Italian Air Force Special Units; Italy, 1942

(1) Tenente, Air Force Assault Engineer Battalion (ADRA)

This is the khaki cotton version of the typical collarless jacket of Italian special forces, otherwise cut like the ‘Sahariana’. Note the matching beret, wide paratrooper’s trousers and black jump-boots; an officer’s ‘Sam Browne’ belt with Beretta M34 holster; and the special forces dagger. In the Regia Aeronautica only special forces wore the beret; it bears the Air Force officer’s cap badge of a crown over a wreathed eagle in gold, on grey-blue backing, and the two stars of his rank. The lieutenant’s two rank stripes in gold on grey-blue, the upper one with a diamond-shaped ‘curl’, are worn on the cuff, but the other insignia are all of Army type. Blue paratroop lapel patches bear the guastatori symbol of a winged sword set on a flaming petard, above the national silver star. On his left breast he wears the Air Force’s 1942 gold metal parachutist’s ‘wings’. On the left sleeve is the badge then worn by all qualified paratroopers, above the wreathed sword badge of a qualified Ardito assault trooper. The ribbons are those of the Air Force Silver Medal, War Merit Cross, and 2 Years’ War Service Badge.

(1a) Metal breast badge of the Arditi Distruttori Regia Aeronautica (ADRA).

(2) Paracadutista, 1st Air Force Parachute Battalion

Over blue-grey Regia Aeronautica uniform he wears the standard Army paratroop helmet with camouflaged cover, a camouflaged jump-smock, a narrower version of the ‘Samurai’ ammo vest (so as not to interfere with the parachute harness), knee pads and jump-boots. His Beretta M38A SMG is carried in a canvas case secured to his waist by a 10m (c.30ft) rope, and at the ankle by a sleeve. When his parachute opens he will lift the muzzle out of the ankle sleeve and lower the case to dangle below him until he lands. (To hit the ground with it still stowed as illustrated would obviously result in broken bones.)

(3) Primo aviere, ‘Loreto’ Battalion

This corporal carrying a Breda 30 ‘automatic rifle’ (light machine gun), photographed while lined up for inspection, wears surprisingly inadequate equipment: a greenish-painted Army belt with a single rifle cartridge pouch and a bayonet, but neither the neck support sling, nor the cleaning-kit pouch and pistol prescribed for an LMG crew ‘No.1’. The battalion received these Czech steel helmets, painted blue-grey with a black Air Force stencil. Otherwise he wears standard Air Force blue-grey service uniform, with bright blue collar patches. On the left sleeve above his red rank chevrons is this battalion’s yellow sword-and-wings badge.

The birth of the Air Force special forces was also prompted by the plan to assault Malta, although in their case only very late in the day. This was due to the belated decision to include in the plan the rapid seizure and preparation of Hal Far airfield in order to bring in air-landing troops of the `La Spezia’ Division.

The 1° Reparto Paracadutisti della Regia Aeronautica (1st Air Force Paratroop Unit), tasked with capturing Hal Far, was formed only on 12 May 1942 at Tarquinia, under command of LtCol Edvino Dalmas. Entirely composed of volunteers, it had an HQ (5 officers, 4 NCOs, 20 rankers), and ten squads each with an officer, 2 NCOs and 25 rankers. Most were armed with the standard 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano M91 carbine, the officers and NCOs with the 9mm Beretta M38A submachine gun, and their intensive training included the use of explosives and sabotage techniques. Part of the unit was made up of technical specialists tasked with returning the airfield facilities to serviceable condition as soon as possible.

Since this latter was a key part of the overall plan, on 10 June 1942 another unit was formed, at Cameri airfield near Novara, specifically tasked with this role. This Battaglione `Loreto’ was intended both to take part in the restoration of facilities at Hal Far and to garrison and defend it. Its first two companies were to be deployed in defence. The 1st Co had 6 officers, 17 NCOs and 172 airmen, being composed of one machine-gun platoon armed with 20mm AA cannon, and three light machine-gun platoons. The 2nd Co had 5 officers, 12 NCOs and 200 airmen. Officers and NCOs were equipped with SMGs, most others with the M91 carbine. The 3rd Co, responsible for the technical services, comprised 8 officers, 9 NCOs and 199 airmen, onequarter of them technicians. The 4th Co, responsible for logistics and administration, had 8 officers, 14 NCOs and 185 airmen, again one-quarter of them technicians.

1st Air Force Assault Regiment `Amedeo d’Aosta’

After the decision to cancel the invasion of Malta the Air Force paratroop unit moved to Arezzo, Tuscany, in late summer 1942. Most of the personnel were granted leave, and the unit was almost forgotten until November, when the Allied Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria concentrated the minds of the high command. Both the 1st Paratroop Unit and the `Loreto’ Bn were sent at first to Sicily; and there, on 16 November at Marsala, these units were merged to form the 1° Reggimento d’Assalto della Regia Aeronautica `Amedeo d’Aosta’ (1st Air Force Assault Regiment `Amedeo d’Aosta’ – named after the Air Force general who had been Viceroy of Ethiopia). The regiment had its own HQ and the newly redesignated 1st Paratroop Bn, and was also originally intended to include the Battaglione Arditi Distruttori della Regia Aeronautica (ADRA). This Air Force Assault Engineer Bn, which was still forming, would eventually be an independent unit. On that same day the Paratroop Bn, only 241 strong, landed in Tunisia. After a short pause at Bizerta, where three of its ten squads were left, it was deployed westwards to face the advancing US and British forces. On the evening of 20 November the understrength battalion, along with the German Paratroop Engineer Bn `Witzig’, was deployed on the Djebel Abjod close to the Algerian border. The following day both German and Italian paratroopers attacked the advancing British forces, taking them by surprise, but soon faced strong counterattacks. Out of 81 men the Italians lost 4 killed, 7 wounded and abandoned, and 44 missing; LtCol Dalmas was also wounded, but was evacuated to Italy. Reinforced by the three squads from Bizerta on 23 November, the paratroopers held their positions until the 25th when, under heavy artillery fire, both Germans and Italians withdrew some 50km (31 miles) eastwards. What was left of the Air Force Paratroop Bn was then deployed in rear areas, to defend the airfields of Tunis, Gabes and Sfax against Allied raids.

The first two companies of the `Loreto’ Bn were shipped from Sicily to Tunis aboard destroyers on 15 January 1943; the 3rd and 4th Cos were left in Sicily to repair airfields (in May they would be moved to Sardinia to carry out the same duties). At the same time the new commanding officer of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt arrived in Tunisia; he found that the unit had been reduced to 6 of the original 11 officers, 12 NCOs out of 28, and 174 airmen out of 274. He requested replacements for men, weapons and equipment before the unit could again be employed as infantry (the paratroopers had even been sent to Tunisia without steel helmets).

His request was only answered when the situation worsened still further; in April 1943 elements of both the Paratroop and `Loreto’ battalions were regrouped and reinforced using spare Air Force personnel, to be deployed at Enfidaville under the Italian First Army. At this time the regiment had an HQ company; the Paratroop Bn with three companies (the first two mainly paratroopers, the MG Co made up with new Air Force personnel); and the `Loreto’ Bn with four companies (again, the first two from the original unit, the others from new personnel) – armed with a few more SMGs, but still with only (on paper) 18 MGs and 42 LMGs. Attached to the `Pistoia’ Inf Div, the cobbled-together regiment fought until the end, at Wadi Akarit and Enfidaville, until it surrendered in May near Mateur. On 2 July 1943 the regiment was practically disbanded, leaving cadres only. On the 23rd it was re-formed on paper, to a reduced strength and with undetermined tasks, though theoretically to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Allied forces landing in Sicily.

`ADRA’ Battalion

The Battaglione Arditi Distruttori della Regia Aeronautica (ADRA), Air Force Assault Engineer Bn, had officially been formed as part of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt on 10 December 1942, but its composition was only defined on 25 January 1943. It was to have an HQ and three companies, each with three platoons, each having 2 officers, 3 NCOs and 24 rank-and-file. These formed squads each with an NCO and 8 rankers.

Their objectives were broadly defined as enemy airfield facilities, fuel and ammunition depots. The approach to the targets might be by either parachute, land or sea. Courses had begun at Tarquinia in September 1942, but the belated recruitment of volunteers, the time needed to train them, and delays in the delivery of weapons and equipment, meant that the first 60 Arditi were not available until April 1943, when the bulk of the 1st Air Force Assault Regt was already in Tunisia. As a consequence, on 10 April 1943 the `ADRA’ Bn was detached and made independent.

Its baptism of fire came in June 1943, when it took part in a mass sabotage operation against Allied airfields in North Africa. Ten `ADRA’ patrols, along with parties from the Army’s X Arditi, were flown from bases in Italy, France and Greece, only to land in most cases far from their targets. As a consequence of faulty intelligence many of these had not been studied properly, or were badly chosen (some were no longer even in use). Most of the patrols were taken prisoner hours, or at best days, after landing, and without reaching their targets. The exception was one patrol dropped in Cyrenaica which, chased by British forces and down to just two men, managed on the night of 17/18 June to penetrate Benina airfield and destroy or damage (amongst others) two USAAF B-24 Liberator bombers and two RAF Wellington bombers. The two Arditi eventually surrendered.