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Italy's Weak Spot
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
April 2012

Wars fought in Spain and Ethiopia during the mid-1930s gave the Italian Army more combat experience than other European powers, but also taught some mistaken lessons. What could not be mistaken from either conflict, however, were the clear indications that some of the army's weapons desperately needed replacement: small arms and artillery.

Italian rifles and pistols did see some improvement, but artillery was a much more expensive proposition and Italy simply did not have the industrial and financial resources to provide enough guns. Mussolini's "eight million bayonets" was probably not meant as a literal boast, but it came very close to describing the Royal Army.

Italy certainly had the industrial base to produce enough modern artillery to re-equip its divisions the "ramshackle empire" of Austria-Hungary managed the feat during 1915-1917, during wartime. But Fascist ideology and practice required that exports take priority, even over domestic requirements, while imports had to be strictly limited. So the high-quality raw materials that came from foreign sources were in short supply, while many of the modern artillery pieces produced in the 1930s went to foreign customers.

The Italian economy suffered greatly in the mid-1930s when Benito Mussolini embarked on an ill-advised war of aggression against a seemingly weak and isolated state. The war proved astronomically more expensive to fight than its boosters had claimed, wrecking the state budget and plunging the government deeply into debt. The national currency's value plunged, prices of vital commodities soared, and key financial institutions outside the traditional banking system began to teeter. The government rushed in to prop them up and ease the credit crunch by swapping government bonds for their nearly worthless securities. If any of this sounds familiar, it should.

The resources for re-arming the artillery simply did not exist in such an environment. And so the Italian Army depended on the same weapons with which it had ended the Great War. On paper at least, each division had three battalions of 12 guns each. One battalion had 100mm howitzers built by Skoda for the Austrian Army and taken as war booty in 1919. Fine weapons when new, they had been refurbished by the Italians but remained badly outdated.


The Italian 75/27 mountain howitzer, Model 1911.

 

Another battalion had 75mm field guns, usually the 75/27 model 1911 mountain howitzer built by Ansaldo during the Great War. The third had 75/13 howitzers, another captured Skoda weapon built for the Austro-Hungarian Army. It was a very modern weapon when it reached the troops in 1918; by 1940 neither of these guns were up to current standards even with the new sights and mountings provided in the 1930s.

Even during the course of the Great War the 75mm gun was seen as too light for many tasks. Italy produced a good modern 75mm mountain howitzer and the excellent 75/32 field piece, but not in numbers anywhere close to what would have been required to replace all the old weapons. But other armies had already moved well past the 75mm gun: the Germans equipped their "light" battalions with 105mm guns, as did the Americans, and gave their medium battalions 150mm weapons (155mm for the U.S.).

Italian gunners adopted captured British 25-pounders when they could, but could provide no stocks of ammunition beyond those taken from the enemy (though these were substantial after the fall of Tobruk). But they did have potential access to another captured piece with which they were familiar and for which they could provide both ammunition and maintenance infrastructure.

During the Great War, Italy acquired French-made Schneider 105mm Model 1913 howitzers, and still had these and others made by Ansaldo in active use in 1940 as the 105/28. It was still an effective weapon, though poorly made ammunition limited its potential.

Several hundred Schneider-made examples fell into German hands between 1939 and 1940 Belgian, Polish and Yugoslav guns as well as French weapons. They also took huge stockpiles of ammunition for them after all, the French were prepared to fight (and win) a repeat of the First World War. The Germans used the French guns to arm their Atlantic Wall fortifications, often in fixed positions.


The excellent Italian 75/32 cannon, available only in small numbers.

 

The Schneider gun was bigger and heavier than the German Rheinmetall weapon that was the backbone of the Wehrmacht's artillery. It slightly out-ranged the German piece and had a higher muzzle velocity leading to quicker wear; the elevation for the two pieces was very similar but the German 105mm had much greater traverse and was far easier to handle. But given the 20-year age differential, the Schneider gun certainly did not lag too terribly far behind the German weapon and was immeasurably preferable to the 75mm flyweight pieces on which Italian gunners relied.

Could the Italian Army have gotten hold of this stockpile of weapons? In a rational world, very easily but neither Fascism nor National Socialism are rational ideologies. To purchase several hundred surplus artillery pieces from the Germans would have meant cutting the Ansaldo combine out of potential profits, and that would not be tolerated. Ansaldo had already been undercut by an influx of captured Austrian artillery in 1919 and would not have stood easily for a repeat performance. The fact that Ansaldo could not even fulfill the contracts it had, or that the purchase might significantly increase Italy's chances of winning the war, mattered little. Nations lose wars, corporations do not. But there's no evidence that the Italian Army ever tried to obtain the weapons, or that the Germans offered to sell them.


An Italian 105/20 in action in Libya. Note that every gunner has a different uniform.

 

But gamers have, for more than five decades, persisted in asking "What if?" questions about the Axis powers that attempt to impose rational thought on the inherently irrational. And there's nothing that binds Daily Content to the harsh mistress that is reality. So we can look at Italy's missed opportunity to instantly upgrade her artillery to world standards by acquiring captured French artillery pieces.

In Alamein Italian artillery isn't actually that bad, but a quick glance is misleading. The Italian artillery battalions in this game are like the artillery of all three armies equipped with an array of guns and vehicles with little resemblance to their official tables of organization and equipment. The Italian batteries at Alamein included Italian 65mm, 75mm and 105mm guns, German 105mm guns and British 25-pounder and 18-pounder guns the same array of weapons to be found in German and Commonwealth units. Even uniforms and assorted kit items had taken on a generic quality between the three armies. And so the Italian artillery units are only slightly weaker than their German and Commonwealth counterparts.


 

However, in Island of Death Italian artillery is tragically weak. To study the effect of better weapons, replace the battalions from the 4th and 20th Infantry Divisions with the new upgraded pieces. Glider artillery remains the same. The new battalions draw Type 2 ammunition: when the Axis player determines how much artillery ammunition is landed on the island, he or she must divide it between Type 1 and Type 2. Three Type 1 salvos may be replaced by two Type 2 salvos. Thus, if 12 salvos are landed, the Axis player could choose to bring in six of Type 1 and four of Type 2.

You can download the new artillery battalions here.