Sunday, March 1, 2015


Italian innovations in WWII started to be created in the 1930s, during the wars in Ethiopia and Spain. However it is noteworthy to remember that the first use of aircraft for bombing in war happened in Libya in 1911, when Italian aviators dropped the first bombs on Turkish troops.

After WWI "Beretta" has become one of the world's largest pistol makers and the model 1934 (M1934) was their most numerous product in the pre-World War II era. It was designed and purpose-built for the Italian armed forces. In the early 1930s, the Italian army was impressed by the Walther PP pistol. Beretta did not want to lose a big military contract to their German competitor and designed the M1934 for the Italian Army which accepted it in 1937. This model was followed by the M1935, which was similar to the M1934 in most respects, except that it fired a .32 ACP (7.65 mm Browning) cartridge. The Beretta pistol proved to be a complete success since the beginning of WWII and innovated the way the common soldiers went to war.

One "Maiale" (human torpedo, called even "Siluro a lenta corsa" in Italian) in action during WWII

In World War II, the Kingdom of Italy made some further innovations to warfare. Indeed the Italians were actually extremely innovative even though, to their detriment, they did not always utilize the ideas of their best and brightest. Most will no doubt be very surprised to learn just how ahead of the curve the Italians were, what feats they were able to accomplish and how much more they might have. Far too many people have simply come to accept a grossly unfair caricature of the Italian military forces that has been repeated so often as to become accepted as a matter of fact. On land, sea and air the royal Italian military was far more advanced and innovative than most people realize. During World War II, the Italians accomplished some remarkable things and, again, contrary to popular perception, had some very expert and effective commanders. For example, when it came to the Blitzkrieg tactics later made famous by the Germans, to a large extent these were first put into effect by the Italian troops under General Ettore Bastico in Spain during the Santander offensive fighting for the nationalists in the civil war. He heavily trained his troops for specific objectives, managed coordination between infantry, artillery and air units for support and emphasized the need for speed in the advance, to keep advancing, to never stop and never allow the enemy a moment to reorganize himself. The result was a great victory for the Italian forces in Spain and a crushing defeat for the Spanish republicans.

Even though, on the ground, the Italian army was a predominately infantry formation with tanks that were not designed for the type of war Italy ended up fighting, and they always lagged behind the more industrially advanced countries, they were still able to hit above their weight on several occasions by improvising. One example was the formation of a “Special Armored Brigade” in response to the stunningly effective British Operation Compass. This unit was made up of L3/35 tankettes and M11/39 tanks and M13/40 tanks of which only the M13/40’s are usually deemed to have been even close to acceptable standards of quality. Yet, along with infantry trained in anti-tank tactics they were thrown in to confront 177 very heavily armored British Matilda tanks at Mechili. In an engagement on January 25 the Italian forces took out 15 British tanks in 15 minutes, forcing the enemy to retreat. When the British attacked again, they lost another six tanks before retreating. A month before a group of very outmatched M11’s managed to destroy 35 of 57 attacking British Matilda’s. Such engagements were not enough to be decisive but it showed what even outclassed Italian units were capable of. The Semovente 75/18 tank destroyer, and its variants, proved very effective weapons but were too few to be decisive and if the P40 heavy tank had been produced in time to work the bugs out, it could have made a very big difference to the Italian war effort.

One of the many factors that hampered Italian armored effectiveness was a lack of radios and this was also a problem for most Italian aircraft. This is all the more frustrating considering that an Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, is usually credited with inventing the radio. Similarly, the Italians invented a workable radar set but, for some reason, it was never widely employed which put Italian naval units at a disadvantage.

However, one area of new technology where Italy did quite well was in submarine warfare. At the beginning of the war Italy actually had the largest submarine fleet, by tonnage, in the world and in the course of the conflict Italian submarines would sink more than half a million tons of Allied shipping. In fact, the most successful non-German submarine commander of World War II was an Italian, Captain Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia who took down 90,601 tons of Allied shipping.

The Italians also excelled at special-forces type operations using small torpedo motor-boats, demolition frogmen and human-guided torpedoes (though not of the suicide-type such as the Japanese kaiten). These units (of the "Decima Flottiglia MAS") were able to sink numerous ships, even major warships, in some of the most heavily defended Allied harbors in the world such as Gibraltar, Alexandria, Egypt and Sebastopol, Ukraine. During the naval war in general, it is often overlooked that for a considerable period of time in 1942 the Italian Royal Navy won total control over the central Mediterranean, the major opportunity for the invasion of Malta that never came.

Indeed the "maiale" was a human torpedo initially developed by Italy and later copied by Britain and other countries. They were designed in secret, to sneak up on and attack ships in an enemy’s harbor. The first torpedo of this kind was developed in 1918, by two divers of the Italian Navy-Raffaele Paolucci and Raffaele Rossetti: they rode a primitive manned torpedo into the Austro-Hungarian Naval base at Pola, and sank the Austrian battleship Viribus Unitis and a freighter. Sans breathing gear, they rode in with there heads above water. Both men were discovered and captured, but not before their success.

As a result of this first attempt, the "First Fleet Assault Vehicles" were formed in 1939, by Major Teseo Tesei & Elios Toschi of the Italian Royal Navy. In 1940, Commander Moccagatta of the IRN, reorganized this group, into the Tenth Light Flotilla of Assault Vehicles called "X-MAS" (Decima MAS in Italian). It constructed manned torpedoes and trained navy frogmen. The IRN X-MAS group attempted an attack on Valletta Harbor in July of 1941, which was a complete disaster and which resulted in the death of Major Tesei.

A better design, was the Italian Human Torpedoes, called Maiale-meaning “Pig,” as it was slow to steer. Three feet high and 23 feet long, it was electrically powered by a 2 hp electric motor. It had a crew of two, which rode atop the device and had a max. speed of 4 knots. It carried a detachable 300 kg warhead.

By 1941, the first action, to use these secret “human torpedo’s,” was the Raid on Alexandria, when Italian forces attacked the Royal Navy in the harbor. The Italian submarine Scire, left it’s naval base, carrying three Maiale’s. They picked up six Maiale crewman on the isle of Leros in the Aegean Sea. On the 19th of December 1941, the Italian submarine released its compliment of human torpedoes, at a depth of 49 feet and at the distance of 1.3 miles, from the harbor of Alexandria. The Maiale snuck into the harbor, when the British opened their defensive nets to allow the passage of three of their destroyers.

The first vehicle, manned by Italians de la Penne and Bianchi, had engine trouble and had to literally get off and push it. Bianchi then suffered problems with his oxygen supply and had to surface, leaving de la Penne to push the vehicle by himself. Penne accomplished this feat, and successfully made his way to the battleship, HMS Valiant, where he placed a limpet mine-a sort of magnetic weapon, which attached to the hull of a ship. Having to surface, both men were found and captured. The odd part of their capture, was that they came to be confined aboard the very ship de la Penne had mined! Not only that, but they were kept in a compartment under sea level and not far from where the mine was placed. Shortly before the mine was to explode, de la Penne informed the captain of HMS Valiant of the impending explosion. He didn’t’ disclose the location of the bomb, and was sent back to his holding room. Both men survived the explosion without major injury.

In addition to the sinking the HMS Valiant, two other Maiale’s scored similar feats. One sunk the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, the stern blown off a Norwegian tanker-the Sagona, and the HMS Jervis, a British destroyer, was severally damaged. All Maiale crewman had been rounded up and captured, but not before their destruction was complete.

When it came to the war in the air, the Italians again had a record of cutting edge innovation. As written before, the Italians were the first to use aircraft in combat (during the war with Ottoman Turkey) and it was the World War I Italian General Giulio Douhet who was the first to develop theories on air warfare by the large-scale use of bombers. Much of what the Allies accomplished in their bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan were based on the original ideas of General Douhet.

The Italians were also pioneers in the use of paratroopers and carried out the first airborne drop in 1927. The Italian airborne divisions in World War II never had the opportunity to do what they were intended to (due to the cancellation of the invasion of Malta) but they more than proved their worth, particularly the Folgore Division which fought almost to the death, buying the time for the Germans to retreat at El Alamein. Fighting until they were reduced to using improvised weapons and until their ammunition was exhausted, the Folgore repelled numerous British attacks by vastly superior forces and destroyed over 120 tanks and armored vehicles.

In terms of aircraft, lack of sufficient industrial capacity meant that Italy often lagged behind but the Italian forces did manage to produce planes such as the Macchi C.205 “Greyhound” that proved superior to the American “Mustang” fighter as well as the formidable Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 “Sparrowhawk” bomber that destroyed 72 Allied warships and 196 Allied freighters before the 1943 armistice. The Italians had also developed the Caproni Campini N.1 jet aircraft which first flew in 1940 and was believed at the time to be the first flight of a jet aircraft (the Germans had been first but had kept it secret). It was not terribly successful nor was more than one model ever produced but Italian engineers had developed jet engines for planes and boats as early as the 1930’s.

The Italian Royal Air Force also pulled off some very surprising long-range bombing attacks, including an air raid on the British-held emirate of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Most hair-raising of all was the plan to attack no less a target than New York City. The first idea was to use the “human-torpedoes” to be brought close to New York harbor by Italy’s most successful submarine, the Leonardo DaVinci which was specially modified for the task. However, after a postponement the sub was sunk and so another plan was hatched to use a large sea-plane to transport the craft to striking distance, stopping in mid-Atlantic to be refueled by submarine.

However, the plan was postponed again because of some other secret weapon that was to be used instead. What could this have been? Italy also had a specially modified trans-Atlantic bomber that was being outfitted to carry an especially heavy payload. Some have speculated that this was part of an effort to deliver an Italian atomic-bomb and, as much as most dismiss the idea, there is at least some circumstantial evidence to suggest this may have been the case. As early as 1939 Italian atomic scientists at the University of Milan were issued a patent for a nuclear reactor they had designed and Italian scientists were later sent to Germany where they had better facilities to continue their nuclear research. We do know that at some top-secret German nuclear tests the only foreigner present was an Italian officer and Mussolini was one of only a dozen individuals Hitler informed about the operation, no doubt because of the participation of Italian scientists in the development of the weapons. How close they came to success we do not know due to much of the documentation being destroyed and much still being classified by the British government, however, there is no doubt that the oft-derided Kingdom of Italy was highly advanced in nuclear research.