Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The 54th Infantry Division "Napoli"

Collar patch of the 54th Infantry Division "Napoli"

The 54th Infantry Division "Napoli" was created in Caltanissetta on 15 April 1939, formed by the 75th and 76th Infantry Regiment and by the 54th Field Artillery Regiment.
The Division spent the entirety of the war in southern Sicily, stationed between Caltagirone, Mirabella and Piazza Armerina, ready to intervene in support of the coastal units in the case of an enemy landing on the coast between Gela, Licata and Pozzallo. Its first commander was General Renato Coturri, replaced in 1943 by General Giulio Cesare Gotti Porcinari, a 54-year-old officer hailing from an aristocratic Florentine family (he held the title of Count) who had fought with the Bersaglieri in the Italo-Turkish War and World War I, receiving two Bronze Medals for Military Valor.
At the time of the Allied landings in July 1943, the "Napoli" Division was divided into two groups, one of which was stationed between Ramacca and Scordia (west of Catania and Augusta), and the other more to the south, in Palazzolo Acreide, as a mass of manoeuvre for the XVI Corps. After the landings, the Division engaged the advancing Allied columns in heavy fighting near Noto and between Lentini and Brucoli; units from the Division launched reiterated counterattacks near Floridia throughout July 10, until they were attacked by prevalent Allied forces coming from Ponte Diddino on their left flank and forced to retreat towards the hills north of Solarino, where they kept countering the enemy advance during July 11. At the same time, other units from the Division were heavily engaged in Palazzolo Acreide; on July 12, it seemed for some time that the frontline had been stabilized on the Palazzolo-Solarino-Priolo line, but on the following day more Allied troops, having landed north of Augusta, encircled the Division, which was almost wiped out in the subsequent fighting. On that day, General Gotti Porcinari and his staff were captured near Solarino. On July 14 the surviving forces that had managed to escape encirclement gathered near Scordia, where they were almost completely destroyed while protecting the withdrawal of other Axis units from Caltagirone-Vizzini towards Scordia. Between 16 and 24 July the remains of the Division sustained sporadic rearguard fighting, and on July 25 – the day of Mussolini’s removal from power – they were sent to Linguaglossa where they were supposed to be reorganized. The impossibility of obtaining replacements, however, rendered this impossible, therefore they withdrew towards Messina, crossing the straits between 11 and 14 August and being then gathered near Fondaco Melia, south-east of Scilla (Reggio Calabria). So few men had escaped from Sicily, anyway, that the Division was officially dissolved on 14 August; the only one to suffer this fate, among the four Italian "regular" infantry divisions that fought in Sicily.
 
General Gotti Porcinari after his capture

General Giulio Cesare Gotti Porcinari wrote the following report about the condition and morale of the men under his command on the eve of the Allied invasion: “Everyone was firm in their purpose to keep the enemy away from the island. Three-fifths of the soldiers in the division had been recruited in districts of Sicily; therefore, they weren’t free of deep concern about their families, given the (constantly growing, in the last period) violence and extension of the bombing and strafing attacks on towns and countryside by enemy aircraft. In October 1942, the division was asked to provide officers and soldiers (volunteers) that would be sent to Russia, replacing troops that in turn would be repatriated from Russia and would replace said volunteers (3,500 men). Thus the units lost one third of their strength, the best educated, most enthusiastic and most willing men, and the division was placed in a terrible state of crisis, as in one stroke the thorough training (specialist troops, non-commissioned officers, officers, shock troops) of men and units, that had been carried out in multiple areas, was nullified.
At the end of May 1943 General Testi, the commander of the division’s infantry, previously Chief of Staff of the XVI Corps, was transferred to mainland Italy; Colonel De Fonzo, commander of the 54th Artillery Regiment, was appointed Chief of Staff of the Intendance of Sicily; on 15 June Colonel Mazzarella, commander of the 75th Infantry Regiment, a role which he had held firmly, was removed from his position and transferred to the 213rd Coastal Division. We thus lost capable senior officers, who knew well the regions and the units under their command.
The troops that had come from Russia were not content with their transfer to Sicily, for the following reasons:
a) they had not been granted the leave they had been promised; they had only been granted fifteen days instead of thirty as they had been told;
b) they weren’t in excellent physical condition, a considerable percentage of them suffered from the consequences of frostbite and suffered from sores after brief marches;
c) according to them, they had been told that in Sicily they would enjoy a period of relative rest and calm; instead, they had been tasked with heavy guard duty, patrol duty, working on fortifications, alarms, and prolonged posting in malaria areas with little water or comfort (Butera regio – Catania plain).
The continuous changes in their rations and the reduction of their quantity, coupled with difficulties in buying food, represented an unfavorable element for the spirit of the troops.
The regiments had between 1/3 and ¼ of their troops that, due to superior orders, were not given any leave, not even in case of death of their parents. When some of these men were granted leave by the divisional command in derogation from these orders, they were sent back to the division under the escort of Carabinieri [military police], and the divisional command was reprimanded by the Ministry for this. Most of them were excellent soldiers who, in great numbers, asked their colonels and the commander of the division the reason for this undeserved mistrust and their different treatment from that of the islanders, who instead enjoyed leaves.
With the specious pretext of lack of transport, at the end of 1942 all leaves for mainland Italy were suspended, while troop trains were used exclusively for German troops.
The distribution of tobacco was irregular, while it was noted that the civilians were smoking “Milit” cigarettes, exclusively reserved to the troops.
Another loss, in addition to that of the commanding officers, was the transfer to the coastal units of all soldiers born in 1910-1911-1912-1913-1914, who were replaced with hastily-trained recruits born in 1923. Still in June 1943, the Division was deprived of 12 officers and 100 enlisted men, chosen among the best, in order to create a unit for a special Arditi battalion elsewhere”.

Men from the 75th Infantry Division (from www.antoniorandazzo.it)

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