“Mussolini’s War. Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse 1935-1943” by John Gooch (published by Penguin Books)

A losing battle to win ‘respect’

When Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy on October 31, 1922, aged 39, he was the youngest to hold the office to date. But he inherited a country that had a troubled history and was not ranked among the Great Powers of the time. His aim was to restore Italy to its “rightful” place at the top table, and he would do so by establishing a new Roman empire.
29. June 2021 17:21

John Gooch is described by his publisher as one of the world’s leading writers on Italy and the two world wars. He tells how Italy had come late into the First World War, joining the Triple Entente in 1915 after extensive parlaying with both warring parties, earning her international disapprobation. Then on October 24, 1917 the country suffered an almost catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, now in Slovenia, and at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 her territorial claims were made to look grasping and cynical – though by no means all of them were, Gooch writes.

To many who had worn or were still wearing an Italian uniform, the peace settlement had been a “mutilated victory” that confirmed the feeling the fighting and death had all been for nothing.

In the aftermath, Mussolini’s Fascist movement built a broad base of support and came to rule around the powerful ideas of nationalism and anti-Bolshevism.

Mussolini, known as Il Duce (The Leader), aspired to forge his resurgent state that the international community would be forced to recognise by recreating the “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea, an ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean) of the historical Roman Empire. This would control the whole North African coast from Morocco to Egypt, also Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, the south coast of France, and Malta and Gibraltar, thus opening gateways to the Atlantic and Indian oceans. That was the plan, anyway.

The international view was that italiani sunt imbelles (“the Italians can’t fight”) but Mussolini’s dreams of empire were dependent on foreign conquests, and author Gooch opens with Italy’s initial military successes. The first test, beginning in 1922, was to win back Libya, taken from the Turks in the war of 1911-12 and mostly lost in the First World War. It took until 1932 to achieve this, with success built largely through brutality and the merciless hunting down of rebels.

For Mussolini, the Libya experience was nothing but positive, showing Italy to be effective and tough, and his soldiers possessed of spirit and will, which was exactly what he wanted from his “new Fascist man”. The dictator’s eye next rested upon Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, which, after 10 months of preparations, rumours, threats and hesitations, and undeterred by the sanctions imposed by the League of Nations, Italy invaded in October 1935.

The conflict was rushed, expensive, required immense logistics and lacked guidance by a commander with prestige and authority, but Italy prevailed. In six months its armed forces conquered a country bigger than France and Germany combined, much to the surprise of “expert” international opinion that had believed the war was beyond Italy and would last two years. Victory came with yet more savagery, and the use of poison gas, but it gave Mussolini part of the empire he craved.

In the overall balance of things, Gooch considers, the Italian army commanders did well enough and the Abyssinians stood little or no chance against the avalanche of troops, munitions and supplies that Mussolini had poured in, but which stripped Italy’s military resources almost to the bone.

No sooner had one war ended than another began. In Spain in 1936 the Republican government faced a Nationalist insurrection led by General Francisco Franco, and he asked Rome for help. Mussolini’s increasingly repressive regime needed a distraction from economic hardship, and Spain presented an opportunity to install a regime more in line with fascism than Western democracy.

“The Italian public was presented with a war in which the issues were clear-cut and simple: civilization in the shape of Christianity was fighting barbarism in the form of bolshevism,” Gooch writes.

While Franco emerged victorious in 1939 against the Republicans who were poorly armed, poorly trained and lacking capability in defensive operations, the Italian army’s equipment, doctrine and practice were all shown to be wanting in various degrees. It was a war of limited liability for fascist Italy, but for a country with a relatively weak industrial base and that had just fought the colonial war in east Africa, even limited liabilities were a serious burden. Support for Franco ate up planes, trucks and ammunition, and left Italy with a deficit of over 40 billion lire.

The top table beckoned but it was clear that to earn his seat Mussolini would need friends. On May 22, 1939 he signed the “Pact of Steel” with Germany’s Adolf Hitler, committing their two countries to each other’s aid if either was at war, while at the same time pointing out that Italy, depleted by Abyssinia and Spain, would not be ready to fight until 1943.

Nonetheless, Italy became bogged down in a disastrous invasion of Greece in October 1940. After Germany went to war without him, Mussolini remained carefully neutral and sat out an uneasy year of neutrality, but once the French Maginot line was breached he sensed that he could wait no longer without forfeiting his share of the spoils.
With the sudden collapse of the French and British armies, Mussolini declared war on the Allies in the hope of making territorial gains in southern France and Africa. This decision proved a horrifying miscalculation, dooming Italy to its own prolonged and unwinnable war, immense casualties and an Allied invasion in 1943 that ushered in a terrible new era for the country.

Mussolini knew perfectly well that Italy lacked the manpower or resources – tanks, mortars, rifles, iron, copper, steel, nickel, rubber and oil – for more than a single short campaign. But he never much liked his senior fascists or his generals and did not believe in experts unless they agreed with him. As the war in Europe spread, Italy was sucked into campaigns across north and east Africa, Russia and the Balkans, and came to depend ever more on Germany.

Here is the bulk of Gooch’s book, and there is a fulsome account of Italy’s struggles in World War Two. We read how Il Duce seemed completely unable to concentrate on one objective at a time, constantly switching priorities, changing his senior officers around and throwing military planning into confusion.

The weak Italian economy was quite unable to support his grandiose ambitions. Gooch portrays the nightmare of a country with too small an industrial sector, too incompetent a leadership and too many fronts on which to fight. For the most part, Mussolini’s armies were badly trained, confusingly and ineptly led, imbued by a culture of cruelty, insufficiently fed and lacking in almost everything they needed to confront the allies and stand up to the uncompromising Germans. Italy’s fighting equipment was inferior and scarce.

By spring 1943, Mussolini was running out of time. He was summarily executed by Italian partisans on April 28, 1945, shot, then his corpse was hanged upside down from the roof of a petrol station in Milan.
“Fascist Italy,” Gooch writes, “continued on its chosen path towards defeat.” It is hard to imagine a fuller account. The author takes us – meticulously and at great length – through all the painful campaigns and quixotic tactics, through advances and retreats, victories and losses. The final peace treaty, signed in Paris in 1946, did not bring glory to Italy but rather further humiliation.

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