Italians in World War II

Italian Cowardice in World War II: Myth Versus Reality

The performance of the Italian armed forces during the Second World War has been the butt of jokes for over sixty years. However the notion that the Italian military fought poorly and surrendered readily is not exactly true as there are examples of Italian forces fighting quite successfully and bravely. But the widespread belief seemed to be that the Italians were cowards, with disasters such as the failed takeover of a much weaker Greece and ineffective fighting in North Africa used as evidence. While these and other military mistakes by Italy do stand out, these debacles were not due to cowardice by the soldiers. What the Italian military lacked during their offensive campaigns was not bravery, but modern weaponry, good leadership and above all a clear lack of desire to achieve Mussolini's goals. The last being a very poignant factor as recent history has shown how a determined, yet supposedly inferior force can defeat a superior yet unmotivated one.

Poor Weaponry

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.

(1/5) Dangerous Missions - Taranto - World War II.

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.

Il Maiale: Italian Human Torpedo

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.

Poor Leadership

Graziani - The Butcher of Ethiopia

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.

Poor Willingness to Fight

The country of Italy seemed uninterested in war from the start. The announcement of Italy's entrance into what would be


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.

A willingness to fight and/or a desire to protect your homeland are two factors in warfare that should never be underestimated. History has countless examples of how these factors have turned the tide against vastly superior foes such as the Ancient Greeks defeating the mighty Persian Empire. More recently it has been shown that modern leaders often do not learn from the past, but are instead doomed to repeat these military blunders. The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan by the Mujahideen, the defeats in Vietnam for both France and the United States and the current situation in Iraq are all testaments to how a determined force, willing to fight and die can often turn the tables on what is considered the more powerful force.


In retrospect it almost seems that the Italian military was doomed to failure from the start and was thrown into a war that

1st Armored Division passes through ruins pf a town south of Bologna, Italy

they were not equipped for, nor willing to fight for Mussolini's cronies. The very fact that Italy became an aggressor during the war was solely to appease the arrogance of Mussolini, without a thought to the preparation of the country. The military lacked leadership and modern weapons yet were still thrust into battle. When his ill-equipped forces of disheartened men were defeated, Il Duce could not see his own mistakes and simply labeled his men as cowards. However, it has been shown that while under command of competent German leadership, Italian troops fought very well - contributing to the final defeat of Greece and acts of great bravery on the Russian front. In conclusion, it was these factors and not cowardice that lead to Italy's poor performance during World War II. The thoughts of one veteran seem to sum up the situation: "The Italians were smart enough to see that it was a lost cause, in the end Germany would dominate anyway, so why get killed for nothing? It was brains, not cowardice."

By Justin Demetri

Print and Online Sources:

Richard Overy: Why the Allies Won. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1995
RJB Bosworth: Mussolini. Arnold Press, London, 2002

Simon & Schuster: Encyclopedia of World War II. Cord Communications/Simon & Schuster, New York, 1978

Albano Castelletto: The Last Horse Warriors, Translated by Philip Monteleoni
Originally published: January 2004 issue of World War II Magazine.

Commando Supremo Italian Military Website

Italy in WWII from Wikipedia

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WW2 Comments



Tuesday, September 06TH, 2011 by Guest

Yes, I agree with You. I am from Serbia, but I am very avare of italy technical difficulties of WW2. Despite all, Ital. fought very well during war as Folgore proved.

Tuesday, September 27TH, 2011 by Guest

it is ridiculous to say the Italians didnt do well in the war, Rommels troops were mainly Italian and they performed brilliantly, always being outnumbered in number and equipment by the enemy. do not forget, serendipity played an important role: Fermi, who helped the Americans create the atomic bomb defected from Italy because his wife was Jewish and erroneously thought that she and their kids would be persecuted by the Fascist regime; Marconi who had developed a death ray that actually stopped trucks and other vehicles from moving, including aircraft. he died suddenly after the Pope convinced him to stop doing any further research. After the initial victory over Greece, more nations got involved in attacking Italy's war supply lines and they had to withdraw the troops from Greece, giving the appearance that the Greek troops beat them back but that turned out to be patently false. Other successes were the ability of Italian aircraft to do well against British craft toe to toe. Also, Italy was able to carve out a larger empire in Africa under Mussolini's rule. at one point, the Italian colonies were in size comparative to that of the French Empire's colonies in Africa, conquered in much less time than either the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese Empires.  Italy's defeat was more due to the failure of Germans to come through with promised supplies, done purposefully to compromise Italy's position in the Axis alliance and making it subservient to that of the Germans. There was a natural distrust among Italians regarding their alliance with the Germans who, many of them, had relatives who fought strongly against the German Empire in WWI and the ill sentiment and distrust lingered with the exception of the North African campaign.

Sunday, October 16TH, 2011 by Guest

My part of Slovenia was occupied by a fascist Italy from 1919 till 194?. My grandfathers and great-grandfathers and other male relatives were all summoned up to join the Italian army and to fight the battles (also in Africa) for the fascist Italy whom they loathed. I can guarantee that NONE of them wanted Italy to win any of the battles. They didn't want to die fighting for their oppressor who denied them, their families, relatives and friends their language, their customs, the land of their ancestors and who called them 'slaves' and treated them in the same fashion. Saying that soldiers who who fought for Italy (because they had no other choice) were not motivated to fight for Mussolini's cause is understatement.

Sunday, December 04TH, 2011 by Guest

Austria was united with Germany from 1938-1945. The Italians had a tradition of hostility towards the Austrian Germans dating from the 1500's, when Italy had become a part of the Habsburg dynastic empire, and when the Habsburg empire in Europe had split into a Spanish and Austro-Hungarian branch. The Italians in their wars for independence from 1859-1870 had fought against Austrian Habsburgs and Spanish Bourbons, during which Garibald's red shirts fought bravely, and the Italians were to again fight aggainst the Austrians and their German allies during the First World War from 1915-1918 over the Austrian controlled territory of South Tyrol, which had an Italian majority and a large German-speaking minority. Mussolini had sent troops in 1934 up to the Brenner pass between Austria and Italy to deter a threatened German annexation of Austria, although in 1938 he agreed to the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany because by that stage the Germans had fought alongside the Italians in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, and had given Italy diplomatic support in their war against the Ethiopians from 1935-1936. Since the Middle Ages, when the Germans had come to dominate the Holy Roman Empire, Italy had been a part of that empire, and many Italians for patriotic reasons had supported the Popes in their struggles against the Emperors for power in both church and state.

Friday, January 20TH, 2012 by Guest

You can all say what you want but the facts are facts. If the Italians were so courageos and did not like mussolini they should have ousted him with rebellion. Look at the movies in Piazza Venezia. Everybody under the balcony to praise him but later they slaughtered him, only when the allies defeated him. The King of Italy ran away when the allies landed in Italy and nobody remained at their place to defend the country from the invaders. The Italian resistance started only after the breakthrough of the allids troops ( THE NEW ALLIES!) when the victory was sure to come. And this story continued after the war too during the cold war and against terrorism in the 80's, They made an agreement with OLP. You don't bomb me and I let you cross my territory. They did it in Lebanon also. A terrorist attack took place to the American sector and the French Sector. The Italians were in the middle but were not attacked. Guess why??? Only a fool would trust Italy

Thursday, January 26TH, 2012 by Guest

Nice article. We know that history is written by the winners, this is why Italy has been ridiculized so much. It is true that they didn’t fight well in general (nothing to say), we can say because of the all the three reasons explained in theis article and not because of fear, which is something existent in every human been not only in some of them. If they would have been part of the Allies, now they would be considered as part of the “Winners” (as France is). The fact that Italy changed sides from the 1st World War (where they fought much better, by the way and were among the winners) to the 2nd WW, put a thumb down and condemned them in history myths.  

Sunday, January 29TH, 2012 by Guest

The Japanese were poorly equiped compared to the allies (mostly tankettes if they had it, no semi-auto rifle, no radar etc..), largely outnumbered,  and often faced overwhelming odds.  They fought these superior odds almost literally to the last man.    Compared to the Japanese the Italians were cowards.

Monday, May 28TH, 2012 by Guest is perhaps simplest to ask who is the most courageous in the following situations: the Italian carristi, who goes into battle in an obsolete M14 tank against superior enemy armour and anti-tank guns, knowing they can easily penetrate his flimsy protection at a range where his own small gun will have little effect;[nb 19] the German panzer soldier or British tanker who goes into battle in a Panzer IV Special or Sherman respectively against equivalent enemy opposition knowing that he can at least trade blows with them on equal terms; the British tanker who goes into battle in a Sherman against inferior Italian armour and anti-tank guns, knowing confidently that he can destroy them at ranges where they cannot touch him. It would seem clear that, in terms of their motto Ferrea Mole, Ferreo Cuore, the Italian carristi really had "iron hearts", even though as the war went on their "iron hulls" increasingly let them down.[96]

Monday, May 28TH, 2012 by Guest

Zilmohek, You are totally wrong. Albanians are resto of Romanian soldier, and recent genetic research prove that. Try to find something about Serb Churches on Kosovo and the Dates which are inside, with Calendars of 4000 or 5000 B.C. And Lepenski Vir archeological place, also shows very interesting Facts:

It is horribly wrong to trust german historians which can accept that that there is somebody older than they are. And it is horribly wrong to trust a Rome, especially when on 6.april 1941, Rome wanted German Stukas to guarantee to destroy Serbian Archive in Belgrade. So, it is not as simple to repeat something like a goat, better read, learn and use Your brain and soul to distingush right from wrong. Try to find a church map from 1054 A.D. and You will also learn why everything over river Drina Must be under Rome. 1/3 will be baptised, 1/3 killed and 1/3 move till they accept a "Rome faith".

And about Italians, they are really, really soldiers with IRON Heart: They had L3 and L6 tanks, Fiat CR42 airplanes, submarines that need about minute longer than anybody to dive, and they still fougt well! About parachute division Folgore You can find everywhere. It was the only place where brits with their allmighty american borrowed tanks could NOT penetrate... That was real, real courage. Imagine yourself in open desert with no good antitank guns, no tanks and against so many, too many, pretentious brits in tanks... imagine that, and ask Yourself, what a real Man is! Not some funny hat general montgomery which started a battle with 3:1 power over Germans and Italians.

Tuesday, June 05TH, 2012 by Guest

The reason the Italians were so bad during ww2 was because most Italians hated Mussolini and the nazi (even Mussolini did not like Hitler) so most Italians were unmotivated and could not be botherd fighting with the nazis. Also most Italian used bolt action rifles from ww1 and the small number of well armed Italians fought very well.