Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity, quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace.https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/benito_mussolini_158719
(Photo credit – Wikipedia – Italian soldiers march into France June 10, 1040)
In September 1939, Mussolini kept Italy “non-belligerent” at the outbreak of World War II. As our opening quote demonstrates, this was not from any pacifist inclination. It was a decision based on what the Duce considered to be in the best interest of Italy as a Fascist state, as he deemed that interest at that moment. Despite his commitment to stand by Hitler under the terms of the “Pact of Steel” of May 1939, Mussolini felt that the risk of defeat and the end of his regime, and perhaps his personal fate, overruled the impetus to gain a share in the spoils of a potential victory. According to the military analysts of most of the world in the autumn of 1939, the likelihood of Germany’s defeat was rather high. Mussolini was not willing to have Italy dragged to destruction in the coming conflagration.
For the next nine months, Mussolini stood aside, stubbornly persisting in rebuffing all German overtures to honour his commitment of more than benevolent neutrality towards his Fascist ally. Spain too resisted German overtures to put pressure on the British in particular, and Mussolini also hoped that, if and when he judged the time right to jump in propitious, Franco would make the move at the same time. After all, Spain could close the Straits of Gibraltar to the British fleet by capturing the British stronghold and naval base at Gibraltar. This would ensure that British reinforcements could not penetrate to save Malta or reinforce Egypt, which were under British control. The strong Italian fleet based at Taranto on the sole of the Italian “boot” would then truly transform the Mediterranean into “Mare Nostrum” – at least once the French Fleet at Toulon had been neutralized and the British base at Alexandria captured by Italian forces advancing from Libya (an Italian colony since 1911). With such prospectives Mussolini could almost see the return of ancient Roman grandeur in his lifetime.
But first, Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel, and the Fascist Grand Council needed to be convinced that the lightning swift German conquest of Poland within a month was not a one-off fluke. France and Britain still stood united and, to all appearances, strong. The great French Army which had played the biggest role in humbling the pride of Imperial Germany and ending the “Second Reich” in 1918 was expected to deal the newly reformed German Wehrmacht a resounding defeat once the “real war” started in earnest. The Royal Navy was still mistress of the oceans, and Germany’s new navy was puny in comparison. Only the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, was reckoned the finest in the world as 1940 began. On the other side stood the greatest and finest navy in the world, and the reputed best army in the world. To jump in with such high stakes stacked against him was contrary to the Duce’s shrewd political judgment.
In April, the “Phony War” suddenly came to an end with a surprise German move north into Scandinavia. Denmark was overrun in a day on April 9, 1940, and simultaneous German moves against Norway turned that country into a major battlefield. The boldness of that move was striking, seeing that it took the British unawares and evaded their fleet patrols in the North Sea to land forces at several major ports as far north as Narvik, the key port for shipping Swedish iron ore to Germany. The Norwegians fought valiantly and the British navy did great damage to the Kriegsmarine after the fact, but the Germans used their control of the air to reinforce and sustain their most forward troops as the major thrust moved through Oslo and began a grinding campaign to join all the bridgeheads together. The Royal Navy suffered serious losses as well, as aircraft proved capable of sinking heavy, well-armored ships. The British also lost one of their fleet aircraft carriers as well – a heavy cost to pay in an eventually futile campaign.
The Allied counterattack into Norway was ill-managed, badly coordinated, and vacillating. Mussolini took careful note. By early May, only Narvik still remained outside Nazi control, and British forces sent to Trondheim had had to withdraw after a fiasco of bad planning, poor execution, and constant Luftwaffe bombardment. On every front, the Germans displayed superior morale, planning, and execution. For a month the Norwegian war held the headlines, but on May 10, that all changed.
May 10 was, for the Germans, “Der Tag” – “The Day” – as June 6, 1944 for the Allies became “D-Day”. It was the great gamble. The forces on each side were about equal on paper, but the governing mindsets were very different. On May 10, the Germans struck simultaneously at the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. Holland fell after 5 days, and most of the country would henceforth be occupied for almost five years. The Belgian army fought valiantly for eighteen days, but despite the forward advance of the best troops of the French and British armies into the country to stop and help push back the Germans, the Allies rapidly lost control of the campaign. For the German thrust into the Netherlands and Belgium, serious as it was, was actually a gigantic feint. It succeeded in luring the Allied field armies into a trap, for the main German push began on May 12 through the Ardennes Forest, an area thinly defended by a few French reserve divisions because it was considered impassable to armored forces.
The French and British had armored divisions as well, but they were not concentrated into a compact pile-driver spearhead as were the German Panzer divisions. Accompanied by specially trained assault troops and engineering battalions, the Panzer Korps broke the crust of French troops and burst out of the Ardennes virtually unopposed on May 14 and began to race across the open ground of north-east France towards the English Channel. Very clearly, if this could not be halted in short order and in turn cut off by an Allied counterattack, the best French field army plus the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would be cut off and surrounded with their backs to the sea. It was not.
The Allies began to retreat to the English Channel coast; but on May 28 the Belgians surrendered without giving prior warning to their allies. Almost half a million men were “in the bag” to all appearances. The only port that remained available to pull at least some of the trapped troops out of the pocket was Dunkirk. In what was later described as “the Miracle of Dunkirk”, 338 000 British and French troops were rescued and brought back to England, minus virtually all their weapons and equipment. Equipment could eventually be replaced, but these trained soldiers could not.
Within two weeks, the Germans had beaten much of the remainder of the French Army in a massive, hard-fought battle and were closing in on Paris. Mussolini had a sudden revelation that he needed to stand by Hitler’s side – especially if he hoped to get a seat at the table when the Allies surrendered. With great bombast, speaking in public to an apparently delirious crowd of perhaps 100 000, the Duce declared war on France and Britain on June 10, believing that the time was opportune to gain a piece of France along the Mediterranean Coast, and to have a free hand to pluck some colonies in North Africa – especially Tunisia from France and Egypt from Great Britain, and perhaps even more.
Thus, by June 1940, with Hitler forcing France to sign an armistice on June 22 and taking control of all northern and central France as well as the entire Atlantic coastline, as well as already holding Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg, it seemed clear who had won the war. It would not be a long grinding affair of attrition as in World War I after all. Only Britain, along with its empire, still remained defiantly in the field against the Axis, and the British had to understand that it would be utter folly to keep fighting alone against the Fascist Empires now bestriding Northern, Central, and Western Europe.
“They must make peace,” stated Mussolini. If they did not, they would lose their empire, or perhaps their home islands would actually be invaded and captured by the terrible might of the premier Fascist power in the world, which all could now see wielded the most fearsome war machine ever seen. Italy would then be unopposed in making the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum” and extending Italian rule across North Africa and into the Balkan Peninsula in south-east Europe.
For a time, big dreams danced in the Duce’s head and, to some extent, in the eyes of the Italian people. Time would tell how well these dreams of a new Roman Empire could be made a reality.
TO BE CONTINUED