Ariete’s Actions on Totensonntag – Italian Report

The report below originates from Ariete’s files held at NARA. It is the official after action report from the command of Ariete’s 132nd Tank Regiment, and covers the actions of the Colonna di Nisio (see an overview of its organisation also at this link) during the battle of Totensonntag, November 23, 1941, when it operated with the D.A.K. to destroy 5 South African Brigade and the remainder of the Allied forces on the Sidi Rezegh air field. It is probably the only source other than the war diary that quantifies the losses in tanks that Ariete suffered on the day.

I have written up the war diary at this link.

132 Armoured Regiment Command Staff

Report on Actions at Bir bu Cremisa

23 November 1941 – Year 20 of the Fascist Era

On higher orders, under the command of Brigadier General di Nisio, Deputy Commander of the Ariete Division, an armour-mechanised column  was formed, consisting of two companies of the 8th Tank Battalion and two of the 9th Tank Battalion, one group of 75/27 [guns], one light detachment of portee trucks with 65mm guns, two battalions of Bersaglieri, and two (?) sections of 20mm guns. Its task was to move into the area Bir bu Cremisa, to work with the German forces coming from Gambut. At 08.30 hours, leaving behind in the zone of Bir el Gubi the remainder of the tanks and vehicles, the column, pointing east, moved to reach the target destination.

At about 09.50 hours, after only a few kilometres, enemy vehicles coming from the north-east were recognised.  The column continued its march with the tanks in the van, and most of the vehicles closing up. The tanks pushed forward decisively, and soon were in contact with the enemy elements, leading to lively engagements which the adversary however managed to extract himself from thanks to the higher speed of his vehicles. – About 10.00 the column has to stop because of signs of violent artillery fire from flying enemy batteries from the centre of resistance. The stop is protracted until 13.00 hours and the tanks, in reaction to the situation, form a defensive front with the 2 companies of the 8th facing north, and the 2 of the 9th facing out. At about 13.40 hours, coming from the north-west, a great dust cloud announces the arrival of a column with a certain strength of numerous vehicles. At 14.00 hours the Italian and German forces make contact, fusing into a block of steel that now points, in straight union, at the enemy forces advised to be in the area. After a brief halt, the German forces move pointing in the direction of Bir bu Cremisa, and the Italian forces remain on their left, with the same objective. At 14.25 hours the Germans close up with the enemy from the north, while our armoured vehicles find themselves embroiled with similar English vehicles. At 16.00 hours the fight shows itself to be violent and decisive. The tanks move on the attack in waves, in combat formation, and sustain the collision with resoluteness, stopping various British vehicles in the area. The light artillery of the C.A.M. is launched on the left flank and in-between the M.13 with the order to support with anti-tank fire the fire of our armoured vehicles. The German forces meanwhile continue their operation to annihilate, with their flank protected by our forces. Intense fire from the field artillery continues amid the clash of tanks while dense high columns of smoke engulf the horizon. Close-knit formations of planes survey the area incessantly in search for opportunities to strafe, but are frustrated by the immediate intervention of the anti-air artillery.

At 17.00 hours the struggle does not abate but rather increases in fury and intensity similar to that which happened during the encounter at Bir el Gobi. Regardless, all the tanks proceed orderly with their advance extinguishing the last resistance of the adversary. At 17.30 hours the English waver and rescue the last surviving vehicles, by moving to flee. During this time the daylight diminishes, and the dark gathering on the horizon renders the flames of the fires even more lively. An endless line of similar fires on many places shows the line of retreat of the enemy. German and Italian forces, cooperating closely, now find themselves among the remains of the defeated enemy, as they were during their decisive action of destruction. Also during this action, like the previous one, the tank men have been above any praise. They demonstrated their superb aggressive intent and their sense of unity with their weapon up to making the supreme sacrifice. Against the numerous but unquantifiable losses of the English and an immense number of prisoners stand one dead and four wounded, and two tanks lost (fuori combattimento) and three lightly damaged.

Ariete’s Contribution to Sidi Rezegh – di Nisio Column

The official report in the Italian files is already posted at this link. This post brings together more detailed information.

After its defensive victory over 22 Armoured Brigade at Bir el Gubi, Ariete Division remained in the area until 25 November, when it moved off east in pursuit of the supposedly beaten 8 Army. Preceding this however, Panzergruppe Afrika requested support for the encirclement of 7 Armoured Division at Sidi Rezegh. At the order of the Corpo Armata di Manovra, which controlled Ariete, a mobile force was detached to support the Afrikakorps in its fight against 7 Armoured Division. This post gives a timeline and order of battle for this column, which was named after its commander, Brigadier-General di Nisio, Deputy Commander of the Ariete Division.

1. Order of Battle and strength (estimate)

Force Element Equipment Est. Strength
Command

Regimental Command 132nd Tank Regiment

Signals, command vehicles Not known
Armour

8th Tank Battalion

M13-40 2 companies, 30-34 tanks, depending on losses at el Gubi

9th Tank Battalion

M13-40 2 companies, 30-34 tanks, depending on losses at el Gubi
Infantry

5th Lorried Bersaglieri Battalion

Mortars, machine guns 2 rifle companies, 1 machine-gun company, mortars (estimate)

3rd (?) Anti-Tank Company

47/32 AT guns 12 Anti-Tank guns
Artillery

1st Artillery Group

75/27 guns 12 guns (light)

Flying Battery of 2nd Artillery Group

65/17 guns 4 guns (light) (not clear)

Battery of Field Guns

105/28 4 guns (field)

Battery of Lorried Artillery

102/35 guns 4 or 5 guns (old but powerful naval guns)

What is clear from this, the uncertainties notwithstanding, is that this was a well-balanced force of armour, artillery, and infantry. A very considerable step above the force balance the Empire troops were fielding at this time.

2. Timeline and Map

Day/Time Event
23 November
0800 Departure from Bir el Gobi
1300 Joins German column coming from North-East and receives orders to accompany this column from German commander (either Cruewell or Neumann-Silkow). German records give the time of contact as 12.35, at a point 12km north-east of Bir el Gubi.
1400 – 1900 Joins combat at Bir el Gubi. German records show that Ariete was supposed to start at 1400 together with 15. Panzerdivision, covering its right flank. The German attack started at 1500, Ariete reported being in combat at 1600 with enemy armour, which is confirmed by German after-action reports – a group of British tanks attacked from the left into the path of Ariete and the flank of 15. Panzer. The late start led to the flank of 15. Panzer to be uncovered, which caused severe problems to its advance. At the end of the fight The di Nisio column claims 153 POW, amongst whom 3 officers, and large quantities of materiel.
24 November
Morning The column is ordered to rejoin the division which in turn is order to join the pursuit of the 8 Army. The column rests in place, awaiting the arrival of the division. It comes under artillery fire.
Evening The column rejoins the division.
Map of the battle of Totensonntag from the Afrikakorps war diary.  Lighter text and drawing showing Empire troop positions.

Map of the battle of Totensonntag from the Afrikakorps war diary. Lighter text and drawing showing Empire troop positions.

3. Commander

Brigadier General Ismaele di Nisio had an interesting wartime career. Prior to the war, as Lieutenant-Colonel, he authored two training pamphlets, on tanks in combat and infantry patrols. Following his stint as deputy commander of Ariete, he may for a short time have taken over as acting commander, and then rose to command the armoured Young Fascist division (No. 136) during the Gazala battles and at El Alamein. On 8 September 1943, the day of Italy’s surrender, he commanded the 47th “Bari” Infantry Division in Sardinia. He remained a royalist and contined in active command of 9th Corps and the Puglia & Lucania Military District in southern Italy until the end of war.

4. Pictures


Italian soldiers resting in front of a M13/40 tank. From the Bundesarchiv digital collection


Captured 65/17 gun on a (captured) Morris truck, North Africa 1942, from Wikipedia


102/35 gun captured by Empire troops, from Wikipedia


A Bersagliere in North Africa uniform with the typical feathered helmet. From the Italian Army website.

5. Sources

  • War diaries
    • Ariete Division
    • Deutsches Afrikakorps
    • 15. Panzerdivision
  • Web sites

 

First Battle of Bir el Gobi – What Happened There?

Much has been made of the defense of Biro l Gobi on 19 November 1941 by the Italian Ariete division. One can easily argue that this is where it all started to go wrong for the Commonwealth. But then again, with the possible exception of the taking of Sidi Omar by 7 Indian Brigade, it is hard to see what went right at the start…

Facts

22 Armoured Brigade put in a piecemeal attack on Bir el Gobi early on 19 November. They got checked by the Ariete division and its supporting units, and had to withdraw after suffering losses. The attack was not renewed, instead 22 Armoured Brigade went to help out (and be destroyed in the process) at Sidi Rezegh on 21 to 23 November, and 1 South African Division’s 1 South African Brigade was then tasked with ‘masking’ the Bir el Gobi position. Ariete stayed in the area a few more days before moving off north to participate in the ‘dash to the wire’ on 24 November.

Claims

Now for some of the claims that are being made. These include that 22 Armoured Brigade lost over 50 tanks that day; that this battle was a big victory of the Italian forces; that it demonstrated the prowess of the Italian army at arms; that it derailed CRUSADER; that 22 Armoured Brigade and 7 Armoured Division command blundered into the position, not knowing that Ariete was there; that 22 Armoured Brigade put in a mindless Balaklava frontal charge into the position; that Ariete was supported by German forces; that the Commonwealth forces did not consider Italian tanks serious opponents, and were not aware of their number, underestimating Ariete’s strength; that the Commonwealth command considered Bir el Gobi a defeat at the time.

Sources

War diaries are available online at this link for the three armoured regiments participating (2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars RGH, 3 and 4 County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) CLY), with 4 CLY missing November 1941 at this link, unfortunately, and for the 11 Hussars, the reconnaissance unit of 22 Armoured Brigade. 22 Armoured Brigade war diary, and after battle reports and war diaries from 7 Armoured Division are available too, including its message log. None of these conclusively addresses the issue of British tank losses, but taken together they help form a picture. Further material is available in the UK archives, as well as an after action report by Ariete, which is held at NARA, in College Park. War diaries for Ariete are also available. We also have access to the regimental history of the 2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, and hopefully soon to that of both CLY regiments, as well as Viscount Cranley’s book about 3 CLY. The UK sources are of variable quality and reliability, and the Italian report is written in that peculiar Italian style…

In our book, we intend to discuss this battle in detail, drawing on the period sources available to us. We hope we will be able to deal with some of the misconceptions at least, and provide as closely as possible a definitive account of the battle. This is just one of the areas where we hope to add to the knowledge of what happened during Operation CRUSADER.