During the last of these El Alamein battles Ariete consciously immolated the whole of its approximately 120 obsolete tanks in the attempt to counter the enemy offensive and cover the withdrawal of the Army, gaining once again the praise of both enemies and allies. On 4 November at about 15:30, the few surviving tanks, surrounded by an overwhelmingly superior enemy, broadcast their last message, quoting:
“Enemy tanks broke through South of ARIETE Division. ARIETE thus surrounded, located 5 km northeast of Bir-el-Abd”.
Then they were destroyed to the last tank.
At theater level and below, the army repeatedly demonstrated its structural and intellectual incapacity in the conduct of mobile warfare.
The only exceptions were the few Italian mobile units, such as the Ariete and Trieste, that operated with the Afrika Korps. These units also suffered from inadequate communications and vehicles. But by dint of practice alongside the Germans, their staffs acquired the experience and some of the habits of mind needed to cope with rapidly changing situations in a war without fixed fronts, under the leadership of the most volcanically unpredictable of Germany’s generals. The commander of the Ariete armored division at El Alamein, General Francesco Arena, found Rommel’s tendency to give operation orders over the radio rather than in writing a shade eccentric, but nevertheless sought to educate the Comando Supremo about “the advantages of a morale and operational nature” of the German practice of commanding from well forward.
North Africa Overview
Mussolini’s “Parallel War” had ended in humiliation. Graziani flew out of Tripoli on February 11, 1941, humiliated and disgraced yet still convinced that he had been betrayed by enemies in Rome. He was replaced by General Italo Gariboldi, previously the commander of the 5th Army in Tripolitania. The very next day a certain German general, Erwin Rommel, flew to Tripoli to reorganise the Axis defence. This German force was to be nominally under the Italian commander-in-chief in North Africa, Garibaldi, but it was to be employed operationally as a single formation under Rommel, who had right of appeal to the German Army Command (OKH) in Berlin should the name and reputation of German troops be placed in jeopardy by any “dubious” Italian orders.
Italian formations available were the weakened Savona and Sabratha infantry divisions and Brescia, Bologna and Pavia motorised divisions (the term motorised being largely theoretical). The Ariete armoured division was soon to arrive, with M13/40s, which Gariboldi places under Rommel’s command. Trieste, a motorised division, would follow, but not for several months.
Rommel wanted the vital port of Tobruk, and on March 24 he began his wild gamble for it. He attacked the British screening units at El Agheila, and drove them rapidly back, and then, realising their weakness – forces had been reduced as some had been sent to Greece – continued his advance across Libya contrary to orders. By April 2 he had occupied Agedabia, and brought Ariete and Brescia up in support and began a series of assaults on Tobruk on April 10. He detached some of his units to push on to the Egyptian frontier, where they fought a series of savage actions to secure the vital frontier positions of Fort Capuzzo, Sollum and Halfaya Pass, crossing the Egyptian border on April 14. At what time Italian forces returned to Egypt is obscure but Italian troops were soon established at Sollum and Halfaya Pass.
On January 21 1942, without consulting higher authority, Rommel launched a counter-offensive against the British 8th Army, including the Ariete, Trieste and Sabratha divisions of the Italian Mobile Corps. On January 23 General Cavallero, C in C, Italian High Command and Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, German C in C, South, flew to Rommel’s advance HQ. The Italians wanted Rommel to stop his offensive and withdraw to his start line, but Rommel rejected their demand. As a result the Italians refused to allow their troops to advance any further east, but, undeterred, Rommel pressed on with just the Afrika Korps.
With intensive fighting particularly around the Gazala in early June, in which the Italians played a significant part, the Axis forces invested Tobruk on June 20 and by June 23 German advanced elements reached the Egyptian border.
On June 25 the Axis forces captured Sidi Barrani, Sollum and the Halfaya Pass as the Eighth Army retreated to Mersa Matruh. Next day Rommel is promoted field marshal and launched his attacks against Mersa Matruh involving the Italian XXX and XXI Corps with the Ariete and Littoria divisions. The British began a withdrawal to the El Alamein defences. Shortly after the fall of Mersa Matruh on June 30, in which the Trento with the 7th Bersaglieri regiment played an important part, Mussolini flew to North Africa in preparation for his triumphal entry into Cairo on his white charger.
During the day confusion reigned in the desert between Fuqa and El Alamein, as intermingled columns of Axis and Allied troops dashed westwards. Meanwhile, signs of panic could be detected in the British rear. The Mediterranean Fleet left Alexandria to be dispersed around Haifa, Port Said and Beirut, and preparations were made to destroy the port facilities at Alexandria and block the harbour. In Cairo itself, in what became known as “Ash Wednesday”, there was a wholesale burning of confidential documents, and elements of the Middle East Headquarters were moved back into Palestine.
Despite being reduced to 55 German and 70 Italian tanks, on July 1 Rommel, confident of taking the line at El Alamein, ordered a head-on assault. In what is known as the first battle of El Alamein the fighting continued until July 27. In the process the Littoria and Trieste divisions were depleted by air attacks, and on July 3 a Bersaglieri battalion of the weakened Ariete was overrun, causing them to fall back behind two battalions of the Pavia and Brescia. Auchinleck targeted the Italian formations while avoiding having his tank forces drawn on to the German anti-tank guns. Also to suffer heavy losses were the Sabratha, Trieste and Brescia divisions.
In August Auchinleck was replaced as C-in-C by General Alexander, and General Montgomery took over the 8th Army. On August 30 Rommel attacked the strongly held Alam el Halfa ridge at the southern end of the El Alamein line, the Italian XXI & X Corps made feint attacks in the north, while XX Corps (Ariete, Littorio, Trieste, and the newly arrived Folgore Parachute Division, which gained a good reputation in its combat debut), attacked the 7th Armoured Division. All attacks failed. The Littorio division suffered heavy losses and by September 2 the fighting had ceased.
On October 23 Montgomery unleashed his forces in what is normally called the Battle of El Alamein: 104,000 Axis troops (the majority Italian), with 489 tanks (259 Italian) and 1,219 guns (521 Italian), were attacked and crumbled in a long battle of attrition by Montgomery’s 195,000 men with 1,029 tanks and 2,311 guns. Trento and Littorio divisions, between Kidney Ridge and Miteiriya Ridge, faced 30 Corps (9th Australian, 51st Highland, 2nd New Zealand divisions); Bologna, north of Ruweisat Ridge, faced 1st South African and 4th Indian divisions; Brescia, Folgore and Pavia faced 13 Corps at the south of the line; Ariete and Trieste formed part of the Axis mobile reserve. When Rommel was forced to order withdrawal most of the Italian infantry, without transport, were left to their fate. Pavia, Bologna, Brescia, Trento and the majority of Folgore divisions were destroyed; Ariete was wiped out, fighting with great courage while elements of Trieste and Littorio managed to escape.
Italian 132nd Armored Division Ariete
The Ariete Armoured Division is a part of the Italian military. A formation with this name has existed since 1939. The formation has a strong tradition of excellence.
The Ariete Armoured Division was formed in Milan in February 1939 and designated the 132nd. It was initially made up of the 8th Bersaglieri (motorised infantry) regiment, the 32nd tank regiment (equipped with L3/35 light tanks and a few M11/39 medium tanks), the 132nd artillery regiment, and additional divisional support units. The division was moved to the French border at the outbreak of World War II, but it was kept in reserve during the short campaign on that front.
Later, some battalions of the 32nd Tank Regiment (the I and II M11/39 Medium tank battalions and the III and V M13/40 Medium tank battalions) were moved to Libya to become part of the Special Armoured Brigade belonging to General Rodolfo Graziani’s 10th Army. From December 1940 to February 1941 the British Western Desert Force overran the 10th Army, occupying the whole of Cyrenaica and endangering the Italian presence in Northern Africa.
It was then decided to employ the whole Ariete Division on that front line, and on the 24 January 1941 the first echelons of the Division disembarked at Tripoli. From February 1941 to November 1942 the Ariete Division took part to Northern Africa campaign attached to the Italian Corpo d’Armata di Manovra (Mobile Corps), later to become XX Motorized Corps, beside Rommel’s Deutsche Afrika Korps.
In particular, reinforced in 1941 with the 132nd Tank Regiment (which later completely replaced the 32nd, disbanded on mid-1942) it took part in the first German – Italian counteroffensive to re-conquer the Cyrenaica, and the siege of Tobruk. With this Regiment, its battalions (initially the VII, VIII and IX, the former two later replaced by the X and XIII), now equipped with M13/40 and/or M14/41 medium tanks, and starting in early 1942 the V and VI battalions, equipped with M40 75/18mm semoventi (assault gun) from the 132nd Artillery Regiment, the Division continued its exceptional operational performance in the deserts of Libya and Egypt. The “Ariete” and supporting Italian infantry units were responsible for capturing 5,000 New Zealand and British troops during the Italo-German counter-attacks carried out during November and December 1941. Recalling the loss of the 21st New Zealand Infantry Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Howard Kippenberger who later rose to command the 10th New Zealand Brigade, has written that “About 5.30 p.m. damned Italian Motorized Division (Ariete) turned up. They passed with five tanks leading, twenty following, and a huge column of transport and guns, and rolled straight over our infantry on Point 175.” It later took part, during the 2nd counteroffensive, in the invasion of Egypt and the three battles of El Alamein.
During the last of these battles it consciously immolated the whole of its approximately 120 obsolete tanks in the attempt to counter the enemy offensive and cover the withdrawal of the Army, gaining once again the praise of both enemies and allies. On 4 November at about 15:30, the few surviving tanks, surrounded by an overwhelmingly superior enemy, broadcast their last message, quoting:
Enemy tanks broke through South of ARIETE Division. ARIETE thus surrounded, located 5 km northeast of Bir-el-Abd.
Then they were destroyed to the last tank.
On 21 November, 1942, following the unfavourable wartime events on Northern African Theatre, the Division was disbanded, and its name kept by a Task Force gathering up its remnants, which kept fighting throughout the retreat and subsequent battle of Tunisia, and was later forced to surrender along with the whole of Axis Army in Northern Africa.
On 1 April, 1943, as a tribute to a name that in such a short time had become a synonym of honour and bravery (the Division was the most quoted unit in the War Bulletin), it was ordered the re-constitution of 135th ARIETE II Armoured Cavalry Division, made up of cavalry regts. The division was located in North Eastern Italy, and organized on the following subordinate units:
* “Montebello lancers” Armoured Reconnaissance Group;
* “Vittorio Emanuele II’s Lancers” Armoured Cavalry Regiment;
* “Lucca light horse” Motorised Cavalry Regiment;
* 135th Artillery Regiment;
* 235th semoventi artillery Regiment;
* antitank battalion, equipped with 75/34mm semoventi;
* minor Divisional Support Units.
It comprised the following armoured fighting vehicles:
* 48 M15/42 tank
* 15 semoventi L40 da 47/32
* 96 semoventi M42 da 75/18
* 12 semoventi M43 da 75/34
* 24 semoventi M42 da 75/32
* 24 semoventi M43 da 105/25
for a total of 247 tank and semoventi plus 50 armoured car.
The Division was moved to Central Italy following the fall of Mussolini Government and took part to the defence of Rome from 8th to 10th September 1943, counterattacking German Panzergrenadier and Paratroops units, and performing a last stand at St. Paul’s Gate. The Division once again distinguished itself for its outstanding performance and discipline, at a time when everything seemed uncertain and difficult. Because of the will by Supreme Headquarters to avoid unnecessary sacrifices and losses the Division received the order of surrendering while still holding back the enemy, and was then disbanded.