Defiant Russia:
Mussolini's Great Adventure, Part 3

The story began with Part One and continued in Part Two.

A new division (2nd “Sforzesca”) had just joined the CSIR when full-scale operations resumed. The Germans had launched a new offensive, Operation Blau, on the southern portion of the front. The Italians’ primary target was the area around Krasny Luch, which included the portion of the northern Ukraine industrial basin not occupied during the autumn months. Only the Celere was directly involved; all other divisions received either flanking (Sforzesca) or rear guard tasks. Celere operated between the German 198th and 111th Infantry Divisions. The Bersaglieri fought at Fatshevka on July 12 and Ivanovka on July 14. During these battles they gained a great deal of praise from the Germans, but paid a heavy toll in casualties. From 15 July onward, enemy resistance dissipated and the CSIR was involved only in clearing actions.

The situation was now very fluid and characterized by Axis troops advancing and Soviets rushing to safety behind the Don River. By the end of July, the Germans had realized a spectacular advance (up to 400 kilometers). However, contrary to their expectations, only a few thousand prisoners fell into their hands; the majority of the enemy’s divisions had successfully withdrawn. Most German divisions were moving southwest toward Stalingrad and exposed to possible flank attacks from the Soviet-controlled side of the Don. The 8th Army had the task of maintaining control of the left bank of the river and watching the Germans’ northern flank. The same task was given to the Hungarian and Romanian armies that were eventually placed, respectively, on the left and right of the Italians.

Meanwhile, the Soviets had altered their strategy again. Joseph Stalin on 28 July issued a directive that no more ground should be given to the fascist invader. More concretely, the Soviets began launching a number of local attacks, initially poorly-organized, to divert Axis troops from Stalingrad and secure bridgeheads to be exploited in future offensive operations.

The Celere Division was temporarily assigned to the German 17th Army, which had urged the Italian command to send it immediately forward. On July 23, it was the first Axis unit to cross the Donets. On 24 July, it was dispatched to the village of Serafimovich, 250 kilometers away, and reached its destination on the evening of 29 July. The 578th Infantry Regiment of the German 305th Infantry Division initially guarded a front approximately 20 kilometers long. This was, in fact, a weak detachment (two battalions of 400 men each and a few artillery pieces) because the main portion of this unit had continued its drive southward toward Stalingrad.

Bersaglieri on the Eastern Front.

When Celere arrived, German troops had started falling back under mounting Soviet pressure. An enemy bridgehead had been established, guarded by approximately 3,000 troops of the 304th Rifle Division and reinforced by a tank battalion. The Soviets also were bringing additional forces from the 124th and 36th Rifle Divisions. Their goal was to begin an offensive toward the town of Kalach to relieve friendly troops in that area but also to secure a foothold in the river bend. The outcome was an engagement in which, for the first time, Italians met the T-34 tank.

Losses were heavy on both sides, with Celere eventually clearing most of the bridgehead. The area gradually was handed to the German 79th Infantry Division, which had provided support in the final stages of the battle. On August 14, the majority of Celere returned to direct Italian control, and the exhausted Bersaglieri moved to the rear area of the Italian front.

Their rest proved short-lived as a new menace arose. On 20 August, the Soviet 63rd Army attacked positions held by the 54th Regiment of the Sforzesca Division, located west of the Serafimovich area. The attack was particularly difficult to contain for a number of reasons. The front defended by Sforzesca was large (25 kilometers) for a binary division; furthermore, the division was attacked not only frontally - across the river - but also from its right flank. The Soviets were left free to operate as the German 79th Division, rather than being placed on a continuous front along the Don River, controlled its sector with a few in-depth blocking positions.

The Italians initially offered stiff resistance, but soon the defenders’ morale collapsed and they were overwhelmed. The ensuing rout did not turn into a complete disaster because Messe committed elite Army Corps reserves (Tagliamento Blackshirt Brigade and Raggruppamento a Cavallo), which bought enough time for the 54th Regiment to fall back and temporarily consolidate positions. In any case, the Sforzesca Division from that moment was known by the unpleasant nickname of Tcikai (“to run away”).

Soon after, additional reinforcements came in the form of the Monte Cervino Alpini Battalion and additional corps-level assets (including a flame thrower company). On 23 August, Messe ordered a counterattack. On the left side, three columns formed by elements of the Pasubio Division, the 3rd and 6th Bersaglieri Regiments and the German 179th Regiment (62nd Infantry Division) tried to push the Soviets back to the Don River. On the right side, the push was provided by the Tagliamento group and the horsed regiments. That day some progress was made, and on 24 August the offensive resumed with the Savioa Cavalry Regiment executing a memorable “textbook” charge that swept two Soviet battalions from the battlefield and dispersed a third.

“Epic Beauty” according to Gen. Messe - the charge of the Savoia Cavalleria.

Despite the effort, the tide could not be stopped. The Red Army had managed to ferry additional forces across the Don for a total of well over 27 battalions (from the 197th and 203rd Rifle Divisions and the 14th Guards Rifle Division), and the Italian forces, in danger of being surrounded and destroyed, had to fall back. At this point Messe ordered his forces to resume the defensive, with the Italians entrenched in two main defensive positions: Jagodny (with approximately 5,200 men) and Therobatescky (with approximately 2,000 men). The second, much weaker and distant from the rest of the Italian troops, was attacked by the 14th Guards Rifle Division and fell on 25 August.

The defensive line had to pull back, risking the entire Italian front’s collapse. However, instead of keeping momentum and trying to achieve a final breakthrough, the Soviets concentrated against Jagodny. At one time the defensive perimeter came under the simultaneous attack of five regiments. The attacks could be just stopped thanks to heavy artillery concentrations (the only category in which the Italians held superiority) and to effective German and Italian air support.

The situation gradually improved, and on 30 August the Tridentina Alpini Division reached the battlefield, restoring balance. Messe conceived a counterattack that would push the Soviets back to their starting line. Two battalions of the 6th Alpini Regiment, supported by light tanks, moved to the attack on 1 September. The attack would be supported on the right flank by the 79th Infantry Division with tanks of the 22nd Panzer Division. The Germans did not arrive (the tanks supposedly were waiting for refueling), but due to a misunderstanding the Italians were instead told that the Germans had taken their objectives. As a result, the Alpini pushed farther forward; they were outflanked and nearly annihilated.

After this costly action, the front stabilized for the next three and a half months. The Soviet offensive resumed in mid-December, and this time the outcome was fatal for the CSIR as well as for the other Italian infantry divisions. The Alpini corps held its line for another month until a new operation was unleashed.

Messe did not witness this disaster. In mid-October he had resigned his command due to a conflict with the 8th Army commander, General Italo Gariboldi. In March 1943, he would be given command of the Axis forces in Tunisia, and from October 1943, he would lead the Italian army that operated aside Allied forces.

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