In 1940 a tiny British army had defeated a far larger Italian one and from 1941 to 1942, an outnumbered and under-resourced Italo-German one had fairly consistently got the better of a British one. How had this happened?
The answers in each case were: equipment; the tactics and training of the armies; their acquisition and use of information; and generalship.
In the winter of 1940–41, O’Connor’s Western Desert Force took 58 days to clear Cyrenaica and wipe out the eight divisions of the Italian Tenth Army, capturing 130,000 men and 845 guns and destroying 380 tanks. Though not in the end decisive, it was one of the British Army’s biggest victories of the war. Its later victories over the Germans were gained as part of an Allied army in which the American contribution was larger. In 1944, British Commonwealth forces gained a more important victory against the Japanese in Burma, but the losses inflicted on the enemy were smaller. O’Connor’s was a remarkable achievement, but it was not a miracle.
In the 1930s, Italy was a poor country still in the process of industrialization. In 1940, with a population of similar size to Britain’s, Italy had only 25 per cent of its gross domestic product. Half of its population still worked on the land and about a third were illiterate or semi-literate. They were poorly adapted to fighting a technological war – it was hard even to find enough men who could drive trucks – and its industry was barely capable of equipping it to do so. Graziani’s whole army only had 5,140 vehicles and 2,000 of them were in repair shops, leaving them with fewer than the standard complement of a British division. The bulk of his forces were marching infantry, whereas the Western Desert Force was fully motorized. During the 1930s, the Italian Army affirmed the primacy of numbers over mobility, summed up in the comment of one of their leading armoured warfare experts that ‘the tank is a powerful tool, but let us not idolize it; let us reserve our reverence for the infantryman and the mule’. The Italian infantry had a problem with their small arms. The Army was in the process of introducing a new rifle, and as a result there were two incompatible sets of ammunition, which led to confusion and shortages. Graziani had plenty of guns, but most of them were designed before World War I, many captured from the Austro-Hungarians in 1918. The result of this armaments disaster was that Italian divisions, which were in any case far smaller than those of most armies, lacked not only mobility but also firepower – the two cardinal factors in mechanized warfare.
The Italians’ biggest hardware problem of all was tanks. A lot of the vehicles classified as tanks were in fact lighter than British reconnaissance vehicles. The most numerous tank, the M11, was a death trap which has been described as ‘about the worst design of the period’. All the British tanks were better armed, but the Matilda infantry tank, a machine which had caused great consternation to Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division during the French campaign when it suddenly appeared at Arras in May 1940, was also invulnerable to Italian guns. When it first appeared in the desert on 9 December 1940, the Italian artillerymen facing it fought with great tenacity and died on their guns. But dying in their path did not stop the Matildas, as was observed by some of the survivors, and from then on the Matilda had a potent effect on Italian morale.
Poor equipment was not the end of it. Italian training, particularly of the infantry, was wretched. The generals did not believe in it. In 1937, one senior commander was sent off to Libya with the admonition not to do ‘too much training’. There was a widespread belief, congenial to Mussolini, that intuition and valour were more important in battle. What little there was consisted mainly of drill, with little live firing and almost no combined arms training. There was a gulf between officers and men, rations were poor and even proper uniforms were in short supply. By contrast, the units of the Western Desert Force had trained in desert conditions and 7th Armoured Division, which had been formed by the brilliant if eccentric tankman Percy Hobart, was probably the best trained in the British Army. O’Connor took things further by rehearsing his tactics in desert exercises before putting them into action.
During the 1940 campaign and thereafter, Italian troops often displayed bravery and determination. The few effective units they had, like the Folgore Parachute Division which had trained hard for eighteen months before entering the line at Alamein in 1942, earned the respect of the Germans and British alike. After all, the performance of their predecessors in World War I had been comparable to that of the other major European powers. They gave their Austro-Hungarian opponents such a hard time that the Germans were forced to send the 14th Army to help, which included one Oberleutnant Erwin Rommel, who won the highest German decoration, the Pour le Mérite, for his bold action at the bloody and hard fought battle of Caporetto in 1917. But between then and 1940, the Italian Army changed hardly at all. In modern battle, units which are poorly equipped and poorly trained usually disintegrate. Given its training and equipment, the Italian Army was bound to be ineffective in comparison both with its opponents and its allies. When he followed O’Connor’s victorious men into the fort of Nibeiwa, the journalist Alan Moorehead found a letter written home by an Italian officer which read: ‘We are trying to fight this war as though it is a colonial war in Africa. But it is a European war in Africa fought with European weapons against a European enemy.’ Most of the soldiers did not understand why they were at war, and were ill-prepared for modern battle conditions. Time had passed them by. A report from an Italian Air Force officer in November 1940 stated that troops exaggerated enemy strength and called for air support if they saw one tank. Graziani panicked at the prospect of air attack. He ordered Benghazi to be evacuated after two minor raids.
The great mass of hapless Italian foot-sloggers were inevitably outmanoeuvred by the mechanized units of the Western Desert Force. Once cut off, they could either surrender or starve, so they surrendered. But O’Connor rang rings round their leaders as well. He launched his first attack on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa, some twelve miles south of Sidi Barrani, just before dawn, and achieved total surprise. 4th Indian Division and 57 Matildas emerged out of the desert behind the Italian position, and caught them still half asleep. O’Connor consistently used speed and surprise, and exploited unexpected opportunities. He was prepared to use bluff, and had his enemies convinced that they were hopelessly outnumbered.
The command style of the Italian Army was designed for buck-passing. Responsibility was passed down as far as possible, with evidence collected on the way so that junior officers could be blamed in case of failure, which was the norm. However, junior officers were not trusted, so orders were very detailed and there was an inordinate amount of supervision. Showing initiative was positively dangerous. O’Connor – unlike a lot of his colleagues – explained his intentions to his subordinates and then delegated authority to them. They could therefore make rapid decisions without referring back whilst at the same time being confident that it would all add up to what O’Connor wanted. He led from the front, which was also his downfall, for it allowed him to be captured in April 1941 by German troops whose commander was to exhibit precisely the same characteristics over the next 24 months. They served him and his cause as well as they had served O’Connor.
During the course of 1941, the Italians improved the quality of their desert forces enormously, introducing two armoured and two motorized divisions which put them more on a par with their opponents. The M13 tank, which mounted a more effective gun than the M11, appeared in greater numbers. Even so, it was still easily the worst tank in the desert in 1942, slow and unreliable, and both the British and the Germans referred to them as ‘steel coffins’. Going to war in them required considerable courage in itself. The Italians consistently fielded the larger part of the force which was to cause the British so many headaches over the following months. However, the most important factor in explaining the Axis successes was the arrival of the Afrika Korps.
Folgore Parachute Division was officially formed in September 1st 1941. The Division was supposed to take part in the planned “C3” plan, the invasion of Malta, thus the Folgore was sent in southern Italy to begin the training for such an operation.
The Folgore parachute division was intended to have a heavy concentration of automatic firepower. Each small parachute battalion (326 men) was supposed to have 54 Breda M30 light machineguns (18 in each of the three rifle companies, which had 95 officers and men at full strength). Furthermore, all officers, noncoms, and weapons crew members (including the number two on each light machinegun) were to be armed with Beretta submachineguns. However, when the division deployed to North Africa in summer 1942, in many sub-units only officers and sergeants were actually furnished with the submachineguns, the others intended to have the Beretta (of which there were never enough to meet demand) being equipped with the M91 bolt-action carbine instead. It had also originally been planned to equip all the riflemen in the parachute battalions with semi-automatic rifles. Breda introduced its PG semi-automatic rifle in 1935, a rather advanced weapon with a curved 20-shot clip, but despite the excitement generated by early tests only 850 were made, and 200 of these (in 7mm caliber instead of the normal 6.5mm) were for sale to Costa Rica. The Armaguerra M39 semi-automatic rifle (designed by Revelli) was a 6.5mm weapon that used the same 6-shot charger clips employed by the Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifles and carbines (including later derivatives like the M38 short rifle, the official rifle of the Italian forces). There had been concerns about the complexity of the Breda PG and its reliability in field conditions, but the Armaguerra appears to have been a generally satisfactory weapon. The Italian Army ordered 10,000, intending to issue them not only to paratroopers but also to officers, sergeants, and one designated sniper in each infantry squad. However, only about 500 were actually produced, and few if any of these saw service before the Italian surrender. Thus riflemen in the Folgore also got the little M91 carbines as a substitute.
The Folgore also had a fairly large complement of 47mm antitank guns, in part because the divisional artillery was entirely equipped with this little piece, due to its light weight and portability. Lacking a shield, the 47/32 gun was very easy to move, weighing only 482 pounds, and breaking down into six parts for pack animal transport. The lack of a shield also made it easier to conceal, but it did expose the gunners to small arms fire and shell fragments, thus the Italians preferred to dig these weapons in or shelter them within emplacements. The 47mm 47/32 was roughly comparable to the British 40mm two-pounder antitank gun in 1940. The Italian gun performed better at longer ranges (half a mile or more, although more common combat range was about a quarter mile), but the higher-velocity two-pounder penetrated more armor (up to 54mm) at a quarter mile or less. The two-pounder was far heavier and more difficult to move than the Italian gun, although part of the reason was that it featured a novel mount allowing 360-degree traverse. However, by 1942 the little 47mm was completely outclassed by new, more heavily-armored tanks. While more powerful antitank guns like the British six-pounder
(57mm) and the German 50mm PAK 38 were being introduced in quantity by mid-1942 (if not before), the Italians were stuck with the Breda 47mm gun throughout the war, and were still using it in 1943. For this reason one reads, for instance, of Trieste Division gunners at Second Alamein holding their fire until British Shermans were within 20 yards, the only way to hope for penetration with the 47mm. Folgore Division received the 47/32 instead of conventional artillery because the 47mm gun could be air-dropped, fitted on a special pallet with a parachute. Since the weapon was originally intended not only for antitank use, but also as a light cannon for direct infantry fire support, the Folgore’s artillery component consisted of two groups of eight 47mm guns each.
Additional heavy weapons of all sorts were attached to the Folgore? s individual parachute battalions at Alamein. For example, the 5th Battalion included a mortar platoon with three 81mm mortars, an antitank platoon with three 47mm guns, and an attached pair of tripod-mounted machineguns. Even individual rifle companies often had substantial firepower. The 6th Company had a tripod-mounted machinegun and four 47mm antitank guns within its positions. The 13th Company had three 81mm mortars dug in with it, as well as four 47mm antitank guns positioned to cover both it and the neighboring 14th Company. By October all Folgore’s positions had the additional advantage of being shielded by extensive minefields. Furthermore, at Alamein the Folgore was backed by heavier artillery detached from the Ariete and Pavia Divisions, including 75mm field guns, 100mm (100/17) howitzers, plus 90mm and Italian-manned 88mm guns.
When the Folgore troopers fought their first real battle – in the predawn hours of September 4, 1942 they did indeed demonstrate enhanced firepower. The New Zealand command overseeing the operation on the Allied side expressed surprise at the effectiveness of the paratrooper? s defensive fire, which, in the words of one official history, caused some units to disintegrate. The entire engagement took both sides by surprise, as often happened in desert warfare (for instance, in the opening hours of the Gazala battle, when Ariete Division drove right into an Indian defensive box whose existence had not been suspected). In the final stages of the Alam Halfa defensive battle, Montgomery authorized a series of probing attacks on the Axis southern flank. The British 132nd (Royal West Kent) Brigade, not yet acclimated to desert conditions and navigation, ran straight into the Folgore positions at night, by accident. Neither side realized the other was in the vicinity until the two forces were at virtually point-blank range. In the confused melee that followed, opponents were shooting at each other at ranges as short as ten yards, and seldom more than 100. The Folgore, aided by a neighboring detachment of the German Ramcke parachute brigade, inflicted 700 casualties on their unwitting attackers (including 200 prisoners taken), and one of those casualties was Brigadier Robertson, commander of the British force, seriously wounded by Italian fire while moving between his sub-units. The Folgore also suffered painful losses, including Major Aurelio Rossi, commander of the 9th Battalion, who was killed in action. In addition, several of the enemy? s light vehicles (Bren gun carriers and trucks) had been knocked out, while one of the Folgore’s 47mm antitank guns took a direct hit from a 25-pounder. A fortuitous coup formed a sequel to the battle, as just before dawn the New Zealand Brigadier-General Clifton, whose troops had not even been involved in this particular fight, drove in his jeep straight into the Folgore positions in a case of mistaken identity, and was captured with his whole party.
When they realized their mistake, the General’s adjutant quickly rubbed out the markings on his map. A Folgore trooper smashed the jeep? s radio with his rifle butt when they tried to send a message about their plight. Folgore’s actual combat debut had come on August 30, 1942, when two New Zealand battalions tested the newly-arrived unit with a well-executed surprise trench raid that killed five paratroopers and took some prisoners. The following day three British light trucks sniffing around the perimeter were taken under fire by some of Folgore’s 81mm mortars, two vehicles being knocked out. The 81mm Brandt was another reasonably capable Italian weapon, similar to the model used by the US and Japan.
At Second Alamein, Folgore had enough weaponry at its disposal to withstand the first furious British assaults, albeit just barely. On one night during the Alamein battle, the 6th Company was attacked by 30 British tanks followed closely by infantry, the armor led by a special mine-clearing flail tank. In the gruesome combat that followed, seven paratroopers died and 11 were wounded in keeping 6th Company’s lone tripod-mounted machinegun firing until literally its last 20-shot tray, and the battery of four 47mm antitank guns suffered ten dead and twice as many wounded. Sergeant-major Bilo knocked out a British tank with a Molotov cocktail,? but had to leave his hole and set down his Beretta submachinegun to do so. With no weapon in his hands, he suddenly found himself virtually surrounded by British soldiers, barely 15 feet away, several of whom began shooting at him. By some miracle, Bilo regained both his weapon and the shelter of his hole with his skin intact. Others were not so lucky, and one of the hardest things the paratroopers had to endure was the screams of wounded men crushed under the enemy tanks in the night. Corporal Maiolatesi, his right arm wounded so badly that it was later amputated, kept firing his machinegun until out of ammunition, and then threw grenades with his left hand! The 6th Company held its positions, but was nearly wiped out in the process.
After the success earned during the Gazala battle, the OKW and Comando Supremo thought that the “C3” operation was no longer necessary; they thought that the forces freed up dropping the operation would have been much more useful in the final attempt to reach Alexandria, so Folgore division was sent to North Africa between July and August 1942.
The division itself saw his baptism of fire during the battle for Alam-el-Halfa, which the Italians call “corsa dei sei giorni” or “six days run”. Placed under the XX Corps, Folgore division, with Brescia and Pavia divisions, was ordered to advance in the center of the offensive, as the left flank of the armoured units of the Italian-German Tank Army who were though to break through the southern defence of the British Army, in the same manner as they did during the Gazala battle.
As soon as the attack has begun on 30th August 1942, the Italian and German forces where caught by intense RAF bombings and saw themselves slowed down by an intense mine netting, also the British defence mounted up as the axis forces advanced. After two days of fighting, on 1st September 1942, Rommel called off the attack and ordered his units to return to the starting positions.
As the attack ceased the British forces begun operation Beresford, their counter attack on 4th September 1942, focusing their efforts in the southern sector, where Folgore took built a bulge in the British defensive assets. The attack, begun by the VI NZ brigade and by the CXXXII British brigade, was repulsed with heavy casualties by IX and X battalions, with the latter being incorporated in the IX after the battle because of the losses, which comprised the BtG commander, Aurelio Rossi, fell in the counter attack. It was in this battle that Clifton was captured by the men of the IX BtG!
Forming Raggruppamento Ruspoli
After Alam-el-Halfa the two armies took time for rest. In this period the Axis forces dug in, reinforcing their position in order to resist to the incoming British offensive. El Cairo and Alexandria being so far right now.
Folgore division was assigned to the extreme southern sector of the army, within the X corps. Her deployment lay between Haret-el-Himeimat and Deir-el-Munassib.
The central portion of the division was held by “Raggruppamento Ruspoli” ( Ruspoli Group), which comprised the VII/186° and VIII Btg, with the II/28th from Pavia division. The raggruppamento had various artillery group taken from other divisions, which comprised some 88/56, 90/53, 100/17 and 75/27.
October the 23rd, 1942, at 21:40 the British begun their attack on the Italian line. Raggruppamento Ruspoli was one of the main objectives of Monty’s assault, as he began his initial assaults in order to find a weak spot in the axis defences.
The attack begun with a heavy shelling from British artillery which lasted until 23:30, after that the Infantry of the 51th HD and the tanks of the 7th AD attacked the Folgore front.
The first night saw fierce combat, with the 6/II company being surrounded and destroyed, the 19/VII having only 16 survivors. The VIII battalion is one that suffered the heaviest losses of the Raggruppamento, with his 24th company being the only formation emerging almost intact from the bitter fight.
Despite these heavy losses the British attack was repulsed, with the exception of some position in the sector of 20/VII. By 2:30 AM the fighting ceased, the raggruppamento having lost also a mortar platoon and 6 AT guns.
On the second day of the offensive Ruspoli counterattacked, sending forward his 20/VII company supported by some three semoventi da 75/18 and a number of German Panzers. The counter attack begun at 16:00, with the fighting ceasing by 16:30, with the company having reconquered all the ground lost.
Between the 25th and 26th October the British resumed their efforts, advancing in the sector of the 20/VII and 21/VII companies. Their offensive spirit being again frustrated by the bitter defence opposed by the paratroopers, with many local assaults and counterassaults. The British gained a foot hold tough, with their forces threatening now the flank of the raggruppamento.
Seeing the danger of an outflanking manoeuvre Ruspoli ordered his VII Btg to counterattack the British foot hold. The btg was support directly by the 100/17 guns, taken into the front line in order to shoot on tanks with open sights, the assault was so ferocious that the British forces retired back to their starting line, capturing half battalion in the process!
The 28th October, 20th anniversary of the march upon Rome, the British forces retired to their starting line, 500 m back from Folgore positions. The operation took two days. The men from Folgore division couldn’t rest tough, as the British resumed their attack the 31st upon the position of the 21/VII company, threatening the position of the battalion commander, they were repulsed, but during the night they mounted up another assault upon the 20/VII that lasted until dawn, when the British retired. By this time it was destroyed the 100th Tank in front of the Raggruppamento.
Despite their heroic resistance the division was ordered to withdraw in the night between 2 and 3 November 1942, they had to retreat 15km back from the line while destroying everything that wasn’t transportable. The orders looked grimmer as the hours passed, by the 4th November the division was supposed to fall back to Fuka, without any kind of motor transport, with all the ammunition stocks being depleted, without water nor food while British armoured car squadrons harassed the exhausted paratroopers, which returned fire with their last 47/32 while refusing the British proposal to surrender.
The 6th November the survivors of the divisions surrendered to the British forces at the gates of Fuka, receiving the honour to keep their personal weapons (onore delle armi in italian, honour of arms/weapons?). The division destroyed some 120 enemy tanks, while inflicting heavy losses to 51st HD, 7th AD, the Free French brigade and the Greek brigade.
Raggruppameno Ruspoli OOB
Along the first mine layer from north to south:
– 6/II company, capitano Paolo Emilio Marenco with a 2km front
– 1/I company, tenente Carlo Massoni with 4 47/32 ATGs
these two companies had support from two mortar platoons
– 19/VII company, capitano Alfonso Salerno with some battalion ATGs with the 16/VII to his south
Behind the first mine layer, behind 6/II:
– 22/VIII “Guastatori Paracadutisti” company, tenente Stelio Silleni supported by the 1/II artillery section with two 47/32 ATGs
Behind the second mine layer (resistance mine line, fascia minata di resistenza), directly behind the 22/VIII, Northern Sector:
– 20/VII company, capitano Carlo Lombardini
– 24/VIII “Guastatori Paracadutisti” company, capitano Scalettaris
Behind this position stands the command post of the VIII BtG “Guastatori Paracadutisti”, maggiore Giulio Burzi, to the right behind the 24/VIII
– 21/VII company, capitano Gino Bianchini, with one of his platoons deployed in front of the main line of resistance
– 16/VI company between the first mine layer and the main line of resistance
Between 20/VII and 21/VII stands the command post of the VII btg of capitano Carlo Mautino with two mortar platoons (one with captured 3″ mortars).
Between the 24/VIII and 20/VII are deployed the reserve, formed by the II/28 “Pavia” of maggiore Priano, with only three under strength companies. Among the reserves, on their right flank, stood the command post of the Raggruppamento, commanded by tenente colonnello Marescotti Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the command post of the I ATG group of capitano Giovanni Curti.
The artillery count:
– I/21st “Trieste” battery, with 100/17 howitzers
– II/27th “Pavia” battery, with 75/27 and 100/17
– IV/26th “Pavia” with 75/27 and 100/17
– “German mixed heavy group” from 21st panzer, with 210mm howitzers and 25pdr cannons.
( This is the artillery assigned to the raggruppamento, the division had some more pieces)
The raggruppamento counted about 1300 men.
The El Alamein offensive by the British Eighth Army, Operation LIGHTFOOT, begins on the 23rd October 1942, at 2140 hours local with an artillery barrage by 1,000+ guns aimed at Axis batteries; at 2200 hours, the barrage switches to the forward positions as British troops move forward; heavy fighting continues during the night of 23/24 October with XXX Corps on the north making the main effort and XIII Corps conducting diversionary actions on the south. The 12 Italian and German divisions amount to 80,000 men (53,000 of which are Italian). The Commonwealth forces amount to 230,000 men divided among ten divisions. As far as the tanks are concerned, only the German Panzer IV (35 total) are equal to the Commonwealth’s American M4 Sherman (252 total) and M3 Grant (170 total) tanks. The British attack the sector defended by the Italian Folgore Parachute Division. The Italian forces include 3,500 paratroopers, 1,000 Guastatori d’Africa, 80 artillery pieces and five tanks of German origin.
The Folgore prepare their defenses among a 15 kilometer (9.3 mile) barrier and realize they are the last defense before the rear of the Italo-German Army. The fighting lasted for one week and constituted four separate battles; the central sector on the 23rd, the northern sector near Naqb Rala on the 24th, the central sector again on the 24th and 25th, and the southern sector on the 25th, 26th and 29th. The British are thrown back after every attempt with a considerable loss of life and are ordered a stop any further initiatives on that front. Total dead, wounded or missing amount to 1,100 for the Folgore. Eventually General Montgomery’s forces claim victory over the Axis forces in El Alamein and Rommel orders the Folgore to withdraw on the 2nd of November, leaving their defenses still intact. Eventually, the remaining Folgore forces thin out during the difficult withdrawal through the desert.