviously my great great grandad and nan.

http://www.liverpoolregt.co.uk/Costa_266029.html

Sorry for going off topic there.

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My only point is that basically every 'Western' and many 'Eastern' nations in the world during the first half of the 20th century had a very strong nationalist movement. To try and say that any major European power (such as Italy) 'never had a nationalist movement' is silly.

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Slightly OT, but still very much about Italian soldiery. Would all of you Italians or Italian speakers please head over to umlaut's thread and see about helping him find some pictures he needs of Italians in combat in Italy?

http://www.battlefront.com/community/showthread.php?t=109040

I've spent a great deal of time, yet emerged with close to zero.

Regards,

John Kettler

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It's all here if you care to read about the Italian Navy in WWII. The author makes a convincing case that the Italians didn't really do that bad. Both Britain and Italy needed their respective partners (Germany and US) to bail them out. The Italian Navy didn't fold like a jack knife and a case could be made Britain lost Singapore because the naval assets that could have been used there where just being kept too busy by the Italians.

It was a very nasty naval war between Britain and Italy. Not quite a walk over.

The Italian Navy lost more ships-but was not wiped out and the British had to supply Egypt by the way of the Cape of Good Hope rather then through the Straits of Gibraltor-a 40 to 120 day journey as long as the Italian Navy was a belligerent

Damn Regia Marina just wouldn't fold and was a fleet in being up to the end in 1943-despite Taranto and Battle of Calabria-despite Royal Navy night fighting superiority (where most of Italian naval losses occurred) and despite lack of radar development and oil on the Italian part.

http://www.amazon.com/Struggle-Middle-Sea-Mediterranean-1940-1945/dp/1591146488/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364537132&sr=1-1&keywords=struggle+for+the+middle+sea

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As I said few returned opened my eyes to the Italian situation on the East front and I have the greatest respect for the men that went through that. Being in a Army and you know you have pathetic weapons and poor leadership must be far harder than one organised and with the tools for the job. I can't totally rubbish the Italian men that went to war and call them useless. there where many factors for their situation..but lack of courage wasn't one of them.

Wodin, i agree with you totally.

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