131st "Centauro" Armoured Division

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The 131ª Divisione Corazzata "Centauro" or the 131st "Centauro" Armoured Division was an Italian armoured cavalry division which fought during World War II.

Formation

The 1st "Centauro" Armoured Brigade was raised in April 1937, and, along with the 132nd "Ariete" Armoured Division, formed part of the Italian Armoured Corps. The two units took part in the first corps-level exercises in the Po Valley in the late 1930s. In February 1939, the "Centauro" was re-designated a division.

Invasion of Greece

When Italy invaded Albania in April 1939, the Centauro was equipped with L3/33 and L3/35 tankettes. The division also participated in the Greco-Italian War in 1940, just before it received its first M13/40 tanks in December, and deployed with them at Këlcyrë in January 1941, losing many of them to the Greek artillery fire.

Invasion of Yugoslavia

The following year the Centauro was deployed in Yugoslavia, together with the 4th Littorio Division, where they performed well despite their outdated equipment. In June 1941 they were recalled to Italy to be re-equipped.

North Africa

The Centauro arrived in North Africa during the Axis retreat from El Alamein to Tripoli in late 1942. On 13 December 1942, during the Battle of El Agheila, the Centauro along with a formation from the 132nd Ariete Armoured Division forced the British 7th Armoured Division to retreat. Rommel recorded the action in his diary:

Late in the morning, a superior enemy force launched an attack on Combat Group Ariete, which was located south-west of El Agheila, with its right flank resting on the Sebcha Chebira and its left linking up with 90th Light Division. Bitter fighting ensued against 80 British tanks and lasted for nearly ten hours. The Italians put up a magnificent fight, for which they deserved the utmost credit. Finally, in the evening, the British were thrown back by a counter attack of the Centauro's armoured regiment, leaving 22 tanks and 2 amoured cars burnt out or damaged on the battlefield. The British intention of cutting off the 90th Light Division had been foiled. [1]

The armoured division took part in several actions in the Tunisian Campaign and according to US historian Brian John Murphy (after leading the Axis armoured advance through Kasserine Pass), overran a good part of the US forces deployed along Highway 13 that were blocking the route to Tebessa during the Battle of Kasserine Pass:

Axis forces also made a breakthrough on Highway 13, where the Italians of the Centauro Division spearheaded the attack. In the early morning hours, the Italians pressed their offensive, broke through the remains of the American line, and continued up Highway 13.[2]

Tanks from the Centauro supported by the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment overran Colonel Anderson Moore's 19th Combat Engineers Regiment during this action. [3]The American newspaper Victoria Advocate reported:

Of the 1,200 men in the battalion on Feb. 18, 1943, only 125 remained the next day. The rest were killed, wounded, captured or scattered, as a battle-hardened war machine gave the untested U.S. Army a bloody baptism.[4]

The remaining units of the Centauro fought in Tunisia as part of the Italian 1st Army until the end of the campaign, surrendering on May 13 1943, five days after the collapse of the 5th Panzer Armee. The German collapse started on May 5, although Italian resistance stiffened around the defensive line north of Takrouna, with the Italians overrunning a French division in the last hours of the fighting. [5]In all, 80,000 Italians under Marshal Giovanni Messe laid down their arms on 13 May 1943, only when authorized to do so by Mussolini who promoted Messe to marshal the night before.

Notes

  1. The Rommel Papers, US version, p. 373
  2. Facing The Fox
  3. "The American collapse began in earnest by late morning. At 11:22 the 19th Engineers' commander, Colonel A.T.W. Moore, warned Stark by radio that enemy infantry and tanks were forcing the pass along Highway 13. An engineer major bellowed: "Forget about our equipment and just save your life." Artillery observers fled, explaining plausibly if ingloriously: "This place is too hot. "Companies disintegrated into platoons, platoons into squads, squads into solitary foot soldiers chased to the rear by screaming meemies. Half an hour later, Moore radioed, "Enemy overrunning our C.P.," and bolted for high ground. He soon arrived at Stark's tent to announce that the 19th Engineers no longer existed." An Army At Dawn: The War in North Africa, Rick Atkinson, Henry Holt and Company, 2007
  4. Kasserine Pass: A baptism of fire for U.S. Army in World War II, Victoria Advocate, February 7, 1993
  5. "On May 12th this Italian force was still resisting from positions just north of Enfidaville. A French division attacking their right was repulsed and then counterattacked. The Air Force, being called upon for aid, made a strong bombing attack at 1530, supported by all the artillery whose fire could be brought to bear.“ "Finale in Tunisia", Colonel Conrad H. Lanza, Page. 488, The Field Artillery, July 1943