Formation

The Ariete Armoured Division was an armoured formation of the Italian Armed Fprces during World War II. It was formed in 1939 as the second armoured division in the Italian Army after the formation of the 131st Centauro Armoured Division. The division fought in the North African Campaign until being destroyed during the Second Battle of El Alamein.

French Campaign

The 132nd Ariete Armoured Division was formed in Milan in February 1939, comprising the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment, 32nd Tank Regiment (equipped with L3/35 light tanks and M11/39 medium tanks), 132nd Artillery Regiment, as well as several supporting divisional units. The division took up reserve positions near the French Alps at the start of World War II, but did not see action in the Italian advance to Menton.

Operation Compass

The Ist and 2nd Tanks Battalion from the Ariete fought as part of the Maletti Group that was overrun in the Battle of the Camps . The 3rd and 5th Tank Battalions formed part of the Special Armored Brigade (Brigata Corazzata Speciale, or BCS) that fought well in the defence of Mechili and Giovanni Berta. The remnants of the Maletti Group and the BCS were destroyed in the Battle of Beda Fomm.

Siege of Tobruk

The Ariete in the form of the 132nd Tank Regiment and 8th Bersaglieri Regiment, with a detachment from the Sabratha Division acting as pathfinders, formed part of General Erwin Rommel's spearhead during his first desert offensive, capturing Benghazi and Mechili along with 3,000 troops[N 1] from the British 2nd Armoured Division and 3rd Indian Division that ran into machine-gun and anti-tank detachments of Bersaglieri in ambush positions outside Mechili, while attempting a breakout.[N 2]

On the night of 30 April/1 May 1941, the Ariete in the form of flamethrower tanks[3]and 8th Bersaglieri and supporting Guastatori overrun and capture the R3, R4, R5, R6 and R7 strongpoints from the Australians.[N 3] On 3 May, the Australian 18th Brigade counterattacks but recaptures only one strongpoint from what Australian historian Mark Johnston admits were Italian defenders. The Australians recaptured R7, but are forced to relinquish the strongpoint when the defending Bersaglieri troops launched a counterattack supported by an armoured column.[5]The 3-day action is later known as the Battle of the Salient.

Operation Crusader

During Operation Crusader, the division successfully defends Bir el Gobi against the British 22nd Armoured Brigade, inflicting heavy losses on the attacking British armoured columns. During 29 and 30 November, the Ariete and supporting Bersaglieri battalions capture a considerable number of New Zealand, Indian and British troops. Recalling the loss of the 21st New Zealand Infantry Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Howard Kippenberger, who later commanded the 2nd New Zealand Division reported that:

About 5.30 p.m. damned Italian Motorized Division (Ariete) turned up. They passed with five tanks leading, twenty following, and a huge column of transport and guns, and rolled straight over our infantry on Point 175.[6]

On 15 December 1941, the Brescia and Pavia divisions defeat the attacks from General Alfred Godwin-Austen[N 4], allowing the remaining 23 tanks of the 15th Panzer Division to rejoin the Ariete armoured columns in the Gazala Line and (along with supporting motorcycle battalions under Majors Cantella and Gastaldi from the 8th and 9th Bersaglieri Regiments[N 5][N 6]) overrun the attacking 1st Battalion East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) from the 4th Indian Division, capturing 1,000 British troops[9][N 7][N 8]

Battle of El Gazala

The Ariete obtained early success during the Battle of Gazala, overrunning the British-officered 3rd Indian Motor Brigade at Rugbet Al Atasc on 27 May 1942[12] , capturing 1,000 troops in the process[13] . The Ariete then successfully defended the panzer formations of the Afrika Korps from strong British armoured attacks mounted in the German rear on 29 May and 5 June.[14]

El Alamein

During the initial fighting in the First Battle of El Alamein, the Ariete, which was down to 6 or 8 serviceable tanks and 1,000 men, having just arrived in the positions assigned to it at dawn on 3 July 1942 and due to the confusion caused by Allied air attacks, was forced to withdraw after losing 531 men killed, wounded or captured and several artillery batteries and a half a dozen tanks. Rommel's report to Albert Kesserling that the Italian armoured division having been decimated with the loss of 100 tanks was greatly exaggerated.[15]

During the Battle of Alam el Halfa, the Trieste, Brescia and 90th Light Division, supported by tanks and self-propelled guns from the Ariete and Littorio Divisions, counterattacked in the area of the Munassib Depression, forcing the New Zealand 26th Battalion and 5th Brigade and the British 132nd (Kent) Brigade, practically back to their forming up positions, after the New Zealanders and British had advanced some 3 miles.[N 9]

During the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Ariete is reported to have fought very well right from the start of the battle on 24 October:

The Ariete Division, the Bersaglieri Battalion and units of the Brescia and Folgore Divisions fought magnificently. Montgomery's 13th Corps was able to make minor break throughs in the eastern minefield, but did not reach the main front line.[17]

The Italian division later covered the withdrawal of the Afrika Korps from El Alamein. On 4 November, at about 15:30 hours, the few surviving tanks broadcast their last message to Rommel:

Enemy tanks broke through South of Ariete Division. Ariete thus surrounded, located 5 kilometers north east of Bir-el-Abd. Ariete tanks keep on fighting![18]

The British 22nd Armoured Brigade had a tough fight lasting several hours, before the survivors from the Ariete Armoured Division and 8th Bersaglieri Regiment caved in and retreated:

Soon after midday, ten miles southwest of the Aqqaqir ridge, 22 Armoured Brigade came up against the tanks and antitank screen of the Italian rearguard, Ariete Division. Waller had yet another portee shot from under him, but he, Bill Ash, Alf Reeves and Sid dug the 6-pounder in and brought it to bear on the M13s that stood in the way. For most of the rest of the day they slugged it out until finally, under the constant pounding, Ariete broke and ran, abandoning equipment everywhere. The southern flank of Rommel's defences had been utterly destroyed. The men they had fought were the Bersaglieri, mobile light infantry like themselves, supposedly an élite bunch. The cock-feather plumes in their helmets did not look so jaunty now as they lay twisted on the ground. The riflemen dug graves, They found piles of propaganda postcards, men in feathered hats marching towards Cairo. There was a songbook too. Waller went through it with Bill, trying to make out the meaning of the lyrics. 'L'Addio del Bersaglieri.'[19]

On 6 November 1942, the German High Command reported that in this sector that the Ariete tanks and Bersaglieri had defended :

...the British were made to pay for their penetration with enormous losses in men and material. The Italians fought to the last man.[20]

Notes

  1. On April 8, the Afrika Korps completed the destruction of the 2nd Armoured Division. Major General Michael D. Gambier-Parry, the commander of the 2nd Armoured, and Brigadier Vaughn, the commander of the Indian 3rd Motor Brigade, were captured, along with 3,000 of their men." [1]
  2. The victory must have been especially sweet for the men of the Ariete Division, partly as recompense for past humiliations at British hands, and partly because it was an all-Italian triumph." [2]
  3. ""La sera del 29 il 1° plotone della 3a, agli ordini del Sototenente Ernesto Betti, andò in azione con un gruppo comandato dal Tenente dei Bersaglieri Melis. Questo reparto era costituito di un plotone Arditi dell'8° Bersaglieri e di 2 carri M13. Guastatori aprirono un varco nel campo minato protetto da filo spinato, antistante la Ridotto R3, I'assaltarono e la conquistarono utilizzando lanciafiamme e cariche cubiche ... Un commento al Bollettino di Guerra, trasmesso alle 13:00 del 10 maggio, informava che reparti del Genio Guastatori avevano espugnato 5 fortini della cerchia di Tobruk." [4]
  4. The Poles and New Zealanders made good initial progress, taking several hundred Italian prisoners; but the Italians rallied well, and by noon it was clear to Godwin-Austen that his two brigades lacked the weight to achieve a breakthrough on the right flank. It was the same story in the centre, where the Italians of ‘Trieste’ continued to repulse 5th Indian Brigade’s attack on Point 208. By mid-afternoon the III Corps attack had been fought to a halt all along the line.”</ref>Crusader: Eighth Army’s Forgotten Victory, November 1941-January 1942, Richard Humble, p. 187, Leo Cooper, 1987</ref>
  5. "The 8th and 9th Bersaglieri were present in the frontline and stopped every infantry attack the 5th launched. Total losses for the 5th were "one thousand men, ... forty guns, many trucks, and various pieces of equipment." [7]
  6. “Enemy pressure continued at El Gazala and met with vigorous Italian resistance. Italians passed to counter-attack along the whole line“. [8]
  7. "The 8th and 9th Bersaglieri were present in the frontline and stopped every infantry attack the 5th launched. Total losses for the 5th were "one thousand men, ... forty guns, many trucks, and various pieces of equipment." [10]
  8. “Italian motorized and armored divisions with the support of large German units fought with extreme tenacity and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. Many armored units were set on fire and destroyed. Prisoners were numerous and included a brigade commander." [11].
  9. "During the early morning hours, the New Zealand Division, composed of the two New Zealand brigades, which occupied the box, assisted by a brigade of another infantry division, laid down an artillery barrage and followed with an infantry attack. This attack advanced south and along the trails in square 88-27. The attack advanced 3 miles, but with the coming of daylight the Trieste, Brescia, and the 90th Light Division, supported by the Ariete, and Littorio Divisions, in a series of three counterattacks, forced the attacking troops back nearly to their original positions." [16]

Sources

  1. Rommel's Desert Commanders: The Men who Served the Desert Fox, North Africa, 1941-1942, Samuel W. Mitcham, p. 18, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007
  2. Tobruk: The Great Siege, 1941-42, William F. Buckingham, Random House, 2010
  3. THE EARLY ATTEMPTS and SEIGE
  4. Genio Guastatori, Silvestri Angioni Lombardi , p. 47, Edizioni R.E.I., 2015
  5. The Australians appear to have penetrated into the post but were ejected by Maggiore Gaggetti's Bersaglieri supported by an M13/40 tank, three armoured cars of some description and possibly flame-throwers as well. At 00:45 Lieutenant-Colonel ordered a tactical withdrawal to R14 to regroup and reorganise, a process that took over two hours. Tobruk: The Great Seige 1941-42, William F Buckingham, p. ?, The History Press, 2008
  6. Infantry Brigadier, Howard Kippenberger, p. 101, Oxford University Press, 1949
  7. Rommel's North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942, Jack Greene, Alessandro Massignani, p. 126, Da Capo Press, 2007
  8. The New York Times, 16 December 1941
  9. Das Afrika Korps: Erwin Rommel and the Germans in Africa, 1941-43, Franz Kurowski, pg. 125, Stackpole Books
  10. Rommel's North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942, Jack Greene, Alessandro Massignani, p. 126, Da Capo Press, 2007
  11. The New York Times, 17 December 1941
  12. "The Ariete Division encountered and defeated the newly arrived 3rd Indian Motor Brigade." Rommel's Intelligence in the Desert Campaign, 1941-1943, Hans-Otto Behrendt, p. 156, Irwin Pub, 1985
  13. "Among the 1,000 - odd prisoners taken was Sir Walter Cowan, a seventy-one-year-old retired British admiral, captured as he valiantly emptied his revolver at an oncoming German tank." The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II, John Bierman, Colin Smith, p. 166, Viking, 2002
  14. Ariete at Gazala
  15. Rommel's North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942, Jack Greene, Alessandro Massignani, p. 196, Da Capo Press, 2007
  16. The Afrika in Combat, Bob Carruthers, Pen & Sword, 2013
  17. The Foxes of the Desert, Paul Carell, p. 279, Bantam Books, 1962
  18. Rommel's Desert War: The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps, Samuel W. Mitcham, p. 176, Stackpole Books, 2000
  19. End of the Beginning, Phil Craig, Tim Clayton, Hachette, 2012
  20. The Desert War
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