I have always thought that the Italians got a bad rap in World War II. When I was a kid, I heard jokes about the French and Italian armies in that time period. It was almost always about them running away from battle or immediately surrendering. No one ever joked about the Russians, Germans, or Japanese. As I got older and studied more, I realized that these stereotypes of the Italians and French were way off the mark. I'll talk about the French Army in a later blog. But for now, let's look at the Italians.
First of all, the Italian military had no shortage of courageous men. They had some very good elite units like their Navy frogmen who destroyed thousands of tons of Allied shipping in WW2. Their Alpine, Bersaglieri (sharpshooter) and Parachute divisions were known for their determination and fighting spirit. (On the Russian front the Italian Eighth Army frequently asked their German allies for the toughest assignments. They got 'em, and usually carried them out with success.)
The problem with the Italian military was that they were poorly equipped and sometimes poorly led. Their infantry had antiquated rifles and machine guns that frequently jammed. Unreliable hand grenades that would not go off. Ancient artillery. And tanks that were under-powered, under-armored, and under-armed. They did have some good equipment such as the Sahariana combat desert car and the Macchi 205 (a fighter plane that was equal to anything the Americans or British could put in the air), but the industrial output of Italy just could not keep up with the other nations. Nevertheless, certain Italian units acquitted themselves quite well against vastly superior forces.
The picture changed dramatically on September 8, 1943, however. On that day Italy surrendered to the Allied forces. As German troops rapidly tried to scoop up Italian soldiers and imprison them, or scuttle Italian warships, many Italians went over to the Allies. The Italians had simply given up on Mussolini, fascism, and the stupid war that their government had dragged them into. By late 1943 these Italian soldiers who now were fighting the Nazis were called the "Italian Co-Belligerent Army. It began with only 20,000 soldiers. The 1st Motorized Combat Group was formed with about 6,000 and sent into battle against the Nazis at the battles of Monte Cassino and Monte Lungo. They showed great skill and courage in battle against their former allies. Later these warriors were transferred to help out the Polish II Corps on the leff of the British 8th Army in Italy.
By April 17, 1944 the force was called the "Italian Liberation Corps." It consisted of two new divisions, and in the early part of the year they were attacking the Germans on the Gustav Line. Italians were flocking to join this new army or the numerous partisan groups for the liberation of their homeland. By 1945 the Italian military had six "Combat Groups" numbering some 54,000 men. These soldiers, outfitted in British uniforms and using British and American tanks, rifles, and machine guns, were a lethal force against the Germans. They were assisted by some 80,000 Italian partisans who were constantly attacking the Nazis behind the lines. The newly reconstituted Italian Army mercilessly attacked the Nazis all the way up the Appenine Mountains to the Alps until the Germans finally surrendered in May of 1945.
Don't ever believe the nonsense that the Italian soldier could not fight well. When people have a noble cause, are supplied with reliable weapons, and are well led. . .they fight just fine.