Mussolini Joins the Fray
Benito Mussolini watched with awe as Hitler's troops stormed across Europe. He desperately wanted to join in, fearful that there would be little left to conquer once Hitler was finished, but several factors prevented him from acting immediately. Foremost, his people weren't in the mood for war and conquest, preferring to enjoy a more pacifistic lifestyle. Moreover, his army was ill-prepared to enter a major war. Mussolini was also angered by Hitler's pact with Stalin and his vicious treatment of Poland, which had taken even Mussolini by surprise and made him think twice about joining forces with such a tyrannical leader. In the back of Mussolini's mind was the thought of what would happen if Germany lost the war.
However, Mussolini's grand ego and Hitler's strong urging eventually overcame any doubts Mussolini may have had about bringing his nation into what was obviously gearing up to be a full-blown world war. In March 1940, the two dictators met at the Brenner Pass on the Austrian-Italian border to formalize their alliance. During the meeting, Mussolini promised to commit his troops the moment Germany's attack on France appeared successful.
Italy Declares War, Begins Blunder
That moment came sooner than expected. On June 10, as France fell to the Nazis, Benito Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and France with the statement: “This is the struggle of the peoples who are poor and eager to work against the greedy who hold a ruthless monopoly of all the wealth and gold of the earth.”
Though personally doubtful of his own army's chances of success, Mussolini had boasted to Hitler of Italy's military might. Appointing himself the new commander of Italian armed forces, Mussolini ordered his troops to attack France from across the Alps. The results were far less than Mussolini — or Hitler — had expected. Italy's first assault on southern France resulted in the acquisition of very little territory, as Italian troops were pushed back by the smaller but better prepared French forces.
The other battles in which Italy engaged were equally unimpressive. An August invasion of British Somaliland by 40,000 Italian troops succeeded only because the Italians outnumbered the British four to one. And even then, Italy lost 2,000 men to Britain's 260, and the engagement took a full two weeks. In September, 80,000 Italian soldiers marched from Libya into Egypt, heading for the Suez Canal. They faced just 30,000 British troops — and were driven back, losing much of eastern Libya in the process.
In October, without consulting Hitler, Mussolini sent 155,000 troops into Greece from Albania. And once again, the Italian army failed to win. Worse, a third of Albania fell into Greek possession, while the British landed on the strategically important island of Crete.
Mussolini was supposed to be waging a parallel war in the Mediterranean while the Germans took control of northern Europe, but such was not the case. There were no devastating Italian blitzkriegs, just a mishmash of battles fought by poorly trained and ill-prepared Italian troops who wished they were anywhere but on the frontlines of a war. As a result, Hitler came to view Mussolini more as a hindrance than an ally and spent much time cleaning up Mussolini's messes.