By Mike Bennighof,
Italy’s oldest armored division, the
131st “Centauro,” saw very little
action in the Libyan desert and was still
in Italy during the Battle of Gazala. Formed
in April 1937 from the 1st Armored Brigade,
Centauro formed part of the Armored Corps
(along with 132nd “Ariete”) and
took part in the corps-level exercises held
in the Po valley in the late 1930s. Centauro
did not formally become a division until February
In our Gazala game there’s only one Italian armored
division present, the 132nd
Ariete. Ariete operated above its usual
strength, incorporating a number of units
from the 133rd
“Littorio” Armored Division under its command. The remainder of the Littorio
division formed part of Erwin Rommel’s
When Italy invaded Albania in April 1939,
Centauro took its L3 tankettes and ancient L5
“medium” tanks to the Balkans.
The division took part in the invasion of
Greece in the fall of 1940, with lackluster
effect. Centauro received its first M13/40
tanks in December 1940, and deployed them
at Klisura in January against the Greeks but
lost many of them to Greek artillery fire.
Symbol of a proud division.
Things went better against the Yugoslavs
the next spring. Despite its outmoded equipment,
Centauro fought well and linked up with Littorio
in the campaign for which Italy had created
an Armored Corps. But service at the front
kept Centauro from receiving enough of the
new tanks, and in June 1941 it finally returned
to Italy to be re-equipped.
Centauro adopted the new armored division structure designed
with North African experience in mind: a three-battalion
tank regiment, a three-battalion Bersaglieri
regiment, a large artillery regiment including
two small battalions of self-propelled guns
(Semovente) and one battalion of 90mm anti-aircraft
guns, plus reconnaissance and engineer battalions.
But Ariete had top priority for new vehicles,
to replace losses suffered at the front, and
Fiat-Ansaldo produced M13/40 medum tanks and
the self-propelled guns based on their chassis
at a slower pace than operations demanded.
While Centauro appears to have trained with
some captured French vehicles, taking these
to North Africa would have induced severe
logistical problems. All tanks of the 1940s
were prone to break down and needed large
amounts of spare parts; Fiat-made ones like
the M13/40 moreso than most. French armored
vehicles did not come off assembly lines but
were built individually, making each tank
slightly different than the next. By 1941,
not even French depots had sufficient stocks
of spare parts for the tanks seized by the
victorious German and Italian armies during
the previous summer. French mechanics had
had a hard enough time keeping the balky machines
running; no Italian ordnance officer wanted
to take these foreign tanks into action. Rather
than try to bring these tanks (only slightly
better than the M13/40) to Libya, the Italian
Army left them in northern Italy and Centauro
waited its turn. That finally came in August
1942, when the division was alerted to move
across the Mediterranean.
Advancing against the enemy.
However, moving a division to the front
took time, and Centauro was not present for
any of the Alamein battles in Egypt. It instead
became caught up in Rommel’s panicked
retreat across Libya in late 1942. Centauro
went into action in Tunisia, however, playing
a major role in Rommel’s rout of American
forces at Kasserine Pass. The division fought
on until the very end in Tunisia, with remnants
finally surrendering in May 1943.
The Ivano Variant
The Axis infrastructure in North Africa, which despite German
boasts meant Italian supply services and the
Royal Italian Navy, could not have supported
a much larger force than the one Rommel launched
into action in June 1942. Sending a third
Italian armored division to the Western Desert
could only have been accomplished at the cost
of removing other units from the Axis order
earlier installment, we looked at the
political realities of producing better armored
vehicles at Fiat-Ansaldo’s factories.
This was certainly possible, and probably
a necessary precursor to putting the Italian
armored divisions on a level capable of meeting
the British without serious German aid. We
have two versions of the new Italian-only
scenario, one with M13/40 tanks, one with
the M22/41 and P23/41 (licensed Fiat-made
PzKw IIIJ and PzKwIVF2 tanks, respectively).
It’s a fantasy scenario, obviously,
but a fantasy held by a number of our Italophile gamers.
The Operazione Ottavio scenario is a modification
of the standard Operation AIDA scenario from
our Gazala game. Remove Rommel and all units
of the Afrika Korps from play. The two German
infantry regiments assigned to the Italian
XXI Corps remain (these special units likely
would have fought in Africa regardless of
where Rommel and his panzers served).
In exchange, add all units of 133rd Littorio
and 131st Centauro divisions to the Italian
XX Corps. 133rd units set up at or within
one hex of hex 0609. 131st units set up at
or within one hex of hex 0409. All other scenario
rules remain in effect, including victory
Littorio consists of 1/133, 2/133 and 3/133
tank battalions, 12/133 motorized infantry,
Nov/133 recon battalion, 29/133 anti-aircraft
battalion and S/133 assault gun battalion.
Centauro consists of 14/131, 15/131 and 17/131
tank battalions, 5/133 motorized infantry,
Lodi/131 recon battalion, 31/131 anti-aircraft
battalion and S/131 assault gun battalion.
Add the 11/101 tank battalion to the 101st
“Trieste” Motorized Division.
Add the Nizza/132 recon battalion to the 132nd
“Ariete” Armored Division.
Two Italian armored divisions are a poor
trade for a pair of German panzer divisions
and a motorized one, even with their greater
number of tank battalions (a swap of seven
new battalions of total armored strength 14,
for four battalions of 20 total armored factors).
And then there’s the loss of Rommel
with his special powers — perhaps an
even greater deduction from Axis capabilities
than the 15th Panzer Division.
The Italian tank battalions have been provided
in two versions. Use the 2-2-8 battalions
(with M13/40 tank icons) for the Ottavio I
scenario. This is almost impossible for the
Axis to win. For the Ottavio II scenario,
use the 6-7-9 and 5-5-9 battalions (improved
battalions for Ariete were provided in an earlier free download).
Even without Rommel, the big battalions give
Italy a chance of sweeping the Commonwealth
out of Libya.
Download the new counters here.
Gazala is available now — click here to order!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has a very fine nose.