Italian Army North Africa  During World War ll

During World War ll. I was a school boy American born of Italian immigrant parents. I can still recall the Saturday matinee and the newsreel coverage of that war. Specifically I vividly remember the manner in which the Italian soldier was portrayed. Scenes from North Africa, of thousands of Italian soldiers surrendering to a handful of British tanks. This newsreel bias implied that Italian soldiers would rather surrender to the enemy than fight. This seems to be the impression left with many in American society today.

As late as 1940, the whole of the Italian army had two more modern tanks. They were used only in maneuvers and were transported by truck to each location. Two hundred thousand Italian soldiers were sent by Mussolini to the deserts of North Africa, with trucks and some tanks which were coming off Italian factory production lines. The Italians soldiers and tanks (listed to below) were not doing well against British general Wavell's tanks and soldiers. Early in 1941 in an effort to rescue the faltering Italians, Hitler sends General Rommel with German Panzer 3 tanks and soldiers to engage in the fight. On March 31 of 1941, Rommel began an offensive from El Agheila in Cyrenaica which would over the next 18 months drive the British beyond Alexandria in Egypt. By this time later in 1942, Hitler was too busy in Russia to be concerned about the North African campaign. He ignored Rommel’s request for more tanks and other mechanized equipment. Meanwhile the British received reinforcements for their eighth Army with many hundreds of new American tanks and airplanes. Then on November 4 of 1942, British general Montgomery started a large offensive at El Alamein; with overwhelming number of American tanks and planes. On November 7 the American army was landing in Morocco and Algeria and very soon would be commanded by the American general George S. Patton. Rommel aware of these current developments and seeing defeat close at hand notified the Fuhrer of his predicament. In William L. Shirer’s book, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,”[1] he writes of the war in North Africa in 1942 as follows: "Bad news reached the Fuehrer from another front. Field Marshal Rommel's Afrika Korps was in serious difficulty. At long last the British army in Egypt had received strong reinforcements. When it launched a major offensive late that October Rommel was in Austria on sick leave. By the time he got back to his army, the battle was already lost. The British had too many guns, tanks and planes, and though Rommel made desperate efforts to shift his battered divisions to stem the various attacks, he realized that his situation was hopeless. He had begun to withdraw when a message came from the supreme warlord: (Hitler) "There can be no other consideration save that of holding fast, of not retreating one step, of throwing every gun and every man into the battle. You can show your troops no other way than that which leads to victory or death. “This idiotic order meant, if obeyed by Rommel, that the Italo-German armies were condemned to annihilation. After a struggle with his conscience, Rommel reluctantly gave the order to halt the withdrawal. But two days later, at the risk of being court-martialed, he decided to save what was left of his forces and retreat. Only the remnants of the armored and motorized units could be extricated. The foot soldiers, mostly Italian, were left behind to surrender. Within 15 days Rommel had fallen back 700 miles to beyond Benghazi."

The few trucks and tanks that were left by Rommel with the surrendering German and Italian foot soldiers, were not in running condition. Rommel, by his action, saved thousands of German foot soldiers, and some two hundred thousand Italian soldiers lives. Left with no armored units, and virtually no food or water, the German and Italian soldiers had two choices, either to fight the British tanks with rifles and die under their guns, or to surrender. The odds were stacked against them. They made the wise choice and surrendered. During that period there was much said in news broadcasts, here at home about the surrender of Italian soldiers. The movie news reels showed pictures of some German soldiers and many thousands of Italian soldiers surrendering to a handful of British tanks. The news footage over the years has left a lasting impression that the Italians were afraid to fight. I wasn't pro-Nazi during World War Two, however these were Italian soldiers. My cousins and many hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants’ sons were fighting for America. I did not believe that they would run from a fight, and we know they didn’t.  
On the southern flank of Montgomery's army's things were not going well at all. Italian Paratroopers were causing havoc. This allowed Rommel  an orderly rereat west with his forces.

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One author illustrates and writes of the Italian tank being sent to North Africa in 1940 as follows

M.11/39
Weight : 11.0 ton
Dimensions : 4.74 x 2.17 x 2.25 mt
Armor (max) : 30 mm
Range : 200 km
Speed (max - route) : 33 km/hr
Weapons : n.1 gun 37 mm + n.2 8.0 mm MG
Crew : 3

They were used as medium tanks, a task far beyond their capacity (due to their modest armor, light and narrow traverse gunnery, small road wheels and narrow tracks), during the early fighting in Libya they had no chance against the British Matilda and Valentine tanks.

Hiter and Mussolini 1940

Rommel In North Africa 1942
General Montgomery and Staff 1942

General Patton on Life cover 1940

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