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The Bologna Division: 19 November – 10 December, 1941

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Allied trench on the Tobruk perimeter

On 1 December, a Reuters correspondent with the Eighth Army announced that the Bologna Division had finally been destroyed. He wrote:

When the Tobruk garrison sortied to joining up with the relieving troops, they made mince-meat of the Italian Bologna Division which held positions on the eastern sector of the Tobruk perimeter. It is now confirmed that the Bologna division has been virtually wiped out as a fighting force.” (Italian Bologna Division Wiped Out, The Indian Express, 2 December 1941)

But the Bologna Division, along with the Trento and Pavia, continued to hold their ground, and on 1 December, an armoured attack was reportedly beaten back in the Trento sector. (See New York Times, 2 December 1941) On 2 December, General Navarrini’s Order for the Day about the fighting noted:

Since the beginning of the present gigantic fighting the Trento has offered an impassable wall of steel to all the desperate attacks of the enemy, delivering lightning blows which have once more snatched the initiative from the enemy’s hands. Now that definite victory seems to be at hand, it continues to fight.”

On 4 December, the Pavia and Trento Divisions launched counterattacks against the 70th Division in an attempt to contain them within the Tobruk perimeter, and reportedly recaptured the ‘Plonk and ‘Doc’ strong points. (The New York Times, 5 December 1941; J. L Ready, p. 313)

On 6 December, Rommel ordered his divisions to retreat westwards, leaving the Savona to hold out as long as possible in the Sollum-Halfaya-Bardia area. They did not surrender until 17 January, 1942.

That night, the 70th Division captured the German-held ‘Walter’ and ‘Freddie’ strong points without any resistance, however one Pavia battalion made a stand on Point 157, inflicting heavy casualties on the 2nd Durham Light Infantry with its dug-in infantry before being overrun, leaving behind some 130 prisoners.

Now began an Italian retreat towards the Gazala Line. On 8 December, after 20 days of heavy fighting, the 25th Bologna was ordered to withdraw from the front line, having suffered 30 percent casualties and winning two Gold and at least one Silver medals in the process. They may have been green and under-strength battalions, but they had held out long enough for the Pavia, Trieste and Boettcher Group to arrive and plug the gaps.

On 10 December, the British 70th Division finally managed to break out from Tobruk and after a fierce but intense battle, the Polish brigade finished off the Brescia rearguards, capturing Acroma on the10th. This attack effectively lifted the siege of Tobruk after 255 days. (Jack Greene & Alessandro Massignani, p. 126)

The Bologna, Brescia, Pavia, Trieste, Trento and DAK held the Gazala line from 10-13 December. The German commanders soon realized that the Allies would sooner or later break through the defences and Rommel decided to pull his seasoned troops back to Mersa Brega and El Agheila. On 14 December, the Italians woke up only to find the Germans had abandoned them.

Historian J. L. Ready wrote in the book The Forgotten Axis that:

On the night of the 13th Rommel ordered another withdrawal, and now the animosity between German and Italian broke into conflict. In several cases Germans who had no vehicles stole Italian vehicles at gunpoint, and some German battalions stealthily crept out of the line without bothering to notify let alone coordinate with, the Italians on the flank. The sun had risen before some Italians learned of the retreat. This meant that much heavy equipment was left behind, including precious anti-tank guns, and tens of thousands of Italians began walking across a flat desert swept by a cold wind under the eyes of every pilot in the Allied air force.”

Rommel now had an argument with Generals Bastico and Gambara over his decision to withdraw the German troops. That day, as the 15th Panzer Division was ordered to return to the assistance of the Italians, an infantry battalion of the Pavia Division was overrun and the battalion commander, Major Giuseppe Ragnini was killed in desperate fighting. Major Ragnini, who led a counterattack on 4 December with his battalion and reportedly captured 137 prisoners, was awarded posthumously the Gold Medal for Valour.

On 15 December, the Brescia and Pavia, with Trento in close support, repelled a strong Polish-New Zealand attack, thus freeing the German 15th Panzer Division which had returned to the Gazala Line, to be used elsewhere. Richard Humble writes:

The Poles and New Zealanders made good initial progress, taking several hundred Italian prisoners; but the Italians rallied well, and by noon it was clear to [General Alfred] Godwin-Austen that his two brigades lacked the weight to achieve a breakthrough on the right flank. It was the same story in the centre, where the Italians of ‘Trieste’ continued to repulse 5th Indian Brigade’s attack on Point 208. By mid-afternoon the III Corps attack had been fought to a halt all along the line.”

Of the fighting on the Gazala Line on 15 December, the Italian High Command communique said merely that:

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David Aldea is the co-author of 5th Infantry Brigade in the Falklands (Leo Cooper, 2003) and has written numerous articles, including “Blood and Mud at Goose Green” (Military History Magazine, April 2002). He has also written "The Battle of Mersa Matruh" and "First Battle of Alamein" for Comando Supremo: Italy at War.
David Aldea
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Comments

  1. 3
    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. 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. 1
    Peppe Peluso says:

    Hello David
    Really a wonderful article.
    Ciao. Peppe