The Italians in Russia
Contrary to popular war-time history, the Italian people by and large supported their troops in Russia. When Mussolini, with the consent and agreement of the king, sent the Corpo di Spedizione Italian in Russia (C.S.I.R) to assist in the German invasion of Russia, the Italians knew exactly what they were fighting for: to defeat Bolshevism, which was anathema to many Catholic Italians and the Catholic Church. So there was indeed, a high level of support to defeat the atheistic Soviet Union. Do not believe stories that the average Italian did not know what they were fighting for; most Italians knew very well that the Soviet Union was also an enemy that needed to be defeated, as were the British.
In all, the CSIR fielded 58,000 enlisted men, 2,900 officers, 5,500 trucks and 4,600 horses. Later in the war, Mussolini would send an entire army, the Royal Italian 8th Army, in order to come to the rescue of the Germans who, by the middle of 1942, were in trouble and struggling to hold on to the gains made in 1941.
The CSIR performed well, supporting the rapid German spearhead, taking towns and villages between the Bug and Dnestr rivers, as well as pushing back Russian forces and capturing thousands of Soviet prisoners as well as weaponry.
On the 14th August, 1941, General Schobert, the commander of the German 11th Army, praised the Italians: “The rapid march executed by the Pasubio Division, despite the difficulties, contributed greatly to the victorious action of the 11th Army.”
Yet again, another German victory on the backs of the Italians. This was to be a common enough occurrence during the entire war. Time and again, the Italians would come to aid and sometimes rescue, their German comrades in arms. A number of the early successes of the Germans in southern Russia can be attributed to the contribution made by the CSIR. For example, during Operation Petrikovka, the Italians took 10,000 Russian prisoners and greatly facilitated the advance of an entire Panzer Group. In another example, Italian patrols captured a railroad bridge outside Pavlograd which the Russians were attempting to destroy, facilitating the German advance.
There are many more examples of Italian contributions that contributed to initial German successes in the southern sector of Army Group South.
In July 1942, the CSIR was subsumed into the larger Italian 8th Army. As Russian resistance stiffened, Hitler begged Mussolini for more manpower and resources. The German High Command was beginning to appreciate ever more, the contribution of their gallant and unflinching Italian Axis partners.
The Italian 8th Army went on to capture several major Soviet cities and regions along the River Don. It protected the flanks of the German 6th Army under Paulus, repulsing several Soviet counter-attacks. But by the end of January, 1943 the writing was on the wall for the Axis once the catastrophe of the defeat of Stalingrad became clear.
The Italians played their part and played it well, even though they were under-resourced. The Russians decided to break through the weaker Romanian line, while the Italian line held out for several more days against overwhelming superior Soviet forces of 9 to 1.
The fall of Stalingrad and subsequent defeats later during Operations Uranus and Little Saturn were the result of bad German planning, logistical failures and overwhelming superior Soviet forces.
HOW THE ITALIANS CAPTURED STALINO (Translated from the Russian by Patrick Cloutier)
The Southern Front, under the command of Lieutenant-General D.I. Ryabishev (20 August-5 October – he was subsequently replaced with Y.T. Cherevichenko), and parts of the Southwest Front, under the command of Marshall S.K. Timoshenko, defended the Donbass. The defensive sector ran along the Dniepr River, which after the defeat of Soviet forces at Kiev, was in imminent danger of encirclement. It was defended by the Soviet 9th and 18th Armies. They were opposed by the German 11th Army, the Romanian 3rd Army, and the 1st Panzer Army. The region to the north of Dnepropetrovsk was defended by the Soviet 6th Army/Southwest Front; it was opposed by the German 17th Army.
One should not think that the opponents passively stood on the lines they occupied, or that the Soviet Army was reeling in shock after the disaster at Kiev. The Soviet 18th and 9th Armies, among the strongest in the Southern Theater of Operations, were able to retreat in the course of the summer months and preserve their structure and personnel/cadres. Until 29 September 1941, they successfully parried the attacks of the German 11th Army, and even counter-attacked.
However, on 29 September, the Germans began an attack in the region of Novo-Moskovsk, on the right flank of the Soviet 12th Army. They pushed it toward Pavlograd and Sinelnikovo, and turned toward the southeast. Simultaneously, the German 11th Army and Romanian 3rd Army penetrated the defenses of the Soviet 9th Army and surged along the coast of the Sea of Azov, towards Berdyansk (at that time, Osipenko). On 5 October they linked up with the 1st Panzer Army, in the region of the town of Chernigovka (Zaparozhie Oblast’), and formed a ring of encirclement. In fact, within the pocket, A.K. Smirnov, the army commander, was eliminated along with the 18th Army. The remnants, under the command of the Army Chief of Staff, Major-General Kolpak, broke out of encirclement with difficulty.
On 8 October the Soviet Government understood that no forces remained to defend the Donbass. It threw the last reserves into battle: the 383rd and 395th Rifle Divisions, and the 38th Cavalry Division, formed in the Donbass and attached to the Soviet 9th Army. The Germans, penetrating to Mariupol, were constantly counter-attacked by Colonel Kolosov’s Motorized Group. At that time, a decision was made by the People’s Committee of Ferrous Metallurgy Tevosyan, to evacuate the Stalino Metallurgical Plant.
However, the Soviet 9th Army more or less successfully slipped out of encirclement. On this basis, on 10 October, a line of defense was formed: Solntsevka-Pavlovka-Zlatoustovka-Cherdakli-eastern edge of Mariupol. (Today, Solntsevka is a village of the Kranoe Krasnoarmeyskiy Region, about 45 kilometers from the center of contemporary Stalino). Also subordinate to the 9th Army was the 30th NKVD Regiment, with orders to occupy and defend the railroad stations of Mandrykino and Caravannaya.
On 11 October, the troops that evaded encirclement began to re-establish the Soviet 18th Army all over again. In its order of battle went the 383rd and 99th Rifle Divisions, the 38th Cavalry Division, and the 30th NKVD Regiment. For defense, the front line was set away from the side of the main effort: Solntsevka-Vasilevka-Volnovakha. The Soviet 9th Army was tasked with making contact with the 1st Panzer Army up to Rostov itself, and covering Stalino from the south, in the first phase. From the north, on the so-called Makeyevskiy Direction (or axis), the Soviet 12th Army was defending, although intensive combat operations had not developed against it.
On 13 October the Soviet 18th Army, with the arriving 383rd and 395th Rifle Divisions and 38th Cavalry Division, was supposed to occuy a line Solntsevka-Uspenovka-Vasilyevka-Valeryanovka-Volnovakha, but as a result of the German offensive, it was forced to withdraw its left flank to the line Solntsevka-Uspenovka-Konstantinovka-Aleksandrinka (Dokuchayevsk)-Stila-Station Voykovo, about 35 kilometers from Stalino. Here we should not be deceived. [Stalino] was in fact being defended by a rifle corps, not an army; and the sole reserve was the 30th NKVD Regiment.
In the offensive, the Italians were allotted a secondary role, defending the left flank of the formations that were pushing toward Taganrog. But they were unable to complete their mission in full measure, due to their limited mobility. In addition to this, the Soviet 12th Army was hanging over the Italians’ front from the north, and the CSIR commander was concerned about an attack from that direction. Making sure of firm cooperation with the flank of the German 17th Army, General Giovanni Messe ordered his divisions to move forward. At that time, heavy rains had turned the roads into impassable bogs. Transport was literally forced to move by hand and shoulder; therefore, the Novara and Savoia Cavalry Regiments operated in the vanguard. In the evening of 14 October, their scouts discovered units of the 383rd Rifle Division preparing to defend.
From the morning of 15 October, the 3rd Dragoons Regiment Savoia deployed in battle ranks and attempted to attack the center positions of the 694th Rifle Regiment (Captain Kipiani), which was holding a front from Uspenovka to Solntsevki (Krasnoye). Because of the excessive length of the front, the defenses of the Soviet troops had a nodal character, which allowed the Italian cavalrymen to penetrate their ranks. But the Italians could not develop the attack further, because they were struck by flanking machine-gun fire. The Italians turned and withdrew.
In the second half of the day, the Italians tried to take the settlement of Veseliy Gay off the march, with the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment and the “San Giorgio” Tankette Group. But here they received a worthy repulse. In this battle, the cannons under the command of Senior Sergeant G. Malidovskiy destroyed two Italian tankettes.
On 16 October the elements of the Italian Corps, joining with the German XLIX Mountain Corps in the region of Bolshaya Yanisol (today, Velikaya Novoselovka), undertook a joint attack on the village of Elizovetovka. Toward 1430hrs, the village was captured, but the Soviet line of defense still held.
Knowing that there were almost no troops in reserve, on 16 October the HQ Southern Front issured Directive No.00206/OP “Withdrawal of Troops of the Right Wing of the Front to a Line Krasniy Liman-Artemovsk-Gorlovka-Ilovayskaya” According to this directive, it was planned to abandon Stalino on 25 October.
However, on 17 October, in connection with an unfavorable situation on the left flank of the front, at Taganrog, the commander was forced to withdraw the Soviet 18th Army to a new boundary: Solntsevka-Maksimilianovka-Mandrikino Station-Beshevo Station. It was planned to hold the line until a withdrawal on 23 October 1941.
Spending the day of 17 October in fruitless attempts to penetrate the front of the 383rd Rifle Division, the headquarters of the CSIR and German XLXIX Mountain Corps established a final plan of attack against Stalino on 18 October.
According to German data, they believed that they were facing around 6 Soviet divisions on the approaches to the city, as the general situation was difficult and the defenders were stubborn. They planned two main efforts, with the goal of enclosing and capturing Stalino in a double envelopment, and securing the road to Makeyevka. Italian forces were tasked with delivering a blow via Kurakhovka to Stalino Railroad Station. German troops were to attack the city from the south, at the boundary between the 383rd Rifle Division and the 38th Cavalry Division. The date for the capture of the mining capital was set for 20 October 1941.
In the forthcoming offensive, the Italians placed emphasis on the 3rd Celere Division, which was completely natural, since the 9th Pasubio Division had only just reached the line of contact on the eve of battle, having deployed to the line Novoselovka-Alekseyevka. The 52nd Torino Division was in the rear, in the region of Mokrikh Yalov, on the height of Vasilevka.
The appearance of the Pasubio Division on the open flank of the 694th Rifle Regiment, which was not in contact with any units of the Soviet 12th Army, forced the commander of the 383rd Rifle Division to begin his withdrawal to the line Kirov-Izmailovka-Stalino Station.
On 19 October, the Celere Division’s 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment and Savoia Cavalry Regiment, attacked Maksimilianovka with tankette support. Simultaneously, the Novara Cavalry Regiment operated in the Roya Station-Kurakhovka sector, delivering an attack through a gap in the Soviet defenses to the north. This compelled the 694th Rifle Regiment to make a hasty withdrawal, first to Krasnogovorovka, then further, abandoning Stalino Station and exposing the right flank of the 383rd Rifle Division. In order to close the gap, the Division Commander, Colonel Provalov, sent 1st Lieutenant L.A. Shcherbak’s reinforced battalion, which was located in reserve. This move successfully stabilized the front in this sector.
Toward evening of 19 October, the German troops of the 4th Mountain Division penetrated the defenses of the 383rd Rifle Division in the region of Marinka-Aleksandrovka and captured Rutchenkovo.
In the morning, the fighting for Stalino started again, with renewed strength. In all, six attacks were beaten back. The Italians successfully pressed back Shcherbak’s battalion, and wedged themselves between the positions of the 696th and 694th Rifle Regiments. As a result of this, the 383rd Rifle Division was cut into 2 pieces and it retreated from the city, partly through Yasinovataya and Panteleimonovka, and partly through Makeyevka.
Toward the close of 20 October the Italians occupied: the railroad station settlement, Putilovka, Vetka, and Gladovka. Fighting continued only in the very center of the city, where an independent detachment under the command of Politruk Melnikov was defending.
And it is here that an interest moment arises. Despite the fact that the Italians had in fact captured all of northern modern Donetsk, the Germans could not deprive themselves and appropriated the victor’s laurels to themselves, as the only conquerors of a city bearing Stalin’s name. After all, on their maps there existed two populated points with such a name: the city of “Stalino” and the railroad settlement, “Stalino Station”.
Patrick Cloutier, (2015) Three Kings: Axis Royal Armies on the Russian Front 1941