CHG - 5th Bersaglieri Regiment
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Unit History in North Africa

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The Italian Bersaglieri (bear-sah-lee-air-ey) Battalions, or Fiamme Cremisi (Crimson Flames) as they are known, were/are an Elite Corps of light infantry, on par with the German Jager and the French Chasseur units.  The Bersaglieri were recruited from all over Italy from hand picked men of excellent physical condition, better education and outstanding character.  Every Bersagliere had to qualify as an expert marksman with his carbine and received Arditi style Reparto d’Assalto training in special weapons, reconnaissance, attack and defensive tactics.  During WW 2 the main Bersaglieri regiments were converted to motorized infantry, with each of the Italian Armored and Celeri (Fast Motorized) divisions having a Bersaglieri regiment attached as the infantry component.  Each regiment had two truck mounted battalions and a thrid battalion mounted on Moto Guzzi motorbikes.  Bersaglieri companies were also often attached to regular infantry divisions and used for the divisional command’s recon company. 

 

     The 1942-43 Bersaglieri light infantry platoon was truck or motorbike transported, commanded by a Tenente and two NCO’s.  It included two sections of 24 men each (48 Soldatos), with each section subdivided into three Squadra (squads) of eight men each.  Each Squadra was commanded by a Sargente and composed of a light machine gun group (mitragliatori gruppo) of four men and a rifle group (fucilieri gruppo) of four men, each commanded by a Corporale.  Each Bersaglieri company (3 to 4 platoons) would have been supported by a heavy weapons platoon composed of a heavy machinegun section, mortar section, an anti-tank gun section (47mm AT Guns), an anti-aircraft section (20mm AA Guns) and an anti-tank rifle section (20mm AT Rifles).  The total 200 man company would be commanded by a Capitano and a commando section, along with medical and communications sections.

     

     During the desert war of 1940 to 1943, six of the twelve Bersaglieri regiments fought in various formations.  They compiled an excellent combat record, many times fighting to victory, or to the last round holding their assigned positions against disproportionate odds.  In Africa the 5th Bersgalieri Regiment was a component of the Centauro Armored Division.  The Centauro Division was composed of the:

 

131st Tank Regiment (13th, 14th & 15th Armored Battalions) 

5th Bersaglieri Regiment (14th, 22nd & 24th Bersag. Battalions - Motorized Infantry)

131st Artillery Regiment

 132nd Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment

Lodi” Recce Battalion (Division Recon Company with AB41 Armored Cars).

 

     After campaigns in Albania in 1940 and Yugoslavia/Greece in 1941-42, the Centauro Division arrived in Benghasi, North Africa in November of 1942.  The Axis and Italian situation in the desert was desperate by this time, with the destruction of most of the Italian and much of the German Africa Army at El Alamein just completed.  The Centauro was sent to Mersa Brega to join the remaining Italian forces in Africa.  At this time the primary remaining Italian formations were the La Spezia and newly reinforced Giavanni Facisti Infantry Divisions, the newly arrived Centauro Armored Division and the Ariete Battle Group (composed of the surviving remnants of the XX Italian Corps from El Alamein).  The Centauro Division and 5th Bersaglieri Regiment fought throughout the remaining six month Tunisian Campaign against U.S., British and Free French forces, until the eventual Axis surrender on May 14th, 1943.  The 5th was engaged in numerous combats and several larger battles, with the high and low points outlined below.

 

Most Notable Victory in Tunisia:  The 5th Bersaglieri Regiment’s most notable victory came during the February 13th to 22nd period of 1943, when portions of the Centauro Division, including the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment, were incorporated into the DAK Assault Group.  This unit was a typical ad hock formation of the time for the Axis, composed of 53 panzers from the DAK 15th Panzer Division, 23 M-14 tanks from Centauro, 2 Italian artillery battalions, two of the three light infantry battalions of the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment, and a group of attached Italian Semoventi assault guns.  (The XXIV Battalion of the 5th was the motorcycle mounted battalion and was disbursed among the Italian units along the Mareth Line, acting as divisional recon companies).

 

    On February 19, 1943 this Axis formation was ordered to capture Kasserine Pass from elements of the U.S. 1st Armored Division.  On the 19th the pass was being defended by various units of the U.S. 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions (+-2,000 Infantry of the 26th and 39th I.R.), the U.S. 19th Engineer Regiment, the U. S. 33rd Field Artillery Battalion, a detachment of 20 M-3 Lee tanks from the U.S. 13th Armored Regiment, the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion and a Free French battery of the 67th African Artillery with French 75’s.  These forces were positioned in strong points dug in along the valley floor and adjacent ridges, behind some hastily established mine fields, tank obstacles and wire entanglements.

 

     The DAK Group began their attack on the key American positions around the village and surrounding hills of Djebel Semmana, a series of hills and transverse ridges to the east of the pass that dominate any approach.  During the day a number of attacks were made, starting with an attack by the 33rd Reconnaissance Battalion which attempted but failed to take the pass in a coup de man.  Then repeated attacks were made by Panzer Grenadier Regiment Afrika, supported by the panzers of 1st Battalion of the 8th Panzer Regiment.  These assaults failed to breach the Allied defenses, with 8th Panzer loosing five tanks in the process, all crippled in the American minefields. 

  

     During the night of the 20th the Allied defensive positions were reinforced by the arrival of eleven tanks of the British 10th Battalion Royal Buffs, along with a mortar and reconnaissance unit from the British 26th Armored Brigade.  The Americans added two companies of motorized infantry, an additional battery of artillery and some anti tank guns to the defense.  At 8 pm the Allied units were issued a stand-or-die order, directing that there would be no withdrawal unless to counter attack.  During that same night, the tanks of the 1st Battalion of the Centauro Armored Division and two battalions of the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment arrived from Gafsa. 

 

     At 08:30 on February 20th the DAK’s assault was resumed with two battalions of Panzer Grenadier Regiment Afrika, supported by field artillery and a battery of the new nebelwerfer rocket projectors, which were being used in combat for the first time.  The German infantry again failed to penetrate the Allied defensive positions, suffering many losses in the process.  Rommel himself arrived at 10:30 AM and personally took command.  On a rail bridge spanning the Hatab River he met with General Karl Buelowius, berating him for the couscous advance and for not leading his grenadiers from the front, furiously stating that if the position could not be cracked the Americans would have time to seal up the pass with reinforcements. 

 

      With the available German troops exhausted and still waiting for German reinforcements to arrive, Rommel now ordered the two battalions of the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment (XIV & XXII Battalions, +-1,000 Infantry) forward to the attack.  The Italians dismounted form their trucks and backed up by their mortars and the available artillery made a frontal assault on the surrounding ridges.  The regimental assault companies and the heavy weapons platoons were sent forward, attacking at several suspected weak points in the Allied defensive lines.  A successful breach was made about noon in the frontline minefields and defensive positions and some 800 Bersaglieri infantry stormed forward through the captured frontline strong points.  Once through, the Italians closed with the flanking enemy positions so rapidly that they were quickly under the U.S. artillery and fighting close quarters.  The Allied positions were soon partially enveloped from behind, with eight medium tanks (M-3 Lees) of Company I - 13th Armored dug in along the ridgeline defiles being knocked out, along with several tank destroyers. 

 

     Around 1 pm the 10th Motorcycle Infantry Battalion and the 2nd Battalion of the 86th PGr of the 10th Panzer arrived.  Rommel now ordered these units to support the Italian breakthrough and start a general attack along the entire immediate battle front.  The battle lasted several more hours in the pass itself and down the western side. The Axis armor, now through the minefields, engaged the remaining American armor and the 11 tanks of the Royal Buffs, who stood their ground until they all were knocked out by 8th Panzer Regiment panzers.  Several U.S. infantry battalions were surrounded and overrun and finally all the defenses were overcome. Some 900 Allied prisoners were taken, with the surviving Allied armor and infantry retreating down the other side of the pass in a panicked condition.  The persuing Axis armored units were now through the pass and chasing the routed Allied forces down the two highway corridors to Thala and Tebessa.  On the late afternoon of February 20th, the Axis break through advanced down the two highways leading out of the pass, with the companies of the 5th along with the tanks of the Centauro Division moved down Highway 13 towards Tebessa, passing abandoned Allied vehicles and rounding up American and British prisoners on the way. 

 

     On February 21st the 5th Bersaglieri advanced along with the main body of the DAK formation (15th Panzer & Centauro) down the highway corridor towards TebessaThe newly arrived 10th Panzer moved down the second eastern corridor along Highway 17, north towards Thala.  Rushed forward during the night in front of them were fifty Valentine tanks of the 26th Armored Brigade along with a handful of U.S. tank destroyers and the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Leicester Regiment.  During the night and the following day these Allied units managed to slow 10th Panzer's advance, but lost some 32 tanks, several artillery batteries and over 400 prisoners.  The Axis forces then halted in front of reestablished U.S. and British defenses at Thala, some four miles short of their objective, the supply dumps at Thala.  Combat continued through the night, illumitated by the burning supply dumps that had now been set on fire by U.S. engineers.

 

     On the west wing of the advance, combat continued during the day along the south bank of the Hatab River and into the night of the 21st as rain began to fall.  The two bersaglieri battalions established defensive positions along the wadies and low ridges at Djebel el Hamra, while under continuous counter attacks by American infantry supported by the reinforced 2nd Battalion of the U.S. 13th Armored Regiment.  The panzers of the 1st Battlion 8th Panzer Regiment, supported by the assault guns of the Centaruro Division were called on to launch a counter attack to relieve the pressure on the Italian light infantry.  During that same night the entire divisional artillery of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division, 48 guns, joined some 36 other emplaced U.S. and British artillery pieces in defensive positions around Thala. 

 

     On the morning of the 22nd mostly British infantry manned the final defensive line in front of Thala, backed up by some forty newly arrived British Churchill and American Sherman tanks and the large mass of artillery.  A mile away some 70 panzers and armored halftracks of the 10th Panzer Division and 2,500 infantry were ordered to move forward to the attack across terrain that was mostly open ground.  This force was greeted by a massive Allied artillery barrage which destroyed 10 panzers, many vehicles and disrupted communications.  On the west wing of the advance under cover of the night and rain storms the units of the DAK Assault Group attempted to move around to the left of the Allied positions.  The two bersaglieri battalions were ordered to attack, making a daylight counterattack across the Ousseltia Plain, that after a few hours was broken up by heavy artillery fire brought down on them by the 23 Royal Field Artillery Regiment.  The Axis forces were now being hit from three sides by intense artillery barrages.  Rommel, observing the action for several hours, realized that the Axis attack had petered out and called a halt to the advance.  The Allied artillery fire was continuous with many batteries firing over 2,000 rounds each, and so heavy that the 10th Panzer was unable to retire from the field until darkness fell.

 

     On the morning of the 23rd with ammunition stocks low and down to four days rations, Rommel ordered a general Axis withdrawal back through Kasserine Pass to Gafsa.  Allied forces, having now established a heavy concentration of artillery in the hills around Thala, began a general counter attack.  The battalions of the 5th Bersaglieri were among the last to be disengaged and during the retreat, several retiring companies of the 5th were overtaken by U.S. tanks and forced to scatter.  They managed to knock out some of the pursuing tanks in close quarters combat, but lost most of their transport vehicles and some prisoners in the confused battle.  Except for bombing and strafing attacks by Allied aircraft, the Axis withdrawal was carried out fairly unhindered by enemy pursuit.  The retreating Axis troops placed minefields and booby traps in their wake, with their engineers destroying railway bridges and abandoned guns and tanks that had been left behind on the battlefield by both sides. 

    

     The 5th Bersaglieri Regiment was complimented for their Úlan by General Bulowius, commander of the DAK Assault Group, who sighted their actions during the February 20th assault at Djebel Semmana as one of the instrumental events of the Axis victory.  On the night of February 20th at the Kasserine railway station, General Rommel wrote in his war diary…… “it was an exciting scene of the tank battle north of the pass…..and I have special praise for the 5th Bersaglieri, who attacked fiercely and whose commander fell during the attack; they threw the American, British and French forces out of the pass, allowing the II/86 and K.10 to exploit the breakthrough…”  During the assault on the 20th, the 5th Regimental commander, Colonel Bonafatti, was killed while leading has men from the front on a motorcycle with his adjutant, caught in the open by U.S. artillery.  Some 125 other 5th Regiment soldati were also killed and wounded. 

 

      Over the course of ten days the American 2nd Corps was driven back some 85 miles, suffering (German post battle estimates) 2,000 dead and 3,721 captured, while loosing some 300 tanks and self propelled guns, 95 halftracks, 80 guns and 14 aircraft in one of the worst U.S. defeats of the war.  The Axis forces suffered some 1,000 casualties, including over 200 dead.  Kasserine Pass was Rommel’s last command and last battle in Africa, while the still green U.S. army learned some hard lessons that would be corrected over the coming months.

 

5th Bersaglieri & Centauro’s Final Battles in Tunisia:  In mid March of 1943 U.S. General Patton’s 2nd Army Corps began its final drive into Tunisia.  From March 20 to April 7, 1943 the remnants of the Centauro Armored Division (Portions of the 5th Bersaglieri Regiment and some 15 to 20 M-14/41 tanks) held defensive positions around El Guettar in Djebel Orbala, just below the Djebel el Ank Mountains facing elements of the U.S. 1st Armored Division. 

 

     In a planned flanking assault during the evening of March 20th, 500 U.S. Rangers from Darby’s 1st Ranger Battalion and 70 mortar men along with their mortar tubes laboriously endured a ten mile night hike along 3,700 foot mountain peaks and ridges.  They approached the Italian positions from the rear, with the Americans arriving above and behind the Italian positions early on the morning of March 21st, in time to observe the Italians for some time. 

 

     At dawn on the 21st the American Rangers launched their attack with an intensive mortar barrage, followed by a downhill bayonet attack that struck the Italian rear areas and ran directly into the 5th Bersaglieri’s night camp.  The Italians were caught completely by surprise, with the Rangers killing many and capturing many more.  The U.S. 1st Infantry Division mounted a simultaneous frontal assault on the facing Italian lines, breaking through the key positions.  The surviving Italian armor retreated down Gumtree Road, leaving the 5th Regiment strung out behind them.  By the end of the day, many 5th Regiment soldatos had been killed and another 200 captured.

 

     On the following day the Centauro and the 10th Panzer Division made several attempts to counter attack and retake the lost positions, but their tank assemblies were broken up by heavy enemy artillery fire and air attacks.  On March 23rd the 10th Panzer mounted a second counter attack.  American intelligence discovered the planned attack and set up an ambush for the advancing Germans, destroying 37 of the 57 panzers involved (This is the battle portrayed in the 1970’s movie “Patton”).  

 

     On March 27th Allied forces broke through the Mareth Line, the Axis east-west defensive line in southern Tunisia, at which time the U.S. 2nd Corps launched the 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions in attacks towards Gabes, in an attempt to cut off Axis units retreating from the Mareth defensive positions.  This drive came up against the newly established 10th Panzer and Centauro defensive positions at Djebel Berda.  The following description of the battle is from the Centauro Division’s chief of staff:   

 

“Our artillery and minefields several times stopped the repeated attacks of hundreds of enemy tanks, three times the number as ours, on the second day with two Semoventi and fourteen tanks, we even carried out a surprise counter attack on the flank of a large armored formation….The American infantry that followed the tanks, even when the latter were forced to retire, continued without respite to attack our lines with an impressive amount of fire…….For four consecutive days we succeeded first in holding, and then in recapturing the strong points that fell, one by one, successively using all the reserves that we had saved at Gafsa.  It was useless to call for the support of our own aircraft; the sky above the battle was permanently dominated by the enemy aircraft, and our anti-aircraft defenses, equipped only with small-caliber weapons, succeeded only in putting off low level machine-gunning.“

 

    During this twelve day battle of continuous close quarters combat with the American 2nd Corps, the XXIV Battalion and the Motorcycle Battalion of the 5th were reduced to two companies of some 400 men.  Successive American attacks and German counter attacks continued until April 7th, when U.S. forces once again attacked, only to discover that the surviving Axis forces had successfully retreated to new defensive lines further to the northeast.  On April 8th the remaining tanks and troops of Centauro were attached to the rearguard units covering the with drawl of Axis forces from Wadi Akarit. 

 

     On April 12th the remaining Centauro armor (10 Tanks) were attached to the 15th Panzer Division and the Centauro Division was disbanded.  The two surviving Bersaglieri companies of the 5th Regiment were transferred to Kampfgruppe Manteuffel, which at this time was composed of the German 334th Infantry Division, the 3rd Mountain Regiment, Hermann Goring Division, 10th Panzer Division (+-60 Panzer III & IV) and Panzerabteilung 501 (+-20 Tigers).  The Italians occupied the sector just south of the Hermann Goring and fought along with these German formations around Bizerta and Cape Bon for the few remaining weeks, surrendering on May 12th along with all other Axis forces, ending the struggle for North Africa.

 

THE SURRENDER OF THE 5TH BERSAGLIERI:   

 

By April 30th, 1943 the 5th Bersalgieri had been reduced in strength to two rifle companies and combined with the survivors of the 10th Regiment.  Under the command of Maggiorre Mario Romagna, this unit continued to fight rear guard actions and retreat through the final days of the Tunisian Campaign alongside the remnants of the Lodi Recon Battalion, Hermann Goering and 15th Panzer Division. **

 

On May 13th, 1943 the remaining combat units of the Italian First Army were officially ordered to surrender.  The surviving Bersaglieri (some 600 men) were still occupying defensive positions along a ridgeline.  Their associated German counterparts had surrendered, and the bersaglieri had been under artillery bombardment for some 12 hours.  The position was approached under a white flag by American Officers accompanied by several German Officers.  The Italians refused to leave their positions and the American contingent was forced to enter the Italian position. Maggiorrie Romagna was shown the Order of Surrender and refused to accept it, after which the Americans returned to their lines.   

 

The surrender refusal was a ploy aimed at buying some time, as the Italians were out of ammunition, almost out of water, and needed time to make preparations.  The Maggiorrie assembled the men and made a short speech, after which the regimental flags were kissed by all of the surviving officers and then torn into small pieces that were distributed among the men.  Weapons were then destroyed and the handful of surviving trucks loaded with the wounded and infirm.  Lead by the Unit commander, the Battalion Adjutant, Lieutenant Ercolani and the unit Chaplain on motorcycles under a white flag, the Bersaglieri marched into captivity through flanking lines of American soldiers at “present arms.”   They were taken to the concentration camp at Mateur, where the commanding American General complemented the Officer’s for the order and discipline of their men. 

 

**It is interesting to note that right up to the end of combat in Tunisia the Italian Bersaglieri Regiments were retained whenever possible as components of German formations, as the Germans considered them reliable and aggressive combat units.

 

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BERSAGLIERI AFRICA FIELD UNIFORM & KIT
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The CHG, founded in 1979 and incorporated in 1992, is a non-profit organization that is recognized by the Department of Defense as a World War II educational and reenactment organization. The CHG's 5th Bersaglieri Unit is a non-political group whose sole purpose is to preserve World War II history through uniform, equipment and vehicle restorations, static displays, and historical reenactments. We do NOT support or CONDONE any activities involving Neo-Nazis, extremist, or anti-American organizations. We are not involved, nor do we have any involvement with any anti-government activities.
 

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