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Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts

by Ian W. Walker

Published by Crowood Press, hard cover, 6.25 x 9.5-inches, 208 pages, 40 B&W photos, 25 maps, four tables, five line drawings, appendices, bibliography and index. ISBN 1-86126-646-4. Price: $29.95 USD.

This book’s author has set quite a task for himself. In all of the familiar literature regarding World War Two, no nation’s military forces have received the amount denigration than that of Italy. The Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito), in particular, was always depicted as bereft of morale, proper leadership and modern equipment. But no one ever attempted to study the reasons behind these shortcomings, until now.

In short, Mr. Walker has made an excellent attempt not only to present detailed analysis of the reasons behind these shortcomings, but also a cogent argument showing how, at times, Italian troops did indeed perform as well as any other troops in a given situation. To express such a contrary argument is indeed a tall order, since there are lots of ingrained notions that the author must put to rest, before anyone will deign to hear him.

Starting in logical sequence, the author discusses how the lack of vital raw materials and industrial capacity needed to design and produce large numbers of modern AFVs, hamstrung the Italian’s ability to prosecute a modern, mechanized war. In short, Italy had a smaller population, had far less coal, crude oil, iron and steel than the United Kingdom, which resulted in the production of a mere fraction of the AFVs (and support vehicles) needed to outfit a modern mobile army. The author then relates how Mussolini’s foolish delusions of grandeur, and his penchant for involving his nation on a series of colonial and political wars, accompanied by a decision to have large numbers of foot-mobile Infantry Divisions (for the sake of prestige), added up to one thing. Italy was never ready to fight a modern war.

The author then describes the gestation of Italian tanks from the post-1918 Fiat tanks (derived from the French Renault FT-17), through the abysmal CV-33/L-3 series up through the M-series (M-11/39, M-13/40 and M-14/41) as well as the Semovente da 75/18. Some mention is made of the L-6 series, its derivative Semovente da 47/32 and the P-40. But the emphases here is on the tanks that actually saw combat with the three armored divisions in North Africa. Along with this, the personalities, the concepts, the formation, the organization and the training that eventually resulted in the creation of Italy’s armored divisions are also studied.

As a result, Italy eventually deployed three armored divisions alongside Rommel’s legendary Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK), namely “Ariete”, “Littorio” and “Centauro”. And, in spite of every conceivable misfortune imaginable, these divisions actually managed to do some good work in the see-saw battles that made up the campaign in North Africa. However, in spite of that, they were still laughed at by the Allies and sneered at by their own German allies.

The campaigns that the three armored divisions participated in are described, but only from the Italian perspective. Thus we see that the division’s personnel did in fact score a few notable successes and that the tank crews fought quite bravely, often with the full knowledge that their vehicles were distinctly inferior. This became especially evident when they confronted US-supplied M3 and M4 medium tanks (as well as the newly introduced British 6-pdr. anti-tank gun), where only the Semovente da 75/18 had any reasonable chance of success. However there were precious few of those available, so the M-13 and M-14 tanks were fed into the slaughter, simply because that’s all the Italians had. One must also understand that in fighting power, Italian Armored Divisions more closely resembled a British Armoured Brigade (or a US Army Combat Command). The Italians also had very few radios for their tanks, which made coordination extremely problematic. And, not surprisingly, the Italians were chronically under-strength. But, there was good news. In places like Mechili, Italian armor advanced a fair distance in secrecy and played a role in the defeat of the 4th Indian Mechanized Brigade. At Bir el Gubi, they trounced the 22nd Armoured Brigade. At the gates of Tobruk they nearly completely destroyed 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, while during the extended action at “The Cauldron” (AKA “Knightsbridge) they were a vital ingredient in thwarting British designs.

The author chose a fine selection of photos that depict various M-series tanks, Semovente assault guns, artillery and wheeled support vehicles. Most of the photos of tanks have been seen elsewhere, but there are enough new ones to keep things interesting. There are a few very interesting photographs of Italian truck-mounted artillery, including the very effective 90mm anti-aircraft gun. There is another photo depicting Italian-manned 8.8cm Flak guns, as well as other wheeled and tracked AFVs. Captions are basic, and one photo was used twice, but overall these photos can be useful to the modeler, since some also show markings to good effect. There are profile-view line drawings depicting five of the main types of Italian AFVs: the L3/35, M11/39, M13/40, M14/41 and Semovente da 75/18. Most of the actions described are accompanied my easily understood maps, and embellished with first-person anecdotes. There is only one organization chart for a 1939 armored division and it only goes down to battalion level. I would have preferred more detail, down to company- and platoon-level, as well as actual strengths of units at a given time. To be fair, the text gives some of these details throughout, but tabulated data is easier to access.

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of literature generally available in the English language on the subject of the Italian Army in World War Two, particularly its armored divisions. So, for that reason alone, even a mediocre book would be a welcome addition to the library of the student of mechanized warfare. Thankfully, in this case the author has done such a fine job of providing a capsule history of this subject, that this may very well be my pick for “Book of the Year”, if such a contest existed.

Highly recommended.

Frank V. De Sisto

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