|185th Paratroopers Division Folgore|
Folgore Division Insignia
|Active||1 September 1941– 23 November 1942|
|Engagements||World War II|
The history of the 185th Division "Folgore" spans from late 1930s, when its immediate ancestors were established, to 1945, when its immediate successor was disbanded.
Direct and immediate origins of the 185th Paratroopers Division "Folgore" lie in the Paratroopers units formed in the wake of the breaking out of the World War Two.
In 1938 Marshal of the Air Force Italo Balbo established the Camp-School for Paratrooper of the Libyan Troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Goffredo Tonini and stationed at the airport of Castel Benito near Tripoli.
At the beginning of the Italian participation in World War Two there were:
After quarrels, in 1937 paratroopers schools were assigned by law to the Regia Aeronautica. Two years later, in 1939, two Paratroopers Military School based in Tarquinia and in Viterbo were established. School personnel was drawn from the Air force, while personnel to instruct consisted of Royal Italian Army officers and sub-officers.
The Tarquinia school included:
For reasons of order of precedence the title I Paratroopers Battalion was reserved for the I Carabinieri Paratroopers Battalion. The division was intended to be used in Operation Hercules - the planned Axis invasion of Malta. On 30 April 1941 the Italian paratroopers were deployed for the first time when the II Paratroopers Battalion jumped onto Cephalonia.
In 1942 the division was further augmented: on 15 January the II Paratroopers Artillery Group was raised, followed by the III Paratroopers Artillery Group on 10 March. On the same date the Paratroopers Division Artillery Regiment was activated. The regiment took command of the three paratroopers artillery groups, which each fielded two batteries with four 47/32 cannons per battery. On 15 March 1942 the 3rd Paratroopers Infantry Regiment with the battalions VIII, IX, and X was raised in Tarquinia.
On 27 July 1942 the division's name was changed to 185th Infantry Division "Folgore" and its regiments were renumbered and renamed as well. The new structure was as follows:
The division was then sent to Italian Libya to bolster Axis forces in the Western Desert campaign. Before the departing for North Africa the 185th Infantry Regiment "Folgore" and 187th Infantry Regiment "Folgore" switched units: the 185th ceded the more experienced II and IV to 187th, which in turn ceded the VIII and X to the 185th. When the division arrived in Africa the three artillery groups of the 185th Artillery Regiment "Folgore" were merged into two artillery groups of three batteries each, thus providing one group for each infantry regiment, which in turn could now provide one battery to each battalion of a regiment. Additionally a seventh battery was formed with surplus materiel found by the division during its transfer to the front.
On 15 September the 185th Infantry Regiment "Folgore", which had remained in Italy, left the division and changed its name to 185th Infantry Regiment "Nembo" and became the basis for the 184th Infantry Division "Nembo" (Nemo Italian for Nimbus). To aid in the raising of the 183rd Infantry Regiment "Nembo" the 185th ceded its X Paratroopers Battalion to the 183rd and raised the XI Paratroopers Battalion in its stead.
In North Africa the division participated in the First and Second Battle of El Alamein. During the latter division put up a fierce defense against attacking Commonwealth forces, managing to drive repeated attacks conducted by tanks and infantry. However in the course of the battle the division was annihilated and declared lost on 23 November 1942.
During the Second battle of El Alamein the Folgore Division was under attack from three British divisions 44th (Home Counties) Infantry Division, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, 7th Armoured Division, and the 1st Free French Brigade.
Operation Lightfoot launched on 24 October 1942, was designed to break through the weak Italian-held southern sector of the Alamein line where the Bologna, Brescia, Pavia and Folgore Divisions anchored the right flank.
The British attack began with an artillery barrage, followed by an all out assault by the 7th Armoured and 44th Infantry divisions. However, all that was achieved at a high cost of life and equipment was a small salient, which was soon recaptured by the Folgore.
In the following days between 25 October and 4 November, the 50th, 7th, 44th divisions, 1st and 2nd Free French and the Royal Hellenic Brigades, supported by artillery and armour, failed to break through in the southern sector.
The Folgore used everything at their disposal including letting the enemy advance into a "cul-de-sac" and then launching a counterattack from all sides.
On 6 November, after having exhausted all its ammunition, the remainder of the Division surrendered.
The few survivors, who managed to withdraw, were reorganized into the 285th Formation Battalion and fought in Tunisia, where they surrendered to the British in 1943, but without having to show a white flag and without having to raise their hands while surrendering.
At El-Alamein, throughout several engagements, the paratroopers were either able to drive back the attacks or, when the enemy had been successful in completely wiping out the first line of outposts, to reform again, usually counterattacking. In spite of the overwhelming numbers, the British made little headway against them, and in the end, the Folgore was ordered to fall back because the enemy obtained a breakthrough elsewhere.
The reasons behind this limited victory of sorts are two: mines and "guts". The mines were of course an invaluable asset for the defense. Here the minefields were extensive, thick, and treacherous; furthermore, the mines were in multiple fields. They forced the attackers to move slowly and to stick to the bottlenecks of the cleared pathways, often under observed artillery fire. Whenever the exit of the cleared track was within reach of one of the short-ranged Italian 47mm AT guns, it was easy to block the attack, provided that the first tank or two were disabled.
But the British had effective mine-clearing task forces, flail tanks (the Scorpions) and Valentine tanks, and heavy artillery barrages to move behind. All of their main attacks, in the end, came through the minefields. There, the outnumbered paratroops, after hours of artillery fire, counterattacked the infantry and close assaulted the tanks, with grenades and molotov cocktails. Notwithstanding the heavy casualties they suffered, and temporary British successes in occupying several positions in the first outpost line, they held their ground.
The main British effort, of course, was in the northern part of the line of the "Battle of El Alamein". However, the four divisions attacking the Folgore positions in the south, had also been given breakthrough objectives, that they did not reach. The 7th Armoured Division had been ordered to spare their tanks, so their attacks were called off after the bloody fighting during the night of October 24: 31 British tanks were destroyed or disabled during that night alone.
At the end of the battle of El Alamein, Harry Zinder of Time magazine noted that the Italians paratroopers fought better than had been expected, and commented that: In the south, the famed Folgore Paratroopers Division fought to the last round of ammunition.
With a few survivors and some replacement, the 285º Battaglione Paracadutisti "Folgore", a battaillon-size unit commandeered by Captain Lombardini, was formed, and participated to the defense of the Mareth Line in Tunisia in mid 1943, particularly at the Battle of Takrouna, where it was destroyed.
The division was sent to Africa and fought in the Battle of El Alamein with the following structure:
For its conduct during the Second Battle of El Alamein the division as whole was awarded a Gold Medal of Military Valor. The 185th Artillery, 186th Paratroopers and 187th Paratroopers regiments received a second Gold Medal for specific actions during the Second Battle of El Alamein. Additionally the following soldiers of the division were awarded a Gold Medal of Military Valor during the Western Desert Campaign:
On 25 September 1944 the Italian Co-Belligerent Army raised the Combat Group "Folgore" with soldiers and materiel from the disbanded 184th Paratroopers Division "Nembo". After the war the combat group became the Mechanized Division "Folgore", which was disbanded on 31 October 1986.
On 1 January 1963 the Italian Army raised the I Paratroopers Brigade in Pisa, which received the name "Folgore" on 10 June 1967. After the end of the Cold War the Italian Army decided to rename the battalions in the brigade as regiments for historical reasons. Therefore, the battalions in the Paratroopers Brigade "Folgore" were given the names of the regiments of the former 185th Paratroopers Division "Folgore".