A Brief History
On August 2, 1916, the Italian battleship Leonardo da Vinci was sunk in its own harbor at Taranto courtesy of Austrian sabotage. The mighty battleship was only 2 years old and was sunk by a magazine explosion, a sorry end to a capital ship. The Italian military and its Roman predecessors have had plenty of notable military triumphs over the years, but seem to have a reputation for disaster despite that. Here we list 10 Italian Military Disasters or Catastrophes. (Note: We are tempted to count World War I and World War II as 2 complete disasters alone, but we will stick to more specific campaigns.)
10. Sinking of Leonardo da Vinci, 1916.
The magazine explosion that sunk the ship may have been an accident and authorities blamed sabotage to avoid embarrassment, but either way, the event was a military catastrophe. The 23,000 ton ship was refloated in 1919, but never saw service after her sinking and was scrapped in 1923.
9. Teutoburg Forest, 9 A.D.
Referred to as “Rome’s Greatest Defeat,” a Germanic army of between 12,000 and 32,000 ambushed 3 Roman Legions numbering about 36,000 soldiers, killing around 20,000 of the hapless Romans. Roman officers that survived to be captured were executed in pagan sacrifice rituals, and captured Roman soldiers were enslaved. Honorable mention to the Slave Rebellion of Spartacus (Third Servile War, 73-71 B.C.)
8. Battle of Adwa, 1896.
The Italian fascination with Ethiopia led to repeated efforts to subjugate that African country, often with surprisingly poor results for the Italians. In this battle the Italian forces were soundly defeated which affirmed Ethiopia’s independence and brought an end to the First Italo-Ethiopian War. Although many Ethiopians were armed with lances, the Italians did themselves no favor by using obsolete rifles instead of the latest bolt action Carcano, because the Italian commander wanted to use up the old ammo first! Note: Italy won the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935-1936, this time having an embarrassingly hard time despite a superiority of 595 to 13 in aircraft and 795 to 4 in tanks. In that second war the Italians brought shame on themselves by using up to 500 tons of Mustard Gas on Ethiopian soldiers and civilians.
7. Isonzo Front, 1915-1917.
Italy had been allied with the Central Powers before World War I, but switched sides at the start of the war. An attempted land grab into Austro-Hungarian territory in the Balkans led to disaster after disaster for the Italian Army as the misguided commander continuously threw his troops against barbed wire and machine guns in uphill frontal assaults, resulting in tremendous Italian casualties. About half of all Italian war casualties, 300,000, were incurred in the area of the Isonzo River. A total of 12 major battles were fought on this front, with the final one detailed on #6 below.
6. Caporetto, 1917.
The Central Powers were now on the offensive on the Isonzo Front in the Fall of 1917, and they dealt a severe blow to the Italian Army by breaking the Italian line and routing the Italian forces. The size of the opposing forces were about equal, but the results were not. About 40,000 Italians were killed or wounded, and another 265,000 were taken prisoner. The use of chlorine and phosgene poison gas against the Italians contributed to the Central Power’s victory. The debacle resulted in 11 French and British divisions being sent to Italy to prevent further Central Power incursion.
5. Invasion of Egypt, 1940-1941.
A British force of only 35,000 men routed a larger Italian army of 150,000 that had invaded Egypt, pushing the hapless Italians back 500 miles and taking over 130,000 prisoners for a British loss of 1900 men. Another case of Germany having to bail out the Italians.
4. Greco-Italian War, 1940-1941.
Mussolini, the pompous dictator of Italy, did not want to be left out of the spoils of war when Germany appeared to be poised for an enormous land grab. Italy invaded Greece from Albania which resulted In Greek forces pushing the Italians back and occupying much of Albania themselves. Hitler could not stand by and watch his main ally blunder to defeat, and then invaded Greece with German forces in 1941, finally subduing the smaller country. Italy had lined up 565,000 men against only 260,000 Greek fighters, and had a aircraft superiority of 463 to 77, as well as 163 Italian tanks to none for the Greeks. This rescue of Italian forces became the norm for the Axis during World War II.
3. Cannae, 216 B.C.
The major Carthaginian victory of the Second Punic War, Hannibal lined up 53,000 Carthaginians against 86,400 Romans (and allies) and annihilated the Roman forces. About 54,000 to 75,000 Roman soldiers were killed and another 10,000 captured, against Carthaginian losses of only 5700 killed. Despite the disaster, Rome’s leaders persevered and continued the war until the Carthaginians eventually went home.
2. Taranto Harbor Raid, 1940.
Before Pearl Harbor where the Japanese devastated the US Pacific Fleet, there was the British aircraft carrier raid on the Italian Fleet in Taranto Harbor. With a mere 21 obsolete biplane torpedo bombers from only 1 aircraft carrier, the British dealt a severe blow to the Italian Navy by sinking a battleship, damaging 2 more battleships, damaging 2 cruisers and destroying 2 airplanes. The Italians suffered 59 dead and 600 wounded against British losses that were only 2 men dead, 2 men wounded, and 2 airplanes shot down, a lopsided loss that signaled the rise of the aircraft carrier as the most valuable fighting ship.
1. Lake Trasimene, 217 B.C.
The Carthaginian nemesis of Rome, Hannibal, complete with his war elephants had invaded Italy and pulled off the largest ambush in military history (as figured by men involved). Hannibal surprised 30,000 Roman soldiers and left 15,000 of them dead on the battlefield, while suffering 2500 dead of his own. (Although an unspecified number of Carthaginians died of wounds later.) Another 5000 or so Romans were captured. The Romans were forced against the lake itself with nowhere to retreat, resulting in many Roman soldiers being drowned. This battle led to the crushing Roman defeat at Cannae in 216 B.C..
Question for students (and subscribers): Which incidents would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cavallaro, Gaetano V. Futility Ending in Disaster: Diplomatic, Military, Aviation and Social Events in The First World War On The Austro-Italian Front Volume II. Xlibris, Corp., 2009.
McLachlan, Sean. Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896: The Italian Disaster in Ethiopia (Men-at-Arms). Osprey Publishing, 2011.