By Mike Bennighof, PhD
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. The Italian armed
forces 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
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).
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 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
Most of the Tobruk battalion was killed in action, with few
prisoners taken. The survivors were evacuated to Trapani in
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.
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. With special landing abilities, as
well as good morale, they are a key to the Axis player's planning.
here to order Island of Death!