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The Bologna Division: 19 November – 10 December, 1941

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Strong Italian opposition at Tugun
On the evening of November 20, General Sir Ronald Scobie, commander of the British 70th Infantry Division defending Tobruk and its perimeter, ordered a breakout. He said: “Our task is to drive a corridor from the perimeter to the Axis road, which we hope to cut at El Duda. There we should meet the South Africans.” Although the main Tobruk garrison attack on 21 November was to be made by the 70th Division (2nd/King’s Own, 2nd BlackWatch, 2nd/Queen’s and 4th RTR with Matilda tanks), the Polish Carpathian Brigade was to mount its own diversionary attack in the predawn darkness in order to keep the Pavia Division occupied. The attacks were to be preceded by a massive artillery bombardment. During the first day, one-hundred guns would plaster the Bologna, Brescia and Pavia positions on the Tobruk perimeter with 40,000 rounds. (Alexander G. Clifford, p. 191) Initially, the Italians were stunned by the massive fire and a company of the Pavia was overrun in the predawn darkness, but resistance in the Bologna gradually stiffened and in the western half of the ‘Tugun’ strong point, the attack was held all day. Finally, through sheer determination, the British attackers were slowly worn out and in the words of the New Zealand Official History, “The more elaborate attack on Tugun went in at 3 p.m. and gained perhaps half the position, together with 256 Italians and many light field guns; but the Italians in the western half could not be dislodged and the base of the break-out area remained on this account uncomfortably narrow.” Indeed, the New Zealand Official History reports that the “strong Italian opposition at Tugun” was part of the reason why the British attack was abandoned Lieutenant Ennio Goduti of the 40th Bologna Infantry Regiment was killed manning an anti-tank gun as he resisted the British tanks on this sector. He was awarded a posthumous Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare, Italy’s highest decoration for valour. Indeed, the Italians had fought well and the Italian Armed Forces issued the following joint communique on 22 November: “Repeated enemy attempts to break out from Tobruk failed, owing to the work of Italian divisions which besiege the fortress.”

That day, 21 November, another fierce action was fought with high casualties by elements of the German 155th Rifle Regiment, Artillery Group Bottcher, 5th Panzer Regiment and the British 4th, 7th and 22nd Armoured Brigades for possession of Sidi Rezegh and the surrounding height in in the hands of Italian infantry and anti-tank gunners of the Bologna.

During the next two days, 22 and 23 November, the frontier garrisons of Omar Nuovo, Libyan Omar, and Fort Capuzzo fell to infantry attacks spearheaded by two squadrons from 42 RTR and one from 44 RTR, and the New Zealanders cut off the Bardia garrison’s water supply. Many of the Italians fought hard. According to the Indian Express account of the fighting, “It was a most gallant affair, carried out with compete disregard to casualties. The Italians did not give in until our troops were amongst them with bayonets. A minimum of 1,500 prisoners were taken, some of whom were Germans, but the majority of whom belonged to the Italian Savona Division.” (The Indian Express, 26 November 1941) A study of the U.S. War Department concluded: “All Italians captured between 22 November and 23 November in the Omars belonged to the Savona Division and were reported to be tougher on the whole and better disciplined … The [Italian] prisoners were a well-clothed, well-disciplined group, who had put up a good fight and knew it. The 6 German and 52 Italian officers, as well as the 37 German technicians, were very bitter about their capture and would not speak.”

In the meantime, the fighting in the Bologna sector continued, and the 2/Yorks & Lanes, with the 1st RHA in support took the ‘Lion’ strong point on 22 November, but efforts to clear the ‘Tugun’ and ‘Dalby Square’ strong points were repelled. In the fighting on the 22nd, the ‘Tugun’ defenders brought down devastating fire, reducing the strength in one attacking British company to just thirty-three all ranks.

The Italian Pavia Division was committed for a counterattack
On 23 November, the 70th Division in Tobruk launched another major attack against the 25th Bologna in an attempt to reach the area of Sidi Rezegh, but elements of the Pavia Division soon arrived and smashed the British attack as a German post-war report recorded:

After a sudden artillery concentration the garrison of Fortress Tobruk, supported by sixty tanks, made an attack on the direction of Bel Hamid at noon, intending at long last unite with the main offence group. The Italian siege front around the fortress tried to offer a defence in the confusion but was forced to relinquish numerous strong points in the encirclement front about Bir Bu Assaten to superior enemy forces. The Italian “Pavia” Division was committed for a counterattack and managed to seal off the enemy breakthrough.” (See Generalmajor Major Alfred Toppe (et al), German Experiences in Desert Warfare During World War II, in 2 volumes, Combat Studies Institute/Combined Arms Research Library, 1952)

Near the end of the action, the 15th Panzer Division and the 5th Panzer Regiment moved onto Sidi Rezegh and later the Ariete and 8th Bersaglieri came up in support to deal with the 5th South African Brigade in the area. The Sidi Rezegh attack started well but was heavily counterattacked in the evening and although this was repulsed, the loss of 45 German and 11 Italian tanks was worrying. The British 4th Armoured Brigade was reduced to some 12 tanks, however the aim of the operation had been successful and some 2,300 South Africans were able to escape. (Alexander G. Clifford, p. 161)

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  1. Reno Piscano says:

    Great work on both authors, once again too much for the rubbish writen about the latin temperament in time of war. I am half Italian/Portuguese and very proud of that. I am a lot proud of our boys that fought with great heroism in both Russia and North Africa. I am still waiting for my order of SACRIFICE IN THE STEPPES writen by an American Hope Hamilton. Completely sold out! Anyway this work is very important for me because it proves ordinary Italians fought very hard and that the Africa Corps get too much mention at the cost of the Italians. Our boys did at least half the fighting and obtained many military achievements in Egypt and Tunisia.

  2. paul mancuso says:

    As I have argued elsewhere, Rommel and the German forces recieve all the laurels while the Italians are portrayed as their sidekicks. Shame to see the Germans stealing the trucks of the Italians in order to make a rapid getaway, but they did the same thing during the final battle at Alamein, leaving the Italians behind to cover the backsides. The same thing happened again at Kasserine. I hope to see a book written by this guy.

  3. Peppe Peluso says:

    Hello David
    Really a wonderful article.
    Ciao. Peppe