By Jeffrey W.S. Leser
At the outbreak of the European war in September 1939, the Italian forces in Africa Settentrionale (A.S.) lacked major armored formations. The Italian Army had established three armored divisions the year before the war, but these were still equipped the small carri veloci (CV) type light tanks that had been found wanting in Ethiopian and Spain. None of the three armored divisions were stationed in A.S. The armored units available to the Comando Superiore Forze Armata (FF. AA.) Africa Settenrionale were two battaglioni carri L, assigned respectively to Tripolitania (XX btg. carri L) and Cirenaica (XXI btg. carri L). These two battalions were designed to form two additional battalions each during mobilization using vehicles already positioned in A.S. Later that year, the IX btg. carri L was transferred to A.S. All the armored vehicles were CV series light tanks. The doctrine was for these battalions to perform security and reconnaissance missions and to act as infantry support vehicles in the offense.
Italy’s declaration of war in June 1940 found the tank situation in A.S. unchanged. Per the mobilization plan, the four additional battaglioni carri L were formed in June 1940. Given that the British 7th Armoured Divison was equipped with gun-armed tanks, the decision was made to send the bulk of the new M11/39 medium tanks to A.S. These tanks were taken from the 32° reggimento carrista of the 132° divisione corazzata « Ariete » and organized two battalions under the 4° reggimento fanteria carri M. The M11/39 battalions (I and II btg. carri M) arrived in July 1940. The two medium tank battalions gave the 10a Armata its first cannon-armed armored vehicles. One company of the II btg. was assigned to the « Gruppo Maletti » shortly after arrival while the remainder operated as an independent unit under the command of the 4° rgt. ftr. carrista. As the date for the advance into Egypt approached, the need for an armored tactical group was recognized by the 10a Armata. That headquarters ordered the formation of a « colonna celere corazzata » (fast armored column) on 15 August 1940. The proposed organization was:
Colonna celere corazzata 
1 btg. motociclisti (2 cp.)
2 btg. carri L
1 btg. + 1 cp. carri M
2 gruppi artigleria (each with 2 btr. 75/27 w/ TL)
1 btr. da 20mm
1 cp. da 47/32
1 sezione radio (six RF 3C and one R4A)
1 plt. artieri di asserto
1 plt. Chimico con nebbiogeni (chemical plt. with smoke generators)
While it was a small force, it was well balanced with an infantry and artillery components and an improvement over using the btg. carri as separate groups. Four days later Marshal Graziani (Commander Superiore FF. AA. Africa Settenrionale) replied that such a column would be cumbersome and remove too much firepower from the army corps. He recommended the formation of a « reserva corazzata » (armored reserve) under the « Comando carri armata della Libia » (commanded by generale di brigata Valentino Babini). This reserve would consist of two raggruppamenti, each with one medium and three light tank battalions.
On 29 August, 10a Armata issued the order to form the reserva corazzata. The 1° raggruppamento carrista would be commanded by Colonel Aresca, the 2° raggruppamento carrista by Colonel Trivioli. The planned organization is below:
Comando carri armata della Libia (Babini)
1° raggruppamento carrista (Aresca)
XXI btg. carri L (from XXI corpo d’Armata)
LXII btg. carri L (from « Marmarica »)
LXIII btg. carr L (from « Cirene »)
I btg. carri M
2°raggruppamento carrista (Trivioli)
IX (from « 2a Libica »)
XX btg. carri L (from XX corpo d’Armata)
LXI btg. carri L (from « Sirte »)
II btg. carri M
Neither of these raggruppamenti operated as a complete formation. A « battaglione carri mista » was formed using one company from the II btg. carri M and a company from the LX btg. carri L to support raggruppamento « Maletti ». The LX btg. carri L (less one cp.) would operate with the XXI corpo d’Armata. Several of the other battalions would be attached to infantry formations and mobile columns during operations.
The engagements between Italian and British tank units during the advance to Sidi Barrani in September once again highlighted the shortcomings of both the Italian armored organizations and the vehicles themselves. The lack of supporting arms organic to the armored units meant that the Italian tanks either fought by themselves or had to depend on other formations to provide the necessary infantry and artillery support. After Sidi Barrani was occupied in September, planning began for the seizure of Mesa Matruh. The poor performance of the Italian armored units once again raised the issue of creating a major all-arms armored formation.
The arrival of the III btg. carri medi (equipped with 37 M13/40) in late September meant the Italians finally had some tanks that could theoretically match the British cruiser types. Further planned reinforcements included the 10° reggimento bersgalieri (a fully motorized infantry unit) and another M13 battalion, the V btg. carri M arriving in A.S. in the beginning of December. These units offered the possibility for organizing a truly modern armored unit. After much discussion on the role of such an armored unit and it sustainability, Comando Superiore FF.AA. Africa Settenrionale issued the order to from the « brigata corazzata speciale » on 18 November 1940.  The original structure of the brigade is below:
« brigata corazzata speciale »
Nucleo moto. CC.RR. I off/2 NCO/17 EM 1 autovetture, 1 autoleggere, 15 M/C
Drappello autombilistico 3 autovetture, 1 autoleggere, 1 furgoncino, 6 M/C
Regg. Bersaglieri Autoport 10° rgt. Bersaglieri
3 cp. Motorcicli
17° cp. Motorciclisti without one plt.
4° regg. Carri
XXI btg. carri L
I btg. carri M (M11/39) 31 M11/39
II btg. carri M (M11/39) 36 M11/39
Btr. da 20mm
Pl. Nebbiogeno (Smoke platoon)
Regg. misto carrista
LXI btg. carri L
III carri M (M13/40) 37 M13/40
6 fuciloni Solothurn 2 each from d.f.Sirte, Cirene, Marmarica
2 cp. 47/32 autocarrate 1 cp. from 55°; 1 cp. earmarked
Gr. 75/27 con T.L.A. 2 batteries, from 12° art. df
Gr. 75/27CK 2 batteries, from d cc.nn. 23 marzo
Gr. 100/17 con T.L.A. 2 batteries, from df. Cirene
2 btr. da 20 1 btr. from df Cirene, 1 btr. earmarked
Compagnia mista genio
Pl. artieri d’arresto from Comando Superiore genio
Pl. radio/trasmissore from Comando Superiore genio
Reparto sezione sussistenza
Reparto sezione sanità
2 Autoporto from Intendenza A.S.; rgt. Bers. autoporto.
Formally called the « brigata corazzata speciale », the brigade was simply referred to during its brief life as the « brigata corazzata » (armored brigade) in Italian documents and sources. Often called the Babini Armored Brigade in English sources, the assigned commander of the brigade was initially generale di brigata Alighiero Miele. Gen. Miele was then currently serving as the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Comando Superiore FF.AA. Africa Settenrionale and it appears he did briefly command the brigade. He was reassigned on 21 December as the Chief of Staff for the Comando Superiore FF.AA. Africa Settenrionale replacing Gen. Tellera (who later took command of the 10a Armata). Gen. Babini commanded the brigade during most of its existence.
As can be seen, the brigade was to be assembled using assets from a number of units. As active operations were ongoing, most of the parent units were loath to give up their designated elements and delayed for as long as possible. Additionally, the assigned units would continue to be carried as part of their parents units for administrative purposes, further complicating the situation. On 8 December 1940, the brigade was organizing near Marsa Lucch (between Tobruk and Bardia). Present were:
I btg. M (M11/39)
III btg. M (M13/40)
LX btg. carri L.
Btg. bersaglieri motociclisti
Gruppo da 75/27
Gruppo da 100/17
The LX btg. carri L was not originally part of the brigade as it was assigned as corps reserve for the XXI corpo d’armata.
The initial UK operations starting on 9 December (Operation Compass) destroyed the II btg. carri M, and the IX, XX, and LXII btg. carri L over the next few days. The « brigata corazzata » was initially ordered to move west of Bardia to occupy Sidi Azeiz on the 11th with the III btg. carri M ordered further forward on the 12th to block the roads from Sollum and Halfaya. On the 14th the brigade was moved to Ain el Gazala, just west of Tobruk, although one company from the III carri M was ordered to join the Bardia garrison. On the 15th the « brigata corazzata » was ordered once again to move, this time to el Mechili to cover the desert flank, leaving its M11/39 tanks to protect the airfield at Ain el Gazala.
From the initial UK operation to the fall of Bardia, two more units, the LVII and LXIII btg. carri L, were destroyed, as well as the M13/40 company from the III btg. carri M that was left at Bardia. In total, of the ten Italian armored battalions at the start of Operation Compass, six had been lost by 5 January while a seventh (I btg. Carri M) was basically combat ineffective at Tobruk with 35 M11/39s inoperable due to multiple mechanical failures and a lack of parts.
On 4 January 1940, Generale Guzzoni (Deputy Chief of Staff of the Comando Supremo) presented a plan to Mussolini that included transferring the divisione corazzata « Ariete » and the divisione motorizzata « Trento » to A.S. Welcoming the reinforcements, the governor’s office responded with a proposal to create a divisione corazzata in A.S. This division would be built using units already in A.S. and already planned/announced reinforcements. The « brigata corazzata » would be absorbed into this new formation.
A comando reggimento carista
III*, V*, VI btg. carri M (M13/40)
36 carri (M13/40), without crews (to be the XXI carri M)
The 10° reggimento bersaglieri*
A reggimento artiglieria with 3 gruppi of towed artillery
* indicates the units already in A.S.
This division was to be created in addition to the transfer the « Ariete » and the « Trento » to A.S. Part of this plan was to raise a new M13/40 battalion in Africa. Currently at Tobruk were the I btg. carri M and the XXI and LXIII btg. carri L. The operational tanks and their crews of the XXI btg. were transferred to the LXIII btg. The staff and support personnel of the LXIII, along with all the personnel of the I btg. carri M that could be spared were transported to Bengasi. These personnel would be used to organize the XXI btg. carri M using the M13/40 tanks arriving along with the VI btg. carri M on 17 January. While the XXI btg. carri M was created, nothing would come of the plan for a new armored division.
During this time, V btg. carri M (M13/40) and the 10° reggimento bersaglieri arrived in A.S. These units moved up and occupied a defensive position covering Derna and were in that position by 6 January. Initially these units were to be used to launch an attack to relieve Tobruk, but this plan was quickly scrapped. These units remained under army control until the V btg. carri M was officially assigned to the « brigata corazzata » on 9 January. The 10° rgt. bers. remained under army control.
Below is the organization of the brigade up through the combat at el Mechili.
« brigata corazzata speciale »
9 January 1941 
Battaglione bersaglieri (Reconnaissance Detachment?)
-60° cp. motociclisti
-5 armored cars 
-3 Solothurn c.c. on light trucks.
Raggruppamento carri (COL. Trivioli)
-III btg. carri M (25 M13/40)(without one company)
-V btg. carri M (37 M13/40)
-LX carri L (28 L tanks)
12° reggimento artiglieria « Savona »
-I Gruppo da 100/17 (2 btr. 8 guns)
-Gruppo da 75/27 (2 btr. 8 guns)
-Btr. da 20mm (6 guns)
XX Gruppo c.a. da 75 C.K. (2 btr. 8 guns)
116° cp. da 47/32 c.c. (8 guns)
1° cp. carri L lanicafiamme (flamethrower tanks)
Sezione fuciloni Solothurn on trucks (7 guns)
Stazione zaptiè di el Mechili w/ 2 MGs (Libyan Carabinieri station)
The « brigata corazzata » remained in the el Mechili area until after the combat on 24 January. There the brigade held its own against the British during this fight with losses being fairly equal on both sides. On 26 January the brigade was ordered to retreat in accordance with the plan to evacuate the Cirenaica. The brigade would establish successive delaying positions until reaching el Abiar (east of Bengasi) on 4 February.
The 10a Armata was organized into multiple raggruppamenti for the movement towards Agedabia. The armored units were separated into three different groups. The VI btg. carri M was attached to ragruppamento « Pasquali » as part of the corps reserve, along with the 10° rgt. bersaglieri. The XXI btg. carri M was attached to raggruppamento « Bignami ».  At 1200hrs on 5 February the VI btg. carri M was reassigned to the « brigata corazzata », which itself was part of raggruppamento « Bergonzoli ».
The final organization of the brigade during the battles west of Beda Fomm is below:
« brigata corazzata speciale »
5-6 February 1941
III btg. Carri M (12 M13/40)
V btg. carri M (24 M13/40)
VI btg. carri M (45 carri)
LXI carri L (7 carri L w/ Solothurn and 12.7 MGs, 6 inop. Carri L.)
12° rgt. Art.
-II gruppo da 75/27 (8 guns)
-III gruppo da 75/27 (8 guns)
Btr. da 105/28 del XX rgt. Art.
Btr. da 75CK dell XX gruppo c.a.
116° cp. da 47/32 c.c. (8 guns)
5 Solothurn on motorcycles
4 motorfurgoncini (mobile work vans)
Detachment of the 60° cp. motociclisti (30 motorcycles for reconnaissance and security)
The combat on the 5-7 February destroyed the « brigata corazzata speciale ». The Italian officers and men of the brigade demonstrated their valor and skill several times during the fight, organizing and attacking again and again over the three days of battle. They gained success on both the 6th and 7th, but the inability of the Italian infantry to maintain contact with the tanks and to occupy the desperately won ground prevented the consolidation of the ‘carristi’ success. The defeat of the 10th Army was the price paid for the ad hoc nature of the Italian formations used during the battle.
The concept and organization of the « brigata corazzata speciale » was sound and demonstrated that some in the Italian army understood the requirements of armored warfare. It was a balanced, combined arms force that incorporated lessons that the British had yet to recognize. Formed during war, the brigade was never provided the time to become an efficient unit. Throughout its brief history, the brigade never had the opportunity to train and create a common doctrine/SOP for operations. Units were constantly attached and detached. The impact of the lack of training was made worst by critical shortcomings of the Italians tanks; the lack of radios in their vehicles, their slow speed, and uneven quality of their armor plate. Of the three, the lack of radios had the greatest impact during 1940. The inability of the Italian tanks crews to rapidly adjust to British reactions during both the el Mechili and Beda Fomm battles was linked directly to this deficiency. Bravery and individual tank crew skill couldn’t overcome the lack of experience of operating as a large armored formation or the lack of rapid communications. It would be the divisioni corazzate that began arriving later in 1941 to demonstrate that Italian armored formations could operate skillfully and effectively.
1. Pignato, Nicola and Cappellano, Filippo Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’esercito italiano tomo II (1940-1945) page 75; La prima offensiva Britannica page 19. Battaglione carri L were organized with three companies with a total of 46 carri L.
2. “Nel corso dello stesso 1939 il IX Battaglione cr. L è trasferito al XXII C.A. in Cirenaica.” from website www.assocarri.it/Unita_carriste/4_Reggimento/4_Rgt_storia_1.htm retrived 11 September 2015.
3. There were 324 CV type light tanks in A.S. La prima offensiva Britannica page 20. On the expansion of the battalions see Montanari Le operazioni in Africa settentroinale vol 1 page 451; La prima offensiva Britannica page 19. These units were the LX (Sabratha), LXI (Sirte), LXII (Cirene), and LXIII (1a Libica) btg. carri L’s.
4. Pignato & Cappellano tomo II page 73 fn 3.
5. A btg. carri M equipped with M11/39 had two companies and 31 tanks. Each battalion had four reserve tanks to make-up the total of 70 M11/39s sent to A.S. For the organization: Pignato & Cappellano tomo I page 599-600; for the number of tanks: ibid tomo II page 75.
6. Pignato & Cappellano tomo II page 75.
7. TL – Trattori Leggere (light prime movers for artillery) IBWs motorized/towed artillery.
8. Pignato and Cappellono tomo II pages 75-76; Montanari vol. 1 page 103; La prima offensiva Britannica page 19-20. Note there is a typo in Montanari and the LXV should be the LXI.
9. La prima offensiva Britannica page 20.
10. The medium battalions (III, V, and XXI) were 2 companies with a total of 37 tanks. Pignato & Cappellano tomo II page 250. The VI btg. carri M was different (see fn 32).
11. Ibid page 134.
12. Comando Superiore Forze Armata Africa Settenrionale n03/8200 O.M. 18 novembre 1940/XIX°, see Ceva, Lucio; Curami, Andrea La meccanizzazione dell’esercito fino al 1940 tomo II document 38 page 216.
13. Ibid tomo II document 38 allegato 1 (pages 217-219).
14. He is listed as in command on 9 December 1940. See La prima offensiva Britannica page 172.
15. Montanari page 248; La prima offensiva Britannica page 136.
16. La prima offensiva Britannica page 83.
17. Pignato & Cappellano tomo II page 78.
18. Montanari page 256; La prima offensiva Britannica pages 144.
19. La prima offensiva Britannica pages 155-156. For a discussion and examples of the problems, see Montanari pages 262-263.
20. La prima offensiva Britannica page 158. Montanari doesn’t mention this proposal. He does mentioned (page 276) that in his response to Guzzoni, Graziani states “…; ridare efficienza con i mezzi e reparti in afflusso alla 5a armata, sì da costituire con essa una massa di manovra organica; impiegare tale massa…”. Whether this implies creating an armored division is unknown.
21. Montanari page 285 note.
22. The 10° rgt. Bers. arrived in early December (Greene, Jack Handbook of the Italian Army in World War II: 1940-1943 page 9) and the V btg. carri M on 13 December (La prima offensiva Britannica page 155). While Greene is correct that the 10° rgt. bers. never served with the « brigata corazzata », it was one of the planned units. Like everything about the brigade, events overtook all the plans.
23. La prima offensiva Britannica page 161.
24. Ibid pages 155-156. The identification of the 116° cp. c.c. is from schizzo 19.
25. La prima offensiva Britannica offers two different names for this unit. The text on page 156 lists the battagione bersaglieri but not the nucleo esplorante corazzata. Schizzo 17 lists the nucleo espl cor. but not the btg. bers. It is likely these are one and the same. This appears to be a separate unit from the nucleo esplorante created at Ain el Gazala with five M11/39s, a motorcycle platoon, and a battery of 20mm c.a. This latter unit was under army command. (ibid page 162). The identification of the 60°cp. m/c is based on the association of this unit with the brigade on 5 February.
26. The five armored cars are likely Autoblindata Terni tipo Libia. See Gli Autovehicoli de Combattimento tomo I page 101. These 1GM vehicles were modernized in 1940 by modifying the armored bodies and mounting them on SPA 38R light truck chassis. There were 8 of these vehicles in 1940 (ibid page 100).
27. Montanari page 262. The missing company was the lost at Bardia.
28. The presence of the carri L/f is from La prima offensiva Britannica page 215 and schizzo 19. How many carri L lanciafiamme were in A.S. and their organization is unclear. Pignato & Cappellano tomo I page 546 states that a btg. carri L should have one L/f platoon for every company in the battalion. However the the total number of carri given in all the sources (46) only works if each battalion has three companies and no L/f. Ibid tomo II page 79 states that gen. Miele requested a company of L/f to reinforce the brigade indicating that the L/f were organized separately in their own units.
29. Montanari places the losses at 7 Italian tanks and 10 British tanks (page 322). Playfair puts the losses at 8 Italian medium tanks destroyed and 1 captured, against a British loss of 1 Cruiser and 6 light tanks (vol. I, pg. 353).
30. La prima offensiva Britannica page 248.
31. Ibid page 251.
31. Ibid page 253 fn 1.
33. This OB is a combination of several different sources, none of which completely agree with the others. Pignato & Cappellano tomo II page 80; La prima offensiva Britannica pages 254-255; Montanari 338 fn 18.
34. It is unclear whether the VI btg. carri M was a two-company (37 tanks) or three-company (46 or 52 tanks) battalion. La prima offensiva Britannica page 135 states “due battaglione carri M 13 (80 carri) sarebbero giunti a Tripoli” and is footnoted “Il VI btg.carri M 13 e 36 carri sfusi per costituire in posto il XXI giunsero a Tripoli in 17 gennario e, ….” Pignato & Cappellano tomo II page 250 indicates that the VI btg. was a three-company battalion. The number of M13/40s (45) presented here supports three companies, although not whether if 46 or 52 tanks in the battalion.
Ceva, Lucio; Curami, Andrea La meccanizzazione dell’Esercito fino al 1943 2 volumes – USSME 1989
Greene, Jack Handbook of the Italian Army in World War II: 1940-1943 – 1990
Montanari, Mario Le operazioni in Africa settentroinale vol 1 Sidi el Barrani,- USSME 1985
Pignato, Nicola and Cappellano, Filippo:
–Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’esercito italiano tomo I (dalle origini al 1939) – Roma 2002
–Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’esercito italiano tomo II (1940-1945) – Roma 2002
–In Africa settentrionale. La preparazione al conflitto. L’avanzata su Sidi el Barrani – Roma 1955.
–La prima offensive Britannica in Africa settentrionale (ottobre 1940-febbraio 1941) Tomo I Narrazione e Allegati; Tomo II Schizzi – Roma 1964