Some Thoughts on “Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts”
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Some Thoughts on “Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts”

cover of "Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts" by Ian W. Walker

Ian W. Walker, Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini’s Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa (The Crowood Press: Ramsbury, UK, 2003)

Even during the war, nobody wanted to tell the truth about the Italian army. The fascist government and their pet generals did not want to admit that they had entered the war on a whim and sent soldiers with too little training and equipment into battle. German soldiers often disliked the Italians for good old ethnocentric reasons, and found that it was very convenient to blame them for everything which went wrong. And as they suffered defeat after defeat in 1940, 1941, and 1942, the British leaned on their own stereotypes to depict the one Axis power they could beat as frivolous and cowardly. The Italian army did not always fight its unjust wars enthusiastically, and did not keep fighting for two years after the war had been lost, but it is rarely praised for this. Ian W. Walker’s Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts is a good summary of the reassessment by an amateur historian who can read English and Italian. It has basic sketch maps and handy line drawings of key Italian equipment such as the M11, M13, and M14 series of medium tanks. Rather than a traditional review, this week I will post three things I learned from this book.

Books on wars in the 20th century often assume that you know that 2 to 4 regiments make a division, 2 to 4 divisions make a corps, 2 to 4 corps make an army, and 2 to 4 armies make an army group. This book confirmed that these words do not always mean what they say they mean. On paper, an Italian armoured division had half the manpower of a German panzer division in 1941. It had less or worse equipment in every respect except the number of tanks (the Italians kept an establishment of around 200 tanks per division, whereas the Germans reduced it to 100 when the boss decided they needed more armoured divisions in 1941). Italian infantry divisions were usually binary (two regiments) in a war where most divisions were triangular (three regiments) or square (four regiments). Since they also had less equipment per thousand men than Commonwealth or German units, an Italian division had about half the fighting power of a Commonwealth division. I get the impression that a Soviet army is a German corps (a force of 2 to 4 divisions). That Fremde Heere Osten report from 1938 p. 2 says that the Imperial Japanese Army was also divided into divisions, armies, and fronts rather than divisions, corps, and armies. So these words do not mean the same thing when applied to different countries.

Just as in preindustrial warfare horses die quicker than men, in industrial warfare vehicles break down faster than men. An armoured ‘division’ was often reduced to a few thousand men and a few dozen tanks plus a trail of broken-down vehicles, sweating repair teams, and jingling trucks bringing up fuel. So counting divisions is not a very good way to estimate relative strengths in WW II. No wonder many books on WW I and WW II spend hundreds of pages to communicate what happened no better than a Babylonian chronicler would have: “After conquering the cities of the land of Krimaja, the big man of Germanija gathered his armies on the river Donets and invaded the land of Ukranija. He destroyed many cities and overran the countryside until the Kukasū mountains and the river Volga. In winter the people of the land attacked his armies on the Volga from the north and the south and they fled to the river Donets leaving their baggage behind.”

One reason why Italy was less of a threat than Germany was that it had about the population of the UK, but 1/7 of Britain’s industrial capacity, little coal and no oil. In 1933 Italy decided to build more than 1,000 L3 three-ton light tanks. These were fast (suiting Italian doctrine that tanks were for offensives and breakthroughs), had a low centre of gravity (suiting Italy’s mountainous borders), and cheap (suiting Italy’s small industrial base), but had no turret and were only rifle-proof. These tanks were never designed to fight in Libya or Somaliland, but when Italy went to war they were what was available. In 1938, Italy still had no medium tank at all. By 1940 they had a decent design, but by 1942 it was out of date again. I did not know that Italy had a design for a 26-ton heavy tank in 1940 (the P26/40), but were unable to build the first prototype until early 1942 (p. 48)! Italy simply did not have the industrial capacity to maintain three armoured divisions, rebuild its fleet, and keep up with the race to build the best-armed, best-armoured tank. The Italian force which marched into Egypt at the end of 1940 had no guns capable of destroying the British Matilda II tanks by direct fire, so the motorized British could attack Italian outposts one by one and drive tanks straight into them (p. 61). When the Italians obtained self-propelled 75 mm guns and 90 mm anti-tank guns later in the war, British tankers had to be much more cautious.

I liked the author’s description of the dry, rocky environment of the western desert. This area is not covered by sand dunes like the Sahara but is prone to sand storms and offers little or no cover. The hard rocky ground tears up tracks and wheels and is hard to dig, while sand dunes and flash floods can block roads and railways tracks. Libya was not a valuable colony (the oil and natural gas were discovered after 1945) so the Italians had not spent much money building up infrastructure. This description did make me think about how the climate in this area has changed since antiquity. Its not well known that in the Bronze Age the western desert was a kind of savannah. The cities of Cyrene in eastern Libya were notoriously rich, and as late as the first century BCE, Strabo the geographer could say “the whole of the coast opposite to us, I mean that between the Nile and the Pillars, and particularly the part which was subject to the Carthaginians, is settled and prosperous; but here too some parts here and there are destitute of water.” (Geography 17.3.1) The area around Carthage used to be a breadbasket of the Roman empire. Were the coastal parts of the western desert as barren in antiquity as today?

Walker’s Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts is available on bookfinder and biblio

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(written 2021, scheduled 18 January 2022)

10 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts”

  1. russell1200 says:

    First culprit is the Italian Navy. As with the French and Japanese, they spent an enormous amount of money on a navy, and this is probably the singular most important reason for their equipment short comings.

    So benchmark the Italians equipment to the German’s. Germans had a habit of taking over other people’s equipment and turning using it to beat the pants off people. they didn’t get as much of a chance to do it with Italian equipment, though they did like the Italian Semovanti 75mm armed assault gun.

    The German Pzkpfw I was pretty much a mg armed tankette. The Pzkpfw II was only slightly better with a 20mm that could penetrate light skinned armor. The Pzkpfw III had more room for improvement than the Italian’s starting tank of WW2 (M13/40), but at least as it was armed and armored in 1939/40 wasn’t technically too much better. The Italian M13/40 is very close to the Czech T35 and (though slower) T38 that the Germans took over in large numbers and used to great effect.

    The Germans won by having a flexible tactical system that used a lot of vehicle mounted radios to enhance team coordination. Early on the Germans only had receivers in their non-leader tanks, but that is better then trying to follow flag signals. At higher than the squadron level, the Germans made heavy use of specialized command vehicles with stronger radio transmitters, so that cohesion was maintained at all levels.

    The most likely culprit is their overly hierarchal military culture. To be fair to the Italians, this was true of Germany’s opponents to varying degrees as well. The German probably started some of their more flexible approach earlier, but it truly came to fruition with the 1917 Storm Trooper tactics. Post war added vehicles and radios.

    The only army I know of that used this same tactical flexibility was the Japanese. We noted that the Japanese sank (more realistically in their case) a huge amount of resources into their navy. So there ground troops were even more poorly off than the Italians. But using a light infantry version of the German approach, they defeated an awful lot of European troops in 1941. The light infantry approach didn’t scale up well to the later material heavy battles they fought (Germany’s approach suffered as well), but they did win a lot of early fights.

  2. dearieme says:

    Some things are almost chance. My father fought in Churchill tanks. In open country they were inferior to their German opponents principally by being under-gunned and slow.

    But the hard fighting in France was in the bocage country and there they proved far superior. They were much better over rough ground, their ammunition was capable of penetrating German armour at close range, their gun barrels were shorter and therefore more manoeuvrable, and they could sustain a higher rate of fire.

    Once in the open country the Germans were more interested in fleeing than fighting and were additionally exposed to attack from the air so that the Churchill’s disadvantages mattered less.

    The old boy told me that the people he felt sorry for were the men who had to go to war in the Sherman tank, which he thought a death trap. The British did develop a superior version with a bigger gun but mostly the standard inadequate models were used.

    There is a wonderful tank museum at Bovington. There I learnt that prewar an American engineer had developed a substantially improved suspension system for tanks. The US army didn’t buy it nor the German army, but the British army did. The Russian army “acquired” it too.

    1. Sean says:

      I’m told that there was a hard weight constraint on the M4 Sherman because every one that saw combat would have to be shipped across the ocean, and many ports did not have cranes which could handle much more than a 25 ton tank. The British made a 40 ton tank work though!

      I would like to visit the Bovington tank museum when I can travel again.

      1. wanderer_ says:

        This is a (mostly) unique constraint that the US had (excepting, of course, Britain). The flip side of this phenomena, e.g. landlocked countries a defensive war, was that they could sometimes go to ridiculous engineering lengths.

        This brings to mind a massive Russian gun platform that was on x8 rail lines and was crewed by about 4000 men (IIRC).

        1. Sean says:

          Canada and Australia too! Oh, and Japan- Japan used light tanks because they had to unload them in harbours without steel cranes and drive them where there were no roads. And in fact, the Canadian Military Pattern truck was specifically designed before the war for efficient shipping from the Commonwealth to wherever Britain was fighting at the moment. This lead to some unfortunate ergonomic tradeoffs (warning: YouTube) …

          1. wanderer_ says:

            Oh yes, Japan is a major one that I forgot about. Of course that didn’t stop them from landing troops in the jungles and land throughout eastern Asia. But once the other major powers got a handle on the oil-supply situation, they were hardly able to operate due to lack of fuel. Anecdotally, I seem to remember that at one count during 1945, there were about 50 aircraft in their Air Force, and most of these weren’t military originally. That was around the time the kamikaze program was ramping up – sad stuff.

  3. wanderer_ says:

    Most of my limited knowledge about the war in northern Africa is about the Fox himself – apparently he had a lot of disparaging things to say about the Italian armies he fought alongside and sometimes led.

    The Italians could have been so successful: their economy was on the rebound thanks new leadership, and national pride was on the upwards too. Unfortunately for the entire nation, they needed an outlet for this pride and for their perceived invulnerability; thus they started a war. Delusions of grandeur and “restoring the Roman Empire” led them into a fight they could not finish. Of course then the Nazis wormed their fingers into the incompetent Italian government, and it was all downhill from there.

    And russell1200, don’t even get me started on their joke of a navy. Their single greatest accomplishment was the demonstration for Hitler just as their country was entering the war.

  4. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I can only recommend this book. I don’t know English original, I have Czech version, where is very interesting afterword. Translator complains, that there is nothing about Italian armoured cars. Another thing is today prevalent view on Italian army. But results were given by many factors, simply put it, Italians didn’t get the chance to do their best. Paratrooper elite division Folgore with best men, equipment was useless in vast desert of Africa. Same goes for Alpini divisions which were dying under continous tracks of Soviet tanks on the Russian plains. What idiot could dislocate units like that? Stupidity of Mussolini was endless, instead of Marshal Bodaglio conception (c. 60 fully mechanized divions), that idiot lived in fantasy, that Italia will make their opponnets shrouder in fear by millions of men with bayonets…

    This book will open your eyes about many thems. African campaign couldn’t be won for Germany, Italy, even if Enigma code was intact. Many bad things happened for Italians. Originally, they would be ready for war 1943, Hitler knew it very well. So modernizing of artillery was halted, etc. This book is by no means all encompassing, we still need historian, historians who will do new and complete evaulation of Italian army. Italians had impressive weapons, battleship Roma, one fighter plane (excuse my sclerosis) was deemed by Germans better than FW-190!!! Their medium tank was still in evolution, etc. These are only few examples. And Allies were lucky, that Italians didn’t expand capacity of African ports, or discovered oil in Libya, I guess than Rommel would get his tank division or two. Don’t forget geopolitical blunders of Axis like not taking Gibraltar, or Malta. In Mediterreanean basin able commander could do much more, than what actually happened from Axis point of view… You couldn’t blame just Italian Navy.

    Why is book important for ancient historian? Sorry Desert Fox, but You are terrible liar, without Italian divisions You would be sitting in some German Military office or freezing in Russia, not taking glory in Africa. I don’t need to be explicit what similar situation we know from classical history…

    1. Sean says:

      And I’d also like to read some of the books and articles by George Raudzens or Jeremy Black on how many battles between “conquistadors and Aztecs” were actually between two Mesoamerican armies, one of which had a few hundred Iberians who made a hole which the rest of their army could pour in to. No conquistadors no great victory, but they needed their allies to take on most of the Aztecs.

      Just like in 1914, Italy had an excuse not to enter the war, and they could have used it, kept making threatening movements in the Mediterranean and building up their armed forces and making Britain’s blockade of Europe harder to enforce.

      I’d like to see an analysis of what Britain’s “overwhelming material superiority” would have looked like if the Axis had stayed in Cyrenaica and made the British come to them and wear out their motors and wheels driving thousands of miles across the desert. If they had taken Malta and did not lose so many convoys they would have received more of the supplies which were sent.

  5. Rime says:

    “The area around Carthage used to be a breadbasket of the Roman empire. Were the coastal parts of the western desert as barren in antiquity as today?”
    Knowing it was a breadbasket, we can easily say no. The export of goods always removes material from the area it is harvested in, and it’s not a far cry to say it can’t be done in a sustainable matter. But then, where did the nutrients end up, after feeding roman citizens and slaves?

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