Benito Mussolini, the son of a blacksmith and schoolteacher, rose to become the Fascist dictator of Italy from 1922 to 1943. He centralized all power in himself and attempted to create an Italian empire that would include Albania, Greece and the North African nations of Algeria, Libya, Egypt and others.
Once an opponent of Hitler’s aggression, Mussolini changed his tune and cast his destiny with Nazi Germany in 1939. Clearly the junior partner, Mussolini followed the Nazis in adopting a policy of persecution of Jews and the creation of apartheid in the Italian empire.
Mussolini relied on bluff and bluster to induce other nations to give way to his territorial demands. Although he had long boasted of Italy’s military readiness, his armed forces were completely unprepared when Hitler’s invasion of Poland led to World War II. He officially entered the war in 1940, after the fall of France convinced him the Nazis would win.
Mussolini looked to Africa as a way to gain territory and prestige in the eyes of Hitler. Thus he ordered attacks on British occupied Egypt and on Greece in September and October 1940. These proved unsuccessful for two main reasons. First, Italian war equipment was terrible; tanks fell apart easily under fire and trucks with solid tires fell apart on the rough terrain. Secondly, although Italian troops outnumbered British troops, morale was terrible and they were poorly trained.
In response to the attack on Greece, British forces now occupied airfields on Crete and in Greece. Hitler, not wanting British planes in striking distance of his one oil source in Romania, launched an operation against Greece, forcing the Britons to retreat.
Then, early in 1941, British forces pushed the Italians out of Egypt and back into Libya. In response, Hitler sent General Rommel with two-division tank corps, the Afrika Korps, to help out his allies. Nicknamed the Desert Fox by both his friends and enemies, Rommel and his German-Italian troops extracted heavy losses on the English over the next year.