No Respect

One of my favorite lines about resurrecting history is from a movie – Braveheart, I want to say – and goes something like “History is written by those who kill the heroes”.

Much of what we Americans today “know” as received conventional wisdom about World War 2 is the self-serving version that the victor gets to write.  The idea that the Poles were anachronistic bumblers who charged at tanks with cavalry lances was a German propaganda fiction, ladled on top of centuries of ethnic and tribal prejudice. The notion that the French were cowardly “cheese eating surrender monkeys” is more of the same, filtered through American Cold War-era impatience with the frustrating inscrutability of their post-Gaullist foreign policy – and the enduring references to “Maginot Mentality” is a begged historical question, using the conclusion that “France Fell” as evidence that the Maginot Line was in and of itself a dumb idea.

It’s tempting to say the Italians got the same short shrift; it’s almost equally tempting to say their reputation as bumbling Barney Fifes who couldn’t shoot straight and whose tanks had one speed forward and four in reverse would seem to have been amply supported by their record during World War II.  From their misguided adventures in Abyssinia (Ethiopia and Eritrea today) to their snake-bitten attempt to subdue Greece (drawing the Germans into war on a second front) to their inability to break into France even as the Germans were mauling the bulk of the French army, to the collapse of their North African army (drawing the Germans into war on a fourth front), the Italian war effort seemed often to provide comic relief to those who wrote the history books.

Of course, as Ringer and I have written this series, we’ve found bits and pieces of some inconvenient truths about the Italians; as inept as Mussolini had left the military’s higher leadership, and as poorly as the anemic socialized economy allowed Italy to equip her troops (especially the Army), there were some examples of redoubtable courage, esprit de corps and can-do-ism; the Italian Marines’ special forces attacks that crippled a significant chunk of the British fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the daring guerrilla war that the Italian remnants fought amidst the ruins of Mussolini’s East African “Empire”…

…and, seventy years ago today, in the midst of the disaster that would doom the German/Italian advance in Russia, one of the most titanic displays of sheer force of will in military history, around and about a forgotten little village in the middle of the endless steppe.


Mussolini, seeking to increase his stock value after having been bailed out by the Germans in Greece and North Africa, committed a force of about 60,000 men in three divisions to support the initial invasion of the USSR in 1941; he shortly quadrupled down, increasing the force to almost 240,000 men in ten regular divisions, plus a German division and brigades of Croatians and Camicia Neri (“Blackshirts”) as a reserve and to fight Russian guerillas.

Priest ministering to Italian troops in Russia

The 8th Army deployed to the German’s southern offensive, holding the flanks of the German’s high-water strike deep into southern Russia.  By the winter of 1942, the Italians, along with Romanian and Hungarian troops, were holding the flanks of the German spearhead as it tried to fight its way out of being stopped cold at Stalingrad.

Mussolini inspects Italian troops from the initial “mobile” contingent. If the trucks don’t look very uniform – they’re not. They were impressed from commercial uses.

The Italians were never intentionally the focal point of the action – or at least the Germans didn’t intend for them to be.  The main goal of the Italians, and the Hungarians on their own flanks, was to make sure nothing snuck behind the Germans to cut them off at Stalingrad.

Although the original Italian deployment was intended to be a “Mobile” force, the 8th Army itself was not only mostly foot-borne and horse-drawn, but it had virtually no tank support. The Italians had to settle for a few captured Russian vehicles, like this T-34.

But on December 16, 1942, two Soviet Armies – the 1st and 3rd Guards Armies, a total of some 100,000 battle-hardened Soviet troops – crossed the Don River and attacked the 8th Army, in temperatures that dipped to -40F at night.  A follow-up attack in early January overwhelmed most of the 8th Army, destroying three divisions outright.  The Hungarians on the other flank also gave way, and the Soviet Guards encircled what was left of the 8th Army – which amounted to the “8th Alpini Corps”, composed of three Alpini (mountain) divisions (the Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions), among the elite of the Italian Army – before pressing on toward the town of Rostov, through which the German lines of communications to Stalingrad ran.  The Soviets, with an overwhelming force of tanks, proceeded to capture Rostov, putting 120 miles of Soviet-held territory between safe German lines and Stalingrad…

Troops of Tridentina in the Russian winter.

…and, cut off to the northwest of Stalingrad, the 8th Alpini.   The Italians had two options – surrender, or fight their way to friendly lines.
They opted to fight.  
The Alpini, along with stragglers from the other Italian units and a few German, Hungarian and Croatian troops, began fighting their way across the steppe, through the brutal Russian cold.  The Italians had never been well-equipped with vehicles; so badly-equipped was the Italian Army, most of the trucks from the two “motorized” divisions had been commandeered commercial vehicles with their company logos still on the doors and side panels – and those vehicles were long dead and gone.  A few German tanks led the column, which was led by the Tridentina division, the least-mauled by this point.  The vast mass of those 40,000 men walked.
120 miles.  In 15 days.  Through temperatures that never got above 0F, and frequently dipped down to -40F.
The Russians were at a disadvantage, too; the focus of their effort was on moving into German-held territory, to the West.  But they left behind troops in every village, and every one of these village defenses put up a fight, and the fight to pass through every village ate time, energy and manpower that the Italians didn’t have.   
And yet they carried on.  And as of 70 years ago today, the Alpini and the rest of the survivors were on the brink of safety…
…and the Soviets knew it.  They reinforced the force holding the village of Nikolaevka with a division with 6-10,000 infantry – outnumbered by the Italians, but with supplies of food and ammunition.  
The Tridentino was down to 4,000 effective soldiers.  Julia and Cuneense were in worse shape still, and the rest of the force was mostly stragglers in small groups, none of them an effective or sizeable fighting force.  
Tridentino attacked on the morning of the 26th – and bogged down fighting the superior Russian force; the Italians’ chief of staff died fighting for one Soviet strongpoint. 
The battle – and the fate of the entire Italian force – hung in the balance.  To break through the Soviets meant safety; to fail meant death, either on the battlefield or in captivity.  
As legend has it the commander of the Tridentino, General Luigi Reverberi, jumped on top of one of the last three functioning German tanks, and bellowed “Tridentini Aventi” – Forward Trident.  The exhausted, frozen Tridentini picked themself up and charged one last time.  The example caused the rest of the mass of stragglers to grab their rifles (or whatever weapon they had) and follow into the attack, which turned into a barely-organized melee, more a feeding frenzy, ending with the Soviet division being overwhelmed.  There were no more Soviets between the Alpini and safety.  
Of the 45,000 Alpini that had started the battle on January 13, there were fewer than 6,000 left.  And the remnant of 8th Army that they led was well under 40,000 out of about 150,000 that had been in the lines six weeks earlier.  

14 thoughts on “No Respect

  1. “The notion that the French were cowardly “cheese eating surrender monkeys” is more of the same”

    I know some people like to get weepy about the French underground during WW 2, but the sad truth is that in a country of 40 million people, there were a staggering 2000 or so who participated.

    Oh I know, google it up and you will find heroic tales of the 400,000 souls who comprised the Resistance, but crikey, if there were that many involved, they would not have needed the allies to liberate Paris, they could have done it themselves.

    They were a beaten people, who rolled over and played dead, and sat out the war in whatever comfort they could find.

    WW 1 took the heart and soul out of them.

  2. The Italians had two options – surrender, or fight their way to friendly lines.

    Surrendering to the Soviets had worse survival odds than Russian Roulette. Even though the bulk of German POWs were captured in the last year of the war, still overall more than 1 in 3 died. Nobody on that front had any illusions about how the Soviets treated prisoners — it was as badly as the Japanese treated American POWs.

    Given that, surrender wasn’t much of an option.

  3. Re: Russians and POW’s:
    Blackadder: “Tell me, Brother Baldrick, what exactly did God do to the Sodomites?”
    Baldrick: “I dunno, but I can’t imagine it was worse than what they used to do to each other.”

  4. “Not writing about the Underground.”

    Using that as an example to make a larger point, namely that “cheese eating surrender monkeys” is probably not far off the mark. They were a defeated, spiritless country.

    Agree with you about the Italians and the Poles though.

  5. Q: Why are the boulevards of Paris lined with trees?
    A: So the German army can march in the shade!

  6. Excellent piece, as always, Mitch. Kudos to covering the 8th Alpini Corps – I had a note to write something but never got around to it.

    Great job on finding photos, too. I struggled to find quality photos of the Italian presence in Russia when I wrote the piece on the Savoia Regiment. Obviously you know where to look!

  7. “and the enduring references to “Maginot Mentality” is a begged historical question, using the conclusion that “France Fell” as evidence that the Maginot Line was in and of itself a dumb idea.’

    It WAS a dumb idea. Even Napoleon said so:

    “The side that stays within its fortifications is beaten.”

    In general, fixed fortifications as a primary means of defense have always been a bad idea. To cite another example, Steven Ambrose has correctly noted that Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was arguably the biggest blunder in military history. Stretching from Calais to the Pyrenees, the fortifications delayed the Allies by no more than twelve hours at any point.

    That said, this was a fine post, Mitch. You don’t always hear about Italian bravery but obviously, it was there.

  8. Napoleon and you are both right, Col Flagg.

    But as I noted in my original piece, the historical myth was that the French based their defense entirely on the Line.

    The Maginot line was intended as a “force multiplier” to allow middle-aged reservists to secure the frontier at relatively low human cost while the regulars and younger troops in the “Mobile” army fought a war of maneuver outside the fortifications. Given their post-WWI baby bust and the fact that the Germans outnumbered them, the reasoning wasn’t entirely incomprehensible.

    It didn’t work, but it wasn’t entirely the Line’s fault. Many bigger blunders – failure to eject Hitler from the Rheinland, to support the Czechs, and especially to attack Germany after the invasion of Poland – led to the Maginot line having to be tested at all.

  9. Oh, the Maginot Line worked, all right, in both directions. Even the Allies avoided attacking it. But all it did was drive the battle elsewhere.

    France’s biggest blunder was really their choice of strategy. Their tanks weren’t worse than the Germans, or at least not much, but they didn’t use them effectively, nor did they have a command structure worth a hill of beans. Heck, you could argue that the French haven’t had an effective military command since their Revolution. Napoleon wasn’t French (he was born to Italian aristocracy in Corsica), and excluding his victories the biggest French solo victory since then was the Pastry War against Mexico, settled for all of $600K pesos.

  10. As a matter of national policy, the Maginot Line was France’s primary line of defense – and work was under way to extend it to the English Channel after the Belgian government kicked out French military observers just prior to the start of the war.

    You are of course quite right with regard to Allied failure to stop Hitler when he was more easily stoppable.

    I would point out, though, that France did, at least in theory, attack Germany after it invaded Poland. The so-called “Saar Offensive” of 1939 accomplished nothing due to French inertia, at a time when the Wehrmacht had virtually no tanks at all on the Western Front and only a static defense line while invading Poland.

    Really love your military history threads, Mitch. Thank you for providing them.

  11. Pingback: Pass as Prologue | Shot in the Dark

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