All Italian citizens from the ages of 18 to 54 years were liable for military service. The first stage was that of conscript service where the recruit served 18 months with the colours, followed by post-military training which ran from the completion of service until the 33rd birthday. After that date the citizen went into the reserve and could be liable to call-up in time of war until the age of 54. Until 1943 Italy did not suffer from a shortage of man-power; the problem lay in training and equipping her soldiers.
In 1940 over 2,000,000 Italians were under arms, the 73 divisions of the Army being organised as follows:
- 59 infantry divisions,
- 6 Alpine divisions,
- 3 mobile (celere) divisions,
- 2 motorised divisions,
- 3 armoured divisions.
In Libya, eight infantry divisions were destroyed and 130,000 men taken prisoner in Wavell’s offensive at the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941.
During the course of the war 20 new divisions were raised but they could not replace the massive losses suffered by the Italian Army. Mussolini’s ‘crusade against Bolshevism’ since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa cost Italy dear; of the 229,000 despatched to the Eastern Front over half became casualties. In Africa as a whole, 27 divisions were destroyed between December 1940 and May 1943. Another 36 divisions were immobilized outside Italy, occupying France or suppressing partisans activities in the Balkans. A number of divisions were undergoing retraining and there were only 20 divisions to face the Allied invasion of 1943.
|Commando Supremo at Rome (Mussolini, Cavallero as Chief of Staff)||Commando Supremo Africa at Tripoli (Bastico, Gambara as Chief of Staff)||Panzer Army Africa (Rommel, Gause as Chief of Staff); Reserves: Inf Div Bologna (refitting in Cyrenaica), German 164 Light Division (arriving), German Parachute Brigade Ramcke (arriving), Folgore Parachute Division (arriving)||Army troops||German 90 Light Division|
|DAK (German Africa Corps)||German 15 Panzer Division, 21 Panzer Division|
|X Corps||27 Infantry division Brescia, 17 Infantry division Pavia|
|XX Corps||132 Armoured division Ariete, 133 Armoured division Littorio, 101 motorised division Trieste|
|XXI Corps||102 motorised division Trento, 60 Infantry division Sabratha|
|Italian Expeditionary Forces in Russia at the Don front north of Stalingrad (Messe)||8th Army (Garibaldi)||XXXV Corps||3 Mobile division d'Aosta, Infantry division Pasubio, Infantry division Torino, 63 Assault Legion (regiment) Tagliamento (Blackshirts)|
|II Corps||Infantry division Sforzesca, Infantry division Ravenna, Infantry division Cosseria|
|Alpine Corps||Infantry division Vicenza, Alpine division Tridentina, Alpine division Julia, Alpine division Cuneense|
|Army troops||3rd Blackshirt group Gennaio, 23rd Blackshirt group Marzo|
By September 1943 (time of Italian surrender) there were still a total of 83 Italian divisions with 1,520,000 men under arms, located as follows:
- 20 divisions in Northern Italy and Southern France,
- 23 divisions in Central and Southern Italy,
- 9 divisions on Sardinia and Corsica,
- 31 divisions in Croatia, in the Balkans, on Crete and other Greek islands.
While the division was the basic formation in the Italian Army a number of troops were organised at corps or army level essentially to act as higher formation reserve units.
The Italian infantry division was known as a ‘binary’ division (divisione binaria) because it was based around two infantry regiments. From 1 March 1940 an MVSN Legion (Blackshirts) of two battalions was attached to most of the divisions, partly to increase the manpower of the division but also to include fascist troops within regular army formations.
During 1942 attempts were made to increase fire-power and mechanisation within the Army. Additional a new, more flexible organizational structure was introduced.
|Infantry division||Alpine division||Infantry division 'North Africa 1942'||Motorised division 'North Africa 1942'|
|Total units||between 51 (beginning of 1941) – 69 (September 1943)||6||4||2|
|Infantry regiments||2 (each 3 battalions) with 3,279 men each + most 1 Blackshirt Legion (2 battalions) with 1,693 men||2 (4,757 men each)||2 (around 2,000 men each)||2 (1,160 men each) + 1 Bersaglieri regiment outside Africa (1,827)|
|Total men||13,500||15,219||?||6,800 or 9,216|
|Machine guns||276 (60 heavy)||216 (54 heavy, 162 light)||216 (72 heavy, 144 light)||?|
|Mortars||174 (30 x 81mm, 144 x 45mm)||58 (34 x 40mm, 24 x 81mm) + 54 flamethrowers||72 x 20mm light guns instead||36+ (81mm)|
|Anti-tank guns||24 (47mm)||–||72 (47mm)||24-40 (47mm)|
|Anti-aircraft guns||8 (20mm)||–||8 (20mm)||16 – 24 (20mm)|
|Artillery||36 (24 x 75mm, 12 x 100mm – some 'mountain inf divisions' only 36 x 75mm howitzers)||24 (75mm mountain howitzers)||36-56 (24 x 75mm, 12-24 x 100mm, often 4 – 8 x German 88mm guns)||36 (24 x 75mm, 12 x 100mm)|
|Vehicles||86||(4,000 mules)||(not fully motorised)||850|
|Tanks||–||–||–||46 (light tanks)|
|Mobile division||Armoured division||Parachute division|
|Infantry regiments||1 (Bersaglieri with 2,727 men) + motor cycle company (178 men) + 2 Cavalry regiments (878 men each)||1 Bersaglieri (1,827)||2 (1,304 men each)|
|Machine guns||c.132 (24 heavy, 108 light)||c.132 (24 heavy, 108 light)||108 light + 124 semi-automatic rifles|
|Mortars||c.60 (6 x 81mm, 54 x 45mm)||9 (81mm)||6+ (81mm)|
|Anti-tank guns||16 (47mm)||24 (21 x 47/32 self-propelled guns, 3 x 47mm towed)||?|
|Anti-aircraft guns||8||26 (20mm)||?|
|Artillery||36 (24 x 75mm, 12 x 100mm)||36 or 70 (36 x Semovente M40 self-propelled guns in Africa – or 24 x 75mm, 18 x 105mm, 8 x 90mm towed guns and only 20 Semovente M40)||24|
|Tanks||c.46 (light tanks)||104-275 M13/40 or M14/41 tanks. Usual in Africa were 104 plus 5 light tanks, 47 Armoured cars.||–|
The Alpine, Paratroop and Bersaglieri regiments were often of the highest quality but most of the infantry formations were poorly equipped, and badly supplied. The Italians tended to subordinate the infantry to other arms; and Italian soldiers were never convinced of the necessity or righteousness of their involvement in the war.
Italian military doctrine stressed the primacy of the offensive, the defensive being considered as a temporary expedient prior to launching a rapid counter-offensive. In reality, however, Italian attacks were seldom pressed home with much conviction: in 1940 the Greek Army considered that Italian assaults would grind to a halt if contained for only 20 minutes.
Despite popular myth the Italian soldier did not lack bravery, what he lacked were the arms and equipment necessary for modern warfare.
Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica)
An expeditionary force (Comando Aviazione des Corpo de Spedizione Italiano with three groups and approx. 100 planes) was sent against the Soviet Union in the August of 1941 as part of the Crusade against Bolshevism; the net result of which was to stretch Italian resources and to deny desperately needed aircraft to the Mediterranean Fronts.
In the Mediterranean the Air Force was engaged in the aerial assault on Malta and in supporting the Army in Libya. The failure to knock out Malta and prevent British convoys from traversing the Mediterranean made possible the build-up of British forces in North Africa and ultimately ensured the defeat of the out-numbered Axis forces in the autumn of 1942.
Mounting aircraft losses during 1941 and 1942 were not met by increased aircraft production, and Germany eventually took over the brunt of the aerial war in North Africa, the Italian Air Force concentrating on reconnaissance and supply duties as well as the defence of the homeland from the increasing attacks of Allied bomber forces.
The collapse of the Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943 and the massive build-up of Allied aircraft put the Italian Air Force on the defensive. Despite valiant efforts the Air Force was unable to stem the tide of Allied material supremacy. On 8 September, with the signing of the armistice, the Regia Aeronautica was no more.
The Italian Air Force had begun the war with nearly 2,000 operational aircraft ready for combat and with almost the same number in reserve. By the September of 1943 the Air Force numbered 1,200 aircraft of which about half were serviceable.
The basic tactical unit was the squadron (squadriglia) which had a strength of around nine aircraft with another three in reserve, although bomber squadrons usually had only six front-line planes.
Two or three squadrons formed an air group (gruppo) and two or more groups would form a wing or stormo, the basic tactical formation within the Air Force. Two or three wings would on occasion combine to form an air brigade which in turn with another brigade would form an air division. The largest formation in the Air Force was the air fleet which consisted of two or more homogeneous fighter or bomber air divisions.
The heavy losses incurred by the British offensive in January-February 1941 entailed a full-scale reinforcement of the Italian Air Force in North Africa.
Italian air strength in North Africa reached its peak in October 1942 with the following operational groups:
- 7 groups (approx. 210 planes) of Macchi MC202 fighters;
- 5 groups (approx. 150 planes) of Fiat CR42 fighter-bombers;
- 1 group (approx. 20-30 planes) of Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers;
- 1 group (approx. 20 planes) of Z1007 bombers;
- 2 groups (approx. 40 planes) of SM79 bombers;
|Fighters||Fighter-Bombers and Dive-Bombers||Bombers|
The shortage of spare parts and aviation fuel severely reduced the efficiency of the Italian Air Force in North Africa which by early 1942 had, in effect, become sub-ordinate to the Luftwaffe.
Units of Italian aircraft remained also in Greece until 1943 with the responsibility of attacking Allied shipping in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
Although there had been occasional bombing raids on Italy by RAF Bomber Command, it was only in 1942, with the development of the successful long-range four-engined bomber, that the industrial centres of northern Italy came under any sustained attack from aircraft based in England. Three groups of night-fighters were formed and a number of radar-equipped Me 110 and Do 217J aircraft were supplied from Germany but without a proper ground control system, an effective defence proved impossible. Fortunately for Italy, the main brunt of the Allied strategic air offensive was directed against Germany.