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The Bologna Division: 19 November – 10 December, 1941

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Italian soldiers in heated battle. Photo credit:

A British newspaper reported that:

The full story is now known of the valiant part played by the 5th South African Brigade in the fighting around Sidi Rezegh. These troops recaptured Sidi Rezegh on Friday but were forced to withdraw on Saturday evening. On Sunday they beat off attacks from tanks, artillery and infantry. The German tanks came on seven abreast and ten deep, and the South African anti-tank gunners fired until their ammunition was exhausted, and knocked out tank after tank. The South Africans were being rounded up as prisoners when British tanks broke through and engaged the enemy just long enough for the South Africans to withdraw.” (Forces Outside Tobruk Now Progressing Westwards, Evening Post, 29 November 1941)

By 23 November, the Ariete, Trieste, and Savona had probably accounted for around 200 British tanks and a similar number of vehicles disabled or destroyed. (Of Myths ad Men: Rommel and the Italians in North Africa, James. J. Sadkovich, pp. 298-299) Certainly, the Axis accounted for more than 350 tanks destroyed and 150 severely damaged between 19-23 November. (Samuel W. Mitcham, p.550) A German communique on the night of 23 November reported that German and Italian troops had destroyed over 260 tanks and 200 armoured cars between 19 and 23 November, and that on 23 November the “surrounding Italian forces repelled strong attacks by the British garrison at Tobruk, which were supported by tanks.

On 24 November, Rommel ordered the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions eastwards to attack the British near the Egyptian border and to give support to his frontier garrisons, in a maneuver that James J. Sadkovich says ‘Rommel lost contact with the German and Italian commander in the Tobruk front for four days.” Rommel hoped to relieve the siege of Bardia and pose a large enough threat to the British rear echelon for “Operation Crusader” to be scrapped. His decision was based on the fact that the 7th Armoured Division had been defeated, but he ignored intelligence reports of British supply dumps lying on his path on the border and this was to cost him the battle. As Oberstleutnant Fritz bayerlein, the chief of staff of the Afrika Korps said after the war, “If we had known about those dumps we could have won the battle.”

Captain Sergio Falletti, a company commander with the 27th Pavia Infantry Regiment was killed on the 24th after calling down artillery and mortar fire from a strongpoint, during a British attack. The Italian captain was awarded posthumously the Medaglia d’oro al Valore Militare (Gold Medal for Valour) for his efforts to contain the British breakout. The posthumous citation noted that “although mortally wounded by machine gun fire, he didn’t hesitate in calling in artillery and 81mm mortar fire on his strong point, now occupied in part by the enemy.”

The only enemy penetration was brought to a standstill by an Italian counterattack
On 25 November, heavy fighting flared up again on the Tobruk front. In the 102nd Trento Infantry Division’s sector, the 2nd Battalion Queens Royal Regiment attacked the ‘Bondi’ strongpoint but were repelled in heavy fighting. Indeed the defenders fought extremely well and ‘Bondi’ was not be evacuated by the ‘Trento’ until the Axis general withdrawal two weeks later. In the meantime, the ‘Tugun’ defenders (reduced to half their strength and exhausted and low on ammunition, food, and water) surrendered on the evening of 25 November, after much fighting in the predawn darkness. Second Lieutenant Ben Thomas was in Tobruk at the time and witnessed the final charge on their position:

These forty-five men just walked slowly towards Tugun armed only with rifles, a Bren gun or two and some hand grenades. One hundred yards, 200 onwards up to about 300 yards from the enemy before they let loose. Here and there a man went down, hit or taking temporary cover.”

In the night fighting on the 25th, when his platoon holding part of the ‘Grumpy’ strong point had suffered serious casualties and was being overrun by British troops supported by tanks, Lieutenant Gildo Cuneo of the 39th Bologna Infantry Regiment, together with the remnants of his platoon, resorted to the use of grenades, having ran out of ammunition. Together they broke up a number of attacks, before being overwhelmed and the platoon commander bayoneted. Lieutenant Cuneo was posthumously awarded the Gold Medal for Valour.

While the German Böttcher Group was desperately fighting to contain the British tank attacks in the Bologna sector, Generals Navarrini and Gotti got together a battalion of Bersaglieri from the Trieste Division and used them to repulse the British breakout from Tobruk.

Afterwards Oberstleutnant Bayerlein wrote that:

On the 25th November heavy fighting flared up again at Tobruk, where our holding force was caught between pincers, one coming from the south-east and the other from the fortress itself. By mustering all their strength, the Boettcher Group succeeded in beating off most of these attacks, and the only enemy penetration was brought to a standstill by an Italian counterattack.”

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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