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Italian Folgore at El Alamein: Unbreakable

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While the Folgore has often received praise and admiration for the bravery they displayed during the fighting at El Alamein, what is sometimes overlooked was the skill level demonstrated by its soldiers.  They did not just best the opposition solely by their courage, but by often out-fighting them through superior military aptitude.  The Italians brilliant use of the Artillery Group, whose artillery tactics and operational procedures are seen by some as being superior to their German allies in the North African theater, was crucial to the success of their stand.  Their ability to bring down accurate and often deadly fire to separate enemy armor from their infantry  support made their role in the battle indispensable. In addition the discipline and proficiency of the Italian anti-tank gun teams was continually called upon to stem many Allied armored advances, often from precariously close distance.

The French forces had been routed by the Italians, and their British counterparts from the 44th Division fared little better.  For hours after this battle, fire and smoke emanating from several destroyed British tanks gave off an eerie glow into the still darkness of the African morning; the sight a smoldering symbol of the Italian’s merciless stand.

The initial British thrust was repulsed with heavy casualties to hundreds of its soldiers including those from the Royal West Kents, Greys, and the Buffs.  The Folgore also suffered a high number of losses after the first night of fighting, in particular the 8th battalion, but had held the line.  The British could not break through as planned and the advance had gained far too little ground in comparison to the number of casualties stretched out on the desert floor before the Italian positions.

Folgore manning 47/32 gun

47/32 gun team

Between 25 and 26 October, the British had been able to gain only minimal ground against fierce opposition from the dug in Folgore.  Realizing that even these small gains in the lines would potentially give the British a toehold for further operations, the Italians launched a counter-attack spearheaded by the 7th  Btg to drive off the enemy.  Italian troops overwhelmed Montgomery’s forces once again, and the Allies were obliged to retreat to their own start line after suffering a high number of casualties during this encounter.  It is estimated that the Folgore destroyed nearly 30 British tanks on the 25th alone, an incredible number when one compares the mismatch in firepower employed.

On the 26th, the British attempted to concentrate their attack on the southern portion of the Italian line, committing a sizable force to battle including the Green Howards Rgt., 4/8th Hussars Btn., and the Royal West Kent, in an effort to break through the Italian defense in order to engage the German positions located behind the initial Folgore sector.  Small initial gains by the attackers against isolated ‘outposts’ led them eventually straight into Italian strong points whose defenders expert use of their anti-tank guns helped in part to once again halt the Allied advance.

To help compensate for the overwhelming disadvantage in firepower, the Folgore was forced throughout the battle to utilize an ingenious yet dangerous tactic to counter the immense British superiority in armor.  With a limited number of modern tank stopping guns at their disposal, the Italians employed a “Cul de Sac” maneuver in which soldiers would engage British armor which had been separated from its infantry support while crossing into the Italian lines, tank and infantry coordination was never a strength of the Commonwealth forces, setting up a man versus machine life or death struggle.  Once inside the Italian lines, small groups of Folgore would burst out of camouflaged positions in which they had secreted themselves, and charging forward into the open would engage the unsupported British tanks or vehicles at close range.

Utilizing just about anything explosive they possessed, from grenades to improvised Molotov cocktails, these often suicidal charges proved highly effective at both destroying British armour and at unnerving the Allied soldiers who either witnessed the assaults or heard rumor of the destruction and mayhem that the Folgore was inflicting.

Throughout the battle of Second El Alamein, a tank group from the German 21st Panzer Division, along with elements of the Ariete Armoured Division, had stood by in the rear behind the Folgore to act as a reserve in order to counter any British breakthrough that might occur.  The Folgore never had need to call upon them during the entire battle as they had proved more than a match against the Allied units.

The British 132st Infantry Brigade/44th Inf.Div, and French forces were once more repelled on the 27th, and operations against the Italians were temporarily halted as the British military leadership reluctantly conceded that despite the fact that they held a numerical superiority in almost every category over their adversary, they could not defeat the Folgore in this sector with the forces they had so far employed.

The battlefield that stretched in front of the Folgore’s position was littered with the broken remains of British tanks and vehicles.  The British lost a staggering amount of armour, with estimates stating that anywhere from 60 to 120 vehicles were destroyed or immobilized during the engagement.  This was accomplished by Italian defenders who were ‘lightly’ armed, but still managed to demolish almost everything thrown at its ranks, including the massive Grant tanks.  The British suffered the loss of over 1100 men, including hundreds who were forced to surrender to avoid annihilation.

Montgomery was not yet done with his offensive however, and the vast material, fuel, and air advantage he held was about to be brought to bear against Rommel’s entrenched defenders.  In the early morning darkness of November 2nd 1942, the next phase of Montgomery’s plan, Operation Supercharge, began.   In the northern section of the Axis line, Allied troops began to breakthrough and exploit their earlier gains as the Allied offensive unfolded.  The Folgore troops to the south were now in danger of being cut off or surrounded because the line to their north was breached. Rommel, defying Hitler’s explicit command to stand his ground, ordered all Axis forces to fall back on the night of November 2-3.  Historians have been split on the merit of this decision, some praising Rommel’s tactic as sound and perhaps the only option he had in order to avoid the risk of having his entire army destroyed where they stood.  Others believe that Rommel simply lost his nerve, and ordered a meaningless retreat that pulled back his defenders from their entrenchments and defensive lines, and denied them their artillery support.  They further point out that the Axis troops were now facing ‘in the open’, a stronger and more mobile opponent, who would quickly be able to call upon these advantages.

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Comments

  1. Interesting and deepened article,
    my father was a soldier of Folgore and captured in El Alamein the 9th of november 1942 and imprisoned in
    British camp 309 and 305 located in Egypt.
    I should like to have more informations about these camps and some suggestions in order to contact the right authority (British Army, Red Cross, others)

    Thank you in advance for eventual tips.

    Cordially
    Enrico Dall’Osto

  2. Div132Ariete says:

    folgore fatal truth deserve to be called lions (although, in general, the entire Italian army fought like lions)

  3. Outstanding article!

  4. Epic description of iron men stubbornly fighting endless adversities. The article succesfully balance a rigorous historical approach with emotional emphatize with incredible soldiers. Compliment to the author.

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