In the years before the war Italy would bring itself closer and closer into the German orbit, but then as the war began it would back away.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 104 - Highway to the Danger Zone Pt. 2 - Always Where I Burn to Be. This week a big thank you goes out to the newest member, Christian and Joseph, for their support you can find out more about becoming a member over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. It has been awhile since we checked in with events in Italy. The last time we had an episode that focused on Italy they had launched their campaign of expansion in Africa with the invasion of Ethiopia, which was eventually successful, but at a far greater cost than they had hoped. Italy had also been very closely involved with events in Spain, providing a large amount of support for Franco and his Nationalist cause in the form of various types of military equipment as well as units of Italy troops. The question for today, is what were the Italian views on events in Europe after 1938, and we can start with this quote from Robert Mallett from the book Mussolini and the Origins of the Second World War, 1933-1940 “Works that have examined more closely Mussolini’s thinking over the period from January 1935 onwards have confirmed that, for him, an Italian annexation of Ethiopia marked not a limited phase of overseas expansion, but, on the contrary, only the beginning of a more ambitious imperial policy. Mussolini and his military chiefs were already considering the possibility of invading Egypt and British Sudan in order so to link Libya - an Italian colony since 1911 - with Italy’s East African possessions.” Mussolini’s plans for expansion would begin to unfold during 1939 when Italy would invade the much smaller nation of Albania before signing the Pact of Steel with Germany in May 1939. But then something really interesting would happen, when Germany invaded Poland, Italy would very pointedly and purposefully stay on the sidelines, which would continue until after the invasion of France in June 1940. During this episode we will look at several of these events, and then discuss the state of the Italian military as the European war began.
The story of Italian foreign policy after the invasion of Ethiopia was a slow and steady slide towards closer cooperation with Germany. This began as early as 1936 when Mussolini made it clear to the German ambassador that Italy was no longer so completely against any closer relations between Germany and Austria. Since the end of the First World War Italy was strongly against any greater influence of Germany over Austria, seeing Austria as a critical buffer state to the north of the Italian north eastern territories. This shift in mindset would continue until 1937 when Italy would abandon all objections not just to closer relations between the two nations, but the Anschluss itself and the integration of Austria directly into Germany. This did not prevent some work on the fortifications along the new German frontier, but it did not involve any official protest. The shift away from the defense of Austria was just one symptom of a much larger shift of viewpoint of the Italian military, with a far greater focus being placed on what would happen in the Mediterranean in case of war. In such a conflict the two enemies were not Germany, but instead France and Britain, and tension with those nations was already greatly heightened after the Italian actions in Africa, which had come close to starting a war with Britain. This meant that during staff meetings in 1937 the decision was made to make a direct effort to strengthen the position of Italian military garrisons around the Mediterranean, in anticipation of those troops later being needed. The anti-British standing of the Italian government was just reinforced by these moves, and this anti-British view would be the main thrust of the Italian military and foreign ministry over the next several years. This escalated to the point where Italian Foreign Minister Ciano would have pointed conversations with Hitler and other German leaders to try and persuade them away from any pro-British tendencies that they still harbored in 1937. The Italian economy would also undergo a reorientation towards Germany, and much like what we discussed a few episodes ago with Hungary, the Italian economy became more and more dependent on Germany due to the massive amount of Italian exports that were sent to Germany. By mid-1938 almost a quarter of all Italian exports were heading north, a number that would just increase from there. This made the entire functioning of the economy very dependent on the continued good relations with Germany. One important piece of the Italian puzzle during these years is that these actions were not just Mussolini pushing for things to happen against the will or without the support of others. By 1937 most of the Italian political leaders, particularly those within the fascist party, were in full support of Mussolini’s actions. This support was generally rooted in the belief that it was the best, and perhaps the only, way that Italy could achieve its expansionist goals. Those political figures who had previously expressed some doubt about closer relations with Germany had either changed their minds or were minimized in their influence.
This entire shift in the Italian foreign policy would culminate in 1939. 1939 would be the year of many events in European diplomacy, many of which we have already discussed in some fashion. The German invasion of what was left of Czechoslovakia would have major consequences that would cause drastic shifts in the overall landscape of European politics in the months that followed. Some of these are very well known, the guarantee of Poland being the most important to the start of the war, but another related event would be the Italian invasion of Albania. In early April, less than a month after German troops have marched on Prague, Mussolini would give the Italian military the go ahead for the Albanian invasion. Albania was a small nation on the Adriatic, sandwiched between Yugoslavia to the north and Greece to the South, and was seen as the first step towards Italian control of the Adriatic. The invasion of Albania was one of those military operations that, after it began, the result was never in doubt. The small size of the Albania military, somewhere around 15,000, was dwarfed by the number of resources that could be committed by Italy. The invasion was also well prepared and supported by groups in Albania that had maintained close relations with Italy. On April 7th Albanian ports would be bombarded, and a land invasion would follow, and just 5 days later the Albanian parliament would vote to remove King Zorg from his position and to instead join the nation with Italy. During these days weeks the cooperation between the German and Italian militaries was increased through staff talks that would occur between the two groups. These were the result of public declarations made by Mussolini earlier in the year where he said that staff talks should be held “as soon as possible and with considerable publicity. We must let the world know that the Axis is also preparing and that it does not intend to leave the initiative to the French and British as seems for some time to have been the case.” During these discussions there were two important items that were generally made clear. The first was that in a northern European conflict the German military preferred that Italy remain neutral. Italy entering the war brought with it the risk that German resources would be pulled away from its primary tasks and towards what were seen as less important areas. The second important piece of information was that in April 1939, war was still 2 to 3 years in the future. This point in very important, and it was not a lie being told by the Germans to the Italians, but was also the general time horizon that the German military was planning for as well. 1942 was seen as the ideal year for a war to start, because that was the planned point where German rearmament was complete. Now of course, as discussed in earlier episodes on Germany, those rearmament efforts would continue to expand both in size and length during this period as other nations massively increased their own military spending, but 1942 was still the target year. This timeline was exactly what the Italians wanted, and they were clear that they did not want to start a war before that date due to their own rearmament efforts. The campaigns in Africa and the aid that had been sent to Spain had resulted in a much reduced Italian military, and given the industrial capabilities of Italy it would take years for them to recover. It was also due to this time frame that Italy was comfortable signing what would be known as the Pact of Steel. The Pact was a military alliance signed between Italy and Germany, Article 2 of the Pact would state: “In the event that the common interests of the Contracting Parties be jeopardized through international happenings of any kind, they will immediately enter into consultation regarding the necessary measures to preserve these interests. Should the security or other vital interests of one of the Contracting Parties be threatened from outside, the other Contracting Party will afford the threatened Party its full political and diplomatic support in order to remove this threat.” While Article 3 would be: “If it should happen, against the wishes and hopes of the Contracting Parties, that one of them becomes involved in military complications with another power or other Powers, the other Contracting Party will immediately step to its side as an ally and will support it with all its military might on land, at sea and in the air.” Now, even though the two nations were allied with each other, that does not mean that they were fully honest with each other. Something that would become crystal clear when the German government, at the direct order of Hitler, did not share their plans for the invasion of Poland with Italy. The Italian government would not learn of German plans for the invasion until August 11th. This was obviously not part of the plans that had been discussed back in April, and it put the Italian government in a very difficult position. On one hand they knew that the Italian military was in no way prepared for war. It was also known to Mussolini that there would be very vocal and influential voices in the Italian government that would be against any Italian involvement. However, on the other side, there was a concern that if Italy did not provide its full support to Germany in its future endeavors that it would compromise Italy’s position. If Germany was defeated, things were probably fine. But if Germany was victorious, Italy would miss out on the possibility of war spoils. In the worst possible case, failing to fulfill the requirements outlined in the Pact of Steel would result in Germany turning its eye on Italy, and maybe testing those defenses that had been erected in the Brenner Pass. There was also a certain amount of very personal concerns for Mussolini, who did not want to be accused of cowardice by not joining with Italy’s ally. After the two weeks after German plans were made clear, what I would call the rational Italian viewpoint would take precedence, and Mussolini would write a letter to Hitler on the 25th, stating “As for the practical position of Italy, in case of a military collision, my point of view is as follows: If Germany attacks Poland and the conflict remains localized, Italy will afford Germany every form of political and economic assistance which is requested. If Germany attacks, and Poland’s allies open a counterattack against Germany, I want to let you know in advance that it would be better if I did not take the initiative in military activities in view of the present situation of Italian war preparations, which we have repeatedly previously explained to you, Führer, and to Herr von Ribbentrop. Our intervention can, therefore, take place at once if Germany delivers to us immediately the military supplies and the raw materials to resist the attack which the French and English especially would direct against us. At our meetings the war was envisaged for after 1942 and at such time I would have been ready on land, on sea, and in the air according to the plans which had been arranged.”
After the German invasion, and then the spread of the war to other nations, and the clear indication that it would not be a quick and easy conflict, Italian desires in the Middle East and Africa began to have a greater influence on Italian plans. There would be an attempt to realize those desires after the quick defeat of France in 1940, so it is worth discussing how Italian policy in those two regions had evolved over the previous two decades. During the 1920s and 1930s the Italian views towards the Middle East can be generalized as the pursuit of pretty much any policy that would weaken British and French influence over the region. This meant the support Arab independence movements which would grow in strength during these years, due to dissatisfaction with the post-war arrangements that had been made. However, to be very clear, these efforts were not altruistic, and there was no small amount of racism that was deeply embedded in the minds of many Italian leaders. Mussolini himself believed that Arabs were in general a lesser race, believing that intimate relations between Arabs and Europeans should be avoided at all cost. This belief was echoed in laws put in place in Ethiopia not long after the Italians finished their conquest, which made it illegal for black and white Ethiopians to marry. There was also little public support for Italian expansion into the Middle East, even though large propaganda efforts would be made to change this viewpoint. This lack of support would not change the general thrust of Italian efforts to challenge British control of the Middle East, particularly after 1935 with the overall Italian reorientation towards a directly antagonistic relationship with Britain. Italian efforts would see their greatest successes in the years after 1936, mostly due to the growing Arab nationalist movements that grew in strength during those years. The collapse of support for the continued British presence in the Middle East, supported but in no way created by Italy, would cause some changes in British policy, with one of the more interesting being the introduction of an Arabic BBC broadcast, which had previously only been available in English. Any Italian desires in the Middle East would remain unfulfilled during the war, if only because they never got past the first major hurdle, British control of Egypt. The problem of Egypt was of course very well known, and serious planning for some kind of campaign to wrest it from British control would would begin in 1937. They would use Libya as a base of operations, and they put in place plans to expand and improve the port facilities throughout the country to facilitate the movement of supplies. These improvements were scheduled for completion in 1941, but it was unlikely that the Italian military would be ready on the same timeline.
When Germany invaded Poland, Italy would announce that it was a non-belligerent, which meant that it would not enter the war on the side of Germany, but it was also not neutral. Non-belligerence meant that Italy could still support Germany, without having to be involved in the military conflict, unlike neutral nations which were theoretically supposed to support neither side. They would retain this status until June 1940, when the German invasion of France would go incredibly well and Italy would join the conflict that appeared to be almost over. In a statistic I find interesting, in the First World War Italy had remained neutral for 296 days between the start of the war and the Italian entry, in the Second World War, they were 23 days short, at 273 days, kind of impressive that they were that close though. Mussolini would then bring Italy into the war partly out of fear that the war was about to end, and Italy would not be entitled to any spoils, like maybe some British controlled territory around the Mediterranean. This move enjoyed support within the government, with many just wanting to get in before the fighting was over. This may have been the good move, if the war really was almost over in June 1940, in which case any of the deficiencies experienced by the Italian military would have had minimal impact. But of course it was not over, and instead the Italian government allowed their hopes and dreams to push them into the war without a clear plan for what they would do, especially if the war turned into a lengthy ordeal. To make matters worse, German and Italian military aims were in no way coordinated, which meant that during the early parts of the war they would mostly be heading their separate ways. This prevented the mutual support that would be a hallmark of the Allied efforts from the very beginning, although the Germans and Italians would eventually be forced to work together far more closely, due in no small part to Italian failures. On the home front, already in February 1940, months before they entered the war Italian civilians were already experiencing food shortages and other hardships, due in no small part to a round of frantic hoarding that preceded Italian entry into the war. In the 9 months between the invasion of Poland and entry into the war the Italians had spent more money on their military, in an attempt to make it more capable in the very likely situation that they would be brought into the war. However, not all of these funds were directed in ways that you might expect, and in fact a good portion of them went to further strengthening the defenses of the Brenner pass, which could only be used to defend against a German invasion. Money had also been spent in some other areas as well, and when it entered the war Italy would have sizable forces available in the air, land, and sea. Now in the air, the numbers of actual combat aircraft was much lower than what would be claimed, with some of the largest Italian estimates putting the number over 8,500, while the actual number of combat capable aircraft was probably under 1,000. The greatest problem for the Regia Aeronautica was simply that it was unable to produce enough of the latest model of aircraft, a problem that would only get worse once the attrition of air combat began to wear down the prewar numbers. At sea the situation was much better. In 1940 the Italian navy, the Marina Militare, was from a technical perspective one of the best in the world. The ships that the navy had built during the 1930s, even before the end of the treaty system, were generally very good. For example the Littorio class battleships, of which two were launched in 1937, mounted 15 inch guns on a hull of 40,000 ton displacement. Two more ships of the class were also under construction. Of the three main Italian services, the Navy was generally the most prepared for the war, and its actions during the early years of the conflict would give the Royal Navy many headaches. Just to briefly touch on how things would go after June 1940, poorly would be the word I would use. Italy’s first major campaign, in Greece, would become a complete debacle. Instead of a lighting drive on Thessaloniki, the Greek military would not just stop the Italian advance, but then push them out. Campaigns in North Africa would also experience problems. While at the front events were not going as planned, within the nation as a whole it would never really truly move its economy over to one that fully supported the war effort. In 1941 the percent of GDP dedicated to war industries would reach its peak at just 23 percent, paling in comparison to much higher percentages from other participants. It was no way to win a war really, and Italy wouldn’t.