The Italian participation in the Eastern Front represented the military intervention of the Kingdom of Italy in the Operation Barbarossa, launched by Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in 1941. The commitment to actively take part in the German offensive was decided by Benito Mussolini a few months before the beginning of the operation, when he became aware of Adolf Hitler's intention to invade, but it was confirmed only in the morning of 22 June 1941, as soon as the Italian dictator was informed that same day the German armies had given way to the invasion.
|Italian participation in the Eastern Front|
|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
Italian troops near Stalino in 1941
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
|No specific data available on the Red Army's casualties caused by the Italian forces alone|
An expeditionary force quickly became operational, with three divisions, previously put on alert: called the "Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia" (CSIR), it arrived on the eastern front in mid-July 1941. Initially integrated into the 11th German Army and then in the 1st Panzer Army, the CSIR participated in the campaign until April 1942, when the needs of the front required the sending of two other Italian corps which together with the CSIR were reunited into the 8th Italian Army or "Italian Army in Russia" (ARMIR). Deployed to the south, in the Don river sector, the 8th Italian Army together with the 2nd Hungarian Army and the 3rd Romanian Army had the role to cover the left flank of the German forces that were advancing towards Stalingrad at the time.
Rapid reversals at the front changed the course of the battle; after the encirclement of the German forces in Stalingrad, the subsequent Soviet offensive that began on 16 December 1942 overwhelmed the 2nd and 35th Italian Army Corps (former CSIR), which were part of the southern deployment of the 8th Army, and six Italian divisions together with German and Romanian forces were forced to a hasty retreat. On 13 January 1943, a second major Soviet offensive north of the Don overwhelmed the Alpini troops still in line, poorly equipped and short of supplies, which began a retreat in the steppe, pursued by Soviet divisions, and were forced to suffer enormous misery. The retreat cost the Italian forces tens of thousands of losses and ended on 31 January, when the 2nd Alpine Division Tridentina reached the first German outposts in Shebekino. The repatriating operations lasted from 6 to 15 March and ended on 24 March, putting an end to the Italian military operations in the Soviet Union.
Italian Expeditionary Corps in RussiaEdit
Constituted on 10 July 1941, the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia (CSIR) arrived in the southern Soviet Union between July and August 1941. The CSIR was initially subordinated to German General Eugen Ritter von Schobert's 11th Army. On 14 August 1941, the CSIR was transferred to the control of General Ewald von Kleist's 1st Panzer Group. On 25 October, 1st Panzer Group was redesignated as the 1st Panzer Army. The CSIR remained under von Kleist’s command until 3 June 1942, when it was subordinated to German General Richard Ruoff's 17th Army.
August 1941 – July 1942, CSIR OperationsEdit
The CSIR was sent to the southern sector of the German advance in the Ukraine in July 1941. In August 1941, as part of the German 11th Army, the CSIR made its first contact with the enemy. The CSIR pursued retreating Soviet troops between the Bug River and Dniestr River. While the 11th Army besieged Odessa, the CSIR was attached to 1st Panzer Group under General Ewald von Kleist.
In its early encounters it was successful, taking a number of towns and cities and creating a favourable impression on its German allies. Its most notable early victory came at the Battle of Petrikowka in September 1941, where the Italians encircled some sizable Red Army units, inflicting unknown combat casualties on them and capturing over 10,000 prisoners of war as well as significant numbers of weapons and horses. Petrikowka was part of a larger independently-executed maneuver that opened the way for German armour and contributed to the encirclement of five Soviet divisions. The pincer movement was executed jointly between the Pasubio, Torino, and Celere divisions, which united at Petrikowka to block the Soviet exit route. This cost them only 291 casualties of their own: 87 killed, 190 wounded, and 14 missing. On 20 October, the CSIR together with the German XXXXIX Mountain Corps captured the major industrial center of Stalino (now Donetsk) after heavy resistance from the Soviet defenders. While the CSIR did not participate in the siege of Odessa, Italian troops assisted in the occupation of the Odessa area after the city fell on 16 October 1941. Units from the Pasubio motorised division attacked the neighboring city of Gorlovka on 2 November.
The Capture of Gorlovka (a city of 120,000 inhabitants) was preceded by the "Pasubio" division carefully clearing out the minefields around the city's outskirts in the previous week. The "Duca d'Aosta" cavalry division meanwhile captured the industrial town of Rukovo after heavy fighting. On 2 November, the "Pasubio" division threatened Gorlovka from the west, while the "Duca d'Aosta" division threatened the southeast. The city's defenders included the Soviet 296th Rifle Division. The "Pasubio" division's 80th Regiment engaged in close house-to-house fighting with the defenders, while the 79th Regiment (supported by "Duca d'Aosta" artillery units) swept through the downtown district with little resistance. Soviet combat casualties were unknown, but about 600 soldiers were taken prisoner. The Soviet 296th Rifle Division withdrew, and fighting continued for the next few days as the Italians cleared enemy remnants from the city and the surrounding area.
With the onset of winter, the CSIR units began consolidating their occupation zone and preparing defensive works. In the last week of December, the "Duca d'Aosta" division was hit with a fierce counterattack by Soviet forces. They managed to beat back the attacks long enough for the German 1st Panzer Army to provide back-up to their sector and subsequently defeat the Soviet offensive. The "Christmas Battle" grew in size and eventually consisted of several Soviet divisions, including the 35th and 68th Cavalry and the 136th Rifle Divisions. The Soviet offensive failed. In total, the Christmas Battle cost the Italians 168 dead, 715 wounded, and 207 missing; the Italians had defeated superior Soviet forces, which suffered over 2,000 dead, and had captured 1,200 prisoners, 24 76 mm guns and 9 AT guns as well as hundreds of machine guns and vehicles. Subsequently, forces from the First Panzer Army counterattacked and rolled backed the few Soviet gains.
Italian 8th Army or Italian Army in RussiaEdit
In July 1942, Mussolini scaled up the Italian effort on the Eastern Front and the CSIR became the 8th Italian Army. The 8th Italian Army was also known as the Italian Army in Russia (ARMIR). The ARMIR was subordinated to German General Maximilian von Weichs' Army Group B. His justifications were the Italian duty to fight Soviet Bolshevism and the requests by his German allies for additional forces, Operation Barbarossa having been longer and costlier than they expected. General Messe and many other traditional officers opposed further commitments to the Eastern Front, seeing it as of little importance and cautioning further subordination to Germany, but Mussolini overruled them.
Italian General Italo Gariboldi took command of the newly formed ARMIR from General Messe. As commander of the CSIR, Messe had opposed an enlargement of the Italian contingent in Russia until it could be properly equipped. As a result, he was dismissed. Just prior to commanding the ARMIR, Gariboldi was the Governor-General of Italian Libya. He was criticized after the war for being too submissive to the Germans.
Mussolini sent seven new divisions to Russia for a total of ten divisions. Four new infantry divisions were sent and included: the 2nd Infantry Division Sforzesca, the 3rd Infantry Division Ravenna, the 5th Infantry Division Cosseria, and the 156th Infantry Division Vicenza. In addition to the infantry divisions, three new Alpini divisions were sent: the 2nd Alpine Division Tridentina, the 3rd Alpine Division Julia, and the 4th Alpine Division Cuneense. These new divisions were added to the Torino, Pasubio, and Prince Amedeo Duke of Aosta divisions already in Russia. Italian forces in Russia would eventually total 229,000 men, 22,000 vehicles, and 1,340 artillery pieces.
The ARMIR advanced toward the right bank of the Don River which was reached by July 1942. From 17 to 20 July 1942, the Italians fought for and captured the important coal-mining basin of Krasny Lutsch (southeast of Kharkov) with a rapid enveloping maneuver. This cost the army 90 killed and 540 wounded, while inflicting over 1,000 combat casualties on the Soviets and taking 4,000 Soviet troops as prisoners. On 6 July, the 3rd Cavalry Division captured Ivanovka at the cost of 400 killed and wounded; the Soviets suffered at least as many killed and wounded, plus another 1,000 troops taken prisoner. On 30 July, the highly-mobile riflemen (Bersaglieri) of the 3rd Cavalry Division Amedeo Duca d'Aosta rushed to relieve the German 587th Regiment, which was clashing with the enemy near the Soviet bridgehead at Serafimovich.
The 3rd Division arrived on 30 July, by which time the 587th Regiment had been reduced to only a few hundred men. Initial Soviet strength in and around the area (including the towns of Bobrovskiy and Baskovskiy) was 3,000 men and 40 tanks, but was increased soon after the Italians arrived. On 30 July and 1 August, the Soviets attempted to stop the Italians as they were crossing the river to relieve the remnants of the 587th, but failed and lost several dozen tanks (primarily T-34s) in the process. The Soviets and Bersaglieri fought for the next two days, primarily in and around the town of Bobrovskiy, until 3 August, when the Soviets were forced back to their bridgehead at Serafimovich. The Italians then assaulted Serafimovich, which they took. Sporadic fighting continued around this area until 14 August. The 3rd Division's losses from 30 July to 14 August were 1,700 killed and 200 wounded; Soviet combat casualties are unknown, but the Italians reportedly took 5,800 Soviet troops prisoner and captured 10 artillery pieces.
On 12 August, three Soviet divisions totaling about 30,000 troops and many tanks crossed the Don River to launch a counterattack on the Italian sector. They successfully took the 2nd Mountain Infantry Division Sforzesca by surprise and, with no tanks at its disposal and outnumbered four to one, the Sforzesca division was routed in two days. It subsequently withdrew to Yagodny, which was attacked by the Soviets on 20 August. From 20–24 August, the remnants of the division beat back several Soviet attacks and even launched some small scale counterattacks, until they mostly ran out of ammunition and were down to repelling the last Soviet probes with bayonets. Bersaglieri reinforcements arrived on 24 August, and defeated the Soviets, sending the survivors retreating. The Italians refer to this as the First Defensive Battle of the Don. Italian losses were 900 killed, 4,200 wounded, and 1,700 missing or captured.
On 13 August, the Italian Army in Russia reached its assigned sector on the Don on the left flank of the Sixth Army’s XVII Corps. The II Corps had mounted a foot march of 1100 kilometers (on average 32 kilometres per day) during which supply problems and partisans had caused minor delays, but the Italians' advance had been mostly calm.
Also on 24 August, 700 Italian horsemen of the Savoia Cavalleria routed 2,500 Soviet troops of the 812th Siberian Infantry Regiment near Isbushenskij. While taking 84 casualties (32 killed, 52 wounded), the Italians inflicted 1,050 casualties (150 killed, 300 wounded, 600 captured) on the Soviets, and captured 14 artillery pieces. While overall a minor event in the ARMIR's participation, the cavalry charge had great propaganda resonance back in Italy.
By late autumn 1942, the ARMIR was placed on the left flank of the German 6th Army between Hungarian and Romanian forces. The German 6th Army was then investing Soviet General Vasily Chuikov's 62nd Army in Stalingrad. The Italian line stretched along the River Don for more than 250 km from the positions of the Hungarian 2nd Army in Kalmiskowa to the positions of the Romanian 3rd Army in Veshenskaja, a village 270 km northwest of Stalingrad. The Italians threw up a thin screen along the river. No trench lines had been dug nor effective defensive positions set up. Heavy snow and severe frost were hampering troop movements.
The situation for the German troops in Stalingrad remained stable until the Soviets launched Operation Uranus on 19 November 1942. The aim of this operation was the complete encirclement and isolation of the German 6th Army. To accomplish this, the Soviets struck at the weak Romanian armies to the north and south of Stalingrad. The Soviets planned Operation Uranus as a double envelopment. The twin attacks smashed through portions of the Romanian 3rd Army and the Romanian 4th Army and successfully met at Kalach four days after the operation began.
In October 1942, it was declared that all officers and men that had served in Russia since 13 December 1941 or earlier could ask for repatriation. The Germans estimated that around 60 per cent of the XXXV Corps’ infantry was substituted in October and December.
The situation for the Italian troops along the Don River remained stable until the Soviets launched Operation Saturn on 11 December 1942. The aim of this operation was the annihilation of the Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, and German positions along the Don River. The first stage of Operation Saturn was known as Operation Little Saturn. The aim of this operation was the complete annihilation of the Italian 8th Army.
The Soviet 63rd Army, backed by T-34 tanks and fighter-bombers, first attacked the weakest Italian sector. This sector was held on the right by the Ravenna and Cosseria infantry divisions. From the Soviet bridgehead at Mamon, 15 divisions—supported by at least 100 tanks—attacked these two divisions. Although outnumbered nine-to-one, the Italians resisted until 19 December, when ARMIR headquarters finally ordered the battered divisions to withdraw. By Christmas both divisions were driven back and defeated after bloody fighting.
Meanwhile, on 17 December 1942, the Soviet 21st Army and the Soviet 5th Tank Army attacked and defeated what remained of the Romanians to the right of the Italians. At about the same time, the Soviet 3rd Tank Army and parts of the Soviet 40th Army hit the Hungarians to the left of the Italians.
The Soviet 1st Guards Army then attacked the Italian center which was held by the 298th German, the Pasubio, the Torino, the Prince Amedeo Duke of Aosta, and the Sforzesca divisions. After eleven days of bloody fighting against overwhelming Soviet forces, these divisions were surrounded and defeated and Russian air support resulted in the death of General Paolo Tarnassi, commander of the Italian armoured force in Russia. General Enrico Pezzi, commander of the Italian Air Force in Russia, was also killed during the airlift to a besieged Italian garrison in Chertkovo.
On 14 January 1943, after a short pause, the 6th Soviet Army attacked the Alpini divisions of the Italian Mountain Corps. These units had been placed on the left flank of the Italian army and were until then still relatively unaffected by the battle. However, the Alpini position had turned critical after the collapse of the Italian center, the collapse of the Italian right flank, and the simultaneous collapse of the Hungarian troops to the left of the Alpini. The Julia Division and Cuneense Division were destroyed. Members of the 1 Alpini Regiment, part of Cuneese Division, burned the regimental flags to keep them from being captured. Part of the Tridentina Division and other withdrawing troops managed to escape the encirclement.
On 21 January, Italians caused a friendly fire incident when NW of Stalingrad they met with a retreating party of the German 385th Infantry Division, during which a group of their troops blew up with their hand grenades the command vehicle of Generalmajor Karl Eibl, having mistaken it for a Soviet armoured car, killing the general inside.
On 26 January, after heavy fighting which resulted in the Battle of Nikolajewka, the Alpini remnants breached the encirclement and reached new defensive positions set up to the west by the Germans. But, by this time, the only operational fighting unit was the Tridentina Division and even it was not fully operational. The Tridentina Division had led the final breakout assault at Nikolajewka. Many of the troops who managed to escape were frostbitten, critically ill, and deeply demoralized.
Overall, about 130,000 Italians had been surrounded by the Soviet offensive. According to Italian sources, about 20,800 soldiers died in the fighting, 64,000 were captured, and 45,000 were able to withdraw. When the surviving Italian troops were eventually evacuated to Italy, the Fascist regime tried to hide them from the populace, so appalling was their appearance after surviving the Russian Front.
Since the beginning of the Italian campaign in Russia, about 30,000 Italians had been killed and another 54,000 would die in captivity. By the end of February 1943, the rout of the ARMIR was complete. Mussolini then withdrew what remained of his 8th Army from Russian soil. The Italian forces in Russia had been reduced to less than 150,000 men, and 34,000 of these were wounded. The disaster in Russia was a fierce blow to the power and popularity of the dictator. Both sank as the gloomy news soon reached the public in Italy. Survivors blamed the Fascist political elite and the army generals. The survivors said they both had acted irresponsibly by sending a poorly prepared, ill-equipped, and inadequately armed military force to the Russian Front. According to veterans, weapons in Italian service were awful: hand grenades rarely went off and rifles and machine guns had to be kept for a long time on a fire to work properly in extreme climatic conditions, thus often not capable of firing in the midst of battle. The German commanders were accused of sacrificing the Italian divisions, whose withdrawal was supposedly delayed after the Soviet breakthrough, in order to rescue their own troops.
Throughout 1943, Italy's fortunes worsened. On 25 July 1943, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist government were put out of power by King Victor Emmanuel III. On 8 September, the new Italian government led by the King and Marshal Pietro Badoglio signed an armistice with the Allies.
Soon, competing Italian armed forces were being raised to fight for both the Allies and the Axis. Forces of the Royalist Co-Belligerent Army (Esercito Cobelligerante Italiano, or ECI) were forming in southern Italy. Forces of the Fascist National Republican Army (Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano, or ENR) were forming in northern Italy. The ECI was the army of what was known as "Badoglio's government." The ENR was the army of Mussolini's Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI).
Even after the evacuation of the Italian troops from Russia and even after the armistice in 1943, some ENR units remained on the Eastern Front fighting for the Axis. There were five specialized 'smoke cover' battalions, serving in defense of Baltic ports of Swinemünde, Gotenhafen, Pillau and Stettin, plus one at the Grossborn proving ground. In addition, the 834th Field Hospital continued to operate in Russia, as well as the battalion "IX Settembre"; a small unit that fought alongside the Brandenburgers in East Prussia for a brief period of time.
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