World War II

   Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940, by launching a surprise attack on France. Within a month, Italian forces attacked France’s British ally in the Sudan and Kenya from garrisons in Ethiopia. By mid-August 1940, British Somaliland had been occupied, and Egypt was being threatened by the Italian army in Libya.
   These early successes were the only ones Italy would enjoy, however. Despite spending a huge portion of its national income on the military (in 1940 it was spending 85 percent as much as the British even though its national income per capita was only one-quarter as much), Italy did not possess the technological means, the industrial power, or the skilled personnel to conduct a modern war. Italian tanks were badly designed and short of cannon power, aircraft and artillery were almost as inadequate, and communications technology was antiquated. The tide of battle soon turned. In January 1941, South African and Indian forces carried the war to the Italians in Libya, Ethiopia, and the occupied British territories. By April 1941, deposed emperor Haile Selassie had been returned to Addis Ababa by British-led forces. Fighting in North Africa continued throughout 1941 as tens of thousands of Italians, severely demoralized by incompetent leadership and inadequate supplies, were taken prisoner at a cost of hundreds of British casualties. Even more humiliating was the fate of the Italian army in its Greek campaign, begun in October 1940. By the end of November, Italian frontal attacks had worn down the troops to such a point that—despite reinforcements—Greek counteroffensives had pushed Italian troops back into Albania. In order to prevent the total humiliation of his Italian ally, Adolf Hitler ordered the Wehrmachtto invade Greece (where it accomplished in two weeks what had eluded the Italians for six months). In April 1941, the Greeks agreed to surrender to Germany but not to Italy. Only Benito Mussolini’s personal appeal persuaded Hitler to include Italy in the April 1941 armistice proceedings. Italians provided the main occupation forces in Greece until September 1943. Further huge losses in men and materiel came in 1942. The substantial Italian army on the Eastern front was slaughtered at Stalingrad, and at El Alamein in October 1942, Italian and German troops were crushed by British and Australian forces. The Axis army was driven back into Tunisia, where Italian soldiers fought heroically against the Americans at the bloody battle of Mareth in February 1943. By mid-1943, more than 300,000 Italians had fallen in combat or had been taken prisoner. In July 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily, provoking the downfall of Mussolini and his replacement by Marshall Pietro Badoglio. Italy stayed in the war until 8 September 1943, while secretly negotiating with the Allies for “cobelligerent” status if it changed sides. The delay enabled the Germans to move 16 divisions into Italy and ensured that the subsequent Allied campaign in the peninsula would be bloody and prolonged. Italy surrendered on 8 September and the king and Badoglio fled to British-occupied Brindisi. Bereft of orders, the Italian army collapsed in the face of the Germans: Tens of thousands of soldiers either took to the hills or were rounded up and sent to labor camps in Germany. Where Italian troops fought, they were treated with brutality by the Germans. The Acqui division garrisoning the island of Cephalonia in Greece resisted the Germans for a week, losing over a thousand dead. When they finally surrendered, the Germans massacred 4,750 men in cold blood. From September 1943 onward, central Italy was a battleground as Allied troops slogged their way up Italy against skillful and tenacious German resistance. The battles of Monte Cassino (January–May 1944) and Anzio cost the Allies tens of thousands of casualties. Rome fell in June 1944. During the winter of 1944, the Allies became bogged down in the difficult terrain of the Apennines, which enabled the Germans to turn their efforts to eliminating partisan activity in their rear. Massacres, such as the one at Marzotto near Bologna (October 1944), where nearly 2,000 innocent civilians were killed, were among the worst acts of “reprisal” conducted by the Nazis anywhere in Europe. Northern Italy was the setting for a civil war after September 1943. Troops loyal to Mussolini’s Republic of Salo, with the help of German troops, waged a war of terror against the partisan bands controlled by the Committees of National Liberation. By the spring of 1944, more than 100,000 partisans were in the field. The partisans had de facto control of large swathes of territory and were coordinated militarily by a command headed by General Raffaele Cadorna and two political deputies, the communist Luigi Longo and Ferruccio Parri of the Partito d’Azione/Action Party (PdA). When German resistance finally crumbled in the spring of 1945, the partisans themselves liberated the major cities of the North and dealt out rough justice to Fascist officials and collaborators. Mussolini himself was caught and executed by the partisans on 28 April 1945.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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