By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2018

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 troops.

Italian troops practice for the invasion of Malta; Sicily, 1942.

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.

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.

The 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 command.

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 flexible organization.

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 legions.

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 service.

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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.