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Festung Europa San Marco Naval Infantry Division

(The lion roars again, San Marco Division motto)

By Francesco Mioni

It’s quite common, in modern Armies, to name a unit after an historical famous unit. One of the strange aspects of this is that after 8 September 1943 the same “San Marco!” battle cry sounded from both sides of Italian front lines.

In fact while the San Marco Marine Regiment (“Grado” and “Bafile” battalions) fought with the Allies as part of the II Brigade (see Nicolò Da Lio’s article on the CIL ), at the beginning of March 1944, in Grafenwohr, Germany, the RSI III Infantry Division was raised, and named after the same patron saint of Venice.

The original nucleus had been formed at the end of 1943 from sailors, who at the armistice date were stationed on Aegean Sea, with an additional 400 Camice Nere (Black Shirts) coming from Greece. In short in the new division’s men mainly came from the Navy (only 1,800 were the volunteers from famed “X Mas” marines). It was pressed upon the RSI Military Authorities to give the division the same character and esprit de corps of the famous “San Marco” battalions of the ex-Royal Navy.

The request was accepted. The collar badge became a red pentagon with a yellow San Marco lion at the top of the red patch and the ranks denomination was the Navy system for soldiers (maro’) and senior officers, the only exception was the III Arditi Recce Group who used the army system. The division’s designation was changed to Naval Infantry Division San Marco. Moreover, to emphasize seafaring character, the Camice Nere group was transferred to Littorio Division.

Nevertheless San Marco was part of the Army, and not of the Navy, as is often incorrectly reported.

On 28 November 1943, general Aldo Princivalle took over command of the San Marco in Grafenwohr, Germany where they were being formed and trained. Additional contingents from Italy arrived from 25 March to 5 April (for a total of 14,000 men) completed the ranks.

A pause during training.
Organisation and Equipment

As with the other RSI divisions, San Marco was organised in two infantry regiments and one artillery regiment, plus support and service units.

• Division Headquarters
(Commander: General Aldo Princivalle: November 1943 through August 1944; General Amilcare Farina: August 1944 through April 1945).
3rd Recce Battalion
3rd Antitank Company
3rd Engineer Battalion
3rd Signal Battalion
3rd Transport Battalion
53rd Replacement Battalion
3rd MP section 
• DVK 182
(Deutsche Verbindungs Kommando, German Liaison Unit) 
• 5th Naval Infantry Regiment:
HQ Company;
Light Column;
105th Cacciatori Carri (Tank Hunters) Company;
I, II and III Naval Infantry Battalions
• 6th Naval Infantry Regiment:  HQ Company;
Light Column;
106th Tank Hunters Company;
I, II and III Naval Infantry Battalions
• 3rd Artillery Regiment:
4 Groups (=Battalions):
1 Group with horse-drawn 100/17 field guns,
3 Groups with 75/13 mountain guns transported by pack mules.
Marine with San Marco Lion behind

The battalion composition and the equipment was also the same, though heavy naval artillery batteries were added as support to San Marco during their time in Liguria (149/19, 149/13 and 117 guns). The main difference was the III Recce Battalion formed from Arditi commandos, instead of Bersaglieri as in the other three divisions.

Back to Italy

As mention under the Monterosa article, at the beginning of July 1944 the concentration of Allied navies and landing craft in Southern Italian and African harbours worried a lot of German and Italian generals.

The huge number of enemy indicated a possible landing at any point along the Italian coast, from La Spezia, to Savona, Nice, Toulon or Marseille. It seemed also possible a double landing may be planed, a main landing and demonstrative diversionary landing. 

Allied penetrations into Padana Plan from the Ligurian coast and into France along the Rodano River were objectives important enough to justify a large offensive.

At the end of June 1944 the Italian and French coasts were defended by a system only suitable to defend against raids by small commandos groups. It consisted of weak Axis units garrisoning positions along the coast, supported by thinly spaced coastal batteries and some naval elements. It had scarce or non-existent second line reserves, whose scattered nature was unlikely to prevent a coup de main along the main roads to the supplies lines.

A landing threat prompted the German and Italian command to reinforce the units in Liguria, and it was decided to make use of RSI divisions forming in Germany. Due to their different training and preparation levels the Monterose and San Marco divisions were chosen. The latter was deployed in western Liguria, considered the most probable objective of the landing. The front was 90km long and crossed by four important railways. The main coastal road (the Aurelia) with its large number of tunnels and bridges had been the aim of attacks since 1942 (even with torpedoes from the sea).

San Marco troops return to Italy

On Parade

On parade. Note the particular form of the red collar
badge, with the San Marco lion on the top.

The Monterosa’s duty was simple: to resist, to give the reserves at the necessary time and throw the enemy back. The deployment was organized in two lines: close to the coast, occupied by San Marco, and further inland where the main resistance would be developed manned by the German 34. Infanteriedivision.

The deployment from Germany of the divisions, by 15 trains, started in the second half of July and went on regularly until bombing halt rail activity on the Padana Plan. Maro’ of the San Marco then had to complete their deployment on foot.

Desertions and partisans

The deployment in Liguria ended on 7 August and was source of much discord with the Germans. This was the main reason of the replacement of General Princivalle with General Amilcare Farina. 

The latter was well known by their allies as a commander of international units during the Spanish Civil War and then for his experience in Greece, France and Italy from 1940 to 1943. It proved quite easy for Farina to obtain a reduction of the San Marco’s deployment area by 25km and the transfer of German 34. Infanteriedivision to another sector.

Farina found the division in poor condition. He found officers incapable of obtaining the other ranks’ respect, dirty uniforms, poorly maintained weapons and little cohesion between artillery and infantry regiments.

All were signs of the low morale levels. The maro’ suffered the same problems as the Monterosa Alpini (garrison duties, civilian indifference, Allied propaganda, attacks by partisans) and the desertion rate soon became worrying. Visiting San Marco in September General Ott, inspector of German training groups with RSI divisions, wrote about 1,400 cases of arbitrary absences (10% of entire division strength) after only one month in Liguria. The rate decreased to 2% for frontline and well-commanded units, but rose to 20% for second line support and services. Most of the deserters were conscript students according to Ott.

A gun pit near the coast.

Liguria, November 1944.  A gun pit near the coast. 

Naval Troops

Unlike his counter part commanding the Monterosa, General Carloni, Farina wasn’t able to obtain a transfer for San Marco to the front and was forced to intervene threatening military tribunals and executions to restore order. However, the situation became even worse. During 1945 the desertions reached about 3,500 cases, in only five months San Marco had lost 25% of its strength.

The desertions phenomenon, as with the Monterosa, was almost absent in units operating against regular enemy troops.

Partisans were the main problem that San Marco had to face. Their actions principally hit services units and small military groups on leave. Ambushes and attacks had become so frequent that the division Command forbade the movement of groups of less than three soldiers and stopped every kind non-duty related traffic from Saturday noon to Monday night. During this period the division was on full alert. Losses to partisans were about 2,000 men.

Along the Gothic Line

Not the all of the San Marco was employed in Liguria. In August 1944 a unit was sent to France to fight against the Allies near Toulon, while II battalion/6rth Regiment and III battalion/5th Regiment were deployed along the Gothic Line to reinforce the Italian-German defence.

The II Battalion (known as “Uccelli Battalion” from its commandant’s name) was the first San Marco unit to fight on the South front. Informed of the presence of the RSI divisions, the Allies decided to determine this units abilities. On 16 November the U.S. 92nd Infantry Division launched an attack along Monterosa and San Marco front, but was driven back to its starting positions by the night of 18 November. Another attempt was organised ten days later with the huge use of smoke ammunitions, but with the same result.

San Marco Marines advance

Savona, October 1944. Maro’ in anti-partisan mopping up operation.


A squad of Genieri waiting to launch an assault. 

Then Battalion Uccelli was deployed in front of Bargo and Gallicano villages, between the Intra Alpini Battalion on the right and Italia division units on the left, and followed the Monterosa Garfagnana unit’s fate until 27 April 1945.

The III “Blotto” battalion reached the front on Christmas Eve 1944. In February 1945 the enemy attacks became very intense. 40 U.S. batteries, on the San Marcello Pistoiese hills, subjected maro’ positions to continuous bombardments. Opposing them was only four German Marders who were forced to continually change position to avoid American counter-battery fire.

The terrain, which was thickly wooded and covered in one meter of snow, wasn’t suitable for large operations and the San Marco limited their action to pushing enemy patrols back. The positions were defended till 24 April 1945, when the retreat order was received.

From the front line the battalion moved towards Barigozzo, where there was fighting against a numerous partisan groups. After forcing through a Partisan blocking force the column reached Maranello, then moved on to Reggio Emilia, and finally Parma, always under Allied air-raids and partisans attacks.

The retreat from Liguria

On 24 April 1945 General Farina received the order to start operation “Artificial Fog”, the retreat to the Ticino-Po line.
Three days after, with 30-35km stages a day, San Marco reached and crossed Po River, stopping in Mede. The following day Farina, unable to make radio contact with Graziani, went to Alessandria to meet Admiral Girosi, who represented Royal Government. The latter confirmed Wolff’s surrender and with him all the German units in Italy. Further resistance became useless and San Marco put down their arms at dawn 29 April 1945.

Troops rest after a patrol

Maro’ and Grenadiers after a patrol. 

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Last Updated On Tuesday, June 19, 2007 by Wayne at Battlefront