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Flesh vs. Iron

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3rd Battalion, 34th Regiment, “Livorno” Infantry Division in the Gela Beachhead Counterattack: Sicily, July 11th-12th, 1943


In 1947, Lt. Col. Dante Ugo Leonardi, formerly commander of the 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment of the Livorno Division, published a little book entitled “Luglio 1943 in Sicilia” (July 1943 in Sicily).

The book is a modest addition to the plethora of WWII subject books. It is utterly forgotten today, and will not be resurrected. Yet it retains an intrinsic value which does not deserve to be dissipated by “wasteful time”. Indeed it provides an Italian account, written by the unit’s commanding officer himself, as one of the bloodiest actions carried out by an Italian infantry unit in WWII.

Modern Italy does not even bother to devote to those unsung heroes a tenuous, fleeting thought. May this tiny contribution stand as a memorial.

Marching to Battle

3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment (commander: Col. C. Martini), led by Lt. Col. D. U. Leonardi, was attached to the “Livorno Infantry Division”, which was deployed in Sicily in November 1942. The Division was nearly full strength; the artillery, engineers and 4 out of 6 infantry battalions were fully motorized (rarities, in the wartime Italian Army). It was the best Italian Division in Sicily, as it had been picked out and trained for the eventually evaporated Malta amphibious/airborne invasion.

In July 1943, the Division (commander: Gen. Giandomenico Chirieleison) represented the bulk of 6th Army’s reserve forces; it didn’t organically belong to either Army Corps (XII and XVI) constituting the 6th Army. Its acceptable degree of mobility made it the only Italian divisional sized unit suitable to be employed as Army level operational reserve.

Unlike most other Italian units in Sicily, the Division’s morale was relatively high and most officers’ leadership quality was good. However, the insufficient training plagued “Livorno” as well as the vast majority of Italian Army outfits at all levels, and sorely reduced its effectiveness in combat.

The Division’s troops were green. They had never been tested in combat.

When the Allied invasion of Sicily was launched, 3rd Battalion’s strength was 34 officers, 1100 NCOs and enlisted men, (4) 47/32 mm guns, (6) 81 mm mortars, 12 machine guns and a flamethrower squad. It had taken up quarters in the Caltanissetta-Belvedere-San Cataldo area, in the central-southern region of the island.

At 00:30 am, July 10th, 1943, a regimental dispatch-rider arrived at the Battalion’s quarters carrying a written order. “Be this Battalion alarmed and ready for a possible action. Further instructions will follow.” At 5:00 pm of the same day, the movement order was delivered to the Battalion:

“Enemy landed at Gela in the July 9th/10th night. Despite local defense reaction, enemy managed to establish a bridgehead. More landings ongoing in various southeastern coast localities. Enemy air activity much intense, especially along communication lines and over towns. This Battalion at 7:00 pm hours today, will initiate movement on vehicles towards Ponte Olivo (Gela Plain). Once arrived there, it will stop, waiting for further orders. ……1st Group [Battalion], 28th Artillery Regiment, specifically allotted to this Battalion for fire support. Direct agreement.”

At exactly 7:00 pm the unit, in battle order, got on the trucks and vehicles and set off towards the assigned locality. The baggage (commander, Lt. S. Rossi) was left at the San Cataldo quarters: on the following day, it was destroyed by a heavy air raid, and the civilian population plundered all the surviving goods and materials.

Before dusk, an enemy aircraft formation strafed the traveling column. The attack caused limited damage (2 dead, 20 wounded, 5 vehicles damaged). It was the Battalion’s baptism of fire.

In the darkness of the night, the column stopped in the town of Mazzarino and the officers asked a Carabinieri (military police) patrol about the right way to Gela. There were some groups of civilians, silent and cold. They looked by no means enthusiastic towards their own troops, as Leonardi later recalled.

At the Butera-Gela road fork, Leonardi received a written instruction coming from the Regiment commander:

“You will attack the Americans in the early hours of tomorrow July 11th, towards Gela. Deploy the Battalion, under the cover of darkness, between Ponte Olivo and Mount Castelluccio”.

Leonardi was quite surprised by the generic, insufficient information conveyed by the message. Where precisely was the enemy? Where was the beachhead’s front? How strong was the enemy? Where were their forward lines, and where were ours?

At 11:00 pm, the column reached Ponte Olivo. The place looked deserted and nobody was around, except for a few soldiers guarding a bridge, who didn’t even know the whereabouts of the nearest Italian units! No further information!

The troops dismounted and the whole Battalion headed south, by foot, wandering across the fields, literally seeking the first enemy line. After a few kilometers, the rambling Battalion came across an antitank unit in position astride Highway 117, the main road leading to Gela, but its commander had just arrived there, too, and did not know anything about the situation. Lack of information and disorganization were rampant that night. However, the antitank unit officer pointed to a nearby artillery battery. Perhaps they would have a clearer idea about the situation. The battery commander, a Lieutenant, finally accompanied the Battalion’s officers to Mount Castelluccio (Castle Hill).

Up there, they found the 155th Bersaglieri Motorcycle Company, led by Lt. Franco Girasoli, wounded in action during the July 10th attack on the beachhead. His company, belonging to the Mobile Group E, had suffered heavily, and the remnants were holding the hill. It was the only Italian infantry unit left in the area prior to the 3rd Battalion’s arrival. Girasoli was a capable and valiant officer and his elevated fighting spirit impressed Leonardi.

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  1. I have traveled extensively around and through Sicily and have had a difficult time finding resources to the history of the”Battle for Sicily 1943″. My relatives do not like discussing anything about it. Have any resources outside of this site?

  2. Mario Tessaro says:

    Hello Jim, I read your web site with intense interest . My father was taken as a prisoner of war on 8/8/43 at San Fratello. Is there a list of POWs or photographs from that time i could have a look at? I am interested at looking up his service history as he has never said anything about his experiences at war. His name is Isidoro Tessaro.