PARACADUTISTI (Italian Paratroopers)

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PARACADUTISTI (Italian Paratroopers)

Mensaje por Boce el 08.05.14 12:37


(Italian volunteers during the very early stages of parachute training, practising aircraft exits on the beach at Tarquinia.During hot summer weather men trained wearing only shorts, to which any rank badges were attached.)

(Paratroopers in training recover the contents of a carrier used during the drop for weapons, ammunition and equipment.They wear M41 grey one-piece jumpsuits,with separate knee protectors.)

In 1935 Gen Francesco Saverio Grazioli, one of the Italian Army’s leading innovators, attended Soviet Red Army exercises, and was greatly impressed by the use of paratroopers.In spite of his very favourable report, interservice differences between the Army and Air Force prevented any early creation ofan Italian airborne force. In 1936 the Army attempted, but failed, to create a parachute unit. The following year the Air Force was given responsibility for the creation of a paratroop school, but it was more than two years before this instruction was implemented. The Air Force school was only established in August 1939, opening on 15 October at Tarquinia, near Rome, under thetitle of Regia Scuola Paracadutisti dell’Aeronautica (Royal Air Force Paratrooper School).

The first 18 months of the Tarquinia paratroop school were unpromising.Although it was opened in October 1939 it was not until late March 1940 that the training of the instructors started, and the first batch of trainees – selected mainly for their physical fitness – only began their course on 10 July, a month after Italy entered the war. Morale suffered from the inadequacy of the available parachutes; incremental improvements were made to the D39 and D40, but a truly satisfactory type did not enter production until March 1941 (the IF41, based on the German RZ16 model). Lack of equipment greatly affected the development of the Italian airborne force, and it was only on 25 February 1943 that a second school was created at Viterbo.The Tarquinia establishment was closed down on 10 July 1943.

(Paratroopers preparing for a training jump in 1941, all wearing the early grey version of the German-inspired threequarter length jumpsmock over their grey-green uniforms.)

Nevertheless, in July 1940 the first three battaglioni paracadutisti were created on paper, with the 3rd Bn originally raised entirely from Carabinieri military police. In September 1940 the 1st and 3rd Bns swapped numbers, to maintain the tradition of the Carabinieri’s precedence as the senior corps of the army, but the 1° Battaglione Carabinieri Paracadutisti was to remain an independent unit. In April 1941, following the creation of a fourth battalion, the 1° Reggimento Paracadutisti was formed with the 2nd–4th Bns; later the same year three further battalions (5th–7th, plus two regimental anti-tank companies) were established, to form the 2° Reggimento Paracadutisti, and the 8° Battaglione Guastatori Paracadutisti (Paratroop Assault Engineer Bn) was also raised.
Early in 1942 three more parachute battalions followed (9th–11th), while the AT companies were merged to form the first Gruppo Artiglieria Paracadutista (Paratroop Artillery Battalion). This was followed by a second and a third battalion, and all were brought together to form the Reggimento Artiglieria Paracadutista.

(Folgore Division paratroopers in southern Italy, summer 1942.This camouflaged version of the jumpsmock was only in use for a short time, and was abandoned when the division was transferred to Egypt at the end of July.)

A guastatore paracadutista (paratroop assault engineer) of the 8th Guastatori Bn, Folgore Division. This particular version of the ‘Samurai’ vest was used to carry small demolition charges, fuses, and other necessary kit for this specialist role.

On 30 April 1941, the 2° Battaglione Paracadutisti carried out the only operational airdrop made by Italian airborne forces during the war when its 5a Compagnia was dropped on the Greek island of Kefallinia (Cefalonia),while Blackshirts units landed from the sea. The island was seized without a fight, since the Greek Army had already in large part surrendered.
The first Italian paratroop unit to see combat was the detached 1° Battaglione Carabinieri Paracadutisti, sent to North Africa in July 1941 and attached to the Corpo d’Armata di Manovra. During the retreat of that December it was deployed to protect the route of the Ariete Division; on 18–20 December, at Eluet el Asel in the Djebel Akhbar mountains, it fought rearguard actions against elements of the 4th Indian Division. The battalion suffered 25 killed in action and 251 missing before its remnants started to withdraw, and it was subsequently disbanded.

In July 1942, with the cancellation of the planned attack on Malta now imminent, and the Axis forces in North Africa facing a manpower crisis due to heavy losses, the Folgore Division – composed of physically fit, strongly motivated and well trained men – seemed to offer a suitable reinforcement.However, while its establishment was intended to be some 6,260 all ranks, its actual strength was lower. Beginning with the transport of the first batch of about 1,200 men to Egypt at the end of July, from August 1942 the division was never to exceed a true strength of about 5,000, with a reported 3,800 men in late October 1942. Moreover, being an airborne formation, its equipment was very limited. The 185° Reggimento Artiglieria Paracadutista had only 36x 47/32 AT guns (although in Egypt the artillery component was strengthened by attachments, from up to four different battalions). Motor transport was practically non-existent, with only enough vehicles available to carry three platoons at a time.

Deployed from late July 1942 just north of the Qattara Depression at the southern end of the Axis line, on a 15km (9 mile) front between Deir el Munassib and Qaret el Himeimat, the division played a limited role during the battle of Alam Halfa, but its active night patrols and surprise attacks against Allied positions quickly proved the worth of its training.
Among notable engagements before the battle of Alamein were a New Zealand attack on 4 September that cost the Italian paratroopers some 200 men, but the New Zealanders the capture of one of their brigadiers; and subsequently an attack from British 131st Bde on 30 September, which ended with the loss of about 45 Italians and 400 British soldiers. This was the direct consequence of the tactics developed by the men of the Folgore Division; hidden in their foxholes – simple dugouts in the desert, lacking any kind of protection but very hard to see – they would let the enemy advance past their positions, only to launch a determined counter-attack immediately afterwards. The confusion generated by the sudden appearance of the paratroopers, throwing grenades and ‘Molotov cocktails’ against Allied tanks and firing at the infantry, proved more than enough to unbalance the attacking forces and cause heavy losses.

47/32 anti-tank gun of the Folgore Division’s 185th Parachute Artillery Regt, well concealed in a pit on the El Alamein front, 1942. The crew are mostly in shirtsleeve order, apart from the standing paratrooper. Note that the camouflage-cloth helmet cover was still in use.

This tactic was also effective during the early stage of Montgomery’sAlamein offensive, Operation Lightfoot. The British 7th Armoured and 44th Infantry divisions attacked the positions of the Folgore Division first on 23/24 October, while the Free French Bde attacked the Nabq Rala position just north of Qattara. The British aim was to distract southwards the attention of the Axis southern mobile group made up of the Ariete and the German 21st Panzer divisions, by breaching the minefields and the Folgore’s defence position and reaching the Deir Alinda plateau. On paper this was a realistic objective, given the forces involved and the Italians’ lack of adequate anti-tank weapons. However, the Folgore had the most motivated and best trained men in the Italian Army; they took advantage of the slow British advance through the narrow passages opened in the minefields to use their swift counter-attack tactics to the fullest effect. On 25 October, the British 4th Armoured and 69th Infantry brigades attacked the Folgore positions at Deir el Munassib, held by the Raggruppamenti Ruspoli and Bechi. They
penetrated the Italian outposts only to face a swift counter-attack and heavyartillery fire, and by the end of the day 4th Armd Bde had lost 22 tanks without breaking through the Italian defences. At this point the British attack was called off, and only minor clashes took place thereafter; Munassib was attacked again on 26 and 29 October, but the battle then shifted north, and the Folgore was no longer engaged. So far its losses were some 1,100 men. On 2 November the division was given the order to withdraw. All heavy equipment was destroyed, and the Folgore – without motor transport – marched some 150km (93 miles) across the desert to the north. Following the British breakthrough on 4 November the paratroopers were surrounded the next day at Fuka by the British 1st Armd Div, and only about 600 men succeeded in escaping the trap. Practically destroyed, the Folgore Division was disbanded on 25 November 1942. Its remnants subsequently formed the III/66° Reggimento of the Trieste Division; the arrival of replacements also allowed the formation of the 285° Battaglione Paracadutisti Folgore.These Italian paratroopers distinguished themselves once again in April 1943 during the battle of Takrouna against the New Zealand Division, before the final surrender on 13 May ended the Tunisian campaign.

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