The British Battleaxe Offensive – Hill 208

The next day passed in the uncertainty of waiting. More and more tanks were made serviceable. Kümmel tried repeatedly to free up a few hours for the individual platoons to go swimming. On one occasion they had just entered the water when General Rommel came driving up in his “Mammoth.” Kümmel was about to report, but Rommel gestured for him to stand easy.

“Are your men well on their way, Kümmel?” he asked.

“They are in top form, Herr General,” answered the Hauptmann.

“That’s good. Very well, carry on lads!”

The general drove away and his vehicle disappeared beyond the dunes in the direction of the regiment command post. In the next days Kümmel saw Rommel, or the “Desert Fox” as they called him, repeatedly. He was with the divisions south of Tobruk and he came to them in the area south of Bardia. He drove up to the Halfaya Pass and also inspected the positions between Sidi Azeiz and Capuzzo.

Once Hauptmann Kümmel drove reconnaissance and reached Hill 208, approximately eight kilometers west-southwest of Capuzzo. He saw Italian combat engineers fortifying the positions there. Then he came to the heavy flak battery which was set up in a reverse-slope position. An Oberleutnant came over to him.

“Ziemer!” he said.

“Kümmel,” replied the Hauptmann. They shook hands. “Good field of fire for the battery if the Tommies come up from the southeast.” He pointed from the top of the barely 600-meter-long and roughly 400-meter-wide hilltop to the southeast, where the coast stretched into the distance.

Hans Kümmel looked at the position. The four “eighty-eights” were so well camouflaged that they had virtually disappeared into the sand. Only their barrels projected beyond the sandbagged emplacements.

“It’s just that I don’t believe the enemy will attack right here,” declared Ziemer. “They will either attack along the road through the Halfaya Pass, or they will make a wide sweep through the desert around Sidi Omar. Anything else would be rubbish.”

“Yes, well one never knows that beforehand. Anyway, as a tank man this piece of desert would tempt me. For if you got pass Hafid Ridge here, you would be in Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz in no time at all.” The two officers were joined by Oberleutnant Paulewicz, commander of the 1st Oasis Company, which was in command on this small hilltop.

“If Tommy is stopped here,” he said, “then his entire offensive is down the drain.”

“Well then, Paulewicz, just make sure that they don’t get through.”

“If the panzers help us we will do it,” declared the Oberleutnant confidently.

Through his binoculars Kümmel observed the dust clouds in the desert.

“Something going on there, Bock,” he said to his adjutant, who had accompanied Kümmel and meanwhile had driven the car forward to the southeast face of Hafid Ridge.

“Yes, it looks like a whole mahalla!” nodded the Oberleutnant. “What are they doing? Have they received replacements for the tanks they lost?”

“We haven’t heard anything about a convoy. But it is hard to say. Perhaps they have received a lot of new tanks without our knowledge.”

What Hauptmann Kümmel and his superiors did not know yet was that a British convoy had got through to Africa. Following the defeat of General Wavell in Cyrenaica, British prime minister Winston Churchill had done everything he could to restore the fighting power of the 8th Army. He knew that the 15th Panzer Divisions 8th Panzer Regiment had been transported to Africa, raising the Africa Corps’s strength in the theater to two complete panzer divisions.

In the famous conference of 21 April 1941 Churchill forced the Admiralty to send the next convoy through the Strait of Gibraltar instead of around the Cape of Good Hope. This would provide a faster resupply than the Germans would be able to achieve. The convoy was dubbed “Tiger.”

“Operation Tiger” was supposed to deliver 295 tanks and 50 fighter aircraft to Africa. The Admiralty required five large cargo vessels to transport these quantities of equipment. The naval forces under Admiral Somerville were to guard the vital convoy. If it got through, the British 8th Army would have enough tanks to carry out its summer campaign, codenamed “Battleaxe.”

The “Battleaxe” plan called for the armored forces of the 8th Army to attack in three groups. The following units were available for the operation:

The 4th Indian Division with one brigade of its own and the 22nd Guards Brigade. As well the 7th Armoured Division with a brigade of Matilda tanks and one of Cruiser tanks.

Attacking on the right flank would be a brigade of the 4th Indian Division with its own Matilda infantry tanks. It was to capture Halfaya Pass and clear the entire strip of coastline.

In the central sector was the 22nd Guards Brigade with the rest of the Matildas, the 4th Armoured Brigade. Its mission was to take Capuzzo and Solium.

The 7th Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance on the left flank straight towards Hill 208 (Hafid Ridge) to take possession of this commanding high ground, and then advance toward Sidi Azeiz, linking up with the fortress garrison and closing the ring around the trapped German units.

According to General Wavell, who had assumed command in Egypt: “In the second phase of the battle we will move up the freed-up Matilda tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade as support for the 7th Armoured Brigade, for it is to be expected that the Germans will give battle with their two panzer divisions. If we succeed in relieving Tobruk and breaking the German siege, then we will be able to advance in the direction of Derna and Mechili in the third phase of the battle, unhinge the German positions and achieve ultimate victory in North Africa.’

Such were the British hopes for “Operation Battleaxe.” Air Vice Marshal Tedder had amassed 105 bombers and 98 fighters to sup- port the ground offensive, but the decisive factor was the almost 300 tanks that had arrived on the “Tiger” convoy.

The importance of this convoy is reflected in a telegram from Winston Churchill to General Wavell, in which he said: “Should ‘Tiger’ reach you, the moment has come to dare and to act. I have ordered the Hurricanes on Malta placed under your command as soon as ‘Tiger’ successfully reaches its berths. These Huns are far less dangerous when they have lost the initiative. All of our best wishes go with you.”

Crusader 7th Armoured Brigade

“Operation Tiger” succeeded, even though one of the ships (the Empire Song) hit a mine and went down with its cargo of 57 tanks and 10 aircraft. Approximately 240 tanks reached the front. This number included 135 Matilda IIs and 82 new Crusader I tanks. Already on 28 May General Wavell wired London that the tanks had been assembled and their guns aligned and that with them he would be in a position to drive back the Africa Korps, relieve Tobruk and achieve total victory.

On the afternoon of this first day of the battle the British tanks attacked the Hafid Ridge for the third time. Hill 208 simply had to fall, if it was not to remain a thorn in the side of the British.

“Let them come to within 800 meters!” ordered Oberleutnant Ziemer.

Gefreiter Huebner, gunner in the crew of gun “Anton” of 3rd Battery, I Battalion, 33rd Flak Regiment, aimed at the first tank to appear from out of the dust. He made a slight correction. It was almost a repeat of the situation they had encountered twice that morning when the mass of British tanks had headed for Hill 208. Then he pressed the firing button.

With a sharp crack the shell left the long barrel and scarcely a second later the 88-mm round smashed through the armor of a Crusader I. Flames, smoke, fleeing figures, all jumbled together in a haze of smoke.

The sun’s heat caused the sand dust to glimmer. An armor-piercing shell struck the wall of sandbags around “Anton” The men were showered with dirt. The ammunition carriers gasped for breath. All four guns were firing now. A Crusader I approached at high speed. It dodged to the side. Gun commander Unteroffizier Heintze had just ordered Huebner to target this tank. The British tank halted in preparation for firing. But the Gefreiter already had it in his sights.

The enemy tank was hit square in the front and was left immobile and smoking. From that point on other Crusader I tanks concentrated their fire on the German gun positions. The defenders had counted 85 tanks. But then German tanks arrived and joined the battle. They were tanks of the 5th Panzer Regiment under the command of Oberst Olbricht. The enemy tanks turned and fled. Hill 208 was saved.

The first day of “Operation Battleaxe” was over. The enemy had achieved a success, as the British 7th Armoured Division had advanced past Capuzzo and Musaid and had almost reached the assembly areas of the 15th Panzer Division. The British were thus just short of Bardia. Advancing past the southwest decline of the Halfaya Plateau, the enemy tanks reached Upper Solium and overran the light German forces stationed there. But the big objective, a breakthrough with all forces, had not been achieved.

At least 28 of the new British tanks brought in by the “Tiger” convoy, lay shattered in front of Hill 208. The burnt-out hulks of another eleven lay in front of the Halfaya Pass and on the pass road, while ten British tanks had met their end north of Capuzzo.

OPERATION BATTLEAXE (14th – 17th June 1941)

On 12th May 1941 a convoy codenamed “Tiger” arrived in Alexandria, bringing 135 Matildas, 82 of the new Crusader tanks (armed with 2-pdr guns) and 21 light tanks. Alas when SS Empire Song sunk after hitting a mine another 57 tanks had gone down with her. This was a total of 238 new tanks for the desert war. Wavell informed his staff and the High Command that due to difficulties in rebuilding 7th Armoured Division meant that the earliest date for moving forward from Mersa Matruh would be 7th June 1941. This all the Crusaders and the Light tanks were destined for 7th Armoured Brigade with the Crusaders being used to equip 6th RTR, while 2nd RTR was equipped with A9’s, A10’s and some A13’s. The 4th Armoured Brigade (4th and 7th RTR) was given the Matildas, so they could support the 4th Indian Division, recently returned from its triumphs against the Italians in East Africa. The Support Group consisted of 1st KRRC and 2nd Rifle Brigade, who were the Division’s Motorised Infantry supporting the tanks, and 1st, 3rd, 4th and 106th RHA, as the Division’s Artillery. At this time 3 RHA only consisted of ‘D’ Battery as ‘J’ and ‘M’ Batteries were part of the Tobruk Garrison. Alas both the Armoured Brigades lacked a third regiment and the regiments in each were not at full strength either. Additionally, having been without tanks for so long many of the crews still needed training. However, with this new equipment General Wavell planned his next offensive, “Operation Battleaxe”. His aim was to destroy the Germans and a decisive victory on North Africa, if nothing else the action may relieve Tobruk.

The plan was to attack and retake the old border posts Sollum, Fort Capuzzo and the Halfaya Pass in the first attack, using the 4th Indian Division, with 4th Armoured Brigade in close support. Once the enemy line had been breached, 7th Armoured Division would then join 4th Armoured Brigade and break through to Tobruk. Once Tobruk had been relieved the garrison and 7th Armoured Division would push on to secure a line between Derna and Mechili. The German/Italian strength was estimated to be 13,000 men and 100 tanks near the wire and a further 25,000 men and 200 tanks around Tobruk. The German Afrika Korps had the advantage in anti-tank guns with a dozen 88mm used in an anti-tank role, which could knock out even the heavily armoured Matildas at nearly 2,000 yards. In total they had 143 anti-tank guns of which 54 were the long barrelled 50mm Pak 38, which had a better performance than the British 2-pdr at 1,000 yards. The British relied upon the field artillery with its 25-pdr guns to knock out the German and Italian anti-tank guns before they could do too much damage to the advancing tanks. Therefore, part of the plan was to defeat the frontier forces before reinforcements could arrive, from Tobruk 80 miles away.

The attack started on the night of 14th-15th June, with the British advancing in three columns, with the British having some 300 tanks to the Germans 200, of which only about 100 were Panzer III & IV’s armed with guns. However, Rommel had prepared well and had placed almost all his anti-tank guns, including the 88’s near the front line. As dawn broke the right-hand column approached Halfaya Pass, over the top of the escarpment, but things started to go seriously wrong. ‘C’ Squadron, 4th RTR, supporting 2nd Cameron Highlanders came up against 88mm’s entrenched in stone sangers, with only their muzzles visible. By 10:00 hrs ‘C’ Squadron was reduced to one Matilda and one Light tank, having been “torn apart by the 88mm’s and the Camerons were forced to withdraw by infantry counter attacks, suffering great casualties in the process. The other two squadrons of 4th RTR along with 7th RTR supported 22nd Guards Brigade in their assaults on Sollum and Fort Capuzzo. The heavily defended Point 206 was bypassed, but by midday the centre column, led by 7th RTR, had captured Fort Capuzzo, with the loss of 5 tanks. Later counter attacks increased 7th RTR’s tank losses by another nine. By the end of the 15th out of the 100 Matildas that had started the battle only 37 were operational, but by morning hard work by the fitters had increased this number by another 11. This engagement became known as the Battle of Halfaya Pass, which became known as “Hellfire Pass”, by the British.

Meanwhile, the main force of 7th Armoured Division was preparing to hook round the German southern flank, led by 7th Armoured Brigade, equipped with the new Crusaders. To keep the Crusaders a surprise, the column was led by A9 and A10 Cruiser tanks from 2nd RTR. The first objective was Hafid Ridge, which was in fact three ridges. So on 15th June 2nd RTR attacked supported by an RHA Battery, but had to eventually withdraw from a isolated position having encounter a deep defensive line of enemy guns. On 2nd RTR’s left flank 6th RTR now attacked Hafid Ridge with their 52 Crusader tanks, while infantry attacks were made on Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo. There was a report that the Germans were withdrawing so 6th RTR’s ‘B’ Squadron advanced over the first ridge, only to encountered a line of guns concealed behind dummy trucks, with only 2 tanks escaping the slaughter. The Germans counter attacked and this was met by ‘C’ Squadron 6th RTR which had orders to hold this force at all cost. The battle became long range duel, with the British 2-pdrs hopelessly outclassed by the German 50mm and 75mm guns and by nightfall only 15 tanks were left. By 20:20 this was back up to 20 serviceable tanks and by dawn on 16th June 6th RTR consisted of RHQ with 3 tanks, ‘A’ Squadron with 7 and ‘C’ Squadron with 11 tanks. 2nd RTR ended the day with just nineteen serviceable tanks.

The advance of 2nd and 6th RTR had only managed to secure the first of the Hafid ridges and German tanks and anti-tank guns were hurrying from Tobruk. The Crusader tanks of 6th RTR were engaged by Panzer III and IV’s, with 17 being knocked out or simply breaking down. By the end of the first day 7th Armoured’s tank strength was down to half, while most of the German forces were still intact and receiving the reinforcements from Tobruk.

On the second day of “Battleaxe” (16th June) the 7th Armoured Division advanced for another assault on Hafid Ridge, with the help of the Matilda tanks of 4th Armoured Brigade, having been recalled from supporting 4th Indian Division. The attack was to be supported by artillery, while the Support Group and 7th Armoured Brigade stood by to either reinforce the attack or fend of any attempt to outflank the 4th Armoured Brigade. Unfortunately, Rommel struck first and while the German 15th Panzer Division counter attacked at Fort Capuzzo, the German 5th Light Division made a hook around the British flank in a effort to reach Halfaya Pass and cut off 7th Armoured Division and 4th Indian Division from supply or escape back down the escarpment.

The German counter offensive forced the 4th Armoured Brigade to stay with 4th Indian Division and the attack on Hafid ridge was called off. The two German columns with some 80 tanks attacked in parallel and were met by a barrage of 25-pdr fire and anti-tank guns and the Matildas of 4th Armoured Brigade in hull-down positions. The British gunner and tank crews fought a very successful defensive battle and when the Germans withdraw they had lost about 50 tanks. While 4th Armoured Brigade was halting the advance at Capuzzo, the 7th Armoured Brigade heavily engaged by the German 5th Light Division. Initially the two RTR regiments had attacked and destroyed a large supply column, but the tanks of 5th Light Division (including MK IVs) had separated the two regiments, by some 6 miles. This meant that 2nd and 6th RTR being forced to fight separate engagements all day, with 6th RTR being attacked first and nightfall it only had nine Crusader tanks serviceable. The Germans then turned to attack 2nd RTR but nightfall curtailed their attack and both RTR regiments withdrew east of the wire to refuel. By nightfall 6th RTR only had nine Crusader tanks serviceable and the tank strength of 7th Armoured Brigade was reduced to just twenty-five tanks. By the end of the Operation only five of the original 52 Crusaders of 6th RTR had actually been present throughout all the battles it fought.

Rommel took the withdraw of the 2nd and 6th RTR as a sign that the British left flank was crumbling and on the night of 16th June, he concentrated both the German 15th Panzer and 5th Light Divisions and struck hard at the left flank on the 7th Armoured Division. The German attack started at 04:30 hrs with 75 tanks supported by artillery and smashed straight through the Division’s lines, with the Germans heading for the crux of the battle at Halfaya Pass. The 4th Indian Division had been pushed out of Sollum and was ordered to withdraw along the coastal plain. At Fort Capuzzo 22nd Guard Brigade were nearly trapped by the advance and General Creagh ordered the surviving tanks of both 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades to fight a defensive battle. Ably supported by the 25 pdrs of the Support Group, the British tanks fought a six hour battle, which gave time for the 22nd Guards Brigade and the 4th Indian Division to withdraw successfully. When he found out that his trap had been unsuccessful Rommel was furious. Supported by RAF bombers XIII Corps was in retreat and 17th June 7th Armoured Division was back in Sofafi, where it had started from three days before.

Morale was not good, with nearly 1,000 casualties (122 killed, 588 wounded and 259 missing), and with 91 tanks (including 58 Matildas and 29 Cruisers) being lost, nearly 81% of the British tanks were out of action within three days of the offensive starting. The Germans had lost just twelve tanks, by comparison. The Royal Tank Regiment’s history described the offensive bitterly as “Battleaxe became a byword for blundering.”

The battle had shown that the British tanks, even the heavily armoured Matilda, were no match for the dreaded 88mm. With the Germans now receiving large numbers of a long barreled 50mm anti-tank gun (PAK 38) which was nearly as effective, British tank tactics needed reviewing, as the German anti-tank gun ruled the desert battlefield. Winston Churchill was disappointed with the failure of “Battleaxe” and replaced General Wavell (sending him to India) with General Sir Claude Auchinleck. It was to be five months before the British attacked again.

THE ACTION AT POINT 208

When the attack alarm was given, two patrols from Point 208 were sent 2 miles to the south because of mist which blanketed the area. Fire was held for some time after tanks were first observed, because they were in the barrage area of Point 206. The 37-mm antitank guns opened fire first to drive off armored cars which were within 165 yards. Meanwhile the barrage from Point 206 had ceased, but Paulewicz gave orders to hold all antitank fire until vehicles approached to within close range in order not to give away antitank positions prematurely. This policy proved effective, for subsequent British artillery fire on Point 208 was inaccurate.

At 1015 on June 15, the British made a pincer attack on Point 208 with 45 tanks. The attacking force was soon reinforced to 70 tanks. Fire by all weapons was opened at close range. The left or easterly sector of the area was overrun, one 37-mm and one 20-mm antitank gun were knocked out, and one of the 88-mm guns was silenced. The commander of Point 208 immediately ordered the three 88-mm guns on the other flank to concentrate on the eastern sector, and this saved the situation for the Germans by enabling the silenced 88-mm to reopen fire. By 1130 hours 11 British tanks had been smashed and the rest driven away, and in the afternoon a new 14-tank attack was thrown back with 8 tanks knocked out. After that, Point 208 was secure and was used as a base for reforming the 8th Tank Regiment and the mobile infantry reserve.

The 1st Battalion of the 33d Antiaircraft Regiment had knocked out 19 tanks with its 88-mm guns. The description of the battle given in the battalion report differs slightly from that of Paulewicz. The 88-mm guns opened up at 1,760 yards and drove back the first tank attack without inflicting any casualties. In the pincer attack, the gun on the left flank knocked out two cruiser tanks before it was overrun. The three other 88-mm guns on the right opened fire upon the other arm of the pincers at 1,550 yards without getting hits, but later knocked out seven cruiser tanks at close range. In the third attack the 88-mm guns opened at 880 yards, knocking out eight cruiser and later two infantry tanks.

BETASOM

The Barbarigo, seen here in the Garonne estuary returning to Bordeaux after an Atlantic patrol, was the most successful submarine of the Marcello class, sinking seven ships totalling 39,300 grt. With LtCdr. Enzo Grossi in command, the Barbarigo attacked two groups of enemy warships, one off Brazil in May and one off Freetown in October 1942 respectively. Both attacks took place at night, and in each case one US battleship was reported as sunk, thus giving a big boost to Italian wartime propaganda. Actually, the ships attacked by the Barbarigo were much smaller and none was sunk. The two events won LtCdr. Grossi important decorations and awards, but he was stripped of them after the war, sparking numerous controversies which lasted for many years after the end of the Second World War. The Barbarigo was sunk by enemy aircraft in the Bay of Biscay, probably between 17 and 19 June 1943.

Italian submarine of the BETASOM base in the mercantile harbour dry dock, Bordeaux, 1940

Bordeaux Sommergibile — Italian Navy submarine base, set up in August 1940.

BETASOM is an Italian language acronym meaning B Sommergibile or B submarines and it refers to the submarine base established at Bordeaux by the Regia Marina during World War II. From this base, Italian submarines participated in the Battle of the Atlantic, the anti-shipping campaign against Britain.

Axis naval co-operation started after signing the Pact of Steel in June 1939 with meetings in Friedrichshafen and an agreement to exchange technical information. After the Italian entry into the war and the Fall of France, the Italian Navy established a base at Bordeaux, which was within the German occupation zone. The Italians were allocated a sector of the Atlantic south of Lisbon to patrol. The base was opened in August 1940 and the captured French passenger ship De Grasse was used a depot ship. Admiral Perona commanded the base, under control of the German u-boat commander, Doenitz. About 1600 men were based there.

The base could house up to 30 submarines and it had dry docks and two basins connected by locks. Shore barracks accommodated a security guard of 250 men of the San Marco Battalion.

A second base was established at La Pallice to allow submerged training, which was not possible at Bordeaux.

Operational detail

Three Italian submarines patrolled off the Canary Islands and Madeira from June 1940, followed by three more off the Azores. When these patrols were completed the six boats returned to their new base at Bordeaux. Their initial patrol area was the North western Approaches and at the start they out-numbered their German allies’ submarines. Doenitz was pragmatic about the Italians, seeing them as inexperienced but useful for reconnaissance and likely to gain expertise.

He was disappointed. The Italian submarines sighted convoys but lost contact and failed to make effective reports. Even when assigned to weather reporting – critical for the war effort on both sides – they failed to do this competently. Fearing that German operations would be prejudiced, Doenitz reassigned the Italians to the southern area where they could act independently. In this way, about thirty Italian boats achieved some success, without much impact on the critical areas of the campaign.

German assessments were scathing. Doenitz described the Italians as “inadequately disciplined” and “unable to remain calm in the face of the enemy”. When the British tanker British Fame was attacked by the Malaspina, “the officer of the watch and lookouts were on the bridge and the captain was dozing in a deckchair below”. It took five torpedoes to sink the tanker and, at one point, the tanker’s gunfire forced the Malaspina to submerge to safety. The Italians towed the lifeboats to safety, an act worthy of praise, but one against Doenitz’s orders and leaving the submarine open to attack for 24 hours.

Seven Betasom submarines were adapted to carry critical war materiel from the Far East (Bagnolin, Barbarigo, Cappellini, Finzi, Finzi, Giuliani, Tazzoli, Giuliani and Torelli). Two were sunk, two were captured in the Far East by the Germans after the Italian surrender and used by them and a fifth was captured in Bordeaux by the Germans, but not used.

Altogether, thirty-two Italian boats operated in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943, of which sixteen were lost as shown in the following list:

1940: Tarantini, Faà di Bruno and Nani.

1941: Marcello, Glauco, Bianchi, Baracca, Malaspina, Ferraris, Marconi.

1942: Calvi and Morosini.

1943: Archimede, Tazzoli, Da Vinci and Barbarigo.

Of the sixteen remaining boats, on 8 September 1943 the Cagni was in the southern Indian Ocean, and made for the Allied port of Durban, South Africa; prior to that, other submarines had returned to the Mediterranean and only seven boats were in Bordeaux as of mid-1943: Cappellini, Tazzoli, Giuliani, Barbarigo, Finzi, Bagnolini and Torelli. All were scheduled to be converted into transport submarines to ferry strategic materials to and from the Far East and, in fact, three one-way transport missions were carried out successfully. Tazzoli and Barbarigo were sunk on their first missions, while Cappellini, Giuliani and Torelli managed to reach Singapore between July and August 1943; after the Armistice they were seized by the Japanese, and later handed over to the Kriegsmarine. The Giuliani was lost in 1944, while the Cappellini and Torelli came under Japanese control after May 1945 and were scrapped after the war. The two last transport boats – Bagnolini and Finzi – were being overhauled at Bordeaux when the Armistice was proclaimed, and were thus seized by the Germans. Altogether, the thirty-two submarines of the Regia Marina operating in the Atlantic between 1940 and 1943 sank 101 Allied merchant ships totalling 568,573 grt; an additional four freighters (35,765 grt) were damaged. The most successful submarine was the Da Vinci, with sixteen ships totalling over 120,000 grt, and other boats sank from one to seven ships each; only four submarines (Faà di Bruno, Glauco, Marcello and Velella) sank no ships at all.

End

The base was bombed by the British on several occasions

After the Italian Armistice in September 1943 the base was seized by the Germans. Some of the Italian personnel joined the Germans independently of the Italian Social Republic.

List of submarines operating from Betasom

All Italian submarines based in the Mediterranean had to transit the Straits of Gibraltar to reach the Atlantic. Twenty eight did this sucessfully, without incident. Another four boats based in Italian East Africa reached the base after the fall of the Colony in 1941.

Transferred from the Mediterranean in 1940

Malaspina

Tazzoli

Calvi

Finzi

Bagnoli

Giuliani (this boat was transferred for a time to Gdynia to train Italian submariners in German Navy techniques)

Tarantini

Marconi

Da Vinci

Torelli

Baracca

Marcello

Dandolo

Mocenigo

Veniero

Barbarigo

Nani

Morosini

Emo

Faà di Bruno

Cappellini

Bianchi

Brin

Glauco

Otaria

Argo

Velella

The Cagni was transferred in 1942

Transferred from the Red Sea Flotilla

Archimede

Perla

Guglielmotti

Ferraris

In 1941 it was decided to return some of the boats to the Mediterranean. The Perla, Guglielmotti, Brin, Argo, Velella, Dandolo, Emo, Otaria, Mocenigo, and Veniero Glauco made the passage but Glauco was sunk by the Royal Navy.

Transport Submarines

Hitler asked Admiral Doenitz to find a cheaper solution to the Far East transport problem. Unwilling to remove from the operation theatre some good fighting vessels, Admiral Doenitz turned to Italy and proposed an agreement to Mussolini himself in order to exchange a number of submarines. Seven Italian ocean-going U-boats whose base was at Betasom ( Bordeaux ) were, according to Doenitz, too large and unfit for modern fighting techniques but they could still be converted into cargo ships. Mussolini accepted the proposal and within few months seven Italian vessels were sent to the yards for a total refitting.

In the second half of May 1943, as soon as the hulls had been thoroughly refitted, the first Italian cargo submarine sailed from Bordeaux soon followed by some more, all awaited by a tragic doom. Two of them, in fact, ( the Tazzoli and the Barbarigo ) disappeared in the sea, soon after leaving, probably sunk by allied aero naval forces, while the Giuliani and the Torelli, caught by the armistice of September 8th, when they were still in Malayan port of call, were seized by German naval forces operating in that base.

The apparent misfortune of the Italian submarines gave, however, a good opportunity to the Japanese who could recover from the captured ships 355 tons of strategic materials shipped from Germany, that is 55% of the total cargo. On the contrary the 377 tons of rubber and the 184 tons of pewter which had already been stowed in the holds of the three Italian ships never got to Germany because the Germans didn’t feel like using such worn out means of transport.

The Battle of Ravenna

Battle was joined on 11 April, Easter Sunday – from that very day, it was seen as an epic encounter. The Spanish and papal army took up a position south of Ravenna on the right bank of the river Ronco; the high embankments of the river were broad enough for large numbers of horse or foot to pass along them easily. Starting at right angles to the river, they dug a long, curving trench, leaving a gap at the river end. Their artillery was positioned at that end of the trench. The other units were drawn up in file, not to defend the line of the trench; the men-at-arms were nearest the river, the infantry in the centre and the light horse on the right wing. Pedro Navarro, who commanded the infantry, had placed in front of them about 50 light carts with projecting blades, protected by arquebuses. The French crossed the river near the city by a bridge de Foix had had built; d’Alegre was left with the rearguard to protect this. They took up position along the trench, the men-at-arms nearest the riverbank, with artillery placed before them, separate units of German, French and Italian infantry side by side, and to the left the light horse and archers.

The Spanish and papal troops were outnumbered and they knew it: they had about 20,000 men, while the French had 30,000 or more. 102 Cardona had put 1,500 men under Marcantonio Colonna into Ravenna, and much of the papal army was not there, because the Duke of Urbino refused to be under the orders of the viceroy. Alfonso d’Este with 100 men-at-arms and 200 light horse was with the French. More significantly, he had brought his renowned artillery, giving the French perhaps twice as many artillery pieces as the League. Besides the guns positioned opposite the Spanish artillery, a couple of pieces were placed on the other side of the river, and d’Este with his artillery at the far end of the French line.

The battle began with an artillery exchange, unprecedented in its length – over two hours – and its ferocity. The Spanish guns were aimed at the infantry, causing significant casualties; the League’s infantry were instructed by Navarro to move to a place where they could lie flat and evade the French and Ferrarese artillery. But there was no escape for their cavalry, who were caught in the crossfire. Eventually, the Spanish heavy cavalry were driven to leave their defensive position and attack the French men-at-arms. As they were trying to silence the Ferrarese guns, the Spanish light horse under the marchese di Pescara were attacked by the French light horse.

In the engagement between the French and Spanish men-at-arms, the Spanish were less disciplined and coordinated. D’Alegre and his rearguard joined the fight and turned the scales against the Spanish. Their rearguard under Alonso Carvajal broke and fled the field; Cardona left with them. Meanwhile the French infantry crossed the trench to attack the League’s infantry, taking heavy casualties from the arquebuses as they tried to break through the barrier of the carts. The Gascons were put to flight along the riverbank. As the Spanish infantry units and the landsknechts of the French army were locked in fierce combat, the French cavalry, having overcome the Spanish, were able to come to the aid of their foot. Fabrizio Colonna rallied what men-at-arms he could to defend the League infantry, but could not prevent their defeat. Although 3,000 Spanish infantry were able to retire in good order along the river bank, the rest were killed, captured or dispersed.

By mid-afternoon the hard-fought battle was over. Contemporaries, appalled at the scale of the slaughter, considered it to be the bloodiest fought on Italian soil for centuries. It was estimated that upwards of 10,000 men were killed; some put the total as high as 20,000. There were disagreements about which army had suffered the greater mortality. It was probably the League, whose losses may have been three times those of the French. In one significant respect, the French losses were greater – among the commanders. While the Spanish lost some experienced and valued captains, the more prominent were captured rather than killed, including Pedro Navarro, Fabrizio Colonna and Ferrante Francesco d’Avalos, marchese di Pescara; the papal legate, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, was also taken prisoner after the battle. French losses among their commanders and nobles were heavy. Among the fallen were Gaston de Foix, apparently killed by Spanish infantry, Yves d’Alegre and his son, Soffrey Alleman, seigneur de Mollart, the captain of the Gascon infantry, and Philip of Fribourg and Jacob Empser, captains of the landsknechts.

For the French, the death of de Foix cast the greatest shadow over their victory. If his bravery had bordered on the foolhardy, in his brief period as commander of the army he had shown himself an inspiring leader, always in the thick of the action. Cardona, by contrast, seems to have left leadership to his subordinate commanders; he was widely blamed for their defeat. `In truth, he knows nothing of warfare’, was the verdict of Vich, Ferdinand’s ambassador in Rome, `and everyone complains that he never asks for advice or comes to a decision.’ Others have judged the outcome of the battle the result of the devastating effect of Alfonso d’Este’s deploy- ment of his artillery: `the true cause of the French victory’, according to Pieri. The French themselves were more critical of his role, for his guns had caused many casualties among them too, as he continued to fire once the troops were engaged.

The killing continued the following day, as the city of Ravenna, after an offer to capitulate had been made, was sacked by unrestrained Gascons and landsknechts who entered by a breach made in the walls by the earlier bombardment. Within a few days, nearly all the Romagna had surrendered to the French, only the fortresses holding out a little longer. This conquest was not due to any concerted effort by the French, for the weary troops were occupied in looking after their wounded and their booty from Ravenna. La Palisse, as the senior captain, had assumed command. He quarrelled with the Duke of Ferrara, who left the camp with his surviving men, some of the wounded and his prisoners, including Colonna and Pescara. News arrived that the English and Spanish had invaded France, that Maximilian had made a truce with Venice, and that the Swiss were again threatening Milan. Nevertheless, to save money, 4,600 infantry were dismissed.

La Palisse left for the Milanese on 20 April with over half the remaining troops. Cardinal Sanseverino, in his capacity of legate of Bologna for the schismatic council, and his brother Galeazzo, with 300 lances and 6,000 infantry, stayed to complete the conquest of the Romagna in the name of the council. When Louis’s orders – issued when he was unaware of the real state of affairs in Italy – arrived, they were for the army to press on to Rome. The army commanders decided the threat to Lombardy was more urgent.

The Campaigns of Gaston de Foix

Gaston of Foix, Duke of Nemours (1489-1512), army commander of King Louis XII of France in the first italian war. (19th century depiction).

Born in Mazeres, Ariege, Gaston de Foix, duke of Nemours, was the son of Jean de Foix and Marie d’Orléans, sister of LOUIS XII, and the grandson of Eleonor of Aragon, queen of Navarre. He was made a duke and peer in 1505, then assumed the title of king of Navarre. He was 23 when he took command of the army in Italy and revealed his martial talents. In the course of a lightninglike campaign, after having liberated Bologna, he took Brescia, but was killed during the Battle of Ravenna.

GIUSEPPE RAVA

Ravenna: Guns were to play a decisive role in the battle of Ravenna (1512). Gaston de Foix was in command of another French army (with German Landsknechts rather than Swiss) in Lombardy fighting an alliance of Spain, The Pope, and Venice. His cannon had breached the walls of Ravenna when a Spanish-led army came to its relief. Having got his troops in line, Gaston halted them and brought up his artillery, which bombarded the entrenched Spanish camp for two hours. In turn the Spanish guns fired on the German and French infantry, killing 2000 of them in this same period of time. (Fabrizio Colonna, when a prisoner after the battle, said that he had seen one cannonball knock over 33 men-at-arms.) When the French managed to bring more cannon into play, the Spanish cavalry left their camp and charged, only to be defeated by the French cavalry. The first French attack on the Spanish infantry was by 2000 crossbowmen, who met such a withering fire from arquebuses and swivel-guns mounted on carts, that they “melted away”. An attack by the landsknechts made little progress until the Spanish were taken in the flank by the victorious French cavalry. The battlefield saw almost unprecedented totals of both French (4000), and Spanish (9000) dead.

The Holy League Louis XII had ordered his troops to withdraw from the Veneto because of the new league of Julius, Ferdinand and Venice, proclaimed in Rome in early October.  It was called the Holy League, because it was supposed to be for the benefit of the papacy. Ferdinand, who had suggested the League and was to provide most of its military strength, had emphasized it should not be explicitly against any power, but he intended it as a restraint on Louis. According to him, Louis aimed to conquer all Italy. Julius was happy to agree to it, and the Venetians were pleased to be leaving their diplomatic isolation. Venetian obligations under the League were comparatively light: to contribute what troops they could, and their galleys; the pope was to provide 600 men-at-arms, under a commander supplied by Ferdinand. The king was to send 1,200 men-at-arms, 1,000 light horse and 10,000 Spanish infantry; the pope and Venice were to pay 40,000 ducats a month towards the cost of the Spanish troops. Ferdinand was keen to include Henry VIII of England in the confederation (which Henry ratified), and he also made a separate treaty with him in which they agreed to attack France in Aquitaine.

Louis had hoped to avoid becoming involved again in war against the pope, by the threat of a Church council: but the prospects for that were unpromising. Few clergy, even from France, were willing to be associated with it. Maximilian’s support was vacillating, Ferdinand was vehemently opposed and none of the Italian states were in favour either. Reluctant hosts, the Florentines under pressure from Louis had allowed the council to be held at Pisa, but would not compel their own clergy to attend it. Even before the council was formally opened on 5 November, its failure was apparent. The council quickly decided to transfer to Milan, but was no better attended there.

The French had a new commander, the king’s nephew, Gaston de Foix. Aged only twenty-two when he was appointed Louis’s lieutenant in Italy and governor of Milan in October 1511, de Foix had already taken part in several Italian campaigns. In what would turn out to be a brief career as commander of the army, de Foix would prove himself a remarkable military leader. On the king’s orders, he concentrated the bulk of the troops in the duchy at Parma, preparing to confront the Holy League. The papal troops in the Romagna, however, were biding their time until the Spanish army arrived from Naples.

The first test for de Foix would be dealing with an incursion by the Swiss. They began to muster on the northern Milanese border at the end of November. As he had to leave troops in Parma, Bologna and on the eastern borders of the duchy, de Foix had with him only 500 lances, 200 gentlemen and 200 mounted archers of the king’s household, and 2,000 infantry. Louis sent orders to raise 6,000 more infantry, and instructed de Foix not to attack the Swiss until they were on the plain, and then to fight them and force them to retire. By the time he sent these orders the Swiss were already on the move. De Foix and his captains had decided to adopt the strategy of the previous year: to stay close to them, avoiding battle, trying to hinder them from finding supplies.

By early December around 10,000 Swiss had gathered, and more were arriving; they chose Jacob Stapfer as their commander. Advancing towards Milan, they kept strict discipline and paid for their supplies. By 14 December they were in sight of the city, and they sent an appeal to the people, saying they came as liberators, not conquerors, in hopes the Milanese would rise against the French.  But the Milanese had agreed to provide 6,000 militia to help defend the city, and reinforcements were arriving from other parts of the duchy. The Swiss were not strong enough to lay siege to a city the size of Milan, and there was no sign of League troops arriving to support them. Negotiations began: the French were prepared to offer money, but the Swiss also demanded the cession of Locarno and Lugano, and unimpeded transit through the duchy, whenever they wanted, for Swiss soldiers going to fight for the pope – terms wholly unacceptable to the French. Then, unexpectedly, the camp broke up. Disorganized bands of Swiss made their way home, devastating the country in their path.

Fortunately for the French, they had not had to deal simultaneously with an attack by the League. The Spanish troops, under the command of the viceroy of Naples, Ramon de Cardona, did not arrive in the Romagna until December. There was a desultory campaign in the Romagna before in late January the pope finally got his wish for a siege of Bologna. But by a rapid forced march over about thirty miles in bitter weather, de Foix brought reinforcements into Bologna on 5 February, taking unawares the Spanish and papal troops encamped to the south of the city. When Cardona learned of their arrival, he lifted the siege and withdrew.

No sooner had de Foix accomplished the relief of Bologna, than he was informed that Brescia had fallen to the Venetians. At the head of 10,000 men raised in the Bresciano, the prominent Brescian noble, Luigi Avogadro entered the city during the night of 2/3 February, followed by Venetian troops. Revolts against the French broke out in the Bresciano, and in the city of Bergamo and its territory; French garrisons in Brescia and Bergamo took refuge in the cities’ fortresses. As it was feared that other areas would also rebel, Giangiacomo Trivulzio toured Lodi, Crema and Cremona with 2,000 infantry to secure them.

De Foix’s response to the news was swift. He left Bologna on 8 February, and on 17 February reached Brescia, a journey shortened by three or four days by Francesco Gonzaga granting de Foix and his troops transit through his lands. On the way, they were joined by some landsknechts who had been in Verona. The Venetians in Brescia were surprised to see them, having no idea the French could have come from Bologna in that time. Most of the men from the Bresciano who had come with Avogadro had been sent home, and the Venetians had few soldiers there.

On the night of 18/19 February de Foix led about 500 dismounted men-at-arms and 6,000 infantry by a hidden path into the fortress of Brescia, leaving d’Alegre with 500 men-at-arms to guard the walls. An assault was launched on the city, spearheaded by the men-at-arms, who crouched down when the ranks of the arquebusiers behind them fired their volleys.  The desperate defence was aided by women throwing tiles, stones, and boiling water from the rooftops. Some stradiots fled the fighting through one of the city gates, only to run into d’Alegre’s men, who were able to enter the city and join in the slaughter. By evening, the defenders had been annihilated; several thousand corpses lay in the city’s streets.

A summons to surrender had been rejected by the Venetian authorities in Brescia, which meant the city was, by the laws of war, legitimately open to sack. De Foix gave his soldiers their reward, and for three days the people of Brescia suffered one of the most terrible sacks of the Italian Wars. The estimated value of the spoils was three to four million ducats, including the heavy ransoms imposed on individuals; 4,000 cartloads of goods were said to have been taken away. So enriched were many French soldiers by booty and ransoms from Brescia that they left for home. Some blamed the decline of French fortunes in Italy on this depletion of their army: `the capture of Brescia was the ruin of the French in Italy’.  The city of Brescia was also punished by heavy fines, the loss of its privileges and the exile of many citizens, as were Bergamo and other places that had rebelled, but they were spared a sack.

De Foix returned to Milan and then to Emilia. When Maximilian wanted to exploit the success of the French for his own ends and urged him to send troops against Padua and Treviso, de Foix replied that he could not do anything without orders from the king, that the first concern was the Spanish army, and that the Swiss might return. Louis’s response was much the same. He instructed de Foix to gather his army together, seek out the Spanish army and bring it to a decisive engagement. There was some sense of urgency behind this project for a resolution on this front, for Louis was mindful of the preparations being made for an English invasion of France.

Ferdinand, on the other hand, wanted Cardona to bide his time until preparations for attacks on the French in Lombardy by the Venetians and the Swiss, and in the south-west of France by the Spanish and English were complete. Such instructions suited Cardona, who was naturally cautious – too cautious, some of his captains felt. So as the French army approached, the Spanish and papal forces drew back. The French were having serious difficulty in finding victuals, and could not afford to wait. After some debate among the commanders, it was decided to try to force the issue by attacking Ravenna, too important a city to be abandoned to them. An assault on 9 April was unsuccessful, but it did bring Cardona to approach to defend the city. 

Panzerarmee Afrika’s Exit from El Alamein I

Plan for Operation SUPERCHARGE 1-2 November 1942

Rommel was well aware of what was happening to his forces. Above all, he needed to prevent a breakthrough. In his own words:

It was only by the desperate fire of all available artillery and anti-aircraft guns, regardless of the ammunition shortage, that a further British penetration was prevented.

It was now extremely difficult to obtain any clear picture of the situation, as all our communication lines had been shot to pieces and most of our wireless channels were being jammed by the enemy. Complete chaos existed at many points on the front.

British tactical intelligence via the ‘Y’ Service, on the other hand, ensured that XXX Corps was aware of Rommel’s counter-attack plans by 0935hrs. The attack would use those elements of 15. and 21. Panzer-Divisionen together with Kampfgruppe Pfeiffer to attack from the north and south of the incursion. Rommel continued:

Violent tank fighting followed. The British air force and artillery hammered away at our troops without let-up. Inside an hour at about midday seven formations, each of 18 bombers, unloaded their bombs on my troops. More and more of our 88mm guns, which were our only really effective weapons against the heavy British tanks, were going out of action.

This ignored the armour and firepower of the PzKpfw IV Ausf F2 and G ‘Specials’, but these were now too few in number to turn the tide. Nevertheless, the British armour could not make even cautious progress and, with the arrival of 8th Armoured Brigade, the attack salient became very congested, as Arthur Reddish observed:

The 2nd Armoured Brigade adopted the role of static defence and 8th Armoured that of the fire brigade, responding to threats to the salient as they emerged. We were first in action facing north-west, then were directed south. On one occasion, a column of enemy tanks came down the Rahman Track completely side-on to us. It was like shooting tin ducks at a shooting gallery.

However, despite this success, Reddish, like other Sherman crewmen, was learning of the tank’s shortcomings through the experience of combat:

The high-explosive shell we used against the 88mm guns had no tracer and it was necessary to observe the fall of shot to determine accuracy. With the desert shimmering in a heat haze, this was by no means easy. And the gunsight of the Sherman didn’t help. For such a good tank, the sights were disappointing.

A tremendous battle between the armour of both sides now raged throughout the rest of the day. Reddish’s descriptions capture the spirit of the day’s fighting:

The day was hot. High temperatures, aircraft active on both sides, shelling very heavy and sniper-fire also. Armour-piercing shot came from right, left and centre. A blazing Grant tank exploded as we passed by, its side flattening and the turret hurling some 50 metres into the air. The explosion was tremendous, even when wearing earphones. Each member of the crew had a set of earphones and a microphone. We could talk within the crew and the commander with other commanders. All could hear the talk on the regimental radio network, so knew the score…

We in the heavies kept the battle at long range when possible to exploit our [ad]vantage in that area. The Italian tanks were hopelessly outranged and the German Mk IIIs also. But the German Mk IV and Mk III Specials fought us on equal terms.

This wasting fight was something the already-depleted Panzer units could ill afford and approximately seventy tanks were destroyed or damaged. Equally important was the loss of experienced Panzer commanders such as Oberst Willi Teege and Hauptmann Otto Stiefelmayer – both Ritterkreuzträger (Knight’s Cross holders) of Panzer-Regiment 8. The situation was so serious that Divisione ‘Ariete’ – the last remaining intact armoured formation – was already being drawn piecemeal into the fighting.

In the north, the arrival of the British tanks, and especially 8th Armoured Brigade, had finally relieved the pressure on Leo Lyon and the hard-pressed Australian battalions in the ‘Saucer’. Lyon recounted:

I remember about midday attempts by the Germans to wheel up an 88mm gun to our front. We had excellent observation both to the right and the left as we faced. I could see the silhouette of this gun behind the road. I could see the tractor bring it up, the tractor disengage, and then the gun crew manhandling it up to where it could be brought in to fire. But as soon as it came into position to fire, the machine-gunners mounted their guns on them and destroyed the gun crew.

At almost the same time, to our left flank I could see our armour attack appearing and I could see a larger number of tanks – it would be about thirty or forty I would have thought – with their smoke dischargers – on the turret of each tank there’s a smoke discharger – and they were firing these as they went forward to try and cover the fire against them. This was a most spectacular scene and apparently they were making progress because the attack on our front seemed to disappear.

The exhausted Australians, finally given respite, still managed to launch aggressive fighting patrols later in attempts to prevent Panzergrenadier-Regiment 125 extricating itself from the coastal sector.

At 2015hrs that evening, Thoma told Rommel the Afrika Korps would have, at most, thirty-five tanks available for action the following day. Nevertheless, the British advance, which Thoma considered cautious and deliberate, had been contained.55 However, there was further bad news from the Panzerarmee’s Higher Artillery Commander (Arko), Generalmajor Fritz Krause, who reported that 450 tons of ammunition had been fired that day, but only 190 tons had arrived. Three hundred tons had been lost when the Brioni was sunk by allied bombers whilst unloading in Tobruk harbour that afternoon.

With this information, Rommel recognized that in order to avoid annihilation of his forces, it was essential to make a withdrawal to positions previously reconnoitred at Fuka. In informing the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) of this decision, Rommel spared nothing in painting a realistic and bleak picture. The ten days’ fighting had been ‘extremely hard’ and had left the Panzerarmee no longer able to prevent the next breakthrough attempt:

An orderly withdrawal of the six Italian and two German non-motorized divisions and brigades is impossible for lack of MT [Motorized Transport]. A large part of these formations will probably fall into the hands of the enemy who is fully motorized. Even the mobile troops are so closely involved in the battle that only elements will be able to disengage from the enemy. The stocks of ammunition which are still available are at the front but no more than nominal stocks are at our disposal in rear. The shortage of fuel will not allow of a withdrawal to any great distance. There is only one road available and the Army, as it passes along it, will almost certainly be attacked day and night by the enemy air force.

In these circumstances we must therefore expect the gradual destruction of the Army in spite of the heroic resistance and exceptionally high morale of the troops.

In a narrow sense, the initial Supercharge assault can be portrayed as a failure.58 But the critical outcome – Rommel’s acceptance of the Panzerarmee’s defeat – was accomplished by the evening of 2 November. Irrespective of what happened subsequently, 9th Armoured Brigade’s sacrifice had helped achieve a significant success. It remained for Eighth Army and its commander to turn this into a complete victory.

In London, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, anxiously awaiting each fragment of news of the battle, experienced a tremendous fillip from Ultra. In Brooke’s own words:

Whilst at lunch I was called up by DMI [Director of Military Intelligence] and informed of two recent intercepts of Rommel’s messages to GHQ and Hitler in which he practically stated that his army was faced with a desperate defeat from which he could extract only remnants!

This was a remarkable and early indication of the possibility of imminent victory.

Rommel now formally confirmed the move of Divisione ‘Ariete’ northwards to join with the Italian XX Corpo d’Armata. Together with the Afrika Korps, they would cover the withdrawal of the other two Italian corps which consisted essentially of infantry, as well as Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke and 164. leichte Afrika-Division. The infantry formations began pulling out that night.

That evening, 51st Division was tasked with broadening and strengthening the corridor now created. Successful attacks with strong artillery support were made against objectives on the south-west edge of the salient by 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 5th Royal Sussex. To X Corps’ commander, General Herbert Lumsden, at 2030hrs it seemed that the opportunity of smashing through the remnants of the anti-tank screen that night was too good to miss. Consequently, 7th Motor Brigade, consisting of 2nd and 7th Rifle Brigades and 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), was given orders to attack on a front of two miles, to make a passage for 1st, followed by 7th, Armoured Division. Corporal Donald Main of 7th Rifle Brigade remembered:

In the early evening we were told that [we] would attack at midnight to force a gap for our tanks. It was considered that the area of the Rahman Track was lightly held, although we never found out who was responsible for this view. As we had motored into the line we had heard shouts for stretcher bearers, presumably from the Sherwood Foresters and Green Howards, who were survivors of the previous attack. In view of the barrage, it would have been suicide to attempt to reach them. It was, therefore, decided that we would make a silent attack i.e. without a barrage from our guns, although the 2nd KRRC on our left and the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade on our right were to receive artillery support.

The attack commenced at 0115hrs on 3 November.61 In fact, whilst 2nd KRRC had strong artillery support, 2nd Rifle Brigade did not. In Main’s attack with 7th Rifle Brigade, all was quiet until the battalion was about fifty yards from the German positions. Suddenly, all hell was let loose when the Germans opened fire from the flanks with machine guns, together with flares and mortar bombs:

Above the noise of explosions I heard the Company Commander, Major Trappes-Lomax, shout ‘Up the Rifle Brigade! Charge!’ Major Trappes-Lomax disappeared through a hail of tracer bullets. I felt that he could not go in by himself and gave the order to charge. I went through the enfilade fire and felt my body as I could not understand how I had not been hit. I was shouting ‘Brino, where are you?’ It was like daylight with the flares and mortar explosions. Before I could reach Sgt Brine, Major Trappes-Lomax said ‘Go to your right’. Sgt Brine had run straight on and into a German machine-gun. He was hit all over and asked another member of the platoon to put his tin hat back on and to be put facing the enemy. His last message was ‘Give my love to my wife’

Upon reaching the rear of the German positions, Main and the remnants of his company had to deal with one of the guns that formed an important part of the Axis defence:

From where we lay I could see an 88mm gun and I told Sandy that I was going for this. It was at least 50 yards away. As I ran with my rifle and bayonet the tracer from a German machine-gun was going all around me. However, I considered that if I continued running I would not be hit and eventually reached the gun followed by several riflemen.

Both Rifle Brigade battalions destroyed German anti-tank and machine-gun posts and killed the occupants. However, several posts still survived and, in each battalion’s case, it was necessary to withdraw because they could not bring up sufficient numbers of anti-tank guns in time for defence in the morning against what was assumed would be the inevitable counter-attacks. The KRRC did, however, retain its gains. Main’s account continued:

We met Major Trappes-Lomax and found that only twenty-two of the Company were left. We also met up with the surviving KRRC and our 2nd Battalion. We now received the order to withdraw and I was asked which way we should fight our way out. I was in favour of another route, but it was decided that we should go back the same way as we had come, also we were under no circumstances to stop for any wounded. My rifle by this time had jammed with sand and I could not move the rifle bolt. We ran back and I would frequently look over my shoulder to watch the tracer fire which followed us from the German positions.

It was an ignominious end to 7th Motor Brigade’s efforts but at least these units escaped in time. A hastily planned and executed and poorly supported improvised operation had failed once again. Fortunately, the consequences were less serious in their effect than 4th Sussex’s attack on 27–28 October, although for a survivor like Donald Main, the experience was no less painful. On his return the roll-call revealed that his company had only fourteen men left and his platoon consisted of only three men – himself included. 65 Many of those killed were friends from Main’s pre-war Territorial days. Another such friend was Colour Sergeant Eric Kealsey, whose attempts to cheer up the survivors on the evening of 3 November when they were out of the line, led to an unfortunate misunderstanding, as Main recounted:

Later that afternoon we were relieved by a battalion of the Black Watch, and we were taken by our vehicles to an area behind the line, to obtain reinforcements and replace equipment lost during the battle. When we arrived at what appeared to us to be an unreal world, free of explosions, we went for our evening meal presided over by Colour Sergeant Kealsey. Kealsey was a great character from Territorial days and he was very fond of impersonating a queer. He and the cooks were very upset to find that D Company now consisted of only fourteen men, as they had cooked a meal for one hundred and twenty. Colour Sergeant Kealsey said to me in an effeminate voice ‘What can I get for you, ducks?’ I replied ‘Some stew please, Eric’. Unfortunately the person next to me was a reinforcement and when asked the same question replied ‘Stew, darling’. This caused a major explosion as Kealsey shouted ‘Colour Sergeant to you, you little worm!’

This was the postscript to a ‘trifling, inconsequent, nameless battle’67 within a battle. A failed attack and a heavy toll of casualties – soon lost in the bigger picture of general success for the British, Imperial and Dominion forces and decline of the German and Italians.

The mixed fortunes of the infantry operations meant that Lumsden revised Briggs’ orders; at 0530hrs. 2nd KRRC was to be supported by 2nd Armoured Brigade whilst 8th Armoured Brigade worked south-westwards. The poet Keith Douglas was a lieutenant with the Sherwood Rangers and wonderfully evoked the atmosphere of this (and perhaps many another) armoured move at dawn:

The moment I was wakeful I had to be busy. We were to move at five; before that, engines and sets had to be warmed up, orders to be given through the whole hierarchy from the Colonel to the tank crews. In the half-light the tanks seemed to crouch, still, but alive and like toads. I touched the cold metal shell of my tank, my fingers amazed for a moment at its hardness, and swung myself into the turret to get out my map case. Of course, it had fallen down on the small circular steel floor of the turret. In getting down after it, I contrived to hit my head on the base of the six-pounder and scratched open both my hands; inside the turret there is less room even than in an aircraft, and it requires experience to move about. By the time I came up, a general activity had begun to warm the appearance of the place, if not the air of it. The tanks were now half-hidden in clouds of blue smoke as their engines began one after another to grumble, and the stagnant oil burnt away. This scene with the silhouettes of men and turrets interrupted by swirls of smoke and the sky lightening behind them was to be made familiar to me by many repetitions. Out of each turret, like the voices of dwarfs, thin and cracked and bodyless, the voices of the operators and of the control set come; they speak to the usual accompaniment of ‘mush,’ morse, odd squeals, and peculiar jangling, like a barrel-organ, of an enemy jamming station.

The tank units were straight into action that morning. Arthur Reddish recalled:

At first light on November 3, the Sherwood Rangers tanks were on the left flank of an attack by the 1st Armoured Division on the remnants of the Panzerarmee’s anti-tank gun screen dug-in before and behind the Rahman Track. The day started propitiously for our crew. As the regiment assembled behind the infantry line prior to advancing, a young Highlander officer left his slit-trench and jumped onto the back of the tank. He’d spotted an enemy anti-tank gun, he said. It was in the scrub only 200 metres away and was right in front of our position. John quickly got him into the tank and into the gunner’s seat. His first shot missed but not the second. The third caused an explosion. Presumably, he’d hit the ammunition.

Major Anthony Wingfield was concerned by the ammunition shortages his unit was suffering, but was soon temporarily bolstered by the arrival of another new weapon in the Eighth Army’s armoury:

At first light our Recce Troop and the Crusaders of B Squadron moved out to make contact with [the] KRRC, and support them against any tank counter-attack. The situation had become grave because the replenishment of 75mm ammunition to the Shermans of A and C Squadrons had not arrived during the night. However 4 or 5 new Churchill tanks, as an experimental detached troop, now arrived between ourselves and The Bays. These heavy tanks had been sent out to the Middle East for battle trials; whether it was the sight of these new monsters which scared the German tanks I did not know, but they withdrew behind a screen of 88mm anti-tank guns. The latter then promptly halted the Churchill tanks whose crews were possibly concussed if their tanks were not actually ‘brewed up’.

There were too few Churchills – a heavy ‘infantry’ tank for close-support work designed to replace the Valentine – for losses to these tanks to be significant at this time. Nevertheless, this British-built tank ‘made a favourable impression on their crews, and also on the co-operating troops’. On a more personal level, it was Wingfield’s misfortune that day to be caught quite literally with his trousers down by the Germans:

It was while we were withdrawing a short way to find hull-down battle positions that Nature gave me her morning call. I dismounted but stayed close to my tank for protection. Just at ‘le moment critique’ an HE shell burst underneath my tank and a red flame shot between my bare legs. A momentary thought of my ancestor at ‘the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ passed through my mind. Motion – in every sense – was quick and I was back in my tank in a flash and before there was another one.

Panzerarmee Afrika’s Exit from El Alamein II

Eighth Army’s Final Attacks 3-4 Novermber 1942

Throughout the day, the British armour was held up by the continued resistance offered by the screen of anti-tank guns and by the remaining tanks covering the slow withdrawal of the Axis forces on foot or in vehicles. The work of the remaining elements of Panzerjäger-Abteilungen 605 and 33 and Flak-Division 19 was especially noted by the British. Nevertheless, the Axis withdrawal was observed by the Desert Air Force and the coastal road consequently came under almost-constant attack from the air.

The Panzerarmee and its commander suffered another significant blow to morale in the early afternoon with Hitler’s response to Rommel’s plans for withdrawal, which constituted a direct order to stand and fight and, if necessary, die. In Hitler’s view, this was a battle in which the commander with the strongest will to fight would ultimately win through. If that was indeed the case (which it was not, of course, given the attritional effects of the last ten days’ fighting), it was already too late. Alamein was lost in the mind of Rommel. A characteristically magniloquent message from Mussolini only served to compound the Panzerarmee’s confusion as Rommel ordered all units to defend their present positions till the last although permitting Thoma to withdraw the Afrika Korps ten miles east of El Daba. This, in effect, abandoned infantry without motor transport – almost exclusively Italians and Fallschirmjäger-Brigade Ramcke – to their fate.

Meanwhile, the continued resistance of the Panzerjäger units and the Luftwaffe 88mm gun teams, combined with Freyberg’s perception of the imminent collapse of the Panzerarmee as a whole, led him to suggest to Leese that a breakout through the salient’s south side should be attempted. This would avoid the screening anti-tank positions. An attack by 5/7th Gordon Highlanders of Wimberley’s division supported by 8th RTR was decided upon. The events of this attack were especially tragic and another indication of the problems beneath the veneer of Eighth Army’s ruthless efficiency. Wimberley described them as follows:

On the afternoon of 3rd November I was ordered to attack again, and selected the 5/7 Gordons as the freshest battalion available. With the help of George Elliot, we laid on a heavy barrage to take them forward on to the Rahman Track. Shortly before the attack was due to go in, I was amazed to be rung up by Oliver Leese to be told that our Armour was already on the objective, that the Gordons had been ordered by me to capture, and it was only a question of their moving forward. This was not my information at all, and I pleaded hard for the Tanks, if there were any there, to clear out and let my attack go in properly under a Barrage. I was told, No. It was only with difficulty that I could get leave to let, at least, a smoke barrage be fired to guide the Jocks. So, late in the afternoon they were launched in a divisional attack under Saunders with smoke only. As in the case of the ‘Kidney’ feature, we were again right and the Armour’s Intelligence was all wrong. This time it had even more tragic consequences on many lives.

Wimberley took no pleasure in being right where Leese and Briggs, whose 1st Armoured Division’s headquarters was the source of the erroneous information, were mistaken:

The position was, as we had reported, strongly held. Not a sign of our tanks was to be seen, but plenty of enemy ones. To move forward in daylight, under smoke only, was impossible. The Gordons made little progress, and lost a lot of men, and I felt it had been sheer waste of life and was sick at heart. Worst of all, thinking that it was an advance rather than an attack, the Gordons put a number of their Jocks on the top of the tanks to be carried on them forward to the objective. I saw those tanks, later, coming out of action, and they were covered with the dead bodies of my Highlanders. It was an unpleasant sight and bad for any troops’ morale.

The two units suffered ninety-four casualties, including sixteen officers; nine Valentines were destroyed and a further eleven damaged from about thirty-two starters.

Two further attacks were planned for 4 November. The first involved 5th Indian Brigade which, according to Major-General Francis ‘Gertie’ Tuker:

after struggling and buffeting its way through the choked corridor, was eased forward by over 350 guns, and punched a narrow hole four miles deep through a few pickets covering the retreat, out into the open desert.

The number of guns mentioned by the division’s commander was important. After the debacle over the 5/7th Gordons attack, Wimberley was insistent that 1/4th Essex and 4/6th Rajputana Rifles should have the support of a fully constituted and effective artillery programme of counter-battery fire, concentrations and creeping barrage. This was all organized in a short time by the combined efforts of the staffs of 51st and 4th Indian Divisions, 5th Indian Brigade and Brigadier Weir’s 2nd New Zealand Divisional artillery – a remarkable example of the maintenance of operational tempo. As a consequence, the two battalions encountered only sporadic opposition.

Before 1st Armoured Division’s tanks could break out into the open desert, however, a dawn attack by 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders went in. The attack of the Argylls – ‘almost the last reasonably fresh infantry available’ – was, as Wingfield described:

directed onto Tel el Aqqaqir, the top of the whole ridge to our front. They found the enemy gone. 2nd Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance immediately, with 10th Hussars leading (always their rightful place!), with The Bays on the right and 9th Lancers on the left. But it was not till 9.00 a.m. that we got under way.

As a consequence of this action, more armoured cars were also able to break out to the south and into the open desert.

The sight of the armour passing through 5th Indian Brigade moved one overawed Havildar, Nila Kanten, to hyperbole:

Our role was something less than a participant and more than a spectator… We were asked to break through at Ruweisat Ridge and allow all the armoured divisions to pass through and trap him. When we captured our objectives, then came the thunder of these armoured divisions passing through us. I remember that. I had never seen so many tanks going in one go. Two divisions, I think, passed through. If the head of the column of an armoured division was in Bangalore, the tail would be in Madras – so many vehicles there were and they were all racing. So many tanks, so many armoured vehicles, so many personnel carriers. Oh, the dust cloud! We created dust, we ate dust, we drank dust… Then the whole Eighth Army started moving.

However, after 4,000 yards, the tanks met the Panzerarmee’s rearguard of 90. leichte-Afrika-Division and the Afrika Korps under Thoma’s personal command. The Afrika Korps commander and Kampfstaffel were in the midst of the fighting throughout the morning before the battle group was destroyed and the courageous Thoma surrendered. Fittingly, as the armour was let loose to pursue its quarry, the officer who took the general prisoner was Master of Foxhounds with the Hursley Hunt. Wingfield recalled:

One of our tanks had ‘brewed up’ a German tank at considerable range and I could see a man waving a red cross flag near it. Grant Singer – the Recce Troop leader, went forward to investigate and found a highly decorated General coming towards him. Grant returned with this prize to the Colonel who decided that Grant should take him at once to Brigade HQ. On arrival there Grant was told to take him straight to Monty at Army HQ as quickly as possible, for it transpired that he was Rommel’s deputy who had been on a forward reconnaissance to convince Rommel of the British breakthrough when he had been captured.

At Army Headquarters, liaison officer Carol Mather described the meeting of Montgomery and Thoma:

Well, of course, I couldn’t judge him [Thoma] as a commander at all, although he was deputizing for Rommel at the time. What he had to face at Alamein was something quite new as far as the Germans were concerned, which was a set-piece attack. As a man he seemed rather a charming fellow actually. Very civilized and you couldn’t help thinking he was quite a decent one. The meeting was so short it was difficult to judge. Montgomery was tickled to death at the idea of having the commander of the opposing forces in his tent having dinner and questioning him and discussing the progress of the battle. This was a great feather in his cap really. It was just the kind of situation he enjoyed. And it was a very amusing meeting.

Whilst 1st Armoured Division was engaged in this action, Major-General John Harding’s 7th Armoured, led by Brigadier ‘Pip’ Roberts of 22nd Armoured Brigade, was out in the open desert from 0830hrs. But it too encountered strong resistance from the remaining Italian armour, XX Corps’ artillery and some 88mm guns. Despite Roberts’ urgings by radio to his units to ‘Brush them aside, we have bigger fish to fry!’, the opposition proved a tough nut to crack. A long-range artillery duel in which the excellent Italian guns, under centralized control, performed well, went on all day and there were frequent clashes between Roberts’ brigade and the inferior Italian armour of Divisione ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’. Soldato Antonio Tomba of ‘Ariete’ remembered:

Our poor M13s with their 47mm guns could never be effective against them – we could only hope to hit their tracks in order to immobilize them at least; our shells just bounced off when we hit their armour. In addition, while they numbered sixty, we had little over half of that. We did everything possible, giving our very best… We had no chance, but we proved a difficult opponent for the English: the secret lay in manoeuvring the tank properly. Our tactics were simple: always keep moving, never expose your flank to their guns, and don’t let them fire first. All the crew must act as a single unit: everyone must know what to do and when to do it, in complete harmony with each other. We managed to hold off the enemy that day, but they replaced their losses again while we could only count how many of us were left alive. We could never have resisted for another day… Everyone fought an unequal battle without complaint and without yielding, even when there was no water and no food. We were lucky when it started to rain as this slowed the English advance, and we, the last survivors of the Ariete Division, were able to escape their pursuit.

The Germans were grudgingly admiring of their allies’ bravery, which undoubtedly made possible the escape of many remaining German units. Doctor Alfons Selmayr saw assault guns of Divisione ‘Ariete’ conduct an attack. ‘Despite their poor armour, they advanced boldly. Of course, they were blown to bits in a miserable fashion.’

Major Hans von Luck was more generous:

It was heart-rending to have to witness how the Ariete Division (our most loyal allies) and the remains of the Trieste and Littorio Divisions, fought with death-defying courage; how their tanks (the ‘sardine tins’ so often mocked by us) were shot up and left burning on the battlefield. Although I was engaged in actions myself, I kept in contact with the XX Italian Corps until it was almost surrounded. At about 1530 hours, the commander of the Ariete Division sent his last radio message to Rommel: ‘We are encircled, the Ariete tanks still in action.’ By evening, the XX Italian Corps had been destroyed. We lost good, brave friends, from whom we demanded more than they were in a position to give.

The Italians’ resistance was finally overcome when 4th Armoured Brigade tanks attempted to complete their encirclement from the south. Roberts described the day as ‘very good battle practice for the brigade!’ but 7th Armoured’s momentum had been arrested and night intervened shortly after the advance started again. Jack York remembered the scene:

As we carried on in the direction our tanks had taken, we could see, reaching up into the sky, great columns of black smoke, and enormous dust clouds. This was the funeral pyre of the Italian Armoured Corps (Ariete, and remnants of Littorio and Trieste Divisions), who had been engaged for several hours by nearly 100 tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Nearly all their tanks had been knocked out, and a large number of field and anti-tank guns were destroyed or abandoned. The Italians had fought with exemplary courage in this action, and although nearly surrounded, had held their positions to the last. During this day also, our 1st Armoured Division to the north of us, had severely battered the weakened Afrika Korps, giving them no choice but to retreat. We spent the night concentrated behind the tanks of the 22nd Armoured.

Only on the evening of 4 November, with the remnants of the forces that once stood on the brink of capturing Alexandria and Cairo in tatters, did Hitler offer vague promises of significant numbers of reinforcements for the North African theatre and, finally, give Rommel permission to act as necessary in the light of events. This was prompted by the arrival at his headquarters of Rommel’s aide, Alfred-Ingemar Berndt, with full details of the crisis. However, Rommel had already been forced to act. At 1530hrs he had ordered a general retreat to positions near Fuka. This decision, essentially confirming the instructions of his chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Siegfried Westphal, to the Afrika Korps the previous evening was the Panzerarmee’s official sanction for the mobile units to abandon the Italian infantry and the parachute units of both nations in the south. Many Italians never forgave their allies; others, like Tenente Emilio Pulini, were restrained in their response:

We were slightly uncomfortable about the idea of being left there without no transport. Our division had very little transport. Because we were paratroops we had very little transport of our own. But as far as I know the majority of the German troops withdrew before us and not too much transport was left to us.

As Eighth Army’s advance recommenced on 5 November, the victorious troops encountered similar scenes throughout the day, as Gervase Markham observed:

We were able to advance. My first experience of advancing across a battlefield and seeing a defeated army with all the relics that they’d left behind, and their dugouts still there with meals half eaten and Italian troops standing there waiting to be captured because the Germans had taken all the transport and had driven away, leaving the Italians to look after themselves without food or water or transport, begging to be taken into captivity.

The sight of large numbers of Italian troops walking towards captivity seemed confirmation of the widely held view that Mussolini’s forces were a liability to their ally. Sergeant Neville Howell of the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment was struck by what he saw:

There were just hundreds and hundreds of Italians walking in groups and we were passing through them. Literally hundreds of them… They were asking for water. The Italians. That was the one thing they were asking for. Water. Hundreds of them. How long it took them to reach somewhere where they were given water, I don’t know. Of course, we couldn’t give them water. We only had a limited amount. You’d got to look after it. If you stopped – which you weren’t allowed to do of course – you’d have been surrounded by them in no time.

The sacrifice of the ‘Ariete’, ‘Littorio’ and ‘Trieste’ and the tough ‘Folgore’ was quickly forgotten. Yet without them the Afrika Korps could not have garnered the laurels it had, survived at Alamein as long as it had, or escaped in the manner it did.

Only one ‘infantry’ unit of significant size managed to escape, despite its lack of transport. Hans von Luck recounted:

On 7 November, in the depths of the desert, a patrol putting out a long feeler to the east, discovered General Ramcke, the commander of the paratroop division, which had been in action on the right wing south of Alamein. General Ramcke was brought to us in a scout car. He looked emaciated and asked to be taken, at once, to Rommel. His paratroops – an elite unit – had been through an adventurous time. I at once sent a radio message to Rommel: ‘General Ramcke, with 700 men and all weapons, has been discovered by us; he himself is with me at the command post.’

The exhausted paratroops had nothing except their weapons and water. They had captured a small British convoy on 5 November and used this to reach the Axis lines. It was small comfort to Rommel, given that on 5 November Eighth Army had easily exceeded Churchill’s target for prisoners of war. Alexander had duly signalled: ‘Ring out the bells!’

The battle was over. It was theoretically time for the victors to pursue and annihilate their opponents. It did not happen. There was no single reason why not, but many could be laid at the door of Eighth Army’s commander. To the amazement of their enemy, the British remained cautious in their operations. Ambitious plans to cut off the retreating Axis forces were not attempted. Proper reserves for pursuit had not been prepared. Congestion prevented units from getting forward. Personal animosity between Montgomery and several subordinates – especially Lumsden, Briggs and Gatehouse – stood in the way of effective use of the armoured formations they commanded. Poor staff work was the cause of at least one brigadier’s subsequent dismissal. Tanks worn out by continuous action and needing overhaul consumed so much fuel they outran their supplies. Bad weather – something outside the control of any commander – played a part as heavy rain fell on 6 November hampering movement and preventing air reconnaissance. However one informed critic felt ‘this was a very thin excuse, seen through by all who had known the desert dry out in a few hours after rain the previous November.’

Nevertheless, as the Official History rightly points out, the fact that a small part of Rommel’s command managed to break away probably seems more of an anti-climax in retrospect than it did at the time to the men of Eighth Army. The remarkable Charles Potts – ‘The Fighting Parson’ – writing on 12 November summarized the experience of Second Alamein for many of the survivors:

The shelling was terrific for the first 13 days of the battle while we struggled through the rows of enemy minefields. All day and all night the noise was deafening, gun flashes and explosions all round us. It was horrible, and very frightening. Some men lost their nerve altogether and shivered and chattered with terror. It was a job to keep some of them going. I was lucky in that I managed to keep pretty cheerful all the time, except for such ghastly moments as when my best corporal, of whom I was extremely fond, had his head blown clean off; I had to cover him up so that the others shouldn’t see him. And now everywhere there is wreckage, vehicles, including huge tanks, blown to smithereens. Thank God the dead are mostly burned. It was not an easy victory – at least not at first. We had a bitter struggle and a taste of bloody hell. It must have been even worse for the Germans. Our artillery pounded them mercilessly and our bombers strafed them continuously (Damn these b____ flies – they are all over me).

The Italian Partisan Crisis Winter 1944

Flag of the National Liberation Committee and some members of the Italian resistance in Ossola, 1944.

On the night of 3 November, an RAF Liberator of 148 Squadron, containing three agents and a number of supply canisters, left Brindisi and flew north towards the Apennines. Two of the agents were Italians recruited by No 1 Special Force, SOE, but the third was a young but already highly decorated soldier and SOE operative, twenty-four-year-old Major John Barton, DSO, MC.

Major Bernard James (John) Barton, DSO + Bar, MC

John Barton’s task – codenamed ‘Cisco/Red’ – was either to capture or assassinate a senior German general,af whose headquarters was reportedly near Mirandola, a town in the central plains a few miles south of the River Po. As arranged, fires had been lit for them at the drop zone. Parachuting from 3,000 feet, all three landed safely at around 10 p.m., as did all but one of the canisters. On the ground, John was met by Major Wilcockson, a fellow SOE agent, and a number of partisans, and taken to a safe house in the tiny mountain village of Gova, some forty miles west of Bologna.

Once there, the two Italians left on their mission to Bologna, while Wilcockson and the partisan commanders examined the contents of the supply drop. Although pleased with the weapons and ammunition, Wilcockson was exasperated by the absence of boots and clothing, especially since the equipment had been padded by hundreds of useless sandbags. Most of the partisans in his area had few clothes other than those they had left home with. Some had items of British uniforms, but with a long month of heavy rain and rapidly falling temperatures, they were all desperately short of heavy clothing, boots and great coats. Living rough in barns and caves in the freezing cold mountains was an utterly miserable and sometimes life-threatening existence.

The following day, John was led to a neighbouring mission, that of another agent, Major Johnstone. There he waited several days for a guide, but since he could speak neither German nor Italian, he also took the opportunity to form a small squad of men to accompany him on his mission – an ex-POW as an interpreter, a former Italian paratrooper, and a German-Italian who assured him he could pass as a German.

The day they left, an Allied drop was made over Johnstone’s area. ‘It was pathetic!’ wrote John. The containers had been dropped from too great a height, had been spread over a vast area – some falling into German hands – and half the parachutes had not opened, so that much of the ammunition was ruined. ‘Wilcockson said he received some ancient Italian rifles from this drop,’ wrote John, ‘and that they were far more dangerous to the firers than to the person fired at.’

After three days’ walk, John Barton and his squad reached the edge of the mountains overlooking Reggio Emilia. They were now in a German-Fascist controlled area and had to continue at night. The others wanted John to ditch his uniform, but incredibly, he had been ordered to keep it on throughout his mission and so refused to change into civvies. This, it seems, was too much for the German-Italian, who promptly left them.

Using borrowed bicycles, they headed down from the mountains towards the centre of Reggio. John had noticed there was hardly any traffic on the road, and what there was had been very old and very noisy and easy to avoid, particularly as it was night-time. Once in Reggio itself, they were stopped by a German bicycle patrol, but they simply pedalled away and down a side road before the soldiers could unsling their rifles and open fire.

Earlier in the day, the Allies had attempted to bomb the railway station, missed completely and had destroyed a number of houses round about. In the ruins of one of these John and his squad found an ideal hide-out for a few days. From there, John was also able to observe the station. A train that was unloading goods, he learned, could travel no more than ten miles due to destroyed bridges on the route. He also made contact with the local GAP commandant, and arranged for a guide to take them to Modena, the next port of call on their journey.

They left on bicycles during the evening three days later, although now without the Italian paratrooper. Having changed into civvies, he had gone to see a friend and had been stopped by a patrol. His papers had been in order but he had been caught carrying a pistol. ‘Foolish man!’ noted John. ‘We did not see him again.’

Once more travelling by the half light of the moon, they cycled to Modena, passing a long two-mile horse-drawn German column. No one paid them the slightest attention. Nor did they in Modena. Rather, the biggest danger they had so far faced came from Allied bombing and strafing of both the towns and roads on which they travelled. A few days later, and still on their bicycles, John, along with the former POW and their latest guide, headed north towards Mandola. ‘Unfortunately,’ reported John, ‘the partisans had ambushed a small party of Germans on the road we had hoped to use and the Germans were very busy burning houses, searching everywhere and shooting people. Seventy-five houses were burned to the ground.’

Taking a detour, they followed the route of the River Secchio until they reached Concordia, a few miles from Mirandola. There, local partisans advised them to head east, towards Ferrara. After several rides through the night, they reached the Ferrara area and made contact with the partisan commandant. Eager to help, he produced a number of German prisoners and Russian deserters, whom John interrogated in turn. None, however, could tell him where the elusive general was based.

Despite this, John was determined not to give up, even though he had now spent nearly a month in the field, and despite the extremely tense and dangerous situation in which he found himself. ‘The whole district was being continually searched and pillaged,’ he wrote, ‘and the few partisans had a very thin time living in their holes. Many were captured and shot immediately.’ He had noticed that everywhere there was an atmosphere of fear and distrust. Fascist militia and Blackshirts were, he reported, quite ruthless, burning houses and shooting suspects without blinking. Torture was also ‘quite normal’. On the other hand, as Bruno Vailati had observed in the Romagna Mountains, Germans took no notice of these practices unless one of their own troops was killed, at which point they would respond with frightening and ruthless efficiency. Nor, as far as he could tell, was being a Fascist a safeguard against German pillaging. ‘As yet,’ he noted, ‘the Germans have not completely stripped the countryside, but are doing it slowly and systematically.’ Most Italians, he observed, were desperately short of food and basic goods, and pathetically poor. ‘Everywhere,’ he added, ‘the question is, “When are the Allies coming? We cannot hold out much longer!” ’

John Barton’s mission had coincided with a time of crisis for the partisans. Throughout the summer, when the days had been long, hot and dry, their strength had risen and supplies from the Allies had been plentiful. Victory, it was widely expected, was just around the corner. It was why the partisans in the Apuans had acted with such defiant arrogance towards the 16th Waffen-SS before the massacre at Sant’ Anna; it was why Lupo had remained so confident on Monte Sole.

But that victory had not come, and now they faced a long, bitter winter. Living in caves and barns was tough but bearable when the nights were warm and dry, and when there was fruit on the trees and a good harvest being collected. Surviving in freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow, and with food more scarce than ever, was a different matter altogether. It was a gloomy prospect and one that was made worse by the lessening of supplies, which had suffered as a result of the pinch imposed on the Mediterranean Command, and also because of the weather. Six hundred tons of supplies had been due to be dropped during October, but only seventy-three tons had actually been delivered. It was why partisan commanders and their SOE and OSS liaison officers were so upset when drops were inaccurate or half empty and filled with sand bags rather than something useful.

The onset of winter and the shortage of supplies had also come at a time of increased anti-partisan measures by General Wolff. Kesselring had been alarmed by even greater increases of partisan activity throughout September. ‘Supply traffic severely handicapped,’ he wrote, ‘and acts of sabotage become more and more frequent. This pest must be countered.’ In the Alps, several partisan bands had even experimented in local self-government by declaring whole areas to be independent republics, such as the Republic of Domdossola in the Val d’Ossola, which was declared on 26 September.

This was intolerable to Kesselring and four days later he instructed Wolff to carry out an ‘Anti-partisan Week’ using not only all SS police available but also any tactical reserves, supply and rear-echelon troops, Italian militia and any other forces he could lay his hands on. ‘The Anti-partisan Week,’ Kesselring told Wolff, ‘must make finally clear to the partisan bands the extent of our power, and the fight against these bands must be carried out with the utmost severity.’

Wolff’s operations lasted until the end of the month, and by the end of them the short-lived Republic of Domdossola had been crushed, 1,539 partisans were dead, 1,248 had been taken prisoner, a further 1,973 suspects had been captured, and 2,012 had been rounded up for Organisation Todt. For the Alpine partisans, these operations had been a major setback.

The CLNAI were also keenly aware of the potential dangers that now faced them, and strongly believed that even greater unity was the key to survival. The problem was that the struggle between the political factions was threatening to undermine this goal. General Cadorna, for example, having been given no firm remit from the Allies and little authority from the CLNAI, had found his hands horribly tied in his role as military advisor to the Corps of Volunteers of Freedom and consequently he achieved little. Conscious of this, Ferruccio Parri and Leo Valiani of the CLNAI had met the head of SOE Italy, Colonel Roseberry, in Lugano in Switzerland at the end of October. Roseberry pressed for the Italians to define more clearly Cadorna’s role and to place him in charge of a unified military command in the north – one that included command of all the Garibaldi brigades as well as the Green Flame and non-political bands. The CLNAI, in turn, demanded political recognition from the Allies. The result of the meeting was SOE’s recommendation to the Allies that a meeting be held between them and the CLNAI in Rome.

Before the CLNAI delegation could reach Rome, however, a further blow befell the partisans, and ironically, it came from none other than Alexander, one of their champions. Deeply concerned about the potential plight of the resistance movement, he now saw no point in them wasting their lives until the next major offensive was launched, when he hoped they would once more be able to give direct help to the Allied forces.

With this in mind, on 13 November, he made a radio proclamation on Italia Combatte to all the partisans of the north, asking them to lay down their arms, to conserve ammunition, and to wait for further instructions. However well intentioned Alexander’s proclamation may have been, it was greeted with utter despair by the partisans. Outrage filled the columns of southern newspapers. The Action Party paper, Italia Libera, charged that a return to underground resistance was not only ‘morally wrong but practically impossible’, and made the point that the fight against the Nazi-Fascists was not ‘a summer sport that can be called off at a moment’s notice’.

The announcement coincided with a more placatory approach from General Wolff, who had always been cautious about applying ‘extreme measures’. Indeed, despite ‘Anti-partisan Week’, Wolff had urged Mussolini to declare an amnesty to partisans, and in October claimed to have brought as many as 80,000 partisans back to the cities and into regular occupations. ‘I had obtained the assurances of the fanatical Fascist police of Pavolini,’ he said, ‘that these people, if they returned to their homes and took up normal lives again, would not be bothered by members of the Fascist Police.’ Indeed, while battles continued against the partisans, there were noticeably fewer mass executions of the kind that had blighted the summer, and as part of his efforts not to antagonise the majority of the pro-partisan population further, the misguided reports of Black Brigade actions in the Republican press were also dropped. On the other hand, the Fascist press was quick to report the ‘callousness’ of the Allies for ‘cynically leaving the partisans to their fate’.308

Wolff’s figures were a gross exaggeration, but his approach, with the winter weather on his side, was definitely paying off. Alex’s statement had undoubtedly been a terrible own-goal. In truth, it had not been properly thought through, as General Harding later admitted. Nor had they referred the matter to SOE or OSS, or even the Italian government, before making the statement. It was uncharacteristic of Alexander who was normally so assured in matters of diplomacy, and in fact, came at a time when he and others in Italy were doing as much as they possibly could to safeguard the partisan movement in Italy.

Indeed, after Colonel Roseberry’s encounter with Parri and Valiani in Lugano, Alex had written a detailed report outlining the urgent need to give increased support to the partisans and to give greater recognition to the CLNAI. This forced a major and long overdue re-evaluation at AFHQ of their attitudes towards the Italian resistance and its part in the future of the north. At the same time, back in London, Lord Selborne, the Minister for Economic Welfare, had also taken up the cause of the Italian resistance, based on information received from both Alexander and No 1 Special Force. Writing to Churchill, he pointed out that public opinion was behind them – as Kesselring was also keenly aware – and that future Allied relations with the Italians in the north would be affected by the support they gave the partisans now. Winter would be hard for them. Without urgent supplies, the partisans and their existing SOE and OSS missions would face collapse and be exposed to terrible reprisals. At the same time, the Allies in Italy would be depriving themselves of a valuable weapon. ‘When you have called a Maquis out into open warfare,’ he told the Prime Minister, ‘it is not fair to let it drop like a hot potato. These men have burned their boats and have no retreat.’

Churchill agreed and demanded the situation be rectified. So too did General McNarney, Jumbo Wilson’s American deputy, so that despite Air Marshal Slessor’s belief that supply dropping in Italy was a wasted effort, an increase in supply was agreed upon. The US 51st Troop Carrier Wing was even diverted from operations in the Balkans, and as a result there was an increase in the amount of supplies airlifted.

Unwittingly, however, Alexander’s proclamation of 13 November helped the Allies’ negotiating hand when the CLNAI delegation arrived clandestinely in the south in the third week of November. Short of funds and supplies, having suffered from recent rastrellamenti, and with morale wavering, the CLNAI were desperate to improve their lot and so were now ready to make concessions to the Allies – concessions that several months before, during the height of their summer successes, they would never have considered. And as Alfredo Pizzoni, the chairman of the CLNAI, admitted to General Wilson, there were, they believed, at the end of November, only around 90,000 partisans, of whom just over half were in the towns and cities. Of these, about 40 per cent were armed, whilst in the mountains, they reckoned only a meagre 8 per cent carried weapons.

In addition to Pizzoni – a Milanese banker and one of the few non-party members of the movement – the delegation consisted of Ferruccio Parri of the Action Party, and Gian Carlo Pajetta, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and the second most senior Communist within the CLNAI after Luigi Longo. What they wanted was official recognition as the agent of the Italian government in the occupied north, and to gain the acceptance of the CVL as a regular armed force to be integrated into the Italian Army, which would then avoid the demobilisation of partisan bands once the Allies arrived.

Both Macmillan and Alexander were now anxious to create a tripartite agreement between the CLNAI, the Supreme Allied Commander and the Bonomi government. The main concern for the Allies was the establishment of the Allied Military Government in liberated areas as the war was finally drawing to a close. The final stages of the campaign might move so fast that there would be ‘empty spaces’ occupied by local CLNs before the AMG could get there. How could the Allies be sure these partisan-led and politically varying committees would lay down arms and hand over power to AMG? The experience of the civil war that had so quickly evolved in Greece had burnt Allied – or rather, British – fingers. Even Alex, who was also keen to draw up an agreement with the CLNAI as soon as possible, had concerns about a repetition of the Greek situation. ‘The operations of SOE [and OSS] in arming nearly 100,000 so-called patriots,‘he wrote, ‘will produce the same revolutionary situation unless we devise a system for, immediately on the liberation of the territory, taking them in to either our or the Italian Army.’310

There was a major difference, however, between Italy and Greece and that was that the Communists in Italy, unlike EAM/ELASag in Greece, had made it their policy to do everything in their power to avoid civil war once the Nazis and Fascists had been driven out of Italy. The post-Fascist revolution in Italy was to be achieved by the creation of a parliamentary democratic republic, which, they hoped, would be led by the Communists as supported by a majority of the voting population. Their task, during these months of resistance, was to build up a consensus of support. Thus it was that despite being the most radical of the major non-Fascist political parties, they were also the most willing to compromise, just as they had been back in the spring over the monarchy issue.

It was at this moment that a different kind of crisis struck the Italian government in the south. For several months, the parties forming the CLN – which made up the cabinet – had been beginning to split apart. Led by the socialists, the left was demanding social change, which included industrial and agrarian reform, the establishment of a socialist republic, and the purge of all former Fascists from public life. This latter change was already in hand, but it was the manner and degree in which this was being carried out that was causing a divergence of views; after all, every civil servant had had to hold a Fascist Party tessera to keep his job, but this did not mean they had been die-hard Fascists. Bonomi and the conservatives felt some leeway was needed and that the elimination of almost the entire governing class would not serve Italy well. Nor were they keen to prosecute Marshal Badoglio. Count Sforza, as High Commissioner for Sanctions Against Fascism, strongly disagreed, however, and demanded a complete purge, as did the other leftist members of the cabinet.

The second major point of conflict was over the position of the CLN. The six-party coalition had been formed by the Central CLN in Rome, but Bonomi now believed that since the government, rather than AMG, ran most of the liberated country, he, as prime minister, represented the state, and was therefore responsible to the head of state – that is, the King and Prince Umberto – not the CLN. In this, he had the support of the Liberals but not the Actionists, Socialists or Communists, who believed it was the CLN, not the King, who represented the people, and were increasingly suspicious that Bonomi wanted to restore a pre-Fascist constitutional monarchy to which they had no intention of returning.

These issues festered and the split in differences widened, until on 25 November Bonomi tendered his resignation to Prince Umberto, having become exasperated with what he saw as repeated efforts of the extreme left to interfere and gain greater influence. The CLN were then forced to find a way of re-establishing a new cabinet. The Liberals conceded that it should have the authority of the CLN, and so Bonomi acquiesced on the matter, but over other matters compromises clearly needed to be made. With Count Sforza as the new chairman of the CLN, they began to try and form a new cabinet. Bonomi, it was hoped, would continue as prime minister, with Sforza as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Once again, however, the British objected to such an appointment, and although not a veto, it was couched in such a way that it could be interpreted as such, not only by the Italians, but also by the Americans.

An international storm followed. The British insisted they had merely been expressing an opinion, but the damage was done. With Britain’s reserves of manpower falling sharply and with America’s growth accelerating, this episode, on the surface so unimportant, demonstrated how much British influence was on the decline. America was now even more the senior partner. If Britain appeared to step out of line, it could no longer expect any closing of the ranks. In America there was stinging criticism, not just of the British stance in Italy, but also about its intervention in Greece. ‘The Greek news is very bad,’ noted Harold Macmillan wistfully in his diary at the beginning of 7 December, ‘and so is the Italian. Greece has a revolution, and Italy is without a government. And in both cases we have drifted apart from our American ally.’311 As luck would have it, both he and Alexander were in London at the time. Had Macmillan, especially, been in Italy, the whole matter might well have been resolved more easily.

And yet the whole debacle had, in many ways, a positive outcome. Bonomi agreed to accept the CLN’s de facto position, but insisted on pledging allegiance to Prince Umberto as the ‘Lieutenant General of the Realm’. The purge issue also ended in victory for Bonomi and the conservatives. Sforza was offered the job of ambassador in Washington but turned it down; since he was affiliated to the Actionists, however, he remained, like the party, outside the cabinet, as did the Socialists. Bonomi’s new four-party cabinet, sworn in on 12 December, strengthened Bonomi’s position but also that of the Communists and the Christian Democrats. The crisis was over.

While this fiasco was carrying on, a bi-partite agreement had been drawn up between the Allies and the CLNAI, with Macmillan hoping the Italian government could be brought in at a later date once the dust had settled. On the Allies’ part, they agreed to provide 160 million lire a month during the German occupation. Supplies would also be increased, and the CLNAI would be consulted on ‘all matters relating to armed resistance, anti-scorch, and the maintenance of order’.312 The Allies also agreed to recognise the CVL as the military arm of the CLNAI, and although Cadorna was to be appointed the official military commander of the Italian resistance, the partisans were to come under overall command of General Alexander and were to obey his instructions without question. When the war finally came to an end, the CLNAI was to maintain law and order only until the Allied Military Government could be established. Power would then be passed in turn to the established Italian government.

For the CLNAI – and especially the Action and Communist parties – these were harsh terms, but bruised and depleted as they were, and desperately short of cash, they were in no position to haggle. Alexander had them over a barrel and was determined to exert as much control as possible. The agreement was signed on 7 December, and on 26 December was reaffirmed by Bonomi’s government. However humiliating this may have been for the leadership of the CLNAI, it was undoubtedly in the best interests of the future of the Allied campaign and of post-war Italy – and consequently in the best interests of the majority of Italians.

Meanwhile, Major John Barton was continuing his efforts to locate his elusive German general. ‘We stayed at the house of a Fascist Captain of Militia,’ he reported, ‘who was a good Fascist by day and an even better partisan by night.’ Running trucks of supplies between Bordeno and Verona, he carried arms one way for the partisans and for the Germans the other.

It was the captain who told John that his target was most likely in the Verona-Brescia area, much further to the north of the Po, and he offered to go to Verona to try and find out. The day after he left, John and his translator spotted three trucks of Fascist troops rumbling down the road. Deciding to play safe, they jumped out of windows at the back of the house and hid amongst the sugar beet in the field outside. It was as well that they did, because the Fascists stopped and searched the house. ‘There was obviously a spy at work,’ noted John, ‘for the Fascists went to all the partisans’ houses, found weapons, explosives etc, and took them all prisoner.’ For some reason, however, the now disappeared GNR captain did not appear to be at the top of his list of suspects.

The rastrellamento went on for several days, during which time John and his translator lived in fields and begged for food from women and children. This experience clearly proved too much for his former POW side-kick, who one day walked out on him. ‘When things cooled down again,’ noted John, ‘I found that all my partisan contacts had been taken or shot.’ He hung around the area for a further ten days, but there was no sign of the captain, most of the civilians in the area had begun to suspect him, rather than the GNR captain, of being a German spy, and since he was now lousy and troubled by scabies, he decided to head back to base.

Having made his way back to the Modena area, he made contact with the partisans there, and asked them to send messages to Milan, Verona, and Venice asking for information on the whereabouts of the German general. Accompanied by an American air gunner who had bailed out a few days before, he headed back to the mountains, where he found Major Wilcockson still cursing the lack of clothing and medical supplies. After waiting a few days at Gova, John was guided south across Allied lines and back to safety. He had been away two months, and in that time had achieved nothing, but had learned much about both sides in German-occupied Italy, and about the conditions and fears in which the partisans and civilians alike lived. ‘Everyone is terribly frightened of the Air Force,’ he noted, ‘the civilian population most of all.’ He had spent Christmas Day with a man whose wife and child had been killed by a bomb falling in his back yard. ‘To me it was just wanton jettisoning of bombs from aircraft returning home,’ he wrote; ‘to the civilians it is a very real terror.’

He had also discovered a population torn apart by hunger, fear and mistrust. John had found the experience testing enough – both physically and mentally – yet he was a professional soldier, and despite the dangers, was able to return to a safer world at his mission’s end – a world in which he would find clean clothes, a decent bed, food, drink and friends whom he trusted implicitly.

But in the towns and cities of the plains, and up in the mountains to the south, partisans were weakening by the day through lack of food and clothing, freezing in the appalling winter conditions and hunted down like dogs. Morale was low, disillusionment great, and the future very uncertain indeed.

WWII Italian trucks

The Fiat/Spa Dovunque was built by the Spa factory, at that time under Fiat control. ‘Dovunque’means cross-country (literally ‘go anywhere’).

Autocarro Unificato Medio, 5 ton, 4 x 2, Fiat 665, 1940-45, Italy.

 The Italian Army had a less rigid system of standardisation in military transport than most other nations. Certain vehicles were adopted as ‘standard’ in different load categories and the different requirements were specified. However, manufacturers did not have to comply to finely detailed specifications so there was degree of variety in the trucks in service. The standardised medium truck (Autocarro Unificato Medio) had a payload of at least 3 tons and a speed of 60 km.p.h. while the standardised heavy truck (Autocarro Unificato Pesante) had a payload of 6 tons or more and a 45 km. p. h. speed. The Fiat 66S NL was the most modern production type in the Medio category and was based on a Fiat commercial model. With forward control and very large wheels, it had a 5-ton capacity and was a powerful and tough vehicle. Built from 1942 to 1945, it was also used in small numbers by the Germans in North Italy after Italy’s capitulation. The Fiat 665 was 23 ft 3 in long and about 8 ft 9 in. wide.

A vehicle which was of similar appearance was the Fiat 666 which was uprated, strengthened vehicle designed to carry 6 tons and which fell into the Pesante class. The Fiat 665 had a six-cylinder diesel engine of 110 b.h.p. while the Fiat 666 had a similar engine rated at 115 b.h.p.

Trattore Medio, 4 X 4, Fiat TM40, 1940-45, Italy/Germany

Much favoured by the Italian Army was the specialised artillery tractor of compact dimensions but with big wheels and a powerful engine. First of these big wheel tractors was the Pavesi originally designed in 1914 and perfected between the wars. It is described and illustrated in the previous volume. While the Pavesi was unique in having an articulated chassis, later tractor types had a rigid wheelbase. Fiat took over Pavesi in the twenties. They built a light tractor in the late thirties, the TL37, and then a medium tractor, the TM40, in 1940. This latter vehicle is shown. It utilised the same diesel engine and cab front as the Fiat 665. The open-topped body held seats for the gun crew and there was a locker ammunition stowage at the rear. Overall length of this vehicle was just over 15 ft .

The history of military motorization in Italy is among the world’s most interesting. It started in 1903, with a single car which was-hardly surprisingly of F. l. A. T. manufacture. This company later became the huge Fiat concern which over the years absorbed numerous smaller enterprises, including MV makers Ceirano, OM and Spa. The Pavesi P4 articulated tractor was a revolutionary machine when it first appeared in 1914 as an agricultural mechanical horse. Improved versions served or decades, particularly with the armed forces, up to and including WWll and they were licence-produced in several countries. Among the outstanding non-Fiat products of the 1930s were those of Alfa Romeo, Bianchi, Breda, Isotta Fraschini and Lancia. In those years a certain measure of type standardization took place in respect of load carriers: medium trucks (Autocarri Unificato Medio) for GVW of 6500 kg and payloads of 2.5-3 tons and heavy trucks (Autocarri Unificato Pesante) for GVWs of 12000 kg and payloads of 6 tons and more. Also of interest were the Autocarretta of OM and the various medium and heavy artillery tractors (and derivatives) of Breda and Spa. It was a busy period for the MV producers: in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia , during 1936-39 Italian (as well as German) troops were involved in the Spanish Civil War, in April 1939 they occupied Albania and in the following year they entered the war in Libya.

Many of Italy’s trucks were of old design, but during the build-up of the Italian armed forces before the out- break of World War II some measure of standardization was achieved. The largest supplier of trucks to the Italian army was Fiat. Fiat vehicles equipped most of the transport units, vehicles like the Fiat TL37 4×4 light truck having large wheels and tyres to suit the terrain of Ethiopia and the Western Desert. The OM Autocarretta 32 was a unique light truck, and was highly regarded by its crews, and even by British troops when examples were captured. The type was intended primarily for mountain operations, and featured a 4-cylinder air-cooled diesel engine and independent suspension front and rear, The gearbox was centrally mounted and drove both front and rear axles direct. The medium- truck range was dominated by the Fiat 38R 4 x 2 and the Lancia 3 RO N 6 1/2-ton 4×2. The latter vehicle also formed the basis of a mobile anti-aircraft mount. To start these trucks a hand-cranked inertia start unit was placed forward of the crankshaft. The power unit was a Junkers two-stroke engine. The Fiat 633 BM was built on similar lines to the Lancia.

Most Italian tanks were of the lighter types, and could therefore be carried in the bodies of the Lancia, though a tank-transporter trailer could also be used. Two other widely used vehicles were the Fiat 626BL powered by a 46-kW (62-bhp) engine, and the Fiat 665NL. The latter was quite advanced in truck body and cab design.

Italy’s Fascist government collapsed in 1943 and from then until 1945 a large part of Italy was under German control. During this time the Italian industry was forced to produce for Germany and the existing military equipment was largely taken over by the Wehrmacht. This explains why numerous Italian MVs formally entered service with the German forces. On the other hand, Italy had taken into use quantities of German-captured Renault R35 and Somua S 35 tanks following the fall of France in 1940

The Germans used large numbers of Italian vehicles, these seeing service on almost every German front. In Libya the British discovered that Italian diesel-engined trucks were of great value because of their lack of a carburettor, which had a tendency to clog up in dusty conditions.

Italian manufacturers

The Italian Army in North Africa – Trucks