The Italian Bersaglieri Corps was founded on 18 July 1853 as elite light infantry in the Sardinian Army and fought in the Unification of Italy (1848-71) and Crimean War (1853-56) against the Russians.

The Bersaglieri Corps fought in the First World War in the form of 12 regiments, and then due to cuts in the military budget, only four full-sized regiments existed in 1920.

During the Second World War, the Bersaglieri Corps again saw much action in the form of 12 Bersaglieri regiments that were deployed on all fronts, with half fighting in the North African Campaign.

Under General Armando Diaz, the Bersaglieri Corps was reorganized in 1923 with the 12 regiments each consisting of two battalions, six being infantry regiments and the other half being equipped with bicycles. In 1940, under orders from General Alberto Pariani, the Bersaglieri regiments that were now equipped with motorcycles, were deployed in the Po Valley as part of the Army of the Po. 

At the start of the Second World War, three Bersaglieri regiments formed part of the three Italian Army armoured divisions attached to the Army of the Po, the 5th (Centauro), 8th (Ariete) and 12th (Littorio) Bersaglieri Regiments. In the two existing motorized divisions, there were the 7th (Trento) and 9th (Trieste) Regiments. All these Bersaglieri formations later fought in North Africa.    

Operation Compass

The Brigata Corazzata Speciale (Special Armoured Brigade) under General Valentino Babini, and the supporting 10th Regiment were the first Bersaglieri formations to see action in North Africa, taking part in the fierce rearguards actions at Derna, Giovanni Berta and Beda Fomm during Operation Compass

The Italian defenders were reported to have fought very well in defence of Derna and Giovanni Berta:

Jan. 30.—The third major Italian bastion to fall in Libya—Derna, 175 miles west of the Egyptian frontier—was occupied today by British imperial troops after four days of the bitterest resistance offered by the Fascists in the whole of the African campaign. The town had been defended by less than 10,000 Italians, British sources disclosed, but they fought with a violence encountered nowhere else in General Sir Archibald P. Wavell's long continued thrust to the west.[1]

Mechili

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. [2]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.[3]

Tobruk

On 15 April 1941, during Operation Brevity, the anti-tank gunners under Colonel Ugo Montemurro from the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment remained in their positions and knocked out seven heavy armoured Matilda tanks, blunting the British offensive. General Erwin Rommel recommended that Colonel Montemurro be awarded the Iron Cross First Class for his conduct in this action and Colonel Maximilian von Herff, commander of the German 115th Regiment publicly praised the Bersaglieri anti-tank gunners and protecting riflemen, saying they defended Halfaya Pass "...with lionlike courage until the last man against stronger enemy forces. The greatest part of them died faithful to the flag."[4]

On 26 November 1941 (during Operation Crusader), the 9th Bersaglieri Regiment outside Tobruk, defeated a strong infantry-tank attack from the British 70th Division, inflicting heavy losses.[5] 

On 1 December, the Trieste Division, reinforced by the 9th Bersaglieri Regiment, cut the road to Tobruk from the defending 2nd New Zealand Division attempting to lift the siege.[6]  

Eastern Front

During the Italian campaign in the Eastern Front, the 3rd and 6th Bersaglieri Regiments fought in various sectors. They compiled an excellent combat record, with the 3rd Regiment securing and successfully defending the Italian bridgeheads on the Don and Dnieper Rivers in August 1941, and the 6th Regiment fighting to victory in the drive to Ivanowka and Krasnij Lutsch in July 1942.

El Alamein

On 29 June, the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment was the first Axis unit to enter the Marsa Matruh stronghold, capturing 6,500 British Commonwealth soldiers, while freeing the Italian and German POWs.

On 10 and 11 July, during the First Battle of El Alamein, the 7th Regiment along with the Sabratha and Trieste Divisions contained the attack of the 9th Australian Division developing from Tel el Esia, but at heavy cost.

During the Second Battle of El Alamein, anti-tank gunners from the 12th Bersaglieri Regiment on the Rahman Track defeated Brigadier John Cecil Currie's 9th Armoured Brigade, destroying 70 out of the 94 attacking British tanks on the night of 1/2 November.

That month, the 5th and 10th Bersaglieri Regiments were sent to North Africa with the Centauro Armoured Division and Superga Mountain Division, soon after the Torch landings in Morocco.

Tunisian Campaign

In early December 1942, the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment fighting alongside the Semoventes self-propelled gun units from the Superga Division played an important part in defeating several hundred Allied paratroopers operating behind Axis lines during the Battle of Tebourba.

In February 1943, during the Battle of Kasserine Pass, the overrall commander of the 5th and 7th Bersagleri Regiments, Colonel Luigi Bonafatti, was killed while personally leading the Bersaglieri charge through the mountain pass, when he was caught in the open by US artillery fire. During the Allied counterattacks to regain the pass, the battalions of the Bersaglieri were the last to retreat, covering the German retreat from Thala and Tebessa.

On 24 February, US war correspondent Harold Boyle confirmed that Rommel had sacrificed a good part of the Bersaglieri in order to cover his retreat:

"The German material was scarcer because the Nazis pulled out when they saw the couldn't slug their way through the joint American and British defense and left the Italians to bear the full weight of the counterattack alone."[7]

In mid-March 1943, the US 2nd Army Corps (under General George Patton) began its final drive to Tunis. From 20 March to 7 April, the Centauro Armored Division along with the 5th and 7th Bersaglieri Regiments fiercely defended the Italian-held hills during the Battle of El Guettar.

On 26 April, the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment that had captured part of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert H. York's 1st Battalion from the 18th Infantry Regiment (US 1st Infantry Division) on 23 March, were finally disbanded.

On 12 April 12th,  the remaining tanks and self-propelled guns from the Centauro were commandeered by the the 15th Panzer Division and the Centauro Division, with the exception of the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment, was disbanded.

The 5th and 10th Bersaglieri Regiments and Reggimento Giovani Fascisti (Fascist Youth Regiment) fought as part of the 1st Italian Army around Takrouna during the Battle of Tunis, surrendering on 13 May after defeating the attacks from the British 56th Black Cat Division and 1st Free French Division, several days after the collapse of the Afrika Korps units facing the US 1st Armoured and 3rd Infantry Divisions on 6 May and the surrender of the neighbouring German 90th Light Division. 

An American soldier from the US Rangers who had fought against the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment in Tunisia described them as "big shots" while his battalion prepared to take part in Operation Husky (the Allied invasion of Sicily), and hoped that he would not encounter the Bersaglieri again in Sicily. However, the reformed 10th Bersaglieri Regiment forced the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions into street fighting during the Battle of Agrigento, leaving him convinced that the Bersaglieri were indeed "Italy's toughest troops." [8]

References

  1. British Take Derna After Fierce Fight, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 31 January 1941
  2. "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." Rommel's Desert Commanders: The Men who Served the Desert Fox, North Africa, 1941-1942, Samuel W. Mitcham, p. 18, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007
  3. "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." Tobruk: The Great Siege, 1941-42, William F. Buckingham, Random House, 2010
  4. Italians' Bravery Praised By Nazi Chief in Africa. New York Times, 5 August 1941
  5. "When the New Zealanders attacked again after the onset of darkness, they were able to take Balhamed in the course of the night. Early in the morning of 26 November, a portion of the Tobruk garrison, supported by 50 tanks, broke out once again. A crisis arose when El Duda fell. It was only through a bitter and bravely conducted immediate counterattack by the Bersaglieri of the Trieste Division that the positions in the north could be held." Das Afrika Korps: Erwin Rommel and the Germans in Africa, 1941-43, Franz Kurowski, p. 117, Stackpole Books, 2010
  6. The Encyclopedia of Codenames of World War, Christopher Chant, p.37, Routledge & Kegan Paul Books Ltd, 1987
  7. Nazis Desert Italians
  8. "The Italian forces that managed to impress the GIs most were the Bersaglieri units. With a tradition going back to the old Piedmontese army, composed of carefully selected troops, and equipped with greater numbers of artillery and vehicles, these units sometimes exceeded the performance of the German forces in Africa. A soldier of the 4th Ranger Battalion who had battled against them at Senad Pass in Tunisia in 1943 remembered them as "big shots" while he was on his way to Sicily, and hoped that he would not encounter them again on the island. He did, however, and more bloody clashes with the Bersaglieri left him convinced that they were indeed "Italy's toughest troops.”" The Crash of Ruin: American Combat Soldiers in Europe during World War II, Peter Schrijvers, p. 52, Springer, 1998
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