Italian Army Stalingrad  During World War ll

 

We join the Russian front in the summer of 1942. General Paulus led Germany’s 6th Army, consisting of 300,000 soldiers, and was expected to take Stalingrad. On the southeast flank of the 6th Army was a Romanian army of 75,000 soldiers. Southeast of the Romanians was German General Erich Von Manstein’s army. It was expected that Von Manstein would take the caucuses and their important oil fields. On the northwest flank of the 6th Army was another Romanian army of 150,000 thousand soldiers, and just northwest of this Romanian army was the Italian 8th Army consisting of 136,000 soldiers. The Italian army included the Trentadina divisions with its elite alpine (alpini) division on each flank. On the left flank of the Alpini’s and northwest was a Hungarian army of 200,000 soldiers  northwest of the Hungarian army was  the German 24th Army Corps.

General Messe of the Italian 8th Army met with Mussolini in the Ukraine in the late summer of 1942. General Messe’s main concern was convincing Mussolini to better provide for his soldiers as the 8th Army was poorly equipped. German soldiers had the latest equipment (gun, tanks, airplanes, etc.). The Hungarian and Romanian armies, at least, were still less equipped than the Italian’s.

In any case, Italian weapons would not fire when cold, hand grenades did not always work and many of the soldiers were killed and consequently, lost battles due to defective weapons. Italian tanks were inferior to the British Matilda's in North Africa, as well as to the Russian T34's. 

Mussolini reassured Messe that new tanks, ones better than the T34's, would come off Italian production lines in the summer of 1943 and that his soldiers would have to make do with the equipment they had until then. Mussolini was not happy with Messe's honest assessment of the situation in regards to Italian weaponry. Just before the Russian break through in November, Mussolini replaced him.

Every Axis army knew that the Soviets were planning a large counterattack in the Stalingrad area. In fact the Soviets were putting together three armies. One army would attack between the German 24 Corps and the Hungarian army. The second was to attack the center of the Italian army held by two infantry divisions. The third army would attack southeast of Stalingrad between Paulus’ 6th Army and the Romanian army. Each attacking force was equal in size of about 90,000 soldiers and 100 T34 tanks and attack bombers. This counter-offensive was set to start on November 2. Its code name was Saturn. Additional time was needed to get men and equipment in place. The attacks finally started on November 16.

The first breakthrough was just south of Stalingrad between Germany’s 6th Army and the Romanian army. They attacked, encircled and destroyed the Hungarian 2nd Army just northwest of the Italians. They attacked and pushed back the remaining units of the German 24th Army Corps. They attacked the center of the Italian line between two infantry divisions. There was no breakthrough as the Italians effectively stopped the Russian forces. However, within three days the Soviet army that broke through the Hungarian and German 24th Army Corps northwest of the Italians advanced 140 miles south to link up with the soldiers who had broken through Germany’s 6th Army and the Romanians. The Italian, German, Hungarian and Romanian armies were surrounded. By early December, their soldiers were dying from starvation and hypothermia due to lack of supplies and winter clothing. 

Stalin and Hitler were determined to win the battle for Stalingrad and refused to order a withdrawal. Goring told Hitler that he could supply the 6th Army with the German Air Force. Within days, Russia captured the airfield being used to supply the 6th Army. General Manstien said he could break through from the south and help Paulus break out of the trap. Hitler agreed, but under the condition that they did not surrender Stalingrad.

Battle of Nikolayevka

Although the Alpini Corps was ordered to hold the front at all costs, preparations for a general retreat began on January 15. On the evening of January 17, the commanding officer of the corps, General Gabriele Nasci, finally ordered the full retreat. At this point the army divisions were already heavily decimated and only the Tridentina division was still capable of conducting effective combat operations.

A 45,000-strong mass of stragglers—Alpini and Italians from other commands, plus various Germans and Hungarians—formed two columns that followed the Tridentina division supported by a handful of German armored vehicles. They led the way westwards to the new Axis front. The Soviets had already occupied every village. To clear the way, the soldiers of the Tridentina division fought bitter battles. In 15 days they covered 105 miles on foot, fought 22 battles and spent 14 nights camped in the middle of the Russian steppe. Temperatures during the night fell to −20 °F.

On the morning of January 26, the spearheads of the Tridentina division reached the little hamlet of Nikolayevka, now part of the village known as Livenka. A Soviet division of nearly 6,000 well-armed soldiers occupied it and the surrounding area. The Tridentina division immediately began their attack with their last 4,000 combat-ready soldiers. They knew that this was the last Soviet position blocking their way to safety. The Soviet forces held their ground, and, after hours of fighting, the Italian units became desperate. Each passing hour increased the risk that Soviet reinforcements could arrive.

The chief-of-staff of the corps, Brigadier General Giulio Martinat, had already been killed earlier that day while leading an assault on the "Edolo" battalion. General Luigi Reverberi, commander of the Tridentina division, stepped onto one of the last three Panzers as the sun began to set, and, yelling "Tridentina Avanti!" (Tridentina Forward), he led his men personally on the final assault. As the 4,000 Tridentina division advanced, all remaining soldiers of the columns fell in. The Soviets, facing a human wave attack consisting of 38,000 Italians (and about 7,000 Germans and Hungarians), relented and abandoned the village.

The retreat was no longer contested by Soviet forces and on February 1, 1943, the remnants of the Corps reached new Axis lines under the leadership of General Reverberi who later received the Italian Gold Medal of Military Valour.

On February 2, 1943 in Stalingrad, General Paulus surrendered his 6th Army along with the remaining 90,000 sick, frost bitten, seriously wounded and starving German soldiers.

The Italians won several accolades in official German communiqués. Many times they were held in little regard by the Germans and were often even accused of cowardice and low morale. In actuality, Italians, like the Romanian and Hungarian soldiers, were a poorly prepared, ill-equipped and inadequately armed military force.

The Alpini did pay a high price in Russia. The 4th Alpine Division was annihilated. Only about one tenth of the 3rd Alpine Division survived (approximately 1,200 of 15,000) and only about one third of the 2nd Tridentina made it out alive (approximately 4,250 of 15,000).

Mussolini withdrew what remained of the Italian army in February of 1943. Most returned home in railroad boxcars. Italian citizens were enraged at the wretched condition returning soldiers were in: sick, frost bitten and badly wounded, many  died before the trains arrived in Italy. More died soon thereafter.

The survivors blamed Mussolini*, the Fascist liberal political elite and some of the army generals appointed by these same elite. They were irresponsible by sending a poorly prepared, ill-equipped and inadequately armed military force to the Russian Front. According to veterans, weapons used in the Italian service were awful. Hand grenades rarely went off. Rifles and machine guns had to be kept for a long time on a fire to work properly in extreme climatic conditions. The weapons were often not capable of firing in the midst of battle at all. The German commanders were accused of sacrificing the Italian divisions, whose withdrawal were supposedly delayed after the Soviet breakthrough in order to rescue their own troops.

The Italians in the Soviet Union had not acted as occupation troops. There were no atrocities against partisans and civilians. Soviets captured by the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia prior to June 1942, were delivered to the Germans and endured cruel treatment by the Nazis. After the establishment of the Italian Army in Russia, Soviet prisoners were kept in Italian custody in reasonable conditions. Russian POWs were fed with standard Italian Army rations. Virtually all the surviving Italian prisoners the Russian held (over 10,000 in total) were released in 1945 and 1946. Of the over 200,000 German soldiers captured by the Soviets during the war, only 5,000 survived. They were released just before and immediately after the death of Stalin in 1953.

*The enraged Italian population captured Mussolini just before World War II ended.  Mussolini was properly dealt with and it was believed his girlfriend, Clara Patacci, deserved the same fate. Both were hung by their feet in Milan. About eight others in Mussolini’s entourage perished in this manner.

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