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
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
Frank V. De Sisto
Motorbooks is the North American distributor of Crowood Press books.
Visit their web site at: www.motorbooks.com.
Elsewhere, Crowood Press books can be acquired direct through their web
site at: www.crowood.com.