The Trento arrived in North Africa to reinforce the Italian Fifth Army following the Allied offensive Operation Compass, a counterattack by British and Commonwealth troops of the Western Desert Force in response to the Italian invasion of Egypt. The offensive resulted in the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army and the Allied occupation of the Italian province of Cyrenaica.
The Trento took part in the Axis counterattack of March 1941 that forced the British and Commonwealth forces into retreat. While the Australian 9th Infantry Division fell back to the fortified port of Tobruk, the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 miles (160 km) east to Sollum, on the Libyan–Egyptian border. These moves initiated the 240-day-long Siege of Tobruk, in which the Trento was involved.
After the failure of the Axis attack on El Adem Erwin Rommel, the German officer commanding the counterattack, decided to attack the western sector of the Tobruk perimeter, around Ras el Madauar, on 15 April. He used the 132 Armoured Division Ariete along with the 62 Sicilia Infantry Regiment of the Trento division.
A British communiqué on 17 April 1941 described the actions:
One of our patrols successfully penetrated an enemy position outside the defences of Tobruk capturing 7 Italian officers and 139 men. A further attack on the defences of Tobruk was repulsed by artillery fire. The enemy again suffered heavy casualties. During yesterdays operations a total of 25 officers and 767 of other ranks were captured. In addition over 200 enemy dead were left on the field.
The 2/43rd Battalion War Diary reported that "The Italians attacked our 48 Bn and whilst withdrawing they (the Italians) were fired upon by German tanks believed to be supporting the attack." The Australians sent out Bren-gun carriers specifically to find the Italian battalions' flank. The extra firepower finally stopped the Italians, and all firing ceased. Italian casualties turned out to be 24 dead, 112 wounded and 436 prisoners, including their colonel. He was so furious at having his unit shot up from behind by supporting German tanks that he fully cooperated with Tobruk Headquarters.
An intelligence assessment by the 2/43rd Battalion concluded that:
Reports from PW indicate that a large-scale attack was to have been launched on the Tobruk defences on or about 16 April 41. There appears to have been no co-ordination between enemy tanks and inf units. The ITALIANS appear to have been somewhat in the dark as to their actual objectives and the method of co-ordination by means of GERMAN liaison officers working with ITALIAN units has not been successful. PW also state that the spasmodic attacks in different sectors between 14 and 16 Apr, sometimes inf alone, sometimes tks alone sometimes both, were all intended to be a simultaneous assault which apparently went badly astray in its timing.
On the night of 30 April, a strong Italo-German force attacks the Tobruk defences, and the Ariete, Brescia, 8th Bersaglieri Regiment and Guastatori (combat engineers) involved capture seven strongpoints (R2, R3, R4, R5, R6, R7 and R8). On the night of 3 May, the Australians counterattack but the Italians in the form of the Trento and Pavia Divisions repel the attack and the attackers are only able to recapture one strongpoint from the defending Italian troops On the night of 16 May, the Brescia Division retaliates with the help of two platoons of the 32nd Combat Engineer Battalion and breaches the defensive perimeter of the 2/9th and 2/10th Battalions. With the obstacles removed, the Brescia troops involved, who bring flame-thrower parties and tanks, capture the S8, S9 and S10 strongpoints. The Australians fight back and the Commanding Officer of the Guastatori's, Colonel Emilio Caizzo is killed in a satchel attack and wins a posthumous Gold Medal for valour. Although the Australian Official History admits losing three positions, it claims the attackers were 'Germans'. However, an Italian narrative has recorded:
With great skill and speed the Guastatori open three lanes in the mines and obstacles to let the Brescia Fucilieri through. Side by side with the Brescia assault troops they inflict heavy losses on the enemy and take out further strong points with explosives and flamethrowers.
Australian military historian Mark Johnston states there was an "unwillingness to acknowledge reverses against Italians" in Australian official accounts.
The Australian commander (Major-General Leslie Morsehead) is furious and orders the Australians to be far more vigilant in the future. Among the objectives initially selected during the planning of Operation Brevity was the recapture of S8 and S9 strongpoints, but this is abandoned when it is discovered the Australians had recovered them.
On 24 May, the Brescia Division which has taken over the western front of Tobruk, repels an attacking infantry force, supported by tanks. On 2 August, another attack is launched to recover the lost strongpoints, but the attacking Australians (2/43rd Battalion and 2/28th Battalions) are defeated.
The Trento in the form of its 7th Bersaglieri Regiment soon arrives to replace the weary Italian forces defending the captured stronpoints, and the Australians continue to fight hard to recover them. On 2 August, the Australian 2/43rd and 2/28th Battalions, in a final attempt to recover the lost strongpoints, carry out a determined attack but are repulsed with heavy loss of life. After much fierce fighting, the Bersaglieri troops are finally ordered to move back to Gazala to rest and refit.
The British XIII Corps launched Operation Brevity on 15 May 1941. The objective of the operation was to clear the Halfaya Pass and secure several footholds to create advantageous conditions from which to launch Operation Battleaxe.
The principle Axis opposition was Kampfgruppe von Herff, positioned on the desert plateau, which included up to 50 German tanks and the 5th Motorised Infantry Battalion, Trento, as well as supporting arms. The front line area around Halfaya Pass was defended by two companies of Bersaglieri with artillery support.
After a day of inconclusive fighting the operation was abandoned and British forces took control of the pass. Total Italian casualties during the operation are unknown, though at least 347 men were taken prisoner during the operation. On 5 August 1941, Colonel von Herff praised the Bersaglieri, who he said had defended Halfaya Pass "...with lionlike courage until the last man against stronger enemy forces. The greatest part of them died faithful to the flag."
The division next saw action during the Allied attack codenamed Operation Battleaxe in mid-June 1941. The division was deployed forward with three infantry battalions and one artillery regiment stationed in the Sollum-Musaid-Capuzzo area. The rest of the division was located at Bardia.
Operation Crusader was launched by the British Eighth Army between 18 November–30 December 1941, with the objective of relieving the siege of Tobruk. Trento was now part of the Italian XXI Corps with the 17 Infantry Division Pavia, the 25 Infantry Division Bologna, and the 27 Infantry Division Brescia. The attacks of the British 70th Division were checked for a time by the Trento, but the attackers were able to lift the siege of Tobruk on 10 December.
The Battle of Gazala was fought May–June 1942. The plan was for the armoured and motorised divisions to perform a right flanking attack while the Italian XXI Corps and the Italian X Corps, which included the Trento, would advance parallel to the coast road. The Trento played an important role in the capture of 6,000 prisoners at Gazala on June 16.
During the Battle of Mersa Matruh on 26–30 June 1942, Trento, with the 46th Artillery and 7th Bersaglieri Regiments attached, played an important part in the capture of 6000 defenders of the Xth British Corps, along with large quantities of supplies.
During the First Battle of El Alamein, elements of the Trento put up a tenacious defense on Miteiriya Ridge, delaying the Allied advance for several hours and allowing an Italian armoured reconnaissance force to launch a devastating counterattack.
Before the start of the Second Battle of El Alamein the Trento was positioned along the Miteirya Ridge. On 24 October they came under attack from the 2nd New Zealand Division supported by 10th Armoured Division. By 25 October the Allies had broken through the minefields and were positioned on top of the Miteiriya Ridge. Italian casualties from incessant artillery and air attack had been heavy, particularly in the north. The Trento had lost half its infantry and most of its artillery. According to author Walter S. Zapotoczny (a graduate of the U.S. Army Sergeant Majors' Academy), the 61st and 62nd Infantry Regiments of the Trento Division had fought well, including the anti-tanks gunners of Captain Vigano and engineers of Colonel Randi that were attached to the division. On 2 November Rommel ordered the X and XXI Italian Corps and 90th Light Afrika Division to stand firm while the Afrika Korps would withdraw approximately six miles west during the night of 3 November, with XX Italian Corps and the Ariete Division conforming to their position.61. Sicilia Infantry Regiment
62. Sicilia Infantry Regiment
7. Bersaglieri Regiment
46. Artillery Regiment (mot)
51. Engineer Battalion
161. Mining Company
51. Medical Section
22. Motor Transport Section
297. Motor Transport Section
9. Mixed Motor Transport Section
37. Heavy Motor Transport Section
68. Field Bakery
160. Carabinieri Section
180. Carabinieri Section
266. Carabinieri Section
109. Field Post Office