Military historians who have observed the Second World War have long observed that the turning point in the conflict in Europe was the decision by Nazi Germany to invade Soviet Russia in 1941. Before this, the Nazis had conquered all before them. But, when their armies stalled outside Moscow and Leningrad in the winter of 1941, the war turned inexorably against them.
After the last push to seize the city of Stalingrad in 1942, the Red Army began driving the Wehrmacht back westwards towards Berlin.
In assessments of this, it is often noted how close the invasion of Russia, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, came to victory before the Russian winter set in. Perhaps, many have suggested, if Hitler had begun the invasion in the middle of May 1941 as originally intended, rather than in late June, as eventually occurred, the course of the whole war would have been different.
The reasons for that delay in the summer of 1941, the necessity of diverting German resources to the Balkans to aid Benito Mussolini’s Italy in its floundering efforts to conquer Greece and Yugoslavia, have been afforded great importance in the course of the overall war.
And this was not the only time the Germans had to step in to help the Italians. The same was already occurring in North Africa in 1941 and would also transpire in 1943 once the Allies invaded southern Italy. So the question is, why was the Italian Royal Army so utterly ineffective during the Second World War?
Italian Military Production and Equipment
A basic answer to this question can be found in the economic bases of the major powers. Italy, simply put, was a poor country by comparison with, for instance, Germany, Britain, and the Soviet Union.
These had huge resources available to them. Nazi Germany could rely on companies like Volkswagen, Mercedes, IG Farben, and Siemens to drive large parts of its industrial war machine.
In Britain, companies like Rolls Royce and Jaguar were repurposed to produce fighter plane engines and battleships for the RAF and Royal Navy, while the Soviet Union was able to bend its command economy entirely towards the war effort when the very existence of the regime was threatened.
Italy did not have this economic base to rely on. The only company that stands out for its status as a domestic economic heavyweight in Italy was Fiat, which played a massive role in the production of Italian tanks. Still, even these were inferior to the German Panzer tanks and others produced by the other Axis and Allied powers.
All of this meant that the allies outmatched the Italians when it came to armored divisions, the core of any army during the Second World War. For instance, some elements of the Italian Royal Army in the Balkans in 1941 and in Italy in 1943 used the Fiat 3000 Tank.
This monstrosity of an armored vehicle had inadequate guns and very poor maneuverability. The Italian army began using it in 1921, so it was hopelessly outdated.
Why was the Italian army so unprepared?
Another critical issue was the lack of military preparedness on Italy’s part. It is a popular misconception that Italy joined the war on Germany’s side in the autumn of 1939. This was not the case. Mussolini was wary of jumping into the war too soon, and the Italian military was utterly unprepared to do so in the late 1930s.
Indeed some of the senior commanders of the Italian military at the time said it would take until 1943 or 1944 before the Italian military would be fully ready for war.
As such, Mussolini employed a cautious approach in 1939. What changed was the swift manner with which Germany conquered Denmark and Norway in the spring of 1940 and then France and the Low Countries in a lightning-quick campaign in the summer of that year.
With all of Central and Western Europe effectively under Nazi control and only Britain challenging Germany in Europe, Mussolini determined much to be gained by joining the war. So, despite the Italian military’s lack of preparedness, Italy entered the Second World War on Germany’s side in June 1940.
Once Italy entered the war, it faced further problems. Mussolini had two geostrategic objectives. One was to build up a latter-day version of the Mediterranean empire of the Romans by conquering the Balkans regions.
The Italian Royal Army faced stiff opposition from committed Greek and Yugoslav partisans. As a result, Italy’s 1940 invasion turned into a disaster that necessitated German aid diverting to the Balkans early in 1941.
Poor planning played a significant role here and highlighted another problem of the Italian Royal Army, its poor standard of leadership amongst generals like Sebastiano Visconti Prasco, Ubaldo Soddu, and Ugo Cavallero.
Each of them successfully led the Italian forces in the Balkans from the commencement of the war and were dismissed after just weeks in command due to their incompetence. As the war effort in the Balkans went poorly, morale amongst the Italian rank and file declined dramatically.
Italy in North Africa
Finally, in North Africa, the Italians ran into problems for several reasons. First, the front here had a strategic significance within the broader war, unlike the Balkans, effectively a sideshow. The Italians wished to drive east from Tunisia and Libya into Egypt and secure the Suez Canal, a strategically important target for both Italy and Germany.
Maintaining control over the Suez Canal became a major tactical priority for the British in 1940 and 1941. As a result, even as Britain was suffering from the Blitz by Germany as the German Luftwaffe tried to bomb Churchill’s government into submission, London dispatched extensive resources to Cairo.
Soon after that, the British won their first major tactical victory in early 1941 when Operation Compass drove the Italians back into Libya and destroyed the numerically superior Italian 10th Army.
Consequently, the Italians were also forced to call on German aid, which arrived in the shape of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps some weeks later. Thus, in North Africa, the Italian armed forces proved ineffective as the Allies made a priority of that front early in the war, particularly following the US’s entry into the war in December 1941.
In conclusion, there was a wide range of factors involved in the ineffectiveness of the Italian armed forces during the Second World War. These included the relative weakness of the Italian war economy and the incompetence of many of Mussolini’s generals.
Moreover, the Italians also faced unexpected opposition in both the Balkans and North Africa. But ultimately, the key issue was that the Royal Italian Army was not adequately prepared for war in 1940, and Italy should never have entered the war and attempted what it did.
John Gooch, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse, 1935–1943 (London, 2020); Philip Jowett, The Italian Army, 1940–45 (Westminster, 2001).
James J. Sadkovich, ‘Italian Morale during the Italo-Greek War of 1940–1941’, in War and Society, Vol. 12, No. 1 (May, 1994), pp. 97–123.
James J. Sadkovich, ‘Of Myths and Men: Rommel and the Italians in North Africa’, in The International History Review, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1991), pp. 284–313; Vincent P. O’Hara, Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1945 (London, 2009).