Centauro at Gazala
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2016

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 1939.

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 strategic reserve.

Symbol of a proud division.
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.

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.

Advancing against the enemy.
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.

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 of battle.

In an 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 conditions.

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.