Here's yet another historical GI JOE project -- this time focused on the Axis forces fielded by Italy in WWII. Italian action figures arrived late on the scene, far beyond the "golden years" of GI JOE (199_-200_). Twisting Toyz released some incredibly cool sets with awesome detail and attention to accuracy. The sets contained a lot of fragile equipment, so they weren't designed to "play with" like the old CC Joes, but they are affordable enough that you don't feel like you have to keep them on a shelf, either! The Twisting Toyz figures leave much to be desired, so I re-stuffed the uniforms with better figures and added them to our Axis forces. They're not very common (most folks don't collect Italians), which makes them even more interesting (to me!)
Italians in WWII
Many folks have little or no understanding of the Italian role in WWII or their character as warriors in that historic conflict. Those who DO have some impression of the Italians in WWII, unfortunately have a poor opinion of the Italian soldiers of that time. It doesn't help that much of the Axis history of WWII is German (or is based upon German-kept records). The Germans were notorious racists and always felt themselves better than anybody else, Italians included. If the Axis suffered a setback or defeat, it was always easier to blame the Italians (or practically anything else) rather than the vaunted Germans blaming themselves for their shortfalls. Even the vaunted Erwin Rommel provided captured munitions and materiel to his German units, ignoring the bulk of his Italian units -- yet he routinely blamed the Italians when his Aryan forces failed him. During WWII, the Italians didn't document much (especially during a time of civil war and crisis in Italy in ADDITION to WWII), whereas the Germans documented everything -- at least their own pro-German biased version -- very well. Thus, history (and ignorant historians) tend to the Italians in WWII as wine-drinking bottom-pinching womanizers, rather than as dedicated, tenacious fighters. After doing quite a bit of research, I realized how wrong the common perception is!
My research was pretty interesting. When the dust settled, my opinion of Rommel is incredibly low and my opinion of the Italian soldiers in WWII has soared! (When Rommel took over in North Africa, 90% of his troops were Italians... who often held the line while Rommel's German units bravely fled the battle. Italian code breakers gave Rommel his "uncanny edge" in the desert. Rommel made sure his German units rode in motor transport, while the Italians walked. Rommel would have been decimated in North Africa, had Italian subordinate commanders not ignored his instructions and covered his butt at Bir El Gobi (and history credits Rommel for being a genius - sheesh!). When Rommel decided to retreat (December 1941), he didn't tell the Trieste and Ariete Divisions, leaving them to battle the British (and delay them) while the vaunted Germans bravely ran like cowards across the desert; clearly he sacrificed Italian units to permit his German units to sneak away. The first real "armored clash" of the war occurred during the North African conflict near Mechili. The Italian tanks destroyed 15 British tanks, whereupon the Brits turned tail and ran. The Italians pursued them for 20km and turned back after losing radio contact with their lines. Taking advantage of the situation, the Brits counterattacked, and the Italians spanked them yet again with a vengeance, destroying 6 more British tanks. The Brits turned back and took a 2-week break to resupply and figure out what to do next against these tenacious Italians... obviously the Brit's 50 cruisers and 95 light tanks (145 tanks total) were adequate to tackle the 57 M31/40's and 25 L3/35's (82 tanks total) of the Italian Brigade! 145 Brits versus 82 Italians. Hmm... and the Brits STILL felt outmatched! Italian troops also fought the Russians in the Ukraine. During Operation Barbarossa, it was again evident that the Germans were using Italians for cannon fodder and to protect the German units; once again the tough Italians only received supplies after all of the German units, both effective units and the lame units, were supplied first. The Italians spearheaded the use of paratroopers and the use of frogmen in combat roles, too! After the US landings in Italy, Italian partisans became indispensable to the Allied cause, particularly in the Sulmona valley (even though the French partisans get all the press!). Italian planes and aircrews supported Germany's attack on England during the Battle of Britain; 200 aircraft completed 883 sorties, dropping 54 tons of ordnance on England during the battle. The Italians used motorcycles extensively, with a machine gun mounted on the handlebars (no, they didn't shoot while driving). Unfortunately, most of the heroic deeds of the Italians are uncredited; it proves the point that whoever takes the time to write the history has their version preserved for posterity. The Italians were too busy to document extensively, whereas the Germans apparently made time to take extensive notes. Perhaps THIS is what the Germans did while the Italians remained in battle and protected the Germans as they bravely ran away.
I'm left with a distinct impression that the Italians weren't credited as being great warriors in WWII because of our American perception... we arrived so late in the war that the Italians had pretty much run their race; Allied war materiel from the USA was overwhelming the Axis forces and in December of 1941. Even in the days before the US entry into the war, the Italians were at the tail end of a long and ineffective supply chain. When the US entered the war the Italians' fate was sealed. Had we been involved earlier in the war, before Italy had expended her materiel and manpower by supporting the war since 1939, maybe our perceptions would have been different. Italy was unprepared for war, didn't want war, and was dragged in by an ill-fated alliance with Germany; this would prove to be Italy's undoing.
"Why didn't Italy do a great job from the very beginning" you ask? Mussolini didn't really want to ally with Hitler, but Germany one of the few countries that would do business with Italy after WWI. All of the "allied" nations (with whom Italy fought in WWI) divided up the territory and left Italy with nothing -- the spoils of war went to the OTHER allies. Italy was bitter from the unfair treatment after WWI and was ostracized by its former friends (US, Britain, and France), and was inexorably tied to Germany economically, as Germany was eager to do business with her. Italy had to sell her best weaponry to Turkey and other nations in the interwar years, as her economy was in ruins after WWI and she didn't enjoy the reparations claimed by her allied "friends". At this point, Italy could not fight a war for at least 4 years, and Mussolini told Hitler so. Hitler assured Mussolini that Germany would remain peaceful for the next 3-4 years to provide Italy time to recover and re-arm. Persistent German representatives finally persuaded Italy to reluctantly sign the "Pact of Steel" with Germany. This Pact of Steel outlined the line from Rome to Berlin as their Axis of solidarity. Now that Hitler's underbelly was secure with an ally, he quickly disregarded his promises to Mussolini and swiftly invaded Poland less than 4 months later! World War Two had begun. Mussolini didn't want war. Italy wasn't ready for war. Italy was dragged into the conflict reluctantly and was utterly unprepared for war when World War II began after a broken promise by the Germans. The fact that Italy did as well as she DID in North Africa and the Horn of Africa is the really amazing historical event! Although the military bureaucracy, training, leadership and equipment available to the rank-and-file Italian soldier was woefully inadequate, the fighting spirit of the soldier was exemplified by the tenacious soldiers who aquitted themselves so remarkably in the North African desert. This fact alone makes these poor soldiers "GI Joes" and exemplify the fightin' "GI Joe" spirit! Thus it is only appropriate to add the Italian soldier to the GIJoe collection!
Sources: If you'd like to do some research on Italians in WWII, I highly recommend you begin with www.CommandoSupremo.com. This site is PACKED with great info and good jumping-off points for additional research.
I’ve picked up three of the Italian soldiers so far… and I’ve mixed and matched accessories, so I’m not really sure what came with what… so don’t hold me to it if some set doesn’t come with something the guy’s wearing in the pic -- it probably came with one of the other two!
Here's the Bersaglieri soldier with cock feathers on his desert helmet. This is a pretty impressive uniform and helmet combination, to be sure. The Bersaglieri were The Bersaglieri ("sharpshooters") fought with distinction in World War I and illustrated the value of highly mobile, highly trained riflemen. Bersaglieri were converted into bicycle troops to fight alongside cavalry in the Celeri (fast) divisions. The Bersaglieri were well-suited to serve with both cavalry and tanks. When the armoured divisions were formed in 1939 the link between the Bersaglieri and mobile warfare continued. Each new armoured and motorized division was allocated one Bersaglieri regiment. In World War II, Italy’s Bersaglieri regiments were expanded to three battalions each. Recruits for the Bersaglieri continued to be of above-average size and stamina and made impressive soldiers. The Bersaglieri fought in southern France and Greece in 1940, and arrived in Libya in early 1941. The Bersaglieri fought once again with distinction and compiled an excellent combat record.
Unfortunately, I don't care much for the Twisting Toyz figures. By FAR the best Italian soldier that's ever been on the market IMHO is the Hasbro SA "Hispanic" soldier. This guy's as Italian-lookin' as it can get! A close runner-up might be the Israeli soldier that came out a while back, but the Israeli looks like a young kid rather than a soldier. I've had my eye out for Hasbro Hispanic SA figures, but they're pretty hard to come by, it seems. :-( At right is the Hasbro "Hispanic" SA Joe in the Twisting Toyz Bersaglieri uniform inspecting a pair of hastily discarded German sand goggles that got left behind when the Germans grabbed all the vehicles and abandoned the Italians outside of Tobruk in early May ’41, leaving the Italians to battle the British counter-attacks while the German soldiers enjoyed rest and relaxation (that the Italians never enjoyed). He might be able to use these goggles in the combat to come!
The Carcano rifle was
produced in many variations throughout the war and you almost need a PhD to
figure out the differences. Basically,
the WWII Carcano came about as progeny of the long WWI-era M91 rifle. It was chambered in 6.5mm and several
variations were used in WWII. The Moschetto de Cavalleria (cavalry
carbine) was the rifle included in the Bersaglieri
set. This had a shortened barrel,
shortened wood, and fragile-looking folding bayonet. The folding bayonet was apparently a popular
idea, as the Russians used it in 1944 on their M44 carbine and later on their
SKS rifle, among others. In addition to
the long rifle and the cavalry carbine,
The Bersagleri helmet looked pretty cool and pretty highly detailed. Unfortunately, the interior was a disaster. They used double-sided tape to stick the sweatband into the rubbery helmet. Obviously this didn't last long before it got all gooey and slimy! I used Super Glue to hold the chinstrap in place and removed the little tabs of white double-sided tape and wiped it out. Ick.
The backpack was a very cool piece. The canvas pack had some great leather accents - I don't know how accurate the backpack is, but it sure looked cool! I stuffed it with some kleenexes to make it look loaded.
Here’s another couple of pics of
The Bersaglieri were chosen for their strength
and stamina, and the Bersaglieri were generally
physically larger soldiers than the norm.
The Hasbro SA bodies are smaller than the
Dragon, SOW, 21C, and about all the others, so it may not be the best depiction of the Bersaglieri, but the facial structure and skin tone on this “Hispanic” Joe are perfect to be an Italian soldier!
At the left you can see what is probably the BIGGEST drawback of the Twisting Toyz uniform… those crummy leg wraps. It’s impossible to keep the doggone things tied right unless you use tape or glue! I’m not keen on using either on any of my Joes, so I think I’ll just dig up a pair of long pants and substitute. I bet the Italian soldiers didn’t like those silly Jap-lookin’ leg wraps, either!!!
The body type used was terrible, the head sculpt was awful, the leg wraps are a MAJOR pain in the neck, and the helmet needed work. In view of its shortcomings, it seemed very overpriced. I don't mind doing work on Joe sets to make them acceptable, but paying over $40 for a figure that needed this much work was pretty excessive. Still, when you’re the only show in town (the only ones making Italian figures), I guess you can charge whatever you want and folks will pay it. Had this been more affordable, however, I probably would’ve bought a squad rather than just a representative sample.
Here's the Folgore paratrooper guy from Twisting Toys. It's actually a SA Hasbro "Hispanic" figure stuffed into a Twisting Toyz uniform. It seems odd that the Folgore guys used helmets that were covered in the same camo as the Decima Mas uniforms, but I've got not explanation. The Folgore division was trained for the assault on Malta in Operation Hercules, but it really came into its own in the ground battles of North Africa. The Second Battle of El Alamein placed the Folgore Division at odds with six British divisions (two of them armored). The Italians spanked the Brits in good shape and earned the respect of the British leadership. The proved to be tenacious, well-trained fighters.
One important difference between the Folgore uniform and the Bersaglieri uniform is the trousers. These paratroopers actually had pants instead of those silly knickers to wear into battle! The coolest uniform would probably be the Folgore trousers and the rest of the Bersaglieri uniform. That's the way it WOULD have been if I'd been in charge of uniforms for the Bersaglieris!
Both the Folgore paratrooper and the Decima Mas figures came with the really cool Beretta SMG. The Mosccetto Automatic Beretta Modelo 938 was reportedly one of the better firearm designs to come out of World War II. The Twisting Toyz Beretta is the standard M1938 design with the ventilated barrel shroud. You can compare the Twisting Toyz version to the real McCoy (image below at right). Twisting Toyz did well with this one -- It's a very well-done piece, right down to its dual triggers. "Dual triggers" you ask? The front trigger was for semi-auto fire and the rear trigger was for full-auto fire -- no selector switch was necessary. The cocking handle on this gun remained stationary while firing and included a spring-loaded dust cover for the action (good thinking!). Originally it was designed to accommodate a folding knife-bayonet (like the M38 Carcano), but this was soon abandoned and later versions of the rifle used various barrel length and compensator arrangements. Folding-stock versions were manufactured for parachute units and different firing pin and safety arrangements evolved over time. Although manufacture began during peacetime, war soon came to Europe. The M938A was slightly modified in 1942 and again in 1944. Standards were lower on wartime guns, but the unfailing Beretta reliability didn't diminish. After the war, descendents of the M1938 (most likely the M38/49) were bought by various countries in the Middle East and even in German (where the Germans renamed it the MP1 for its Border Guard units). It was manufactured until 1962 and soldiered on in the Italian army well into the 1970s (perhaps into the 1980s). For further reading, try this site: http://world.guns.ru/smg/smg89-e.htm which is also where I found the pic of the 1:1 scale M938 (above to the right).
The grenades by Twisting Toyz are the SCRM type. Several types were manufactured that all bore the same designation "Mod.35" which makes telling them apart difficult. The real grenades after which Twisting Toyz modeled theirs are embossed with "SOCIETA ROMANA" around the unpainted circular top piece of the grenade, hence the designation "SCRM". They're constructed of aluminum and the fuses detonate on impact, no matter how the grenade lands. the Brits called these red grenades "Red Devils" during the North African campaign as they were notoriously dangerous when discovered. The effective radius of these grenades is reported as 10 to 15 meters. The SCRM included by Twisting Toyz represents the most refined of the WWII Italian grenades. It had an internal failsafe that would prevent detonation in case of misfire. Only a sharp impact will detonate the grenade. A moderate impact, such as dropping it, would not detonate it and the internal shutter safety would block the firing pin from engaging the primer. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell whether the grenade's failsafe is engaged externally. If the greande were to land on a soft surface, would it be live or would it be in failsafe position? Nobody could tell just by looking at it. This was a very successful grenade design that continued to be produced after the war; it was reportedly still being encountered in Europe as late as 1992! For more info on the Italian grenade included in this set, try http://www.inert-ord.net/italrd/srcm.html (that's where I found the image at right - it's a very informative site!).
Here are a couple more pics of the Folgore paratrooper. Not sure why they're relevant, other than I think it's a cool figure and I had the digital pics on hand.
I have no idea what accessories came with these figures. I swapped stuff like ammo pouches, bags, knives, etc, around to equip all three of these Italian figures, so if you see something on the Decima Mas guy, it might've come from the paratrooper, etc.. Since I bought some boxed figures and pieced together uniforms from "parting out" houses, it's hard telling what came with what.
A word of advice here... don't try to piece together one of these figures. By the time you're done paying the "per piece" cost, you'll be close to the boxed figure price, only you wouldn't get some of the little odds and ends -- and no figure, either. It's probably best to just buy the boxed figure and toss the body (or use it for generic cannon fodder).
Here's the fighting knife included in one of these sets. It was pretty flimsy and the belt loop snapped... I think when I looked at it. I tried to find a real counterpart for this online, but the variety of fighting knives and trench knives used by the various military forces is incredibly diverse. I'm not sure if this was a model of something actual or just a generic knife. Regardless, the knife was fine, but the sheath was pretty chintzy.
Here's the paratrooper helmet. Notice the cool camo covering? It matches the fabric used for the Decima Mas guy (below) rather than the desert tan color of the paratrooper's uniform. Go figure. Anyway, the helmet didn't fit worth a hoot, so I yanked out the liner -- fortunately, it wasn't glued in very well. The helmet fits much better without the liner, although it's missing the forehead pad and the chin straps now. Such is life. It's cooler without the liner and I like it. I bought an extra helmet from Battle Rhino or Monkey Depot for the Decima Mas guy (below) just because I thought it would be cool to get a helmet cover that matched his uniform pattern. So what if the Decima Mas didn't wear paratrooper helmets... ;-)
The Decima Flottiglia MAS (Decima Flottiglia Mezzi d'Assalto, also known as La Decima or Xª MAS) (Italian for "10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla") was an Italian commando frogman unit of the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) created during the Fascist regime. They saw action starting on June 10, 1940, when Fascist Italy entered World War II. In more than three years of war, the unit destroyed some 72,190 tons of Allied warships and 130,572 tons of Allied merchant ships. Personnel from the unit sank the World War I-era Royal Navy battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth (both of which were refloated and returned to action), the heavy cruiser HMS York, the destroyers HMS Jervis and HMS Eridge, and 20 merchant ships including supply ships and tankers.
In 1941, the First Flotilla became the Decima Flottiglia MAS, and divided the unit into two parts - a surface group operating fast explosive motor boats, and a sub-surface weapons group using manned torpedoes called SLC (siluri a lenta corsa or "slow-running torpedoes", but nicknamed Maiale or "Pig" by their crews), as well as "Gamma" assault swimmers (nuotatori) using limpet mines.
In 1943, after the ouster of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Italy left the Tripartite Pact and joined the Allies. Many of the Xª MAS men who were stationed in German-occupied northern Italy enlisted to fight for Mussolini's newly-formed Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI) and fought alongside the Germans. Unlike other Italian forces that remained on Germany's side after Italy's capitulation, the Decima Mas remained a coherent, autonomous unit. Unfortunately, their seaborne missions (upon which they had built their successes and reputation) were now over.
The Germans used the Decima mostly in anti-partisan actions on land, rather than against the Allies at sea. The Xª MAS's soon became infamous -- instead of being respected for their combat effectiveness, they became known for the numerous war crimes they committed (or helped the Germans commit) on both on partisans and civilians. They are generally considered to have been similar in ferocity to Germany's SS. Despite this notoriety, they retained their good combat reputation to some degree while fighting the Allies at Anzio and on the Gothic Line, and later against Tito's partisans on the eastern Italian border. On April 26, 1945, the Xª MAS was disbanded.
The Twisting Toyz canteen is a pretty cool item. It's got a fuzzy coating that seems like a felt covering. Presumably this was to cool the water in the metal canteen. Wetting the felt covering and letting it evaporate would cool the canteen and its contents. In the desert, it doesn't seem likely that they'd have much water to spare wetting down the outside of their canteens, though!
At right is the Twisting Toyz X-Mas helmet (under the Beretta). Yeah, I know, I already used this pic on this page when talking about the Beretta, but I didn't feel like taking another pic before updating my website. The Italian helmet is weathered and carries the appropriate markings for the fierce Decima Mas trooper.
Here's a German recon guy who I put on this page because... well, he's lost.
"Umm... could you Italian fellers tell me which way the rest of us Germans retreated? They sort of left me behind and I need to catch up... thanks for holding off the Brits while we bravely retreat across the desert again, by the way."
"Oh, and thanks to your code-breakers, too, who provided Rommel all the info he needed to look like a "desert fox" -- his ego is lovin' every minute of it and the German press is going crazy fawning over him like he actually outwitted the enemy rather than just reading your Italian codebreaker reports. Good work!"
"Now which way did Rommel run with all of our tanks, artillery, and trucks?"
Hopes for the future:
Wouldn't a Bersaglieri on a Moto-Guzzi (left) be a pretty cool figure for some enterprising company to release next? This would be a lot cooler than the Hasbro Harley-Davidson release and would be right up there with the (often-talked-about-but-still-perhaps-mythical) 21C motorcycle and sidecar!
How about this cool Autoblinda AB41 in Tunesia (at right)? THIS would make a cool Joe vehicle! It might be a good opponent to battle the 21C M5 Stuart in the back yard, too!
Italian collection is (slowly) growing. We look forward to new releases (particularly North Africa campaign figures), so perhaps we'll update this site periodically. These Italian Joes are ready to go on Backyard Patrol or defend their motherland. And you... what are you doing (to build up YOUR Italian Joe collection)?