Italian Army at Derna 1941

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Benghazi-p247t

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The Italian Supreme Command moved quickly to organize the “Special Armoured Brigade” (Brigata Corazzato Speciale, or BCS) consisting of fifty-five M13/40 tanks, artillery pieces, and supported by infantry formations specializing in the anti-tank role and sappers equipped with anti-tank mines. In hardly more than a month, the Italians dispatched this volunteer force under General Valentino Babini to North Africa. The M13s in the BCS were a vast improvement to the M11s. They had a better turret-mounted 47 mm tank gun which was more than able to pierce the armour of the British light and cruiser tanks. However, other than command vehicles, Italian tanks were not equipped with radios. Communicating for most Italian tankers required the use of signal flags.

Bambini’s tank force included the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Battalion from the 131st “Centauro” Armoured Division and should have amounted to at least one-hundred-and-twenty M13s. But eighty-two tanks had just arrived at Benghazi and required ten days of “acclimatization” prior to operation.

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Following the fall of Tobruk, HQ British Troops Egypt was removed from the existing unwieldy line of command so that O’Connor reported directly to Wavell at Middle East Command. O’Connor continued the advance towards Derna with the Australian 6th Division while sending 7th Armoured Division south of the Jebel Akhdar Mountains towards Mechili. On 24 January the 4th Armoured Brigade engaged armoured elements of BCS on the Derna – Mechili track. While the British managed to destroy nine Italian tanks in the battle, they themselves lost one cruiser and six light tanks. The 2/11th Battalion first made contact with infantry of the BCS at the Derna airfield on 25 January and progress was difficult against particularly determined resistance. In the Derna-Giovanni Berta area, held by the 60th “Sabratha” Infantry Division and infantry elements of the BCS, there were fierce exchanges with Italian counterattacks taking place around Wadi Derna. On 27 January, an Australian battalion beat off a strong daylight attack from a force of at least a thousand Italians. That same day, concealed soldiers of the BCS ambushed a column of armoured vehicles of the 6th Cavalry Regiment and took three of the survivors prisoner. The advance of other units further to the south of the Wadi Derna eventually threatened the BCS with encirclement and it disengaged on the night of 28 January. Derna, a town of 10,000 residents itself was captured on 26 January. Precise casualty figures for the fighting for Derna and Giovanni Berta have not been compiled but at least 15 Australians were killed fighting the BCS and “Sabratha” Division. The Italians lost a good part of the 60th “Sabratha” Infantry Division in the fighting.

Italian OOB at Derna January 1941

Italian defenders consisted of the 60th Bersaglieri Motorcycle Battalion and the 21st Light Tank Battalion, both part of the 60th Sabratha Division.

Raggruppamento Maletti

The Maletti Group (Raggruppamento Maletti) was an ad hoc “mechanized” unit formed by the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) in Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana, or ASI) during the initial stages of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The group was formed in June 1940 and was destroyed in December of the same year.

The Maletti Group was commanded by General Pietro Maletti and was part of the Libyan Corps, also known as the “Royal Corps of Libyan Colonial Troops” (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali della Libia). The group itself was composed of six battalions of Libyan infantry and of two battalions of armor. The 2,500 Libyans were “mechanized” in that they were transported in trucks. One armor battalion had thirty-five L3/33 and/or L3/35 tankettes. The other had thirty-five M11/39 medium tanks.[1]

During the very early stages of the North African Campaign, the Maletti Group took part offensively in the Italian invasion of Egypt and defensively during the British counterattack known as Operation Compass. In September 1940, the group acted as a flank guard and led the Italian advance from Libya into Egypt. By December, the group was in defensive positions at the Nibiewa Camp near Sidi Barrani. Many of the armored vehicles were “dug in” and acted as stationary pillboxes.

The Maletti group was considered the 3rd Libyan Division in the initial Italian attack to Egypt, together with the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle and the 2 Libyan Division Pescatori.

The Maletti Group was earmarked for early destruction by the British. During the initial attack, Matilda infantry tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment exploited a hole in the Italian defensive positions and attacked the Nibiewa camp from the rear. The Maletti Group was destroyed and General Pietro Maletti was killed in action while trying to stop the sudden attack:

The initial British assault would fall on Nibeiwa Camp, where the only available Italian armoured unit was based, and it achieved complete surprise. Raggruppamento Maletti, or Maletti Group, under General Maletti, was an ad hoc formation consisting of 2,500 Libyan soldiers and 2 Armoured Battalion, with thirty-five M11/39 medium tanks and thirty-five L3/35 light tanks. It was earmarked for early destruction in the assault, which commenced at 05:00hr with what appeared to be no more than another raid on the eastern side of the camp. At 07:00, however, forty-eight Matilda tanks suddenly appeared from the opposite side of the camp. They struck twenty-three unmanned M11/39 tanks of the Maletti Group, which had been deployed to guard the unmined entrance to the camp. The Italians were caught completely off guard and many did not even reach their tanks, including General Maletti, who was killed emerging from his dugout. They were slaughtered and their vehicles destroyed by the British in less than ten minutes. The Italian artillery fought on valiantly, firing on the Matildas and recording many hits, some at point-blank range – but none penetrated their 70 mm of armour. The remaining Italian tanks were captured intact, and the Libyan infantry, left practically defenceless, quickly surrendered. The British had captured Nibeiwa and destroyed the only front-line Italian armoured unit in less than five hours.

The Operation Compass attack on Maletti Group was supported by 25 pounder artillery and Blenheim bombers and was centred on the advance of Mk.II Matilda tanks. Within an hour of the onset of combat Italian General Pietro Maletti was dead and 4,000 Italian soldiers (most of them Libyan colonial troops) had surrendered. Within three days, the attacking forces then moved west along the Via della Vittoria, through the Halfaya Pass and captured Fort Capuzzo, Libya.

Brigata Corazzata Speciale

The Special Armored Brigade (Brigata Corazzata Speciale, or BCS, or Babini Group, or Raggruppamento Babini) was an ad hoc armored unit formed by the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito Italia) in Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana, or ASI) during the initial stages of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The group was formed in late 1940 and was destroyed in February 1941.

In late 1940, the Italian Supreme Command (Commando Supremo) moved quickly to organize the Brigata Corazzata Speciale (BCS). In hardly more than a month, the Italians dispatched this volunteer force to North Africa under the command of General Valentino Babini. The BCS included Italy’s most up-to-date medium tanks, the M13/40.

The M13s were a vast improvement over the M11/39s used as part of the Maletti Group (Raggruppamento Maletti). As opposed to the M11s, the M13s had a superior turret-mounted 47 mm tank gun. This gun was more than able to pierce the armor of the British light and cruiser tanks.

The BCS included M13 tanks supported by three Bersaglieri battalions, one motorcycle battalion, one artillery regiment, two anti-tank gun companies, one engineering company, and several logistics units. Unfortunately, other than command vehicles, the M13s of the BCS were not equipped with radios. Communicating for most Italian tankers required the use of signal flags.

At Derna and Mechili, the BCS included fifty-five M13/40 tanks of the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Battalion from the 131st “Centauro” Armored Division. This should have amounted to at least one-hundred-and-twenty M13s. But eighty-two tanks had just arrived at Benghazi and required ten days of “acclimazation” prior to operation.

At Benghazi and Beda Fomm, the BCS included almost one-hundred M13/40s.

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