The Italian Royal Army’s Counterinsurgency Operations in Africa, 1922-1940
Federica Saini Fasanotti
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2020, 224 pages
Book Review published on: June 5, 2020
The 1920s and 1930s saw fascism on the march. Italy, with the dubious distinction of being the first country to fall under the sway of the fascists, soon found itself beginning the first of its overseas ventures in Africa. While Benito Mussolini’s expansion into Ethiopia is often used to illustrate the growing threat of fascism prior to World War II, less well known or discussed is the guerrilla war in Libya. The Italians considered the operation to be a “reconquest” of territory that already belonged to them due to a successful campaign fought against the Ottomans prior to World War I. In fact, total control of Italy’s newest colonial acquisition was never achieved during the first decade, with Italian control limited to coastal enclaves. Once Mussolini became prime minister, a concerted effort to achieve proper domination of Libya was enacted.
The first half of Vincere! The Italian Royal Army’s Counterinsurgency Operations in Africa, 1922-1940 looks at the efforts of the Royal Italian Army (and the Royal Italian Air Force) to defeat the insurgent Berbers and Arabs of Libya in an environment that was both physically challenging and culturally daunting. One of the reasons that Italy was not able to take full possession of the colony after the Ottomans ceded it to them was the vast desert areas of Libya. The Italians also did not understand the “human geography” of the land. However, Italian soldiers who learned their craft while fighting the Austro-Hungarians in the Alps soon found their feet in the sands of the Sahara. Many had fought the Great War under conditions that are unimaginable to us today and, if not inured to hardship, they then at least could deal with. They also learned to try different techniques and different technologies to succeed rather than the same techniques and weapons that had been used so many times before. The Alps might have been about as different from the Sahara as one could find on Earth, but it served as a training school for motivated and imaginative leaders.
Italy was involved in an insurgency in Libya. Truth be told, Libya was barely the Ottomans’ to give away; the Turks who ran the empire were almost as foreign to the Berbers and Arabs as the Italians would be later. The Italians tried to use Metropolitan units to secure Libya, but the solution turned out to be the employment of colonial troops on behalf of the Italian authorities.
This meant bringing Eritrean and Somalian troops from the Horn of Africa, as well as the employment of certain tribes and clans within Libya against insurgents who represented traditional enemies. Not only were these forces easy to outfit and maintain, they were also much less costly to maintain than Metropolitan troops. Under Italian supervision, they were just as fast and effective in the Sahara as the insurgents.
Those Libyans who were not part of the insurgency were a problem for the Italians. Insurgent fighters used rifles and other weapons against the Italians, therefore nonmilitary possession of weapons was outlawed. However, this left a population that might otherwise be neutral at the mercy of the insurgents with no means to defend themselves (promises of protection by Italian forces could rarely be kept). The insurgents were able to garner reluctant support from the populace with threats of force, receiving intelligence and food to maintain the insurgency. Radical efforts were employed to separate the insurgents from their means of support.
Aircraft and motor vehicles were employed to bring the fight to the insurgents, although camel caravans continued to be important, especially to colonial troops. Early on, aircraft proved their worth as “flying artillery” and in finding the enemy. Clearly, the Italians were aware of British doctrine in this field and adapted it for their own use in North Africa.
The second half of Vincere! looks at Ethiopia. While the “reconquest” of Libya took place in the 1920s, the Italo-Ethiopian War was in the 1930s. The destruction of Ethiopia’s army and the occupation of the country took only a few months, but the resulting insurgency continued for several years. Experience in the Sahara during the previous decade was applied to the Horn of Africa.
In many ways, the environment was even more challenging for the Italians than Libya was. Roads were narrow and turned to mud in the rainy season, making supplies brought in through the Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somaliland difficult to transport to the Italian army. Recruitment of colonial units ran into problems since the tribal dynamics and poor discipline of askaris (soldiers) led to abuses of civilians, apparently with Italian approval. Indeed, the very nature of Ethiopian governance and society lent itself to insurgency. The former leader of the country, Negus (King) Haile Selassie, ruled among the tribes by diplomacy not through military strength, legal convention, or political power.
Airpower could make a difference, but the Italian government emphasized economy over force in Ethiopia, reminding commanders how many lira every hour of aircraft flight time cost the state. In any case, there was little to bomb once the army dissolved, and insurgents melted into villages that looked like every other village. Even shipping captured leaders of the insurgency to an island off the coast of Italy did little to dampen the fighting.
Overall, Fasanotti’s book is an excellent study, not of specific military actions, which one could argue are irrelevant in the context of counterinsurgency, but of the realistic appraisal of the insurgents, their capabilities, and their weaknesses.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas