Italian Forces and Industry in Early World War 2 (1939-1940)

Italian Armed Forces And Industry In Early World War 2

Italian Forces and Industry in Early World War 2 (1939-1940)

Intro

Prior to World War 2 both Hitler and Mussolini were boasting about their military forces to each other. Mussolini announced in 1934 that he can mobilize 6 Million soldiers, in 1936 he increased the number to 8 million and in 1939 to 12 million. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 54, in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3) If those numbers sound a bit off, well, Operation Barbarossa was largest military invasion in history and it was conducted by around 4 million soldiers. Nevertheless, the Italians managed to mobilize around 3 million soldiers, yet these soldiers were basically worse equipped than the Italian troops in World War 1. Quite in contrast to the German and Japanese forces, the Italian forces were not ready for a war against any major force.(Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 54, in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

The question is why the Italian Armed Forces were not ready, there are several reasons for this, in general the Italian and Fascists system was quite inefficient. First, the Italy had a limited amount of industries, which weren’t properly prepared for arms production. Second, the allocation of resources and organization was limited, additionally similar to Germany and Japan, Italy also had a severe lack of resources. Third, the wars in Ethiopia and Spain required resources that the Italians couldn’t spare, after all those conflicts dragged on far longer than anticipated. As a result the Italian forces were not ready when the war started in 1939. Mussolini was quite aware of this problem, after all, he insisted on a period of peace during the negotiations of the Pact of Steel – “Stahlpaket” with Germany and didn’t join the war until June 1940 by declaring a war on France. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 54-56, in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

Organization before the war

At first, some word about the general organization of Italian Army before the war. Like other countries Italy drew lessons from experiences in Spain and Ethiopia, yet their forces were still in reorganization when the war started and the industry couldn’t match the requirements for the required motorization or even the basic equipment that was needed.

In 1937 the Italian Army restructured its divisions from the common system of tripartite to a bipartite system, the so called “binary” system, where each infantry division only consisted of 2 infantry regiments instead of 3. Something that is also portrayed in Hearts of Iron III and Hearts of Iron IV, as you can see here for the division builder of an Italian division in 1939 and a British division in 1939, but be aware though that the Hearts of Iron IV basic divisions layouts lack artillery regiments, furthermore the so called support companies historically usually were battalions, as you can see here with a basic German infantry division from 1940. Yet, from a game design perspective it makes sense to call them companies, because so you can’t mix them up with your regular battalions when writing about division compositions on the forums. Anyway, if you want to learn more about unit organizations, check out the playlist on my various organization videos.

Now, the intention of the binary system was to make the units more capable for mobile warfare, the units should be easier to command and be more mobile. The lack in manpower should be countered with modern equipment, yet, this was wishful thinking because the Italian industry couldn’t even provide basic equipment in sufficient numbers. On the outside the binary system created more divisions, but basically this was only useful for propaganda and didn’t increase the capabilities of the Italian Army. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S.56-57 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

Next up, is a brief look at the Situation in September 1939 and then a more detailed look at the state in June 1940.

Situation in September 1939

Let’s look at the state of the Italian forces in the beginning of the War in September 1939, when Italy was still at peace. In short the Situation of the Italian Armed forces in September 1939 was abysmal. Yet, you need to keep in mind that Italy didn’t enter the war before June 1940.

Army

At first the Army, it had had 67 divisions without the units in Ethiopia, these divisions consisted of
43 Infantry
3 Tank
2 Motorized
3 Fast division
5 Alpini, and
11 other division for special purposes.

Yet, only 16 of these division were completely restructured, furthermore there was a lack of artillery, tanks, transport-vehicles, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. Even basic supplies like quality food was lacking, so basically the Army had a severe lack of almost everything. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S.58-59 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

Navy

The Navy was better equipped in terms of basic supplies like food and ammo, but it also lacked anti-aircraft capabilities on its ships and in its bases. Yet, there was severe lack of fuel. Still, in comparison with the other branches the Navy was the best equipped and prepared.

Air Force

The Italian Airforce the “regia aeronautica” also had major problems, there was a vast amount of different aircraft types and additionally the ground crews were of limited quality, this lead to low number of operational aircraft of less than 50 % in September 1939, when only 1190 planes were operational out of 2586. Furthermore, most aircraft were usually underpowered and under-armed. [Something most War Thunder players are highly aware off “Spaghetti guns”.] (Schreiber, Gerhard: S.58-59 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)
As a result of that dire state of the Armed forces and the severe lack of ammo, weaponry, fuel, transport capacity and personnel, the ministry for war production in December 1939 advised Mussolini that only an army of 73 division would be feasible instead of the originally planned number of 126. Yet, still the industry wasn’t capable in equipping those units sufficiently til the entry of Italy in into the war in June 1940, but nobody assumed that Italy would enter the war that early. Well, seems like Mussolini had a tendency for premature – declarations. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 58-59 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

The Situation in June 1940

Now, after the Italian declaration of war in June 1940 the situation was a bit different, but not much, but let’s take a more detailed view.

Army

First the Army, in June 1940 Italy entered the war with a total of a bit less than 1.7 million soldiers (1 687 950) and a total of 73 divisions..
Whereas in 1915 the Italian army joined the war with more men, it was also an army that had similar quality weapons and equipment like other majors, but in 1940 this was clearly not the case. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 59 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

Of the 73 divisions only 19 had the required amount of personnel, equipment,weapons and transport capacity. Another 34 division were operational, but lacked personnel (25 %) and transport capacity. The last 20 divisions lacked more than 50 % personnel, a significant amount of equipment and 50 % of transport capacity. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 59-60 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

The infantry formed the mainstay of the Italian army, but the firepower of an Italian infantry division was according to Gerhard Schreiber only about 25 % of a French Infantry division or around 10 % of a German infantry division. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 61 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3) Now, I don’t know how the author determined those numbers, but here is a direct comparison on the numbers of a Italian and German Infantry division with the intended equipment and personnel:

Comparison between an Italian and German Infantry Division in 1940

Ital. ID (1940) German ID (1940)
449 Officers 518 Officers
614 NCOs 2573 NCOs
11916 Men 13667 Men
12 Heavy howitzers (sFH) 15 cm
6 Heavy infantry support guns 15cm
12 100mm howitzer 36 Light howitzers (lFH) 10,5 cm
24 75mm guns 20 Light infantry support guns 7,5 cm
8 65 mm mountain guns
8 47mm anti-tank gun 75 3,7cm anti-tank guns
8 20mm anti-air guns
30 Mortar 81mm 54 mortar 8,1 cm
126 Mortars 45mm 84 mortar 5cm
80 Heavy machine guns 110 Heavy machine gun
270 Light machine gun 425 Light machine guns
(Source for the German Division: Alex Buchner: Handbuch der Infanterie 1939-1945)

The most important differences here are the low number of NCOs in the Italian division, NCO form the backbone of every army, thus this lack of leadership definitely didn’t improve the overall quality of the division. Furthermore, the biggest Italian gun had 100mm and only 12 were assigned to a division, whereas the Germans had 3 times that and additional 18 guns with 150 mm of caliber. Now, the Italians had a variety of guns ranging from 75mm to 20mm, but almost all in low numbers and of various types this is basically a logistical nightmare with limited firepower, especially in combination with the severe lack of transport capacity and weak industry. Also in terms of infantry support weapons like mortars and machine guns the Germans had an advantage.
Based on that data, I assume the firepower difference was calculated based on how much shell weight each division could deliver for a specified amount of time. At first you can’t spot a 1 to 10 difference, but you need to consider the weight differences of higher caliber guns. Let’s take a look at the weight of a 15 cm howitzer shell, it was about 50 kg whereas the 10,5 cm howitzer could only deliver a shell of around 15 kg. The shell weight and thus the resulting firepower can easily missed, if one looks only at the caliber alone. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/15_cm_Kanone_16 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10.5_cm_leFH_18 )

Resource Problems

Yet, this comparison assumes that the division was fully equipped with artillery, but Italy had a severe lack of modern artillery and anti-aircraft guns, it lacked about 15 000 modern artillery guns and the industry could only put out less than 100 per month. This meant that the Italians had a limited amount of modern artillery and since that wasn’t bad enough there was also a lack of ammo. The situation with tanks was not much better and those tanks were also to a large degree simple light tanks of limited combat capabilities. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 61-65 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)
Resource Problem
Furthermore, the Italian industry had a lack of resources, how dire the situation was can be best expressed with some numbers. These are the percentages on the Italian estimate for meeting the requirements of 1940:
Artillery (all types) 6 %
Ammo, small caliber 25 %
Ammo, medium caliber 7 %
Ammo, heavy caliber 10 %
Rifles (Model 1891) 35 %
Machine Guns 10 %
Mortar 81mm 70 %
Ammo, Mortar grenades 81mm 10 %
Planes 42 %
Engines 40 %
Bombs under 1000 kg 40 %

(Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 66 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)
One can assume that Mussolini would get führious from the “insufficient resources” icon popping up all the time, if he would play Hearts of Iron.
One can assume Mussolini would have gone mad from the “insufficient resources” icon popping up all the time, but he was probably already mad already.

Navy

Now, the Italian Navy was by far the strongest part of the Armed Forces. For the Mediterranean the numbers of the Italian fleet were quite considerable: (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 77 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3) Here is a comparison between the Italian, British and French Fleets assigned to the Mediterranean.

Italy UK France
Type Number Tonnage Number Tonnage Number Tonnage
BB 4 117240 5 148350 5 116165
CV 0 0 1 22600 0
CA 7 70000 0 0 7 70000
CL 12 74630 9 51000 7 51723
DD & TP 125 120335 35 48200 57 67250
Submarine 113 88000 12 13000 46 49000

Note that 2 of these 4 Italian battleships weren’t fully operational yet in June 1940. Also, due to the lack of the Italian industry these numbers can be a bit misleading from strategic point of view, because the British had way better capabilities to construct new ships in contrast to the Italians, thus losses on the Italian side had a greater strategic impact. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 75-78 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

Furthermore, these numbers don’t represent the quality of the ships, its crews nor other important factors. Nevertheless the Italian ships meet the international standards unlike their army units. Although, there was some major problems. First the lack of air coverage by land based aircraft due to range and insufficient coordination with the air force, of course the aforementioned missing naval air arm was also a major flaw in the Italian Navy structure. Second, the power plants of the ships had limited reliability and there was a general lack of anti-aircraft weapons for the ships and harbors. Third, the lack of a radar on Italian ships had a crucial impact during the Battle of Matapan against the British. The Germans had their own radars, but only after the loss at Matapan informed the Italians about their radar and provided assistance. (Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 75-78 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

Air Force

Now, let’s take a brief look at the Air Force. In June 1940 the “regia aeronautica” had 1796 operational planes and 554 non-operational ones (total 2350), thus it clearly had a higher readiness ratio than in September 1939, the total number of planes is actually a little lower than in 1939, this is probably due to the fact that this number doesn’t include training planes. Yet, a major problem was the lack of a proper naval aviation, which is quite problematic for a country that has a quite extensive coastline. Although Italy had some good air frame designs it lacked mostly powerful engines and also its production capabilities were not the best to put it very mildly, well, time for an international comparison. Schreiber writes about the Italian aircraft industry the following:

“Italy basically achieved between 1940 and 1943 an average output per year that was slightly above the British monthly average of produced aircraft in 1943.”

(Translated & cited from the German version of Germany and the Second World War – Volume III)

“Italien erreichte also zwischen 1940 und 1943 im Durchschnitt eine jährliche Fertigungsquote, die etwas über dem lag, was die britische Luftfahrtindustrie 1943 in einem Monat ausstieß.”

(Schreiber, Gerhard: S. 71 , in Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3)

Conclusion

There is a strong tendency to give the Italian soldiers a bad reputation for being cowards and unreliable, which certainly is influenced by the fact that in World War 1 the Italians turned against their former Allies the German and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Nevertheless, in World War 2, Italian soldiers fought as brave as their allies and foes, thus there is no reason for the continuous disrespect about their combat capabilities, which was mostly a result of the poor state of their industry, equipment, weaponry and supply situation.
As said before soldiers deserve our respect, even if we don’t share their side and/or views.

Sources

Books

Germany and the Second World War – Volume 3: The Mediterranean, South-East Europe, and North Africa 1939–1942 (amazon.com affiliate link)

Buchner, Alex: The German Infantry Handbook 1939-1945 (amazon.com affiliate link)

Schreiber, Gerhard: Politische & milititärische Entwicklung im Mittelmeerraum 1939/1940, in: Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 3 (amazon.de affiliate link)

Buchner, Alex: Das Handbuch der deutschen Infanterie 1939-1945; Gliederung – Uniformen, Bewaffnung – Ausrüstung, Einsätze (amazon.de affiliate link)

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Online Resources

15 cm Kanone 16

10.5 cm leFH 18

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