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A Brief History of the Bersaglieri

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A Brief History of the Bersaglieri
Italy’s Elite Light Infantry

In 1836, the Piedmontese Army (later to become the Sardinian and then the core of the Royal Italian army) adopted light infantry formations similar to the French chasseurs and Austrian jägers.

These Bersaglieri, or ”sharpshooters,” wore distinctive black uniforms with brimmed hats, trailing cock’s feathers. The formation was created by Alfonso del la Marmora.

They were trained to a high physical and marksmanship standard, and like the French chasseurs that inspired their creation, a level of independence and initiative was encouraged so they could operate in looser formations where command control was not so immediate. 

La Marmora revealed the Bersaglieri during a military parade on July 1, 1836. The first company marched through Turin in a rapid, high-stepping gait (130 paces/minute) that still distinguished Bersaglieri in World War Two. They impressed King Carlo Alberto, who immediately had them integrated as part of the Armata Sarda, the Piedmontese professional army.

Throughout the 19th century, under La Marmora’s leadership, the Bersaglieri filled the role of skirmishers, screening the slow-moving line and column formations, and on occasion acting as special shock troops. 

When the Armata Sarda transformed into the Regio Esercito (Royal Italian Army) in 1860, the number of Bersaglieri regiments became set at 12.

They served as the light infantry battalions of brigades and divisions. Army doctrine later in the century called for them to be held back as corps-level reserves.

Alfonso del la Marmora

Bersaglieri leading 1859 prisoners

Left: Bersaglieri che conducono prigionieri del 1859 (Bersaglieri leading 1859 prisoners) ~ by Silvestro Lega.

During the First World War, the 12 regiments of Bersaglieri fought with valour and bravery. 210,000 men served in the Bersaglieri regiments, and during the war 32,000 were killed and 50,000 wounded.

After the war, reforms reduced the number of Bersaglieri battalions to two per regiment. A new role was seen for the light infantry as part of Italy’s commitment to mobile warfare.

They were converted into bicycle troops to fight alongside cavalry in the Celeri (fast) divisions. Elite units with high morale and an aggressive spirit were seen as one way to break the tactical stalemate of the Great War. The Bersaglieri gave Italy the perfect formations for such a doctrine and to work alongside tanks.

When the armoured divisions were formed in 1939 the continuation between the Bersaglieri and mobile warfare continued. Each new armoured and motorised division was allocated one Bersaglieri regiment.

Italy’s Bersaglieri regiments expanded to three battalions each during the Second World War, but the Army resisted temptations to water down their quality, and recruits had to be of above-average size and stamina. They endured intense physical training, just as their great-grandfathers had, and had to qualify as marksmen. 

Bersaglieri march off to war in 1915.

Bersaglieri Motorcycles

The Bersaglieri fought in southern France and Greece in 1940. The first Bersaglieri to see combat in North Africa was the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment. They arrived in Libya in early 1941. It met disaster before arriving there, when British tanks ambushed its truck convoys well inside what the regimental staff had been told was the secure rear area.

In all, six of the 12 regiments fought in North Africa, compiling an excellent combat record. More than once, Bersaglieri units fought to the last man to hold a position while German units ran away.

Bersaglieri also fought on the Eastern front against the Soviets. 

Bersaglieri In North Africa 1942-43

9° Reggimento Bersaglieri ~ X Corpo d’Armata
VIII Battaglione Bersaglieri (AB41) ~ 101ª Divisione Motorizzata ‘Trieste’, X Corpo d’Armata di Manovra
8° Reggimento Bersaglieri ~ 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’, XX Corpo d’Armata
12° Reggimento Bersaglieri ~ 133ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Littorio’, XX Corpo d’Armata
7° Reggimento Bersaglieri ~ XXI Corpo d’Armata

Bersaglieri in the desert with 20mm Solothurn

Bersaglieri Motociclisti

Bersaglieri In Sicily 1943

10° Reggimento Bersaglieri ~ 6ª Armata
177° Reggimento Bersaglieri Territoriale ~ 6ª Armata

Bersaglieri in Russia 1941-1943

5° Reggimento Bersaglieri ~ 3ª Divisione Celere, XXIX (German) Armeekorps
6° Reggimento Bersaglieri ~ 3ª Divisione Celere, XXIX (German) Armeekorps
LXVII Battaglione Bersaglieri (L6/40) ~ 3ª Divisione Celere, XXIX (German) Armeekorps


Last Updated On Thursday, February 14, 2019 by Wayne at Battlefront