102nd Motorised Division Trento

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102nd Motorised Division Trento
Js div trento.jpg
Trento Division insignia
Active 1939–1943
Country Italy Regno d'Italia
Kingdom of Italy
Branch Flag of Italy (1860).svgRegio Esercito
Royal Italian Army
Type Motorised infantry
Size Division
Part of Italian XX Motorised Corps
Nickname Trento
Engagements Western Desert Campaign

The 102nd Motorised Division Trento (in Italian: 102ª Divisione Fanteria Trento) was a motorised infantry division of the Italian Army during World War II. It was formed in 1939 and kept in reserve in Italy until it was moved to North Africa in February 1941. It took part in Axis attacks across North Africa, following the Allied Operation Compass and suffered heavy losses at Tobruk. The division was then reformed and took part in all of the major battles of the Western Desert Campaign until it was destroyed during the Second Battle of El Alamein.

North Africa[edit]

The Trento arrived in North Africa to reinforce the Italian Fifth Army following the Allied offensive Operation Compass,[1] a counterattack by British and Commonwealth troops of the Western Desert Force in response to the Italian invasion of Egypt. The offensive resulted in the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army and the Allied occupation of the Italian province of Cyrenaica.[2]

Siege of Tobruk[edit]

The Trento took part in the Axis counterattack of March 1941 that forced the British and Commonwealth forces into retreat.[3] While the Australian 9th Infantry Division fell back to the fortified port of Tobruk,[4] the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 miles (160 km) east to Sollum, on the Libyan–Egyptian border.[5] These moves initiated the 240 day long Siege of Tobruk, in which the Trento was involved.

After the failure of the Axis attack on El Adem Erwin Rommel, the German officer commanding the counterattack, decided to attack the western sector of the Tobruk perimeter, around Ras el Madauar, on 15 April. He used the 132 Armoured Division Ariete along with the 62 Sicilia Infantry Regiment of the Trento division.[6]

A British communiqué on 17 April 1941 described the actions:

One of our patrols successfully penetrated an enemy position outside the defences of Tobruk capturing 7 Italian officers and 139 men. A further attack on the defences of Tobruk was repulsed by artillery fire. The enemy again suffered heavy casualties. During yesterdays operations a total of 25 officers and 767 of other ranks were captured. In addition over 200 enemy dead were left on the field.

New York Times[7]

The 2/43rd Battalion War Diary reported that "The Italians attacked our 48 Bn and whilst withdrawing they (the Italians) were fired upon by German tanks believed to be supporting the attack."[8] The Australians sent out Bren-gun carriers specifically to find the Italian battalions' flank. The extra firepower finally stopped the Italians, and all firing ceased. Italian casualties turned out to be 24 dead, 112 wounded and 436 prisoners, including their colonel. He was so furious at having his unit shot up from behind by supporting German tanks that he fully cooperated with Tobruk Headquarters.[9]

An intelligence assessment by the 2/43rd Battalion concluded that:

Reports from PW indicate that a large-scale attack was to have been launched on the Tobruk defences on or about 16 April 41. There appears to have been no co-ordination between enemy tanks and inf units. The ITALIANS appear to have been somewhat in the dark as to their actual objectives and the method of co-ordination by means of GERMAN liaison offrs working with ITALIAN units has not been successful. PW also state that the spasmodic attacks in different sectors between 14 and 16 Apr, sometimes inf alone, sometimes tks alone sometimes both, were all intended to be a simultaneous assault which apparently went badly astray in its timing.[10]

On the night of 30 April, a strong Italo-German force attacks the Tobruk defences, and the Ariete, Brescia, 8th Bersaglieri Regiment and Guastatori (combat engineers) involved capture seven strongpoints ( R2, R3, R4, R5, R6, R7 and R8).[11] Between 3 and 4 May, the Australians counterattack but the Italians in the form of the Trento and Pavia Divisions, [12]and Ariete tanks in conjuction with the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment repel the attack and the attackers are only able to recapture one strongpoint from the defending Italian troops[13][14]On the night of 16 May, the Brescia Division retaliates with the help of two platoons of the 32nd Combat Engineer Battalion and breaches the defensive perimeter of the 2/9th and 2/10th Battalions. With the obstacles removed, the Brescia troops involved, who bring flame-thrower parties and tanks, capture the S8, S9 and S10 strongpoints.[11] The Australians fight back and the Commanding Officer of the Guastatori's, Colonel Emilio Caizzo is killed in a satchel attack and wins a posthumous Gold Medal for valour. Although the Australian Official History admits losing three positions, it claims the attackers were 'Germans'.[15] However, an Italian narrative has recorded:

With great skill and speed the Guastatori open three lanes in the mines and obstacles to let the Brescia Fucilieri through. Side by side with the Brescia assault troops they inflict heavy loses on the enemy and take out further strong points with explosives and flamethrowers.[16]

Australian military historian Mark Johnston states there was an "unwillingness to acknowledge reverses against Italians" in Australian official accounts.[17]

The Australian commander (Major-General Leslie Morsehead) is furious and orders the Australians to be far more vigilant in the future.[18] Among the objectives initially selected during the planning of Operation Brevity was the recapture of S8 and S9 strongpoints, but this is abandoned when it is discovered the Australians had recovered them.[19]

On 24 May, the Brescia Division which has taken over the western front of Tobruk, repels an attacking infantry force, supported by tanks.

The Trento in the form of its 7th Bersaglieri Regiment soon arrives to replace the weary Italian forces defending the captured stronpoints, and the Australians continue to fight hard to recover them. On 2 August, the Australian 2/43rd and 2/28th Battalions, in a final attempt to recover the lost strongpoints, carry out a determined attack but are repulsed with heavy loss of life.[20] After much fierce fighting, the Bersaglieri troops are finally ordered to move back to Gazala to rest and refit.[21]

Operation Brevity and Battleaxe[edit]

The British XIII Corps launched Operation Brevity on 15 May 1941. The objective of the operation was to clear the Halfaya Pass and secure several footholds to create advantageous conditions from which to launch Operation Battleaxe.[22][23]

The principle Axis opposition was Kampfgruppe von Herff, positioned on the desert plateau, which included up to 50 German tanks and the 5th Motorised Infantry Battalion, Trento, as well as supporting arms. The front line area around Halfaya Pass was defended by two companies of Bersaglieri with artillery support.[24][25]

After a day of inconclusive fighting the operation was abandoned and British forces took control of the pass. Total Italian casualties during the operation are unknown, though at least 347 men were taken prisoner during the operation.[26][27] On 5 August 1941, Colonel von Herff praised the Bersaglieri anti-tank gunners, whom he said had defended Halfaya Pass "...with lionlike courage until the last man against stronger enemy forces. The greatest part of them died faithful to the flag."[28]

The division next saw action during the Allied attack codenamed Operation Battleaxe in mid-June 1941. The division was deployed forward with three infantry battalions and one artillery regiment stationed in the Sollum-Musaid-Capuzzo area. The rest of the division was located at Bardia.[29]

Operation Crusader[edit]

Operation Crusader was launched by the British Eighth Army between 18 November–30 December 1941, with the objective of relieving the siege of Tobruk. Trento was now part of the Italian XXI Corps with the 17 Infantry Division Pavia, the 25 Infantry Division Bologna, and the 27 Infantry Division Brescia.[30] The attacks of the British 70th Division were checked for a time by the Trento, but the attackers were able to lift the siege of Tobruk on 10 December.[31]

Battle of Gazala[edit]

Battle of Gazala lines of attack

The Battle of Gazala was fought May–June 1942. The plan was for the armoured and motorised divisions to perform a right flanking attack while the Italian XXI Corps and the Italian X Corps, which included the Trento, would advance parallel to the coast road.[32][33] The Trento played an important role in the capture of 6,000 prisoners at Gazala on June 16.[34]

Battle of Mersa Matruh[edit]

During the Battle of Mersa Matruh on 26–30 June 1942, the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment and 46th Artillery of the Trento, played an important part[35][36]in the capture of 6000 defenders of the Xth British Corps, along with large quantities of supplies.[37]

First Battle of El Alamein[edit]

During the First Battle of El Alamein, part of the Sabratha Division was overrun on 10 July and General Enea Navarini, the commander of the Italian XXI Corps, rushed forward a battalion of the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment along with a battalion of the 46th Trento Artillery to contain the Australian advance in the area of Tel el Eisa. Major Renzo Rastrellia recalled the action:

The enemy was close at hand, their patrols and armored cars were all over the road. Without hesitation the battery commander, Captain Comi, opened fire at minimum elevation ... handling his massive 149s as if they were machine guns. The space before the leveled guns was clear in no time. The ground was plowed up in front of the guns for a distance close on 20 yards....The guns became red-hot, and many of the handlers were burnt....The area in front of Comi was deserted, except for blazing vehicles and dead Australians.[38]

On 17 July, a battalion of the Trento saved one flank from penetration and was so cited in the Panzerarmee daily summary,[39]The battalion counterattacked 2/32nd Battalion and captured some 200 Australians in this action but the Australian Official History overlooks this Italian success, admitting that just “two forward platoons of the 2/32nd’s left company were overrun, 22 men were taken prisoner”, and wrongly claiming that that they were captured by the Germans.[40][41]

On 27 July, a battalion of the Trento put up a fierce defense on Miteiriya Ridge, delaying the Allied advance for several hours and allowing an Italian armoured reconnaissance force to launch a devastating counterattack against the Australian 2/28th Battalion.[42]

Second Battle of El Alamein[edit]

Division locations before the Second Battle of El Alamein
Allied forces break through:7am 4 November; Trento', Bologna and Ariete Divisions destroyed- Axis forces flee

Before the start of the Second Battle of El Alamein the Trento was positioned along the Miteirya Ridge. On 24 October they came under attack from the 2nd New Zealand Division supported by 10th Armoured Division. By 25 October the Allies had broken through the minefields and were positioned on top of the Meteirya Ridge. Italian casualties from incessant artillery and air attack had been heavy, particularly in the north. The Trento had lost half its infantry and most of its artillery.[43] According to author Walter S. Zapotoczny (a graduate of the U.S. Army Sergeant Majors' Academy), the 61st and 62nd Infantry Regiments of the Trento Division had fought well, including the anti-tanks gunners of Captain Vigano and engineers of Colonel Randi that were attached to the division.[44] On 2 November Rommel ordered the X and XXI Italian Corps and 90th Light Afrika Division to stand firm while the Afrika Korps would withdraw approximately six miles west during the night of 3 November, with XX Italian Corps and the Ariete Division conforming to their position.[45]Of this, the Italian rearguard actions of the battle, Rommel wrote:

Enormous dust-clouds could be seen south and south-east of headquarters, where the desperate struggle of the small and inefficient Italian tanks of XX Corps was being played out against the hundred or so British heavy tanks which had come round their open right flank. I was later told by Major von Luck, whose battalion I had sent to close the gap between the Italians and the Afrika Korps, that the Italians who at that time represented our strongest motorized force, fought with exemplary courage.[46]

Order of battle[edit]

  • 61. Sicilia Infantry Regiment
  • 62. Sicilia Infantry Regiment
  • 7. Bersaglieri Regiment
  • 46. Artillery Regiment (mot)
  • 51. Engineer Battalion
  • 161. Mining Company
  • 51. Medical Section
  • 22. Motor Transport Section
  • 297. Motor Transport Section
  • 9. Mixed Motor Transport Section
  • 37. Heavy Motor Transport Section
  • 68. Field Bakery
  • 160. Carabinieri Section
  • 180. Carabinieri Section
  • 266. Carabinieri Section
  • 109. Field Post Office [47][nb 1]

Notes[edit]

Footnotes
  1. ^ An Italian Infantry Division normally consisted of two Infantry Regiments (three Battalions each), an Artillery Regiment, a Mortar Battalion (two companies), an Anti Tank Company, a Blackshirt Legion (Regiment of two Battalions). Each Division had only about 7,000 men, The Infantry and Artillery Regiments contained 1,650 men, the Blackshirt Legion 1,200, each company 150 men.[48]
Citations
  1. ^ Bauer, p.121
  2. ^ Playfair (1954), pp. 362 – 366, 371 – 376
  3. ^ Playfair (1956), pp. 19–40
  4. ^ Latimer, pp. 43–45
  5. ^ Playfair (1956), pp. 33–35
  6. ^ Playfair (1956), p. 38
  7. ^ "The Text of the Day's Communiques on Fighting in Europe and Africa: British". New York Times (18 April 1941). Archived from the original on 2009-04-27. Retrieved 2008-04-12. 
  8. ^ "Appendix No. 30:(Unreadable) Summary No. 2, entry for 16 Apl" (PDF). 2/43 Infantry Battalion War Diary, April 1941 (Australian War Memorial). Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  9. ^ Tobruk 1941: Capture-Siege-Relief, p.564, Chester Wilmot, Angus and Robertson Ltd, 1944
  10. ^ "Appendix No. 31: Bash Intelligence Summary No. 3. General" (PDF). 2/43 Infantry Battalion War Diary, April 1941 (Australian War Memorial). Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  11. ^ a b XXXII BATTAGLIONE GUASTATORI
  12. ^ The Forgotten Axis: Germany's Partners and Foreign Volunteers in World War II, J. Lee Ready, p. 310, McFarland & Co., 1987
  13. ^ "On 4 May, the positions held by 5 Battalion of 8 Bersaglieri under Major Gaggetti around Redoubts 6, 7 and 8 were counter-attacked by the Australians. The Italians responded with strong defensive fire and launched a counter-attack supported by three L3 light tanks. The latter were quickly destroyed at close quarters, and the Australians captured Redoubt 7. The Bersaglieri counter-attacked almost immediately, supported by one M13 tank and three armoured cars, and forced them back." Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini's Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa, Ian Walker, p.?, Crowood Press, 2006
  14. ^ That magnificent 9th: An Illustrated History of The 9th Australian Division, Mark Johnston, p. 38, Allen and Unwin, 2002
  15. ^ Maughan (1966), p.250
  16. ^ GUASTATORI IN NORTH AFRICA. The XXXI and XXXII Guastatori Battalions in the North African Campaign
  17. ^ Fighting the Enemy: Australian soldiers and their adversaries in World War II, Mark Johnston, p. 13, Cambridge University Press, 2002
  18. ^ Maughan (1966), p.251
  19. ^ Tobruk 1941, The Desert Siege, Timothy Hall, p. 183, Methuen Australia, 1984
  20. ^ North Africa 1941-1942 Second AIF Veterans Support and Advocacy Service Australia Inc.
  21. ^ (in Italian). Associazione Bersaglieri della Regione. I Bersaglieri website.
  22. ^ Chant, p. 21
  23. ^ Playfair (1956), pp. 159–160
  24. ^ Playfair (1956), p. 160
  25. ^ Jentz, pp. 128–129
  26. ^ Erskine, p. 79"
  27. ^ Hastings, p. 70
  28. ^ New York Times article, Italians' Bravery Praised By Nazi Chief in Africa. 5 August 1941
  29. ^ Playfair (1960), p. 164
  30. ^ Clifford, p. 123
  31. ^ The Bologna Division: 19 November – 10 December, 1941, By David Aldea, Comando Supremo: Italy at War
  32. ^ Playfair (1960), p. 223
  33. ^ Mackenzie, p.541
  34. ^ The Rise of the Wehrmacht: The German Armed Forces and World War, 2 Volumes, p.564, Samuel W. Mitcham, Praeger (June 30, 2008)
  35. ^ "The Mersa Matruh positions came under heavy artillery fire from the Brescia and Trento Divisions, while the 90th Light and the Littorio Divisions tried to complete the encirclement from the south ... Late in the day on 27 June, Gott, worried that his New Zealand 2nd Division was about to be cut off, ordered the withdrawal of XIII Corps. Because of a breakdown in British communications, X Corps did not learn until 0430 hours on 28 June that XIII Corps was in full retreat, and their southern flank was open. Later that day, the 90th Light Divison and the Littorio Divison completed the encirclement of Mersa Matruh ... During the night of 28 June, groups of the Indian 10th Division tried a breakout of the Mersa Matruh position at the head of Wadi Ngamish, but they were driven back by the Littorio Armoured Division ... On the morning of 29 June, the garrison of Mersa Matruh was overwhelmed. At 0930 hours, the Italian 7th Bersaglieri Regiment entered the conquered stronghold, taking 6,000 Allied prisoners. " World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, David T. Zabecki, p. 1578, Taylor & Francis, 1999
  36. ^ "Most of the garrison of Matruh, the better part of another corps, broke out before that position was overrun on June 29, with Italian Bersaglieri playing a leading role in a close-quarters fight resulting in the capture of six thousand prisoners and a division's worth of equipment." Patton And Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century, Dennis Showalter, p. ?, Penguin, 2006
  37. ^ Aldea, David. "Mersa Matruh". Commando Supremo: Italy at War website. Archived from the original on 2009-04-29. Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  38. ^ Rommel's Desert War: The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps, Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr, pp. 118-119, Stackpole Books, 2007
  39. ^ "In the same action the 3rd/61st Trento Infantry so distinguished itself in defending the Miteiriya Ridge that Rommel not only gave them proper recognition in his daily bulletin but was furious that the Italian communique (through ignorance, not neglect) failed to do so." The Battle for North Africa, John Strawson, p. 118, Bonanza Books, 1969
  40. ^ "German records indicate that Italians of the Trento Division were responsible." Fighting the Enemy: Australian Soldiers and Their Adversaries in World War II, Mark Johnston, p. 13, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  41. ^ "Soon the companies had seized the enemy positions on the ridge, but, in the dark, the men of A Company overshot their objective, Point 22, by 1,500 yards. By the time they realised their mistake they were under such heavy fire that they could not withdraw. By 08.00 hours Italian tanks and infantry began to encircle their positions and eventually forced the entire company to surrender." Pendulum Of War: Three Battles at El Alamein, Niall Barr, p. 148, Random House, 2010
  42. ^ Aldea, David. "First Battle of El Alamein". Commando Supremo: Italy at War website. Archived from the original on 2009-04-29. Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  43. ^ Playfair (1966), P. 50
  44. ^ Italy's North African Misadventure. By Walter S. Zapotoczny
  45. ^ Playfair (1966), p. 73.
  46. ^ The Decisive Battles of the Western World, and Their Influence Upon History: From the American Civil War to the end of the Second World War, John Frederick Charles Fuller, p. 500, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956
  47. ^ Wendal, Marcus. "Italian Army". Axis History. Archived from the original on 2009-04-27. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  48. ^ Paoletti, p 170

References[edit]

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  • Erskine, David (2001) [1956]. The Scots Guards 1919-1955. Naval & Military Press Ltd. ISBN 1-84342-061-9. 
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  • Jentz, Thomas L. (1998). Tank Combat in North Africa: The Opening Rounds, Operations Sonnenblume, Brevity, Skorpion and Battleaxe, February 1941 - June 1941. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7643-0226-4. 
  • Mackenzie, Compton (1951). Eastern Epic. London: Chatto & Windus. 623 pages. OCLC 1412578. 
  • Paoletti, Ciro (2008). A Military History of Italy. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-275-98505-9. 
  • Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F.C.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1956]. Butler, J.R.M, ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume II The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-066-1. 
  • Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F.C.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Gleave, Group Captain T.P. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1960]. Butler, J.R.M, ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume III: British Fortunes reach their Lowest Ebb (September 1941 to September 1942). History of the Second World War United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-067-X. 
  • Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F.C. & Gleave, Group Captain T.P. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1966]. Butler, J.R.M, ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume IV: The Destruction of the Axis Forces in Africa. History of the Second World War United Kingdom Military Series. Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-068-8.