Because British propaganda has often "forgotten" to remember the fighting sacrifice of many Italian troops during WW2, I am adding to my "Researchomnia" (that in the last years has been seen approximately one hundred thousand times by readers, mainly from the USA, Russia, Italy and Ukraine: pageviews ) a related translation from Italian of an interesting article (written by B.D.). The essay is about what did a division of young Italians -during the early months of 1943- at the Battle of Mareth in Tunisia.
Indeed one of the fiercest battles done by the Italians in North Africa was the one of the Mareth in southern Tunisia in March 1943. In the Mareth Line the 5,000 soldiers of the "136th Armoured Division Giovani Fascisti" fought bravely alongside the remaining Axis troops. The Division was nearly totally destroyed in 1943, during all the fighting in Tunisia. Even though decimated, the "Giovani Fascisti" was the last Axis military unit to surrender to the Allies in North Africa on May 13, 1943.
"Giovani Fascisti" in the battle
".....General Messe accepted the task (of holding the Mareth line) though realising its arduous nature; and he left by air for Tunis. Once at his post, he spent the first few weeks in getting the troops into shape both materially and morally; they were, naturally, exhausted, either by their interminable retreat or by their long stay in African territory, a stay which for thousands of soldiers could be reckoned in terms of years. The fate of Tunisia was bound up with supplies. No fewer than three hundred thousand men were concentrated in a small space. The problem of organisation and supplies assumed disquieting dimensions. Naval losses were increasingly heavy. In April alone 120,000 tons of Italian shipping was sunk and a further 50,000 tons was damaged. While the enemy troops were more than well supplied, the Italo-German forces were threatened with mortal anemia.
When the first efforts of the German thrust were spent, having achieved nothing except an extension of the bridgehead, the English went over to the attack along the Mareth line.
In Rome the date of the attack was discussed, and it was thought that Montgomery would delay it in order to profit by the full moon as had been the case at El Alamein. Instead, the English general launched the attack on a pitch dark night. To prevent the artillery mowing down the infantry ahead of them, each soldier wore a white cloth on his back. The Mareth line was strong for some fifteen miles — from the sea to about half its length. The rest was weaker and the last sector almost non-existent; moreover, it was entrusted to the Saharan formations which had reached these positions after a highly exhausting march across the most remote desert trails. These formations, besides, had little artillery and lacked the necessary preparation for meeting the shock of mobile and armoured columns. The Italian troops entrenched on the Mareth line and protected by a broad anti-tank ditch resisted bravely and counter-attacked
Montgomery did not succeed in breaking through. Let us say frankly, too, because it is true, that in that sector the English were beaten.
Then the enemy switched his attack over to the weakest side, on the extreme right of Messe’s position, and there, profiting by an extensive use of armour, he had no difficulty in overcoming the Libyan forces and outflanking them. This forced General Messe to retreat some sixty-odd miles on a line running roughly halfway between the Mareth line and Tunis, Meanwhile, the Germans to the north-west were being hard-pressed by the Americans — here, also, with infinitely greater resources. Thus the circle contracted to the point of making further resistance impossible....Benito Mussolini"
Giovani Fascisti firing an antitank gun
Your report on the first victorious battle on the Mareth line is so vivid, thrilling and exhaustive that I have decided to make it known to the Italian people by having it printed. I have introduced merely a few alterations for comprehensible reasons. By this, and not only by this, I intend to give full recognition to your work as Commander and to the courage shown by your soldiers. Between the end of March and today the situation has changed, that is, has become more difficult. I wish to tell you that I count on you to protract resistance to the uttermost and thus upset the enemy plans, at least with regard to their time-table, which aim at a landing on the mainland, after a landing on the islands. Once again: we are doing and will continue to do the impossible to supply you with what you need.
My hearty good wishes and regards, as always,
After the battle of the Mareth line, the second delaying battle in Tunisia took place, the battle of the so-called Shotts, a sort of salt marshes. Of this battle, too, Messe sent me a report accompanied by this note:
I take the liberty of sending you, after the preceding report on the Mareth-El Hamma battle, the report of the battle of the Shotts, and the beginning of the difficult retreat on to the Enfidaville line. The report relates with perfect frankness the course of the bloody and violent struggle undergone and the extremely grave circumstances in which there occurred the disengagement of the large forces on the Shotts line and their retreat; also our very heavy losses, in virtue, chiefly, of the enemy superiority in the matter of armour and of artillery and, more particularly, in the air, where they had complete and unopposed mastery. But I can say that once again officers and men fought desperately and by their sacrifices did honour to our country’s flag.
The troops are physically very tired, and seriously diminished in numbers. The men fighting are, almost all of them, the same who retreated from Libya. But all my energy and all the energy of the various Commanders is being directed to helping and sup- porting these fine and heroic soldiers of ours, who are really working miracles. There has not been a single point at which the enemy has set foot inside our positions without our launching a fierce and violent counter-attack. ……. And I should like to tell you one thing more — that our troops at this time, compared with our allies (always first-class soldiers), have demonstrated greater willingness and momentum.
Owing to the very serious exhaustion of the troops, the inadequacy of artillery and ammunition and the almost complete lack of armoured vehicles, compared with the enemy’s crushing superiority in material, the situation is growing steadily graver. Our air force — and our ally’s as well — may be called non-existent, compared with the really overwhelming and intensively active enemy air force. In spite of all, you may be sure that the order to resist to the last will be faithfully carried out.
The Battle of the Mareth Line was done by the British Eighth Army of General Montgomery in Tunisia, against the Mareth Line held by the Italo-German First Italian Army of General Giovanni Messe. It was the first big operation by the Eighth Army since the Second Battle of El Alameint, that happened in Egypt nearly 5 months previously.
British tank destroyed by the sacrifice of the "Giovane Fascista" Ippolito Niccolini (who received the 'gold medal to military valor'). His body can be seen to the bottom back side of the tank
On late March 19, 1943, "Operation Pugilist" -the first British attack- established a bridgehead in the Mareth line but a break-out attempt was defeated on March 21/24 by Axis counter-attacks done mainly the 136th Armoured Division Giovani Fascisti and the XV Panzer Division of the German Wehrmacht.
As a consequente Montgomery did a few days later the "Operation Supercharge II", an outflanking manoeuvre via the Tebaga Gap on March 21 - 26: it was successfully and Messe was forced to writhdraw 64 km back in the Shott area of southern Tunisia.
The Battle of Mareth was preceded a few days before by the "Battle of Medenine", a small counterattack by the famous Rommel.
This battle was unsuccessful and was the last done by the "desert fox" before returning to Germany.
After a full day of fighting, Rommel accepted a suggestion from Messe to end the attack, since it could not be continued without risking losses which would compromise the defence of the Mareth line
On March 19, 1943, XXX Corps (Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese) of the Eighth Army commenced "Operation Pugilist" (the British code name for the Mareth battle).
The First Italian Army had at its immediate disposal 56 tanks: 29 German and 27 Italian. The German Africa Korps, with the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and a total of 94 tanks, was in army group reserve. The 21st Panzer Division, which had been moved toward Mareth on 17-18 March to counterattack if necessary in conjunction with the 15th Panzer Division, was not expected to arrive in its assembly area before the morning of the 19th. On the coastal plain of Mareth, Messe had from northeast to southwest--the Italian XX Corps under Generale di Divisione Taddeo Orlando, including the 136th (Young Fascists) Division, commanded by Generale di Divisione Nino Sozzani and the 101st (Trieste) Division under Generale di Brigata Francesco La Ferla (the latter's sector embracing the village of Mareth).
Some 50,000 Germans and 35,000 Italians were in the First Italian Army, according to the highest Allied estimate. Montgomery had 125,000 soldiers -according to Major-General W. Stevens, with 1,481 guns to the Axis's 680, with 623 tanks to the Axis's 139 and with air strength of at least two to one.
According to historian George Howe- the Eighth Army of Montgomery entered the battle for the Mareth Line organized into two regular and one provisional corps: the main attack was to be delivered on a 1,200-yard front close to the seacoast (defended by the "Giovani Fascisti" division) by 30 Corps under General Leese. It would include the British 50th (Northumberland) and 51st (Highland) Divisions, 4th Indian Division, and British 201st Guards Brigade. The third major element of the army, 10 Corps, commanded by General Horrocks, consisted of the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions and 4th Light Armoured Brigade. It was to be held in reserve.
The British opened the main attack on the Mareth Line with an extremely heavy artillery preparation by over 300 guns in the evening of March 19. Howe estimated that 20,000 rounds fell in the Young Fascists sector, nearest the coast, and about 16,000 rounds in the 90th Light Africa Division's area farther west.
The 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division (Major-General John Nichols) managed to penetrate the Italian-held line near Zarat (a coastal city), strongly defended by the Giovani Fascisti. The terrain and heavy rain prevented deployment of tanks and anti-tank guns, which left the British infantry partially isolated and a counterattack by the 15th Panzer Division and the Giovani Fascisti division on 22 March, recaptured nearly all of the bridgehead.
It was a clear defeat for Montgomery but his armament superiority soon changed the temporary tactical defeat in a victory, thanks to a flanking maneuver on the Tebaga Gap.
Map of the Mareth battle (click to enlarge it)
At 8.30 pm on March 19th, hell broke loose on the front with an initial terrible artillery bombing, like a replica of El Alamein. General Montgomery was aiming to close the conflict in north Africa by the end of the month. But in the next days he was forced to change his opinion, because of the desperate -and often suicidal- fightings done by Italian and German troops like the infantry division "Giovani fascisti" at the Mareth line.
Suggestive names were chosen by general Messe for the Axis defense lines of the Mareth line (that has been created initially by the French in the late 1930s, against possible Italian attacks from Italian Tripolitania): "Biancospino", "Betulla"., "Tiglio", "Timo", etc... The "P2" stronghold was entrusted to the Xth/8th brigate; "Larice" ("P1") and "Tiglio" ("P1 bis") to the 11th/8th. While the LVIIth/8th brigate presided over the strongholds of "A1" and "A2".
When the Montgomery attack started the bersaglieri of the 8th Regiment resisted, but two adjacent positions, "Betulla" and "Biancospino", held by 5 Companies of the German "Grenadiers of Africa" collapsed. So the British attackers could take the backside of the "Trifoglio" stronghold manned by the Xth, who was conquered after a furious struggle.
The British then threw themselves on the stronghold of the 11th/8th, but the attempt was defeated.
In the early dawn, the former Brigates of the 8th and 7th are given the task of attacking the "Betulla" stronghold, occupied by the British. Under the orders of Captain Givone, the fusiliers of the 1st and 2nd Companies, although subjected to three hours of intense artillery fire and mortars, launch themselves into the enemy trenches. Actors of heroic episodes are also two fusilier platoons of the 3rd Company, dragged to harsh combat by Lieutenant Guineani.
On the late morning of the 22nd, after having overwhelmed the stronghold "Timo 2", the British attackers tried against the "Timo 1" defended by the "Giovani Fascisti". But t was rejected.
On the same day the 15th German Armored Division counterattacked and the British were driven back from the strongholds "Betulla", "Trifoglio", "Tamarindo" and "Timo 2", while the "Biancospino" was reoccupied by the "Arditi" and "Young Fascists" soldiers on the day 24.
On this important coastal sector, the reaction of Italian weapons -mainly from the Young Fascists" -opened up frightening voids in the British ranks, destroying numerous tanks and killing many British soldiers. It is noteworthy to pinpoint that Montgomery had 620 tanks attacking the Mareth line on the March 21, defended by only the remaining 94 tanks of Messe: even so the British were initially defeated in the northern coastal section of the Mareth line.
Indeed the Eighth Army assigned the attempt to punch through the final line to British 30 Corps. The 30 Corps assigned it to the British 50th Division, which gave the mission to the 151st Brigade and 50th Royal Tank Regiment (fifty-one tanks, of which eight had 6-pounder guns). The British 69th Brigade and a detachment of the 9th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, were expected
to clear a path to the Zigzaou wadi (defended by the "Giovani Fascisti") and to set up protection on the southwestern flank for the crossing of that barrier at three points--one for each of two infantry battalions and one for the tanks.
Giovani Fascisti at Mareth line
Severe difficulties impeded the first night's operations. The British force opened the path to the wadi and established the flank protection, but the Scorpions failed and the mines had to be more slowly removed by engineers using detectors. The British infantry crossed successfully but the tanks were delayed. Some of their fascines were ignited and had to be replaced from a stock farther to the rear. The Giovani Fascisti's fire was heavy and continuous and, near the wadi's edge, knocked out several tanks (see photo at bottom of article's comments).
For 3 days - 21, 22, 23 March - the hammering of the artillery and the impact of the armored vehicles were incessant against the Bersaglieri of the 8th brigade and the other "Young Fascists". However, repeated counterattacks of the LVII brigate (Mayor Bassi) succeeded in breaking every British attempt even at the strongholds “A1" and " A2", that were isolated & surrounded.
Like in El Alamein the vain initial efforts of Montgomery were increased tenfold from March 21st, while the New Zealanders were conquering the Tebaga Pass and there was the risk for the Italians & Germans of being circumvented.
Montgomery suffered serious losses; so much so that he was forced to erase his initial comments of easy victory, with the new messages he sent to London: these were very dramatic messages pinpointing a "firm, desperate resistance". (especially from the Germans of the V Army of Von Arnim, which still had efficient vehicles and was not on foot like the Italians of Messe).
ORDER OF BATTLE
Armoured Division Giovani Fascisti (Division GGFF):
(Data from website "Comando Supremo" & data, but in Italian language, from historian A.Cioci)
Reggimento fanteria "Giovani Fascisti" (136th GGFF REGIMENT)
I Battaglione "Mi scaglio a ruina" (1st GGFF Battalion)
II Battaglione "Abbi fede"(2nd GGFF Battalion)
8º Reggimento bersaglieri (8th Bersaglieri Regiment)
V Battaglione bersaglieri motorizzato
XII Battaglione bersaglieri motorizzato
III Battaglione armi accompagnamento
IX Battaglione fanteria autonomo
136º Reggimento artiglieria (136th ARTILLERY REGIMENT)
XIV Gruppo artiglieria su autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8
XV Gruppo artiglieria su autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8
XVI Gruppo artiglieria su autocannoni da 75/27 su Fiat-SPA TL37
XVII Gruppo artiglieria su autocannoni da 100/17 su Lancia 3Ro
88ª Batteria artiglieria contraerea da 20/65 Mod. 35
III Gruppo squadroni corazzato "Cavalleggeri di Monferrato" su AB41
IV Battaglione controcarro autocarrato "Granatieri di Sardegna"
XXV Battaglione misto genio
General D. Ismaele Di Nisio
General D. Nino Sozzani
British photos of the Mareth battle. The first photo shows one of the British tanks destroyed by the "Giovani Fascisti", while crossing the wadi ZigZoau
The sacrifice of the Giovani Fascisti division in Tunisia has been forgotten.
In two months of desperate & hopeless combat (from mid March to mid May 1943) the 5000 men of their Division suffered terrible losses and only 50 men remained when they surrendered in the area of Cape Bon/Enfidaville (they were the last soldiers of Messe to lower the Italian flag in north Africa in "Quota 141" -http://www.italia-rsi.it/primadell8sett/birelgobi/birelgobi0.htm). All the others were killed, missed in combat or wounded & made prisoners of war (POW) mainly in the battles of Mareth, Enfidaville and Cape Bon. The "damnatio memoriae" (the old roman way to erase the memory of those defeated) fell over their fightings: the Italian government never did a monument or ceremony to them and their British enemies simply gave all the merits to the Germans.
For example, we all know that Montgomery's memoirs are not accurate and are completely biased when minimising Italians efforts. In his memories, usually everytime something goes wrong for him, it’s always because of “Rommel” intervention or for Germans resistance. Italians for him were nearly always "losers".
Even at the Mareth line he wrote the same opinion– despite the fact it was Messe who engineered the resistance and directly commanded the counterattack of the German panzers, which were the only panzers left the 1st Italian had. Moreover, he seems to ignore that were the strongholds held by the Germans the ones that crashed down after the first punch given by the 50th English division: strongholds "Biancospino", "Bosso" & "Betulla” held by the Germans were overrun, while the strongholds “Larice" and "Trifoglio” held by Italians (Giovani Fascisti, X and XI Bersaglieri) resisted the strong initial attack.
Indeed the 21, after assessing that this was effectively the main attach, and after also the stronghold "Trifoglio" was overrun, Messe decided to commit the 15 Panzer Division as well as Italian infantry (Bersaglieri, Giovani Fascisti, Black Skirt and some German infantry – but minority in numbers) for a counterattack. Borowietz, commader of the 15 Panzer, was informed of the plan the 21. The successful counterattack was carried out effectively by Messe without any help by Rommel.
Furthermore, Churchill at the House of Commons and the House of Lords declared on March 24: "The bridgehead constituted at the price of blood by the British 8th Army on enemy positions, has been eliminated by the Germanic counterattack".
For the wounded English pride it was necessary to tell the world that the great British Army of Montgomery has not been defeated by the "weak" Italian soldiers but from the "Fox of the desert" (who no longer was in North Africa since March 8 and who they will continue to "materialize" in the battlefield). Indeed Rommel's army, renamed "1 Italian Army" , in early March 1943 was under General Messe. (He was not promoted Marshal until the last day of fighting in North Africa in May 1943).
This was the first time German divisions has come to be under orders of an Italian general.
Rommel's last act was to appoint a German general to be liaison officer with the "1 Italian Army"", the appointment being effective as from 8 March, which was a day or so before Rommel left North africa. His appointee was Major-General Bayerlein.
Finally, its is important to pinpoint that the division "Giovani Fascisti" was made only by "voluntaries", in many cases university students (just 18/19 years old). They fought for their ideal of an Italian empire that could give to the Italians the prosperity enjoyed by the Italian peninsula during the centuries of the Roman empire. But History was not on their side, because one of the consequences of WW2 was the end of the colonial era.
Indeed, their sacrifice was not totally worthless: they honored their country, even if British "propaganda" (like the one of Montgomery) was too much aggressive and unjust.
Military Valor Medals given to the "Giovani Fascisti" Division during WW2 (http://www.qattara.it/piccolacaprera_files/ggff.pdf):
2 Gold Medal of Military Valor
38 Silver Medal of Military Valor
61 Bronze Medal of Military Valor
116 War Cross of Military Valor
On the March 19, 1943 the Division was holding the Northern (Coastal) section of the Mareth Line and had a combat strength of 5000 men.
Two months later, when surrendering -on May 13- as the last Axis troops still fighting in Tunisia, what remained of the Division was just 50 men (without food and ammunitions) of the II battalion under captain Baldassari. Only one percent of the original combat force.
Finally it is noteworthy to pinpoint that less than one thousand of the original 5000 were made POWs and survived WW2 and this fact means that more than 80% of the division soldiers and officers died in combat or from wounds received in battle. But sadly general Montgomery (and many British military historians) never wrote one single word about this astonishing ultimate sacrifice.
Giovani fascisti in battle