I received my copy of The Italian Folgore Parachute Division: Operations in North Africa 1940-1943 by Paolo Morisi right before Christmas. Bottomline at the top: My first impression while reading the book was that the writing was a bit disjointed; my overall though is incomplete with some glaring errors. Is it worth reading? A qualified yes mainly because of the lack of other English sources. Given what little is published in English, it is not a terrible book and is worth reading with the following caveat: There is some good material here, but trying to separate the wheat from the chaff is a chore. If quoting this book, expect to be challenged. It is not in any way definitive and seriously needs to be superseded by a better-researched book.
My difficulty with the book begins in the introduction. While reading alarm bells began to sound in my head. On page xvii, he extols the value of Frank Joseph’s Mussolini’s War. Joseph is a massive revisionist on Italy’s war effort, who cherry-picks facts and creates major victories from small to insignificant events ( Frank Joseph ). To be clear, WW2 Italian military history does need to be fairly presented to English language readers; years of heavily biased writings need to be challenged and a true picture of Italy’s war written. What Joseph writes is almost alt-history, a telling of an Italian military that never existed. Morisi uses a statement from Joseph that by 1942 the RM was “…fighting on par with the British Royal Navy in the central Mediterranean, …” (page xvii) . That the Italians achieved a significant victory in the summer of 1942 is true, but it wasn’t due to ‘fighting on par’. They won by orchestrating a fight that better utilized their limited resources at a geographic point where the Allies were weakest. This was never repeated and by the fall the Axis had basically lost the battle for the Med. I was worried that Morisi’s writing would echo this approach.
Reading Chapter 1, it appears Morisi has completely ignored the work pioneered at Castel Benito in A.S. He instead begins his story with the establishment of the school at Tarquinia. While certainly true that the Folgore was ‘born there’, his discussion of the development of Italian airborne doctrine focuses on raids/commando type requirements. That is different from the birth of the paracadutisti at Castel Benito. That school was established in early 1938 and two btg. Paracadutisti were formed. Rather than the small unit ‘sabotage’ tactics, he discusses on page 20, the Fanti dell Aria actually executed a training event that included a mass parachute drop to capture an airfield, which was then followed by air-landing an infantry brigade at that airfield. This is classic ‘vertical envelopment’ and not hit and run raids.
The strength of the book is the personal accounts, the discussion of the training, and the quoting of doctrinal manuals. The latter is marred by selective editing. More of this material would be welcome. I feel that the battle accounts are similar to the ones in Montanari’s The Three Battle of Alamein. The maps in Morisi’s book are redrawn versions of those from ‘Three Battles’. I would strongly encourage those interested in the Folgore fight at Alamein to buy Montanari’s book. Many more maps and Montanari does a better job of setting the battle within the greater context. The two books together offer a more complete look at Folgore’s actions during those battles.
The Weaknesses are Many
When I first received the book, I thumbed through it to gain a sense of what it offered. I noticed several miss-captioned pictures and some questionable statements. Checked the bibliography and received another surprise; Arnea’s Folgore Storia del paracadutismo militare italiano nor his I Paracadutisti are listed. Nor is Paolo Caccia Dominioni’s Takfir (although his Alamein 1933-1962 is listed). Montanari’s Enfidaville, the fourth volume of his Operazioni in Africa Settentrionale is here, but not his third volume (El Alamein). I did find the third volume in a footnote so it was used (as were the maps I mentioned above). There were several other books referenced in footnotes but not listed in the bibliography.
There is little on the Folgore’s actions after El Alamein. This was a wasted opportunity to detail Folgore’s role in the Tunisian campaign. The fighting at Takrouna is the main part of this chapter, but the account again was a bit disjointed and poorly framed within the larger event. That chapter was a complete bust for me. So much to share and little was provided.
One expects that a book focused on a single unit would include multiple organizational charts and detailed data. The OB presented are rudimentary and have errors. Morisi states that a platoon is only 9 men (picture on page 33, text on page 37). Page 47 states the division has 72 47/32 guns (correct) while the OB on page 67 lists 144 (incorrect).
What is the Breda 38 machine gun mentioned on page 43? Is it the tank coax that has been modified for use by the infantry (unlikely)? Or is it the fucile mitragliatore mod. 38 using the 7.35 cartridge (even more unlikely). Or is this the MAB 38A as implied on page 48?
What is his issue with the Breda 37? On page 27 he states that the Breda 37 was an ‘effective weapon by 1941 standards’. Rather a ‘meh’ statement about a machine gun most agree was quite good. Then he states “…and could only fire against bomber and fighter planes with the rather antiquated Breda model 37 guns” (page 76). Antiquated? Where does that comment come from? And “the Folgore units could only count on their obsolete and inadequate Breda machine guns and 47/32mm guns.” (page185). Obsolete and inadequate? I think there were a few more negative comments but I didn’t mark them. These could be some interesting comments if he had only cited sources so the reader could read them to understand/judge their validity.
While reading these comments about the Breda 37, I was wondering if he was confusing the Breda 37 with the Breda 30. Damming the author if true, but making a better sense of his statements. Of course, a clean discussion of the organization and equipment of the sub-units of the division would have helped clarify this issue.
In the end, the book only reinforced my opinion of Helion Publishing. I like that they are willing to publish titles on other armies/wars/campaigns rather than the mainstream interests (eastern front again?). On the other hand, they are willing (i.e. desperate?) to publish any title that comes to them. In BTWs it is hit or miss. Morisi’s book needed more work and a good publisher would have pushed to do so.
After reading this review, why read the book? Morisi does get the general message right and fortunately doesn’t go down the road inspired by Joseph. The skill and courage of the Italian paracadutisti demonstrate that the soldiers weren’t the main problem with the Italian military during the war. His book complements Montanari’s telling of the story at Alamein (but doesn’t replace it). Hopefully, this will spur others to write about Italy’s participation during the war.