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Italy's Marines
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
March 2014

It's long been a truism of military history and theory that formation of elite forces causes a nation's regular units to suffer from a lack of small unit leadership and individual initiative. Italy's armed forces during the Second World War are an object lesson in this principle: they included some of the war's best units, and also some of its worst.

Among the elite was the Navy's San Marco Regiment of marines. This unit traced its ancestry to the old Royal Piedmontese Navy's sea soldiers, and had seen action throughout the wars of the Risorgimento, in Italian colonial wars in Libya and East Africa, and in the Boxer Rebellion in China. In 1911 Italian marines spearheaded the invasion of Libya, fighting at Tripoli and at Tobruk.

Naval troops took part in the defense of Venice starting with the Italian declaration of war in May 1915, and by October an informal Naval Brigade had been established on the Isonzo Front that included some Army units, customs guards (Guardia di Finanza), and the crew of the armored cruiser Amalfi - equipped with rifles, declared an infantry battalion and flung into the trenches a few days after an Austrian submarine sank their ship.

Italian marines on the Isonzo front.

The scratch brigade fought reasonably well at a time when Italy needed heroes. By the end of the war it had five battalions plus an artillery regiment, and in 1919 was given a battle flag like the regular Army's brigades and christened the San Marco Brigade in honor of its connections to Venice. It took on the city's coat of arms as its own, and remained on the Navy's rolls in the post-war reduction as a rifle battalion.

Though San Marco marines took part in Italy's colonial wars in Libya and Ethiopia, their major overseas deployment between the world wars was in China. A battalion of three companies served to garrison the Italian concession in Tientsin, while at home a small battalion was normally stationed in Pola.

With signs of Germany's pending attack on Poland becoming clear, the Navy began quietly calling back marine reservists on 15 August 1939. When Italy declared war in June 1940, the San Marco battalion at Pola became the "Bafile" battalion and a new "Grado" battalion was raised from reservists and new recruits. Now a small regiment, San Marco prepared for an amphibious landing behind French lines near Cape Martin. Scheduled for the night of 22 June, bad weather, poor transport (requisitioned fishing boats) and the campaign's approaching end combined to cancel the operation.

After more training, the regiment deployed to Albania for a landing on Corfu. The two battalions would spearhead an assault by the 47th "Bari" Infantry Division, but failures on the land front led to the assault force's diversion to threatened sectors. Once again, the regiment would not be used in an amphibious role. One company was detached to France as headquarters guard for the Italian submarine force operating in the Atlantic Ocean, but the regiment gained two machine gun companies from the Milmart, the naval analogue of the National Militia (Blackshirts).


Italian submariners (dark uniforms) and San Marco marines enjoy a day in Bordeaux' Gambetta Park.

When Italy attacked Yugoslavia in April 1941, San Marco marines landed on several islands in the Adriatic and seized ports against minimal resistance. Late that year the regiment resumed intense training for an amphibious assault on Malta, interrupted when the Bafile battalion went to North Africa for an assault behind British lines. Rapid advances on land made that operation moot, but the battalion crushed an attempted British commando raid on Tobruk and was renamed the "Tobruk" battalion to commemorate that action and the same unit's actions there in 1911.

In North Africa, the battalion fought as infantry on the Sollum front and as part of the Young Fascist battle group. The marines remained at Tobruk during the Alamein battles, but helped form part of the Axis rearguard during the retreat across Libya in late 1942 after a transfer to the west by ship. Attached to the 80th "La Spezia" Air Landing Division, they fought on the Mareth Line in early 1943. On the night of 5-6 April the battalion faced an assault by the two battalions of Gurkhas from 4th Indian Division and all three battalions of the British 69th Infantry Brigade.

The Gurkhas came forward in a silent attack, armed only with their kukri knives, and a fierce hand-to-hand struggle was still underway when the British infantry arrived along with an enormous artillery barrage - hundreds of pieces from three Allied divisions rained intense fire on both the Italian marines and the Gurkhas.

"When we were about ten yards away we had reached the top of the slit trench and we killed any of the survivors," recalled British infantryman Bill Cheall of the 6th Green Howards, who had just seen his section leader shot down by a marine. "It was no time for pussy footing, we were intoxicated with rage and had to kill them to pay for our fallen pal."

Most of the Tobruk battalion was killed in action, with few prisoners taken. The survivors were evacuated to Trapani in Sicily.

In January 1942, a new Bafile battalion replaced the one sent to Africa, and the regiment also formed special platoons of assault swimmers, parachutists and assault engineers. The Grado and Bafile battalions went to Tunisia in November 1942, along with the Milmart machine gun companies (one attached to each battalion) while the specialist units helped occupy Corsica and Toulon. The marines fought as a regimental battle group in Tunisia and were called out by the German Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim as "the best soldiers I ever commanded." They were among the last Axis units to surrender in May 1943.

That left the handful of specialists, plus the Caorle Battalion, formed in September 1942 from new recruits plus sailors who'd lost their ships and intended for garrison duty. When Italy declared an armistice in September 1943, most of the Caorle Battalion joined the Italian Fascist forces fighting alongside the Nazis, while hundreds of marines from the battalions lost in Africa volunteered to fight the Germans. Marines fought on both sides until the end of the war.

The Carlotto Battalion on parade, 1939.

One more battalion remained: the Carlotto Battalion, serving as the garrison of Tientsin in China. Relations with the Japanese occupation forces had been difficult, with tension between Japanese Army officers who viewed all Europeans with contempt and Italian professionals appalled at Japanese conduct in China - not least of all the Japanese Army's official sponsorship of the opium trade. When Italy left the war, the marines refused to surrender their weapons to the Japanese. One company had been detached to protect the Italian radio station in Beijing, and they held out for 24 hours against repeated human wave assaults before surrendering.

At Tientsin, the marines fought off attacks by a Japanese regiment, which a day later was reinforced by the rest of its division. After a lengthy and intense consultation with his officers, who insisted on fighting to the last man, Commander Carlo dell'Acqua chose to surrender. About 170 of the marines chose the Fascist side and pretty much resumed their garrison duty in Tientsin. The remainder went to prison camps in Korea, where they were subjected to hard labor. When Japan surrendered in September 1945, the Italian marines were imprisoned in turn by the Americans, who mixed collaborators and loyalists together, resulting in several murders. The marines spent several months in POW camps in the Philippines before returning to Italy in March 1946.

San Marco marines make an appearance in our Island of Death game, as six independent companies in the initial Italian assault force. In Fortress Malta they receive a needed upgrade to better reflect their elite status. With special landing abilities, as well as good morale, they are a key to the Axis player's planning.

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