While much undo prejudice is expressed against the effectiveness of the Italian soldier, they were, in fact, competent and courageous fighters, and were involved in a number of important and some not so important actions in the war.
The Battle of Britain:
While their participation in the first major attack on Great Britain by the Axis is seldom mentioned, they did in fact participate to the tune of more than 200 aircraft including medium bombers. Their effectiveness was hampered due to the age of their machines, which were limited to a bomb payload of just 1,500 pounds, which may sound like a lot but is actually quite small compared to the German bombers involved in the action. Add to that the fact that an inability to deal with Allied radar forced the Italian squadrons to make night flights only, they were not as much help as the could have been.
However, they still managed to deploy more than 50 tons of bombs over England, despite losing more than ¼ of their planes and nearly 900 airmen.
Due to their earlier presence in Ethiopia, working the African theater was considered a good match for the Italian military, especially as Germany was preparing their own offensive into the region called Operation Sealion.
Unfortunately, the Germans abandoned this operation and instead ordered the Italian forces to attack British troops along the Egypt/Ethiopia border. Despite the fact that the Italian forces outnumbered the British, the superior mobility and weaponry of the British troops fairly routed the Italians, bringing Mussolini’s army in Africa to the point of ruin.
At about this time, General Rommel entered the fray on behalf of the Axis, and took command of the Italian troops, equipping them for the first time with effective, modern weaponry. With their new arms and advanced training also supplied by Rommel, the Italians were able to function at a much higher level and became an effective fighting force.
The Eastern Front:
Action in this theater is often considered one of the key factors leading to Germany’s ultimate defeat, and mistakes made with the Italian military were certainly contributors.
Originally, Germany planned to send the crack Italian Alpini Corps, well versed in mountain warfare, to do battle in the Caucasus Front. Instead, it was decided to send in the Italian 8th army, which by the time it was deployed on the Don front, was spread so thin as to be virtually useless.
Effective Italian War Machines:
While it is often said in a condescending way that Italy did not contribute much to the Axis, they did have several weapons systems that were a credible threat:
At the time of the war, Italy had 117 operational submarines, making it one of the largest submarine fleets in the world. And unlike its other armaments, 110 of these craft were at or near state of the art. This fleet was used effectively in the Mediterranean, Black and Red seas, and were even deployed in the Atlantic. Their success ratio was comparable to that of the German U-boat Fleet.
While many authorities have negative things to say about the state of the out of date Italian Air Force, they were effective in many battle conditions. Their planes were very maneuverable and their pilots quite expert and daring. And while they did not fare well with the faster Allied machines in air to air combat, they were quite effective against ground and sea targets.
One of Italy’s strengths in the war was its naval power. At the time, Italy had one of the largest Navy’s afloat, and while many of the weapons and technologies that they carried were somewhat out of date, they could cover a lot of area. One force in particular, the Italian 10th Light Flotilla (or the Decima Flottiglia MAS) was particularly devastating. They were responsible for sinking or disabling 28 ships during the conflict, including to major British battleships.