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Giovani Fascisti at Bir el Gobi

by Anthony Nicoletti

“The Giovani Fascisti (or GGFF) made their mark during Operation Crusader. Tasked to defend the small hill known as Bir el Gobi (point 174), 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.”

John Gooch – Decisive Campaigns of the Second World War

In early December of 1941, over the course of two grueling days of battle near Bir el Gobi, two battalions (first and second) of the Italian ‘Gruppo Speciale Giovani Fascisti’ regiment, supported by two regiments of Bersaglieri (VIII and IX) made one of the most truly remarkable defensive stands undertaken by any of the belligerents during the entire Mediterranean campaign. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, this young group of Italian volunteers stood toe-to-toe with the 11th Indian Brigade, and the British 7th Armored Division, in a bloody encounter undertaken by Allies ambitious offensive ‘Operation Crusader’.

Bir el Gobi, also referred to as Bir el Gubi, is situated about 25 miles south of El Duda, Libya. It was the site of two of the most outstanding Italian defensive performances of the Second World War. Just a few weeks prior at Bir el Gobi ‘proper’, the Italian 132 Ariete Armored Division defeated the British 22 Armored in an impressive defensive performance of their own, blunting an early Allied advance during the opening stages of Operation Crusader. The unexpected British defeat was a principal factor in causing the somewhat shaking opening of their offensive.

After the battle, the Ariete pulled out of Bir el Gobi to assist the German 21 Panzer Division in an attack on British forces at Sidi Rezegh. Security in the area of Bir el Gobi was to be maintained in part by the ‘Gruppo Speciale Giovani Fascisti’ regiment, also called the GGFF. The age range for the GGFF soldier was generally 18 to 22 years old, an average far lower than your typical Italian fighting unit. Their youthful stamina, however, paid dividends in the looming battle they faced. The Giovani Fascisti arrived in Libya in July of 1941, and up to that point were yet untested in battle.

Gioventù Italiana del Littorio (G.I.L.)

The creation of ‘Gruppo Speciale Giovani Fascisti’ unit has an original and quite unique story of its own. After Italy’s entry into the war, over 25,000 young men of Gioventù Italiana del Littorio (Fascist youth organization) asked to serve as volunteers in the Army. Most of their requests were accepted, which culminated in the creation of 24 special battalions called “Battaglioni G.I.L.” In August 1940 these battalions started a morale and recruitment march called the “March of Youth” in which they covered approximately 450 km, visiting many cities of northern Italy. The journey ended on 10 October 1940 with the G.I.L marching into the annual Trade Fair in Padova.

G.I.L marching in Padova in September 1940.

G.I.L marching in Padova in September 1940.

But after this inspiring start for the youth-based group, they received the most unexpected of news. Both the Army and Fascist establishment decided they did not authorize nor want the addition of the G.I.L. Battalions into the war. Therefore, a general demobilization was ordered. Each of these organizations had their own reasoning for making the decision to bar the G.I.L from inclusion into their makeup. The Regio Esercito considered the “boys” much too young and unprepared to face the harshness of war. As for the Fascist Regime, many feared foreign nations would be outraged if the Italian government sent “kids” into the killing fields of war. With neither organization willing to support the group, they were left out completely.

A group of approximately 2,000 volunteers reacted badly to the shocking news and instigated a revolt that culminated in the occupation of the Trade Fair. During the occupation, they set fire to some of the pavilions. Fighting broke out between the rebelling G.I.L members and a squad of Blackshirts, who were directing the demobilization of this fledgling group. Ultimately, the G.I.L volunteers barricaded themselves into a fair pavilion.

G.L.I at Lodi, September 1940.

G.L.I at Lodi, September 1940.

To solve this precarious and tense situation, a Granatieri’s major, Fulvio Balisti, was sent to negotiate with the G.I.L rebels. He was able to convince them to step down, assuring them that he would have done anything possible to let them serve in the army if it had been his decision, and in fact, he would continue to search for an alternative solution. These words helped calm the situation, and order was restored.

Gruppo Battaglioni Giovani Fascisti

Obviously impressed by the spirit and willingness of these “boys” to fight for their country, Major Balisti, together with Lieutenant-General Fernando Tanucci Nannini, were able to convince both the Regio Esercito and the Fascist establishment to create a special unit to incorporate the young volunteers into the army. So, after a period of training, a special unit called “Gruppo Battaglioni Giovani Fascisti “ composed of two battalions of volunteers, was created and inserted into the Regio Esercito in April 1941.

These young, but passionate soldiers were about to find themselves in the crosshairs of a battle-tested enemy on the march for victory. The defensive line at Bir el Gobi, set to be held by the GGFF, was to be anchored atop three sloping rises known as Points 174, 184*, and 188*. Their names derived by their altimetric map designations.

Note*: In most Western accounts of the battle, points 184 and 188 are often grouped together and collectively called Point 182. Slight differences in the two measurements account for the digression in the numerical designation between them. This article will acknowledge three separate Points, and refer to Point 182 as Points 184 and 188 based on the original 1936 Regio Esercito maps.

Short Animation Showing Bir El Gobi Battle Phases

Point 174, 184, and 188

The Points were manned by approximately 1,700 GGFF officers and soldiers led by the very same Lieutenant-General Fernando Tanucci Nannini who had been instrumental in the group’s establishment. Point 174’s defense was anchored by the First Btg of the GGFF, a machine gun company form the I/VIII Bersaglieri regiment, and an AT platoon from the 9th Bersaglieri. Holding the line on Point 184 were parts of the Second Btg of the GGFF and elements of the II/VIII Rtg Bersaglieri, with Point 188 containing the remainder of the Second GGFF and III/VIII Bersaglieri.

In addition, IX Bersaglieri was entrenched at Bir el Gobi ‘proper’ and contained a small amount of armor with them. Twelve L3 light tanks, all were of course obsolete and many in fact had been dug into the sand to create machine gun nests due to their poor operational state. The IX also maintained two M13 Medium tanks along with two 47/32 cannons and two 20MM guns to help provide the defense.

The topography of Bir el Gobi.

The topography of Bir el Gobi. Image Credit: University of Texas.

The composition of the critical Points themselves were made up mostly of sand and rock, and very mundane in their appearance. In fact, if not for the great events swirling around them these patches of sandy earth might have gone through history unnoticed. As it was, and as in the case in many of the battles fought in North Africa, these points were crucial due to their elevation, however so slight, over the surrounding area.

To offer the fighting men some type of cover from any potential enemy fire, the Italians dug out multiple small slit trenches into the hard surface of the earth. They also stacked rocks and sandbags together adding an additional amount of refuge from any approaching onslaught they were to face. While these positions offered a certain degree of protection from small arms fire, they were still vulnerable from artillery, tank, and mortar barrages.

Indian troops man a Bren gun on an anti-aircraft tripod, Western Desert April 1941

Indian troops man a Bren gun on an anti-aircraft tripod, Western Desert April 1941. Image: Public Domain.

The soldiers who would eventually be called upon to throw themselves against these Italian positions in an attempt to secure passage for the Allied advance were the brave men of the 11th Indian Brigade. The 11th was taxed during this portion of Operation Crusader to conduct an attack on Axis forces at El Adam, but they would first be required to subdue the Italian positions near Bir el Gobi to open the road for the offensive. It was expected that they would be able to accomplish this task with minimal difficulty. Bir el Gobi was considered nothing more than a ‘bump in the road’ for this tough Allied group.

On December 3rd, the 11th had taken up a position south of El Esem in preparation to mount the planned assault. It was here that the Brigade was strengthened with the arrival of a squadron of 16 Valentine Infantry tanks, in addition to a battery of AT and filed guns. Helping to comprise the 11th were the 2nd Mahratta Indian Light Infantry, the 1 Rajputana Rifles, a company form the 2nd Camerons, and the 8th Royal Tanks Reg. The 22nd Guards Brigade, taking up mostly a defensive posture during the engagement, and artillery from the 7th Medium RA helped to round out the attacking British force.

The 11th Indian Brigade split their forces for the assault against the multiple Italian defensive positions. Their intelligence reports determined that Points 184 and 188 were the more heavily defended of the positions, thus they threw the weight of their attack at these locations. The 2/5 Mahratta led the charge for the 11th supported by 13 of the Valentine tanks. The Italian defense from 184 and 188 opened up with their AT and small arms on the advancing troops and armor as they came into range.

Giovani Fascisti.

Giovani Fascisti.

Several tanks were knocked out and advancing men felled, but the British were successful in overrunning Point 188. Many of the men from the III/VIII Bersaglieri were able to fall back from here and make their way to join the defenders at Point 184.

Assault on Point 174

Point 188 had fallen, but for the Common Wealth soldiers attempting the assault on Point 174, the outcome was to be much different. The response from the point’s defenders effectively slammed the door shut on the 11th current drive on El Adam.

The initial British assault on Point 174 found the 2 Camerons supported by only three of the Valentine tanks, all moving forward behind the opening artillery barrage. For the attacking forces, however, this first frontal assault was immediately stymied as the Italian defenders weathered the artillery bombardment, and were not about to give up an inch of ground.

Bersaglieri firing on Commonwealth forces in North Africa.

Bersaglieri firing on Commonwealth forces in North Africa.

A hail of return fire greeted the advancing soldiers inflicting serious casualties to the Camerons as men by the dozens fell either dead or wounded as they approached the ‘teeth’ of the Italians defense. The unmistakable sound of automatic weapons opening up in unison echoed across the desert floor as the GGFF and Bersaglieri soldiers offered their response to the 11th assault. The Allied tanks pulled forward with guns blazing, but they also were ravaged by concentrated defensive fire, thus preventing the armor from forcing a breach in the line.

The first attack was stopped cold, and the 11th was obliged to fall back to lick their wounds. The initial fear by many of the young Italians dug into the earth was starting to be replaced by a feeling of excitement at proving victorious in their first encounter of the war. There were however many dead and wounded of their own to attend to, in addition to the need to redeploy assets and men to any weakened sectors, thus leaving little chance for the men to catch their breath. Due to a disrupted Axis supply line, the men’s suffering was further heightened by a severe shortage of food and water.

Freed up from responsibilities and necessary allotment of resources needed at the now captured point 188, the 11th Indian threw everything they had at the Italians entrenched on Point 174 on December 5th. The British forces also commenced an attack on the IX Bersaglieri at Bir el Gobi ‘proper’, and forced them to fall back. However, Point 174 would prove a much tougher nut to crack.

After another pre-assault artillery bombardment, British forces once again charged forward at Point 174 with armor and infantry. But just as the previous assault failed to dislodge the determined Italian defenders, this new attempt ended unsuccessfully for the 11th.

The defensive stand anchored by the GGFF against overwhelming odds earned the respect of the Germans and the Commonwealth Forces. The young Fascist soldiers, who would be nicknamed “Mussolini’s Boys” by the Allies, met the subsequent waves of attack with a ferocity that would define this unit for eternity.

As the flow of battle dictated, the GGFF soldiers were often forced to dash out from their protective cover and engage approaching armor with any weapon they could brandish such as grenades, and small arms. Even the improvised Molotov cocktails were employed with devastating results against the enemy’s Valentine tanks and Bren carriers. The dogged determination of the Italian forces did not waver, even when the opponent they faced had numerical superiority in almost every phase of the encounter.

Giovani Fascisti firing a Cannone da 47/32

Giovani Fascisti firing a Cannone da 47/32 M35.

The Italian defenders of Point 174 utilized their practically obsolete 47/32 cannons in an anti-tank role to strike down the massive armor of the 11th Indian Brigade. The hours of practice these men invested in learning to work as a team to properly brandish this weapon paid incalculable dividends over those two days. The fire put down by the eight 47’s on hand to either disable or drive off the British armor was an essential part of the defensive stand.

The fighting was fierce by both sides, and incredible acts of courage were displayed by soldiers on either side of this battle. Soldiers from the Rajputana Rifles had made progress through mortar and small arms fire past some initial forward defensive positions but were held up as they reached the main line of defense. LT Colonel Butler, who had led this gallant charge, was fatally wounded as the Italians poured down mortar fire onto the area they had advanced, forcing the survivors to relinquish the ground they gained.

Elsewhere in the battle, an Italian machine-gun team charged forward to take up a position inside a knocked out Valentine tank. From here they poured round after round into advancing troops from the Camerons, who were forced to fall back after suffering heavy casualties in this encounter.

A destroyed Valentine tank.

A destroyed Valentine tank.

In all, the 11th Indian Brigade attempted three concentrated attacks over a two day period against Point 174. All three were violently rejected by the Italian garrison. Hunger, thirst, and the high number of growing casualties took their toll on the GGFF and Bersaglieri, but the defenders held their ground. If the Italians had broken the spirit of the 11th Indian Brigade during the first two days of fighting at Bir el Gobi, the approaching panzers of the German Afrika Korps were poised to break their backs.

Armored Support

As the last rays of light were just starting to set over the horizon at Bir el Gobi, 43 tanks from the German 15 Panzer and six tanks from the German 21 Panzer, appeared on the flank of Point 188. They proceeded to thrash the now weakened 11th Indian, particularly the soldiers of the 2nd Mahratta who absorbed the brunt of the attack. Armor from the Ariete Division had also attempted to join in the Axis counter-attack but was delayed by enemy opposition encountered in route.

Many of the young Giovani Fascisti looked on with wonder from their slit trenches as they witnessed the impressive sight of German armor on the attack. The British here did not have the firepower to counter the panzer attack. General Norrie, at the request of General Neil Ritchie, had ordered the British 4th Armoured to advance to an area over 30 miles away to counter a perceived advance by the Axis. Without the necessary firepower of the 4th, the German Panzers were able to completely drive the 11th Indian from the battlefield.

A 1942 color photograph of Erwin Rommel (L) and his staff in North Africa.

A 1942 color photograph of Erwin Rommel (L) and his staff in North Africa.

As happy as the soldiers of the GGFF were at the arrival of the Panzers, they were almost equally pleased to receive the much-needed food and water that followed shortly after. As members of the GGFF finally got a chance to come out of their defensive positions and receive their rations, they were called to gather up, and many were pleasantly shocked to see that the man about to address them was none other than General Erwin Rommel. Rommel had ventured over to Bir el Gobi to evaluate the situation and confer with his subordinates on a course of action, but he took the time to give a quick speech to the young men of the GGFF thanking them for their effort on the field of battle over the past few days. With this defensive stand, the GGFF had definitely left their imprint on the war.

But the rest would be short. General Ludwig Cruwell, commander of the Afrika Korps, decided that the position here would not be tenable for long. Thus, he ordered the troops, including the soldiers of the GGFF, to fall back to El Adem. As for the British forces, the 11th Indian Brigade would be pulled from the front line, and need time off to regroup and refit after their encounter with the GGFF at Bir el Gobi. They would eventually return to battle, but their duel against the Giovani Fascisti would be one of their costliest of the entire war.

Special thanks to Lorenzo for editing, providing content (particularly on the genesis of the GGFF), and researching information from Italian sources for the article. Also, for creating the magnificent maps showing the different phases of the battle. Thank you, my friend.

Book References:
On Amazon: Decisive Campaigns of the Second World War: John Gooch
On Amazon: Rommel’s Desert War: Martin Kitchen

 

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