Sunday, December 13, 2020

John Gooch's "Mussolini's War"

John Gooch is one of the world's leading writers on Italy and the two world wars. His books include Mussolini and His Generals and The Italian Army and the First World War. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Leeds. In 2010 the President of Italy appointed him Cavaliere dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarieta' Italiana.

Gooch applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Mussolini's War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse: 1935-1943, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The French request for an armistice reached Berlin at 3 a.m. on 17 June [1940], and Pétain’s broadcast ‘il faut cesser le combat’ (‘the fighting must cease’) was heard in Italy at 1.30 that afternoon. Fascist Italy now had to take Fortune on the fly. Furious that France was asking for peace and faced with the possibility that any gains might suddenly be taken off the table, Mussolini was in a hurry to unleash the offensive along the western front. Badoglio’s warnings about the difficulties of the terrain and the state of Italian deployment were dismissed. The order was given to accelerate the deployment at the Colle della Maddalena and limit the attack to this direction alone.
The ‘page 99’ test has indeed found the heart of my story. In 1940 Mussolini was gambling, just as he did when he sent his armies first into Abyssinia and Spain, then into North Africa, the Balkans and finally Russia. Meantime, at sea his navy was trying unsuccessfully to hold on to the central Mediterranean to support the Axis armies fighting in Libya and Egypt. Starting with the hopelessly mismanaged four-day war with France, every one of those campaigns ended in defeat and failure. Mussolini played the central role in bringing that about. Narcissistic to a degree, the Duce prided himself on his intuition, listened to nobody, and relied on extemporisation. Each of his decisions had its own logic – like Hitler and Stalin, Mussolini was something more than simply a one-dimensional bloodthirsty dictator (in his case undoubtedly brutal and violent, but only a would-be autocrat). But as we follow him down his path towards disaster, and eavesdrop on his meetings with his generals and his ministers, we watch a self-willed politician of the piazza flounder in the face of a global conflict which neither he nor his country had the capacity to manage, fight and win.

Mussolini took Italy into war in 1940 with none of the industrial and economic resources she would need to stand up in the most capital intensive conflict the world had ever seen: no coal, no oil (though ironically she was sitting on massive reserves in Libya), no metals like zinc and manganese, only hydro-electric power. In August 1940, one of his generals likened the country to a bath with the plug pulled out and the taps turned off. Mussolini knew this. Sheaves of economic data crossed his desk, and he disregarded it. Will power would conquer all. Economic weakness partly explains the unpreparedness to which Badoglio, the uniformed head of the armed services, refers. So too does military mismanagement. Mussolini’s generals had promised him quick, fast-moving wars fought with lightly mechanised and motorised troops. In June 1940 the cracks in their design start to show. Thereafter they grow ever wider and deeper as Fascist Italy’s armed forces are out-gunned and overwhelmed by far more powerful opponents. Back in Rome, generals and admirals play out long-standing inter-service rivalries, with adverse consequences. On the front line, Italians armed with increasingly obsolescent weapons fight to the last for a criminal regime and a hollow dictator.
Learn more about Mussolini's War at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue