It can often seem as if no historical subject has been more thoroughly, minutely, exhaustively examined than World War Two--and yet, even here glaring gaps quickly appear when one searches the material in a thorough way. One of these is the matter of the Italian armed forces, and their performance in the conflict, about which little of substance has been written.
There is an extent to which this is unsurprising. Italy was economically and militarily the weakest of the three principal Axis powers. It also fought the war for the shortest period, entering the war only after the fall of France in 1940 and dropping out in September 1943--just a little over three years, with the end coming nearly two years before VE Day. Additionally, its actions were generally confined to a single theater, the Mediterranean; the fighting on land occurred on a much smaller scale than what was seen on the Eastern Front, the fighting on sea than what happened simultaneously in the Atlantic and the Pacific; and the implications of these battles seem marginal next to what was happening in those other regions (Stalingrad or Midway more important than El Alamein).
There is, too, a tendency to see Italy's war as having been relatively one-sided--and not in its favor. It is commonly claimed that the Battle of Punto Stilo enabled much more aggressive British forces to achieve a "moral ascendancy" over an Italian navy that became unwilling to fight, that the raid on Taranto achieved strategic dominance in the region for the British, and that Britain's dominance in the theater was reaffirmed by the "decisive" Battle of Cape Matapan. Reading a typical account of the fighting in the Mediterranean, one gets the impression Italian warships left their bases only to be sunk, and that the war there went on as long as it did is due to German intervention, pure and simple.
However, James Sadkovich argues in The Italian Navy in World War II, this version of events does not fit the facts. Examining the actual course of these and other clashes, he concludes that the Italian fleet remained more daring and aggressive than they have been given credit for, the British more cautious. Despite their allegedly crushing triumphs (and even during them), British forces consistently avoided operating without cover of night and bad weather, and in all weather held back from engaging Italian naval fleet units near their land-based air support. British forces also held back from head-on clashes with the Italian navy even on occasions when they had numbers on their side. Indeed, Sadkovich describes the British Navy as having fought a "corsair war, hitting and running before the Italian forces in the area could react" (134), and even while following this practice, was inclined toward actions valuable principally for propaganda rather than offering real tactical or strategic advantage ("small, easy victories" over "decisive encounters").
All of this reflected the fact that more decisive action was time and again deemed too difficult or risky to undertake--implicit but powerful proof of the actual willingness and ability of the Italian navy and air force to fight. And indeed, any actual evidence of some great shock to Italian morale as a result of early battles like Punta Stilo is lacking--the record clearly demonstrating that Italian forces remained ready, willing and able to seek battle. Moreover, on close examination such successes as Britain enjoyed in sea-fights appear to be due less to any advantage in morale (or for that matter, superior training or seamanship) than to intelligence from Ultra, technical advantages like radar (about which the Italian navy did not even know early in the war) and "dumb luck" (134). If Italian submarine losses were high, so were those of the British--a fact Sadkovich chalks up to the clear, shallow water of the sea in which they were both operating. If Italian industry was no match for Britain's (and the Allies more generally) when it came to quantity, it was capable of high-quality production, not least in aircraft, its best fighters a match for the Spitfire, letting Italian pilots hold their own in dogfights. Sadkovich also credits Italian commanders with a sound strategic sense (hampered as their range of actual choice was by their limited resources), and logistical excellence (their Navy achieving wonders with the limited shipping available to it).
The result was that, with only "sporadic help from their German ally," the Italian navy and air force sustained a war effort in North Africa for three years, besieged Malta, and for considerable periods dominated the central Mediterranean. And in the end it was wartime attrition, American entry into the war and the Axis's general declining fortunes (like Germany's setbacks in Russia) which overwhelmed the country's more limited resources (that smaller industrial capacity, and weaker access to raw materials), and the Allied invasion of North Africa (by way of Vichy-held territory), rather than the heroics of British ship captains, which decided the fight on that continent.1
To support these contentions Sadkovich marshals a vast body of highly detailed evidence, from assessments of the characteristics of warships and other weapons systems, to minute accounts of the fighting, to close-reading of orders of battle and statistics on losses. Indeed, he can seem to have almost too much evidence, the data at times nearly overwhelming Sadkovich's ability to present it in organized, readable fashion--as in an early discussion of the specifications of the cannon used on British and Italian warships. However, it does not overwhelm his analytical skills, and his case appears overwhelming.
All this being the case, one may wonder why the image of Italians
at the mercy of that bombastic fool and master of bluff and braggadocio, Mussolini [making] only an occasional appearance in order to throw down their arms and be meekly led away to a POW camp, or . . . lose their ships to superior British seamen and their aircraft to superior British pilots (xiv)has been so enduring and unquestioned. Certainly one factor would seem the racism with which the Allies (and the Germans) viewed the Italians, which shaped early historiography. Another, Sadkovich holds, is the existence of certain wartime secrets--namely Ultra, which let British forces read Axis naval codes and enabled many of their successes against Italian forces. The secrecy surrounding it made British forces appear that much more competent, the Italians that much less so (and the belated revelation of Ultra's role in the 1970s, which should have been a corrective, came long after perceptions had become well-established).
And of course, alongside the warping of the record of Italy's performance by bigotry and secrecy, there is also the perception of Italy's principal enemy here, Britain. Nationalistic British historians, and writers from other English-speaking writers inclining to their view, have been prone to apply a double-standard. As Sadkovich observes, "While Britain's defense of Malta is extolled as heroic, Italy's ability to keep the supply lines open to Africa and the Balkans is discounted as unimportant" (331)--though "if so much is made of the few convoys that managed to reach Malta, much more should be made of the many that kept the Axis war effort in Africa alive" (349). Indeed, the fighting as described by Sadkovich, the image of a hit-and-run corsair war, clashes unacceptably with the image of the fighting sea-dog spirit to which Corelli Barnett paid a thousand-page tribute in the title and text of his history of the Royal Navy during World War II, Engage the Enemy More Closely.
Unsurprisingly, two decades on, the discussion of this subject remains much what it was before--with the result that Sadkovich's book still comprises a relatively large and up-to-date portion of the literature specifically focused on Italy's armed forces, and a crucial debunking of myths about the war in this theater.
1. In the whole first year of the war, British forces sank 12 of 334 Italian merchant vessels--just one ship per month, despite this being a major theater of operations.