Ardito in Action
An American Student of the Great War
Living in Milan, Italy
The Italian Reparti d'assalto (Assault Units) of the First World War were the most elite force in the Italian Army. In Italian, the word "ardito", means something like brave, bold or audacious. Organized in the summer of 1917, by a Col. Bassi, these Special Forces units were assigned the tactical role of breaching the enemy defenses and attacking in depth in order to prepare the way for a broad infantry advance.
Note Weapons and Bicycles
Normally one Reparto d'assalto was assigned to each Corps (Corpo d'Armata) and received orders from the Corps commander. Therefore, they were what we would today call a "Corps asset". In mid-1918, however, the Italian army also created two assault divisions, each of which was built around nine Reparti d'assalto. The Arditi were not infantry troops, but were considered a separate combat arm. Some Italian historians consider them to be the modern world's first true "Special Forces". In contrast, the Austrian and German "Sturmtruppen" although having a similar combat role, were regular infantry units.
Like most Special Forces units, the Reparti d'assalto were relatively small, totaling approximately 600 men and officers, versus an Italian infantry battalion which usually contained about 1,000 men and officers. While the organization of the Reparti d'assalto evolved slightly throughout 1917 and 1918, each Reparto d'assalto was generally organized with 3 companies of 150 men supported by 6 submachine gun sections and 6 flame-thrower sections. Each company was divided into four platoons and the platoons were further divided into four squads, one assault squad, two flanking squads equipped with submachine guns and one covering squad
RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING
For the most part, the Arditi were hand picked from volunteers. Prior to Caporetto, the Italian Army had established an "Arditi School" at Sdricca, in northeastern Italy. The training program was challenging and heavily concentrated on gymnastics, hand-to-hand combat, handling grenades and practicing assaults on entrenched positions. After the Arditi school was lost in the Battle of Caporetto, each Reparto d'assalto conducted it's own training program, often with mixed results. In May 1918 in an effort to standardize training, units called Reparti d'assalto di marcia were formed by each Italian Army (Armata). These units trained cadre for the regular Reparti d'assalto units assigned to each Corps under that army's command. By war's end the Italian Army had approximately 42 Reparti d'assalto, including 8 Reparti d'assalto di marcia.
Sdricca: First Training Base, Today
Not surprisingly, the Reparti d'assalto were very heavily armed. They were outfitted with a great number of submachine guns and heavy machine guns. Individual Arditi were armed with the "moschetto" rifle (a light weight version of the standard infantry weapon), a dagger and 25 hand grenades. The dagger and grenades were essential for the close confines of trench warfare and it is the image of the Ardito with grenade in hand and dagger clenched between his teeth that became famous in Italian wartime propaganda efforts.
The Reparti d'assalto relied on surprise, speed, meticulous planning and down-to-the-second coordination between each section. Assaults usually began with a very intense, but brief artillery barrage, which forced the enemy to seek shelter in their dugouts. The Arditi began their advance toward the first-line trench during the artillery barrage and normally got to within a few yards of where the shells were falling before signaling the artillery to lengthen their fire onto the second-line trench. As the artillery lengthened its fire, the Arditi would begin the assault, often throwing grenades ahead of them into the enemy trench in an effort to fool the enemy into believing that the artillery barrage was still in course. If all went well, the Arditi could take control of a trench while most of the enemy troops were still buttoned up in their dugouts. Sub-machinegun sections were used to provide covering fire while the assault sections maneuvered through the enemy trench system. Once the first enemy trench had been taken, the Reparto d'assalto would attack the second and third line trenches. Assaults usually ended in hand to hand combat using daggers or hand grenades. The small groups of Arditi were also used to carryout reconnaissance missions and small-scale raids intended to capture prisoners and damage enemy morale.
The moschetto rifle, was not normally used on the assault. It was considered a defensive weapon to be used to fight off enemy counter attacks while the Arditi waited for the Italian infantry to relieve them. On the attack, the Arditi were often forbidden to use weapons with a range of more than 10 meters, which limited them to using flame-throwers, grenades and daggers.
Their tactics generally worked very well and the Reparti d'assalto enjoyed great successes throughout 1917 and 1918. However, the Reparti d'assalto, armed almost completely with offensive weapons, were often vulnerable to counter attacks while waiting to be relieved by the heavier equipped and therefore, slower moving infantry units. Difficulties were also experienced when the Arditi were used in defensive purposes for which they were neither trained nor equipped. These were new, experimental units and sometimes commanders simply did not understand how to use them properly.
PRIVILEGES, BENEFITS & MORALE
The Arditi of the Reparti d'assalto were given the riskiest and most dangerous combat tasks and suffered higher casualties than other units. For volunteering, however, they received higher pay, more and better food, extra rations of grappa and lived in the nicer barracks when not in the field. They did not serve in the trenches (the most hated First World War task) or carry backpacks. They were given truck transport and rarely marched long distances. Discipline was more relaxed and leave was granted more often.
Romantic and [More] Realistic Depiction of an Assault
They were, in a word, pampered. The Arditi were a group of heavily armed, highly trained, highly motivated, cocky young men with outstanding morale and it comes as no surprise that many in the Italian Army, including the Officer Corps viewed them with a mixture of respect, admiration and fear.
The Reparto d'assalto uniforms were quite different from the infantry uniforms. The Arditi wore open tunics (to facilitate movement in hand to hand combat. Black "fez" hats and the same pants used by the Italian bicycle units completed the uniform. Units organized in 1917 wore black or very dark green collar-less shirts under their tunics while units organized in 1918 wore flannel shirts with black ties under their tunics.
Unfortunately, Italian military archives contain very little documentation regarding the Reparti d'assalto. Therefore, it is very difficult to reconstruct a history of their military actions. However, I have included a brief description of some of their operations.
The overall record of the Reparti d'assalto was one of success. They provided the Italian Army with an effective way of breaking the stalemate of trench warfare on the tactical level. Also, they served as a model for lower level assault units named the "Plotoni di arditi reggimentali" or Regimental Arditi platoons. These platoons were created in 1917 and organized with one platoon per regiment. They attended a brief training course modeled on that of the Reparti d'assalto but remained in their infantry regiment. The plotoni di arditi reggimantali assumed the tasks of everyday patrols and small hand-to-hand actions. So, they were organized like the Austrian Sturmtruppen, i.e. within the infantry command structure.
The first known Arditi attack took place on the night of 18 - 19 August 1917 the I Reparto d'assalto attacked Austrian-Hungarian positions on Monte Fratta in the Bainsizza Plateau sector of the Isonzo front. The operation was a success as they occupied Mt. Fratta capturing 500 enemy soldiers and 8 machine guns. Casualties were light.
On 4 September 1917 the I Reparto d'assalto attacked Austrian-Hungarian positions at San Gabriele, again in the Bainsizza Plateau sector of the Isonzo front. The attack was an enormous success with 3,100 prisoners taken (including one general) along with 55 machine guns and 26 artillery pieces. Various Reparti d'assalto performed rear-guard actions during the retreat from Caporetto with good results often in the face of heavy casualties. These early successes impressed the Italian High Command and on 08 January 1918 the number of Reparti d'assalto was expanded.
- On 28 and 29 January 1918 the I, II, IV & XVI Reparti d'assalto participated in the Battle of the Three Mountains (Monte Valbella, Col del Roso & Col d'Echele) on the Asiago Plateau. The attack was coordinated with three infantry brigades, 5 Alpini battalions and 3 Bersaglieri regiments and the Reparti d'assalto experienced considerable difficulty coordinating their movements with the other, slower units. In some cases, positions won by the Reparti d'assalto had to be abandoned in the face of strong Austrian-Hungarian counter attacks; a problem that would plague the Reparti d'assalto throughout the war. In the end, however, all three mountains were taken and held against Austrian-Hungarian counterattacks.
- In the spring of 1918, the Reparti d'assalto were used in a number of small scale attacks and raids on Austrian-Hungarian positions along the Piave river. The objective of these raids was mainly to reconnoiter the enemy defensive positions and capture prisoners.
- Several Reparti d'assalto further distinguished themselves during the Austrian-Hungarian offensive in June 1918 when they were used to counterattack Austrian-Hungarian positions. In particular, the XXIII Reparto d'assalto was decorated with the Medaglia d'oro (Gold Medal - Italy's highest military decoration) for it's role in a series of counterattacks carried out along the lower Piave river. The XXVII Reparto d'assalto was decorated with the Medaglia d'argento (Silver Medal - second highest military decoration) for its actions against Austrian-Hungarian advances on Mt. Montello. Casualties for both the XXII and XXVII Reparto d'assalto were very heavy, ranging from 75% to 80%. The IX Reparto d'assalto is credited with stopping a Austrian-Hungarian breakthrough in the sector west of Monte Grappa with a brilliant series of three counterattacks on the hills Col Fenilon, Col Fagheron and Col Moschin on 15 and 16 June 1918. The attack on Col Moschin, was completed in only 10 minutes and is considered one of the most famous Arditi actions of the war.
- From the end of the Austrian offensive in June 1918 to the battle of Vittorio Veneto in October 1918, the Reparti d'asalto were used in a series of attacks to retake lost territory and key positions considered important to any eventual offensive action taken by Italian forces.
- During the Battle of Vittorio Veneto, (24 October - 04 November) many Reparti d'assalto fought on Monte Grappa, leading Italian attacks against Austrian-Hungarian units. The XXIII, LV, III, XVIII, IX all saw action on Monte Grappa often suffering very heavy casualties and achieving little results in the one locale where Austrian forces refused to yield in the War's last days. However, the LII, LXX Reparti d'assalto and VI Reparti d'assalto di marcia were able to make advances deep into the enemy lines in the later stages of the battle.
- Along the Piave river, the XXVII, XI and LXXII Reparto d'asalto made strong advances, sometimes in the face fierce Austrian-Hungarian resistance.
The Italian Gen. Caviglia considered the troops of the Reparti d'assalto key to the Italian High Command's plans to introduce a degree of movement to what had prevously been a war of position. Their behavior on the battlefield was exemplary and they earned an illustrious place in Italian military history.
Ardito Corporal Giovanni Maria Farina
The Author's Grandfather 
The Reparti d'assalto were demobilized quickly after the war. Many of the Arditi had become adherents of the new ultra-nationalist politics of Benito Mussolini and Gabriele D'Annunzio. Large numbers of Arditi went AWOL in 1919 in order to participate in D'Annunzio's march on the port city of Fiume which had not been awarded to Italy at Versailles despite its large Italian population. In Milan ex-arditi had been involved in violent street demonstration against Italian communists.
In the chaotic political atmosphere of post-war Italy, the Arditi had become downright scary. The idea of these highly motivated Special Forces units siding with political parties on the far-right convinced the Italian political and military leadership to demobilize all the Reparti d'assalto as quickly as possible. By December 1919, almost all units had been discharged.
 "Arditi" is the plural firm of the adjective "ardito".
 My grandfather Giovanni (later John) Farina was born in Inzago, Italy (near Milan) in 1896. He served in the infantry in 1916 - 1917 and entered the Reparti d'assalto in January 1918. He served in the XXVII and XII Reparti d'assalto and the I Reparto d'assalto di marcia. He was discharged in December 1919 and emigrated to St. Louis, Missouri, USA in 1920 where he married my grandmother (of course) and raised a family. He passed away in 1979. The belt he is wearing in the photo is Austrian - obviously a souvenir he picked up from somewhere. The Arditi liked to "personalize" their uniforms and it is not uncommon to see pictures of them slightly out of uniform in one way or another.
Sources and Thanks: John Farina provided all the material used in this article. Leo Benedetti whose father was a regimental Arditi [See Virgilio's Caporetto Odyssey] provided advice and oversight.