On August 30th 1942, General Erwin Rommel unleashed Operation Brandung, a concentrated attack undertaken by his Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee (ACIT – Armata Corazzata Italo-Tedesca) against the tired yet stout British and Commonwealth forces, designed as a follow-up engagement launched on the heels of the recently concluded First Battle of El Alamein. The fighting during First El Alamein had petered out less than two months earlier ending in what many consider as a stalemate between the opposing sides. The goal of operation Brandung was for the forces of the Italian-German Panzerarmee Afrika to outflank and then engage the British 8th Army, now under the commanded of its new leader General Bernard Montgomery. The 8th had formed its position just south of El Alamein, and it would be here that they would face Rommel’s weakened, but still dangerous, forces in the next round of their epic encounter.
Using Ultra intercepts that forewarned of the upcoming Axis operation, Montgomery prepared a new defensive alignment to support his change in the 8th Army’s philosophy on the use of it’s armor; a philosophy he hoped would inflict severe damage to the advancing Axis forces while sparing his own armor from the expected pounding that would be endured while engaging in tank versus tank combat, an arena where the Germans held the advantage. Montgomery’s new plan shunned past British doctrine of sending it’s armor out to engage Axis tanks ‘in the open’, and instead, the valuable tanks were to stay ‘protected’ in the distance and fulfill an ‘anti-tank’ role. To put this philosophy into practice, Montgomery had cleverly left a ‘gap’ in the southern sector of the front designed to funnel Rommel’s attacking forces into his ‘trap’; a strong grouping of British tanks and artillery near Alam el Halfa ridge.
At the onset of the Axis attack, the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee forces had indeed played into Montgomery’s hand during their attempted flanking maneuver to the south, and having been diverted to the shadow of Alam el Halfa, ‘sprung the trap’ that had waited patiently for them. The attackers sustained heavy losses to their exposed armor as Rommel’s overly aggressive nature was expertly parried by Montgomery.
The Desert Fox had been defeated. With the British Desert Air Force pounding his troops from above and his supply situation critical, Rommel called for a general retreat to prepare his defensive line for the inevitable British counter. The Axis initiative in the North African campaign was lost, as was any chance they had at achieving ultimate victory in the desert. Montgomery chose to not immediately follow this defensive victory by pursuing the reeling Axis, a decision that he has often been criticized for. He instead chose to build up his forces for the next encounter to come; an encounter he was determined to fight on his timetable and under his own terms. This upcoming confrontation, The Second Battle of El Alamein, would be considered as one of the key turning points of the entire war.
During the battle of Alam El Hafla, the Italian Airborne Division Folgore (185.a Divisione Paracadutisti “Folgore”) had been positioned to guard the left flank of the German 90th Light Division and the Ramcke Brigade, and was successful in driving off an attack by New Zealand Infantry during a fierce encounter between the 3rd and 4th of September. The performance by the Italians in this clash was greatly respected by their German allies, so much so that Wehrmacht leaders awarded 11 Iron Crosses to Folgore soldiers for their heroics on the battlefield. When news reached Montgomery on the outcome of the encounter, he became angered that his forces had been ‘thrashed’ by Italians, a fact that he no doubt found unacceptable.
Shortly after this engagement, a Folgore patrol captured Brigadier General G.H. Clifton, commander of the New Zealand 6th Brigade, who while scouting mistakenly drove his vehicle into the midst of a group of Folgore soldiers. They immediately took him and several of his aides captive at gun point. During his subsequent interrogation by Rommel, General Clifton requested to be sent for confinement at a German POW camp instead of an Italian one, for he felt both angry and embarrassed at being captured by Italians. Rommel at first agreed, but after Clifton attempted an escape during a German interrogation, Rommel’s decision was countermanded, and the General was shipped to Italy for internment.
By the end of September, the Folgore was once again locked in battle contested in the blowing sands of the Egyptian desert. This time they were opposed by the British 131st Infantry Brigade, which boasted heavy artillery and a contingent of tanks, supplied by the Scots Greys, which had been attached to them in order to provide support against the Folgore. In a preview of what would come to pass at Second El Alamein, the soldiers of the 185th Folgore Division, in particular members of the 9th Btn, delivered an impressive defensive victory, mauling the British in this encounter. Inflicting approximately 400 casualties upon the British forces, the Folgore suffered less than 50 casualties of their own while repulsing the attack.
Through two hard fought encounters over the span of approximately one month, the soldiers of the Folgore were quickly establishing a reputation as a formidable opponent. Soon this reputation would be put to the test, as Montgomery’s southpaw hook delivered during the opening phase of Second Alamein would be guided towards the 14k stretch of line manned by the Folgore.
Months prior to finding themselves locked into one of the greatest battles of the war, the Folgore Division had originally been earmarked to participate in the planned assault on the Island fortress of Malta. Operation C3 was scheduled for the spring of 1942, and the Folgore’s role was to be crucial in the Axis plan to wrest control of the critical Island from the British. The Folgore was a tightly knit and highly skilled unit, and they possessed perhaps the greatest ‘esprit de corps’ of any Italian division during the war.