By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In Italy one wears one’s politics
on one’s sleeve, quite literally. Shirt
color denotes political affiliation, and in
1919 Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement
organized “squadristi” of former
soldiers-turned-street thugs and clad them
in black shirts. Black had become the fascist
color, and also helped initimidate opponents
in the street fighting that marked fascist
political activity. During the Great War,
Italian “Arditi” storm troopers
had worn black, and Mussolini, an Ardito himself,
wanted to attract combat veterans and those
who admired them. Mussolini’s 1922 “March
on Rome” included 20,000 blackshirts,
and when he took power the next year the organization
became the “Volunteer Militia for National
Security,” or MVSN, more commonly called
the Blackshirts or CCNN (from “Camicia
Nere,” or “black shirt”).
Blackshirt units fought in all of Mussolini’s
wars, in Spain, Ethiopia and Albania, and
in all of the major Italian campaigns of World
War II. They appear in Panzer Grenadier: Conquest of Ethiopia, invading alongside the Royal Army. But they are not particularly good
While Mussolini hoped the Blackshirts would
become an elite force and constantly demanded
that they be treated as such, their combat
record was usually poor. The Royal Army resented
the CCNN, although a Blackshirt could not
be enrolled in the militia until after he
had completed his 18-month army obligation.
Italian troops practice for the invasion
of Malta; Sicily, 1942.
Though sometimes compared to Hitler’s
Waffen SS, the MVSN had more in common with
the German Brownshirts, the Nazi Party’s
street-fighting thugs. But where the Nazis
attempted to replace class consciousness with
a virulently racist nationalism, the MVSN
recruited from the urban working class.
The Italian movement attracted relatively
few of the upper or educated classes who formed
the Royal Army’s officer corps, and
consequently was desperately short of professional
officers and NCOs. Most Blackshirt officers
came from the University Militia, an MVSN
organization responsible for pre-military
training. Many CCNN formations were led by
party activists, often with no formal military
leadership training. Mussolini himself took
on only the formal role of “Honorary
Corporal” though none doubted who truly
called the shots and he was usually referred
to as “Commandant-General.”
The formations themselves used Roman nomenclature,
with the “legion” (about the size
of a weak Army regiment) as the basic unit.
The 133 legions each had two cohorts, or battalions,
one of men aged 21 to 36 and the other of
older men. But these were for local security
and political intimidation; when the Blackshirts
went to war, new legions and cohorts formed.
Six divisions of CCNN troops served in Ethiopia,
and three in the Spanish Civil War. They compiled
a better record in Spain than in Africa, but
did not perform as well as Army formations.
When Italy declared war in June 1940, the
MVSN claimed to have 340,000 troops and organized
three CCNN divisions, all of them stationed
in Africa. Each Army division was also assigned
a CCNN “Gruppo di Assalto” of
two cohorts, usually listed on Army tables
of organization as a single battalion and
Party lists as two. CCNN units were short
of heavy support weapons, for example often
having heavy machine guns and 81mm mortars
only at the cohort or legion level if at all.
three CCNN divisions did poorly in combat,
and by early 1941 all of them had been destroyed.
The CCNN combat group “Diamanti”
fought poorly in Greece, as did Combat Group
“Biscaccianti” in Yugoslavia.
But most CCNN units went to war under Army
During the 1930s, the Royal Army had abolished
its divisional structures and used the two-regiment
brigade as its largest combat formation. This
would, advocates claimed, make the Army far
more flexible and able to respond quickly
to crises. But the division remained the international
standard for measuring an army’s strength,
and so at Mussolini’s urging the brigades
were re-named divisions, with little change
to their organization.
Fascist ideology preached the melding of
business and state interests, and the Italian
Army would not be the last to suffer for the
arrogance of grossly incompetent corporate
warriors gifted with high command. The brigade-sized
divisions proved to lack staying power, and
Army generals wanted a third regiment added
to the divisions. Mussolini directed that
the CCNN gruppo become this third regiment,
giving the division an elite assault group
to spearhead attacks. Not all Army divisions
received the CCNN regiment; most that served
in North Africa for example remained at two-regiment
strength and instead were provided with additional
allotments of automatic weapons and a more
By the summer of 1942, 41 divisions had incorporated
a “Blackshirt regiment.” Supposedly
the same size as an Army regiment, the legions
were usually greatly understrength and continued
to suffer from shortages of support weapons.
The Army also refused to attach its own officers
to them, exacerbating the leadership crisis.
MVSN activists accused Army generals, probably
justifiably, of failing to provide adequate
logistical and artillery support to the CCNN
Though recruited by the Fascist Party and
overseen by its activists, when Italy changed
sides in 1943 a surprising number of Blackshirts
serving in Army divisions that fought for
the Allies changed into Army gray-green and
fought in the Co-Belligerent forces. By far
the majority of CCNN troops served Mussolini’s
“Italian Socialist Republic” or
RSI in its “Black Brigades.”
Most Blackshirts were infantrymen, but CCNN
engineer and artillery units supported the
CCNN divisions. Anti-aircraft and coast defense
guns were also manned by Blackshirts in some
areas, usually older members not fit for front-line
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.