Mussolini and Hitler both believed that when Germany invaded Poland, Britain and other
countries would remain neutral. Mussolini also thought that Britain and France were finished as players on the world stage and that any war would be short lived with Germany victorious.
Britain wanted Italy to side with the Allies, France also tried secretly to get Mussolini to join them but Mussolini refused to talk to them. Italy was massively under prepared for war so when Hitler generously suggested that Mussolini invade Yugoslavia he declined the kind offer. Italy stayed neutral when Hitler invaded Poland but then Germany invaded France and Mussolini joined the Germans. Italy controlled much of southern France including Nice for most of the ensuing war.
In the autumn of 1940 with a million soldiers in North Africa, Mussolini attacked the tiny 36,000 British soldiers in Egypt, Sudan and Kenya in East Africa with huge success. Luckily the Italians stopped short of taking the Suez Canal at a place called Mersa Matruh as they had run out of supplies. This was all about controlling the oil supplies coming from the Arabian oilfields and although massively outnumbered the British courageously fought back. The Italians were pushed back nearly 1000kms and in June 1941 lost the port of Tobruk in Libya which had been their many supply route from Italy. Hitler saved the Italians pancetta by sending Rommel and his Afrika Korps to fight the British for the next 3 years.
Mussolini’s grand plan for the New Roman Empire inspired him to declare war on Greece at the same time as battling the British in Africa. Greece fought back with great success and the Germans again sent reinforcements leaving Greece under Axis occupation. The book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is loosely based on this. Slovenia was next and Mussolini deported Slovenians to concentration camps, his plan was to move Italians there instead. The Slovenia campaign was easily the most despicable act by Mussolini and thousands were murdered or interned. The remains of the Risiera de San Sabba concentration camp are in northern Italy where tens of thousands were tortured and up to 5000 people were gassed with their bodies burnt. The ovens were blown up by the Germans at the end of the war to try and cover up the war crimes. Another camp at Rab saw thousands killed.
Mussolini then supported the Germans in their invasion of the Soviet Union but the Italian army suffered huge casualties and the campaign was massively unpopular with ordinary Italians. This was the beginning of the end and when the Allies invaded Italy in1943, The Italian Grand Fascist Council issued a vote of non-confidence against Mussolini and King Victor had Mussolini arrested and imprisoned. The Germans had other ideas though as they rightly feared the Italians would capitulate and throw their lot in with the Allies.
In September 1943 German paratroopers rescued Mussolini without a shot being fired at a place called Gran Sasso. Mussolini greeted his rescuers with the words ‘I knew my friend (Hitler) would not forsake me!’ The Germans set up Mussolini in northern Italy as the ruler of a puppet stated called the Italian Socialist Republic. As the Allies advanced north they took Monte Cassino where there were 75,000 casualties. The end was nigh, a disguised Mussolini attempted to flee Italy to Switzerland in April 1945 along with his mistress Clara in a German convoy but they were both recognised at a checkpoint at Lake Como and shot. Their bodies were taken to Milan and strung up from a lamppost as proof of the dictators’ demise.
In 2003 Mussolini’s admirer Silvio Berlusconi made his now infamous comments that Mussolini had only ever sent people on vacation!