Battle of Tagliacozzo, 23 August 1268

TAGLIACOZZO, BATTLE OF, 23 AUGUST 1268

Defeat for Conradin, son of Conrad IV (HRE), the last Hohenstaufen in Sicily. He invaded the kingdom of Sicily with German and Spanish allies in 1267, seeking to make good his claim against Charles of Anjou. Suppporters revolted against Charles in Sicily. The battle was fought in central Italy as Conradin advanced south. Charles took position behind the River Salto. Conradin’s men failed to take the bridge but others crossed further up and attacked the Angevins on the flank. Then the bridge was crossed. Charles recovered by leading a charge with a hidden reserve when many of the enemy, thinking victory theirs, pursued Angevins off the field. He then defeated the returning enemy. It was largely a cavalry battle, a costly victory: `never was victory so bloody, for nearly his whole army had fallen’. Conradin fled but was captured and executed in Naples in October. It ended German Hohenstaufen rule in Sicily, leaving the Angevins in control.

Conradin, the last of the Hohenstaufens, together with Frederick of Baden, was in command of 5-6,000 cavalry, mainly Germans and Italians but also including Castilians as well as Sicilians. He found his road blocked by an opposing force of some 3-5,000 French horse under Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily. The French drew up behind the River Salto in three divisions; two formed into column by a bridge while the third, including Charles himself, was secreted behind a fold in the ground about a mile from the flank. Henry of Cousances, commanding the second column, wore the royal surcoat and bore Charles’s standard in order to trick the enemy in to believing the entire French family was in view. Conradin’s army also drew up in three battles.

The Van, led by Henry of Castile, stormed the bridge, while the second and third, under Calvano Lancia and Conradin respectively, managed to ford the river downstream and then wheeled to attack the flank of the enemy battle. Henry of Cousances was finally slain and the French, badly mauled, broke in flight. The royal standard was seized in the confusion. Conradin held some of his men, but most chased after the French and set about looting their camp. It was now that Charles, having impotently observed the rout of his main force, charged up with his division and scattered the few troops who surrounded Conradin. When the imperial looters saw their commander in flight, they also took to their heels. Henry of Castile managed to rally a number of horsemen and advanced against the Angevins. However, 40 French knights feigned flight to draw out the enemy. As they broke ranks they were attacked by Charles’ battle, while the 40 knights wheeled to strike their flank. Despite a rally, they could not hold off the Angevins, and fled. Conradin, Frederick and Galvano were caught a few weeks later and, like those taken in the battle, were executed. Henry of Castile was imprisoned for 23 years.

CHARLES OF ANJOU, KING OF SICILY (1220-85)
Brother of St Louis. He conquered the Norman kingdom of Sicily and ruled it as Charles I from 1266. In 1246 he married Beatrice heiress to Provence. The papacy offered Sicily to Charles against the descendants of Frederick II. He invaded and was crowned in 1266. He defeated Manfred at Benevento and Conradin at Tagliacozzo. He suppressed revolts in Sicily. He developed Mediterranean interests. He took Corfu in 1267 but failed to recover the Byzantine Empire for the Franks. He was involved in St Louis’ crusade to Tunis in 1270. He was crowned King of Jerusalem in 1278 and became Prince of Achaea. He developed interests in northern Italy, becoming Imperial Vicar in Tuscany and Senator of Rome in 1268. He was defeated by the Genoese in 1273, and in 1275 at Roccavione. His greatest setback followed the Sicilian Vespers in 1282 with the French loss of Sicily. His fleet was defeated off Naples by the Genoese in 1284. He died on 7 January and was succeeded by his son Charles II. His descendants ruled in Naples and Hungary.

CONRADIN, KING OF SICILY (1252–68)
Son of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad IV who died in 1254 and descendant of Frederick II, He was named Duke of Swabia, King of the Romans, and King of Sicily from 1254 though his position was challenged by his uncle Manfred. He was named as King of Jerusalem but never ruled there. After the invasion of Sicily by Charles of Anjou, Conradin tried to recover his kingdom in 1268. He was defeated at Tagliacozzo, captured and executed on 29 October.

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Battle of Cape Matapan, 27–29 March 1941

Prior to the battle of Matapan, the Warspite picks up her Swordfish floatplane on the run. Illustration by Dennis Andrews.

The deteriorating military situation in Africa and Greece in 1941, however, made it clear that some offensive response by the Regia Marina was necessary if these theaters were to remain viable for the Axis powers. The Germans were now becoming more insistent that something be done to restore the situation in the Mediterranean. At their urging, and because of the general feeling at Supermarina (Italian naval headquarters) that an attempt should be made to re-establish the dynamics of conflict in the area, Operation Gaudo was born.

Vittorio Veneto firing upon Allied cruisers during the daytime phase of the Battle of Cape Matapan near the Island of Gavdos.

Supermarina committed the brand-new Littorio-class battleship Vittorio Veneto, sporting nine 15-inch guns and displacing 45,000 tons, as well as six of its seven 10,000-ton heavy cruisers and two of its best light cruisers to the operation. Usually reluctant to risk its capital ships, Supermarina had outdone itself for this mission. The Italians were further motivated by Luftwaffe reports on March 15, 1941, indicating that two of the three British battleships in the Mediterranean had been severely damaged and were not operational. Perhaps Supermarina officials would have been less sanguine had they known that those two battleships and their sister ship were not damaged, but anchored comfortably in Alexandria Harbor and quite ready to fight. Moreover, the British ships were led by one of the most competent and aggressive sailors in the Royal Navy.

Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, affectionately known as “ABC” to his men, had entered the Royal Navy as a cadet at age 14. While nurtured in a battleship navy, he was an early convert to air power. Cunningham had taken over a superb fleet whose training included night combat, which at that time was considered apostasy by most navies around the globe and ruled out as a matter of course. The British Mediterranean Fleet, however, excelled in night actions during prewar maneuvers and applied the lessons learned during the war years.

There were those in the Italian Naval Operational Command Centre (Supermarina). Admiral Riccardi, the Italian Chief of Naval Staff, and other leading members of the RMI, such as Admirals Campioni and Iachino, were particularly anxious to deliver a knock-out blow to Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. There is more than a suspicion that they entertained and even cherished the thought of bringing about some form of massive set piece battle in which the British could be put to the sword in the Mediterranean – a type of new style Jutland with a different result from the original encounter in the North Sea. These ideas were all very well in theory, but the reality of the situation was what counted in Berlin and Wilhelmshaven. Appreciating that something needed to be done to improve its standing in the eyes of its Axis partner, Supermarina strove to orchestrate a plan (codename Gaudo) that would succeed in restoring some pride to the Italian Navy. One effective way of doing that would be to intercept and destroy a couple of lightly screened Allied convoys scheduled for late March: AG.9 en route from Alexandria to Piraeus and GA.9 going in the opposite direction. As John Winton suggests, it was an excellent plan which might well have succeeded had it not been discovered in advance.

Its secrecy was compromised to some extent by the Italians themselves. Their rather understandable eagerness in checking repeatedly on the location of the Mediterranean Fleet through increased surveillance patrols of both Alexandria and the convoy routes south of Crete in the days leading up to the launching of Gaudo certainly alerted Cunningham and his staff to the likelihood of some imminent action in the Eastern Mediterranean. These suspicions were confirmed by the latest ‘Ultra’ intercepts provided for the Admiralty by the members of Hut 6 (working on the Luftwaffe’s ‘Light Blue’ code) and Dilly Knox and Mavis Lever (who concentrated on the RMI’s ‘Alfa’ code) at Bletchley Park. This signals intelligence suggested that German exasperation at the Italian failure to deal effectively with the Allied convoys to Piraeus and Suda Bay was such that the Supermarina intended to send its main surface fleet south of Crete in search of the troop transports and supply ships that had so far eluded its submarine arm and that 28 March was scheduled as D-Day for this operation.

Forewarned of Admiral Iachino’s intended operational sortie off Crete, but not the composition of the force that would be undertaking it, the Admiralty swiftly re-routed and then recalled its two merchant convoys. If the Italians were spoiling for a fight, so was Cunningham. Risks had to be accepted in such a situation, but the prospect of doing real harm to the Italian Fleet was too good an opportunity for him to miss. He sought to make the most of his advantages by sending Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell’s Force B (four light cruisers and four destroyers) out from Pireaus to act as live bait for Iachino’s warships in the waters off Crete and lure them unwittingly into the steely embrace of Cunningham’s Force A (the carrier Formidable, three battleships and nine destroyers) coming up from the southeast. If this could be done successfully, Cunningham felt his warships could then set about the enemy with some gusto.

On the same day (27 March) that Pridham-Wippell’s Force B left port to get into its pre-arranged position south of Crete to begin trailing its cape for Iachino’s fleet to follow, the very ships it was hoping to attract rendezvoused south of the Straits of Messina and moved off south-eastwards towards Crete – and the convoy routes to and from Greece that lay further to the south. Although the RMI had no carriers to rely upon, the force that gathered in Sicilian waters was still quite impressive. Apart from his flagship the battleship Vittorio Veneto and four destroyers that had come from Naples, Iachino had gathered a fleet of six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and nine other destroyers from their bases at Taranto, Brindisi and Messina. It was a fleet that could have done an awful lot of damage to any Allied convoy it came across, but it lacked constant air cover and reconnaissance support. In the absence of a carrier, however, Supermarina had fully expected to have at its disposal the planes of Fliegercorps X operating from their base in Sicily – so the aerial deficiency was not regarded as being critical at this stage.

Whatever the Fliegerkorps might have done for the Italians, the fact remained that Cunningham was far better served by aerial reconnaissance than his opponents. At lunchtime on 27 March, an RAF flying boat based on Crete reported that three Italian heavy cruisers of the Trento class and a destroyer were at sea and heading towards the island. This report confirmed the accuracy of the earlier signals intelligence and convinced Cunningham that action was in the offing. Despite his aggressive instincts, he didn’t want to reveal his hand too soon lest the enemy fleet break off the operation and return to its home bases. Wishing to deceive Italian agents in Alexandria about his intentions to leave port and go out for a showdown with Iachino’s warships, Cunningham behaved ashore as if hoisting anchor was about the last thing on his mind on the evening of 27 March. What Michael Simpson describes as an ‘elaborate charade’ seemed to work perfectly. Force A left Alexandria after dark undetected by spies and sped towards its pre-arranged meeting with Force B south of Crete later in the morning of 28 March.

Over the course of the next thirty hours a fleet action that had promised so much for the Italians turned into another grievous defeat every bit as bad as the earlier Taranto débâcle, if not worse. Whether the Battle of Matapan deserves the ringing epithet of ‘a naval Caporetto’ given to it by the Italian critic Gianni Rocca is arguable, but what is clear is that it was a tragedy and one that had been largely, and sadly, self-inflicted. While aircraft and radar both had a critical role in assisting the British cause on 28 March, the stunning victory that would come his way after nightfall was gifted to Cunningham by his adversary Iachino. Aware from a lunchtime air raid that the Gaudo operation had already lost its surprise element, Iachino had opted for a safety-first policy by turning westward in a bid to put his ships beyond the range of what he assumed had been purely shore-based RAF units. Once the Vittorio Veneto had been hit and holed in the stern during a torpedo attack in the mid-afternoon, he could do no more than abandon the operation and – after sterling work by his damage control party – make course for home at the best possible speed. As the Italian Fleet limped westward it was spotted by one of Warspite’s reconnaissance planes and targeted again at dusk by both carrier and land-based aircraft. As luck would have it in trying to finish off the battleship an Albacore 5A, the last carrier plane to make an attack, succeeded in totally immobilizing the heavy cruiser Pola at 1946 hours. As she remained dead in the water, the rest of the fleet retired from the scene as hastily as possible. After exchanging a series of messages about the plight of the Pola and her crew with Carlo Cattaneo, one of his divisional commanders, Iachino made a gross tactical error at 2018 hours in sending back two other Zara class heavy cruisers and four destroyers to go to the aid of the crippled warship. While Iachino’s humanity cannot be faulted for trying to rescue her officers and men, the return of Cattaneo’s entire group to retrieve the Pola by towing her to safety when he knew by this time that the Mediterranean Fleet was at sea is simply unfathomable. One can only imagine he thought the British ships weren’t close enough to be an active threat during the hours of darkness and that by morning he would have arranged sufficient air cover for Cattaneo’s entire group that Cunningham wouldn’t dare to intervene. It was an egregious error. Iachino may have thought that the British wouldn’t risk engaging in any night fighting, but if he did he didn’t know his opposite number. Cunningham was determined not to let the battleship get away and was prepared to bring the enemy fleet to action in the dark if need be, even though his ships had not practised night fighting for some months and the skills necessary to become good at it still remained rudimentary at best.

In the end, of course, the night action that took place didn’t involve Iachino’s entire fleet, but just Cattaneo’s division of it. They had the wretched luck to return to the stricken Pola just when Cunningham arrived at the same spot with Force A. Martin Stephen describes the scene graphically: ‘With flashless cordite and radar the British were sighted men in a world of the blind.’ At what amounted to point blank range the result was never in doubt. Fiume and Zara were soon rendered into smoking hulks by the broadside they received. In a little over four minutes the Zara class of heavy cruiser had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. As Cunningham described it later it was ‘more like murder than anything else’. Removing his battlefleet from what Barnett describes perfectly as a ‘chaotic mêlée’, Cunningham left his own destroyers to deal with their Italian equivalents. During the course of the evening, two of the four enemy destroyers were sunk (Alfieri and Carducci) while Oriani was damaged but managed to escape along with the unscathed Gioberti.

It was a magnificent victory for Cunningham, but it might have turned out even better had he not sent a sloppily phrased signal to the rest of his ships shortly after putting the heavy cruisers out of action that seemed to imply that all those not engaged in dealing with the enemy should withdraw to the northeast. While the ambiguous message was not intended for his light cruiser squadron, Pridham-Wippell didn’t realise that at the time. He broke off his pursuit of the Vittorio Veneto and withdrew to the northeast to conform with his C-in-C’s apparent orders. By the time that Cunningham had become aware of what had happened, Iachino’s flagship and her accompanying warships had escaped to live and fight another day. That was more than could be said for Vice-Admiral Cattaneo and 2,302 officers and men of the Regia Marina who perished in these engagements. Correlli Barnett calls it ‘the Royal Navy’s greatest victory in a fleet encounter since Trafalgar’. Is it churlish to suggest that it could have been even greater? It might well have been but for the ambiguously worded signal Cunningham had sent while basking in the glow of his battlefleet’s destructive blitz against Cattaneo’s heavy cruisers. Michael Simpson, the editor of Cunningham’s papers, draws another valid conclusion about the Battle of Cape Matapan, namely, that the C-in-C would have been far better served had he had two carriers rather than only one with him on this operation. Extra aircraft would have given him far more systematic reconnaissance and firepower than was available to him from only having Formidable and some of the land-based RAF torpedo-bombers at his disposal.

One thing that all the leading naval analysts who have reviewed the action off Cape Matapan agree upon is that this crushing defeat for the Regia Marina was as much psychological as it was material. It dealt a real blow to the esteem in which the Italian fleet was held and made the Supermarina far more cautious than it otherwise might have been. This attitude of restraint was further reinforced by yet another rout its forces suffered at the hands of the British only a few days later in the Red Sea, in what became an ultimately fruitless Italian quest both to attack Port Sudan as well as to retain their base of Massawa on the coast of Eritrea. In the face of a sustained land and aerial offensive launched by the enemy which closed in on the port on 6 April and captured it two days later, the Italians would lose six seaworthy destroyers, a torpedo boat, five MAS (fast motor torpedo boats) and nineteen of their merchant vessels, while six German ships, including the passenger ship Colombo, suffered the same fate. Somehow the degree of hopelessness into which the Italian naval cause had sunk was typified by the scuttling of the vast majority of these craft by their own crews at a total cost of 151,760 tons.

ITALIAN BOMBERS OF WWI

After conducting the world’s first aerial bombardment from an airplane in November 1911 during the Tripolitan War against the Turks, the Italians were quick to recognize the potential for bombers. Indeed, Giulio Douhet’s Rules for the Use of Aircraft in War, published in 1912, specifically called for the development of aircraft capable of dropping heavy bomb loads on enemy targets. Partly in response to Douhet’s book, Giovanni Caproni began developing a large multiengine aircraft. His first attempt, the Caproni Ca 30 biplane, was successfully demonstrated in 1913. Its central nacelle housed three 90 hp Gnome rotary engines, of which the front two used a gear system to power two tractor propellers on booms that extended from the fuselage, whereas the rear motor powered a pusher propellor at the back of the nacelle. This arrangement proved to be underpowered and awkward to operate, leading Caproni to alter his design by using three 100 hp Fiat A. 10 inline engines, two of which were housed on the booms outside the fuselage and powered the tractor propellers directly, whereas the other was housed in the rear of the nacelle and powered a pusher propeller. This prototype, known as the Ca 32, was successfully demonstrated in October 1914.

After Italy entered the war in May 1915, the Italian military quickly placed orders for the Ca 32 prototype, which received the military designation as the Ca. 1 type. It had a wingspan of 72 ft 10 in., a length of 35 ft 9 in., and a loaded weight of 7,280 lbs, including up to 1,000 lbs of bombs that were held in racks under the nacelle. Its three 100 hp Fiat A. 10 inline motors provided a maximum speed of 72 mph, a service ceiling of 4,000 m (13,123 ft), and a range of 344 miles. The Ca. 1 carried four crewmen, including a front gunner and tail gunner who operated two to four ringmounted Revelli machine guns. The tail gunner had to stand in a raised cage from the back of the nacelle in order to fire above the arc of the propeller. Its wooden frame was covered with fabric and thin aluminum sheets protected the nacelle. Its landing gear consisted of two wheels that were attached by struts to the lower wing and two wheels that were suspended from the nose section of the nacelle. It was also distinctive with its twin booms that connected the nacelle and wings to the tail section, which used three rudders. The Ca. 1 began arriving at the front in early August 1915. A total of 166 entered service before production ended in December 1916. During this same period a total of 9 Caproni Ca. 2 biplane bombers also entered service. These were similar in all respects to the Ca. 1 with the exception that they were powered by two 100 hp Fiat A.10 inline engines and one 150 hp Isotta-Fraschini V. 4B Vtype engine.

In late 1916 Caproni introduced his third series of bombers, the Ca. 3 biplane, which used the same airframe and landing gear as the Ca. 1 and Ca. 2. It was powered by three 150 hp Isotta-Fraschini V. 4B V-type motors, which increased its maximum speed to 86 mph and gave it an endurance of 3.5 hours. The added power enabled the Ca. 3 to carry a bomb capacity of 1,760 lbs, which increased its total loaded weight to 8,400 lbs. It had a good climbing rate, which was an absolute necessity in the mountainous regions of the Italian Front, and had a service ceiling of 4,850 m (15,912 ft). Like the earlier Caproni bombers, the Ca. 3 was well protected with two to four ring-mounted Revelli machine guns that were operated by a forward gunner and a tail gunner. In addition to its service as a bomber, the Ca. 3 was also used as a torpedo bomber by the Italian Navy, which operated them out of coastal naval air stations. A total of 269 were produced in Italy between late 1916 and early 1918, eventually equipping 18 squadrons. Approximately 60 were licensed-produced in France by Établissements D’aviation Robert Esnault-Pelterie. Many of the Ca. 3s that survived the war were adapted for mail and passenger service afterward.

In late 1917 Caproni introduced the Ca. 4 bomber, which employed a unique triplane configuration. It had a wingspan of 98 ft (all three wings were of equal length), a length of 43 ft, and a loaded weight of 14,330 lbs, which included a bomb load of 3,000 lbs. The nacelle was attached to the central wing and provided seating for two pilots and a front gunner, who sat in the nose and operated two ring-mounted Revelli machine guns. A tail gunner was placed in each of the twin booms and was provided with one ring-mounted Revelli machine gun, making for a more comfortable arrangement than the standing position required in the earlier Capronis. The first few Ca. 4 triplanes were powered by three 200 hp Isotta-Fraschini V-type engines, but these proved to be underpowered for such a heavy aircraft. As a result, most of the 38 Ca. 4s that entered service were powered by either three 270 hp Isotta-Fraschini V-type motors or three 270 hp Fiat inline motors (a few were also powered by three 270 hp Liberty V-type engines). As in the earlier Capronis, two engines were placed in the forward part of the booms and one was placed in the rear of the nacelle. With performance varying with each engine type, most sources report an average of 87 mph and a service ceiling of 3,000 m (9,843 ft).

The final Caproni bomber of the war, the Ca. 5 biplane, was introduced in early 1918 and remained in service until 1921. It had a wingspan of 77 ft, a length of 41 ft 4 in., and a loaded weight of 11,700 lbs, including a bomb load of 1,190 lbs. Like the Ca. 4, the Ca. 5 employed a variety of engines, using more powerful ones as they became available. The majority were powered by three 300 hp Fiat A. 12 bis inline motors, two of which were placed in the front of the tail booms in a tractor configuration and one which was placed in the rear of the nacelle. The Ca. 5 had a maximum speed of 95 mph and a service ceiling of 4,570 m (14,993 ft). It was protected by one or two ring-mounted Revelli machine guns in the nose section, and one or two ring-mounted Revelli machine guns in a raised turret of the rear nacelle. A total of 255 were built in Italy and at least 3 were produced in the United States by war’s end.

In addition to its Caproni bombers, Italy, like other powers, used a number of its armed reconnaissance aircraft, such as the S.A.M.L. 1 and 2, the S.I.A. 7B2, and the Pompilio P-types, as light bombers. Italy also drew upon British and French bombers. It should also be noted that Italy had semi-ridge airships at its disposal and used approximately twenty of the M-type for bombing purposes during the course of the war. Indeed, on 26 May 1915, just 3 days after it declared war on Austria-Hungary, Italy used one of its M-type airships to bomb Sebenico. First introduced in 1912, the M-type was manufactured by Stabilimento Construzioni Aeronautiche. Unlike zeppelins, which were constructed with an outer and inner metal framework, and blimps, which used the pressure of the gas to keep their shape, the semi-rigid airships of the M-type utilized a central spine or keel that helped maintain its shape and support the engines and carriages. With a length of 272 ft 3 in., a diameter of 55 ft 9 in., and a gas volume of 473,750 cubic ft, the M-type could carry 2,200 lbs of bombs and reach altitudes of up to 4,570 m (14,993 ft). They were powered by two 250 hp Maybach inline motors, which could produce a maxi mum speed of 43 mph and an endurance of 6 hours.

Caproni Bombers

Aviation exploits in the Libyan campaign stimulated Italian aviation in 1912, when an air fleet fund raised three million lire for military aviation, indicating a burgeoning aviation consciousness there as elsewhere in Europe. That summer the army established an aviation inspectorate with airship and airplane battalions and an experimental institute. Turin’s Mirafiori field, where the airplane battalion located, became the center of Italian aviation. The Turin Polytechnical Institute founded an aeronautical laboratory in the winter of 1912–1913, and the first Italian aircraft factory, Società Italiana Transaerea (SIT), was founded there with French and Italian capital to build Blériots and then Farmans under license. SIT received contracts for the majority of the 150 planes ordered by the War Ministry in 1912 and 1913. In December Major Douhet, soon to be the commander of the airplane battalion, proposed an air arm of 25 squadrons of 94 planes and 150 pilots.

At a military competition for airplanes and engines held in April 1913, the judges, among them Douhet, declared no winners, finding that no domestic products equaled French machines, not a surprising conclusion given the primitive state of the Italian aviation industry. By default SIT remained the army’s essential supplier, since its 150 employees and potential monthly production of 10 to 14 planes monthly made it larger than the rest of the Italian aircraft industry. Despite the small size of the industry and its firms, Italian aviation’s pioneer age was beginning to fade in 1913, as artisanal airplane builders, no longer able to compete in sporting events and distance flights, which required substantial financial backing, dwindled.

Giulio Douhet, in his continued press advocacy of aviation, was urging Italian industry to support airplane development. If the campaign availed little, Douhet supported a close friend, the young aircraft designer Gianni Caproni, in his efforts to establish a factory. In June 1913, when Caproni was near financial ruin, Douhet persuaded Moris to make the factory part of the War Ministry’s administration, although Caproni resigned the post in 1914 because of inadequate government support for his experiments. By August 1914 Caproni had raised enough money to reopen his factory.

Caproni, who was convinced of the importance of a fleet of multi-engine bombers for tactical and strategic purposes. In 1913 he produced the first plane expressly conceived as a bomber, a trimotored craft powered by Gnome 80-hp rotaries, which Douhet had encouraged and perceived as a potential means of making aviation the decisive element of modern warfare.

By 1914 the Italian air arm comprised 11 squadrons of Blériots, Nieuports, and Farmans. The Italian aviation industry, like its counterparts in Russia and Austria-Hungary, was tiny and underdeveloped compared to the German and French industries. SIT lacked even a design office, while Caproni was concentrating on simplifying his bomber design for production. In 1914 the Italian War Ministry asked the engine industry for new projects to make Italy independent of foreign suppliers. Fortunately, Fiat, which had begun designing aviation engines in 1907 and had built dirigible engines since 1909, quickly developed the A10, a water-cooled 100-hp six-cylinder in-line patterned after German and Austrian types, and began its mass production in the fall. (Fiat had not previously encouraged aircraft engine orders because of the demands of automobile production.) Italian naval aviation was created only early in 1913 and remained insignificant in August 1914. Italy’s decision to remain neutral in the summer of 1914 meant that its air arm and industry would have until May 1915 before they faced the test of war.

Italy, with the Caproni Ca1, was the sole country to have a plane expressly designed as a bomber. Starting late in August, Ca1s powered by three Fiat 100-hp engines staged bombing raids on the Austro-Hungarian aviation camp at Aisovizza. Eight were at the front by the end of September. During the third and fourth Battles of the Isonzo from October to December, the Capronis bombed various targets and were ultimately placed at the Supreme Command’s disposal for long-range reconnaissance missions and bombing railroad junctions and stations.

The Supreme Command and the General Directorate of Aviation, preoccupied with enemy superiority and aviation’s inadequate organization in relation to the front’s demands, proposed programs to develop the industry despite problems in securing raw materials. Despite substantial plane losses, they planned to double the number of squadrons and to secure higher-hp engines. Italian aircraft production in 1915 totaled 382 planes and 606 engines. With the exception of 28 Capronis, the remaining craft were primarily French designs and a few German Aviatiks.

Italian aviation expanded in 1916, its first full year of war. At the end of the first trimester it comprised 30 squadrons, including 7 Caproni bomber squadrons. By the year’s end it had 44 squadrons, including 5 more Caproni squadrons.

Italian development of the bomber arm stands out in comparison with other air arms. In 1916 Italy had the most operational multiengine bombers of all the powers. Italy’s single, relatively limited, and stalemated front encouraged Guilio Douhet to seek dominance in the air, and the Capronis gave the air service the potential to do so. Enemy air attacks in January and February prompted the Italian supreme command to order an attack on Ljubljana on 18 February, in which Capronis dropped 1,800 kilograms of bombs. Symbolic of the Italian bomber force’s preeminence was that in this attack Italian aviators won their first gold medal, Italy’s highest award for valor. Two enemy planes killed the observer and wounded the pilot. Captain Balbo, the copilot, operated the machine gun until wounded in the arm and unable to fire. He then shielded the wounded pilot with his own body until he was hit and killed. Balbo’s sacrifice enabled the wounded pilot to return to the base with his crew’s bodies. The Capronis proved tenacious foes, but as losses mounted, they were forced to raid at night.

The June Italian counteroffensive in the Trentino-Alto Adige region included a raid by 34 Capronis on the Pergine Valsugana station. During the sixth Battle of the Isonzo, on 9 August 58 Capronis escorted by Nieuports bombed railway stations with 4,000 kilograms of bombs and repeated the raid on 15 August with 14 Capronis. On 13 September 22 Capronis bombed Trieste in response to Austrian raids on three Italian cities.

During 1916 the Caproni factory delivered 136 Ca 1s powered by three Fiat 100-hp in-line engines and 9 Ca 2s with a 150-hp Isotta-Fraschini replacing one of the Fiats. By the summer the Caproni factories near Milan were building more powerful versions using three 150- and 200-hp engines.

From January through April the Italian army air arm grew gradually. In May Gabriele D’Annunzio, at the invitation of General Cadorna, advocated repeated and massed bomber attacks on enemy artillery batteries and reinforcements and on Austro-Hungarian bases at Pola and Cattaro. In the tenth Battle of the Isonzo, on 23 May, 30 to 40 Capronis became the nucleus for repeated wave attacks in support of infantry attacks against enemy troops at the front and in the rear. Though the attacks’ imprecision limited their material results, an enemy officer’s war diary recounted that Italian planes flying so low that the bombs dropping from the fuselage were clearly visible spread fear and panic among Austro-Hungarian troops.

Italian dirigibles performed bombing raids in the spring and summer, but the Capronis held center stage. On the night of 2 to 3 August 36 Capronis took off at one-minute intervals to bomb Pola, with D’Annunzio aboard the first bomber. Twenty Capronis attacked the objective, and though intense antiaircraft fire struck 10 of them, they repeated the attack the next night, dropping a total of eight tons of bombs, and again on the night of 8 August.

On 19 August, the second day of the eleventh Battle of the Isonzo, 85 Capronis accompanied by more than 100 fighters and observation planes supported the infantry attack. For the 10-day period 19 to 28 August, an average of 225 planes raided enemy positions daily, for losses of 81 of the 300 Italian aircrew participating. The Italian bombing effort so impressed the American Bolling Commission that it concluded: “In Italy alone, of allied countries, do the conceptions of this subject appear at the present time to be on sufficiently broad and sound lines,” with “real and effective airplane bombing planned and in course of application.” A French observer, Commandant Le Bon, confirmed in September both the marked progress of Italian aviation in 12 months and the good results of bombing from Capronis, notwithstanding that conditions on the Southwest Front differed from those on the Western.

On 4 October 12 Capronis flew 400 kilometers over the sea to bomb Cattaro, but the end of the month witnessed the disastrous twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, the Italian collapse at Caporetto and retreat to the Piave, and the installation of a new director of aeronautical services.

The Caproni works at Taliedo was building one biplane and one triplane daily. Wing Commander Briggs found the Capronis, with their standardized wing ribs, bays, spars, and struts, designed with a view to ready production rather than ultimate aerodynamic efficiency and minimum weight, and he estimated that although the Handley Page bomber would be aerodynamically superior, a firm could build five Capronis to three Handley Pages.

Meanwhile, Giulio Douhet and Gianni Caproni were agitating for an Allied fleet of strategic bombers. Writing from prison in June, Douhet called for an Allied air fleet to bomb enemy cities in his essay “The Great Aerial Offensive” and urged Italy to build 1,000 planes, France 3,000, England 4,000, and the United States 12,000. In a July essay, “The Resistance of Peoples Facing the Long War,” he underlined the effect on morale of the German raid on London, the inadequacy of antiaircraft defenses, and the necessity of massive force. He further congratulated Caproni for the bomber raids on Austrian territory. Douhet was released from prison on 15 October, one week before the disaster at Caporetto, and he returned to aviation in 1918.

In an interview with Le Petit Parisien in October, Caproni advised that the war was one of materiel, which made it necessary to curtail enemy production. He lamented the excessive importance attached to aerial duels, the inadequate emphasis on raids on enemy bases, and suggested that the Allies needed a fleet of 200 to 300 bombers capable of carrying bomb loads of 2,000 kilograms.

Preparations for the climactic Battle of Vittorio Veneto occurred from August to mid-October, as the air arm attacked railroads and airfields, and the 21 October battle plan emphasized ground attack by all aircraft. From 22 October to 11 November the air arm had 407 to 478 planes, including over 200 of both fighter craft and reconnaissance planes and 38 to 56 bombers. General Bongiovanni used the SVAs for long-distance reconnaissance and light bombing, the Capronis to bomb airfields and the Vittorio Veneto munitions depots, and the fighters for air-combat and ground-attack missions. The battle ended on 4 November with complete victory and Austro-Hungarian capitulation. The army air service’s 504 frontline airplanes on 4 November represented nearly a tenfold increase from its 58 unarmed airplanes at the declaration of war in May 1915

In 1918 Italian bomber units gradually shifted from Caproni 450-hp to 600-hp bombers. Gianni Caproni shifted his construction from the biplane to a stronger and lighter, higher-hp triplane and then back to the biplane. The installation of Isotta-Fraschini engines—which were proving more reliable than Fiats—on Caproni triplanes improved their ability to perform missions over the Adriatic Sea, over which they sometimes flew as low as four meters altitude.

The Technical Directorate, working closely with industry, had successfully engineered the air arm’s expansion. Although Italy depended on France for its fighters throughout the war, the domestic industry supplied reconnaissance craft and bombers. The air arm needed more SVAs and Capronis and had only 58 Capronis in the final battle compared to 62 in August 1917. Caproni had difficulty securing sufficient Isotta-Fraschinis for production, although it managed to produce 40 CA3s 450-hp biplanes, 255 600-hp CA5 biplanes, and 35 CA4 triplanes. In 1918 the Italian aviation industry manufactured 14,840 engines and 6,488 planes, including 1,183 SVAs, 1,073 Pomilios, and 577 FBA flying boats.

Italian engine production had been particularly successful. All the engine firms—Fiat, Isotta-Fraschini, and Ansaldo—had followed identical programs of perfecting six-cylinder engines to obtain the maximum power for the minimum weight. Early in 1918 they were beginning to develop 12-cylinder V engines of 500 to 600 horsepower. Fiat, in addition to its 600-hp engine, was testing a promising 400-hp engine, the A15. In September Fiat was building 37 to 38 engines daily and moving toward 40 to 42, or 1,000 to 1,200 monthly.

‘Jock Columns’

With the fall of France and Italy’s entry into the war on 10 June 1940, British expectations that Italy would ally itself with Nazi Germany were realized. New theatres of operations became a definite concern for the British as territorial possessions, dominions and protectorates came under threat from a new enemy which saw British forces and territories overseas as its primary targets. The Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini, fearful that the war might end without his Fascist empire becoming a reality, hoped to occupy and annex French and British colonies and Egypt, which was a British protectorate. This would give him control of the Suez Canal and considerable influence on world trade, allowing Italy to dominate the central and eastern Mediterranean.

Their nation’s entry into the war was both surprising and unwelcome to many Italians. The most senior commanders knew just how ill-prepared the country was. The reaction of many was one of surprise and despondency – indeed, as Tenente Paolo Colacicchi of the Granatieri di Sardegna recalled:

In fact, of no enthusiasm at all. Marshal Balbo, who was the governor of Libya and one of the four Fascists – the Quadrumvirs of Italy – was apparently playing billiards when the news came through Italy had declared war and he was so angry that he picked up the billiard balls and smashed all the glasses in this billiard room. He was absolutely furious because he knew the position there and he had a lot of friends in Egypt among the British.

Italo Balbo was dead less than a month later, killed when his plane was shot down by Italian anti-aircraft fire whilst over Tobruk harbour, but Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, of the Italian Comando Supremo, continued to counsel against Mussolini’s annexationist ambitions. There was little military ardour amongst the Italian troops in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica either, as Paolo Colacicchi confirmed:

I was commanding a platoon then in a machine-gun battalion on the Tunisian front and I was told to call my men and tell them we were at war now with France (this was a few days before France gave up) and Britain. And the main reaction amongst my men was ‘What about our mail? Aren’t we going to hear from home anymore?’ Which is symptomatic, I think, of the type of man we had there. These were not all young; they were not even good troops. There were some recruits, but there were very few and they were tired and wanted to be home. They were thinking of home, they were thinking of leave and they were thinking of their fields left unattended. They certainly had no imperial or aggressive dream about them. This was one of the problems.

Despite this lack of will amongst many of his subjects, the Duce was not to be denied. In August 1940, Italian forces occupied the British protectorate known as British Somaliland, and Mussolini turned his attention to Egypt, defended by a small, but relatively modern (by comparison with its opponent), Western Desert Force. This consisted of 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions with elements of 6th Division from Palestine. Commanded by Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, it comprised approximately 36,000 men. On 9 September 1940, Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani, who had replaced Balbo as commander of Italy’s North African forces, was finally persuaded to invade Egypt with the X Armata (Italian Tenth Army) of 80,000 men. After an advance of sixty miles, the Italian force (chiefly composed of unmotorized infantry formations) stopped at Sidi Barrani and set up fortified camps. This was disappointing for O’Connor who had plans to annihilate them if they moved on Mersa Matruh.3 The Commander-in-Chief Middle East, Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, resisted pressure from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to launch an immediate counter-attack. Instead, he and O’Connor began planning an unconventional all-arms surprise attack on the Italian camps.

The plan depended on co-operation from the aircraft of Air Headquarters Western Desert and especially from Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw’s No. 202 Group. Despite his aircraft chiefly being obsolete Gloster Gladiators and increasingly obsolescent Bristol Blenheims operating with no radar and an unreliable signals network, Collishaw’s guiding principle was that obtaining and retaining air superiority were essential before any other task, even close support for troops in an advance or retreat, could be attempted with any reasonable hope of success. Nevertheless, he and O’Connor forged excellent relations. Chiefly, aircraft were to ensure that the initial advance of almost seventy miles by O’Connor’s force was not detected and reported by Italian reconnaissance planes.

Although O’Connor was not a tank officer and had never worked with large armoured forces, this was not a barrier to his successful use of the tanks Although O’Connor was not a tank officer and had never worked with large armoured forces, this was not a barrier to his successful use of the tanks available to him. There was considerable experience in his command of military exercises in desert conditions, which the British had acknowledged for many years as ideal for armoured warfare. In the inter-war years several formations trained there and, in 1938, Major-General Percy Hobart had trained the ‘Mobile Division’ (7th Armoured Division’s predecessor) in modern armoured warfare theory. Although Hobart was no longer in command by late 1940, 7th Armoured’s training put it in good stead for the role envisaged by O’Connor, as O’Connor himself explained:

The ‘Infantry’ tanks from their name were there to assist the infantry’s advance and help them in every possible way and they were obviously used for that. The 7th Armoured Division with its much larger radius of action could be used in a way – especially in this fine desert country – for getting behind and cutting off troops – in fact in the way strategic cavalry used to be used.

O’Connor’s unsophisticated approach to the operation was based rather more on common sense than military theory:

It’s quite true I had read most of [Basil] Liddell Hart’s ideas in his books but at that time the ordinary officer of my ‘height’ in the army didn’t really have any great reason for adopting his point of view. We had our own regulations, our own instructions and I don’t think that I considered very greatly Liddell Hart’s any more than I considered our own Field Service Regulations. In our very small operation, I can’t think I said to myself, ‘Now, what would Liddell Hart have done?’

On 9 December 1940, after a long and difficult approach march, shielded by the light reconnaissance units of 7th Armoured and Collishaw’s aircraft, O’Connor’s infantry with Matilda heavy tanks in close co-operation attacked and routed the Italians. Within two days, 38,000 prisoners, seventy-three tanks and 237 guns had been captured.6 Soon Bardia and Tobruk had fallen. The Italian forces fell back into Libya but were harried all the way and eventually outflanked and trapped. This culminated in a further heavy Italian defeat on 5 February 1941 at Beda Fomm and the surrender of X Armata with the loss of 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,200 guns during the campaign. British losses were 1,744 killed, wounded or missing. O’Connor, having reached El Agheila, was for pushing on into Tripolitania in the hope of completely driving the Italians from Libya, despite being at the end of considerably extended and, therefore, attenuated supply lines. Wavell prevented him from doing so.

The campaign was a masterpiece of all-arms co-operation based on established principles and was possible because of the quality of the highly trained forces at O’Connor’s command. In this regard it harked back in many ways to the later battles on the Western Front in 1918. It was the high water mark of British military operations in the Western Desert for over eighteen months but, for many, it was the radix malorum of all subsequent failings in those operations. This was through the inappropriate application of its lessons, through the slavish adherence of first 7th Armoured and then other armoured formations to an erroneous tactical doctrine, and because it gave the misleading impression that all Italian formations could be easily overcome in battle.

This critique presupposes that circumstances would have allowed a different approach. They did not. Just as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the Great War had struggled to inculcate ‘the lessons of the fighting’ in its forces whilst engaged in almost continuous conflict on the Western Front, with few opportunities for meaningful tactical training schemes incorporating, for example, tanks and artillery, so circumstances dictated possibilities for the British Eighth Army (as Western Desert Force became known on expansion to a two-corps organization in September 1941). There was simply no time to review the lessons of the offensive at the level of detail required before events intervened. The strategic situation in the Mediterranean and Africa required Wavell to dispatch a large part of O’Connor’s command to Greece. The units that replaced them were newly formed and inexperienced (especially in desert warfare). There was little continuity of learning and few opportunities for training. There were also fundamental problems with the structure and organization of British formations which were not addressed and which were to present particular problems.

Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell VC

The British Army was heavily outnumbered by the Italians, so General Archibald Wavell formulated a plan with his senior commanders to retain the initiative by harassing the enemy using mobile all-arms flying columns. Campbell’s brilliant command of one of these columns led to them being given the generic name “Jock columns” (although it is unclear if the idea originated with Campbell or not).

British armoured divisions were too heavy on armour and too light on infantry and lacked sufficient artillery (with no self-propelled guns). In tactical terms, this encouraged them to focus on tank-versus-tank operations in which there was no co-operation with the other arms – something which O’Connor believed was a result of the influence of Liddell Hart’s theories on commanders of armoured units. As a consequence, ad hoc formations of all arms except tanks were formed. These ‘Jock Columns’ – named after their inventor Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell VC of 4th Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) – were typically made up of a battery of 25-pounder field guns, a motorized ‘motor’ infantry company, an armoured car troop, a troop of 2-pounder anti-tank guns and a section of 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns, plus ancillary arms such as medical personnel and signallers. Until July 1942, these seemingly aggressive formations were actually responsible for dissipating the artillery strength of the British in the desert and impeded effective co-operation between the infantry and armour. This tactical schism was exploited repeatedly by the new, and extremely skilful, tactician who arrived soon after the defeat at Beda Fomm to lead their opponent’s forces.

First Military Uses of the Airplane

Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane. It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it,” wrote Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti to his father. With other military aviators of the new Italian Royal Army Air Services Specialist Battalion, Lt. Gavotti had been sent to the Ottoman Turk provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica to fight in the Italo-Turkish War. His aeroplane was a Blériot monoplane, one of only a handful in Italy’s possession.

Today two boxes full of bombs arrived. We are expected to throw them from our planes. It is very strange that none of us have been told about this, and that we haven’t received any instruction from our superiors. So we are taking the bombs on board with the greatest precaution. It will be very interesting to try them on the Turks.”

In the earliest air actions, carried out by Italian airmen in Libya (Tripolitania), the bomb dropped by Lieut. Gavotti was a 2-kg weapon like the one shown here: it was known as a Cipelli bomb, so named after its inventor.

In almost every country there were adventuresome military personnel who wanted to demonstrate the utility of the aircraft in warfare. As soon as aircraft performance would permit carrying a few more pounds than just those of the pilot and his observer, attempts were made to install and use weapons. On January 19, 1910, the famous Louis Paulhan flew an airplane over a field in Los Angeles, and U.S. Army Lieutenant Paul Beck dropped dummy bombs. On June 9, the French lieutenant (later general) Philippe Féquant made the first photo-reconnaissance flight. On August 20, Lieutenant Jacob E. Fickel, U.S. Army, fired a rifle from his Curtiss biplane at a target in Sheepshead Bay, New York. On November 14, Eugene Ely launched naval aviation with a flight in his Curtiss pusher from the USS Birmingham. He would make the first landing on January 18, 1911, on the USS Pennsylvania. On March 3, the famed Wright exhibition pilot, Phil O. Parmelee, and his passenger, the future Chief of the United States Army Air Corps, Lieutenant Benjamin (“Bennie”) Foulois, used both radio and carrier pigeons to communicate with the ground from their Curtiss biplane. On June 2, 1912, Lieutenant Thomas DeWitt Milling flew a Wright Model B biplane, with Captain Charles de Forest Chandler firing a machine gun from the air. Both men became famous U.S. Air Service aviators. Similar indications of progress, not so well reported, took place in the military services of other countries.

Yet long before Chandler and Milling had fired a shot, the aircraft had gone to war, and in a significant way. On September 28, 1911, Lieutenant Colonel Vittorio Cordero di Montezemolo ordered the Aviation Unit of the Italian Specialist Battalion Headquarters to send an “air fleet” to Libya (then a part of the Ottoman Empire) as a part of a Special Army Corps “to protect Italian commercial interests.” It was, in fact, essentially an invasion of Turkish territory. Five pilots, under the command of Captain Carlo Piazza of the Eighth Field Artillery, were assigned to the task. They brought with them nine aircraft, including two Blériots, three Nieuports, two Farmans, and two of the dove-like Etrichs. All of these aircraft were equipped with fifty-horsepower Gnome rotary engines, and each one was provided its own hangar. More aircraft were dispatched later, along with a lighter-than-air unit consisting of four observation balloons and two airships.

The Italian invasion of Libya began on October 2, 1911, and had gone off relatively smoothly, but the transportation of the air fleet could not be undertaken until after the fall of Tripoli. Thus it was not until October 21 that Captain Piazza could report that his aircraft was ready for action.

The world’s first combat flight took place on October 23, when the Commander of the Air Fleet, Captain Piazza, took off at 6:19 A.M. to reconnoiter Turkish positions. In a sixty-one minute flight, he discovered several enemy encampments. While he was airborne, Captain Riccardo Moizo also took off to observe enemy dispositions. By this time, military observations from balloons had been conducted for many years, but this was the first military observation from an aircraft. The difference was enormous, for while the balloon was tethered (normally), the aircraft was free to fly wherever the pilot wished, allowing him to observe many more hundreds of square miles than the balloon observer could do.

There followed a yearlong series of sorties under extremely dangerous conditions. The French Military Air Force had signaled the Italian headquarters that it had found daytime flights over the desert to be particularly hazardous because of the air currents and the possibility of sandstorms. Nonetheless, the Italian air fleet carried on with surprising effectiveness for an initial effort at full-scale warfare.

On October 26, Captain Moizo’s Nieuport became the first aircraft ever to sustain combat damage. He had discovered a large encampment of some six thousand men, and came under rifle fire, suffering three hits in the wing, but no major damage.

It fell to Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti to make the world’s first combat bombing sortie, flying an Etrich Taube. He carried four of the grenade-like “Cipelli” bombs, each weighing about four pounds and roughly the size of a grapefruit. He dropped one on a Turkish position at Ain Zara, and three on the Oasis of Jagiura. Gavotti’s raid was widely reported, and had great effect upon the thinking of airmen in other armies. Another raid, this time by Captain Moizo, resulted in the Turkish government issuing what would become a familiar protest. They stated that bombs had been dropped on a hospital, a claim the Italians investigated and denied.

The tempo of the air campaign was accelerated, with heavier bombs being brought into play. Reconnaissance flights took place every day until weather conditions during December and January made regular sorties difficult.

During the long campaign, there were many other notable firsts, including the first dropping of propaganda leaflets, spotting for artillery, night-bombing and reconnaissance missions, and radio communications that involved no less a person than Guglielmo Marconi himself. The first pilot to be wounded in combat was Captain Carlo Montu, who was struck by a rifle bullet on January 31, 1912, over Tobruk. Sadly, the first pilot to die in combat was Second Lieutenant Piero Manzini, who crashed on August 25, 1912, shortly after takeoff for a photographic reconnaissance mission. The valiant Captain Moizo was forced to land behind enemy lines on September 10, when his Nieuport developed engine trouble. He was the first airplane pilot ever to be taken prisoner, and was not liberated until after the armistice was signed in November 1913.

The successful Italian air campaign received worldwide notice. On August 12, 1912, the London Times stated that “no one can have observed the work accomplished by the Italian airplanes at Tripoli without being deeply impressed by the courage and the ability of the Italian pilots and without being convinced of the valuable use of aviation in wartime.

On September 10, 1912, the Berliner Tageblatt took a slightly different view, reporting “for now at least, airplanes and airships are not practical used as offensive weapons: they have, however been shown to be very useful for reconnaissance. The Italian Command is always, thanks to aircraft, informed of every displacement of Turkish troops, and knows the exact positions of them. Moreover, following the photographs and relief maps made by the airships and airplanes, it has been possible to compile a map with which to conduct the war.”

The Italian air campaign had great effect upon the Italian people, who rejoiced when the principals were showered with decorations, and responded with a flood of poetry, songs, and even a board game celebrating it.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of the Italian campaign was philosophical rather than military, for it fell to Major (General Staff) Giulio Douhet, provisionary battalion commander, to make the full report on the campaign. Douhet had for years been an advocate of air power, writing articles in the service journal La Preparazione, but the campaign in Tripoli gave him his first chance to report facts rather than theories, and he made the most of it. His extensive report analyzed the technical and professional considerations that had affected the use of aircraft, and he drew interesting inferences on the preparation of flying personnel, their recruitment and training, as well as the types of aircraft to be procured. He concluded with an organizational proposal that became the structural framework for Italian aviation and industry during the 1914-18 war in Europe.

His experience and his report prepared him to write one of the most influential documents in the development of air power, Command of the Air.

Complete Victory In North Africa I

If the tide of World War II can be said to have turned at any one point in time, that point occurred in November 1942. In the foul jungles of Guadalcanal, as the last Japanese counterattack was hurled back, the United States took a permanent grip on the initiative in the Pacific. In Russia, the ferocious struggle for Stalingrad turned against Hitler as the Red Army encircled 300,000 German troops. And in North Africa, the twin successes of El Alamein and Operation Torch opened wide the gates of opportunity to the Allies.

This opportunity for quick, complete victory in North Africa had to be grasped immediately, however. The first chance came along the coast road west of El Alamein, as Rommel’s beaten troops fled before the victorious 8th Army. If Montgomery could throw an armored flanking column across the road ahead of the remnants of the Panzerarmee, the job begun at such cost at El Alamein would be finished in one stroke.

Montgomery’s painstaking battle plan had included a force to pursue the beaten enemy – Montgomery never doubted that the enemy would be beaten – but the three divisions he named a corps de chasse were sucked into the battle and badly mauled. At the very moment of victory, he had to improvise a new corps de chasse, one that was neither stocked with extra fuel nor rested and fresh for the chase.

“The essence of an armoured pursuit,” wrote a historian of the campaign, “is speed and boldness to the point of fool-hardiness.” Such a pursuit was, in fact, a perfect example of Rommel’s theory of boldness – a driving, headlong rush with much to gain and no real threat to the army if it failed. But this was not Bernard Montgomery’s way. He was a master of the set-piece engagement, superbly skilled at planning and preparing an army for battle and in balancing and adjusting forces on the battlefield. It was against his nature to take military risks, to indulge in what he called “mad rush” tactics. Nor, perhaps, was the Rommel legend quite dead. Even in defeat the Desert Fox’s reputation inspired caution among his pursuers.

The result was a series of frustrating near-misses. At first the very size of the 8th Army was a handicap, and the monumental traffic jam that developed as the corps de chasse tried to shake free cost some twelve hours. One trap misfired when a British column cut in toward the coast road too soon; another failed when the pursuers stopped for the night while their quarry kept moving. The New Zealanders were held up half a day by a mine field that turned out not only to be a dummy, but a dummy laid by the British themselves during the Gazala Gallop.

Most frustrating of all was the plight of the 1st Armored Division, which made a long dash through the desert toward Matruh – the site of Rommel’s dazzling victory the previous June – only to run out of gasoline twice and lose the race. On the evening of November 6, with Rommel’s hopes for escape already growing brighter, the heavens opened wide and rain deluged the two armies. On the desert tracks, the corps de chasse was immediately axle-deep in mud. On the paved coast road, the Panzerarmee limped on in the rain – and was finally out of reach.

So one Allied opportunity was lost, but another soon appeared in its place – Tunisia. By quickly seizing and holding this very defensible country, the Torch army could sever Rommel’s supply line and leave him hopelessly trapped. Tunisia, in fact, had once been on the list of Torch’s D-day objectives, but with all the other uncertainties, it seemed too much of a gamble to attempt an amphibious landing under the very nose of the Axis air force in Sicily. Still, the need to strike fast for Tunisia never left Eisenhower’s thoughts. “This single objective was constantly held before all eyes,” he wrote.

There were some 15,000 French troops in Tunisia, poorly armed but strong enough to deny the country to the Axis at least temporarily – if they would fight. Admiral Darlan, however, shrank from ordering the Tunisian garrison to shoot at Germans, even after ordering the shooting at the Allies in Algeria and Morocco to stop. Nor could the French commanders of the garrison bring themselves to put aside notions of military honor and loyalty to Marshal Pétain to act on their own.

As the hours slipped away and General Clark tried to pin down the squirming Darlan, the Germans scraped up men and guns and hurled them across the Sicilian narrows. French units sat in their weapons pits around the Tunisian airfields and watched impassively as scores of Junkers transport planes spiraled down and landed. Soon a thin line of German troops held the primary northern ports of Tunis and Bizerte and the defensive ground around them and began to trickle southward to “hold the door open” for Rommel.

(It took months to straighten out the troublesome political tangle centered in Algiers. The uproar in the United States and Britain over the so-called Darlan Deal ended only when Darlan was assassinated on Christmas Eve of 1942 by a young French patriot. General Giraud then took over, but he proved to be, in President Roosevelt’s tart phrase, “a very slender reed” to depend upon. Finally, General de Gaulle brought order out of the confusion. Free French forces were rearmed and eventually played an important role in liberating their homeland from Nazi rule.)

The door of opportunity was still ajar, for the German beachhead was very weak, and the Allies were racing hard for Tunis. More than 550 miles of rugged, mountainous country lay before them. “Get there somehow, and get there quick” was their motto, a war correspondent wrote. “No one quite knew what enemy, if any, was ahead or to the flanks, but morale was up to the limits and there was an infectious air of excitement. . . .” Infantrymen and paratroopers, U.S. Rangers and British commandos, rushed on, never knowing if there would be fuel or ammunition – or food – for the next day.

By mid-November, the Allies were well across the Tunisian border but facing stiffening resistance. The Axis poured men into Tunisia at the rate of more than 1,000 a day, a pace the Allies could not match. The Luftwaffe harassed the advancing columns. Nevertheless, a British force pushed to within a dozen miles of Tunis before it was forced back. The race was in its last lap, the outcome was hanging in the balance – and then the rains came.

The soil of northern Tunisia has a peculiar consistency, and overnight it turned into one great soft sea of mud. “Tunisian mire has a flypaper quality all its own,” wrote Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck, a colonel in the Signal Corps. “There are no puddles and you don’t slip or splash; you just sink in sort of gentle-like and stay there.” General Eisenhower toured the front before a major attack he had scheduled for Christmas Eve. Everywhere he looked the army was bogged down; at one point he watched as four soldiers tried to get a single motorcycle out of a mud hole, became swamped themselves, and finally left the machine mired deeper than when they began. Bitterly disappointed, he called off the attack. The race for Tunis was over.

The stalemate in Tunisia during the winter of 1942–43, like the siege of Tobruk in 1941, was bloody and monotonous and frustrating; but instead of the heat and dust of Tobruk, the troops in Tunisia lived in cold and mud. It was a winter full of those little incidents of war that seemed especially senseless when neither side could gain an advantage. Correspondent Alan Moorehead recorded one such incident, in a village called El Aroussa, in January, 1943.

“The morning broke unusually clear, and I wandered into the village,” Moorehead wrote. “In the main street half a dozen Tommies were washing in the horse trough, and I fell into conversation with them. They were Londoners, adolescent boys on their first campaign and enjoying a good deal of it. Their backs and chests as they washed were very white, but their faces had gone scarlet through exposure. . . . They were friendly and shy and very determined to do well in the war. . . .

“As I walked back to my camp the Stukas came over. . . . It seemed for a moment that they were going to sail by the village, but at the last moment they altered direction, opened their flaps, and dived. The bombs tumbled out lazily, turning over and over in the morning sunshine. Then with that graceful little jump and a flick, each aircraft turned upward and out of its dive and wheeled away. . . .

“I walked over to the centre of the village, keeping care to stay away from an exploding ammunition lorry. A barnlike building had taken a direct hit, and the coiled barbed wire [stored there] had threshed about wildly in a thousand murderous tentacles. The blast had carried these fragments across to the water trough, and now my six young friends were curiously huddled up and twisted over one another. It is the stillness of the dead that is so shocking. Even their boots don’t seem to lie on the ground as those of a sleeping man would. They don’t move at all. They seem to slump into the earth with such unnatural overwhelming tiredness. . . .”

In the desert to the east, meanwhile, the retreat of the Panzerarmee continued. The British pursued doggedly, relentlessly, unable to catch up to Rommel but giving him no rest either. On November 23, for the third time in less than two years, he was back at El Agheila. There the Panzerarmee held for three weeks, gravely wounded but still dangerous, while Montgomery stock-piled supplies for an attack. On December 13, as the British barrage began, the Desert Fox pulled out.

After another three-week pause at Buerat, some 200 miles to the west, the retreat continued. Tripoli could not be defended, and on January 23, 1943, the 8th Army marched into the city. Since the days of Wavell and O’Connor, British soldiers had dreamed of taking Tripoli, seemingly as unreachable as a desert mirage. Now, wrote a correspondent, they “stood with wonderment and emotion beside the playing fountains” – and then marched on westward. On February 12, the second anniversary of Rommel’s arrival in North Africa, the rear guards of the Afrika Korps withdrew across the Libyan border into Tunisia. The Axis dug in at the formidable Mareth Line.

This kind of retreat had gone against all Rommel’s instincts. His orders had been to withdraw as slowly as possible, holding off the 8th Army as long as possible. Rommel favored either withdrawal from North Africa (given Axis supply problems, he believed the campaign was a lost cause) or the classic strategy of an army threatened with entrapment: rapid concentration to defeat the enemy forces in detail before they could combine against him. Every mile Rommel retreated shortened his supply line and lengthened the 8th Army’s, allowing him to retreat a great deal faster than the British could chase him. The Desert Fox had wanted to hurry to Tunisia, connect with General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army there to rout the still-weak Torch army, and then turn on the 8th Army while it dangled at the end of its long supply line.

He flew to Germany to raise these matters of strategy with Hitler. The reaction was, in Rommel’s words, “like a spark in a powder barrel. The Führer flew into a fury. . . . I began to realize that Adolf Hitler simply did not want to see the situation as it was and that he reacted emotionally against what his intelligence must have told him was right.”

Rommel was still determined to seize the initiative if he could. In February 1943, leaving his infantry in the Mareth Line to hold off Montgomery, he led the Afrika Korps northward for an assault on the Americans in the narrow “waist” of Tunisia. On February 14, the panzers sprang forward to the attack.