John Gooch, a British historian whose specialty is the Italian military, puts Mussolini and his forces front and center. The result is a painstakingly detailed, long-overdue chronicle of the attempts by the smaller Axis power to play an outsize — and unrealistically ambitious — role in the global conflict. This somber account underscores the multiple failures of Mussolini’s leadership, which led to his ouster in 1943 and his ignominious execution by his countrymen at the end of the war. His body was left on display in Milan, dangling upside down alongside the body of his mistress ... Mussolini recognized sooner than Hitler did that they were fighting a losing battle against the Soviet Union, even urging him to try to make a separate peace again with Stalin. But it was far too late for another Nazi-Soviet pact — or for any other last-minute act of salvation. Italy was the first Axis power to fall, before Germany or Japan. In Gooch’s telling, Mussolini’s disastrous leadership allowed for no other outcome.
As John Gooch spells out again and again in his scrupulous account of Mussolini’s wars, Italy at every stage lacked resources, which made her ever more fatally beholden to Germany, her dangerous and untrustworthy ally ... Over much of Gooch’s long and fascinating book hangs Mussolini’s personality. By turn gungho and monosyllabic, truculent and cheerful, he changed his senior soldiers around, issued orders and then cancelled them, committing Italy to battles she could not win. Gooch is skilful at carrying his narrative forward, through painful campaigns and quixotic tactics, through advances and retreats, victories and losses.
An authoritative account of the dictator’s reckless adventurism, John Gooch asks how far Italy’s total defeat should be ascribed to the Duce, how far to military commanders and how far to the state’s longer-term weaknesses. All three played their part. But Gooch, professor emeritus at the University of Leeds, touches on the heart of the matter when he writes that Mussolini was a poor military strategist, who gambled on aggression in no small part because of memories of Italy’s participation in the first world war ...The strength of Mussolini’s War is that it draws on a fuller range of official Italian military sources than most previous accounts. Gooch makes relatively light use of other material, such as soldiers’ diaries and letters and secret police reports on morale. But his narrative is lucid, his analysis is perfectly judged and the result is a thorough, readable account of a series of pointless wars that did Italy nothing but harm.