All things considered and with perfect hindsight, did the Allies benefit, by having Italy fight on Germany's side rather than remain neutral?

I was inspired to ask this question after reading Paul Kennedy's rather amazing claims in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988). On p. 298:

In 1939 and 1940, the western Allies frequently considered the pros and cons of having Italy fighting on Germany's side rather than remaining neutral. On the whole, the British chiefs of staff preferred Italy to be kept out of the war, so as to preserve peace in the Mediterranean and Near East; but there were powerful counterarguments, which seem in retrospect to have been correct. Rarely in the history of human conflict has it been argued that the entry of an additional foe would hurt one's enemy more than oneself; but Mussolini's Italy was, in that way at least, unique.

And also on p. 340:

Had Italy also joined in the conflict in September 1939, its own economic deficiencies might have posed an excessive strain upon the Reich's slender stocks and, arguably, dislocated the chances for the German westward strike in 1940. To be sure, Italy's participation would have complicated the Anglo-French position in the Mediterranean, but not perhaps by much, and Rome's neutrality made it a useful conduit for German trade—which is why many of the planners in Berlin hoped that Mussolini would remain on the sidelines.

  • I would say that as stated, the question seems mostly opinable. Maybe a question asking about downsides and upsides of Italy participation would be better, because we would not have to measure if the advantages were bigger than the disavantages.
    – SJuan76
    Oct 30 '16 at 3:57
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    THis is close to speculation.....
    – MCW
    Oct 30 '16 at 10:20
  • No. And in WWI the Central Powers did not benefit from Italy's turning on them, though the WWI case is closer to actually being in question
    – C Monsour
    May 26 '19 at 17:27

All things considered and with perfect hindsight, did the Allies benefit, by having Italy fight on Germany's side rather than remain neutral?


While the popular impression is that Germany had to "bail out" Italy more often than not, this does not mean they were a net burden on the Axis. On the contrary, Italy opened up the Mediterranean and African theaters of war that required an extensive diversion of resources, ships, aircraft, men, and material to fight in the very critical early years of the war. The campaign to clear the Mediterranean and then liberate Italy went on through the whole war. All that could have been instead fighting Germany.

Hostile Italians also prevented the Allies from using the Mediterranean as a "British lake" to safely supply the Pacific and the Soviet Union, as well as to stage raids and attacks on Southern Europe.

To avoid a "what if" answer that's frowned upon here, I'll instead go into the ways the Italians tied down Allied forces and delayed Allied victory.

The Regia Marina and Regia Aeronautica during WWII were a large, modern, and powerful threat, if not the best commanded, that required a diversion of large numbers of British ships, aircraft, and men to fight. This stretched the British even thinner than they already were.

Germany alone had no hope of combating the Royal Navy on the surface, but entry of Italy gave the Axis something closer to parity. The battles in the Mediterranean pulled away aircraft and anti-air artillery desperately needed for the Battle of Britain. They pulled ships away from the Battle of the Atlantic. The British Army was unable to defend Greece because they were busy fighting the Italians in North Africa and had to halt their successful offensive there to transfer troops to Greece ultimately suffering in both theaters. 100,000 British colonial troops were tied down fighting the Italians in East Africa.

It was during this critical stage of the war, 1940 to 1942, that Germany could have won. During this period the Italians were effective at tying down British resources.

The Italians also made it difficult for the British to use the Mediterranean as a British lake. It secured the German southern front against air attack and invasion. Without the Italians in the war, Britain's Mediterranean holdings could be used as a staging area for an invasion of Southern France or bombing German submarine pens in Western France.

Finishing off the Mediterranean theater required a huge invasion by both US and British forces. Operation Torch, Tunisia, and Sicily involved 500,000 troops and much of the Allied naval transport capacity fighting mostly Italians. While the Americans advocated invading France in 1943, the decision to invade Italy probably delayed the invasion of Europe by a year.

Even after the Italian Armistice, the march up the Italian peninsula remained a very costly distraction for the Allies. It's questionable what the end goal was. Germany could fight the Allies in strong defensive terrain and ultimately fall back to the defensive line of the Alps.

Without Italy in the war there would be no Mediterranean nor African nor Italian fronts to draw British resources away from Germany in the critical early years of the war, nor would there be an Italian liberation campaign to delay the invasion of Europe.

In addition to the direct effects, the Italians made the Mediterranean dangerous for use as a supply line to the Pacific and the Soviet Union.

After 1941, Allied ships wishing to reach the Pacific Theater quickly could avoid having to go around Africa by using the Suez Canal. Similarly, the Allies had a supply line to the Soviet Union, the Persian Corridor.

With Italy in the war this presented a terrible choice: run a gauntlet of Italian ships and aircraft in the Mediterranean in the hopes of getting there faster, or go all the way around Africa adding weeks to the journey and making themselves vulnerable to German U-Boats and surface raiders. Both required additional escorts. Both added risk and time to supplying these theaters.

These supply lines made it vital that the Italian navy and air force were dealt with drawing yet more forces away from fighting Germany and delaying supplies to the Pacific and Soviet Union.

ADDENDUM: Italy being in the war had a profound effect on the Pacific War. I picked up on this from Drachinifel's Drydock #43.

As above, a belligerent Italy drew away a significant portion of the British armed forces to defend their interests around the Mediterranean. This, in turn, left Britain's Pacific holdings thinly defended. Britain's plan was to essentially bluff. If attacked they would abandon their outlying holdings and fallback to Singapore, India, and Burma. Few reinforcements would be coming until the Mediterranean was under control.

The capture of the SS Automedon in Nov 1940, and her top secret documents outlining all this, gave the Japanese assurance that the British were a paper tiger. Emboldened by this information, the Japanese knew they could send the cream of their Navy on far-flung offensives without being concerned with a major British counter-offensive.

If, instead, the Italians were neutral this would have freed up significant assets to reinforce the British Far East, and allowed the British to take a more active and offensive attitude towards Japan.

ADDENDUM 2: Naval Historiographer Drachinifel and Military History Visualized did a piece on Italy's forgotten WW2 Victories? which expands on the impact of a hostile Mediterranean and the effect on the Pacific War and convoy battles.

In particular he points out...

  • The fast transports and escorts used in the defense and resupply of Malta.
  • The heavy units needed to counter the Italian Navy.
  • The 135 British ships lost in the Mediterranean.
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    Couldn't agree with this more - the Italians very nearly won the North African Theatre without German involvement, and came pretty damn close to denying the entire Mediterranean to the British. If that had come to pass, Britain would've been incredibly hard pressed to maintain control/influence in India, the Middle East and links to Australia/NZ. With control of the Med, Italy could've massively pressured Gibraltar and pushed Force H out: Force H, we'll not, being vital to events such as the sinking of the Bismarck and similar convoy defence activities
    – Jon Story
    Oct 30 '16 at 23:37
  • Great answer. I have to underline the effect of Italy during 1944-1945. The Italian Front was still a major drain of resources for the Allies even up to the end of the war. The US tried to de-emphasize this theater for others and shifted away a lot of their better units, but the British were seized with the concept of advancing toward the Balkans via Italy and pressed on the Italian front to the end, although unsuccessfully.
    – Smith
    Oct 31 '16 at 13:39
  • Weren't there any italian forces on the eastern front fighting USSR? I believe they got as far as Stalingrad and did win engagements the germans then didn't have to. That could possibly extend this excellent answer.
    – Bent
    Dec 27 '16 at 19:24
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    This answer doesn't take account of the fact that Italy's participation drew German troops into Africa, which wasn't where Germany wanted to be. The Allies eventual conquest of North Africa was what enabled them to attack the Axis from the south
    – Ne Mo
    May 26 '19 at 17:04
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    re "The British Army was unable to defend Greece because they were busy fighting the Italians in North Africa and had to halt their successful offensive there to transfer troops to Greece ultimately suffering in both theaters." - It is just so wrong it is difficult to know where to begin. Both the North African and Greek theatres would not have existed without Italian entry. The German parachute corps would not have been destroyed on Crete. I could go on, but comments are of limited length May 26 '19 at 18:11

Italy won just one major battle without Germany's help: the conquest of Somaliland.

Everywhere else, the Italians were beaten by the British... and sometimes even without British help. The Greek forces pushed them back into Albania, they were fought to a standstill in Yugoslavia.

The British forces defeated them in North Africa. In every case, this created a humongous risk for the Germans, who couldn't afford to let the British get a toehold on the continent. So the Germans, expending personnel and materiel, had to bail out the Italians every time.

So yes, the Italians inadvertantly helped the Allies.

  • This answer only lists the ways the Allies benefited from Italian belligerence. It doesn't consider how they were harmed, the "rather than remain neutral" half of the question.
    – Schwern
    Oct 30 '16 at 21:13

As mentionned in the first answer, the Italians were parts of an important theater: the Mediterranean Sea.

One could argue that wit Italy remaining neutral, the Germans would have stayed out of the Mediterranean Theater. But the consequences would have been huge: With the neutrality of Italy, the Allies could use the sea as a short line of communications to Egypt (and thus India and Australia). The navy in mediterranean would have been only of a little help to the Atlantic battle, because frigates were more necesary than cruisers, destroyers or battleships. However these boats would have been an help to oppose the Japanese Navy.

The second point is that the South of France "free zone", would have been close to the English forces: thus, it is likely that the "Free zone" of Vichy would have not existed and that the Maghreb, along woth Syria and Lebanon would have fight to prepare a landing on the South Coast of France. Somehow, the Germans would have entered a battle for the Mediterranean Sea, but not with the good strategic position of the Italian terrotory.

So no, the Allies did not benefit of having the Italy enter the war on the side of Germany rather than remaining neutral.

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