Scuba diving was pioneered in Italy and so was the combat frogman and all his equipment, including hand-placed limpet mines and the explosive motor boats and manned torpedoes that the Japanese would copy as suicide weapons – the originals allowed the operators to save themselves, if they were lucky. With a tiny fraction of the Italian navy’s resources, between 1941 and 1943 Italy’s sea commandos destroyed two British battleships, wrecked a heavy cruiser and two destroyers as well as 18 supply ships and tankers. Aside from much technical ingenuity, this exemplary force multiplier required heroism of a particular kind, not just individual but collective, not just episodic but habitual: the fragile prototypes that made up the equipment could be deadly even in training, let alone when intruding into enemy harbours and through torpedo nets.
Another spectacular display of effective heroism, noted by John Gooch in Mussolini’s War, was the all-out charge of the Savoia Cavalleria, the Italian equivalent of the Life Guards, when 650 mounted men with sabres and pistols broke a Russian infantry regiment some 2000-strong at Izbushenski on 24 August 1942. Sans horses, there were other heroic episodes even in that one month, as Italian troops resolutely resisted the first Russian attacks in the build-up to the wider battle for Stalingrad.
An example of high talent of an entirely different order was the Servizio Informazioni Militare (SIM), the military intelligence service whose remarkably objective and prescient analysts forecast in November 1941 that if the United States entered the war it would equip an army of 1,750,000 men during 1942, launch two large merchant ships a day and ramp up to produce 25,000 tanks and 50,000 aircraft in 1943 alone. Those spot-on estimates (the 1943 actuals were 28,164 medium tanks and 84,853 aircraft) meant that Germany and Italy would be quickly outclassed: one year of forecast US production would exceed the total German and Italian inventories. But the Germans held onto the illusion that US industry would take years to convert for war production, wrong-headedly presuming that the Americans would be inhibited by their own craft perfectionism. Always averse to hard truths, Mussolini ignored the SIM’s warning and went along with his then still victorious German ally instead of bailing out of the war when he still could.
Italy’s fighting men emerged from the war with such a reputation for ingrained cowardice that combat victories were simply inconceivable. But, as Gooch demonstrates, they never had a chance. Mussolini’s strategic leadership was farcically inept, and command and control was in the incompetent hands of a caste of senior military officers who combined two evils that are usually mutually exclusive: extreme caste solidarity that caused them to cover up one another’s professional inadequacies even while they intrigued relentlessly against one another for career advancement.
As his country’s grand strategist, Mussolini’s incurable delusion was that a highly staged military parade, with the same tanks turning up again and again, was proof of actual military capabilities in war, that numerical superiority (he boasted of ‘eight million bayonets’) amounted to combat superiority and that his own speeches could generate enough fervour to overcome any imbalance of material power – a delusion that persisted as late as 16 December 1944, when he spoke to the faithful and the press-ganged in the Teatro Lirico in Milan (the Scala had been bombed). He considered the speech a great political victory and was sure a military victory would swiftly follow – just as soon as Hitler’s all-powerful secret weapon was unveiled.
Fascist Italy’s fate was sealed the moment it entered the war against Britain and an already defeated France on 10 June 1940: it had only had a display navy (frogmen aside), a parade army (with few effective units) and gallant pilots not actually trained or equipped to defend Italian airspace or support ground forces in combat. Although Mussolini’s unrealism was extreme, even he knew that Italian forces could not defeat the French, but as he told General Badoglio, the army’s then chief of staff, he needed only a ‘few thousand dead’ to be able to sit at the peace conference as a victorious belligerent. In that ambition he was successful: by the time France surrendered to the Germans on 22 June the Italian army’s failed attack on the French Alpine frontier had left him with 1247 soldiers dead or missing, 2631 wounded and 2151 in hospital with frostbite.
That statistic suggests the reason Mussolini’s shortcomings could not be offset by his military chiefs. What do 2151 frostbite cases in June mean? Yes, the French Alps can be remarkably cold (in the village of Aussois, snowflakes once fell on my coat in July), but the Italian army had stores of full winter gear. So what happened? The gear was not issued because the officers in balmy Turin didn’t think of it, or were being careful to preserve their reputation for probity by safeguarding army property from spoiled wastrels. It was by no means a unique episode: Gooch describes General Gariboldi, the commander of Italy’s Eighth Army in Russia, refusing to issue his stores of Parmesan, Cognac and chocolate to the troops, safeguarding his reputation for austerity but damaging morale. Much more serious was his decision to withhold woollen clothing until November, when the temperature at night got down to -23ºC. When winter overcoats were issued at last, they were limited to just one per soldier, with no replacements even as thousands remained in hand. While Gariboldi himself was honestly if foolishly misguided, some of those serving under him were fully corrupt: in November 1944 his chief supply officer was accused of neglecting his duties because he was preoccupied with transferring a Russian woman, luxury foodstuffs and other loot to his home in Italy.
The absolute priority of caste solidarity – which hardly disappeared from Italian public life at the end of the war – shielded Gariboldi from common-sense interventions by colleagues and superiors. It also brought considerable personal rewards. He was in temporary command of the Tenth Army in Libya in December 1940 when the British launched their first offensive in North Africa: 36,000 men equipped with 120 field guns and 275 tanks, against 150,000 Italians with 1600 guns and 600 tanks and tankettes. Five hundred British troops were killed and 1373 wounded, compared to 5500 Italians killed, 10,000 wounded, and a phenomenal 133,298 captured. True, Gariboldi hadn’t stepped in until the fighting was already underway, replacing a sick predecessor and another killed in action, but it is still remarkable that he was promoted in March 1941, immediately after the most ignominious debacle of any army in the entire war, and then further promoted to command an expeditionary army in Russia.
That Gariboldi’s incompetence was far from unusual among his peers is suggested by the history of Mussolini’s other attempt to show Hitler that he too could conquer countries: the invasion of Greece that was launched from Italy’s Albanian protectorate on 28 October 1940 and lasted until 23 April 1941, when the German invasion nullified the remarkable victories of the badly outgunned Greeks. The first commanding general, Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, had assured Mussolini that Greece was weak and that his invasion plans were perfect. He was inordinately self-confident, even while failing to ensure the most elementary logistical preparations – mules, for instance, essential in the mountains. When the ill-equipped Greeks resolutely stopped his chaotic offensive and vigorously attacked in turn, Italian morale collapsed: the chief had prepped his troops for a promenade, not a bitter fight. Instead of gaining parts of Greece, the Italians were now losing parts of Albania. After two disastrous weeks Visconti Prasca was replaced by Ubaldo Soddu, Mussolini’s chief of staff, who was sent out in November 1940 with orders to stop retreats, stabilise the front and resume the offensive as soon as possible.
Unusually fond of good food and wine even by high Roman standards, Soddu had been a competent battalion commander in 1918 but was utterly unprepared to command an entire theatre of war. Unable to firm up Italian resistance let alone gen up any offensive strength, Soddu retreated into his hobby and part-time job: composing film scores. Even as the Greeks advanced and the Italians were driven back towards the Adriatic shore, Soddu absented himself for hours at a time to work on soundtracks for Cinecittà. When a new Greek offensive again surprised the Italians, threatening their vital port at Valona, Soddu frantically called a colleague in Italy urging an immediate peace to avert catastrophe. The treasonous call was intercepted, but instead of ordering his execution Mussolini sent him help: the army’s highest ranking soldier, Ugo Cavallero.
Such was the double protection of the caste and of Mussolini’s enduring regard that Cavallero kept Soddu on as nominal commander until mid-January 1941, while himself contriving to command in Albania and at the same time to remain active in Rome, both in order to curtail the reach of his mistrusted deputy’s lieutenancy and to lobby for the summit of his own ambitions – securing, in June 1941, a law that placed him over the chiefs of staff of the air force and navy as well as the army, thus becoming Italy’s first overall chief of staff. The one thing Cavallero could not achieve was the resumption of the interrupted offensive against Greece, despite the vast materiel superiority of his forces. Poorly equipped compared to the British, the Italians had more and better aircraft, artillery and motor transport than the Greeks, but until the Germans invaded at the end of April 1941, Greek resistance frustrated all Italian efforts.
When Mussolini was dismissed and arrested on 25 July 1943, Cavallero was too. His hated predecessor as army chief and fellow marshal of Italy, Badoglio, had become head of the government, and Cavallero was accused of plotting a fascist counter-coup. In September 1943, while held in Rome’s military prison, he wrote a memorandum in which he claimed that he had himself been preparing a coup to remove Mussolini and install … Badoglio. When the latter fled Rome in fear of the Germans, the memorandum was left on his desk. Freed from prison by the Germans when they took control on 12 September 1943, Cavallero was wined and dined by Field Marshal Kesselring. The following day he was found dead, perhaps because of the unfortunate memorandum that proclaimed his devotion to Badoglio, by then the traitor par excellence for the Germans and Mussolini’s remaining devotees. Between 2011 and 2015, public gardens were named after Cavallero in his native city of Casale Monferrato.