Source Document: The Italian Army during World War Two
Woody Turnbow

Background and Preparations

A. The Italian armed forces were faced with a conflict between theories of employment. They had historically been structured for deployment in the mountainous terrain found in Italy and her immediate neighbors. These forces were forced to adapt themselves to a colonial role, and, even more conflicting, to the ‘War of Rapid Decision’.
These theories mixed about as well as oil and water, and Italy lacked the industrial power and the raw materials to field forces able to meet all these needs. She even lacked the means to be a major power in a modern industrial war.

B. All Italy’s plans and preparations had been made for war against Germany/Austria, France, and Yugoslavia. Industry and trade had traditional ties with Britain, France, and the USA.

This was so prevalent that the geography section of the officer’s qualifying exam (tests prior to consideration for promotion) included the border areas with France, Switzerland, Austria, and Yugoslavia. The characteristics of the armies of these nations were also covered. Africa was ignored.

C. One faction of the army wanted an alpine oriented army. In a 1937 conference on the future of armor, a ranking general said, The tank is a powerful tool, but let us not idolize it; let us reserve our reverence for the infantryman and the mule. This group saw Men, our indisputable resource, not machines. They came close to the philosophy of French Col. de Grandmaison and believed in mind over matter. This meant that the solution for any tactical problem was a mass of infantry.

D. Architect of the mechanized concept was Gen Federico Baistrocchi, Chief of Staff during the Ethiopian Campaign. Gen Alberto Pariani succeeded him. This faction developed an innovative theory of maneuver warfare in restrictive terrain. The La Guerra di Rapido Corso was adopted as doctrine in 1938. These men then found themselves in charge of an army that was not organized, equipped, or trained for the type of warfare envisioned. They found themselves in charge of an army wherein a large percentage of senior officers opposed the accepted doctrine. They also found themselves in charge of an army with its reserve officers lacking any training and experience in the new doctrine.

Doctrine

A. General — A war of rapid decision was intended. Its chief features were supposed to be (1) Celere divisions, designed for exploitation and reconnaissance; (2) Tank brigades, designed for penetration, encirclement, and exploitation; (3) Motorized divisions, designed for rapid maneuver over a wide range and for the reinforcement of mechanized or fast-moving units. This new doctrine emphasized that surprise, speed, intensity, sustained action, and flexibility of plan allowing for unforeseen contingencies were the basic factors for a successful action.

B. Main Policies — In an effort to obtain the requirements for victory, the Italian combat effort was to become predicated upon the following policies (1) Enormously increased firepower; (2) Opposition to the hostile fire by combined fire and movement;

(3) Direction of fire mass against the sector of least resistance to achieve rapid penetration and to permit subsequent flanking movement; (4) Simultaneous fire and movement with supporting artillery fire to neutralize enemy effort; (5) Substantially independent exercise of command except as regards reserve employment and artillery support.

C. Comparison of doctrines — Italian doctrine denied maneuver at the division level and instead expected maneuver to be controlled by corps and armies.

This was even more unusual because great stress was placed on maneuvers and initiative by lower units. Earlier doctrine placed its trust in numbers. Doctrine proclaimed the absolute primacy of the infantry but did stress the necessity of infantry-artillery integration. Armor was envisioned as an infantry support weapon. Light tanks were to operate with horse cavalry squadrons.

The new idea of the decisive war, a war of maneuver using flanking attacks rather than a frontal assault, pointed toward major changes in the future.
The concept was one of rapid advance by truck or bicycle-borne infantry hordes, backed by road-bound artillery and 3.5-ton tankettes.

D. Doctrine – A 1938 circular signaled the adoption of this doctrine of high-speed mobile warfare as the official strategic and tactical concept of the Italian army. La Guerra di Rapido Corso (the war of rapid course) would be a war of maneuver, using what Liddell Hart had called the strategy of the indirect approach. The army would maneuver against the flank of the enemy. Mechanized and airborne weapons would be important aspects of war. Exploitation by motorized forces would follow the use of the maximum mass available to break the enemy line. Weaknesses of equipment and fuel would prevent this doctrine from being fully effective.

Combined Action

A primary element of the Italian doctrine was the combined employment of various arms, particularly infantry and artillery. Italian infantry was designed to be used in small, flexible, highly maneuverable units of great firepower. Each forward echelon, upon achieving a breakthrough was followed by reinforcements for purposes of exploitation. Mobility and maneuverability comprised the fundamental characteristics of Italian artillery. Closely allied to the artillery’s mission to support the infantry were the secondary missions of engaging in counter-battery firing and of providing antitank protection. Cavalry maneuver was mounted, but combat could have been mounted or dismounted.

Mechanization of the cavalry resulted in increased mobility and firepower. This added, for the first time, the element of fire mass to the common cavalry missions of reconnaissance and exploitation. Italian engineers, although armed, were more concerned with normal engineer functions and less concerned with combat than in other modern armies.

Chief features were: fast-moving divisions, designed for exploitation and reconnaissance; tank brigades, designed for penetration, encirclement, and exploitation, and motorized divisions, designed for rapid movement over a wide range and for the reinforcement of mechanized or fast-moving units. Surprise, speed, intensity, sustained action and flexibility of plan allowing for unforeseen contingencies were seen as the basic factors for a successful action.

Staff studies and war plans laid very little stress on the defensive, the assumption being that an offensive against its soldiers was a remote possibilities. It was discovered that applying theories was somewhat more difficult than developing them. Organization was, however, based upon this Rapid Decision doctrine.

Reconnaissance and Intelligence

Intelligence was a relatively neglected aspect of operational planning, and commanders in the field tended to make insufficient use of intelligence resources. Until 1941, the army failed to recognize the need for specialized reconnaissance units to ensure surprise, to avoid it from the enemy, and to find opportunities to exploit. Italian units lacked armored cars with radios to keep commanders appraised on the locations and activities of enemy units. Air Force reconnaissance support was poorly coordinated.

Security

The Italians aimed at security through offense and penetration. Intelligence, camouflage, and similar means of attaining security were regarded as preliminaries to offensive penetration. Security measures were not merely supposed to guard against surprise by the enemy but were also supposed to be so planned as to enable the Italian commander to inflict upon the enemy a surprise of his own.

Italian leaders were urged not to let security measures betray them into undue caution, which might slow up the forward drive of an action.

On the contrary, daring was thought to be quite as important as security. Nevertheless, the Italians kept a somewhat greater distance between the advance guard and main body than the German did.

Meeting Engagements

A. General — Meeting engagements, as distinct from mere preliminary engagements or patrol activities to test the enemy’s strength a and determine his weak points, were regarded by the Italians as a matter of rapid aggressive action.
It was believed such engagements would occur only in the case of relatively small forces, for Italian military theory denied the possibility of surprise in modern warfare, at least on any considerable scale. The Italians did not admit that a sudden and unplanned clash could occur between sizable forces. In other words, they expected proper reconnaissance to always reveal the presence of large enemy units.

B. Doctrine — The Italians believed that their system successfully combined the best features of both French and German tactics. It was supposed to provide for both conceptions—planned collision and swift and precise intervention with decidedly aggressive behavior.

The commander was urged to take the initiative in operations and attack with decision, seeking victory in the swiftness of movements in direction, in immediacy and power of impact.

Attack and Pursuit

Italian ideas of attack and pursuit were much like those of any other modern army, though the emphasis placed on the offensive almost recalls the pre-1914 doctrines of the French Colonel de Grandmaison.

The 1940 Italian doctrine provided that the attack was to be recklessly pressed, was never to halt and was to overcome the resistance with continuity of effort. Initiative, violence and audacity were urged. As for the continuity of effort, one Greek tactical authority with much experience in the Albanian campaign against Italy declared that an obvious characteristic of all Italian attacks was their extreme brevity and the failure of officers rather than men to follow through.

It became almost a proverb in the Greek army that an Italian attack was certain to flag after the first 20 minutes. A Greek unit, which had successfully sustained an attack for that length of time usually, felt that it had for all practical purposes already won. This was not, of course, what the Italian tacticians had taught.

The Italian military doctrine of the present, wrote Maj Umberto Mescia in 1939, reaffirms the reasoning which was Caesar’s and Machiavelli’s; the offensive, because only the offensive can bring victory.

There is a return to the Roman concept, to the Latin and Italian spirit, because those qualities which bring success – a sense of responsibility and the willingness to meet danger – are particularly Italian, manly in courage and daring in spirit, ready to overcome difficulties.

To take the offensive means to attack, to go forward, to force one’s will on the enemy, and in this direction, the mental, moral, and material preparation of all is turned toward an ever greater formation of the offensive consciousness.

The actual performance of the Italian Army often fell somewhat short of this high standard.

Defense

The Italian teaching was that a commander should concentrate his firepower on such a position whenever it is encountered. It was the Italian view that such action imposed on the commander merely a temporary pause in a position of arrest — a mere lull in his sustained offensive movement. Otherwise, Italian tactics discouraged any assumption of a static position.

When the Italians were compelled to assume the defensive in a position of resistance, they hoped to resume the offensive at the earliest possible moment — a doctrine common to most armies. Defense does not mean giving up the resumption of movement as soon as possible.

The main line of resistance was removed as far as possible from the enemy’s artillery fire, and the Italians endeavored to establish a zone of security with a depth ranging from 2000 to 3500 yards. In this area, utilizing all footholds that the terrain may offer, they organized holding positions.

These delivered long-range fire, especially along the easiest routes of penetration, with a view to wearing the enemy down before coming to grips with him.

Principes of Employment

A. General – The Italian ideal of the employment of infantry presupposed the possibility of an attack undivided into principal and auxiliary actions. Supposedly sufficient elasticity would be maintained to direct the effort to those points where success appeared best assured upon initial contact.

B. Infantry division – The infantry division was the basic large combat unit. Its maneuverability was sacrificed to the development of increased attack capability and the ability to undertake deep penetration of enemy positions. It had a fixed table of organization and was considered to be an indivisible unit. Whenever its strength required increasing for accomplishing its mission, superior commands were expected to assign the required additional equipment and personnel.

C. The binary infantry division organization was adopted on the eve of war. It was born in the Ethiopian War and was to create a mobile infantry force in which one division would fix the enemy or begin to advance and the second division would bound forward to launch an attack and/or push on. The binary infantry division was, by doctrine, supposed to be capable only of frontal attack. The maneuver was the prerogative only of army corps. The divisions were to function as attack columns to create and exploit any tactical opportunity.
Control both of the movement of individual divisions and of the medium caliber guns were retained by corps headquarters.

This flaw should have been realized early in the attacks against France in 1940. Italian units dashed forward into the killing zone of French artillery and were stopped with cruel casualties. The Army Staff misinterpreted the failure and blamed inadequate artillery support rather than on an operational concept that assigned to poorly trained infantry tasks of offensive deep penetrations that no infantry in the world could accomplish in the face of an unshaken defense. In practice, the superiority of numbers only produced superior numbers of dead, wounded or captured.

D. Motorized Division were originally formed to work with an armored division. They also operated with the Celeri divisions for strategic reconnaissance or as a general advance guard often preceded by a light and very fast force of motorcyclists, light tanks or other units on observation missions.

Artillery

A. General – It was planned that the Italian artillery be divided into echelons : the first was to operate in direct support of the infantry battalions; the second was to act generally as a reserve for the purpose of lateral extension of the line or depth. Depth in echelon was sought for the purpose of increasing shock and penetration, almost to the point of risking the maintenance of a sufficiently strong front.

B. Principles of employment – (1) Prompt intervention in response to tactical necessities; (2) Close co-operation with other arms; (3) Violent action in mass and by surprise; (4) Co-ordination of the action of the various artillery echelons in order that the effects of fire produce the total results desired in the general concept of the battle, with a single final purpose—that of facilitating the action of infantry; (5) Elasticity of organization permitting not only the maneuvering of fire rapidly, but also the following of the action and its support with the movement of the batteries, particularly when it assumes a character of velocity; (6) Artillery is useful only if the ammunition supply is assured and (7) Observation is essential for artillery. This last-mentioned principle was possibly the most important, for to achieve observation at all times Italian artillery was often situated well forward and resorted to direct laying far more frequently than other armed forces did.

C. Division artillery – The division artillery commander regulated the employment of artillery except in counter-battery and interdiction. Decentralization of command for these functions was designed to expedite rapid and effective action, and thus contribute to the desired war of movement.

D. Method of employment – The employment of artillery by the Italians was quite normal, and the only feature worthy of note was the tendency to site the bulk of their artillery well forward. Artillery personnel earned a reputation for good shooting and displayed considerable courage under heavy fire or in direct attack. In many cases, artillery firing over open sights was used against attacking tank or infantry. In defensive situations roving pieces were sent far forward of the main defense area in order to force the enemy to deploy and to execute counter-battery fire Alpine artillerymen were highly skilled in the manhandling of pack artillery. The highly centralized Italian artillery actually did better than their German allies against Montgomery’s 1918 style set-piece tactics in North Africa.

E. The artillery arm was spread throughout the army and was classified as divisional, corps, or army. There also existed Adhoc formations known as the raggruppamenti (tactical organizations of flexible size and mission), which had no fixed establishment.

Armored Forces

A. General – Italian armored forces originated, like for all other nations, from the infantry support role of WW-1. The use of armor was increased to include armored brigades tasked with penetration in the offense and the role of a mobile reserve to counter enemy penetrations in the defense. Development of armored units by other nations encouraged the Italians to evolve tank brigades into armored divisions.

As a result of their experience in Spain, Italians recognized the need for motorized infantry and ordinary infantry to follow the tanks and consolidate conquered ground. There were two types of mechanized divisions in the Italian army, the fast-moving, or light motorized division (Celere) and the armored division (Corazzata).

B. (a) Celere divisions were a combination of cavalry and Bersaglieri to produce a Italian mobile troops. The concept was an outgrowth of the successful actions of cooperating cavalry and Bersaglieri in the long pursuits of the defeated Austrians at the end of WW-1 and the culmination of several trends in the use of the cavalry and the Bersaglieri. The chances wrought in the battlefield by the machine gun and the tank reduced the possible roles for both. The bicycle gave the Bersaglieri mobility comparable to horse cavalry. In general, Celere division fulfilled the missions formerly assigned to cavalry, that is, reconnaissance and covering missions. In addition it had the mission of seizure of certain terrain features of strategic importance. Celere units were envisioned as flanking units and pursuit units. They were combined with motorized infantry and armored divisions making the breakthrough and with the alpine divisions covering the flanks, it was a formidable concept. This change in policy was quickly translated into doctrine.

B. (b) In normal employment the division would be divided into two distinct groups. The cavalry, motorcyclists, and tanks would be used as a maneuver element in operations requiring agility, while the truck-borne and bicycle-borne Bersaglieri, with the artillery provided a unit for use in conventional attack.

The tanks in Celere units tended to be kept as a reserve and used in situations where covering forces were required. Motorized detachments provided the best units for penetration of the enemy line and for rapid movement.

C. Armored division (Corazzata) was originally given the role of a mobile reserve to be used in the exploitation of success and to counter enemy penetrations. It could also engage in reconnaissance with mobile units, or in wide envelopment of an enemy flank, infiltration through gaps, or assault against hastily prepared defensive position. This cautious conception of the functions of the armored division underwent some modification as a result of the lessons of war, but Italian tank tactics and training were somewhat rudimentary until the armored divisions came under German command, training and tactical doctrines were introduced. Since it was weak in inherent infantry, the armored division was organized and trained primarily to operate in conjunction with infantry, motorized, or Celere divisions, it was not designed to operate ahead of the army in the seizure of important terrain, as the Italians assigned such missions to the motorized or Celere divisions. The armored division was designed for the exploitation of a breakthrough and also to function as a mobile reserve to be thrown in to use its shock action and firepower to obtain a decision.

D. Independent tank units of the Italian army were designed to serve primarily as a basic shock element and in support of the infantry arm. In this respect, reconnaissance missions were assigned as a particular task for light tanks.

E. The idea of three kinds of tank units appeared in the first set of manuals on the employment of tanks. One was for the normal infantry support role and a similarly organized but differently trained unit would support Celere troops. The third was in the German-inspired armored division. This divided the available tank resources between three streams of tactical development. Four if one considers the reconnaissance role often given tankette units.

Cavalry

The principal missions of the Italian cavalry were that of reconnaissance, and in case of necessity, to exploit advantages, close gaps, etc. It maneuvered mounted and fought mounted or dismounted. Horse cavalry frequently acted as mounted infantry or as dismounted machine gun squadrons in support of other units. Most cavalry depots formed dismounted squadron groups, which were employed on the coast or home defense, mainly in southern Italy and the Islands.

Antiaircraft Artillery

Antiaircraft artillery militia was concentrated near more important and vulnerable industrial targets and the larger cities and communication centers.

Coast Artillery

Coast artillery militia employed equipment furnished by the Navy for shores and antiaircraft defense of localities in accordance with instructions issued by the office of the navy.

Engineers

A. Under Italian doctrine, engineers were considered to be technical, rather than combat, troops. Engineer functions were conventional : work communications zones, erect of obstacles, clearance of obstacles, laying of minefields, water supply, and supply of engineer materials. Also, in the Italian army, the providing of signal communications and the supplying of hydrogen for captive balloons were engineer functions.

B. The success of the German Assault Engineers encouraged the formation of Assault Pioneers known as Guastatori (destroyers). These forces were organized into battalions. They were patterned after similar German units and the Assault Engineer School at Civitavecchia was organized by a German engineer, a Col Steiner, in March 1940. The attacks by pioneers (Guastatori) were nearly always carried out at dawn, the objective having been approached during the night. Assault engineers were used against tanks at night. Personnel did not lay mines but were trained in removing them should they impede their progress.

Camouflage

A. General – The Italians placed great emphasis on artificial camouflage and installations garnished with natural materials tied into the natural surroundings.

B. Field Camouflage – In the field, Italian camouflage were made of canvas, raffia, shavings and similar materials colored with a spray gun which was both, quick and convenient as compared with the usual paintbrush method. This field spraying was done with compressed air in a special blower. The compressed air was furnished from a shoulder-portable compressor of from compressed air tanks, periodically filled. Machine guns were camouflaged by being covered with wire netting stretched over a frame of iron rods.

C. Various devices – Individual camouflage nets were 1 to 80-M², with reinforced edges furnished with buttons and garnished with strips of sisal material colored with three shades of green and tow of maroon. Metal net supports, the metal frames for overhead cover were made in two sizes, with spans of 1.5-M or 4 to 5-M. Both types collapsed into compact bundles. Simulate cloaks was used by the Italian Army as an aid for the combatant who had to remain on observation duty or was required to advance under the eye of the adversary. A man disguised by such a cloak became invisible, even on barren ground and so could accomplish his mission unmolested, even at a short distance from the enemy. The cloak was easily made by the Italian soldier and was frequently produced even with improvised materials by the combatant himself. It consisted of a rectangular piece or burlap 180-CM long and 150-CM wide. The rectangle was folded along a line and sewn along the upper edge to form a hood easily worn by the soldier without hindering his freedom of movement. To blend readily with the surroundings, the cloak was covered with hay, grass, straw, etc, depending on what was available in the particular region, and on what background was to be imitated. This cloak could be used to conceal telegraph-line guards, men stationed near roads, liaison men, etc.

Supply

In an effort to keep the combat divisions slim and agile a centralized Intendenza at Army level was given almost all of the few trucks available. The theory was to replenish Corps, Divisions, and even Regiments from the rear forward. The War of Rapid Decision was totally divorced from existing Italian capabilities. The supply organization functioned adequately in slow-moving or static actions, but failed to support swift movement. Even mere relocation of a unit could sometime disrupt its supply chain. Supply was over centralized at army level, leaving forward units at the mercy of the vagaries of the Intendenza.

Italian Army Organization

Army Group & Army : Organization of army groups and armies varied considerably but the number of corps in an army rarely exceeded four. Army troops included heavy artillery and mechanized field artillery, mining, sound ranging, meteorological and survey units.

Army Corps : Army Corps were composed of two to four infantry divisions, one motorized machine gun battalion (eventually to be expanded to a regiment), one artillery regiment, one engineer regiment, one chemical company one flame-thrower company, one chemical mortar battery, one medical company, one supply company, a motor transport center. Theoretically each corps had reconnaissance groups attached to it’s motorized, infantry, and Air Force Reconnaissance Groups. These seldom materialized. Some army corps had tank battalions attached, and special units, such as Alpini, Bersaglieri, etc.

Divisions : The Italian army showed a great deal of imagination in tailoring divisions for special uses. Much of this effort failed to reach fruition because events overtook the organizations before they could be accomplished.

Infantry Division : (a). Adoption, on the eve of the war, of the Divisione Bineria increased peacetime strength from 70+ to 90+ divisions. This resulted only in an increase of slots and staffs, not an increase of combat power. Mussolini also liked his numbers. He bragged of an army of eight million bayonets. It apparently never occurred to him that more than bayonets might be needed. Only two divisions of grenadiers retained the old three-regiment organization. A staff study claimed, A single motorized division, even for defense and occupation missions has the capability of four infantry divisions while it eats only one fourth as much and requires only a fourth as much transport from Italy.


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