Italy’s Entrance into the Axis

Many factors in Italy’s history lead to her becoming one of the Axis powers during World War II.

Since his rise to power in 1922, Benito Mussolini consistently steered Italy to becoming a new Roman Empire, based this time on Fascist ideology. The range of this proposed empire, at least initially, was said to be ‘From the Straits of Gibraltar’, a strategic body of water connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean; to the ‘Straits of Hormuz’, an even more strategic connection between the Arabian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

As justification for this goal, Mussolini claimed that complete, unfettered and uncontested access to all the world’s oceans was vital to the country’s security. Details of his plans of that period also indicated a desire for control over other parts of Europe, including Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Dalmatia and Romania, many of which had been parts of earlier versions of the Roman Empire.

Colonial Expansion:

As many other European Countries had done previously, Mussolini set sights on establishing a presence in Northern Africa using Italy’s excellent position in the bordering Mediterranean Sea as an access point. In 1935 he initiated what was then called the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. His goal was first to create an Italian outpost, but also to conscript an army to fuel further inroads into the area, including the then British controlled Sudan.

In the same year, Spain entered into a civil war as fascist leader Fransico Franco began his ultimately successful bid to take control of Spain. This success was due in no small part to the assistance of various fascist and conservative countries, including Mussolini’s Italy.

Mussolini became fully committed to this conflict, seeing it as way to rebrand Italy as a ‘Warrior Culture’ and an opportunity to put the country on a War footing. This gave the government additional influence and control over the industry, agriculture and policies of Italy.

During this period, once cold relations with Germany began to thaw, and the two nations entered into a mutual interest treaty which Mussolini felt had established a ‘Berlin-Rome’ Axis’. This power block was a major factor in European politics and policy from that time on, due in large part to Europe’s dependence on German coal.

Other Issues of Readiness

While Germany, on paper at least, recognized Italy as a valued ally in the conflicts leading up to the war, in reality, the country was not yet ready to engage in a conflict of this magnitude.

The Royal Italian Army, while well trained and competent, was neither as large as Italy claimed nor as well equipped. When Italian troops engaged in their first battles in the war, they did so with substandard tanks, World War I era artillery, and an air force based onbiplanes. And while these forces fared well against equally obsolete weaponry and tactics in Northern Africa, they would prove to be less of a threat as a German ally.

The Italian soldier, it is to be noted, should not share the blame for the ineffectiveness of Mussolini’s military forces. They were, as a rule, courageous and committed fighters, willing to do what it takes to take and objective. In fact, many of Mussolini’s soldiers who were under persecution from their own government due to resistance to the Nazi agenda, formed their own army to fight on the side of the allies.

At the time of their entrance into the war, the Italian economy was in a trouble. The conflicts in Spain and Ethiopia, which had cost the country the equivalent of nearly $9 Billion, had depleted both manpower and financial resources. The Italian debt profile was rapidly reaching the danger point, and the value of the Lira was dropping worldwide.

The Italian Industrial complex was not doing any better. Resources such as petroleum were short as were workers for the factory, who were now part of the growing Italian Military.

Exports were down in part due to concern by other countries over Italy’s Fascist policies, and the aggressive attitude expressed by Mussolini against France and Britain, two of Italy’s biggest customers.

Why did Italy join the Axis?

This is a question pondered by many historians. Some think that by becoming an ally, Italy hoped to avoid invasion. Others feel that they saw this as an opportunity to gain some of the strategic outposts that Mussolini felt were so important for Italy’s future.

But most agree that it was primarily a matter of pride.

One Nation, Two Sides

The Royal Italian Army, or Co-Belligerent Army, was known by several names during the the latter third of World War II, when Italy fought on the side of the Allies. A counterpoint to the Italian Social Republic, the Royal Italian Army was united under the banner of the Italian King in Exile, Victor Emmanuel III. With only 20,000 soldiers to contribute, it was outnumbered by Italian partisans by about four to one. Much of their critical shortage of manpower stemmed from the loss of leadership in Italy when the King fled the country, which occurred with bad timing; more than seven hundred thousand soldiers were apprehended by Germans on their invasion of Italy largely because the Italian military was not given clear orders as to neutrality with their former allies or armed resistance.

The Royal Italian Army was formed around a core of soldiers who escaped the mass internment of much of the Italian Army by the Germans. Though small, the Corpo Italiano di Liberazione (Italian Liberation Corps) made a good showing on the Gustav Line, despite taking many losses in the process.

Rearming and Gearing to Fight

The Royal Italian Army was pulled back from the front lines to retrain, refit, and recuperate. Most of their kit was British in make an appearance, including their uniforms. By the beginning of 1945 the army had swelled to the point that it was divided into six individual combat groups. Each one was functionally equivalent to a shorthanded division, complete with artillery, armor, support weapons, and a core force of around eight and a half thousand non-officers. In addition to the combat groups, the Co-belligerent Army also had eight auxiliary divisions intended for second line and support duties.

The Royal Italian Army served in both Operation Olive and Operation Grapeshot spanning from mid to late 1944 all the way through April of 1945. Serving mostly to secure the lines and patrol flanks, they were not heavily distinguished in any battles as the momentum of the war had already shifted. By the time they were fully armed and equipped the fighting was all but finished, and Italy liberated from their former allies Germany.


Because of the Armistice in 1943, Italy gained an unwarranted and undeserved reputation for cowardice that was portrayed frequently in sitcoms based around the era. More than a few shows (such as Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, and Rat Patrol) characterized the Italian military with blatantly offensive and derogatory stereotypes.

A more fair assessment of the Italian military could be summed up with the Division Folgore’s sacrifice in El Alamein, where of the original five thousand less than three hundred Italian soldiers and officers survived, almost all wounded, who even then only stopped fighting because they ran out of bullets and grenades. Largely, Italy was seriously damaged and unprepared for the scale of fighting that World War II would inflict. This, coupled with most of their involvement post 1943 being preoccupied with freeing their beleaguered homeland, is significant reason why they did not gain more notoriety in the conflict.

Italian Socialist Republic Navy

The army and air force of the Italian Military largely fell impotent when left without orders by the fleeing King of Italy in 1943. The navy was another matter entirely. The Italian Navy at the time connsisted of 206 vessels, including some very powerful vessels such as the battleships Roma and Littorio. The sheer might of the Italian navy was never more evident than by the fact that they significantly outnumbered the Allied forces assembled at Malta to accept their surrender, even after losses taken from ships scuttled, sabotaged, or sunk in the departure attempt to escape German forces.

This weight of numbers, had they been commandeered and leveraged to further prosecute the war in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, could have significantly impacted or even completely altered the outcome of the war. Indeed, the number of ships that were diverted to other tasks rather than complete the journey to Malta exceeded the number of hulls in the task force. A few submarines were in the south pacific delivering rare goods when the call to surrender came out, but of the four berthed there only one successfully surrendered to Royal Navy forces; the other three were captured and detained by the Japanese.

Members, of an Afghan-international security force pull security on a compound in Waliuddin Bak district, of Khowst province, Afghanistan, Apr. 8, 2010. During the search, the security force captured a Haqqani facilitator, responsible for specialized improvised explosive device support and technical expertise for various militant networks. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Mark Salazar/Released)

Force Disposition

The fate of the ships so surrendered was mixed. A few were handed over to the Soviet Union as war reparations, while many of the smaller vessels were deployed for patrol, escort, and picket duties to great effect in the Adriatic and the Gulf of Genoa. The capital vessels were mostly left in harbours, defanged and unfueled, as a measure to prevent them from being used or captured in any significant capacity, as after the surrender their crews’ loyalties were very much in doubt. Italy didn’t declare war on Japan until mid 1945, and by the time the Allies were becoming ready to accept the major ships and their crews in their fighting forces, the war itself was already a foregone conclusion, and drawing to a close.


Loyalties were not the only complications to bringing the larger vessels of the Italian navy into the war; Italy’s ships did not carry radar, which had proven itself a vital technology at the time. Furthermore, Italian vessels were ill equipped, both by training and fuel reserves, for the long ocean voyages that would have been needed to bring them into the only major sea battles left in the war: the conflict in the Pacific. Coupled with language difficulties, it was deemed that the Italian vessels were best suited to second line duties and performance.

The Italian navy especially was left with sense of both disappointment and impotence. Their participation in either side of the conflict was far less than it could have been. Paralyzed by the politics of the homefront, a string of defeats preceding surrender, then to watch as their navy was relegated to second line or anchorage for the remainder of the war, the Italian navy did not recover for many years.