GUASTATORI (Italian assault engineers)

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GUASTATORI (Italian assault engineers)

Mensaje por Boce el 09.05.14 10:01

As in the case of the paratroopers, lessons drawn from the German campaign in the West in May–June 1940 only belatedly led the Italian Army to create its own assault engineers. At the end of July 1940 an engineer officer, Col Pietro Steiner, was given the task of raising this branch from scratch. Namedthe Genio Guastatori (which roughly translates as ‘engineer demolishers’), it was thus an impromptu creation, rushed into existence over a very short period of time and without any first-hand experience upon which to draw.Colonel Steiner wasted no time at all, and on 1 August 1940 he founded the Scuola Guastatori del Genio at Civitavecchia, north of Rome. The school was fully active less than ten days later, following the arrival of the first batch of trainees, who initially had to live under canvas. By mid-September the school was already working at full capacity, with facilities for 1,000 men. The first training course started on 10 August and ended on 30 September, by which time four Guastatori companies had been formed (numbered 1st, 2nd, 7th & 8th). The second course started on 5 October 1940 and ended on 18 November,with the creation of five more companies (3rd–6th, and 9th Alpini – later, the5th and 6th Companies swapped numbers).

In November 1940, however, Col Steiner was transferred to Albania to fight in the war against Greece, and the engineer school at Civitavecchia practically ceased to exist; it was taken over by the infantry branch, which began to create its own assault troops (Guastatori di Fanteria). These were generally trained like the Guastatori del Genio, but without practising minelaying and removal. The Guastatori del Genio established a small school of their own at Trieste in northern Italy; its sole task was to provide trained replacements for the Guastatori battalions that had already been formed.

Flamethrower operators wearing the special protectivesuit – of two different materials– the steel helmet, and the gas mask worn simply for protection, without the filter attached; the left side view also shows the asbestos gloves.The flamethrower was an integral part of the Guastatori tactics for assaulting enemy pillboxes and other ‘hard’ defences.

The creation of the Guastatori del Genio brought the Italian Army two main innovations: firstly, in their organization and tactics, and secondly, in the selection and training of personnel. A Guastatori company mustered 343 all ranks, in an HQ platoon (HQ squad with 23 men, plus 16 in the communications and logistics squad), and four Guastatori platoons (plotoni). Each platoon comprised two large ‘squads’ each with 36 Guastatori, a junior officer, a driver and an orderly. This
 squadra Guastatori was the main tactical unit, specifically tasked to assault and destroy enemy bunkers and other ‘hard’ defences; for this purpose it was divided  into two ‘groups’, the destruction group (gruppo distruttori) and the support group (gruppo d’appoggio). The destruction group, with 12 Guastatori, included a four-man Bangalore-torpedo section and a four-man demolition charges section, plus two flamethrower operators in support. The support group, with six Guastatori, included a three-man light machine-gun section to provide fire support during the assault, and a three-man 45mm mortar group,also providing fire support and laying smoke screens to cover the attack.

Tactics were devised around the available weapons and equipment. Each man of the Bangalore section back-packed in canvas bags three 1m (3.28ft) tubular charges that could be assembled into a 3m-long pole charge. Moving under cover of the support group’s fire with the Breda M30 light machine gun and Brixia M35 light mortar, the Bangalore section were to blow a gap in the enemy barbed wire. They were closely followed by the four men each carrying one or more 3kg (6.6lb) demolition charges, contained in metal boxes with handles. This demolition section were to approach the enemy pillbox, supported by the flamethrowers to suppress the defenders’ fire.On reaching the bunker the Guastatori placed their charges, if necessary assembling 3m-long rods to push them into position. If there was any need, the flamethrower operators then finished the job.Although quite effective against enemy fortifications, the Guastatori assault companies were dramatically weak in firepower if they faced enemy infantry or, at worst, armour.

Guastatori training with the M35 flamethrower; here the operator is wearing neither helmet nor gas mask. The Model 1935, capable of ten intermittent bursts of benzene and light oil to a range of 18–20m (59–65ft), was subsequently replaced by the M40, with a range ofonly 15 metres.

A company’s crew-served weapons were limited to the eight LMGs and eight 45mm mortars which, although effective for providing basic fire support to the assault squads, were hardly adequate if the Guastatori had to fight their way in against serious opposition. Officers, NCOs, flamethrower operators, and the LMG and mortar teams carried only a handgun (usually the 9mm Beretta M34 pistol) for self-defence. Those in the HQ squad and the Bangalore and demolition sections, and the ammunition carriers for the Bredas and mortars, were armed with the 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano M91 carbine with its folding integral bayonet. Every Guastatore also carried as many hand grenades and smoke candles as possible, the former (mainly the light OTO M35, known as ‘red devils’ from their painted colour),having too weak a charge and fragmentation to be really effective.

A Guastatori sergeant in North Africa demonstrates for the photographer how hand grenades should be thrown.The fearless and instinctive handling of grenades was given special emphasis at the assault engineer training school set up by Col Steiner at Civitavecchia in August 1940.

The Guastatori were selected from volunteers. Apparently, some 15,000 offered themselves during summer 1940, which suggests a certain degree of interest in the new speciality,but only 20 per cent of these actually completed the training course at Civitavecchia.
After a strict medical examination, determining both physical and mental fitness, the would-be Guastatore underwent a short but extremely demanding and selective training course. Specifically developed by Col Steiner, this was based on the belief that, even though physical and mental toughness were a basic requirement for the Guastatori, in combat good training is as essential as courage. Steiner was a real innovator within the otherwise conservative Italian Army, which relied heavily on the inculcation of simple élan.

A Guastatori lieutenant – wearing the same grey-green tunic as his men – watches a 45mm Brixia M35 mortar team during field exercises in Italy; the mortar has been hastily dug into a shallow scrape. One of the two types of crew-served support weapons issued at infantry company or platoon level, the mortar had a high rate of fire (up to 25–30 rounds per minute), and the stability of its frame mounting enhanced its accuracy. However, these advantages were offset by the small size of its bombs, which at only 453g (1lb) weightwere fairly ineffective.

The training course started with basic gymnastics, followed by firearms practice; this included rifle-firing from every position, grenade-throwing, defence against enemy hand grenades (two rows of Guastatori would throw each other hand grenades at close range), close combat techniques, and –for selected teams – firing practice with the M30 LMG and M35 mortar. This aimed to instil a close familiarity with weapons and equipment, making every movement and reaction so familiar as to be almost automatic. In the case of grenade training, the expectation was that a Guastatore would react to the attacking enemy by throwing his own grenade, almost simultaneously – a very effective practice against anyone who had never experienced it before.

On 14 January 1941 the 3rd and 4th Guastatori companies were sent to North Africa.On 27 April both companies were deployed around the Tobruk fortress, detached to the Ariete and Brescia divisions, and taking part with them in the attacks on the Ras el Medauar positions on 30 April–4 May. These resulted in heavy losses; the companies had a total of 95 killed, wounded and missing, without achieving  a breakthrough, but their outstanding performance earned them Rommel’s praise. Thereafter the two companies were sent to rest and reorganize; despite the arrival of some 50 replacements from Italy, each eventually reduced the number of its platoons from four to two. On 15 August 1941 the two understrength companies formed the XXXII Battaglione Guastatori which, later that same month, was deployed to face Tobruk.

On 18 April 1941 the 1st, 2nd, 7th and 8th companies were brought together to form the XXXI Battaglione Guastatori, some 1,300 strong.After a period of training in the Turin area in August, in mid-September 1941 it too was sent to North Africa and deployed under XXI Corpo d’Armata in the Tobruk area.
The 5th, 6th and 9th (Alpini) companies were in Albania by 15 March 1941, and were committed to the Greek campaign, forming the XXX Battaglione Guastatori.After taking part in the attack on southernYugoslavia in April it was brought back to Italy for re-training.

On 18 November 1941, when the British Crusader offensive began with the aim of raising the siege of Tobruk, the XXXI and XXXII Battaglioni Guastatori became involved in a kind of warfare for which they were neither trained nor equipped. The XXXI Battaglione, deployed with the Pavia and Bologna divisions at Tobruk, fought first at Belhamed and then at Bu Hamud, using its explosives against British tanks. Ordered to withdraw to Gazala on 7 December, the battalion (lacking motor transport) was attacked and almost wiped out by a British armoured car column on 19 December, when the unit suffered some 200 casualties. An accidental explosion cost another 16 killed and 22 wounded, and by January 1942 the XXXI Battaglione had lost a total of 362 men. Sent to Tripoli to reorganize, the battalion was reduced to three companies by merging the remnant of 2nd Company into the 1st Company.

The XXXII Battaglione, also deployed at Tobruk, suffered fewer losses – about 17 per cent of its strength. This enabled it to be one of the leading Italian units to take part in Rommel’s second drive into Cyrenaica in January–February 1942; nevertheless, in May 1942 the battalion was down to a strength of 263 all ranks. On 17 March 1942 the XXX Battaglione Guastatori detached its new 6th (ex-5th) Company to the La Spezia Infantry Division, which was intended to take part in the assault on Malta; with only the new 5th (ex-6th) Company and the 9th Alpini Company, it was then attached to the Corpo d’Armata Alpino. At the end of July 1942 this formation was sent to the Eastern Front, and eventually deployed late in September on the lower River Don.
In May 1942, following Rommel’s attacks against the Gazala Line and the advance to Tobruk, both the XXXI and XXXII Battaglioni Guastatori were brought back into the front line. On 20 June both units (the XXXI Guastatori only some 260 strong) attacked the Tobruk defences along with the Trento, Ariete and Trieste divisions

A Guastatori mortar team in the Western Desert, showing how the weapon was actually intended to be served in the field, with the crew in the prone position.

This time they broke through the defence line, and subsequently – now fully motorized, thanks to the many captured Allied vehicles – they advanced to the ‘Alamein line’. On 3 July 1942, now down to about 120 men, the XXXII Battaglione took part in the first attempt on these positions, only to face heavy artillery fire and a determined British reaction. Remnants of the battalion were deployed along with the 7° Reggimento Bersaglieri when, on 16–17 July, their positions were       attacked by Australian forces that practically wiped out the Italian units. On 16 August 1942 the XXXII Battaglione Guastatori was officially disbanded, the 72 remaining men (mostly from HQ platoons) being absorbed into the XXXI Battaglione.

The XXXI Battaglione had been kept in reserve and was only deployed in the front line in late August, when (along with elements of the Bologna and Trento divisions) it took part in a raid against the British defences.Subsequently, it was employed for mine-laying. Pulled back to the rear lines at the end of August 1942, the battalion was now 317 strong. It was attached to the Folgore Division in September, and by mid-October its strength had been raised to 610 thanks to an intake of replacements from Italy. Until the start of the ‘second’ battle of Alamein the battalion was mainly engaged in mine-laying and constructing field fortifications.
Between 23 and 29 October the XXXI Battaglione faced, along with the Folgore paratroopers, the southern prong of the British offensive, which cost it about 100 men. On 2 November it began to withdraw, with about one-third of its 500 men carried on lorries. During the withdrawal the battalion was attacked by armoured cars, losing about 30 per cent of its men.
The remnants of XXXI Battaglione – some 320 all ranks – reached Tobruk on 8 November, and withdrew to Tripoli by the end of that month, when Maj Dominioni left the command. The XXXI Battaglione was reorganized in January 1943, now with only the 1st and 7th companies, and was attached to the La Spezia Division. This, with its 5a Compagnia Guastatori, had been shipped to Tunisia in December 1942; the assault engineer company was to lose some 72 men out of an original strength of 118 during the Tunisian campaign. Both the La Spezia Division and the XXXI Battaglione fought at first on the Mareth Line, then at Wadi Akarit, before the eventual surrender of the Italian First Army and the German forces on 13 May 1943.

Guastatori laying mines on the El Alamein defence line; this was their main task in September–October 1942, before Gen Montgomery unleashed his offensive.The officer wears shoulderboards on his Sahariana jacket.

As mentioned, the XXX Battaglione Guastatori, part of the Italian 8ª Armata (ARMIR, Armata Italiana in Russia) was deployed on the lower River Don late in September 1942. During the Soviet winter counter-offensives north and south of Stalingrad, this was to be one of the many Italian units to be surrounded and destroyed north-west of the city. On 13 January 1943 the Red Army’s Voronezh and South-West Fronts launched Operation Little Saturn against the positions held by the ARMIR; the following day the XXX Battaglione was deployed along with other units (including the Monte Cervino Alpini battalion – see below) in defence of the HQ of the Corpo d’Armata Alpino at Rossosh. On 15 January a Soviet tank column attacked the army corps HQ, and the XXX Battaglione lost some 160 men        before withdrawing westwards with the rest of the corps. On 27 January its men were part of a column that attacked and seized Nikolayevka, thus opening the road for the withdrawal west, but at a high price. The following day, when the column made contact with German forces, there were just 121 men left out of the 480 Guastatori who had been on the battalion strength on 1 January.
The battalion was subsequently disbanded, and by June 1943 the Italian Army had only three Guastatori companies left: the 30ª Alpini, formed in August 1942 (later to be part of the rebuilt XXXI Guastatori), and the 10ª and 11ª Compagnie. Formed in May–June 1943 and never rising above the level of understrength training units, both these companies were disbanded in August 1943. On 1 August a new XXXI Battaglione Guastatori Alpini was formed under the command of Paolo Caccia Dominioni; it had a paper strength of about 1,000, but actually only a single company, the remainder being recruits who were still undergoing their training at the time of the Italian surrender on 8 September 1943.

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