I like to think everyone has heard of Stalingrad, probably the greatest battle in human history. More Soviets died at Stalingrad than the total of British and American deaths in the entirety of World War II. It was the killing field that turned the tide of the war.
And it was fought by Russians and Germans; by von Paulus’ Sixth Army and Marshall Zhukov. In the end the German Sixth Army was destroyed; 90,000 Germans surrendered. Less than 1 in 10 would ever see Germany again. Von Paulus himself didn’t return to East Germany until the 1950s.
But there were other militaries from German allied countries at Stalingrad. There were Romanian and Hungarian armies fighting along side the Wehrmacht.
And there were Italians – the Italian Eighth Army comprising 235,000 men.
What were Italians doing in far away Russia? Blame Mussolini.
Mussolini had become the first Fascist dictator in 1922, when Hitler was just the obscure leader of a minor extremist party. How humiliated he was that Italy should end up as the bumbling little brother in the Axis family. Even more humiliating was that Germany never told Italy that it was planning to invade Russia (perhaps because the Germans were convinced that anything they told the Italians would soon be leaked to the British). When Mussolini learned of Hitler’s plans, he insisted that the Italians participate. Besides, if the Soviet Union were to be conquered, might there not be some spoils for resource-poor Italy?
No thank you, replied the Germans, who had a more realistic view than Mussolini of what his Fascist legions were capable of. In the summer of 1940, Italy had not entered the war until France had almost surrendered, and still the Italians were roughly handled by French troops. Next, Italy had invaded little Greece, only to be so badly beaten by the Greeks that Hitler reluctantly had to send his armies on a Balkan campaign he would rather have avoided. Also in 1940, the huge Italian army in Libya launched a halfhearted invasion of Egypt, only to be routed by a small British force that almost ejected them from Africa. Again, the Germans came to the rescue, this time by dispatching Rommel and his Afrika Korps.
Is it any wonder that Hitler and his generals felt the Italians in Russia would be more trouble than they were worth? Better that Mussolini keep his forces in the Mediterranean, tying down the British while Germany fought the real war in the east.
But Mussolini got his way. This was not a token contingent dispatched in the name of coalition solidarity. A quarter-million men was more than Mussolini committed to North Africa, a battleground on Italy’s doorstep.
Unfortunately, the Eighth Italian Army was completely unprepared for winter warfare on the vast plains of the Soviet Union. The soldiers were peasants, barely literate, with poor training, poor tactics and an officer corps more concerned with its own creature comforts than the welfare of its men. A large chunk of the Italian contingent was elite Alpini mountain troops, a formidable force in the mountains, but ill-suited for facing tanks on the open steppe. And the Italians had just a handful of tanks; a laughable Fiat 7 ton light tank soon to be pitted against the 29 ton Soviet T-34.
At first, Russia was a walk in the sun for the Italian soldiers. They performed well in southern Russia in the summer of 1941, though they were only advancing against disorganized and retreating Soviet armies. Even when the Red Army counterattacked in the winter of 1941–42, the Italians held—but only with German support. The soldiers of the German “master race” didn’t think much of the emotional Italians, a feeling reciprocated by Italian soldiers, some of whom would rather have been fighting the Germans than being their allies. On the other hand, the Italians got along much better than the Germans did with Russian civilians, including the women.
When Germany launched Operation Blue, its summer 1942 offensive in southern Russia, the Italians advanced along with them. Their armies weakened from the brutal weather and Soviet counterattacks the previous winter, the Germans needed all the manpower they could get. Advancing seven hundred miles to Stalingrad in the east and the Caucasus in the south, the German couldn’t muster enough troops to guard their vastly expanded front lines while still concentrating enough forces to maintain their offensive.
The Italians wound up guarding the northern flank of the German Sixth Army and was positioned northeast of Stalingrad, guarding a 200 mile front with virtually no German reserves.
Operation Uranus, the first phase of the Soviet counteroffensive, opened in November 1942 with a blitzkrieg that steamrollered the Romanian armies guarding the German flank, and went on to encircle the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. The onslaught missed the Italians—at first. Then in December 1942 came Operation Little Saturn, which targeted the Italians, Romanians and Hungarians. Two Italians divisions were slammed by fifteen Soviet divisions and a hundred tanks, while the few German reserves were too busy to support the Italians. Meanwhile, other Soviet forces attacked the Romanian and Hungarian troops on the Italian flanks, and soon the Eighth Army was encircled.
German sources claimed the Italians were cowards and fled at the first sight of Soviet tanks coming out of the fog. The Italians claimed the Germans abandoned them to save their own precious Aryan hides.
In fact, the Italians fought on alone for two weeks and a number of them led by the alpine units managed to break out of the encirclement at the desperate Battle of Nikolayevka.
But a few survivors couldn’t change the fact that the Italian army in Russia was destroyed. And with the western Allies capturing North Africa, and soon to invade Sicily and Italy, Mussolini’s tottering regime was in no position to send another army eastwards.
What was left of the Italian Eighth Army returned home to Italy in March 1943, six months before Italy surrendered to the Allies.
These were pointless deaths of peasants far from home during that bitter winter of 1942–43. They were trampled into the snow by waves of Soviet tanks that had materialized like demons from the freezing fogs of the vast Russian steppe.
Some Italian soldiers fought, and others fled. Many were killed, and those that weren’t disappeared into the Soviet gulag prison camps. Nearly half of the Italians who fought in Russia never made it home.