25th "Bologna" Infantry Division

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The 25th Bologna Infantry Division was a major infantry formation of the Regio Esercito (Italian Army) during World War II. It was stationed in Tripolitania and was sent to Libya for further operations during the Italian invasion of Egypt. It saw extensive action in North Africa until it was finally destroyed in the Second Battle of El Alamein. It comprised the 39th and 40th Infantry Regiments and 205th Artillery Regiment.

Siege of Tobruk

During the Siege of Tobruk, the besieging troops were in the main part Italian units belonging to the Ariete Armoured Division and Trieste Motorized Division from the XXnd Motorised Corps, in support of the the Pavia, Bologna, and Brescia Infantry Divisions from the XXIst Infantry Corps. The sector manned by the Bologna Division consisted of several strongpoints manned by infantry and artillery battalions, all protected by extensive minefields.

The Italians, during the Battle of the Salient, had overrun most of the Australian positions lost outside Tobruk on May 1st 1941. Combat engineers under Lieutenant Francesco Tuci and Second Lieutenant Ernesto Betti, supported by Italian flamethrower tanks, had helped the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment capture several of the Australian strongpoints.[1]

Lieutenant Tuci was posthumously awarded the Medaglia D'Argento (the Silver Medal, Italy's second highest military award for bravery, in helping his platoon of engineers fight off an Australian counterattack.[2]

On May 3rd, the Australian 18th Brigade launched a counterattack but were only able to recapture one lost strongpoint in Italian hands. The Italian flamethrower attacks had dented Australian morale, with 30 Australian defenders reportedly evacuated in the first week of May suffering from self-inflicted-wounds.[3] That month, an underground "war neurosis clinic" was built in Tobruk and placed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel E.L. Cooper and Captain A.J.M Sinclair, in order to treat 207 Australians needing psychological treatment in the aftermath of the Battle of The Salient.[4]

Operation Crusader

On November 21st 1941, the Bologna Division brought to a halt a strong British advance through its positions as part of Operation Crusader.[5] The British forces involved (2nd/King’s Own, 2nd/Black Watch, 2nd/Queen’s and 4th Royal Tank Regiment with Matilda tanks) overran part of the Bologna defences, but the attacks were eventually stopped by the Italian defenders. In summing up the experience of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch in the attack, the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War noted that:

The superlative élan of the Black Watch in the attack had been equalled by the remarkable persistence of the defence in the face of formidable tank-and-infantry pressure.[6]

On November 23rd, the Bologna Division again withstood another strong British attack from Tobruk aimed at spilling into the area of Sidi Rezegh, and the defenders bought sufficient time to allow the 17th Pavia Infantry Division to mount an effective counter-attack and derail the British advance, as a German narrative later recorded:

After a sudden artillery concentration the garrison of Fortress Tobruk, supported by sixty tanks, made an attack on the direction of Bel Hamid at noon, intending at long last unite with the main offence group. The Italian siege front around the fortress tried to offer a defence in the confusion but was forced to relinquish numerous strong points in the encirclement front about Bir Bu Assaten to superior enemy forces. The Italian "Pavia" Division was committed for a counterattack and managed to seal off the enemy breakthrough. [7]

The Bologna defences now extended some 8 miles, and on November 25th, the thinly spread-out division was assaulted again by 50 British tanks and forced to withdraw some distance, although not before the German Böttcher Group had inflicted considerable losses on the British tanks. The British advance had been hours earlier derailed by the timely arrival of crack Italian reinforcements in the form of a Bersaglieri battalion of the Trieste Division.[8]

The Bologna defenders were gradually pushed back to their Leopard strongpoint, covering their retreat with mines and machine-gun nests, but by the end of the month the Tobruk breakout was judged a success among the British commanders.

Despite the Elite German 90th Light Division withdrawing early from the Tobruk sector on December 4th, the Bologna Division held out for nearly another week when trucks were finally assigned to give them some support under the cover of darkness of December 8th.

A further assault, this time by the Polish Carpathian Brigade (SBSK) supported by tanks and artillery, was required against the stubborn Italian defenders in the form of the rearguard of the Brescia Division dug in on White-Knoll, before the Axis siege of Tobruk was finally declared over on December 10th.

During Operation Crusader, 24 year-old Corporal Reginaldo Rossi of the 39th Bologna Infantry Regiment, won posthumously the Medaglia d’Argento al Valore Militare, Italy’s second-highest military decoration. His Silver Medal for Valour citation reads:

As an anti-tank gunner, he was an example to all for his discipline and the care and maintenance he took of the units weapons. In the bloody and arduous combat that took place against numerous armoured vehicles, he showed complete and total disregard to the danger present and with absolute calmness, he stuck to his gun that he refused to abandon, even when he found himself surrounded by the enemy.[9]

An Australian historian, when writing about the Italian role during Operation Crusader, concluded that:

The Axis units fought well, including the Italian Divisioni 'Ariete' and 'Bologna' - a 'semi-motorized' formation.[10]

El Alamein

In July 1942, the Bologna Division recovering at El Gazala was ordered forward to reinforce the El Alamein front. Lacking transports, the Italian infantry duly marched some 400 miles, being congratulated in person by Benito Mussolini in their long trek to the new Axis frontlines. On the night of August 25th, the Bologna suffered a defeat when its forward posts were overrun in a night attack involving Maori troops from the New Zealand 28th Battalion, with the New Zealanders admitting losing 25 killed, wounded or captured in their surprise attack.

During the Battle of Alam el Halfa, the Bologna and supporting German 433rd Infantry Regiment struck back, overrunning several Indian, South African and New Zealand units defending Ruweisat Ridge, capturing Point 211 with 70 British soldiers falling into Italian hands.[11]

Cyril Falls, a noted British military historian, later confirmed the Italian success:

In the centre of the British front a good Italian division, the Bologna, delivered a strong attack on the Ruweisat Ridge, and a considerable counter-attack was required to expel it from the footing it gained.[12]

On October 23rd, General Georg Stumme, acting commander of the Afrika Korps, personally presented German decorations to a number of officers and NCOs of the Bologna Division and attached combat sappers.[13]

During the Second Battle of El Alamein, the Bologna Division and two supporting battalions from the German Ramcke Parachute Brigade held firm in the initial Allied advance, capturing 40 British soldiers attacking Ruweisat Ridge.[14]

On November 4th, the final Allied attacks were made. The British 1st, 7th and 10th Armoured Divisions (under Major-General Gatehouse) penetrated through the Axis lines while heading towards Fuka. These attacks saw the destruction of the Ariete and Littorio Armoured Divisions, and the Bologna and Trieste Infantry Division. [15]

Private Sid Martindale from the 1st Battalion, The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, recalled the carnage inflicted in the Bologna Division:

The more we advanced the more we realized that the Italians did not have much fight on them after putting up a strong resistance to our overwhelming advance and they started surrendering to our lead troops in droves. There was not much action to see but we came across lots of burnt out Italian tanks that had been destroyed by our tanks. I had never seen a battlefield before and the site of so many dead was sickening. [16]

The remnants of the Bologna and Trento Divisions tried to fight their way out of the British encirclement, marching in the desert without water, food or transport before surrendering exhausted and suffering from severe dehydration. It was reported that Colonel Alfredo Dall'Olio, acting commander of the Bologna, surrendered saying: "We have ceased firing not because we haven't the desire but because we have spent every round."[17]In a final act of defiance, no one in what remained of the Bologna Division raised their hands.

US War correspondent Harry Zinder from TIME Magazine noted that the Italians fought better than had been reported and had also covered the German retreat:

It was a terrific letdown by their German allies. They had fought a good fight. In the south, the famed Folgore parachute division fought to the last round of ammunition. Two armoured divisions and a motorised division, which had been interspersed among the German formations, thought they would be allowed to retire gracefully with Rommel's 21st, 15th and 90 Light. But even that was denied them. When it became obvious to Rommel that there would be little chance to hold anything between El Daba and the frontier, his Panzers dissolved, disintegrated and turned tail, leaving the Italians to fight a rear-guard action. [18]

References

  1. THE EARLY ATTEMPTS and SEIGE
  2. "La sera del 29 il 1° plotone della 3a, agli ordini del Sototenente Ernesto Betti, andò in azione con un gruppo comandato dal Tenente dei Bersaglieri Melis. Questo reparto era costituito di un plotone Arditi dell'8° Bersaglieri e di 2 carri M13. Guastatori aprirono un varco nel campo minato protetto da filo spinato, antistante la Ridotto R3, I'assaltarono e la conquistarono utilizzando lanciafiamme e cariche cubiche ... Un commento al Bollettino di Guerra, trasmesso alle 13:00 del 10 maggio, informava che reparti del Genio Guastatori avevano espugnato 5 fortini della cerchia di Tobruk." Genio Guastatori, Silvestri Angioni Lombardi , p. 47, Edizioni R.E.I., 2015
  3. "More disturbing was the large number of self-inflicted wound (SIW) cases. During a single week in May the division reported thirty SIW cases..." Armies of Empire: The 9th Australian and 50th British Divisions in Battle 1939–1945, Allan Converse, p. 86, Cambridge University Press, 2011
  4. "In May 1941 a 'war neurosis clinic' of 70 beds was established in an underground concrete shelter in the city. Of the 204 admissions treated by Lt Colonel E.L. Cooper and Captain A.J.M Sinclair 61% were reported as serving with fighting units... " Shell Shock to PTSD: Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War, Edgar Jones, Simon Wessely, p. 67, Psychology Press, 2005
  5. "The front was a series of strongpoints and not continuous trench lines. One was the Tugun position held by the Bologna infantry division, anything but an elite formation. The New Zealand Official History states, "The more elaborate attack on Tugun went in at 3 p.m. and gained perhaps half the position, together with 250 Italians and many light field guns; but the Italians in the western half could not be dislodged and the base of the break-out area remained on this account uncomfortably narrow." The Official History goes on to comment on the "...strong Italian opposition at Tugun as part of the reason for the decision to halt the sortie at this time." Rommel's North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942, Page 110, Jack Greene & Alessandro Massignani, Combined Books, 1994
  6. The Relief of Tobruk, W. E. Murphy, Pg 93, War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1961
  7. German Experiences in Desert Warfare During World War II, Generalmajor Major Alfred Toppe (et al), Combat Studies Institute/Combined Arms Research Library, 1952
  8. "When the New Zealanders attacked again after the onset of darkness, they were able to take Balhamed in the course of the night. Early in the morning of 26 November, a portion of the Tobruk garrison, supported by 50 tanks, broke out once again. A crisis arose when El Duda fell. It was only through a bitter and bravely conducted immediate counterattack by the Bersaglieri of the Trieste Division that the positions in the north could be held." Das Afrika Korps: Erwin Rommel and the Germans in Africa, 1941-43, By Franz Kurowski, pg. 117, Stackpole Books, 2010
  9. Hit by German and Italian anti-tank guns
  10. El Alamein: The Battle That Turned the Tide of the Second World War, Bryn Hammond, p. 27, Osprey Publishing, 2012
  11. ROMMEL OPENS DRIVE IN EGYPT
  12. AFTERMATH OF WAR: THE EIGHT ARMY FROM ALAMEIN TO THE SANGRO. The Illustrated London news, Volume 212, Issues 5672-5684, p. 262, The Illustrated London News & Sketch Ltd., 1948
  13. "General Stumme spent the morning presentinng German decorations to some Italians of the Bologna infantry division and an engineering battalion." Alamein, Stephen Bungay, p. ? Aurum Press, 2013
  14. "On Ruweisat Ridge the enemy achieved temporary success, the Ramcke Parachute Brigade and the Bologna Division claiming to have taken 40 prisoners, but by dawn the Indians had restored the situation." War in the Desert, Neil D. Orpen, Pg 398, Purnell, 1971
  15. "On the morning of 4 November, however, 'a strong armoured force' of the British 7th Armoured Division penetrated the XXIst Corps' position and the Trento and Bologna Divisons gave ground." Germany and the Second World War: Volume 6: The Global War, Horst Boog, Werner Rahn, Reinhard Stumpf, Bernd Wegner, OUP Oxford, 2001
  16. The Italian Army In North Africa, Walter S. Zapotoczny, Fonthill Media, 2018
  17. Rolling Thunder: A Century of Tank Warfare, Philip Kaplan, p. 139, Pen and Sword, 2013
  18. Battlefronts: A PINT OF WATER PER MAN, Time Magazine, 16 November 1942

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