Mussolini's Great Adventure, Part 2
The story began with Part One.
(July 1941-September 1942)
When it became combat ready, the CSIR came under the control of Army Group South. It was initially attached to the German 11th Army, but soon (14 August) it joined General Ewald Von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee operating in Ukraine.
The Pasubio Division was the first to see action, as part of the German offensive to the Bug River which followed the destruction of the Soviet 6th and 12th Armies. The Italian division was one of the few available motorized assets on the left side of the river, so it was hurried forward with the aim of cutting off retreating enemy forces which were flying toward the safety of the Nicolayev bridgehead (the only remaining bridge in Soviet hands). A column, made up mostly of elements of the 80th Infantry Regiment, fought at Pokrovskoie and Jasnaja Poljana on 12 and 14 September. Despite the claims of the Italian official historians, most of the Red Army troops were able to cross the river.
Italian troops have captured this T-34.
Some weeks later — 27-30 September — the Pasubio and Torino Divisions performed a well-executed pocketing action (known by Italians as the Petrikovka battle) in the area of the Dneper River. The Italians formed the inner pincer of a large-scale envelopment that bagged approximately 60,000 Soviets and concluded the battle for the Dnepropetrovsk bridgehead. With the Dneper crossing secure, Army Group South prepared to seize the crucial industrial districts of the Donets basin. First Panzerarmee had two prime targets: the 19th-century “company town” of Stalino with the nearby Gorlovka-Rikovo mining and industrial districts, and the city of Rostov in the southern sector. After regrouping around Dnepropetrovsk, the Italian corps resumed the advance.
The CSIR's task was to shield the increasingly exposed left flank of Kleist’s Panzerarmee. This assignment would last months, until mid-July 1942. During October the Red Army learned from its catastrophic defeats and its behavior changed abruptly. Space was traded for time. Soviet forces withdrew using scorched-earth techniques and leaving behind resolute rear-guard elements with the task of delaying the enemy’s advance. From 9 to 11 October, an Italian column (Colonna Garelli) formed by the 79th Battalion of the Legione Tagliamento helped the German 198th Division to eliminate a Russian bridgehead across the Samara River, which guarded access to Pavlograd.
After this successful action, poor weather plagued the Italian march. Keeping contact with the withdrawing enemy became an ever-more-daunting task as the ground grew muddier. Logistics suffered under the terrible strain, made worse by the low priority the Germans gave to Italian supply requirements. All units had to proceed on foot and motor transport bogged down, and like the Germans the Italian troops stole hundreds of Ukrainian light horse-drawn wagons to fulfill essential needs. The Celere Division advanced on the right side of the Italian sector. Although antiquated for modern warfare, horsed regiments proved the most suitable units for keeping up the advance’s momentum.
On 17 October, the Savoia and Novara cavalry fought brilliant actions at Uspenowka and Ulakli along the river Suche Jaly, forcing passage at both points. On 20 October, the Celere and the German XLIX Mountain Corps attacked Stalino. The 3rd Bersaglieri, flanked by Lancieri di Novara, captured the railway station, while German troops took care of the central part of the city. Meanwhile on the CSIR’s left flank, a flying column of the Pasubio Division built around the 80th Infantry Regiment proved to be very effective penetrating enemy defensive lines.
In the final week of October, the tone of the campaign changed again. Enemy resistance stiffened and the Soviets became much less willing to give ground. Celere and Pasubio conquered Gorlovka in early November, after much bitter house-to-house fighting, and Torino occupied Rykovo. Soon after, Pasubio’s 80th Regiment was surrounded at Nikitovka by the Soviet 74th Rifle Division and isolated from the rest of the corps. A week of continuous effort by Italian relief forces was not enough to break the siege. Luckily, on 14 November a blinding snowstorm made it possible for the 80th Regiment to slip through enemy lines.
The Torino Division’s sector remained quiet through November. However, the unit bore the brunt of a minor offensive during the first days of December undertaken to secure more favorable defensive positions and shorten the Italian front. The objective was codenamed the “Z Line.” The battle of Chazepetovka (the name of the village that marked the farthest point to be conquered) was the last Italian offensive action until the 1942 summer offensive. General Messe refused to execute a German order to advance further, claiming that complying with it would have been suicidal given his troops’ condition.
Despite Messe’s efforts to consolidate the CSIR’s defensive positions, Soviet reconnaissance and intelligence were able to hone in on the most exposed part of the Italian-held section of the front: that assigned to the Celere Division. As a part of the general offensive undertaken during winter months by the Red Army, on December 25, 1941, the Soviets launched an attack (known to Italians as the “Christmas Battle”) with the 136th and 296th Rifle Divisions. The 35th and 68th Cavalry Divisions provided support and were ready to exploit the breakthrough. Soviet troops hammered at a 20-kilometer front where only five infantry battalions (three from the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment and two from the Tagliamento Legion) were deployed. Bersaglieri and Black Shirts resisted fiercely. After initially falling back, the CSIR was able to rally and stop the attack. The Torino and Pasubio Divisions made spoiling attacks to help relieve the pressure. Afterwards, Celere counterattacked with the help of German reinforcements, regaining control of all lost positions. The neighboring German 198th Division repulsed a large number of attacks in its sector as well.
A period of relative calm followed until a new menace arose with the Soviet Izyum offensive against the German 17th Army. This thrust seriously endangered all of Kleist’s Panzerarmee as the strategic town of Dnepropetrovsk with Soviet spearheads at one point as close as 16 kilometers to the only railway line accessible to the whole army. In order to bolster the hard-pressed defensive line, the German command gathered all available troops. Given the CSIR’s precarious situation, Messe could afford to send very little. He scrapped together the Musinu Battle Group with the 1st and 9th Bridge Engineer Battalions, the personnel of the San Giorgio Regiment (without tanks), part of the Novara Regiment and a 75/27 group of the 8th Motorized Artillery Regiment. On 27 February the engineer battalions were withdrawn and replaced by the remainder of the Novara Regiment. Also in February, the 6th Bersaglieri Regiment and the 120th Motorized Artillery Regiment, just in from Italy and due to join the Celere Division, were temporarily held at Pavlograd as a sector reserve.
During this time, the Soviets harassed the CSIR front with minor probes. The only notable Soviet effort was made in mid-February against the Torino Division sector, but this attack was easily checked.
In early spring, Celere was reorganized as a motorized infantry division. It became the only complete Bersaglieri division fielded by the Italian army, as the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment was joined by the 6th Bersaglieri Regiment (which had been detached from the 2nd Celere Division). The division was completed by the 120th Reggimento Artiglieria, a newly raised and fully motorized unit and by a long-overdue mortar battalion. Later on, two light tank units joined the division as a replacement for the San Giorgio Group. At the same time, the cavalry regiments (Savoia Cavalleria, Lancieri di Novara and Voloire horse artillery) were detached and formed into an independent brigade named after its commander, Brig. Gen. Guglielmo Barbó di Casalmorano.
3rd “Principe Amadeo Duca d’Aosta” Celere Division
355th and 356th Carabinieri Motor sections
3rd Bersaglieri Regiment (XVIII, XX and XXV Battalions, motorized)
6th Bersaglieri Regiment (VI, XIII and XIX Battalions, motorized)
47th Bersaglieri Motorcycle Battalion
99th Mortar Battalion
120th Motorized Artillery Regiment
13th Semoventi Group “Cavaleggeri di Alessandria” (Sem 47/32 SPG and L6 tanks)
67th Bersaglieri Tank Battalion (L6 tanks; arrived August 1942)
173rd Anti-Tank Company
172nd Anti-Tank Company
272nd Anti-Tank Company (arrived February 1942)
105th Construction Engineer Company
105th Telegraph and Radio Company
73rd Medical Section
93rd Logistical Section
An L6 light tank of the 67th Bersaglieri Tank Battalion.
In mid-February, the CSIR received an additional artillery group, armed with 149/13 howitzers, and the Alpini ski battalion Monte Cervino, an outstanding unit initially used for reconnaissance duties. In March, the 6th Bersaglieri Regiment, finally freed from the Pavlograd garrison, relieved the German 2nd Parachute Regiment and came immediately under attack as the Soviets attempted to exploit the change-over. Although not organically attached to the CSIR, a battalion-sized “brigade” (approximately 1,000 men) of Croatian volunteers called Legione Croata became available in mid-April.
The only notable action undertaken by the CSIR during the spring was participation in the reduction of the Izyum salient. A task force under the control of III German Panzerkorps was formed by the Monte Cervino battalion and several assorted Bersaglieri, engineer (flame thrower) and mortar companies.
In the meantime, to meet the German request to increase Italian (and all Axis) participation on the Eastern Front, the Italians formed the 8th Army. This large unit (also called ARMIR) altogether eventually included 10 Italian divisions and more than 200,000 men. The CSIR became one of the corps incorporated into the 8th Army, and until mid-August remained the only corps actively involved in fighting. It was renamed the 35th Corps/CSIR, retaining the “CSIR” label to honor its good performance exhibited during the first year of campaigning in Russia.
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