“Always beating against the unbreakable barrier of the Bologna Division”
These are the words of an Italian war correspondent on 1 December 1941, when describing the fighting spirit of the Major-General Carlo Gotti’s Bologna Division, which had fought off repeated attacks from the 70th Infantry Division, the largely British garrison defending Tobruk. As part of ‘Operation Crusader’, the 70th Division was meant to have smashed through the 25th Bologna early on 21 November, but were unable to break the siege of Tobruk until 10 December. Unable to accept the fact that the Italians had taken and given as good as they got, the myth soon grew that it was actually the Germans rather than the Italians that had frustrated their breakouts attempts on 21, 23, 25 and 28 November. Some have gone so far as to say that the Bologna had been relieved by the German Afrika Division and that German soldiers dressed in Italian uniforms were captured in the Italian strong points.
Hit by German and Italian anti-tank guns
Thanks to ULTRA code breakers, the British knew all about General Erwin Rommel’s plans to take Tobruk, and launched their own offensive “Operation Crusader”, two days before his own planned attack, catching him completely by surprise. In the week prior the British offensive, General Ettore Bastico (Commander-in-Chief of the Italian High Command in North Africa and Rommel’s superior) had warned Rommel of the coming offensive, but both he and Major Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin (Chief of Rommel’s Intelligence) refused to listen. On 11 November, Mellenthin, discussing the matter with an Italian liaison officer, said: “Major Revetria (Chief of Italian intelligence) is too nervous. Tell him to calm down, because the British are not going to attack.” On 18 November, Lieutenant-General Gastone Gambara, commander of the Italian XX Corps, sent a message to Comando Supremo, “Intercepted enemy messages (radioed in the clear) make us suppose that there is an imminent enemy attack from the south on Sidi Omar and Bir el Gobi.” However, Rommel ignored his Italian counterpart and he also ignored air reconnaissance photos showing a major military build up at Mersa Matruh.
The British attack began on 18 November 1941. The 4th Indian Division began the assault, assaulting the wire north of Sidi Omar, while Lieutenant-General William Gott’s 7th Armoured Division hooked north-west round the southern flank in three powerful tank columns heading towards Tobruk. The aim of “Operation Crusader” was to engage as much German armour as possible outside Tobruk, thus helping the Tobruk garrison to break out through the Bologna sector. General Enea Navarrini’s XXI Italian Corps, the Bologna, Brescia, Pavia Divisions, and elements of the Sabratha Division occupied the siege lines. The British forces initially made good progress, with the 23rd New Zealand Battalion capturing Fort Capuzzo and the 7th Armoured Brigade capturing the Sidi Rezegh airflield, but when the 22nd Armoured Brigade encountered the Italian 132nd Ariete Tank Division deploying near Bir el Gobi on 19 November, it lost 40 Crusader tanks and this attack was aborted at dusk.(Neillands, p. 86) That day, another British column of tanks tried to move westwards towards the track that ran up from Bir el Gubi to El Adem, but there too met determined infantry of the Pavia Division and turned back. (Ford, p. 40) By 20 November, the 7th Armoured Brigade had reached the Sidi Rezegh-Belhamed area, only to find that the only track down the escarpment overlooking the plain before Tobruk had been blocked by the 1st Battalion, 39th ‘Bologna’ Infantry Regiment with the 73rd anti-tank company. The Australian Official History noted, “A powerful artillery group, with a battalion of Italian infantry of the Bologna Division for protection, was established on the escarpment near Belhamed; throughout the 20th it harassed the British.”
Ken Ford has written that:
“The tanks of the 6th RTR fared less well, for as the regiment crossed over the track and passed Sidi Rezegh, its tanks were hit by German and Italian anti-tank guns.” (Operation Crusader: Rommel in Retreat, Ken Ford, p. 48)
In this action, 24 year-old Corporal Reginaldo Rossi of the 39th Bologna Infantry Regiment, won posthumously the Medaglia d’Argento al Valore Militare, Italy’s second-highest military decoration. His Silver Medal for Valour citation reads:
As an anti-tank gunner, he was an example to all for his discipline and the care and maintenance he took of the units weapons. In the bloody and arduous combat that took place against numerous armoured vehicles, he showed complete and total disregard to the danger present and with absolute calmness, he stuck to his gun that he refused to abandon, even when he found himself surrounded by the enemy.
In his hometown Roccagorga in Italy, a carefully maintained monument in memory of this Italian war hero survives to this day.