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Posted on Aug 3, 2010 in Books and Movies

Iron Arm: The Mechanization of Mussolini’s Army – Book Review

By Alexander Wilson

Iron Arm: The Mechanization of Mussolini’s Army, 1920-1940. John Joseph Timothy Sweet. Stackpole Books, 2007. 222 pages. Softcover. $16.95.

John Joseph Timothy Sweet’s book Iron Arm: The Mechanization of Mussolini’s Army, 1920-1940 attempts to bridge one of the forgotten chapters of 20th century military history: the mechanization of the Italian military. How Italy’s armored forces were developed in the inter-war period is both fascinating and, unfortunately, often forgotten. In Iron Arm, Sweet examines the topic of Italian mechanization in a way that is both interesting and informative.


Sweet studied under the famous military theorist Sir Basil Liddell Hart, and as a result was quite familiar with the complexity of armored warfare doctrine and theory. As a result, Iron Arm does not focus exclusively or even primarily on combat, unlike most other books about armored warfare in WWII. Rather, the main focus of Iron Arm is on the complex process undertaken during the inter-war years to mechanize and modernize the Italian military.

In the period between World War I and World War II, one of the most contentious and pressing military debates centered on the increasing role of vehicles in warfare—specifically, the tank, which had been introduced in the closing stages of World War I. Two diametrically opposed military theories were developed during this period: motorization and mechanization. Motorization dictated the use of motor vehicles within traditional, preindustrial army structures—in other words, essentially using the same military tactics and large, infantry-based armies of World War I but with large numbers of transport vehicles. Mechanization, on the other hand, involved the use of both trucks and tanks within a radically reorganized military structure, one that centered on the mobility, firepower, and overall tactical superiority of tanks and AFVs.

Sweet’s thesis is that the development of either motorization or mechanization in any given European country after World War I was determined by that country’s social, political, and economic makeup, as well as by its unique military history. The majority of his book is a fascinating, step-by-step analysis of the complex process of Italian mechanization through this unique lens. Sweet traces the evolution of the Italian military from World War I through the first few years of World War II, specifically chronicling the development of Italian armored forces, beginning in 1918 with the establishment of the first Italian tank unit.

Throughout Iron Arm, Sweet considers many factors which, while not strictly military in nature, nonetheless had a deep and lasting impact upon the course of Italian military policy. For example, he identifies a general lack of urgency in the process of modernizing Italy’s army during the 1920s and attributes it to Italy’s military plans for the next large-scale European conflict, which were primarily defensive in nature due to the Alps and rough terrain of northern Italy. Sweet also identifies key geographic, economic, and cultural disadvantages which hampered the process of mechanizing and modernizing Mussolini’s army during the inter-war years—among them Italy’s lack of natural resources, weak industrial base, and longstanding tradition of having a large, conscripted, and colonial army rather than a smaller but highly professional military.

While the entirety of Sweet’s in-depth history of Italian mechanization is informative, certain sections are exceptionally interesting due to the little-known historical facts or documents they discusses. For example, Sweet notes that Italy was actually the first nation to form an official Armored Corps. He also discusses numerous obscure military treatises and books published in Italy during the 1920s, a period that saw the theoretical establishment of three different classes of Italian tanks—heavy or breakthrough tanks, medium tanks, and light or assault tanks.

The section about the forgotten Italian celeri units of the 1930s is equally fascinating. The Italian military began to adopt maneuver warfare during this period, developing a mobile force of celeri units comprised of elite cavalry and infantry supported by battalions of carri veloci (light tanks).

According to Sweet, the celeri units proved to be both a blessing and a curse. While they were a major step forward, they failed to phase out the cavalryman and encouraged an almost exclusive development of light tanks instead of a balanced production of light, medium, and heavy tanks. Additionally, the celeri units divided Italy’s meager tank forces between the two roles of traditional infantry support and support for the celeri units. Sweet points out that, at a time when other nations had begun developing medium tanks and fully mechanized, stand-alone armored units, Italy’s celeri units proved to be a serious strain on the process of mechanization.

For Sweet, the key milestone in the entire process of mechanizing Mussolini’s army was the Italian war maneuvers conducted in the summer of 1937. The first Italian armored brigade had been founded that year and was immediately utilized and tested in maneuvers and war games over the summer. Italian commanders found that, though it managed to penetrate enemy lines, the brigade was hampered by a lack of medium and heavy tanks, motorized infantry, artillery, air support, and mobile anti-tank weapons—problems which would plague Italian armored units throughout the entirety of World War II. Sweet states that the “1937 maneuvers, despite occasional lapses, propelled Italian policy in the direction of mechanization … The armored brigade distinguished itself and showed the potential of mechanized warfare.”

Although the Italians finally and wholeheartedly accepted mechanization in 1937, it proved to be too little, too late. The seeds of future disaster had already been sown. Due mainly to insufficient industrial capacity and natural resources, Italian mechanized forces had to deal with antiquated artillery, inadequate anti-tank guns, and hopelessly outclassed tanks throughout their combat involvement in World War II. The weak Italian economy caused Italy to fall far behind friend and foe alike, especially in terms of sheer tank production. By early 1940, when they entered World War II on the side of the Axis, the Italians possessed only seven mechanized divisions and fifteen motorized divisions, as compared to fifty-three non-motorized infantry divisions. While Britain produced over 8,600 tanks in 1942, and the United States made 14,000 medium tanks alone that year, Italy was only able to produce a total of 667 vehicles. As the subsequent battlefield performance of the underequipped Italian mechanized forces would prove, a mechanized unit without sufficient numbers of tanks is a thoroughly ineffective fighting force and a military liability.

In Iron Arm, Sweet reiterates a well-known but nonetheless important fact—that the Italian military was pathetically unprepared for a modern war of maneuver that pitted it against heavily industrialized nations such as the United States and Great Britain, even though Italy officially accepted the doctrine of mechanization before either of those Allied powers. Yet, he goes on to call attention to an important fact: that the crushing defeats suffered by the Italian military during World War II have almost entirely obscured the complex and historically important process of mechanization which the Italian military undertook during the inter-war years—a process which, as Sweet points out, was theoretically successful but was mortally hampered from the start by disadvantageous geographic, economic, industrial, and societal predispositions. Ultimately, “national policy, industrial development, and society had let the army down. The carristi [tankers], despite their motto, Ferrea Mole, Ferreo Cuore [Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts], had no adequate iron skins to go with their iron hearts.”

While Iron Arm is a rare and insightful look into the forgotten history of Italian inter-war mechanization and military policy, it is not without its flaws and weaknesses. It covers numerous Italian military figures, treatises, and publications throughout the book, and the breadth of this work sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to keep everything straight. The section on Italian mechanization during the later 1930s can be especially confusing, as developments and policy evolved at a rapid rate within the Italian military.

Also, Iron Arm is on the whole an extremely dry book. The manner and style in which Sweet writes may bore some readers, especially those not used to meticulous theoretical examinations of military policy and doctrine. A few pictures of Italian tanks are interspersed with Sweet’s meaty historical analysis, and an appendix provides a detailed breakdown of Italian military organization between 1918 and 1940, as well as technical specifications about some of the Italian tanks discussed in the book, and some line drawings done by the author himself.

Overall, Sweet’s thesis and analysis in Iron Arm do justice to the oft-besmirched honor of the Italian military’s performance in World War II, and give the reader a better grasp of why Italy’s armored forces failed so abysmally. His investigation of the numerous cultural, political, social and even geographic factors that profoundly influenced Italian mechanization makes his work a fresh, if heavily factual, alternative to the ubiquitous combat chronicle about World War II armored warfare. Though it may not captivate every history enthusiast, Iron Arm: The Mechanization of Mussolini’s Army, 1920-1940 is a unique and must-read work of military history—one which will undoubtedly appeal to anyone interested in military theory, the Italian military, armored warfare, or World War II.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about Italy in World War II, visit a special section dedicated to that topic on our partner site, HistoryNet.

About this reviewer:
Alexander Wilson, a frequent contributor to the Armchair General Website, will be attending Indiana University-Bloomington to study History, Communications and Culture, and Political Science as a Cox Research Scholar. Planning for college, working, reading, spending time with family and friends, and following Major League Baseball—especially Brandon Phillips and the rest of his beloved Cincinnati Reds—have been consuming most of his time lately, though he can also be found on the ArmchairGeneral and HistoryNet Forums under the username of “CatholicCrusade.”