The Italian Infantry Battalion, 1940 to 1943

The best example of the paucity of information on Italian unit organisation concerns the basic building block of the Army itself, the Infantry Battalion.  The principle information available on it is that gathered by its Allied opponents, such as found in the US Army Handbook on Italian Forces, a work I don't possess a copy of.  Another important source, and seemingly easier to obtain, is the British Brief notes on the Italian Army published in 1942.  This is available as a reprint from www.mlrsbooks.co.uk and helps firm up the below description. 

Even this handy publication though is a little contradictory, assigning different strengths to the subunits of the Battalion in different parts, and as ever providing no detail on the command and administrative elements.  I was gifted a copy of the Italian Squad manual courtesy of the Yahoo TO&E Group to clarify its unusual organisation, though sadly I've lost the name of the contributor!  Also added into the list for help in compiling information on the Battalion are Brembilla Dario, Giacomo Fedele and Arturo Lorioli via email, or posts or contacts on the Yahoo Italianisti discussion group.  First time I've tried to account for all the sources, forgotten how wide the net has been cast in this case.

The below then is something of a patchwork creation.  Figures in italics denote my estimations for personnel distribution, or those where sources give different totals, so should be treated with caution.  I've also reverse engineered somewhat from the The Italian Combat Group Infantry Battalion detailed later where the similarities are pronounced.

The Infantry Battalion, circa 1940 to 1943

Battalion Headquarters (6 Officers)

Headquarters Company, (3 Officers, 119 men) comprised of;

Headquarters Platoon (1 Officer, 28 men)

Message & Radiotelephone Platoon (1 Officer, 49 men)

Scout Platoon (1 Officer, 42 men)

Support Company, (6 Officers, 274 men) comprised of;

Headquarters Platoon (2 Officers, 110 men)

Two Machine Gun Platoons, each (1 Officer, 38 men)

Two Light Mortar Platoons, each (1 Officer, 44 men

Three Rifle Companies (5 Officers, 151 men), each comprised of;

Headquarters Platoon (2 Officers, 28 men)

Three Rifle Platoons, each comprised of;

Platoon Headquarters (1 Officer, 1 man)

Two Rifle Squads, each comprised of 20 men

Total strength of 876 all ranks (30 Officers and 846 men)

Points of note

The Battalion was strong on manpower, but somewhat weaker in terms of firepower.  This was in part due to the higher organisation into which the Battalion fitted.  Medium mortars and anti-tank guns were found at Regimental level, and then were issued in lower numbers than found in other armies.

The elements of the Battalion

Battalion Headquarters - consisted of the Battalion staff, including the Commanding Officer and Adjutant, and seemingly two Medical Officers plus two junior officers for unknown duties.

Message and Radiotelephone Platoon - appears to have consisted of a Telephone Section, a Visual Section and an Orderly Section.

Scout Platoon - this is one of those interesting sounding subunits on which there is no proper detail!  The Platoon is not shown as deploying any light machine guns, and would appear to have consisted of just three large Squads, probably each fourteen strong, which could likely breakdown into two elements.  Beyond that, I don't have a clue.

Support Company HQ - a word has to be said on this as it is huge in terms of personnel.  There is some agreement on the strength of the Support Company as a whole and its various component Platoons, so deducting the sum of these gives the impressive HQ total shown above.  

The Battalion in this form was reliant almost entirely on pack animals for transport, and the requirements for handlers, farriers and others almost certainly would contribute to the total.  It is also likely that the fifty plus horses and their attendant handlers were routinely attached to the Platoons of Support Company to shift weapons and ammunition.  Even so, it still seems an unwieldy number of men for a HQ unit.

Heavy Machine Gun Platoon - each Platoon served four machine guns, which could be either the Fiat-Revelli Modello 35, an updated version of the Great War era Fiat Modello 1914, or the later Breda Modello 37.  The Modello 35 was chambered for the 8-mm round adopted prior to the war, which made it incompatible with the ammunition used by Italian rifles.  The most important differences from the original Modello 1914 were the change to a conventional belt feed system and the fitting of an air-cooled barrel.

The Breda Modello 37 was introduced prior to World War Two, and likewise used the 8-mm round.  It was an awkward looking weapon, and used an odd feed mechanism that dragged a tray holding twenty rounds from left to right through the mechanism, neatly replacing the spent cartridge cases back in the tray after firing.  No one seems to know why.  This eccentricity aside, the Breda 37 was reasonably reliable, though the need to lubricate rounds always invited stoppages in dusty climes.

Light Mortar Platoon - as mentioned, the Battalion possessed no integral 81-mm mortars.  These were instead gathered into a Regimental Company serving six tubes, while a Divisional unit added a further eighteen.  For immediate support, the Battalion had to rely on the 45-mm Modello 35.  This curious weapon fired a relatively small and ineffective round from a complex and inordinately heavy delivery system, which is never a good combination.  Its range was limited to some 500 metres.  Each Platoon served nine such weapons, which would allow one team to be deployed out to each Rifle Platoon, while the second Platoon was retained as a Battalion reserve.

The Rifle Company - the Italian Rifle Platoon used a unique internal organisation.

It was divided into two large Squads, each of twenty men, which were further split into Rifle and Light Machine Gun groups.  The Squad was commanded by a Sergeant or Major Sergeant, who controlled the LMG Group.  This was made up of two detachments, each of a Corporal gunner, an assistant gunner and two ammunition bearers.  Each detachment served a Breda Modello 30 light machine gun.  The balance of the Squad was found in the Rifle Group of eleven men, which included a Corporal Major and Corporal.

The manual indicates that the two Groups were to operate as distinct elements, with the two LMGs supporting the Rifle Group onto its objective.  At the time, most other armies embedded a light machine gun with each Section/Squad, themselves roughly half the size of the Italian Squad, which by comparison seems an unwieldy organisation.  Individual weapons are given as pistols for each Corporal gunner, a carbine for the Major Sergeant and rifles for all others.

The standard rifle at the outset of war was the Fucile Modello 1891, a 6.5-mm calibre bolt action rifle with a six round capacity.  Experience during the campaign in Abyssinia had persuaded the Italian Army of the need to replace the 6.5-mm round with a larger calibre, a 7.35-mm cartridge being adopted in 1938.  The existing Modello 1891 was re-designed to accept the new round and designated the Modello 1938, but never succeeded in replacing the original weapon due to the sudden expansion of the Army from 1940 onwards.  This meant that both types of rifle continued in service alongside one another during the conflict.  There was also a shortened, carbine version of each rifle, again chambered for one or other rounds.  The 6.5-mm version M1981 included a fixed bayonet, folded back under the barrel, which was deleted on the 7.35-mm M1938 model.  Basic ammunition allocation was 72 rounds per man equipped with the rifle or carbine.

The principle automatic weapon for the Rifle Squads was the Breda Modello 30 light machine gun.  It fired the 6.5-mm round, but some weapons were produced for the 7.35-mm cartridge as the Breda 38.  The weapon used a fixed side mounted magazine, that was hinged to swing forward and reloaded using twenty round clips, which was a cumbersome system compared to other box fed light machine guns.  Each ammunition bearer would appear to have carried one box holding 300 rounds, making 600 per gun.  The Breda 30 was plagued by numerous unwelcome features, from a quick change barrel with no handle to an internal oiler that invited stoppages.

Platoon HQ was nothing more than an Officer and runner.  Oddly enough, there's no mention of submachine guns for the Squad in the manual, this despite the fact that the various Beretta weapons were some of the most reliable of the war.  

Company Headquarters was a quite sizeable unit, some thirty all ranks, though quite how they were employed I cannot say.  Given later developments it may have included signals, medical and ammunition detachments, as well as further mule transport.

Summary

Hopefully the above is a little more use than the previous version of this page, but still has much room for improvement.  As ever, if anyone reading this happens to be sitting on a stash of Italian war establishment/table of organisation equivalents they would be willing to share, then please drop me a line via the Index page! 

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