XXXI Guastatori (Assault Engineers) Battalion during CRUSADER

In 2011 I asked the webmaster of the http://www.guastatori.it website for permission to translate the history of the XXXI Bataglione Guastatori (31st Independent Assault Engineer Battalion) for this blog. They kindly agreed, but then life intervened, I forgot about it, and only recently found the email chain again. So with that out of the way, here is the history of this battalion, which was slated for the original assault on Tobruk in November 1941, and then participated in the assault in June. In June 1942 command of the battalion was taken over by Baron Paolo Caccia Dominioni of Sillavengo, best known for his effort of locating fallen soldiers at Alamein, and according them a proper burial.

The Guastatori were a new and highly specialized branch of the Engineers  (Genio), following the example of the Arditi and the German Sturmpioniere of World War 1, but named after a much older formation, which was first established in Italy in 1793. To ensure as much confusion as possible, Arditi units remained in the Italian army in WW2, but not as independent units, rather as sections within the divisional engineer battalions.

The Guastatori school in Civitavecchia, under the command of Colonello Steiner, was opened on 1 August 1940, and the first students arrived on 9 August. By mid-September 1940 1,000 students, all volunteers, were at the school. The course was based on information received from German officers about the work of the Sturmpioniere, and notes of Col. Steiner about the Italian Arditi during World War 1. Two courses of two months each were run, one starting on 10 August 1940, and the second on 5 October 1940. Following this, replacements for the units in the field were to be trained at engineer units in Banne, Ranchi dei Legionari, Brunico, and Torri del Benaco.

Foto 4

General Negro of the Italian General Staff inspecting a parade of a Guastatori course, accompanied by Col. Steiner (first on the right). (www.guastatori.it) 

Notes at the end of the article are by me to provide some background. They are based on further research by me, utilizing specific histories, as well as British and Italian war diaries.

The original article can be found at this link. I have added some information from this history (Genio Guastatori) to it.

XXXI Battaglione Guastatori

Establishment and Move to North Africa

The four companies were established at Civitavecchia with the volunteer participants of the 1st Course.[1] At first they were placed in various locations in Northern Italy, and then from April 1941 in Yugoslavia, where they suffered their first losses.

On 18 April 1941 they were brought together and established the XXXI Sapper Battalion, with a total force of 1,300 men.

The battalion remained in Yugoslavia, with its command at Kastav, until the end of August when it returned to Turin for equipping. The same month command was taken over by Major spe Dante Caprini. In June, to help the XXXII Guastatori battalion which was already in North Africa, a draft of 60 men under 2nd Lt. Rota Rossi was sent to provide replacements for losses suffered.

In August the unit was sent to Settimo Torinese, seat of the 7th Engineer Regiment, to be equipped for colonial service in North Africa. The four companies were commanded by:

  • 1st Company – Lieutenant Zaccaria Stievan
  • 2nd Company – Captain Aldo Chiolero
  • 7th Company – Captain Brancolini
  • 8th Company – Captain Renato Amoretti

Foto 21

Officers of the 31st at Brod na Kupi in Yugoslavia, prior to departing for Africa. From the lest Lt. Pazzaglia (KIA), Capt. Amoretti, Capt. Chiolero (KIA), Capt. Cicchese, Capt. Brancolini (WIA), Lt. Leonardi (KIA), and Lt. Serafini (KIA) (from http://www.guastatori.it)

On 16 September 1941 the XXXI embarks on the transatlantic liner Vulcania at Taranto, and on 18 September reaches North Africa, disembarking at Tripoli.[2] It is sent to the oasis of Zanzur just outside Tripoli for acclimatisation.

Tobruk 1941

Assigned to XXI Army Corps on 2 October, it reaches El Adem, in Marmarica.[3] Here the sappers undergo a period of intensive training on fake fortifications surrounded by wire and anti-tank ditches. Their entry into action seems imminent. This period of preparation ends on 12 November.

In fact on 18 November 1941 the 2nd Company Lupo and the 7th Tigre, are assigned to the Bologna Division south-east of Tobruk, while the 1st Giaguaro, and the 8th Leone reinforce the Pavia Division in the adjacent sector.[4]

The next morning the situation changed unexpectedly: the British troops launched a massive and unexpected offensive with the intent to liberate the fortress of Tobruk from the siege of the Italo-German forces.

Now a defensive line was organised in order not to be overwhelmed by the British tanks. The situation was confused, but all the Italian units, which according to the plans of the enemy should have been overrun in a few hours, withstood the enemy pressure well.

The Guastatori companies, placed with infantry and artillery, adapted immediately to a kind of war that was quite different to that which they were used to. The explosive charges meant to destroy fortified emplacements instead were used to stop the tanks.[6] For the first time at Belhamed the 7th company Tigre, reinforced by a platoon of infantry and four light tanks[5], holding this position on a ridge, repulses an attack by several enemy tanks, immobilizing them with explosive charges detonated at a distance (wooden crates filled with explosives and triggered by rapid fuses). Sergeant-Major Angiolo Campanella, who came up with this idea, was rewarded for it by a handshake from the Battalion CO.

The battle became more and more furious. On 28 November many units of the Bologna division gave in, and the 2nd and 7th companies withstood the pressure of the enemy almost alone.

Having received the order to retire, the battalion moves to Bu Hamud[7] where Major Caprini organises it in two strongpoints, which he commands. These include elements of 39 and 40 Infantry regiments[8] and the 7th Bersaglieri[9]. These forces are joined, after some days, by the 1st and 8th companies of the battalion.

Retreat

On 7 December the 31st Battalion, thus reunited and with the companies still effective and strong, despite the losses suffered, retires on foot to Ain el Gazala, about 60km west of Tobruk. 

On 18 December the general retreat is ordered, known as the ‘2nd Retreat’[10]. The 31st Battalion, which finds itself about 10km south-west of the village of Berta[11], has to reach the location of Barce, about 200km away, and to achieve this receives some vehicles from the Superintendent of Supply, but not enough for its needs. Major Caprini therefore decides to move in two stages. On the 18th the 7th and 8th companies, together with some elements of the other two, are leaving.

The next morning, while men and materials are loaded onto the trucks which had returned from Barce, a sudden attack by English armoured cars leads to the encirclement of nearly all the Guastatori. Thus, after having tried but failed to resist and to break this encirclement, they are captured.

Just on this one day, 19th December 1941, the 31st Battalion loses a total of 8 officers, 19 NCOs, and 171 other ranks, killed, missing, and captured – amongst these also its brave battalion commander, Major Caprini. Command is taken over by Captain Chiolero.[12]

Despite being hit hard, on 23 November the battalion is in the frontline with the infantrymen of the Pavia division.

Total losses of the battalion amount to 362 men, of which 15 are Officers, 27 NCOs, and 320 other ranks.

Early 1942

Due to the heavy losses, Captain Chiolero reorganizes the battalion, merging the remnants of 1st and 2nd Company into a new 1st Company Giaguaro, with reduced establishment. The battalion is moved away from the frontline and assigned to the X. Army Corps, which itself has entered the line at Mersa el Brega in early January.

On 3 April, the Guastatori attempt to handle a fire that was started by a  runaway primus stove which was lit next to a trailer loaded with ammunition, which was in turn parked near an ammunition storage. The storage and trailer explode violently, killing Captain Chiolero, three other officers, and 19 other ranks. Command of the Battalion goes to Captain Amoretti.

Foto 10

Flamethrower operator (Flammiere) Senior Corporal Santino RUVO, of 1st Company Giaguaro, Silver Medal for Military Valor, missing in Tunisia in May 1943. (from http://www.guastatori.it)

[1]The companies were numbered 1, 2, 7, and 8, and named respectively Giaguaro (Jaguar), Lupo (Wolf), Tigre (Tiger), and Leone (Lion).

[2]This convoy was meant to bring a substantial amount of troops to North Africa, including from the motorised division Trieste. Three transatlantic liners were employed, Neptunia, Oceania, and Vulcania. Shortly before heading into the safety of Tripoli harbour, HMS Upholder under Lt. Commander Wanklyn sank both Neptunia and Oceania. Vulcan survived the war and was broken up in 1974.

[3]XXI Army Corps was the Italian formation manning the siege lines of Tobruk. El Adem was the site of the main airfield outside the Tobruk fortress, and the seat of the HQ of both XXI Army Corps and the German Panzergruppe Afrika under Rommel.

During this period the battalion became also the training emplacement for other units destined to participate in the assault. A Corps order to the Brescia infantry division informs the latter that its Arditi (a term used for assault engineers in World War I) section, which was scheduled to participate in the assault (while the Brescia division itself was to hold the western siege line), would come under XXXI Battalion for training purposes on 6 November.

There also seem to have been serious concerns about divisional commands abusing this specialized formation, with a note going out to the Bologna division on 6 November, clarifying that the Guastatori are only to be used for the assault on fortified locations, and querying whether more than one company was needed by the division, requesting that all targets for the Guastatori be identified to justify the assignment of a second company. On 8 November, another instruction went out to both Pavia and Bologna divisions, clarifying that the Guastatori were not normal engineers, and therefore not under the engineer commander of the division, and that in anything relating to their mode of employment the commander of the Guastatori battalion was in charge.

[4]This would probably still have been in preparation for the assault on Tobruk, rather than as a reaction to the start of Operation CRUSADER. Bologna division was posted in the planned breakthrough sector, and was supposed to participate in the operation. Pavia was the next division to the south-west. It is also not quite correct, since an OOB for XXI Army Corps of 4 November already shows one company assigned to the Bologna division, while the other three were still under direct command of the Corps.

[5]L3/35 light tanks, which were organised in independent companies, one of which was attached to many of the Italian infantry divisions as a reinforcement. These tanks had almost no combat value on a modern battlefield.

[6]This was probably the strongpoint known as LEOPARD to the British break-out forces. It is unlikely that this action occurred on the first day of the breakout, since no British tanks made it to Belhamed that day. See also this link for a list of codenames and locations. It is difficult to reconcile this account with British and New Zealand war diaries if one sticks to the location. It is possible however that this event occurred after one of the two companies was moved to a new strongpoint at km.10 of the Axis road on 24 November, roughly the area of the strongpoint WOLF/GRUMPY, where on the night 25/26 November an attack by 2 Yorks and Lancs regiment supported by 4 R.T.R. ran into mines immobilizing five Matilda tanks.

Axis Road Position

New Italian position (indicated ‘it’)facing east around km.10 of the Axis bypass road. Possibly that held by one company Guastatori. (war diary 90th Light Division)

[7]Unclear where this was, could be just south of the Via Balbia at the airfield indicated above.

[8]Of the Bologna division.

[9]Of the Trento motorized division.

[10]The first being that of late 1940/early 1941, in the context of Operation COMPASS.

[11]In the Jebel mountains.

[12]Based on a report in the XIII Corps message log, this was probably accomplished by 3 South African Reconnaissance Regiment, which reported 300 POW taken that day. It was operating in support of 4 Indian Division, which advanced on the right flank of the Allied advance, through the Jebel mountains. The other unit equipped with armored cars was the Central India Horse reconnaissance regiment of 4 Indian Division, whose A and C Squadrons served as reconnaissance for 5 and 7 Indian Brigades, respectively, although these two squadrons were equipped with trucks. C Squadron reported 150 POW on 18 December, but seems to have primarily been engaged at Derna landing ground.