Seven Reasons Why the Italian Forces Performed So Poorly During World War II

Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images

When it comes to the Second World War, France is often made the butt of the joke for its surrender to Germany in 1940. However, the country certainly wasn’t the only one to underperform during the conflict. While Italy didn’t surrender to the Allies until September 1943, it was another European power that failed to meets expectations.

Why did Italy perform so poorly during the war? While the answer is rather complicated, there are seven factors that played a role, prompting the country’s subsequent need to surrender.

The Italians had outdated and minimal weaponry

The main problem the Italian Army had when it came to weaponry was that its troops were still using equipment that dated back to the First World War. In theory, this was fine, as other countries were also using older weapons at the beginning of the conflict, but, in practice, it put them behind most.

Most nations had either made improvements to their older weapons or scrapped them altogether soon after the fighting began. In contrast, Italy had no aircraft carriers, frequently used biplanes to fill the ranks of its Air Force and stuck its Army with tanks that simply couldn’t compete with the newer, more heavily-armored ones deployed by the Allies.

Rows of Fiat CR.32 biplanes parked on grass
Fiat CR.32 fighters flown by the Italian Regia Aeronautica at Turin Caselle Airbase in Turin, Italy, September 1939. (Photo Credit: FPG / Hulton Archive / Getty Images).

When Italy first entered the war, its forces used horse-drawn artillery and rifles that predated World War I. While other countries had worked to develop improved heavy tanks, the Italians hadn’t and relied solely on light and medium tanks. As well, not only was the country’s equipment outdated, there also wasn’t enough to effectively compete with the Allied forces.

Italian industry wasn’t prepared for war

Even if Italy had wanted to mass produce new weapons, its industry simply wouldn’t have been able to. Before World War II began, Under Secretary for War Production Carlo Favagrossa estimated the country’s military wouldn’t be able to engage in operations until October 1942.

Factory workers standing around the body of a FIAT car
FIAT car being assembled in a factory in Italy, 1940s. (Photo Credit: Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images)

This concern was acknowledged when Italy and Germany signed the Pact of Steel in May 1939, under which both agreed neither would go to war before 1943. This, evidently, was not upheld. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Italy was still over three years away from being in a place where it could effectively fight.

Nevertheless, the nation joined the fight one year later, shortly before the fall of France. Later, Italian industry was unable to meet production demands, as the Allies had heavily bombed northern factories during raids and raw materials were difficult to access.

The Italian Army was made up of poorly-trained troops

As common as it is to see the Italian forces portrayed as inept during the Second World War, there is a ring of truth to that belief. Prior to the war, the Italian military had already been weakened by its involvement in conflicts with Ethiopia, Spain and Albania. There wasn’t enough money to properly train additional troops, causing many to learn while actively fighting on the frontlines.

Rows of Italian Blackshirts standing in formation
Italian Blackshirts – the Fascist paramilitary squad – in formation. (Photo Credit:  European / FPG / Getty Images)

Although Italian law dictated new recruits with the Royal Italian Army be trained for 18 months prior to combat, it was common for them to receive significantly less than that. Prime Minister Benito Mussolini commanded an impressive number of soldiers, roughly 200,000, but between their poor training and outdated equipment, they weren’t as effective as one would expect.

The majority of soldiers were unprepared for battle

The Italian forces were severely underprepared for battle. Officials were sure the conflict would come to a close shortly after France surrendered and, as such, the country’s military was poorly equipped for drawn-out offensives. However, it soon became obvious this wasn’t the case. This became most evident when Mussolini ordered troops into a poorly-fought conflict with Greece.

Italian soldiers lined up in front of a row of guns
Italian soldiers line up along the Yugoslavian border for an inspection by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, November 1940. (Photo Credit: New York Times Co. / Getty Images)

Greece was supposed to be a relatively easy conquest, but the Italians were met with difficult terrain and were without enough clothing or equipment, resulting in a high number of casualties. These factors also impacted morale, which is often considered to be another factor behind Italy’s loss to the Greek forces.

Ineffective supply lines

Outside of Greece, Italian troops were sent to fight in North and East Africa. One of the main issues they faced were ineffective supply lines. In order to reach troops, supplies had to be shipped across the Mediterranean, which was just another battle ground for the Allied and Axis powers.

British infantrymen walking along a damaged railroad
British infantrymen walking along a railroad destroyed by the Germans in Italy, March 1944. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images)

There were large numbers of British naval ships patroling the Mediterranean, with many based at strategic harbors in Gibraltar and Malta. This made it difficult for the Italians to get their supplies through to Africa. They weren’t the only ones, however, to face such issues. The German forces also struggled with adequate supply lines during this time.

Bad military leadership

As a leader, Mussolini’s methods for military management were heavily flawed. He would promote his officers based solely on their dedication to Fascism, rather than any real skill, and would actively discourage them from questioning him or providing unsolicited advice. This led to the Italian Army being led by individuals who weren’t necessarily the best fit for the job.

Benito Mussolini riding a horse
Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini riding a horse on the grounds of his Rome villa, 1930. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Mussolini’s leadership was so poor throughout the war that he was voted out of power on July 25, 1943. One of the reasons for this was the heavy military losses the country had suffered; his leadership had brought them on the verge of military disaster.

Italy was in severe debt

While Italy struggled with a number of issues throughout the Second World War, the country’s financial position was arguably one of the most impactful. The aforementioned conflicts in Ethiopia, Spain and Albania had not only weakened Italy’s fighting force, but also had a drastic impact on the country’s financial capabilities.

Italian troops surrounded by a large group of civilians
Citizens welcoming troops along Via Rizzoli, following the liberation of Bologna, April 1945. (Photo Credit: Authenticated News / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

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To fund their involvement in these earlier conflicts, Italy had raised money from citizens. With the Second World War beginning only a few years after the conclusion of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, the country had no money left. Without the appropriate funds, there wasn’t enough for large-scale industrial improvements, let alone the manufacturing of new weapons or the training of soldiers.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.