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Post Why Didn't Mussolini Attack Malta?
Created by John Eipper on 04/04/21 3:42 AM

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Why Didn't Mussolini Attack Malta? (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy, 04/04/21 3:42 am)

When commenting on my post of 2 April, our esteemed moderator asked: "Why didn't Mussolini prioritize the occupation of Malta?"

The answer is not simple. First, let's examine Mussolini:  He was the greatest Italian politician and newsman of the first half of the 20th century. However, he was not a military man.  He had been a good corporal in WWI.  When he applied for officer training, at first he was called in but then he was refused without any explanation.  Probably it was for political reasons due to his socialist past, including a jail sentence for protests against the war in Libya.

He wrote the book My War Diary, one of his best writings.  It is not the writing of a warmonger but of someone who is fighting for the love of his country, for honor and duty. (When he became PM some of his anticlerical statements were expunged from the text.)  Unfortunately, Mussolini remained always respectful of the High Commanders without learning from "Uncle Joe" Stalin, who showed that prior to entering a war it is imperative to eliminate all unreliable generals and admirals.

For instance, Mussolini accepted without question a letter from the Commander of the Armed Forces Marshal Badoglio, who on 6  April 1940 stated that everything was ready for the war (except for some deficiencies in East Africa). Another unfortunate example was when the lousy generals and FM Ciano were pushing for the invasion of Greece; see the minutes of that meeting.

Mussolini or whoever would have been PM could not remain always neutral permitting a victory of the Allies which during the period 1939-'40 had tried to strangle Italian sea traffic.  See the Pietromarchi account of 11 May 1940, with their blockade and stoppage/inspection of ships, followed by the confiscation of merchandise (even items not useful for war) and even taking away bags of mail. The confiscated merchandise included dry figs, meat, salted anchovies, pepper, and fish from fishing boats, while the ships were delayed for days causing economic damage to the owners.

Not the best way to win Italy over to the side of the Allies.

But at the same time, Italy could not forever remain neutral and permit a victory of Germany alone.  Germany, remembering Italy's about-face of 1915, was becoming suspicious,  and in spite of the fortification of the Alps wanted by Mussolini, Italy would have been in serious difficulty if it had to face the Wehrmacht and by the way, what help could the Allies give? Just remember the "help" given to Poland.

Practically until Promemoria 328 of 31 March 1940, Italy faced three options:

1) War against Germany but remaining closed in the Mediterranean British lake;

2) Continuous neutrality, becoming a weak country under the influence of whoever would be the victor;

3) War on the side of Germany saving the Mediterranean and being the leader of all the small European nations not wanting to be dominated by Nazi Germany.

Mussolini, fully supported by the king, had not yet decided.

Furthermore, Mussolini, aware that Hitler did not really want a prolonged war with the British Empire, was convinced that entering into the war he would within a short time gain a seat at the Peace conference and dictate the terms.

The curse of Mussolini was the timing in which Churchill became Prime Minister, 20 May 1940.  If this had happened one year earlier there could have been the chance of an understanding between the two leaders.  But by 20 May it was too late. By then Churchill wanted the complete destruction of Germany, not a compromise peace, even if a British victory would mean the end of the British Empire. Anyway, it would be interesting to read all the open and secret exchanges between the British and Italian governments. I am convinced that Mussolini was tricked and the proofs were on his famous bag of documents that Mussolini in his last known letter to Churchill of 21 April 1945 promised to hand over to Churchill in exchange for the honorable surrender of the RSI.

Anyway, Mussolini decided for a non-war war. Maybe we might say that Mussolini joined the war, not out of love of Hitler but because he was afraid of him.

On 8 June 1940, the order to the Italian Armed Forces was: "On all land, sea, and air fronts, none should cross the borders and none should open fire."  In a previous cable from Mussolini to the king, it was written that "Italy will not take any offensive action and France and the UK have informed that they will do the same."

General Faldella was famous for saying, "It is the first time in history, that war is started with an order not to shoot."

Unfortunately, someone cheated and on June 12-14 Italy was attacked by air and sea by France and the UK.

Changing from a defensive (or non-existing) war to an offensive one was extremely difficult. The chance to occupy Malta, where the Italians would have been welcomed as liberators, was gone, and by the time the Italian command was ready for the attack it was too late. The concomitant invasion of Egypt, up to only 111 miles from Suez, as well as the pressure of Rommel on Hitler, who never understood the importance of a great victory in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, pushed all efforts toward Suez. Thus the Folgore division, despite being fully trained for operations in Malta, was sacrificed at El Alamein.

No Libyan crude oil was involved in this decision.  At that time the huge Libyan reserves were mostly unknown.

On a personal note:

One of the very first things I remember from my childhood is the noise and havoc of the French bombing of Savona (also Vado Ligure and Genoa) late on the night of 14 June 1940.

The forceful French naval squad included 4 cruisers, 11 destroyers, and 4 submarines, protected by 9 airplanes. In front of Cape Vado the fleet separated into two groups, one attacking Vado and Savona the other Genoa.

The first force was repulsed by two PT boats launching 6 torpedoes, all of which missed. The second one in front of Genoa was repulsed by a lone old destroyer Calatafini.  It really was not a good show by the French Navy.

The French squad did however do some damage to the industrial installations and to a few houses including the Town Hall of Savona.  There was prophetic damage to the Town Hall.  A great mural painting by Ezio Peluzzi showing the triumph of the Black Shirts was completely destroyed, so after the war, the same painter could paint on the renewed wall the triumph of the Partisans.  A resplendent example of Italian coherence!

JE comments:  Presumably, too, a Malta operation would have meant confronting the British Mediterranean fleet head-on.

Eugenio, here's a Duce question I've never seen discussed:  What were Mussolini's reasons for protesting the Libya war of 1911?  And specifically, what inspired him to abandon his youthful anti-imperialism?

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  • Mussolini Never Really Abandoned His Youthful Anti-Imperialism (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 04/06/21 3:32 AM)
    John E appended two questions to my post of April 4th:

    1) What were Mussolini's reasons for protesting the Libya war of 1911?

    2) What inspired him to abandon his youthful anti-imperialism?

    The answers are quite simple. 

    1) The young socialist Mussolini was arrested on 14 October 1911, and on 23 November he was sentenced to one year in jail.  He was sentenced together with the republican Pietro Nenni, future FM of post-WWII Italy.

    Let's remember Mussolini's own words at his trial to explain the protest:

    "Between us socialists and the nationalists, there is this difference: they want a greater Italy, we want a learned, rich and free Italy."

    He wanted to say that it is imperative to place the country in good conditions and at that time it was not.  This was preferable to wasting money and lives to acquire what at that time was called a "sandbox" almost 6 times larger than Italy and with only 700,000 inhabitants or probably less.  Mussolini concluded:

    "If you acquit me you will please me, if you condemn me you will do me an honor."

    On 12 March 1912, following an appeal trial, he was set free.  He resumed his activities on 17 March.

    2) Mussolini did not really abandon his youthful theories, but in 1935 his situation has completely changed and he was the PM of a nation that already had colonies, practically since 1869.  Unfortunately, the king remained as head of state.  Mussolini had to consider the will of the public.

    The historian Arrigo Petacco in his History of Fascism states that the Treaty of Friendship of 1928 with Ethiopia was also due to the latent anti-imperialism of the early Mussolini.

    But in the early 1930s, things changed quickly and drastically, with the Austria crisis, the Stresa Conference, the UK-Germany naval accord, the visits of Eden and Laval, etc., but overall the Abyssinian provocations culminating at Ual Ual.

    The bands of Omar Samantar, who previously killed an Italian officer (accompanied by the British colonel Clifford and forces from Somaliland!) attacked the position defended by the Somali Dubats after they proclaimed their loyalty to Italy.

    Such an attack plus others carried out by irregular bands, together with the tragic internal conditions of the dictatorship of Haile Selassie, the oppression of the ethnic and religious minorities, slavery, and plus the hatred of Somalis and Eritreans against the Abyssinians reached a point at which Mussolini said, "With Ethiopia, we have been patient for 40 years, now no more."

    It has been reported that there was a secret accord by which Haile Selassie would have conquered the Ogaden (North of Somalia) in order to transfer it to British Somaliland, obtaining in exchange an outlet to the sea with the town of Zeila.

    Anyway, Mussolini's policy was quite different from previous democratic Italy, and that may have been one of the reasons why it was opposed by the other Colonial Empires.

    Mussolini was acclaimed as the Sword of Islam and protector of Islam (Saif al-Islam and Hami al-Islam) when he granted the Libyans Italian citizenship, calling them "the Muslim Italians of the fourth seashore of Italy." Poor old Gaddafi, betrayed by the new Italian lay, democratic and antifascist Republic born from the resistance, which broke in 2011 the Treaty of Friendship of only three years earlier. Gaddafi was born an Italian citizen. (I will forever remember with horror and disgust the laughter of Hillary Clinton after viewing images of his lynching.)

    Mussolini gave to the people of the new Italian Empire schools, churches, mosques with attached Koranic schools and hotels for the pilgrims to Mecca, synagogues, hospitals, infrastructure, industries, agricultural aid, etc. in the spirit of what was believed to be the Old Roman Empire and according to his youthful socialist beliefs.

    Point 8 of the Charter of Verona (the quasi-constitution of the RSI) stipulated that there would be no more colonies, although it also proposed a mutual enhancement of African resources with absolute respect for the Africans, especially Muslims.

    On a separate topic, I am in full agreement with many points of the post of Ángel Viñas, 4 April:

    1) Mussolini wanted a pro-Italian and anti-(Red)French regime in Spain, which should not be surprising.

    2) Italian military muscle was significantly weakened with the Spanish Civil War.

    3) The Spanish Left did contribute to the defeat of Axis powers.

    4) Mussolini was very disappointed with Franco.

    5) Without Gibraltar, the Mediterranean would not be a British lake.

    6) Mussolini was magnanimous (foolish?) in forgiving in 1940 a very substantial part of Franco's war debts.

    JE comments:  Several (most?) authoritarian leaders had their "day in court" as youngsters.  Call it an early chapter in the strongman's Bildungsroman.  In this narrative, Mussolini could be joined by Castro, Stalin, and that Austrian Corporal whose name I can't recall.  Castro famously said in court that History would absolve him.  So far, it has not.  Corporal H used his 1924 trial as a platform to redefine himself as a national hero.

    Eugenio Battaglia has repeatedly suggested that Italian "nation-building" was more generous than versions practiced by other imperialists, both before and after.  This is certainly not the case for Spain, but was the abolition of slavery justification enough for the Ethiopian intervention?  It's a stretch to argue that Mussolini went to war in Ethiopia with the purpose of freeing the enslaved, but (gulp) this was not Lincoln's justification either, in 1861.  Emancipation was the result, not the cause, of the US Civil War.

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