"I hurl myself to ruin"
Italy's Young Fascists
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
"Fascist" is usually used today
as a political insult, often thrown about
by people with little idea of what fascism
actually entails. But in the Italy of the
1920s, it offered a number of answers to desperate
people who hoped state power could fix their
economic woes and either did not consider
or ignored the potential abuse of such power.
Fascism as practiced by Benito Mussolini was
a populist movement, relying on a number of
external trappings. It looked to the future,
promoting new technologies (aircraft, motor
vehicles) and reaching out toward Italian
Upon Italy's declaration of war against
Britain and France in June 1940, the Gioventu'
italiana del Littorio, the Italian fascist
party's youth league, registered 25,000 volunteers
who formed 24 battalions of 18- to 21-year-old
Young Fascists, or Giovani Fascisti (GGFF).
The GGFF battalions trained in Liguria, on
the Italian northwest coast, until October,
when the remaining 19,000 marched down the
Po Valley to Padova in the northeast for a
final review by Benito Mussolini. When word
spread afterwards that their battalions would
be disbanded and the youth sent back to school
— Army generals apparently feared Mussolini
was on the verge of commissioning all the
Young Fascists as officers — mutiny
spread through the ranks and members of one
battalion set Il Duce's reviewing stand on
Convinced of this burning desire to fight
Italy's enemies, Mussolini agreed to retain
three battalions picked from the best volunteers.
Training took place for the rest of the year,
and on 12 January 1941 the three battalions
were enrolled in the fascist Blackshirt militia
as the 301st Legion. Once again protests broke
out, and once again the government relented,
transferring the unit to the Army six days
later as the "Gruppo Battaglione GGFF."
They wore standard Army-issue uniforms with
the GIL emblem and the black fez of World
War One Arditi units. Throughout the first
half of 1941 they trained intensively, with
particular emphasis on physical fitness.
The Army intended to attach the unit —
now reduced to two battalions, with the third
converted to machine gun and heavy weapon
companies — to the Italian expeditionary
corps assembling for the invasion of the Soviet
Union. Mussolini objected that "the Russian
front is no place for boys" and asked
that they go to Libya instead. The Gruppo
landed in Tripoli in late July and spent the
next month on garrison duty. On 2 September
they became part of RECAM, the Italian motorized
The GGFF made their mark during Operation
Crusader. Tasked to defend the small hill
known as Bir el Gubi, they fought off repeated
attacks by the 11th Indian Brigade and British
7th Armoured Division during the first week
of December, 1941. Despite overwhelming odds,
they inflicted massive casualties on the Allies
and held their ground despite severe hunger
and thirst. Afterwards, they withdrew from
the front for rest and re-fitting.
The next month, the Royal Army officially
decided to convert the GGFF to an armored
division in Africa, once enough tanks became
available. It would be known as the 136th
"Giovani Fascisti" Armored Division
and follow the standard table of organization
except for having the GGFF battalions as its
infantry element instead of a Bersaglieri
The GGFF began the Gazala battle in May
1942 as part of the army reserve, with four
infantry battalions — the two original
GGFF battalions, plus 9th Independent Infantry
Battalion and the 3rd Battalion of the San
Marco Marine Regiment (which was later detached
to join the Hecker amphibious group). During
the course of the battle, the remaining three
battalions went forward to assist the 102nd
"Trento" Division's penetration
of the Allied minefield zone.
The Oasis of Siwa, where the Young Fascists
sat out the Battles of Alamein.
In July 1942, German Ju-52 transport planes
transported one battalion to seize the strategic
Oasis of Siwa, the largest air-landing assault
conducted by the Axis in Africa. Siwa lies
about 140 miles south of Mersa Matruh and
350 miles west of Cairo. It boasts three lakes
and numerous springs, supporting lush vegetation
over a zone about 50 miles long by 12 miles
wide. Dates and olives are grown there, and
in the 1940's about 9,000 people lived there.
The rest of the division soon arrived as
well, except for two companies from the 4th
Anti-Tank Battalion. A German "Oasis
Company" also showed up to help garrison
the large, fertile area. The oasis had been
a staging area for raids by the Allied Long
Range Desert Group into Libya, and now the
Axis saw an opportunity to return the favor.
Italian planners looked longingly at the tracks
leading to the Nile. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
visited on 22 September and reviewed the unit.
Officers showed him their maps and scouting
reports of the deep desert, and several Egyptian
clan chiefs gave their opinions that no substantial
Allied forces stood between Siwa and the Nile.
The Young Fascist Division, the officers claimed,
could unhinge the Allied positions on the
coast from Siwa if only they had the fuel.
While they waited, the Italians set up an
Egyptian government-in-exile, complete with
postage stamps, and flew the Egyptian flag
alongside the Italian tricolor. At Siwa, the
Young Fascists continued to train and fight
off an outbreak of malaria that soon had 800
men in the new hospital they built at the
oasis. Others fought boredom, and 825 soldiers
filed formal requests to transfer to units
fighting to the north. Meanwhile, reinforcements
continued to arrive to build the unit into
a full armored division. The division's artillery
component came from two battalions of the
Guardia alla Frontiera, the Italian border
guards, plus two newly-raised battalions of
truck-mounted 65mm light mountain howitzers.
But finding enough tanks and Semoventi assault
guns for the new division proved impossible.
The two armored divisions at the front (132nd
"Ariete" and 133rd "Littorio")
never reached their full complements during
the Alamein campaign. The 131st "Centauro,"
arriving in Tripoli in mid-November, did have
all of its tanks but lost some of its Semoventi
during the crossing.
Production of the standard Italian medium
tank, the M13/40, did not top 800 units during
the course of the war. Fiat-Ansaldo could
not provide adequate replacements for combat
losses, let alone enough to equip new battalions.
Only through great effort could all three
existing armored divisions enter the combat
zone at once, and two of them were grossly
under-strength in tanks.
When the Axis position at Alamein collapsed
in early November 1942, the GGFF mounted its
approximately 3,000 men on 290 trucks and
headed directly west across the Libyan desert,
suffering two air attacks but successfully
avoiding Allied tank columns. The German company
veered off toward the coast and eventually
surrendered to the Allies, but a small battalion
of Libyan camelry that had been patrolling
the Quattara Depression joined the column.
When the GGFF joined the rest of Rommel's
army near Mersa el Brega, they were in the
best condition of any Axis units. The GGFF
had actually received reinforcements in the
form of a new III Battalion, and quickly drew
rearguard duty. The Young Fascists crossed
into Tunisia in January 1943, and fought along
the Mareth Line, at Enfidaville and in the
final defense of Tunis and Bizerte, where
the GGFF was the last Axis unit to surrender.
Though a very successful combat organization,
the unit's record also shows the Royal Army's
deep failings. The troopers of the GGFF were
well-trained and dedicated, educated men in
their late teens and early 20s who would have
been prime candidates to fill the Army's desperate
need for junior officers and NCO's. Concentrated
in two or three battalions as common soldiers,
they fought very well while meanwhile regular
units crumbled for lack of such men to lead
them. Italy was not lacking in courageous
soldiers; what it lacked was intelligent employment
of its human resources.
Rats, the Young Fascists make an appearance
in four scenarios, all of them covering the
dramatic stand at Bir el Gubi. We used Bersaglieri
pieces to represent them, which is very fitting
for their performance and capabilities. The
GGFF is not present as a separate unit in
game; it's folded into the RECAM reconnaissance
unit, to which it was attached before the
The Young Fascists do not appear in Alamein,
as Siwa Oasis is well off the southern edge
of the map. As a variation, allow the Axis
player to summon the division to the battlefield
on any turn after 22 September. The Axis player
rolls one die; remove the resulting number
of steps from the division's units. All units
enter at hex 0124.
We've included the tank battalions promised
but never delivered; as the Allied command
does not seem to have been aware of the extent
of the Italian deployment at Siwa, the Axis
player rolls two dice for each when summoning
the 136th. On a result of 11, the tank battalion
enters reduced in strength by one step. On
a result of 12, it enters at full strength. On any other result, it does not enter play at all.
Once summoned, the Axis player must expend
supply points to prepare the 136th for the
next four days. Its artillery units enter
with only one ration of ammunition (instead
of the usual two).
You may download the new counters for the
136th Division here.
here to order Desert Rats today!
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.