Italian Soldiers Were No Cowards During WW2

The popular perception in the western media is that Italian soldiers during the Second World War were best at one thing; Turning around and fleeing. Or raising their hands as soon they spotted an Allied soldier.

This is untrue. Italians proved their bravery when they fought well during the Great War. In the next world war, they had no motivation to fight. Mussolini was no Pied Piper of Hamelin like Hitler. And unlike the Germans, the Italians were no children willing to jump off a cliff.

Going around destroying everything and bullying others just because a vengeful man says so is no bravery. Look at what happened to the Germans in 1945.

Italians were wiser, smarter and more down-to-earth, just the kind of people this Earth needs.

Italian soldier mother Abyssinia invasion 1935
 An Italian soldier bids farewell to his mother before heading to Abyssinia in 1935

It is enough to go back to World War I. In “The Great War” the Italians fought with extraordinary bravery and sustained appalling battlefield casualties. They also fought on the right side. (Allied military deaths in the First World War: France, 1,397,000; Britain, 886,939; Italy, 651,000. Not bad, not bad at all.)

Italian soldiers train abyssinia invasion 1935
Italian soldiers in Montevarchi before heading for Abyssinia, 1935.

In his new book called 'Mussolini and Hitler - a Fatal Friendship,' Dr Goeshel of Manchester University will attempt to set the record straight. The book is due to be published by Yale University Press in 2016.

However, when Dr Goeschel started his research in 2010 a different picture of both Mussolini and the Italian war effort emerged.

He travelled up to four times a year to Italy's Central State Archives in Rome to view the official records not normally seen by the public.

Jokes about Italy's lack of military prowess and faint-heated approach to combat also did not stand up to scrutiny when he examined records of campaigns such as North Africa, Greece, the Balkans and Russia.

He said: 'It was a very famous assertion that the Germans had to bail out the Italians out.

'But this notion is a post war myth - perpetuated by German war veterans who regarded the Italians as lazy and cowardly.

'The records show the Italians fought courageously and brutally - but were let down by bad leadership.

'Italians also fought on the Eastern front - and testimony by Russian POWs said they were just as brutal as the Germans.'

Source: Daily Mail

Italian invasion Greece 1941
Italian soldiers in Greece in 1941

At the outbreak of WWII Italy was ill prepared for battle against more modern adversaries. Italy had zero oil production, no aircraft carriers, tanks with fragile armour, artillery mainly of WW1 vintage, a navy which could not target shipping at night (no radar), and inferior aircraft.

Mussolini had a vision of reforming the glories of the Roman Empire by regaining the territory surrounding the Mediterranean “mare nostro”. From the outset of Italy’s intervention in WWII – Italian leadership demonstrated incompetence - 35% of Italian merchant shipping was impounded in hostile shorelines. Italy’s main cities were also immediately bombed. Italy bombed British outposts in the Mediterranean especially Malta. Axis supply lines to Africa were continually hampered by British forces based at Malta denying Italian and German troops vital supplies. Hitler persuaded Mussolini to postpone the invasion of Malta (operation Hercules) until victory was achieved in North Africa.

The Italian soldier is sadly the forgotten soldier of WWII which was the most oppressive period of Italian history. At El Alamein 30,000 Italians surrendered to a numerically superior British force but it is important to note the battle casualties sustained : 25,000 Italo-German and 13,000 British dead or wounded. Such casualties proved that Italians did not surrender early in battle. The Folgore, Brescia and Pavia divisions were annihilated as they defended and shed blood heroically for 2 weeks. The uneasy relationship with the Germans was highlighted at El Alamein as they abandoned the Italians, having taken all available transport to retreat.

Italian units demonstrated their fighting ability in the Russian campaign. History's last successful cavalry charge was by the cream of Italy - the Savoy Cavalry regiment. 600 Savoia sabre charged 2,000 Russians defending with machine guns and artillery at Isbuscenskij on August 24, 1942.

The Italian elite Alpini mountain troops saved themselves plus many German divisions from destruction and capture during the Soviet offensive of 1942.

Holding territory or inflicting death/destruction on the enemy is not the true mark of heroism in war. Survival against all odds shows the real character of a heroic soldier. The Italian 8th Army trapped in the Russian encirclement of the Don who managed to avoid death or capture by breaking free all proved themselves to be heroes of the highest level.

The brave men of the 8th Army marched on foot without winter clothing and boots in the dead of winter. Night and day thousands died not only from Russian bombs, rockets, and bullets but also from the terrible cold. Starving and without ammunition the last great display of Italian heroism “to die fighting” was shown at the village of Arbuzov where the remnants of the 35th corps mounted bayonet attacks to overcome fortified Russian positions. After Arbuzov “the valley of death” the Italians left in their wake a trail of frozen corpses and abandoned equipment. Only the fittest and luckiest survived what became a 28 day ordeal out of the encirclement of the Don.

In conclusion there is much evidence to support the bravery of Italian Soldiers in WWII and no proper justification to portray them as cowards. It is insulting to the Italian soldiers who fought bravely and more so to the many thousands of them who died in battle. In recent conflicts the Italian soldier now has an excellent reputation where hearts and minds have been won over.

Italian POW Battle El Alamein North Africa WW2
Italian soldiers captured in North Africa after the Battle of El Alamein

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Italy was in no way ready for an offensive war. However Mussolini desperately wanted to participate in the redrawing of the map of Europe and so overlooked the state of Italy's military-industrial complex in order to feed his ego. Italian industrial power was a mere fraction of that of Britain, France or Germany and was not ready to produce the guns, ammunition, artillery, tanks, and trucks on the scale that was needed. At the beginning of the Italian entry into the war, its forces were equipped more in line with the First World War rather than the Second.

Italy's artillery included vestiges of the previous century with a contingent of horse artillery and many leftovers from World War I. The newer models, while very effective were never made in large enough numbers. Modern tanks were virtually non-existent at the start of Italy's war effort and had more lightly armored vehicles and "tankettes". By the time Italy started producing better tanks and mobile artillery that could compete with the allied weapons it was too late to make a difference. Small arms, such as Beretta pistols and automatic rifles were very capable, but several machine and sub-machine gun types were often poorly made. Even the shoddy models were always in short supply since Italy lacked the industrial strength for mass production of weapons.

The Italian shipyards produced (or retrofitted) fast and well designed ships but they had the fatal flaws of being light in armor and without radar. To combat their shortcomings the Regia Marina created cheap but near suicidal craft such as Explosive Motor Boats and Il "Maiale", a two man human torpedo/mine - hardly the equipment to inspire confidence, but certainly an example of Italian bravery.

Italian air power looked good on paper but was virtually non-existent, with only a few thousand aircraft at the start of the war, many of them bi-planes. The few modern aircraft created were underpowered, poorly designed and no match against allied fighters. The Regia Aeronautica also had the deplorable task of dropping poison gas during the conquest of Ethiopia to the disgust of the international community.

Of all the major military forces involved at the start of World War II, Italy had the by far the least competent high command. Mussolini filled the officer positions with men whose only "qualification" was loyalty to Il Duce. Before the start of hostilities Italy did have some capable generals - especially those who experienced the mistakes made during the First World War. However things would change once Mussolini attempted to militarize Italy as he would purge the country of anyone whose allegiance was questioned. Many Men from titled families, whose ancestors had been fighting for centuries were considered more loyal to the King and so stripped of their status and given menial positions. Anyone unlucky enough to be more out-spoken on Mussolini would become a confino and exiled to wastelands like Italy's holdings in Somalia to suffer in the heat. What was left were a group of military commanders short on any talent or innovation but long on loyalty to Mussolini's long term fascist goals. The Italian navy, with a limited number of fighting ships was handcuffed by extremely conservative approach by its admiralty. Conversely, men like Rodolfo Graziani, the "Butcher of Ethiopia" were loyal to Mussolini even till the end and would throw his men into fights he knew that they could not win. It would not take long to prove how poorly the high command would lead Italy's troops, and unfairly put into question their bravery.

When the poorly led Italian troops were used in conjunction with, or under German forces, they fought considerably better. The Italian forces that participated in Hitler's invasion of Russia were known to have fought particularly well, despite facing vastly superior numbers of Soviet troops and harsh weather. In fact, the bravery of the Italian Alpini (mountain troops) and Voloire (horse artillery) regiments during Operation Barbarossa was legendary. Even when the entire offensive started to fail, Radio Moscow was heard to say "Only the Italian Alpini Corps is to be considered unbeaten on the Russian Front." On several occasions these brave men were surrounded by enemy forces, only to successfully battle back to their own lines. Italy's attempt to take over Greece was a complete disaster; Italy was beaten back by the much weaker Greeks into Albania. Once Germany took over the Greece campaign, the Italian forces under their command fought much more effectively than under their own generals, whom they regarded as little more than Mussolini's butchers.

World War II was not met with enthusiasm but despair. It seemed that only Mussolini and his fascist cronies were the ones interested in war and so in 1940 Italy started out on the attempt to conquer the Mediterranean with troops that had no faith in their commanders or a desire to fight. The botched attempt to take over Greece was met with a fierce resistance from men fighting for their lives and homeland, which had only decades before been ruled by the Ottoman Turks for centuries. The Greek forces were ready to die for their freedom; the Italian forces had no such passion driving them to fight their best.

Italian soldiers tank north africa ww2
Italian soldiers in North Africa with a M 13/40 tank

The myth of Italian cowardice began on September 1940 when 36,000 British soldiers repelled 200,000 troops of the Regio Esercito bent on invading Egypt.

In need of a boost for national morale, British intelligence presented that battle as a triumph of British courage over Italian spinelessness. The tale was picked up by Allied media and it would stick through World War II and beyond.

Even though only the most ardent Fascists were in favor of Italy entering the war, the truth is that Italian soldiers fought bravely in just about any battle they participated in. Their problem was leadership, poor equipment and faulty industrial support.

Mussolini Eradicated Many Career Officers

Leadership was a three part problem. First, Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had purged the highest ranks of the armed forces. The career soldiers, usually men who belonged to upper class families who had served in the military for generations, were replaced by Fascist cronies.

Secondly, the career officers detested Mussolini many considered him less than a clown and would do anything in their power to subvert his orders. Finally, there was a caste system between officers and enlisted men. Many times, officers treated the regular troops as servants, requiring them to shine their boots or wash their clothes. Needles to say this caused unnecessary friction.

Equipment was outmoded

Italian weaponry did not meet modern standards. The Regio Esercito artillery corps in particular, still used horse drawn pieces built in the 19th Century and countless World War I vintage guns. The tanks were dated.

The Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy) fared a bit better. Its capital ships were well designed and fast. The smaller crafts developed an excellent reputation during daring raids in the Mediterranean. The big ships, however, lacked sufficient armor and had no radar. Italian naval commanders however, made use of their ships' excellent rage finder and fire control systems to make up for some of the deficiencies. But the ship captains had no control over their actions. Decisions were made at naval headquarters, many times without knowing the combat situation.

Perhaps the most outdated corps of the Italian armed forces was the Regia Aeronautica (Air Force). While its strength was officially set at 3,296 aircraft, only 2,000 were fit for flying in combat. Worse yet, only 166 were modern fighters that never-the-less, were slow and difficult to control.

Industrial Output was Inadequate

At the beginning of World War II Italian industrial production was haplessly insufficient; barely 15 % of the British, French or German output.

Even companies like Beretta, which provided excellent pistols and rifles, could not produce enough to keep the military supplied. It just got worse as the war raged on.

Italians Distinguished Themselves in Combat

Hindrances aside, Alpini, Grenadiers and Bersaglieri units of the Savoia Battalion fought gallantly at the 1941 Battle of Keren in East Africa. In the Soviet Union, the Littorio, Brescia and Trento Divisions, as well as the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment distinguish themselves.

But it was the actions of the Folgore Division of paratroopers during the second battle of El Alamein that should have erased all doubts about Italian bravery. From October 23 to October 26, 1942, the Folgore repel the attacks of the famous British Desert Rats and the 1st Free French Division. The Allies abandoned the sector defended by the Italians and eventually broke the defenders lines in the German zone.

No less a figure than German Field Marshal Edwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, expressed his admiration for the way the Italians had fought at El Alamein.

Source: Ivan Castro

italian marines Savioa Marchetti sm 82 transport plane
Italian marines climbing aboard a Savoia Marchetti SM.82 transport plane


Italian POW Stalingrad 1943
 Italian POW at Stalingrad


During World War II, Italy fielded six Alpine divisions:

1st Alpine Division Taurinense

2nd Alpine Division Tridentina

3rd Alpine Division Julia

4th Alpine Division Cuneense

5th Alpine Division Pusteria

6th Alpine Division Alpi Graie

Each division consisted of two Alpini regiments with three battalions each, one Alpine Artillery Regiment with three Artillery groups, one Mixed Engineer Battalion, one Logistic Battalion and some support units. The strength of each division was 573 officers and 16,887 NCOs and soldiers for a total strength of 17,460 men. Also each division had almost 5,000 mules and 500 vehicles of various types at its disposal.

The divisions saw combat in France, Africa, Italy, Albania, The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Greece. One Alpini battalion was employed inEast Africa. In 1942, Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense division were sent to fight in the Soviet Union. In Russia, instead of being deployed in the Caucasus mountains as expected, the Alpini were tasked with holding a front on the plains of the Don River. As a result of this disastrous strategic decision, troops armed, trained, and equipped for mountain warfare were pitted in the plains against tanks and mechanized infantry, to counter which they were neither equipped nor trained. Despite this, the Alpini held the front until January 1943, when, due to the collapse of the Axis front, they were encircled by the advancing Soviet Army. The Alpini were able to break the encirclement and fight their way towards the new line of the front established after the Axis retreat. Only about one third of the Tridentina division (4250 survivors of 15,000 troops deployed) and one tenth of the Julia (1,200/15,000) were able to survive this odyssey. The Cuneense division was annihilated.

North Africa, 1941. An Italian soldier firing a Fiat-Revelli M 1914/35 machine gun


Italian pilots with a Savola-Marchetti 79 aircraft and ammunition


On June 1941, Benito Mussolini decided to send 60000 Italian troops in Ukraine to take part in Operatio Barbarosa. Under the command of General Giovanni Messe these troops performed well, advancing deep into Soviet Union. By July 1942, the number had grown to 200000. 

On August 1942, the Soviet forces near Serafimovich launched a counterattack against the Italians holding the Don River. The Italians were outnumbered but they managed to hold their grounds. The Soviet tanks were stopped with molotov cocktails. 

On August 24th, with the victory near Serafimovich, Italian Savoia Cavalry made up of 600 mounted soldiers launched a counterattack on the Isbuschenski steppe. The Soviets forces consisted of 2000 men with mortar and artillery support. One Italian squadron attacked head on, while the other came behind the enemy lines armed only with sabres. They caught the Soviets completely by surprise and overran their positions. The Soviets lost two battalions in one of the last cavalry attacks of WWII. 

During the Soviet operation which eventually led to the German VI. Army being encircled, to the north of the Soviet breakthrough, the Italian Alpini Corps held firm against Soviets attacks--the Alpini were the best units in the Italian Army--but it didn't matter, because subsequently the Soviets broke through the Hungarian lines to the north. 

The Alpini Corps, then, was surrounded because of breakthroughs to the north and south. It fought its way out as a coherent fighting unit in a spectacular display of bravery under adverse conditions. Some units, like the Cuneense Division, sacrificed themselves so that their comrades could break through and escape. It had many similarities to the retreat of the USMC at Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War. Although it suffered horrible casualties from the weather and the Soviets, the Alpini Corps did in fact break through the encirclement still in military order--though it was wrecked as a fighting unit and had to be withdrawn. 

Some of the feats of the Alpini Corps, especially the Tridentina Division, were really incredible, as were those of some of the attached units, like the Monte Cervino Ski Battalion and the XXX Assault Engineer Battalion. The men took on T-34 tanks with nothing but Molotov cocktails and mines. 

Also, in North Africa, after the initial failures Italian units started to perform well. For example, the Folgore airborne division fought bravely in the Second Battle of El Alamein.

Italian POW under the escort  of a British officer in North Africa

Italian cruiser Giuseppe Miralem
An fighter is about to be catapulted from Italian cruiser Giuseppe Miralem

Hitler  guard of honor visit Italy Mussolini
Hitler takes a guard of honor during a visit to Italy

Italian prisoners at Stalingrad, 1943

Dead Italian soldiers in North Africa. Mussolini's shattered dreams.

"Most Italian soldiers always fought with fanatical determination. Also some of their formations such as their armoured and Bersaglieri fought well  in the African desert campaign. The Airborne and Alpine (Alpini) Divisions were top-notch."

Italian soldiers  Yugoslav civilians partisans ww2
Italian soldiers beat up Yugoslav civilians and partisans

Italian soldiers in occupied Soviet Union, autumn 1941 at Pavlovgrad


Italian soldiers in action at Amba Arad during the invasion of Abyssinia 1935-36

Italian Blackshirts at Makala, Abyssinia, December 11, 1935

German mountain-rangers with Italian soldiers during anti-partisan operation in Yugaslavia

Triumphant Italians pose against a captured British fortification during the campaign in North Africa

An Italian Bersaglieri riding a motorcycle with a Breda 30 machine gun in North Africa

An Italian with a Panzerfaust during the Allied invasion of Italy, 1943-45

An Italian soldier lies dead as British soldiers rush past at a train station in Syracuse during the landings in Sicily, 1943

Italian soldiers walk past a group of Waffen SS soldiers in Greece in 1941

Italians fire a 102 mm gun in North Africa

Italian general George Messe troops ww2
Italian general George Messe meets his troops

Two Blackshirts in North Africa

Italian Bersaglieri march through the Yugoslav town of Dubrovnik


Suggested Reading

When Germany’s Sixth Army advanced to Stalingrad in 1942, its long-extended flanks were mainly held by its allied armies—the Romanians, Hungarians, and Italians. But as history tells us, these flanks quickly caved in before the massive Soviet counter-offensive which commenced that November, dooming the Germans to their first catastrophe of the war. However, the historical record also makes clear that one allied unit held out to the very end, fighting to stem the tide—the Italian Alpine Corps

Iron Hulls Iron Hearts: Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa by IAN WALKER

The campaign in North Africa during World War Two was one of the most important of the conflict. The allies fought for control of North Africa against the German Afrika Korps led by Rommel. But the part played by Mussolini's Italian troops, and in particular the armored divisions, in support of the Germans is not so well known.

The Italian Army in World War II has been treated almost as a joke. It is rumored that when the Nazi Foreign Minister said to Churchill - "You will be facing not only us but also the Italians." Churchill replied, "That's OK, we had them on our side last time, you're welcome to them."

Rommel, on the other hand, spoke of them quite differently. During the famous "Desert Fox" actions in North Africa, Rommel had more Italian troops and more Italian armor than he had German. Rommel's comments were that Italian troops were properly led they were as capable as any. Italian generals were better as friends of Il Duce than they were as fighting people.

The Italian Littorio division did very good work at Tobruk, Gazala, and El Alamein. The Ariete division performed a dramatic day long stand at El Alamein effectively styming Allied plans to encircle and destroy the Axis forces. The Centauro division was brief but important in the American defeat at Kasserine Pass.

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Quotes about war....

"War grows out of the desire of the individual to gain advantage at the expense of his fellow man."
--Napoleon Hill

"We have failed to grasp the fact that mankind is becoming a single unit, and that for a unit to fight against itself is suicide."
--Havelock Ellis

'Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed."
--Mao Tse-Tung (1893 - 1976)

"I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."
--George McGovern

"The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic."
--Joseph Stalin

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.
--Voltaire, War

In war, truth is the first casualty.
-- Aeschylus

"The ability and inclination to use physical strength is no indication of bravery or tenacity to life. The greatest cowards are often the greatest bullies. Nothing is cheaper and more common than physical bravery."
--Clarence Darrow, Resist Not Evil

"The victor will never be asked if he told the truth."
--Adolf Hitler

"To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilization."
--George Orwell

"Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country."
--Bertrand Russell

Men are at war with each other because each man is at war with himself.
--Francis Meehan

Snippets From History

German Soldiers in Russia: Part 1

Hubert Menzel was a major in the General Operations Department of the OKH (the Oberkommando des Heers, the German Army headquarters), and for him the idea of invading the Soviet Union in 1941 had the smack of cold, clear logic to it: 'We knew that in two years' time, that is by the end of 1942, beginning of 1943, the English would be ready, the Americans would be ready, the Russians would be ready too, and then we would have to deal with all three of them at the same time.... We had to try to remove the greatest threat from the East.... At the time it seemed possible.'

Battle for Berlin, 1945

'We started to fire at the masses,' says one former German machine gunner. 'They weren't human beings for us. It was a wall of attacking beasts who were trying to kill us. You yourself were no longer human.'


Berlin after it fell to the Russians, 1945

"Vladlen Anchishkin, a Soviet battery commander on the 1st Ukrainian Front, sums up the horror of the whole event, when he tells how he took personal revenge on German soldiers: 'I can admit it now, I was in such a state, I was in such a frenzy. I said, 'Bring them here for an interrogation' and I had a knife, and I cut him. I cut a lot of them. I thought, 'You wanted to kill me, now it's your turn.'
Read More


Dramatic Pictures: Battle For Stalingrad
"...Effective command no longer possible... further defense senseless. Collapse inevitable. Army requests immediate permission to surrender in order to save lives of remaining troops."
General Paulus' radio message to Hitler on January 24, 1943

"...Capitulation is impossible. The 6th Army will do its historic duty at Stalingrad until the last man, the last bullet..."

Hitler's response to General Friedrich Paulus' request to withdraw from the city


Points To Ponder....

The fall of France was shocking. It reduced France to virtually a non-player in the Second World War. The efforts of Charles de Gualle were more symbolic than material. But the martial instincts of the French must never be doubted. Under Napoleon they were a formidable military power. The French definitely have more iron in their blood then say, the Italians [I do not mean it in a derogatory sense. War never makes sense]


Bias Of Western Historians

Soviet resistance made possible a successful Allied invasion of France, and ensured the final Allied victory over Germany.

It can hardly be called mere 'resistance'! If it hadn't been for the Russians, Hitler would have made mincemeat of British forces in Africa and landed on British shores in no time. Hitler attacked Russia first because it had more land and resources than Britain. It is as simple as that.

Eastern Front: Bias Of Western Historians