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.