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Anti - aircraft Battalion in Ariete
Posted 21 September 2004 - 03:39 AM
If your interested, I have a coauthored article on the 88mm and 90mm used by the Italians in an AA/AT role that was never published (well a butchered version was used in COMMAND magazien some years back). I would be happy to post as a long reply at this forum.
Posted 22 September 2004 - 12:00 AM
THE ITALIAN 88mm & 90mm AT/AA GUNS IN NORTH AFRICA
Alessandro Massignani & Jack Greene ©?
After the disaster of General Berti's Italian 10th Army and some units of the 5th Army in North Africa during the winter of 1940/1941, under the overall command of Marshall Graziani, certain Italian motorized units, which were deployed in the Po Valley (while the infantry moved in the desert by foot) began to arrive in Libya. They were better trained, but their armament and equipment was generally identical to that of the units already present in Libya. They were part of the Ariete armor division and the Trento motorized division, the former of which fought with Rommel in his sudden spring advance of 1941 to Tobruk, making heavy use of their obsolescent weapons while taking part in several fights in that advance.
The desperate fighting during the "Brevity" and "Battleaxe" operations during the summer of 1941 showed that the standard 47/32mm Italian AT guns, which equipped the infantry and Bersaglieri, was unable to match the heavy British tanks. The 47mm gun was somewhat equal to the British 2 pounder AT gun, but lacked a protective gun shield, so crew casualties tended to be high. One advantage it had, was that it could fire a High Explosive (HE) shell, unlike the 2 pounder which only had a solid shot. Still, they were able to inflict on the British both casualties and damage in close combat under favorable conditions, albeit suffering heavy losses. This was the case during the fighting at Hellfire Pass on 15 May, 1941.
After the "Crusader" operation and the following daring winter counterattack under Rommel, there was a period of rest and refitting which was used by the Ariete to reinforce her ranks and to augment her armament. Among the new weapons received, there were by the middle of May, two batteries of German 88mm AA/AT guns (13th and 14th), forming the V AT & AA battalion.
The story of the Italian units equipped with the famous German dual purpose gun is a story that is almost totally unknown. It began when Italy, entered the war largely equipped with World War I artillery, though with a few newly designed guns, asked her powerful ally for weapons and ammunition, that the weak Italian war economy was unable to supply. Italy long shopping list was never fulfilled, but Germany did send her some equipment. This, among other examples, was the case for AA guns intended to protect the large populated cities from French and, later, British air attacks.
Thus in September 1940, two battalions of 88mm Flak were formed in Florence, the personnel being sent to Rerik, on the Baltic Sea, to the artillery and Zeiss fire control systems training school. Later fire control training took place on Nettuno Beach in Italy, reduced as customary in the Italian army to the minimum - in this case two days - of firing exercises. It should be noted that at this time, the AT role for the 88mm was not taken into account, and the battalions, fielding a total of six batteries, which were sent to North Africa were intended for a strictly AA role. The XVIII battalion was sent in October of 1940, while the XXIX went in December of that year. It seems that a third battalion came later to Africa, remaining in defense of Tripoli, and suffered heavy losses during a later air attack.
In 1941 the 88mm was employed in the AA defense of Bengazi and Tripoli, where it was possible for the crews to appreciate the difference between this modern gun and the First World War AA tactics employed by the old 76mm AA Skoda batteries. The XVIII was truck mounted and lost one battery during the retreat to El Agheila at the time of Operation Crusader. But with the new January 1942 organization of the Italian division in Africa, called AS 42 (Africa Settentrionale - North Africa) the XVIII 88mm battalion became the V AA/AT battalion of the 1st Articelere regiment. The Articelere was a compressed name for Le Voloire, the Italian horse artillery, which was mostly now motorized. The unit was first assigned to the Brescia infantry division, and then transferred to the Ariete division.
The Ariete also received three batteries of the new 90mm/53 AA gun. This artillery model was a new Italian AA gun, designed in 1939, but in the field it soon was used in an attempt to deal with the Russian T34 tank on the Russian front, whose rare appearance in front of the Italian divisions employed in Russia showed that the old 47mm AT gun was virtually worthless. Even the new 47mm AT shell called "EP" (effetto pronto) or prompt effect hollow charge shell, was unable to do any damage to the frontal plates of the standard Russian tank. But the 90mm gun, of which both the army and the navy had a version of it, each with different ammunition(!), and having an EP shell, was faced with many difficulties in its development.
The Ansaldo company first mounted the 90mm AA gun on the Lancia 3RO truck, a technique first learned in the First World War. It was also mounted on the Breda Dovunque 41. This was was similar to an ersatz self-propelled gun also used by the United States in the fighting in the Philippines in the winter of 1941/42. The problem with the Italian version was that it was a slow, had virtually non-existent off-road ability, and it made for a very high profile target, all of which were important disadvantages in the desert war. In fact, reports from the desert said that they were "too vulnerable" and "although very good as to ballistic performance, it had a very high percentage of losses because it is very vulnerable; moreover it has little mobility for cross-country operations." For this reason, the Ansaldo company was commissioned in April of 1942 to study the mounting the 90mm gun on SPA 38 R trucks and on the Breda 61, the latter being a half-track truck.
By July 1942 there were eight battalions (calledgruppi) equipped with the 90mm AA guns. These battalions were numbered 501 to 508 and each had three batteries. Of these, the 501 (DI) was the renamed IV/132 artillery of the Ariete and when shipped to Africa Due to heavy losses, the Ariete drafted from the Littorio armored division, the 503 (DIII) battalion. Later the 90mm was also mounted on the chassis of the M14/41 tank, which was not a good vehicle, frequently breaking down, and being very slow, (20-25 km/h road speed). It required a modified L6 tank to carry its ammunition, but no other tank chassis was available. Nevertheless, the 90mm piece had a muzzle velocity of 830 m/sec (the 88mm had a muzzle velocity of 900 m/sec) and a practical range of 11400 meters, which made for a powerful weapon. It can be argued that the Ansaldo company did not push rapidly forward with this development, and this would cost Fascist Italy much in her war in Africa. Ninety of these semovente (self-propelled artillery) were ordered on 29 December, 1941 and the first 30 were ready by 30 April, 1942. These 30 equipped the 10th Raggruppamento Bedogni, from the name of the commander. The Raggruppamento had three battalions, each of two batteries of four pieces each. The six remaining pieces were used for training and reserve. The training took place at Nettuno and later the Raggruppamento would fight its only battle in Sicily, with one battery commander receiving an Iron Cross for his support of his German Ally during the retreat to Messina.
Little is recorded of the 88mm XXIX Battalion, which remained in the defense of Tripoli from 28 December 1940 until the summer of 1942, when it was probably assigned to the Littorio and destroyed at El Alamein.
Action in North African
With this background, let us turn now and see what use the Italian manned 88mm AT batteries were put too. The first AT role for the V Gruppo occurred during the 1942 summer battle in North Africa for Tobruk, the so called Operation Venezia or Battle of Gazala. After some minor fighting during the first days of the battle, when the 88mm supported the advance of the Ariete, the batteries were deployed on the 29th as an AT screen along with 90mm and even some old 76mm Skoda guns to protect the Ariete and DAK's rear and their lines of communication. On the afternoon of the 29th of May heavy tank attacks were made on the screen. At 7:30 am 30 May, without any artillery preparation, enemy "tanks came suddenly attacking out of he cover of the Trigh's downward steps, firing with all guns" as wrote the later commander of the 14th battery, Lt. Calabresi. The two gallant British tank attacks were conducted by the 2nd and 22nd Armored Brigades, both which suffered heavy losses, and in the case of the 2nd, leaving it with only 30 tanks, though mostly Grant tanks. The 88mm and the 90mm guns proved very effective, although suffering high losses. The V battalion lost 49 men and five 88mm guns, having fired some 1748 rounds. A charging Crusader tank at one point closed to 200 yards on a 88mm gun that was running out of ammunition, before being stopped. It was at this point that Lt. Calabresi was wounded in the leg and was shortly thereafter awarded the Iron Cross 1st class by Rommel himself at the hospital.
This was followed up on 4/5 June with yet another attack with both armor and infantry against the Italian line in Operation "Aberdeen". Part of the problem was that the Allied artillery was targeted in front of the Italian position instead of on it. The 5th Panzer did support the Ariete's left in this action and helped beat up on the 2nd Highland Light Infantry, after the 156 tanks of the 22nd Armor Brigade was thrown back by the AT line. The 2nd Armor Brigade received several orders, and counterorders, and so effectively did nothing. By the end of this action combined with the severe losses of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade in its attack to the west against the DAK, let Rommel to take the initiative again.
This battle shows that attacking prepared Italian positions supported by powerful AT guns, was simply not good tactics. The British clearly paid for it with heavy losses. Interestingly enough, both the British Official History and Michael Carver in his generally well researched Tobruk, simply refers to the Italian defense as an attempt "to pierce the screen which lay west of them, thought to be Rommel's rearguard". The fact that it was largely an Italian defense is not noted in either volumes. Samuel Mitcham's hero worshipping (and German slanted) Rommel's Desert War has German flak units supporting the Ariete in its defense! This is just a typical example of some of the pap called history in many of the books on the desert.
The battalion moved little in the following days, firing support fire from time to time. On the 10th, one piece from the 14th battery reputedly hit 10 British tanks. From the 18th the guns followed the Ariete in her march toward El Adem as both flank and rear protection. The effectiveness of these guns was shown in the assault on Tobruk, when German officers requested some support in the assault on that fortress. The 13th battery reached the 15th Panzer whose engineers were checked by some concrete strongpoints on the perimeter of the fortress. The strongpoints resisted for 15 minutes when the Italian 88's opened up.
Eyewitnesses of those days say that it is impossible to understand the sudden collapse of the Tobruk fortress without having seen the air attacks carried out by primarily by Ju87 and CR42 ground support aircraft. In the words of one of Rommel's interpreters, NCO Walther Spitaler, "it cannot be described with words."; and Lt. Calabresi wrote that "what impressed me particularly was the clear state of shock of the prisoners, mainly Indians."
The 88mm and 90mm batteries did not participate in any particular fight in the following days, but did suffer some losses while blocking retreating British columns and engaging in air attacks. On 2 July, the V accompanied six or eight tanks of the Ariete forward into the El Alamein line. On the 3rd, the division carried the order received to go to Deep Well and wait there with the Trieste division, which did not receive the order in time. At first light, the Ariete saw that their position was poor, since their troops were deployed inside a large depression ringed on three side by British troops. Not recommended tactics. Artillery fire began falling on the Ariete from three sides. The Ariete requested Corps support and was still looking for the Trieste to help, but this was to be in vain. The 4th New Zealand brigade now attacked, supported by both tanks and artillery, and the 88mm guns, and other Italian artillery, could only fire direct support fire due to lack of artillery observation. Six 88's and one 90mm AT gun were captured here, including Lt. Calabresi, who was armed but was spared by the attacking New Zealanders as they saw that he had a severe leg wound. The Ariete lost 531 men (about 350 were prisoners), 36 guns, and 55 trucks. This was the only important defeat of the Ariete in the war up to this point, though it was only the spearhead of the Ariete that was destroyed.
Rommel would later bitterly attack the Ariete's stand here, but it appears that the main problem was that the Ariete was too weak, and initial attack was poorly supported and launched into a bad piece of terrain. Only two 90mm guns now remained to the Ariete at this point, the eve of the second battle of El Alamein.
The climax was approaching and as both sides moved additional reinforcements to Africa. By 23 October, 1942 the DI battalion of 90mm AT guns and the XXXI battalion with 88mm guns was assigned to the Ariete's 132 artillery regiment. The XXIX battalion was now called the III and was assigned to the Littorio armor division.
There is little on the fighting of these units, although some sources say that the guns were used as an AT screen in the fighting at El Alamein. On the 28 October 1942 a tank counterattack by German and Italian tanks (Italian units were represented by the Littorio's IV/133 regiment) rescued the 88mm gun of the so called Gorgione battalion which had been captured several hours earlier. Freeing the artillerymen, this attack was to achieve one of the few Axis success of El Alamein.
A battery of 88mm guns was directly assigned to the Folgore Parachute Division, a unit which had only 47mm AT guns for artillery. The rest of the Ariete's mixed battalion of 88mm and 90mm guns were in support on the right of the Axis line, when the last fight of the Folgore began on November 4, 1942 with the attack of Allied forces which included 200 tanks, including the new Sherman. The Semoventi's, mines, and the 88mm and 90mm guns were the only Italian weapons to inflict any significant losses to the Allied advance. The Folgore and the Ariete, however, were effectively destroyed. Of the latter, only 3 90mm guns, 31 tanks, and some 200 men survived.
At the same time the Centauro Armored Division was sent to Africa, splitting into two groups, one going to Tunisia and one to El Agheila. It was here at El Ageila that the DII battalion with 90mm guns arrived. Combined with some survivors of the Ariete it formed the Cantaluppi Combat Group and proved to be the only effective weapon on 14 November, 1942, when the advance of the 7th armored division was checked during ten hours of light fighting.
After the long retreat to Tripoli and later to the Mareth line, the artillery was reorganized while more troops and guns began to arrive from Europe. After 10 January, 1943 the 1st and 2nd batteries of the DIV battalion of 90mm guns arrived in Tunisia and deployed in defense of Susa. Later the 1st battery was assigned to the Imperiali L Brigade, while the 2nd was sent to Fulleride in the Fondouk area. It was at the end of the war that the Italian military decided to concentrate its artillery and no longer place small units in penny-packet strongpoints. In some cases such as at Mareth and the Enfidaville battles, this new artillery tactic, using 88mm and 90mm AT guns, as well as the usual field artillery, worked. This allowed the old field artillery such as pre World War I (!) 149mm guns on fixed carriages to still have some effect on the modern battlefield. But it would be at Enfidaville, that the last employment of Italian manned 88mm took place, with the fall of the Takrouna strongpoint.
In North Africa the particular feature of the battlefield favored the use of tanks and aircraft and thus also of AA&AT guns, since their high muzzle velocity was helpful in both roles. The German 88mm L 56 was one of the most celebrated weapons of the desert, the effectiveness against the heavy British tanks being so high, that its presence was quoted in reports and books, even when in reality it was absent! "It must have been an 88 that stopped us!" was a typical refrain.
Of a comparable effectiveness was the Italian 90mm AA gun, although it suffered from some faults, as did the 88mm in Italian service. Both had mobility problems, and we have seen what was the report from the front about the 90mm and the measures taken in order to improve the weapon. Industrial interests had terrible effects on the development of the 90mm gun, to the point that the troops preferred to employ other mounted guns of the Semoventi to them. The 88mm (parts of which were built by Italian industry for the Reich) was much admired by artillerymen but its effectiveness in the Italian service was diminished by two problems: the lack of ammunition and the transportation problem, which were never resolved. Instead of a tractor the Italian 88 used the truck with the obvious problem of a heavy gun. These two problems are probably reflected in the high losses during the long fighting against the tanks.
Posted 22 September 2004 - 05:14 AM
Question, was the Spa 38 a better off road truck? I was under the impression that the Dovunque series would have been decent off road as I've seen pictures that show the wheels being able to traverse a good bit. Maybe this was later marks of the series?
Posted 20 February 2005 - 03:02 AM
Please accept my belated thanks. :)
Just one question. How does the nomeclature "XXXI Gruppo AA/AT" tie in with the known XVIII (later V) Gruppo & the XXIX (later III) Gruppo & the un-numbered Gruppo that never left Tripoli?
Posted 20 February 2005 - 03:10 PM
What was the Gruppo No of the unit within 132 Artigliere Reggimento, Ariete, that contained (amongst others) the 20mm/35 Light anti/aircraft guns. Or was it only "attached" and not organic?
Posted 20 February 2005 - 03:27 PM
I assume from what you are saying, that the light A/A Batteria were allocated to divisione by a higher artigliere command, and served as individual batteria, not grouped together in Gruppo. Am I right to assume this?
Many thanks. David.
Posted 20 February 2005 - 03:37 PM
2 or 3 field artillery battalions (of 2 or 3 field batteries each)
2 light AA batteries (not joined in a battalion)
Posted 21 February 2005 - 02:30 PM
I hope it's ok...if not I promise I'll never do that again :oops:
Our host Jim is a substainer of circulation of ideas...if you give correct quotation it's all right
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