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.
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.
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.
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……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.