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Ariete ~ Crusader to Gazala

North Africa

Ariete Armoured Division ~ Crusader to Gazala

By December 1941 the Ariete Armoured Division had been reduced to a shadow of its former self by continued combat since arriving in North Africa, with only thirty M13/40 tanks, eighteen field guns, ten anti-tank guns and around 700 Bersaglieri remaining by the time they withdrew from the Tobruk defences.

Bir el Gobi
Operation Crusader began on November 18, 1941. The British 22nd Armoured Brigade was tasked with taking Bir el Gobi, an important Italian defensive position located on a crossroads.

The Ariete division was in the process of preparing, in spite of recent heavy rains, defensive positions around Bir el Gobi. It prepared the positions in a semicircle, with the Bersaglieri battalions anchoring the defence.

News reached Ariete during the afternoon of November 18 that the British were on the move, General Balotta (Commanding Ariete) quickly ordered his troops to prepare for an attack. The defence was reorganised into a more compact arrangement.

The V Battalion/8° Bersaglieri regiment, supported by II/132° Artillery remained near El Cuasc; the III/8° Bersaglieri with a group of 75/27 guns of the 3° Artillery was positioned east of the ridge; and the XII/8° Bersaglieri with the I/132° Artillery to the west.

Ariete Ram
Bir el Gobi

Immediately north of the ridge were a group of 105/28 guns of 24° Artillery and seven 102mm truck mounted guns. Further north was the 132° Tank Regiment.

At 1100 hours the 22nd Armoured Brigade, behind a screen of the 11th Hussars, pushed to Bir el Dleua, some kilometres to the south-east of Bir el Gobi. There they were confronted by a company of M13/40, supported by a battery of 75/27 guns. A short fight ensued and the Ariete units were forced to withdraw. A little later the British brigade arrived in front of the Ariete positions.

The V/8° Bersaglieri were in well prepared positions, but XII/8° Bersaglieri had yet to finish its preparations and the III/8°Bersaglieri had only just arrived and was still dismounting from their trucks.

The 47/32 and 75/27 guns of the Ariete fired on the approaching 22nd Armoured tanks. The heavy fire forced the tanks of the British to divert their attack towards the flanks of the Italian defences.

The XII/8° Bersaglieri forced the 4th C.L.Y. (County of London Yeomanry) to withdraw; but the III/8° Bersaglieri’s line was in danger of being broken by the 3rd C.L.Y’s attack.

Towards 1500 hours the Ariete launched a counterattack. Approximately two kilometres north of Bir el Gobi appeared the M13/40 tanks of 132° Tank Regiment supported by the 102mm portee guns.

The VII/132° and VIII/132° tanks attacked 3rd C.L.Y. and after an hour of indecisive fighting the XI/132° tank battalion attacked the flank and rear of the British tanks. The Crusaders were forced to withdraw in disorder.

Bersaglieri mounted in a captured French truck
Ariete Bersaglieri at Gazala

Ariete lost 12 officers and 193 other ranks, 49 tanks, four 75/27 guns and eight 47/32 guns. The British 22nd Armoured Brigade lost 57 destroyed or damaged tanks. It stopped the British 22nd Armoured Brigade in its tracks from its defensive positions, and had inflicted heavy losses on the British in the process.

Point 204
On December 13, at around noon, the 5th Indian Brigade attacked the severely depleted Ariete and seized the high ground at Point 204 (near Alam Hamza). A company of 10-12 M13/40s from Ariete counter-attacked, but were driven off by the Indians with the support of nine tanks and a troop of 25pdr guns.

Bir el Gobi
Battaglione Bersaglieri (page 94 NA)
 
Battalion HQ
30 points
Combat Companies  
Bersaglieri Company
3 Bersaglieri Groups
2x Solothurn anti-tank Rifles

320 points
50 points
Bersaglieri Company
2 Bersaglieri Groups
2x Solothurn anti-tank Rifles

220 points
50 points
Support Platoons  
Carri Platoon
5 M14/41 tanks

300 points
Carri Platoon
3 M14/41 tanks

180 points
Cannon Battery
4 75/27 guns

165 points
Howitzer Battery
4 100/17 guns (representing the 105/28s)

195 points
Total:
1510 points

"Crusader"

22nd Armoured Brigade Force
Light Armoured Squadron Africa
(page 134 NA)
 
Company HQ
2 Crusader II

105 points
Combat Platoon
 
Light Armoured Platoon
3 Crusader II

155 points
Light Armoured Platoon
1 Crusader CS and 2 Crusader II

150 points
Light Armoured Platoon
1 Crusader CS and 2 Crusader III

170 points
Light Armoured Platoon
3 'Honey' Stuart

140 points
Support Platoons
 
Scout Platoon
2 Patrols with 3 Universal Carriers each

180 points
Motor Platoon
3 Squads + 3 Anti-tank Rifles
+ Light Mortar + Sicky Bombs


195 points
Royal Horse Artillery Battery
2 Gun Troops

420 points
Total:
1505 points

Ariete lost three tanks in the attack, which were mistakenly identified as German by the Indians.

In the afternoon, a larger force of sixteen M14/41s renewed the counter-attack and overran the 25pdrs, but were unable to retake Point 204. The next day, Ariete launched another assault, which was also repulsed until German troops arrived in support and the position finally fell.

This minor success at Alam Hamza boosted Italian morale and made them reluctant to withdraw any further. It was only the threat that Rommel would abandon them that forced Ariete to retreat back to El Agheila.

105/28 guns
Gazala

In the final withdrawal it fought back against its British pursuers at Gazala in spite of being much weakened, and only withdrew at German insistence.

The winter campaign had seen the Ariete Armoured Division fight as a single entity for the first time, and had demonstrated that it could be a formidable force in the right circumstances.

When Rommel launched his Gazala counter-offensive (May 27, 1942) Ariete found itself right in the thick of the fighting once again. After the initial break around the Gazala Line’s flank the division became embroiled in the “Cauldron”, defending Aslagh Ridge from the Desert Rats (7th Armoured Division). It kept the 1st South African Brigade out of the fight for extended periods simply by the threat offered by its presence, and it held its own in the face of considerable harassment from various British armoured formations throughout the fighting.

By the End of the “Cauldron” fighting the Ariete and Trieste had just 14 tanks left between them. The British withdrew on the Alamein line and the pursuit was on with a number of running battles being fought by the British to delay the pursuit.

Its impressive performances had been at many levels, and it is arguable that it made a more positive contribution to Axis success than the Germans at a number of points during the fighting. This was a significant change from the Italian army of 1940, and it hints at what might have been achieved had properly equipped armoured divisions been deployed to North Africa at that time.

47/32 guns
M14/41 tanks 132nd Armored Division ’Ariete’

General G. DeStefanis

132nd Tank Regiment (two battalions)
8th Bersaglieri Regiment

132nd Motorised Artillery Regiment 

(attached to the Division during the Gazala offensive were two Semovente groups [totalling 20 75/18s], 10 Lancia da 90/53, and 8 towed German-made 88/56])


Last Updated On Friday, November 13, 2009 by Blake at Battlefront