The Rise and Fall of the Italian Colonial Empire

MatthewA By MatthewA, 23rd Sep 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

A brief historical account of the rise and fall of Italy's colonial empire.

The Rise and Fall of the Italian Colonial Empire

The Italian Empire was one of the smaller European colonial empires largely limited to Africa and the Mediterranean. This empire expanded in the late 19th century, but would last only until the 1940s. Military defeats in North Africa, the Balkans and then Italy during the early ‘40s would ensure the demise of the Italian Empire.

After the unification of Italy in the 19th century, the first Italian colonies were established. Italy searched for potential colonies in Africa, although Britain and France already dominated much of the continent. However, in 1885, Italy was able to establish its first colony in Massawa.

Italy was not so effective in their first colonial wars. The First Italian-Ethiopian war in 1895 was a war in which the Italian army was defeated by the Ethiopian army; this was a rare victory for an African nation at war with a European army.

Despite their defeat in that war, the Italian Empire still expanded further before the First World War. In 1911, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire and invaded Libya, which was a part of Turkey’s empire. The Italo-Turkish War was a much more effective military campaign for the Italians than the previous war, and their army’s victories ensured that Libya was added to the empire, which was one of the largest colonies.

However, the Italian Empire would last for only a few more decades after the annexation of Libya. By the 1930s, the empire was not much bigger, despite the annexation of Albania in ’39. When war emerged in Europe, Italy remained neutral until 1940. After the fall of France, Italy declared war on the British Empire to further expand their empire in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

The Suez Canal in Egypt was one of the primary targets for the Italians in North Africa. If the canal was occupied, this would cut Britain’s oil supplies. However, Italy’s advance into Egypt was halted, and soon became a retreat as the Italian army was pushed back into Libya. In Libya, hundreds of thousands of Italian troops surrendered to the British.

The arrival of German reinforcements did enhance Italy’s chances of victory in this war after a string of defeats in the Balkans and North Africa. Victory at the Battle of Gazala in 1942 was a highpoint in the campaign as German and Italian troops took Tobruk. However, despite this victory, Rommel was still short of the supplies required for a more general victory in North Africa, and would be defeated months later at the Battle of El Alamein. Quite simply, Rommel had too little fuel and too few tanks to hold the line and defeat the British and Commonwealth troops in this battle.

After this defeat, there could be no further advances in North Africa as the Afrika Corps retreated. The arrival of Allied reinforcements during Operation Torch further ensured their defeat. In 1943, the Afrika Corps surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia, and the Italian Empire in North Africa was in tatters.

Soon after, Allied troops landed in Sicily as part of Operation Husky. Further defeats followed as Sicily fell to the Allies. As such, the Italian king effectively sacked Mussolini, and the Italians began peace talks with the Allies. Although with German reinforcements in Italy, the Italian Campaign would continue up until 1945.

The defeat of Fascist Italy in World War Two marked the end of the Italian Empire. After the war, the Treaty of Paris dissolved the empire. As such, the Italian Empire was the fourth European empire to fall in the 20th century after Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary and the Imperial German Empire.


Italian Empire, Italy, North Africa Campaign

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author avatar MatthewA
Matthew is the author of the book Battles of the Pacific War 1941 - 1945. You can find further details at

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