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A detailed look at the Italian army in WWII (LONG)

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Here is the review of the book "Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts" from Ian Walker, posted at Stone & Stone "WW2's Books" web site. The book and the review are very well done. It should enlighten many english readers ...

Ian Walker rightly explains in his Introduction that Italy and the Italian armed forces have been neglected in English-language histories of the war and deserve much broader and deeper coverage. This one volume won't fully redress that imbalance, but it's a worthy effort that helps shed some light on a small part of the broader topic of Italy during the war years. The author acknowledges that he can't possibly cover the entire spectrum of Italy's participation in the war in a single book, so he concentrates on the operations of Mussolini's armored divisions in North Africa.

Walker sets the stage with a chapter on the overall economic, political, and military background to the Italian war effort (with echoes of MacGregor Knox's Mussolini Unleashed) and makes it clear that the nation was in no condition to wage modern war. The Italian shortages in coal, oil, and steel—as well as limited production levels of aircraft and AFVs—did not bode well for strong armed forces or successful campaigning. Walker goes on to review the strengths and weaknesses of the Italian navy, air force, and army, making the point that many of the shortcomings flowed directly from the top: Il Duce himself, "...who was ultimately responsible for military policy and planning." Despite the inherent weaknesses of the economy and the armed forces, it was imperative for Mussolini and his Fascist party to gain military success, success which they hoped to gain, the author emphasizes, through timely opportunism rather than thorough planning and preparation.

The second chapter examines the evolution of Italian armored forces (with a nod to Iron Arm by John J.T. Sweet) and demonstrates that shortcomings in industry played an important role in constraining the development of Italian tanks and armored formations. Even so, Italy was an early adaptor of tanks, and military theorists in the country worked diligently to implement suitable mechanized doctrine. By 1935 the Italians had more tanks than any other army in the world, but the large number of AFVs on hand actually discouraged introduction of new models and led to a rapidly aging, obsolescent armored inventory. Walker illustrates the shortcomings of the CV33 light tanks with some very interesting paragraphs about a disastrous engagement in Ethiopia in 1935 that saw the loss of almost twenty tanks. "The actions at Dembeguina Pass highlighted the need for tanks equipped with rotating turrets for all round fire and for improved coordination with the infantry." By the time a reasonable medium tank, the M13/40, went into production it was already lagging behind other modern designs. Slow output from Italian factories meant that the M13 "did not enter widespread service until the second half of 1941" by which time it had lagged even farther behind although it continued to serve as the backbone of the armored formations.

The weakness of the Italian war economy and the development of Mussolini's "iron arm" will not be completely unfamiliar to students of the Second World War, especially those who have read Knox and Sweet. In the third chapter, however, Walker begins to make his mark by studying the campaign in North Africa from the Italian perspective and with a particular emphasis on the Italian armored formations. This is relatively unexplored territory in the English-language literature.

After reviewing the salient features affecting the campaign in the Desert—including a reminder that the Italian forces in Libya in 1940 did not represent the best of Mussolini's troops and included nothing more than a handful of obsolete light tanks—Chapter Three goes on to describe the tank-versus-tank combat that occurred during O'Connor's offensive, Operation Compass, in December 1940. Here Walker explains how the Italian light tanks were destroyed at Nibeiwa:

The initial British assault would fall on Nibeiwa Camp, where the only available Italian armoured unit was based, and it achieved complete surprise. The Raggruppamento Maletti, or Maletti Group, under General Pietro Maletti, was an ad hoc formation consisting of 2,500 Libyan soldiers and 2 Armoured Battalion, with thirty-five M11/39 medium tanks and thirty-five L3/35 light tanks. It was earmarked for early destruction in the assault, which commenced at 05:00hr with what appeared to be no more than another raid on the eastern side of the camp. At 07:00, however, forty-eight Matilda tanks suddenly appeared from the opposite side of the camp. They struck twenty-three unmanned M11/39 tanks of the Maletti Group, which had been deployed to guard the unmined entrance to the camp. The Italians were caught completely off guard and many did not even reach their tanks, including General Maletti, who was killed emerging from his dugout. They were slaughtered and their vehicles destroyed by the British in less than ten minutes. The Italian artillery fought on valiantly, firing on the Matildas and recording many hits, some at point-blank range - but none penetrated their 70mm of armour. The remaining Italian tanks were captured intact, and the Libyan infantry, left practically defenceless, quickly surrendered. The British had captured Nibeiwa and destroyed the only front-line Italian armoured unit in less than five hours.

Walker goes on to provide details about the engagement with the remaining Italian armor at Mechili in January 1941—where the British tanks received a bloody nose in the opening round—and the considerably less successful Italian armored operations at Beda Fomm. The chapter next explores the arrival of the Italian Ariete Armored Division in Libya and its initial action at Mechili in April 1941 and during the siege of Tobruk.

Chapter Four opens with Ariete's participation in the Axis defense against Operation Crusader, notably the defense of Bir el Gubi during which the division halted the attack of 22nd Armored Brigade and inflicted considerable losses in tanks. A few days later elements of Ariete went into action against 5th South African Brigade in a successful attack for which Walker quotes a dramatic description by an Italian tank lieutenant who took part in the charge. The same chapter covers the Italian armored actions at Taieb el Esem, Bir Ghirba, Sidi Muftah, Point 175, and Alam Hamza, by which time the Crusader battles had greatly weakened Ariete. This is all interesting material mostly presented from a new perspective, and it shows the Italians—or at least their armor—in a more favorable light than most accounts. Unfortunately, in rebutting slurs against the reputation of Mussolini's soldiers, Walker sometimes resorts to hyperbole and exaggeration, as he does at more than one point in the final two paragraphs of the chapter.

On 13 December, CAM was installed in positions at Alam Hamza near Gazala with the infantry of Italian X Corps to their north, and DAK to their south. Ariete had been reduced to a shadow of its former self, with only thirty M13 tanks, eighteen field guns, ten anti-tank guns and around 700 Bersaglieri. It was here, at around noon, that 5 Indian Brigade attacked the severely depleted Ariete and seized some high ground called Point 204. A company of ten to twelve M13s from Ariete counter-attacked but were driven off by the Indians with the support of nine heavily armoured Valentine tanks and a troop of 25pdr guns. They claimed three tanks destroyed, but mistakenly identified them as German. In the afternoon a larger force of sixteen M13s renewed the counter-attack and succeeded in overrunning the 25pdr guns; but it failed to recover Point 204. The next day, Ariete launched another assault, which was also repulsed until DAK arrived in support and the position finally fell. This minor success at Alam Hamza boosted Italian morale and made them reluctant to withdraw any further. It was only the threat that Rommel would abandon them that forced them to retreat all the way back to El Agheila.

This winter campaign had seen the Ariete Armoured Division fight as a single complete entity for the first time, and had demonstrated that it could be a formidable force in the right circumstances. It had stopped 22 Armoured Brigade in its tracks from defensive positions at Bir el Gubi, and had inflicted heavy losses on the British in the process. It had kept 1 South African Brigade out of the fight for extended periods simply by the threat offered by its presence, and it held its own in the face of considerable harassment from various British armoured formations throughout the fighting. It captured a vital position from tough New Zealand troops almost without firing a shot, and helped its German allies to destroy the rest of 2 New Zealand Division. In the final withdrawal it fought back against its British pursuers at Gazala in spite of its much weakened state, and only withdrew at German insistence. Its performance had been impressive at many levels, and it is arguable that it made a more positive contribution to Axis success than its German allies at a number of points during the fighting. This was a significant change from the Italian army of 1940, and it hints at what might have been achieved had properly equipped armoured divisions been deployed to North Africa at that time.

Without denigrating the overall performance of Ariete, it should be pointed out that although some New Zealand battalions were overrun during Crusader, by no stretch of the imagination could the division as a whole be considered destroyed. Similarly, while Walker gives credit to Ariete for having "kept 1 South African Brigade out of the fight," inquiring minds might want to know what prevented a nearly intact armored division from attacking and destroying an isolated and mostly unsupported infantry brigade.

In any event, Chapter Five takes up the story of the reinforcement and reorganization of Ariete—noting especially the effectiveness of the Semovente da 75/18 self-propelled howitzers which served admirably in the anti-tank role—and arrival of the Littorio Armored Division. This chapter also reviews participation by Italian armor in the Battle of Gazala engagements at Point 171, Bir Hacheim, Bir el Harmat, Aslagh Ridge, and the Cauldron as well as the fall of Tobruk. If Walker proves the Italian tank crews were not wanting in courage, he also shows how the armored units were not always thoroughly efficient.

On the following day, 21 June, General Klopper, commander of Tobruk, surrendered to DAK. In spite of this, some units continued to fight on, and Ariete was preoccupied with mopping-up operations. It was now inside the perimeter and still engaged with the stubborn Camerons, who refused to accept the orders to surrender as genuine. Instead, they had formed all- round defensive positions in expectation of an attack from within the fortress. At 08:00hr Ariete sent three M14s forward from the direction of Tobruk to approach the hastily organized Scots' positions. They were within a couple of hundred yards when a single, well concealed 6pdr anti-tank gun knocked out all of them, and the infantry picked off their crews as they bailed out. The Italians subsequently lost another three M14s in the same way. A seventh M14 appeared with an officer in the open turret, who vainly searched for the concealed gun through binoculars until he was shot dead and his tank blown up. At 13:00hr Ariete reported that its armour was meeting 'strong enemy resistance', including anti-tank, machine-gun and mortar fire. It therefore called for concentric artillery fire on the enemy positions from both inside and outside the fortress. In spite of this the Camerons held out for a second day and only surrendered next morning, 22 June, when threatened with bombardment by the entire Axis artillery.

The next chapter follows the Axis advance into Egypt in 1942 and the fighting at Alamein. Like that of their their German comrades, the Italian armor was already in a weakened condition after the Gazala and Tobruk battles, and the pursuit toward Alamein took a heavy toll of tanks due to combat, air attack, and extensive wear. After a series of sharp actions during which it sometimes proved difficult to determine who was advancing and who was withdrawing, the combined strength of Ariete and Littorio upon arrival at Alamein amounted to "a pathetic thirty M14 tanks, forty-five field guns, and fewer than 3,000 infantry" and Littorio retained fuel supplies to advance only an additional twenty kilometers with Alexandria still 150 kilometers distant. In the First Battle of Alamein, the greatly weakened Ariete was nearly destroyed when a battalion of 4th New Zealand Brigade overran the division's artillery positions and captured forty-four guns, leaving two field guns and only five operational M14 tanks. On the same day, Littorio advanced against the British 1st Armored Division and suffered tank losses it could ill afford. The chapter concludes with details of Italian tank operations at Mungar Wahla, Bab el Qattara, and Deir um Khawabir as well as the more familiar battles of Ruweisat Ridge and Alam Halfa.

By the time of Alam Halfa, in August, Italian formations had been rebuilt to a strength of some 250 M14 tanks. Walker devotes five or six pages to the Italian operations during the Battle of Alam Halfa. Most losses to Ariete and Littorio, which seem to have done little more than drive around for the first few days, came from mines, air attack, and long-range artillery fire. On more than one occasion the Italian vehicles strayed off course and became entangled with German tanks. Sometimes other problems arose. "At noon...Littorio was ordered to move back into reserve.... In an exposed location under heavy bombardment, Littorio responded so smartly to this welcome withdrawal order that they triggered the move of Trieste ahead of schedule and left 21 Panzer exposed." Walker relates more efficient Italian operations in combat with the New Zealanders on 4 and 5 September, with the M14s and Bersaglieri holding their own and even capturing a Kiwi brigadier and an isolated company from the Maori battalion.

On the eve of Alamein, the Italian XX Corps (Ariete, Littorio, and the Trieste Motorized Division) mustered respectively 129 M14s, 115 M14s and 26 L6 light tanks, and 34 M14s. However, this strength was dispersed in penny-packets along the front and intermixed with German units, with severe fuel shortages constraining their ability to move and concentrate at critical points. When the Second Battle of Alamein commenced, Italian tank strength fell rapidly. By the end of the second day of fighting, Littorio was down to sixty runners but operating with some elan and effectiveness. Walker's section on the battle at "Snipe" is probably the first English-language account of that well-known engagement to focus on Italian participation, and again Littorio held its own. Against the superior numbers of tanks thrown into the fray by General Montgomery, Littorio's tank strength soon wasted away. By 2 November the Axis position had become untenable. Ariete, as yet unbloodied while holding the southern end of the line, moved north to cover Rommel's on-again off-again withdrawal. According to Walker, Ariete's defensive stand on 4 November saved the entire Axis army from encirclement and destruction.

In addition to this frontal assault by 22 Armoured, 4 British Light Armoured Brigade was already probing around Ariete's largely open southern flank. They attempted to encircle the Italians, but were delayed by the fire of the entire XX Corps artillery. This intense Italian artillery fire only finally ceased as British tanks appeared in their rear amongst the guns themselves. In the late afternoon Arena reported: 'Enemy tanks penetrated south of Ariete. Ariete now encircled. Location 5km north-west of Bir el Abd. Ariete tanks now in action.' It was not long after this that Rommel realized the game was up, and finally ordered a retreat, instructing 90 Light, DAK and Ariete to withdraw under cover of darkness. The Italians were instructed to retreat westwards through the desert to the south of the coast road. The heavy pressure on Ariete had finally persuaded Rommel to ignore Hitler's order, and attempt to save what remained of his army.

It was not until nightfall, when Arena received this order, that the heavily outnumbered Italians finally fell back, and 22 Armoured occupied the field of battle. They counted the broken shells of twenty-nine Italian M14 tanks and a few ruined guns on the field, and captured about 450 prisoners against their own admitted losses of a single tank and a few casualties. In the south, 4 Light Armoured claimed an additional 300 prisoners and eleven guns. The German and Allied records leave us with the impression that Ariete was surrounded and destroyed in this battle, and a significant portion of the division was certainly lost. However, a remnant of Ariete nevertheless managed to escape the trap, and the events of the next day show that a large part of Ariete managed to disengage during the night and slip away. The dramatic day-long stand by Ariete at El Alamein, on 4 November, effectively stymied Allied plans to encircle and destroy the main Axis armoured forces. It allowed the surviving Axis mobile units, including DAK and 90 Light, to withdraw westwards largely unimpeded. They were unable, however, to save the Axis infantry that had no transport to carry them to the rear. These either forced to surrender where they stood, or were rounded up by British mobile forces as they marched through the desert. The end of Ariete was acknowledged by Rommel, who recorded that the Italian XX Corps 'had been completely destroyed after a very gallant action. In the Ariete we lost our oldest Italian comrades.'

By 6 November, Italian forces could muster only ten M14 tanks when they reached Mersa Matruh. The remainder of the chapter covers the long withdrawal of Axis forces toward Tripoli, as usual concentrating on the exploits of Italian armor. At Agheila the remnants of Mussolini's tanks were joined by elements of the newly arrived Centauro Armored Division. After some further skirmishing with Montgomery's spearheads, the few surviving men and machines of Ariete and Littorio were absorbed into Centauro, and at the end of January the division was transferred to Tunisia. So ended the story of Italian armor in Libya and Egypt.

The final chapter of the book takes the story to its conclusion with the brief career of Centauro in Tunisia. The first elements of the division moved into Tunisia from Tripoli on 21 November 1942 as part of 50th Special Brigade. After skirmishing with American forces, the brigade was joined by the remainder of Centauro at the end of January 1943. The bulk of the chapter describes Italian armor in action at Sened Station, Kasserine Pass, Gafsa, and El Guettar.

The chapter ends with a four-page review of the history of Italian armored units in North Africa and then an assessment of their performance.

How do we rate the performance of the Italian armoured divisions in this campaign? The Ariete, Littorio and Centauro were clearly very different formations from those Italian divisions beaten and written off by the British back in 1940-41. They were better trained and equipped than Italian infantry formations, and most importantly, more suited to the needs of mobile warfare. They were never a match for British armoured divisions either in size or equipment, but they could, and did, meet British armoured brigades on almost equal terms. They did not compare with the panzer divisions of their allies for similar reasons, and did not have the same impact on the battlefield. The Italians, however, shared one advantage with the Germans that the British failed to achieve during this campaign. They constructed and operated their armoured divisions as all arms formations, and functioned best when operating these arms in combination, as at Bir el Gubi in November 1941, 'The Cauldron' in June 1942, or at El Alamein in November 1942. They always had to be more cautious than the Germans because of their relative weakness in heavy armour and heavy artillery, but within these limits they operated well. In the course of the long campaign, they admittedly gradually fell behind their allies and opponents in equipment quality, but they did manage to introduce a few improvements, including the 90mm anti-tank gun and the Semovente.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Italian armoured divisions ever played a decisive role in this campaign, but within their limitations they performed with considerable credit throughout. They participated in every major action, and were usually not far behind their German allies. They had their share of successes - Mechili, Bir el Gubi, Taieb el Esem, Point 175, Point 171, 'The Cauldron' - and their share of failures - Tobruk, Bir Hacheim, First Alamein, Alam Halfa and Second Alamein. It should be noted that both these successes and these failures usually chime with those of their German allies. It was a joint Axis effort after all, and it was this that triumphed or fell short. The Italians have often served as the scapegoats for Axis failures, but these were more often attributable to superior Allied forces. The Germans relied on their Italian allies, a fact that becomes obvious if we consider what might have occurred if the Italians had not been present. In this scenario, it seems unlikely that Rommel would have been able to launch his initial offensive of March 1941, or if he had, that he would ever have reached Tobruk. He would almost certainly never have invaded Egypt. The narrow German focus on the Eastern Front in Russia meant that their minimal effort in North Africa needed Italian support just as much as the Italians needed them. This is something that is often overlooked by those content to minimize or ignore the Italian contribution. It is probably true to say that the Italian armoured divisions usually worked best in co-operation with their German allies. This was the case because the Germans could offer support from the kind of heavy weapons that the Italians themselves lacked. The Italians also learned from the tactical skills of their allies. In turn the Italians provided their German allies with the numbers that they lacked. They provided the additional infantry and artillery to hold ground while on the defensive, and to protect their flanks and rear, and to offer extra flexibility while on the offensive. One motorized and two panzer divisions could not have achieved what they did without Italian support, and, in particular, support from elite Italian armoured divisions. The Axis forces in North Africa were not independent, but integral parts of a whole. They fought together, they advanced together, they retreated together, they died together, and in May 1943 they surrendered together. More than sixty years after the event, it is high time that this was recognized by more of those writing about the North African campaign.

Walker concludes with some telling words about the men of the Italian armored force:

The courage of Italian soldiers should also not be in doubt. The myth of their cowardice also originated in the opening phase of the war.... [Consider] the Italian carrista, who goes into battle in an obsolete M14 tank against superior enemy armor and anti-tank guns, knowing that they can easily penetrate his flimsy protection at a range where his own small gun will have little effect.... It would seem to be clear that, in terms of their motto "Ferrea Mole, Ferreo Cuore" and the title of this book, the Italian carrista really had "iron hearts", even though as the war went on their "iron hulls" increasingly let them down.

On one hand, Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts ends up sounding a bit derivative. It lacks footnotes and primary sources, and it's disconcerting when in his Introduction the author bemoans the difficulty of finding and translating the Italian books that should form the backbone of his secondary sources. (Which also brings up the question, in the age of desktop-editing and on-demand printing, when will a publisher finally produce English-language versions of the Italian official history volumes?) As a consequence, this is not the most complete or most scholarly work imaginable, it generally relies too heavily on non-Italian sources, it sometimes fails to provide the kinds of relevant details about strengths, weapons, and TOEs that readers like to see, and it's not always one hundred percent accurate. For example, while the book as a whole is not unbalanced, the author sometimes stretches a little too far when looking for a reason to praise the Italians, and as a result makes a few statements that need to be taken with a grain of salt, such as his comments about destruction of the NZ division during Crusader.

On the other hand, that's probably an unfair and heavy-handed way of looking at a book which most assuredly is not just another cookie-cutter, crank-it-out, book-of-the-nanosecond knock-off. Walker has clearly put some significant thought and effort into this project, and the book contains a great deal of information most readers won't be able to find elsewhere. Few other than those familiar with some of the Italian sources will be aware of most of the engagements and details Walker discusses. Furthermore, the author deserves a great deal of credit for assembling an antidote to the Italian-bashing that has run through the World War II literature ever since the highly effective British propaganda dating back to the earliest days of the campaign in the Desert. Is the book perfect? No, but it's absolutely worthwhile reading. Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts won't really give the Italian armored units—"elite" or not—a new reputation for displaying a high degree of combat efficiency and effectiveness, but it should dispel any doubts about the courage of the men inside the iron hulls. And it also fills in the facts for many smaller, mostly unknown engagements involving Italian armor. Good photos, very nice line drawings of Italian AFVs (by the author), and decent OBs for Italian armored divisions accompany the text.

In sum, definitely recommended, especially to anyone who erroneously believes Italian troops raised their hands in surrender every time enemy forces approached them.


[ May 28, 2004, 05:51 AM: Message edited by: Aries ]

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