Littorio at Gazala

Erwin Rommel launched Operazione Venezia in May 1942 in order to forestall a planned British offensive. The Axis army seized the initiative and won a signal victory at Gazala. While Rommel received note for taking great personal risks during the battle and providing needed on-the-spot leadership, his biggest gamble probably came before the battle began.

Our Gazala game provides a scenario for a British offensive coming first, putting the Axis on the defensive. Like the “historical” scenario of the Axis offensive it’s a finely-balanced contest. It would not have taken much to bring victory to either side.

Avanti Savoia!

The Axis had three armored divisions and two motorized divisions. Two of the armored divisions were German, one Italian. All three were battle-hardened formations, though the Italian division, 132nd “Ariete,” had inferior tanks. The two motorized divisions were not as good as the armored units, the 90th for the Germans and 101st “Trieste” for the Italians, but still better than average.

Rommel did have a fourth armored division on its way to the front, but chose to strike quickly rather than await its arrival. The first units of the Italian 133rd “Littorio” Armored Division had arrived in Tripoli, the capital and major port of Libya, as early as January, 1942. But the rest of the division did not land until March.

Littorio was the third Italian armored division formed, and always considered not quite as professional as the first two (Centauro and Ariete). The original Littorio Division had fought in the Spanish Civil War as a unit of regular army “volunteers.” On its return to Italy in early 1939, it was converted to an armored division but kept the fascist-inspired name (literally “lictor”; in ancient Rome, the lictors carried the fasces, those rod-and-axes symbols of state power adopted by Mussolini two millennia later. Thus the division’s name might be metaphorically translated as “Standard Bearer of Fascism.”).

Littorio saw action in the 1941 campaign against Yugoslavia and performed quite well. The Armored Corps had been designed to defeat the Yugoslavs, and did so. It was never intended for desert operations, but the need in Libya and Egypt for mobile formations had become urgent. Ariete, already serving in Libya, had priority for new equipment.


By April, the division had reached Benghazi in northeastern Libya. The march took place very slowly, as the division’s transport had been diverted to bring vitally-needed supplies to the front. The divisional history blames Allied air attacks for slowing its advance, but neither Rommel nor the Italian XX (Mobile) Corps commander, Ettore Baldassare, seem to have been in a great hurry to rush the untested division to the front and preferred to bring their existing formations to full strength. Ariete went into battle greatly overstrength in tanks, artillery and especially anti-aircraft guns, at Littorio’s expense.

Littorio did not participate in the Gazala battle, though British accounts usually include its troop and tank strengths in the Axis total. A small battlegroup arrived in the combat zone on 20 June, as the battle was ending, and participated in the attack on Tobruk. But Littorio would not actually enter combat for some weeks yet.

However, players the like their tanks, and we’ve included a small download with the Axis strategic reserve: the 25th “Bologna” Infantry Division, the 133rd “Littorio” Armored Division and the “Young Fascists” (GGFF) regimental battle group. For game purposes, all of the 133 units are part of XX Corps; those of 25th are part of X Corps. GGFF may be assigned to any formation. At the start of each turn beginning on 10 June, the Axis player rolls one die for each division and one for GGFF. On a result of 6, all units of the division (Littorio’s are all marked 133; Bologna’s two regiments are 25) or GGFF are available as reinforcements.

The Allies also had more troops on the way, the 10th Indian Division. This unit’s 20th Brigade appears in the game as a reinforcement, but 21st and 25th Brigades were also moving to the combat zone. At the start of each turn beginning on 10 June, the Allied player also rolls one die. On a result of 6, the three units of 10th Indian Division (10th headquarters, 21st Brigade and 25th Brigade) are available as reinforcements.

To download the free counters, click here.

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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.