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John Gooch's 'Mussolini's War'


Staff member
I have finished reading John Gooch’s Mussolini’s War.


I will begin by stating that this is a challenging review to write. I guess beginning at the end is best.

Gooch has written a good book for those starting to delve into the realities of the Italian military during the 'seconda guerra mondiale' (2GM). It is a better book than his Mussolini and his Generals, which was a challenge to work through without already having a strong background on Italy during this period. This book will replace Knox’s Mussolini Unleashed as my first recommendation for an introduction to the dynamics of the senior leadership, economics, and the politics of Fascist Italy. I do believe that there are two important pieces missing from his account. Because of that, I feel books for the English reader by Knox, Sweet, Burgwyn, Bosworth, Sica, etc. are still required reading for some of the reasons discussed in the paragraphs below. Of course, there is significantly more material in Italian.

What I liked.

Gooch covers the events/activities of the Italian military from 1935 to 1943. This is the only book in English that I am aware of that discusses all the theaters within each war (discounting the books by Patrick Cloutier and Frank Joseph that are very suspect in their presentation of Italy’s war effort). From Ethiopia through Spain to the 2GM, his account moves rather quickly through the years. What is especially nice to read is his Chapter 6 Terror in the Balkans, which covers Italy’s role in the Balkans after the invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia. This topic is usually briefly glossed-over or ignored in most accounts. Burgwyn’s Empire on the Adriatic specifically addresses the Balkans, but that is separate book. In all, he provides an overview of where the Italian military was operating and what they did during those years.

Overview is an important word. He doesn’t go into any real depth on specific military operations. I feel this book does a better job of pointing out areas for further in-depth research by interested readers, rather than being the definitive (or completely descriptive) word on the events described. The footnotes and bibliography give the reader plenty of sources to delve deeper on any of the points touched upon in his narrative.

In all, a valuable addition for the English reader, but nothing new in terms of newly discovered research.

The basic message that I came away with from the book was the lack of any strategic direction in both peace and war; that Italy tried to build a military that its economy couldn’t support; the military leadership was ineffective in limiting Mussolini’s desires; and that generals and admirals did little to adjust to the realities of modern warfare.

Of these themes, the economic one gets plenty of attention, but only the area of raw materials. In his afterword Gooch talks about the ‘ad hoc’ system for production prioritization (p. 415), that topic is never fully explored in depth in the body of the book. There has been much research on the performance/behavior of Italian industry during the war than wasn't included here. The lack of strategic direction discussion is marginally okay, but the reader is not provided with information to better understand the nature of Italy's strategic challenges. The others areas are mentioned from time to time, but presented more as facts with little discussion. While I understood from my own research the foundations his positions were set upon, I kept waiting for the author’s take on how they manifested and why they mattered.

Gooch tells us throughout his text that the military leadership fully understood the problems/limitations of the tool that themselves had built in the previous decade. Time and time again he demonstrates that the military leaders tried to stop Mussolini from placing the military into situations where failure was certain to happen. Overruled, they then struggled to find a solution for which no good solution existed. I wanted to read how the military tried to square the round peg to fit the hole, but it wasn’t there. I am not sure the casual or first time reader of the Italian military during the war will pick-up on this important distinction.

The missing pieces

It is a detailed discussion of the development of the military during the 30s that is the first missing piece. Here is where the culpability of the military leadership can be said to reside. Gooch mentions both the doctrine of guerra lampo and guerra di rapido corso, yet he doesn’t discuss those concepts and how they shaped the development of the Italian military during the 30s. Was the doctrine of guerra di rapido corso itself fatally flawed? How much of the failure of the military was due to the inability of the Italian economy to provide the tools, combined with the lack of suitable training to successfully implement these doctrines? Both of these issues are stated throughout the book without edification. Was a training program developed that could fully and effectively prepare the officers and soldiers to execute the doctrine? If Italy had implemented their doctrine prior to the war, would that have changed the performance of the military? While that discussion would be speculation, did the military fail because they tried to implement the new doctrine with an incomplete tool, or did they fail because they didn’t adjust the planning to the realities of the tool they had?

An example of this is the divisione binaria (binary division). Gooch mentions its implementation and implies/states that this was part of the problem during the war (pp. 32-33, 52, 54). I have not found any good evidence to support this position. Was it the lack of equipment, and that much of what was available was obsolete more causal to the failure of the army than the binaria organization? The charts in L’esercito italiano tra la 1ª e 2ª guerra mondiale show that, except for heavy machine-guns, the density of weapons against the number of regiments actually improved in the divisione binaria.

If the divisione binaria was such a failure, why were the six gruppi di combattimento formed in 1944 in-fact divisioni binaria? Why didn’t the Regio Esercito take advantage of the rebuilding of the army to change the structure? With better weapons and training, the gruppi di combattimento performed quite well. Without any discussion of the strength/weaknesses of between the ternaria o binaria, one must take his comments on faith.

Training itself isn’t discussed in any detail. What were the problems affecting prewar training? Was the training and junior leadership more of problem than equipment? How did the lack of motorization in society affect the ability to create an army capable of executing guerra di rapids corso? How did the social stratification in Fascist Italy impact soldier performance? The education of the officer corps is occasionally mentioned, but never really discussed

The second missing piece is what actions did the military take (or attempted to take) to adjust to the realities of the war.

Here Gooch offers very little. The Italians made several changes during the war in an attempt to improve combat performance. The changes in the divisional structure are briefly mentioned on page 302, but he doesn’t provide any discussion of what was changed and why it was changed. Initially the divisioni tipo A.S. 42 structure was for North Africa, but many of its features were incorporated into the divisioni tipo 43 structure that was to be applied to the entire army.

On the same page the introduction of the 75mm self-propelled guns (the semoventi da 75) are mentioned. This was an effective armored vehicle and signaled the transition from an offensive to a defensive doctrine, as well as recognizing the limitations of Italian industry. The fielding of the Autoblindo 41/42 is mentioned in passing, but no discussion of how the lack of a capable reconnaissance vehicle affect the early operations.

The formation of the battaglioni «M» in 1941 to improve the performance of the CC.NN. (Blackshirt) units, the new assault units for the invasion of Malta in 1942, and other initiatives demonstrate that to some degree the R.E. was learning and adapting. Little is stated about these changes.

Changes in training are also overlooked. Richard Carrier’s article Some reflections on the Fighting Power in Africa 1940-1943 (listed in the bibliography) discusses how the army in North Africa implemented new training programs to better equip the soldati to fight the enemy. Some of Brian Sullivan’s articles also touch on this area. It is true that the R.E. never was able to put a better universal training regime in place, but it wasn’t because they didn’t try (how hard they tried is up for discussion).

Because of this, the book was at times uncomfortable reading. What he was presenting was factually correct, but an incomplete story of how Fascist Italy got to September 1943. In my research I have always approached the military leadership as having a degree of competency. I might disagree with what they did, but I can usually follow the logic behind their decisions (whether it was the right logic is alway the question). What I felt the author was telling me that Fascist Italy was on a fatal course and no one cared/tried to change it. That could be an over-reaction on my part as I was hoping for something more than what I read.

Accepting that going to war was a fact, Italy needed brilliance to pull it off under the historical situation. Brilliance was something that was definitely lacking.

I do recommend Mussolini’s War as it is the only single volume in English that covers all areas of Italy’s involvement in the 2GM. It is a start and I hope it will cause individuals to become interested in learning more of the successes and failures of the Italian military.

Pista! Jeff
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Staff member
I ordered my copy from Europe. The US edition won't be released until December.

Mussolini's WarUS.jpg

Pista! Jeff


Staff member
We should start including book reviews on the main site. I have one on Sacrifice on the Russian Steppe. It's not as thorough as yours, but it would be nice to devote a section to books reviews if we can get enough of them.


Staff member
Getting enough of them is the challenge. We can encourage members to write reviews of existing books. Quality might be a constraint.

Pista! Jeff