Over the walls of the Italian El Alamein Memorial, there are these words: "Folgore Division: Legion of souls watching over the desert"
These men were the best-trained Italian soldiers of WW2 and they well deserve a place among the most glorious units in military history. They were called "Lions" by their enemy’s leader Churchill during a speech in the House of Commons in London after the victory at El Alamein.
They, like their German comrades, "The Green Devils" of the Ramcke Brigade, were specifically trained for airborne jumping operations and they should have been employed to take Malta. But they were wrongly deployed as common infantry to replace lost units in the Desert war.
But they were not common infantries at all, they demonstrated this on the battlefield. The Folgore arrived in Egypt extremely well trained and motivated, but their equipment was inferior, as usual in the Royal Italian Army. They had the classic ‘91 musket, Balilla handbombs, the automatic musket ‘38 (given to only 15% of the soldiers), the unreliable automatic rifle Breda 30, a few Breda machine guns 45/81, and some 47/32 anti-tank guns. The supply units were almost non-existent, the water provisions (and water is life in the desert) were totally inadequate. The lack of drinking water, as well as dysentery and diseases, became one of the most dangerous enemies for the Folgore’s paratroopers (it was reported that some isolated Folgore groups could only drink and eat the provisions of killed enemies). The reader may find this situation sadly ironical, but these were the terrible difficulties that the Italian soldiers had to face every day and that made their valor even greater. No soldiers in the whole world could have done better. The first offensive operation in which the Folgore’s paratroopers participated was the battle of Alam-Halfa, at the end of August 1942, a failed advance attempted to circle the first defensive British lines.
During these six days the Axis lost many tanks due to the effectiveness of the anti tank British/Allied guns and had important supply lines destroyed by the RAF.
At that point Rommel decided to defend his position and the Axis forces began to fortify their lines. The Folgore had to defend the southernmost 14-kms of the defensive line. Its antitank firepower was improved with some guns from other units
The British soon learned from these clashes that they were facing a completely different Italian soldier from the one they were used to fighting during the 2 years in Lybia and Cyrenaica. Therefore they had to study new tactics to deal with the Folgore’s men. Even the Australians and the New Zealanders, who were considered the most dangerous soldiers in the Commonwealth, had an extremely hard time. The Italian paratroopers demonstrated a very aggressive attitude and initiative: they always preferred attack rather than defense.
Rommel himself and Ramcke, commander of the German Green Devils (excellent paratroopers who took Creta months before) were worried to risk too much such an important unit like the Folgore and suggested more prudence.
During this static period the Folgore’s paratroopers did not rest: they performed many raids behind the enemy lines (often, it must be said, in order to take water, food and weapons). Among the prisoners they took were General Clifton, 6th New Zealand Brigade’s commander, and his staff.
During these days the paratroopers managed to capture some British A/T guns that proved extremely useful later, during the coming big battle.
On September 30th, there was an attempt to destroy that dangerous enemy that was the Folgore.
The British attacked the Folgore’s 9th Btn positions with an armored group formed by the Queen's Royal Rgt and a regiment of the "Desert Rats", after having plastered the area heavily with artillery fire. But the paratroopers with a furious counter-attack evicted them.
Finally on October 23rd, the "big" battle began, and the 7th Armoured Division overwhelmed the Folgore's most advanced positions. The Desert Rats managed to destroy the front Italian positions, the Italians fought back strenuously, and the price was high: many tanks were destroyed and hundreds of soldiers of the Greys, the City of London Yeomanry, the Derbyshire, the Queen's, and of the Buffs and Royal West Kent were killed.
Throughout the day of the 24th the British again attacked the Folgore with the 44th Division and the Free French Brigade, but without success. On the night of 25th the Britishattacked again the 7th Folgore Btn and once again they were repulsed but the Folgore suffered serious losses; the next morning it was the Folgore’s 4th Btn’s turn to be attacked by the 4th Brigade (4/8th Hussars, The Greys, 1st Krcc). The 4th Brigade lost 22 tanks and retreated. By the evening the British had lost 120 tanks and about 1000 men (400 captured). During this battle the Folgore paratroopers, men against steel monsters, managed to destroy the British tanks not only with the few antitank guns that they had, but also by assaulting them on foot with handbombs and "homemade" petrol bottles!
During the night of 26th the British attacked again the Folgore positions attempting to penetrate into the south sector in order to attack the Germans behind their lines. The Green Howards Rgt, the Royal West Kent, the Free French Brigade, the 4/8th Hussars Btn. and the Household Cavalry participated in this attack. Some Folgore machine gun positions were destroyed by the advancing tanks, but the attack was finally stopped by the intense and precise fire of the anti-tank guns.
On October 27th there was the last attack of the operation Lightfoot: some British and French infantry units were again repulsed with counter-assaults.
At that point the British had taken just half of their planned objectives and had to stop because of the non acceptable losses they were suffering: the result was that where the Folgore was stationed they could not pass.
The price that Folgore Division had to paygore Division had to pay for stopping the British was high: hundreds of men, among them many officers, were lost.
After driving back the British attacks during operation Lightfoot, the Folgore stood alone facing the British operation called "Supercharge", a massive armored attack by the 7th Armoured Division "The Desert Rats", by the 44th and 50th Infantry Divisions and by the Free French Brigade.
During this phase of the battle a ratio of 1/20 was sometimes reached.
On November 2nd Montgomery ordered the start of "Supercharge" that would concentrate on the Southern Sector.
On November 3rd the Folgore received the order to retreat 25 km to the West, and so began a slow, hard fighting march for the Italian paratroopers. Everyone was on foot, and the few still operational guns had to be towed by hand while facing continuous attacks.
The British demanded several times for the Folgore to surrender, using powerful megaphones,: "You’re brave soldiers, surrender and you will have the honor of the arms; continue to fight and you will be destroyed! You have no chance to resist!" And each time, louder and louder, the paratroopers’ answer was their assault yell: "Folgore!!!".
All of this ended on November 6th, when the last organized group commanded by Colonel Camosso and Major Zanninovich, surrounded by British tanks, finished its ammunition reserves. The officers ordered all the weapons to be destroyed, and still some refused to surrender, all the survivors lined up standing to attention waving no white flags.
Some eyes cried silently, but they were strong men’s tears. The British ceased to fire and were looking at this touching scene with admiration. From an initial strength of 5.000, only 306 paratroopers - officers included - were still alive.
At 14:35 on Friday, November 6th, 1942 the British reached the Folgore survivors and gave them the honor of the arms. Some isolated group of Folgore’s paratroopers continued to fight until November 11th without surrendering, other small groups managed to join the retreating Afrika Korps and continued to fight in other units.
On November 7th, General Hugues, commander of the 44th Infantry Division (whose unit suffered heavy losses fighting against the Folgore) approached 3 Italian prisoners, one of them being Folgore’s commander, General Frattini. The British officer smartly saluted the 3 Italians and they returned his salute. Hugues told Frattini: "I had heard rumors that the Folgore’s commander was dead. I’m glad to find out that it is not true." "Thank you" answered Frattini.
"I also wish to tell you that, during my long life as a soldier, I’ve never met such valiant men as the Folgore’s paratroopers" Hugues added. Frattini, again: "Thank you."
The British and the three Italians saluted each other again and everyone went away. The Italian paratroopers continued to fight most bravely and effectively until the end of the war, some with the Allies and some with the Germans. Today all of this is not forgotten, Folgore is one of the elite units of the Italian Armed Forces and has participated in many peacekeeping missions. Every year the Italian paratroopers celebrate the recurrence of the El Alamein battle; never a defeat was so glorious.
"FOLGORE" in Italian means Lightning.