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Post Italian Valor at El Alamein
Created by John Eipper on 02/11/18 4:13 AM

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Italian Valor at El Alamein (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy, 02/11/18 4:13 am)

I always relish the essays of Cameron Sawyer. His piece on the Battle for Moscow (6 February) is excellent, but it also made me mad as hell, because of its overestimation of the German soldiers and the underestimation of the Italians.

At El Alamein there were about 100,000 Axis soldiers, 55,000 of whom were Italian, with 242 German and 293 Italian tanks, and practically no air coverage. Opposing them were 195,000 Allied troops from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian Empire, South Africa, Canada, Free France and Free Greece, with 1000 mostly US airplanes and 1000 tanks.

The Italians (at least those who consider themselves from Italy with a capital I) are very proud of the Italian valour at El Alamein.  (Remember Walt Whitman's praise for the defeated?)  Rommel stated after the battle: "The German soldier has amazed the world. The Italian soldier has amazed the German soldier."

The fierce resistance of the Italians allowed most of the Germans to retreat.

For instance, the Folgore parachute division was completely destroyed. Its few survivors were left without usable arms. Upon their surrender, they received the "Honor of arms" from the British forces.  Major General Ivor Hughes wanted to receive General Frattini, commander of the Folgore and his two adjutants, to congratulate them for the heroic behaviour of the Italians. General Hughes is quoted thus: "I wish to say that in all my life I have never encountered soldiers like those of the Folgore."

Of course I can go on. By the way, if the Italian soldier was so good, I cannot say the same for generals and admirals, but maybe they wanted to be defeated. See Admiral Maugeri, recipient of the US Legion of Merit, who wrote the following in his book From Ashes of Disgrace (1948): "During the winter 1942/43 many of us were hoping that the Axis could not win" and a few pages later, "the more we love our country, the more we shall pray for its defeat."

But he was behind a desk on shore, while his men were sunk in the Mediterranean.

JE comments:  Cameron Sawyer did cite "116,000 Germans"--not Axis.  This shorthand must be painful to Italians like Eugenio Battaglia, although other Italians probably prefer to pin the whole debacle of WWII on the Germans and Mussolini.

Eugenio's description of the Italians in WWII is of the "lions led by donkeys" variety.  This metaphor is associated with the British forces in the Great War, although it apparently originated in an earlier British conflict--Crimea.

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  • Italians at El Alamein (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 02/12/18 12:58 PM)
    I was thinking about Eugenio Battaglia when I wrote my post on El Alamein.

    I can't read in the Italian language, so the Italian point of view on the North Africa campaign is a mystery to me. Eugenio would be doing us a great service if he would elucidate that point of view.

    I have done a lot of reading in the German sources, and they are quite disparaging of the Italian effort in North Africa. British forces defeating much larger Italian forces is what forced Hitler to intervene in the first place. The view is quite widespread in the German sources that the Italians had no real interest in fighting in the first place; that they had joined the Axis only in order to share in the spoils afterwards.

    I would be interested to know what Eugenio thinks about all this.

    JE comments:  Cameron Sawyer quoted from a German source in his post of 11 February: 

    "Mussolini had the idea in 1940 when getting involved in the war that
    Hitler had already won, and that only a little Italian blood would be
    required, in order to sit at the table of the victors at the division of
    the booty [some German prejudice here!]."

    I'll agree with Cameron's quip about prejudice.  Interestingly, this is the same common perception of why Italy joined the Allies in 1915:  opportunism and expansionist greed.  Granted, France had expansionist (revanchist) aims as well, while the Empires of Britain and Germany were "merely" fighting for world hegemony and markets.

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  • Italian Defeat at Guadalajara (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 02/17/18 10:39 AM)
    Recent WAIS posts about El Alamein in WWII, and the role of the Italian forces, reminded me of a battle in the Spanish Civil War where Mussolini's forces were defeated and contributed to the unfair reputation of Il Duce's army as incompetent and cowardly.

    This battle began on 8 March 1937 in the city of Guadalajara, close to Madrid, in an attempt to encircle the capital from the north with rebel forces, mainly of the Italian Corpo di Truppe Volontarie commanded by General Mario Roatta. This force had 35,000 soldiers, 222 artillery pieces, more than 300 light tanks, armored cars, vehicles, and 60 Fiat fighter planes. The Italian forces would carry out the main attack, backed up by a Spanish division that took part only in the final days of the operation to protect the withdrawal. Benito Mussolini himself endorsed the operation and committed his army units to it.

    At the beginning of the battle, the Republican defenses included 10,000 soldiers with only 5,900 rifles, 85 machine guns, and 15 artillery pieces, and one company of light tanks. Later on they were reinforced with 4350 Italian, German, French and Polish volunteers from the XII International Brigade, 16 artillery batteries, and another battalion of 26 light tanks.

    Despite this apparent imbalance of forces, after 20 days of hard combat, the Republicans defeated the Rebels.

    The truth is that the Italians were defeated mainly by the weather--heavy rain, snow and the excessive resultant mud which made it impossible for the Italian forces to deploy their tanks, vehicles, and aerial support as planned. However, historians of the war blamed the Italian commander, General Roatta, of strategic military failures and poor planning. Mussolini eventually dismissed him of any command position and Franco announced his intention to dismantle the Italian army in Spain.

    This battle was a setback for Italian morale and a loss of prestige for Mussolini´s fascist regime. From this event came the Spanish joke about Italian tanks: "they had four gears:  one forward, three reverse." I believe it is unfair to blame of this defeat on the Italians' lack of courage. Blame lies on their command and the natural obstacles they encountered.

    JE comments: Lions led by donkeys? Legend has it that Franco's troops were largely "proud" of the victory by their fellow countrymen, even though they were enemies. "[They're Red but they're brave.  You need] menos camiones y más cojones [fewer trucks and more balls...]." (I stole this from Wikipedia.)

    To be fair, why should the Italian rank-and-file have been motivated to give it their all in a foreign war to overthrow a democracy?

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    • Italian Defeat at Guadalajara (Angel Vinas, Belgium 02/19/18 2:56 AM)
      Just a minor correction on the Guadalajara battle. (See José Ignacio Soler, 17 February.)

      Where did Ignacio pick up Franco´s intention to dismantle the Italian Army in Spain? It´s new to me. He said that it was "for the gallery," as we say in Spanish.

      The outcome of the battle was perverse for the Republicans. It made Mussolini absolutely furious and he decided to support Franco to the bitter end. He did. Franco could only rejoice about this decision, because he immediately increased his demands, both military and economic. Italian supplies suffered no interruption until the end of the war. The Italian Army, by the way, was better restructured after Guadalajara.

      JE comments: The English-language Wikipedia entry on Guadalajara reads, "[Franco after Guadalajara] announced his intention to dismantle the Italian field army in Spain,
      seeking to disperse it among Spanish Nationalist units. This threat was
      not ultimately carried out..."

      Mere bluster on the Caudillo's part?  It worked, although I would imagine that if Franco had actually dispersed the Italians among the Nationalists, Mussolini would have picked up his tanks and planes and gone home.

      "For the gallery" refers to one's public face, as opposed to private or inner thoughts.

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    • Italians at Guadalajara, 1937: Did Franco Stab Them in the Back? (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 02/20/18 10:01 AM)
      I have read Josè Ignacio Soler's post on the battle of Guadalajara, 8-23 March 1937.

      Of course I have a different story.

      For the Nationalists, the battle was supposed to open the way toward Madrid. There were 35,000 Italian troops equipped with the infamous tanks, tanquettes called the "scatole di sardine" (sardine cans), armed with only 2 machine guns of 8 mm.  The attack was supposed to be coordinated with a diversionary attack by Spanish troops that never showed up. Perhaps the lousy Franco did not want a clear Italian victory toward Madrid? The Republicans initially had only 10,000 men but promptly became 35,000 with new reinforcements and 60 powerful new Russian tanks equipped with one gun of 45 mm and 2 machine guns of 7.62 mm, in front of which the "sardine cans" were useless.

      Anyway at first, in spite of the adverse weather conditions, the Italians advanced. The weather did not allow for Italian air support, as the Nationalist airports were not operable while the Republican Tupolevs could fly from the operable Alacete ariport. The Italians were then stopped and even had to give up part of the territory they initially conquered.

      They advanced 20 KM, but with 453 deaths, 1831 wounded and 153 prisoners. The Republicans lost 2200 killed, 4000 wounded, 363 prisoners, 21 tanks destroyed and 15 planes shot down. Hardly a victory.

      Anyway the international democratic and communist media and politicians described this setback as the first "great fascist defeat" after 15 years of victories. As you well know, the truth is not what happened but what it is perceived and what one wants to believe. Roatta paid for the the setback.  Probably he should not have advanced in the unfavourable conditions and without appropriate coordination with the Spaniards.

      During WWII, General Roatta was commander of the area occupied in ex-Yugoslavia. He was a controversial general. Once he saved Serbian populations of the Krajina from the Ustasha. They even asked for Italian citizenship. By Mussolini's orders, he also saved all the Jews from Dalmatia and all who could escape into the Italian areas and arranged truces and even alliances with the Chetnik anticommunists.  But at the same time he used a strong-arm policy against communist partisans following their massacre of Italian prisoners.

      JE comments:  The "stab in the back" in the subject line is my contribution, but Eugenio Battaglia seems to be saying this.  I would never dare to venture into Franco's head, but I can imagine the PR disaster of Italians entering the Spanish capital.

      The orthodox interpretation of the Spanish Civil War is that the Republic was handicapped by inferior weaponry.  Was this not the case with tanks?  Wikipedia offers this on SCW tanks:


      I'm always intrigued by the rare and Quixotic.  Note the lone Vickers Six-Ton, of British manufacture but supplied by Paraguay.  The Paraguayans apparently captured it from Bolivia in the Chaco War.  I wonder how it got to back to Europe.  If only tanks could tell stories!  (The Soviet T-26 was based on the Vickers design.)

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