sabato 30 marzo 2013

"Comrades in war, comrades forever" The “Lupo” Battalion of the Xth MAS Flotilla and the Reichsführer-SS Division on the Gothic Line, 1944-1945 By Andrea Lombardi

"Comrades in war, comrades forever"
The “Lupo” Battalion of the Xth MAS Flotilla and the Reichsführer-SS Division on the Gothic Line, 1944-1945

By Andrea Lombardi

Among the various fighting units of the Armed Forces of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana[1] to be used effectively at the front against the Allies[2], a unit that distinguished itself for military efficiency and courage was certainly the “Lupo” Battalion of the Xth MAS[3]. One of the first Marine Infantry Bns of the Xth MAS to be formed, the Lupo Bn was formed in January 1944 and organized on three Rifle Companies, a Heavy Weapons Company, and a HQ Company. Its commander was Captain Corrado De Martino, a decorated submarine commander, assisted by Lieutenant Dante Stripoli, a Black Shirt Bn veteran. After a training period with the Division "Hermann Goering", during which the Marò (Marines) learned the combat tactics of the German Infantry (even if the initially delivered weapons turned out to be the usual old Royal Italian Army ordnance - rifles and moschetto '91s, the unreliable Breda 30 light machine guns...), the “Lupo” was sent to Piedmont with garrison and counterinsurgency duties, taking part in the recapture of the town of Alba, seized by the partisans. The Bn was also resupplied in this period with the excellent MAB 38A SMGs, the accurate Breda 37 heavy machine guns, and numerous “war booty” Sten SMGs, recovered from Allied airdrops to the partisans.

Eventually, at the end of 1944 came the most desired order: the departure to the “Fronte Sud” (“Southern Front”), on the Gothic Line, against the Allies. On 4 December, the “Lupo” went from Milan to the Apennines, digging in on the slopes of the Reno River Valley, only to be sent in the plain along the river Senio, between Fusignano and Alfonsine.

The Bn was organized at the time on three Rifle Coys, a Mortars Coy (four Model 35 81 mm mortars), a AA Coy (with nine Breda 20 mm AA Guns), plus the HQ Coy, with a force of 25 officers, 65 NCOs, 600 Marò and 10 Women Auxiliary of the “Servizio Ausiliario Femminile della Xa MAS”

So began two long months of trench warfare, where the fortified positions along the high banks of the river, subject to incessant Allied shelling, strafing and bombings, and attacks by Allied combat patrols and TDs and tank direct fire, were fiercely defended by the “Lupo” Bn Marò and the adjacent German units, including the 16. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Reichsführer-SS. The cooperation among the very young Marò and the elements of this elite unit, after the first initial conflicts and misunderstandings, was excellent, and if the Marò were impressed by the training and the military equipment of the Germans, the Reichsführer’s Waffen-SS learned to admire the courage displayed by the Marò in their continuous no man's land patrols, repeated almost every night, against the Canadian and British advanced positions in front of the river banks, usually placed in houses transformed into true fortresses bristling with Bren and other automatic weapons and surrounded by mines and booby traps, and during the day resting points for snipers. Here are some “oral history” examples of these actions.

A Sherman blows up
Marò Luigi Sitia, Lupo Bn, January 1945

Our 3rd Company is located on the bank for several days: it is just after midnight – it’s New Year's Eve - and we are preparing for the first sortie. We will work together with a German team.
In a dilapidated house set against the banks of the Senio we expect the time of attack, trying to doze, while the Krauts are delousing themselves with enthusiasm. They are have been in the front line for months and months, and their faces are haggard: war has dug deep furrows. Suddenly, the door opens and three of them burst in, each bringing four tins of steaming spiced wine. "Hier, Kamaraden! Hier zu trinken! Be big party diese Nacht ".
Poor soldiers. In their eyes shines a fierce longing of their homes. "Heute party, party... Wir trinken! "
And all together we drink, then a Teutonic choir rises a slow, soft, sad.
"Silent Night, Holy Night ... '
"Stand up! Check your weapons! "
Now is the Lieutenant with a German officer, the order takes the chill in my bones. We almost did not realize where we are and what we are doing. The Germans have stopped deloused and prepare to go.
Fifteen minutes later we lined up in the yard. Unfazed, the yellow disc of a huge moon is reflected on our helmets. Bad night to go on patrol. Then our Lieutenant says:
"The action is simple. A group of houses here in front is occupied by the Canadians. We have to dislodge them. Attention to where you lay your feet: the ground is almost completely mined. Put them exactly where the fellow in front has stepped and do not lose contact. We will then open to the right and the Germans left. In bocca al lupo! (Into the mouth of the Wolf!)"
We pace slowly to the bank, then we are over it: we are in no man's land. Cautious and wary as beasts of prey, we creep along the rows of plants. Every now and then a stop, the two officers shall consult. There in front of us a group of ruins where "they" are waiting for us. The march resumes. I am the last in line behind the Italians and with me is a huge German sergeant. Every once in a while we crouched behind a tree waiting for the order to continue, I try to talk, but he grunts and motion me to be silent. Then, in one breath hisses:
"Shut up! Inglesi ears are near! "
Finally the order came as a blow, battle formation! We expand like a fan, Italians and Germans on the right and left. The ruins of the houses rise to no more than fifty yards, and we crawl on the ground, completely without cover.
I'm afraid, and I expect the first burst from moment to moment... Here, a detonation between the houses and tracers shave our heads. Now comes the rest, I think, as a new order is breathed:
"Ready hand grenades! Ready to shoot! "
But there is no more firing.
We continue to move forward on our elbows ... thirty feet, twenty, fifteen ... now we clearly distinguish every detail of the crumbling walls. Two shadows now raise from the ground, they are the German lieutenant and my sergeant: like wolves disappear in a few leaps in the rubble while my heart is leaping. We remain nailed to the ground, mouth dry and the hands contracted nervously on the weapon.
The shadows reappears. Now we begins to understand: the Canadian garrison slipped away, perhaps he had orders not to look for trouble, or may have feared an attack in force. On the table still smoke the butts of two Morris cigarettes, clothing and blankets piled up against the wall.
We reassembly and we are taking a breather when a gloomy drone strikes, a German rushes and began talking excitedly with his officer. Alarm! Here come the tanks!
Quickly, we emerge from the house and we take position on the destroyed village’s edge.
I remember with fear the war documentaries and scary scenes of the advancing Panzers grinding everything: trees, walls, human bodies. On the white moonlit night two enormous steel pachyderms moves cautiously ... behind, of course, there are the infantry. The two behemoths stop at fifty yards: we do not see anyone behind them, at least for the moment.
Here, one of the “wagons” resume noisily its advance and is right upon us. At a distance of twenty meters follows the other.
Weapons in hand, crouched among the rocks and rubble we stand fast: two shadows glide along the rows of bushes to meet the advancing monsters. The first tank has stopped again and we see clearly the details, its cannon is moving...
And behold, a blue flame streaks from the earth and a deafening roar explodes and echoes, sudden clouds of white sparks fly from the tank; a few seconds of maximum tension and the whole tank disappears in smoke and flame, a piercing roar split the air. The young Marò Alberto Bellagamba’s Panzerfaust has hit the mark!
The other Sherman retreats quickly, randomly shelling the ruins behind where we are hiding. At the same time the entire Canadian line wake up, shooting at us with all guns. Mortar fire rains the first phosphorous shells. We retreat back to our position.
What satisfaction when we feel again under our boots the ground of the yard where we started! While around us automatic weapons fires off the last rounds, we - Italians and Germans, officers and men - all embrace Alberto the hero of the day, or night.

Destroy the outpost
Lieutenant Spartaco Zeloni, Lupo Bn, January 1945

We receive the order to remove the Canadians outposts. We'll take care of a house, the Germans the other, at the same time.
The weather conditions have changed, the snow melts quickly. The targets will be hit with a short artillery preparation.
The night is restless, and we are barely able to complete the preparations for the attack in the light of the candles blown off frequently by mortars detonations shockwaves. We decide to start early and transit across the bridge. Twenty shadows follow me and with pleasure I feel in the air the first whistles of the mortars shells directly on the target.
With Sgt. Pezzella’s squad covering us, and taking advantage of the barrage, I bring my men in a hurry to forty meters from the objective, behind the house we destroyed last time.
Two shells shatter the roof of the Canadian’s house and others burst all in close proximity. All right. With a nod, I invite the two German pioneers to be ready with the Tellerminen. One of them has a moment of hesitation, he seems to want to give up. The black eye of my SMG to his belly, and he understand that it’s not the time for jokes. The other suggests that the mines weighs too much, and so two of our men offer to help. Two minutes to the end of the mortars preparation. The four are ready, each holds its Tellermine by the handle. Less than a minute. 6.45 hours on the dot: I perceive the mortars fire lifting. Go! The pioneers quickly place the mines. We remain ready for the second part of the program. Two long minutes of waiting.
The four return plunging into the group, panting. A loud explosion shakes the earth. We are hit by a shockwave, bricks and tiles fly through the air and falls by the hundreds. The echo of the explosion lingers on, which is repeated in the distance, another roar. The other outpost is blew up. We go out on the road. A big gray cloud, stinking like hell, wraps what has been for a month the nest of the fearful snipers. We take possession of the place, the remains of houses appears in the light of dawn. Erasmi picks up a piece of blackened wood and on the ruins of a wall writes in Latin HIC MANEBIMUS OPTIME (“We will stay very well here”).
We fan out and accurately mop up the houses, and we make contact with Sgt. Pezzella‘s squad. Destroyed Shermans and Bren Carriers lies near torn animal carcasses in decomposition, and everywhere bricks and tiles are scattered in an apocalyptic chaos.
In the few rooms still habitable, the Canadians have left a bit of everything. We loot food and equipments, and smoke some Lucky Strikes. The boys collect the weapons: Bren, rifles, Thompsons. These just seem to come out of some gangster’s hands, heavy, with double grips. We pick up from the floor a photo of the Canadians that stood there: it portrays a group of young men, all with a mess tin in hand, smiling. "All right, Tommy." I put the photo in my wallet as a souvenir [see photo].

In the stables there comes another horrible sight. Some of the cows died of hunger, other killed by artillery shells, others are still alive, but remain crouched and do not have the strength to pull themselves up: all show the skeleton through the loose skin, and looks at us with big watery eyes, mooing desperately. We throw them some hay. Poor animals,  they can’t  defend themselves and suffer the most from the consequences of war, them guiltless of the men’s quarrels.

The fruitful partnership between the “Lupo” and the Reichsführer-SS ceased when this department was transferred in February: the SS-Division Commander Otto Baum bestowed six Iron Crosses to the “Lupo” Marines as an acknowledgment of their bravery. The “Lupo” was then relieved and sent to Marostica for reorganization, before being hurriedly sent to the Po River after the collapse of the front in April 1945. 

Then, after retreating to Padua with other units of the Xth MAS (now a full Division), surrendered with the honor of arms to the Allied (B Squadron, 20th NZ Armoured Rgt.) in this city the April 29, 1945.

The "Lupo" Bn Marò on the Senio Banks...

... and the Commonwealth units on the Senio River and the drive to Padua.



G. Bonvicini, Battaglione Lupo, Genova 2011
G. Bonvicini, Decima Marinai, Decima Comandante!, Milano 1996
C. Cucut, Le Forze Armate della RSI – Forze di terra, Trento 2005
B. Zeloni, Lupi sulla Linea Gotica, Genova 2012

[1] The post 8 September 1943 Armistice pro-Axis Italian Social Fascist Republic, formed and led by Benito Mussolini in Northern Italy from November 1943 until his death (28 April 1945).
[2] The Xth MAS Flottila was a successful Italian Navy elite naval assault unit, that scored in 1941-1943 several major successes against RN ships (sinking of the Cruiser HMS York, Suda Bay, 1941 and crippling of the Battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elisabeth, Alexandria, 1941). After the 8 September 1943 Armistice, the Xth MAS was one of the few Italian Army Units not disbanded or seized by the Germans. Many thousands of young volunteers and combat proven veterans loyal to the Axis or disgusted by the Italian Royal House change of alliances flocked then to the Xth MAS barracks, and so were formed several Marine Infantry Bn. In 1944-1945 these Bns conducted COIN operations in Northern Italy, fought on the Italian Eastern border against Tito’s IX Korpus irregulars, and against the Allies at Nettuno Beachead and along the Gothic Line.  
[3] Some of these units were: “Uccelli” and “Blotto” Bns of the “San Marco” Marines Division, parts of the “Monterosa”, “Littorio” and “Italia Divisions”, Bersaglieri Bn “Mameli” and Assault Bn “Forlì” (attached to the German 278th Infantry Division), “Barbarigo”, “NP”  and “Colleoni” Bn of the Xth MAS, the “Folgore” and “Nembo” Paras (attached to the German 4th Parachute Division), the “Etna” A/Tk and AA Division of the GNR, and many GHQ Field and Coastal Artillery and AAA units.

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