Here's What You Need to Know: When most people think of the Italian Army in North Africa during World War II, they tend to believe that the average Italian soldier offered little resistance to the Allies before surrendering. Many believe the Italian Army, as a whole, performed in a cowardly manner in North Africa.
The reality is not so simple. The question remains as to whether the Italians were really cowards or actually victims of circumstance. While the Italian soldier’s commitment to the war was not as great as that of the German soldier, many Italians fought bravely. The Italian Littorio and Ariete Divisions earned Allied admiration at Tobruk, Gazala, and El Alamein. The Italian Army played a significant role as part of the German Afrika Korps and made up a large portion of the Axis combat power in North Africa during 1941 and 1942. In the interest of determining how the Italian Army earned the reputation that it did, it is necessary to analyze why and how the Italians fought.
Mussolini’s Campaign in Africa
In 1940, it appeared that German successes in Poland, France, and Norway would end the war. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was concerned that Italy might lose its share of the spoils. On June 10, 1940, he declared war on Britain and France. He was sure that France and Britain would soon surrender and did not believe Italy would have to do much fighting.
Mussolini wanted to occupy the French and British colonies in Africa and seize control of the Suez Canal from the British. In August 1940, he ordered attacks on British positions in East Africa and Egypt. Troops from the Italian colony of Ethiopia invaded British Somaliland and quickly overran its garrison made up of mostly conscripted natives.
At the same time, other Italian troops began to move westward from Ethiopia into Sudan to seize the upper Nile Valley. They quickly captured Kassala and Gallabat, while more Italian troops moved south to capture Moyale, in the northern part of the British colony of Kenya.
Buoyed by their successes, the Italians prepared to march from Libya across northern Egypt to seize the Suez Canal. The youngest elements of the Italian Army were indoctrinated to consider themselves invincible because they were Italians and Fascists. They were taught that their enemies were inferior and would be easily defeated. Mussolini repeatedly refused offers of assistance from Hitler during this period, convinced that his forces could vanquish the British.
Operation Compass: a Crushing Counterattack
On September 13, 1940, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, commander of the Italian Army in North Africa, began his advance into Egypt, hoping to make a quick dash to the Suez Canal. He commanded a 236,000-strong army supported by a powerful air force. Yet, behind the overwhelming numbers facing the British were glaring weaknesses that not even Graziani’s Fascist confidence could overcome.
The Italian Tenth and Fifth Armies in Libya marched on foot, while the British rode in trucks. Two of the six Italian divisions were Black Shirt militia outfits, clad in fancy black uniforms, but poorly trained soldiers. The main characteristic of Italian tactics was a lack of flexibility. They had remained attached to one principle, which consisted of the concentration of the greatest mass possible for whatever task lay ahead of them.
In addition, Italian divisions were reduced from three regiments to two. This created more Italian divisions but weakened their strength. Further, the Italian forces relied on poor, obsollete equipment. Armored cars dated back to 1909. The L3 tank mounted only two Breda machine guns. The underpowered and thinly armored M11 tank was no better. Its 37mm gun could not traverse. The heavyweight M13 tank packed a 47mm gun but crawled along at nine miles per hour. None could match the British Matilda tank with its 50mm armor and 40mm gun. Italian troops were short of antitank guns, antiaircraft guns, ammunition, and radio sets. Artillery was light and ancient.
Italian infantrymen carried the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, an 1881 model, which suffered from low muzzle velocity. Their Breda machine guns were clumsy to operate and jammed easily. On the other hand, the British troops used the reliable .303-caliber Lee-Enfield rifle and the very good Bren and Vickers machine guns. The Italians also had problems in the air. While they could sortie 84 modern bombers and 114 fighters, backed up by 113 obsolete aircraft, they were completely outclassed by the British Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft. Furthermore, the British Army, which had trained for years in the Egyptian desert, was much better at maintaining its equipment under the extremes of the arid climate.
Four Italian divisions and an armored group under General Annibale Bergonzoli advanced slowly toward Egypt, across a hostile landscape in temperatures of up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. They succeeded in covering only 12 miles a day. Historically, the Italian Army was structured for deployment in the mountainous terrain found in Italy and its immediate neighbors. Graziani’s army as a whole was not trained for desert warfare, and the heat and sand took a toll on men and equipment.
British General Archibald Wavell’s forces, which where distracted in French West Africa, offered little resistance, and the 23 March Black Shirt Division occupied Sidi Barrani on September 16. The Italians were now 60 miles inside the Egyptian border. Despite the superior Italian strength, the British attacked on December 9. General Richard O’Connor led two divisions, the 7th Armored and 4th Indian, in the attack, supported by the 7th Royal Tank Regiment.
The Italians could not stop the British Matilda tanks. They quickly found a gap in the Italian defenses. Taking advantage of the rigid Italian tactics, poor leadership, and equipment deficiencies, they dashed through, surprising Graziani. The main British force raced for the coast at Sidi Barrani, while detachments slashed at the rear of the Italian units.
The Italians did not have the flexibility to deviate from their formations. While individual soldiers fought bravely, within two days nearly 40,000 Italians surrendered. The rest of Graziani’s force retreated westward toward Libya. The average Italian soldier began to have serious doubts as to his army’s invincibility, and a lack of confidence in Italian leadership reached crisis level.
The devastating British offensive of December 1940 had led to a series of severe reversals. Therefore, the Italian high command requested German assistance. The Luftwaffe’s X Fliegerkorps was ordered to Italy from Norway and arrived in Sicily in late December 1940. The Germans operated against Allied shipping and patrolled the sea-lanes between Italy and Libya. However, by mid-February 1941, having not yet received the ground support he requested, Graziani’s Italian forces were overrun and 115,000 men surrendered.
The Afrika Korps Arrives
In the wake of the Italian defeats, Hitler decided to send a German Army formation to Libya. The intervention was code-named Operation Sunflower and included the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Divisions. Forward elements of the German force began to arrive in Tripoli on February 14, 1941. The Deutsches Afrika Korps was formed five days later. General Erwin Rommel commanded German forces in North Africa and, for the sake of diplomacy, was directed to serve under General Italo Gariboldi, who had succeeded the defeated Marshal Graziani as the Italian commander in North Africa.
Immediately after his arrival at Tripoli on February 12, 1941, Rommel began organizing the defense of Tripolitania, in western Libya, and making plans for offensive actions. The Italian Ariete and Trento armored divisions arrived from Italy. The Ariete was composed of 6,949 men, 163 tanks, 36 field guns, and 61 antitank guns. Motorized infantry consisted of the 101st Trieste Division and the 102nd Trento Division. The semi-motorized infantry contingent included the 17th Pavia Division, 25th Bologna Division, and the 27th Brescia Division. Like the motorized formations, these units had two regiments of infantry. The infantry divisions consisted of the 55th Savona and the 60th Sabartha.
The Italians introduced the more modern M-13/40 tanks, grouped in motorized units and not thrown together like Graziani’s tanks during his offensive. They also utilized their first company of armored cars. To erase the poor performance of some obsolete artillery, the Italians introduced the use of self-propelled guns in close support and in antitank attacks by “massing” the artillery. The Ariete Division began to use the 90/53 antiaircraft gun, which was capable of piercing 100mm of armor at 1,000 yards. Rommel had at his disposal 100,000 Italian soldiers, 7,000 Italian trucks, 1,000 Italian guns, and 151 Italian aircraft.
Rommel Goes on the Offensive
Rommel’s orders were to assume a defensive posture and hold the front line. Finding that the British defenses were thin, he quickly defeated the Allied forces at El Agheila on March 24. He then launched an offensive which, by April 15, had pushed the British back to Salum, capturing all but Tobruk, which was encircled and besieged. During this drive, he also managed to capture two British generals, Richard O’Connor and Sir Philip Neame.
Gariboldi tried to restrain Rommel, insisting that any further moves would be in direct violation of orders. Rommel ignored him, stating, “I decided to stay on the heels of the retreating enemy and make a bid to seize the whole of Cyrenaica at one stroke.”