Folgore at Alamein
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2017

Contrary to well-cherished myth among game players, the German high command did not withhold reinforcements from the North African theater due to an inability to supply them there. While resupply might have been difficult, the question was also purely theoretical: The panzer divisions desired by Erwin Rommel could only come from the Eastern Front, and there were none to spare.

The Royal Italian Army proved more willing to commit troops to the desert campaign, but faced a different problem: a shortage of formations trained and especially equipped for the mobile, modern warfare being waged in Libya and Egypt. In the summer of 1942 Italy had finally produced enough tanks to both replace losses in its one armored division fighting there and send a second to join it. In addition to mechanized formations, the Italian high command believed that elite light infantry also had a place in desert warfare if supported by armored units.

Folgore parachutists during training.

Among these elite formations eventually tabbed for desert service was the 185th “Folgore” Parachute Division. The unit figures prominently in our very large Alamein game. Though lacking in combat power in the game, especially anti-tank weapons, Folgore’s paratroopers have immensely high morale.

Parachute troops were seen as a very modern symbol of the fascist state, and Italy was quick to adopt the idea. The Army authorized its first battalion in 1936, the same year that the Air Force began small-scale jump training. Formed by the experience of Spain and Ethiopia, Italian thinking did not initially foresee large formations landing by parachute, but rather small groups to cause disruption and sabotage.

Parachutists in the desert, some months later.

Marshal Italo Balbo formed the first colonial parachute unit in 1938 in Libya, staffing his “Air Infantry Regiment” with “volunteers” from the Libyan colonial troops and officers from both the Army and Air Force. They trained at a jump school near Tripoli, and in 1940 the army opened its own mainland training center at Tarquina. Training progressed only slowly as technical glitches with the parachutes kept killing trainees, but two battalions of regular army paratroopers were soon formed, and the Royal Carabinieri (Italy’s militarized police) formed its own parachute company as well. In March 1941 a German-designed parachute replaced the Italian model, and the pace of training quickened considerably. All parachutists were volunteers, and the branch had the pick of most of the army’s non-commissioned and junior officers — small-unit leadership, a weakness in most Italian formations, therefore was a strength among the paratroopers.

The army’s commitment grew, and on 1 September 1941 the 1st “Folgore” Parachute Division officially came into being, followed soon afterwards by the 2nd “Nembo” Parachute Division. The decision to form a second division siphoned off one of Folgore’s regiments, slowing the division’s development, and Nembo never became fully operational, either.

Lt. Gianpaolo directs one of Folgore’s few anti-tank guns.

Small groups of Italian paratroopers landed on Zante and Cephalonia in April 1941 and made a raid on Cyprus as well. Italian planners considered attacks on the Suez Canal and a large-scale drop into Italian East Africa. But the real target was the island fortress of Malta, and Folgore trained hard for the operation alongside several German parachute battalions.

Operazione C3, as the Italians called the attack, was cancelled in June 1942. On 14 July 1942 Folgore was alerted for transfer to Africa, and air transport began within a few days. On the 27th the division was renamed the 185th “Cacciatori d’Africa” Infantry Division, but Italian reports refer to it as the 185th “Folgore” Parachutist Brigade.

The “division” left behind several of its battalions to strengthen the Nembo Division, re-numbered 184th at the same time. “Brigade” was an accurate appraisal, with between 3,000 and 3,500 troops when the British attacked the Alamein line in October 1942. However, the troopers had gone to Africa with considerably more automatic weapons than allocated by their official establishment, and acquired more after landing. This helped redress the manpower shortage to some extent.

Folgore had seven small parachute battalions at that time (V and VI under 186th Regiment; II, IV, IX and X under 187th Regiment, and VII operating independently), plus a strong parachute assault engineer battalion (Italian records are inconsistent on whether the assault engineers, known as guastatori, are included in the Folgore troop total or not). A number of assets from other divisions had also been attached: a combat engineer battalion (though sometimes rendered “guastatori” in English-language descriptions, these troops were similar but not identical to assault engineers), one artillery and one infantry battalion from the Pavia Division, an artillery battery from the Brescia Division, a battery of the deadly 88mm or 90mm anti-aircraft guns (Italian records differ as to which) from the Ariete Armored Division, an anti-tank company from the V Bersaglieri Battalion, and a German tank platoon from the 21st Panzer Division.

Gen. Enrico Frattini led Folgore at Alamein.

X Parachute Battalion came to Africa already understrength and suffered heavy casualties in the British attack known as Operation Beresford in September, though it inflicted more than 10 times its own losses on the British 131st Infantry Brigade. By the time of the Alamein battles it was down to company strength and fighting under IX Battalion’s command. II Parachute Battalion brought only two of its companies to Africa; the third (6th Parachute Company) remained in Tarquina as training cadre. The 185th Parachute Artillery Regiment brought only three company-strength “gruppi” of 47mm anti-tank guns, and the 20th Mortar Company of two platoons with 81mm tubes.

When the British attack came on 23 October 1942, Folgore manned a division-sized sector despite its low strength. Four enemy divisions (44th and 50th British Infantry, 7th British Armoured, and 1st Free French) attacked the parachute brigade’s lines.

One of at least 31 British tanks destroyed by Folgore troopers on 25 October 1942.

The paratroopers repulsed repeated attacks, routing the French and driving back the British. Folgore’s men followed a unique (and perilous) tactic used by IX and X battalions during the September fighting: allowing the British tanks to penetrate their positions, then ambushing them from multiple directions with hunter-killer teams hidden in camouflaged dugouts. Folgore’s war diary claims 110 tanks destroyed in a single day, but only 31 hulks remained on the battlefield — Gen. Enrico Frattini blamed his attached combat engineer battalion for disobeying his orders to finish off abandoned British tanks with demolition charges. And echoing German practice of abusing their allies, the brigade staff accused the attached German tank platoon of cowardice in the face of the enemy.

Folgore paid a price.

After three days of heavy fighting, the British abandoned their assaults on the southern end of the Axis line where Folgore stood and re-focused on the opposite flank. There they had much more success, and on 2 November Folgore received orders to withdraw. Lacking motor transport, most of the paratroopers were lost in the retreat, though a small band fought its way all the way across Libya and saw action in Tunisia as the 285th “Folgore” Parachute Battalion.

While Italy fielded a number of fine units during the Second World War, parachute veterans considered Folgore the best of them. For hard fighting in a despicable cause, they may have been right.

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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 prefers ready access to water.