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Balbo's Great Adventure
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
April 2008

Believing Germany close to defeating Britain and France, Italy declared war on both of the Western democracies on 10 June 1940. The unprepared Italian army hurriedly mobilized 32 divisions for an assault on the French frontier, which opened on 21 June. "I only need a few thousand dead," Italian dictator Benito Mussolini supposedly told his Army chief of staff, "so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought." The campaign fulfilled that need, at least figuratively, as 1,247 Italian soldiers died and 2,631 were wounded in the three days before France surrendered. But it accomplished little other than to plunge Italy into a war for which it was not prepared.

Like every other military on the planet, Italy had made war plans during the tense years before World War II — but Mussolini had assured his generals and admirals that there would be no war before 1943. No plans were made for a sudden entry in 1940. Though the invasion of France is rightly portrayed as a dismal failure, for it to occur at all required Herculean efforts by Italian staff and supply officers. Without the opportunity to mobilize troops, gather food and other supplies for them, and to plan where they would go and what they would do, Italy did not have the opportunity to enter the war with a dramatic first strike.

Fortunately for the future of liberal democracy, Mussolini did not give his military the chance to enter the war on their own terms. But there was no practical reason for such an ill-omened opening to Italy's war. Mussolini met with Adolf Hitler in March on the border between Germany and Italy, and agreed to join the war on the condition that Germany's pending attack on France met with success. However, he did not direct his military chiefs to prepare for war.

Air Marshal Italo Balbo, a staunch Fascist and potential rival to Mussolini, had argued that if Italy entered the war, it should be on the side of Britain against Germany. Regardless of who Italy fought, she should enter the war with a dramatic first strike. A plan that would have met Balbo's requirements had been in the works since 1935, when tensions rose over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The Army and Navy began to draft what would become known as Operazione C.3, the invasion of Malta. In June 1940 Italian airborne and amphibious forces were only a fraction of what they would be in the summer of 1942, but then, so was the Malta garrison.

The Italian assault would be spearheaded by the San Marco Marine Regiment, which in 1940 was actually more capable than the marines assigned to the June 1942 landing. The regiment's toughest and best-trained men would be siphoned away on other missions, particularly in North Africa, one the war began and the companies that would have come ashore in 1942 would not have been as good as those of 1940.

The marines would be followed across the beaches by the 47th "Bari" Infantry Division, which apparently had undertaken very little amphibious training. By June 1942 the Italian Navy had assembled enough landing craft to bring three divisions to shore, and the three divisions selected for Operazione C.3 had trained intensively on Tuscan beaches for the mission. The Bari Division was later slated for an amphibious landing on the Greek island of Corfu, aided by the San Marco marines, but this operation was cancelled and the troops went instead to Albania where they fought the Greeks through April 1941. After a brief period refitting in Albania, they returned to Italy and saw no more action. The Bari Division performed coast defense duties in 1942, went to Rome that spring and then to Sardinia.

With a little over three months to train, Bari's infantrymen could have become familiar with landing operations though not as proficient as the three divisions slated for the 1942 operation. The number of landing craft would have been much less than in 1942, so it's unlikely that many more ground troops could have been introduced by amphibious landing.

But Italy was prepared to launch an airborne assault. Balbo had been exiled to Libya as Governor-General, and at his direction the garrison established a parachute school in 1938. By June 1940 a "national" battalion of about 300 paratroopers was ready for action and a colonial battalion of about 500 Libyan askaris and 50 Italian officers. Balbo envisioned an eventual force of two divisions, and a dramatic landing on the Suez Canal in the event of war with Britain. But after his suspicious death in late June 1940, the two battalions drew infantry assignments and both were destroyed in ground fighting in late 1940 and early 1941. About 200 men from the national battalion survived to return to Italy to help form new parachute units there.

The landing, therefore, would have been much smaller than the projected Axis attack of 1942: two battalions of marines, two of parachutists, and one infantry division. But the garrison awaiting them would likewise have been much smaller: only one brigade, as opposed to the four ready in June 1942. The Malta Brigade, as it was known, had one Maltese and four British infantry battalions. Coast defense artillery was much lighter, as was anti-aircraft artillery. The engineer companies who built the many pillboxes and other positions were present on the island, but had as yet done little work. Surprisingly, the island did have an anti-tank capability that was lacking in 1942, as the batteries were converted to heavier coast-defense pieces. This would have done the garrison little good, as the Italians were unlikely to bring tanks ashore.

As a dramatic gesture designed to force a peace treaty in quick fashion, the Balbo version of C.3 could have drawn much greater naval support than we posited in the Island of Death game. Vice Admiral Bergamini's 5th Division with three battleships and seven destroyers was slated for participation in the June 1942 attack and moved up to Messina from Taranto early that month in preparation. However, fuel shortages meant that the June 1942 plan called for one only sortie by the battleships: They would arrive off the island, silence the coast defense guns at Fort Benghaisa (hex 2214 on the Island of Death map). If the coastal guns fell silent soon enough, the battleships would shift fire to Hal Far airfield (hex 1916) before their return to base. There was not enough fuel oil to keep them on call to support the troops ashore. In June 1940 the Italian Navy had a much greater stockpile of oil on hand, and this could have been built up to a greater extent had preparations begun in March. Air support, however, would have been much less effective in June 1940, though on the Italian side of the ledger Allied air defenses were essentially non-existent.

The Balbo Variant

To try out the 1940 Plan, use the following special rules.

Formations
All Italian (including Libyan) units belong to the same formation, and may draw supply from either HQ.

Royal Navy Intervention
Ignore this rule; Marshal Balbo has achieved surprise.

Air Support
Only the Italian air support marker is available.

Airstrikes
These are reduced by half.

Timeframe
The scenario begins with the Initial Segment of 29 June, and ends at the conclusion of the 10 July night game turn or when one side surrenders (whichever comes first, see 20.0).

Allied Setup
The Allied player sets up his or her units first, in any eligible hexes he wishes. The only restrictions are that the Royal Navy Security units (purple 1-5 companies) must set up in Major Port or Minor Port hexes, and the RAF Security units (companies with 0-1-5 values) must set up in airfield hexes, one per hex. Two infantry battalions can set up broken-down or not as the Allied player wishes. The following units are the only Allied units in play:

  • Malta (British HQ)
  • 2RIF (British Infantry; 6-6)
  • 2RWK (British Infantry; 6-6)
  • 1D (British Infantry; 6-6)
  • 2D (British Infantry; 6-6)
  • 1K (Maltese Infantry; 6-6)
  • 16 (British Engineer)
  • 24 (British Engineer)
  • Tak (Royal Air Force Infantry; 0-1-5)
  • Krn (Royal Air Force Infantry; 0-1-5)
  • Luq (Royal Air Force Infantry; 0-1-5)
  • Kir (Royal Air Force Infantry; 0-1-5)
  • 2 (Royal Navy Infantry; 1-5)

Strongpoints: No strongpoints are in play.

Coastal guns: Randomly select six Maltese and three Royal Navy coastal guns. At least four coastal gun pieces of the Allied player’s choice must be set up within two hexes of hex 1810. All others may set up in any eligible hexes the Allied player wishes (16.5). Only these nine piece are set up; the rest are not used in this scenario.

Maltese militia available: Five pieces (16.3)

All hexes of Malta begin the game under Allied control.

Axis Setup
The Axis player places all the following warships on the board in the Amphibious Landing Phase of the first turn (16.7). All other Axis units enter play via airborne drops, amphibious landings and landing at airfields:

  • BB Andrea Doria
  • BB Caio Duilio
  • BB Giulio Cesare
  • DD Zeno
  • DD Vivaldi
  • DD Malocello
  • DD Pancaldo
  • DD Pigafetta
  • DD Da Noli
  • DD Di Varrazano

Axis Pieces Available for Airborne Drop
Place all the units, leaders and markers below in the Breakdown Box before play begins:

Tonini Drop Zone Marker, Tonini (Leader), Ton (HQ), Calas (Parachute; 4-5-6), Ton (Libyan Parachute; 6-7-6)

Axis Pieces Available for Amphibious Landings
Before play begins the Axis player chooses the beach zones where the pieces below will land per rule 18.21. He places them in the Follow Up boxes connected to their target beach zones in the Initial Segment of the first day. They may then land on any turns desired per rule 18.3.

47th (Bari) Infantry Division: 47 (HQ), 1/139 (Infantry; 3-4-6), 2/139 (Infantry; 3-4-6), 3/139 (Infantry; 3-4-6), 1/140 (Infantry; 3-4-6), 2/140 (Infantry; 3-4-6), 3/140 (Infantry; 3-4-6), 152 (Blackshirt Infantry; 4-5-6), 2 x 47 (Engineer), 2 x 47 (Engineer), 1, 2 and 3 (Artillery, 47th Division).

Marines
1/Baf (Italian Marine), 2/Baf (Italian Marine), 3/Baf (Italian Marine), 4/Baf (Italian Marine), 1/Gra (Italian Marine), 2/Gra (Italian Marine), 3/Gra (Italian Marine), 4/Gra (Italian Marine)

Victory Conditions.
See rule 20.0.

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