By Ottavio Ricchi
Mike Bennighof provided an overall picture of the Italian MVSN units (the fascist party militia during Mussolini's regime) in a previous Daily Content article. This contribution is more focused and covers the formation and the employment of the best Blackshirt units, called M battalions.
During the first year of war (summer 1940-summer 1941) blackshirt legionaires behaved disastrously in North African campaign and in the Balkans. The reasons for such a dismay performance hinged first of all on the “human factor”: the scant quality of the recruits — generally brave but too old or too young — their poor training, and the lack of good quality officers and NCOs. In addition, the low priority given by the army in the allotment of equipment to MVSN units was also detrimental.
At times, a few battalions proved themselves quite worthwhile in combat. These units, even if lacking complete training, made up for it with high fighting spirit. Players of Fronte Russo know that Tagliamento Legion platoons have quite respectable morale, even though generally lacking firepower. This feature is historically grounded as, from the start of the Russian campaign, the two assault infantry battalions distinguished themselves for steadiness during action.
Starting in summer 1941, the best units gradually were upgraded to elite battalions using as a cadre the veterans from early war campaigns. These selected volunteers were repatriated and underwent to additional combat training. The link with the Arditi tradition (Italian assault troops during WWI) was deliberately emphasized also by allotting soldiers a dagger as a part of their combat equipment. These battalions were assigned the honorific M tag, after Mussolini's name, and a red-colored letter M was imposed over their black collar insignia. Twenty-two M battalions were formed between August 1941 and April 1942.
The formation of these units occurred when Mussolini decided to greatly increase Italian participation in the Russian campaign. Six M battalions were attached to the newly sent infantry divisions. They joined the two battalions of the Tagliamento Legion that on February 1942 had been promoted “in the field” to M rank.
The assembly of the 8th Italian Army in Russia (ARMIR) led to a few organizational changes to the MVSN battalions. First of all, the word “legion” was replaced by “gruppo” (group). Like the old legion, this unit still included two assault battalions and a support weapon battalion. The latter was formed by a mortar company (4 x 81mm) and a gun company (4 x 47mm). Two groups were assembled into a raggruppamento, corresponding approximately to the size of a brigade.
Battalions were numbered using roman numbers and usually named after Italian towns (like Italian army divisions). Group (former legion) names were often related to WWI battle locations, whilst the raggruppamenti name corresponded to key fascist party dates, which were previously used for the Libyan and Ethiopian campaigns. For instance 23 Marzo (23 March) was in honor of the founding of the Italian Fascist Party, 23 March 1919.
The order of battle for blackshirts operating with the ARMIR is as follows:
Raggruppamento CC.NN. "3 Gennaio"
Gruppo di Battaglioni Montebello:
VI — Mortara
XXX — Novara
XII — Aosta, battaglione armi accompagnamento
Gruppo di Battaglioni Tagliamento
LXIII — Udine
LXXIX — Reggio Emilia
LXIII Battaglione Armi d'Accompagnamento (army)
Raggruppamento CC.NN. 23 Marzo
Gruppo di Battaglioni Leonessa
XIV — Bergamo
XV — Brescia
XXXVIII — Asti, battaglione armi accompagnamento
Gruppo di Battaglioni Valle Scrivia
V — Tortona
XXXIV — Savona
XLI — Trento, battaglione armi accompagnamento
While the ARMIR was on its way to Russia, an important debate going on in the Italian army was the analysis of the causes of the catastrophic performance of Italian binary infantry divisions. The elimination of the third regiment, implemented at the eve of the war, had achieved the intended result of increasing the sheer number of divisions. However, this result led to sizable loss of staying power and operational capability. Italian divisions proved to be inadequate for both defensive and offensive actions. This reform, that was expected to be an important step in the modernization of the Italian army, spelled disaster. The army instead suffered a number of very bad defeats both in Africa and in Greece.
As a response to the failure, one possibility could have been to bring the divisions back to full strength (three regiments) by assigning to each of them a Blackshirt regiment. This never happened, first of all because the MVSN did not have the capability to enlist all the recruits required for such a project; second because the army high command was not enthusiastic about the idea. The solution identified for the Russian front, but also in other geographical sectors, was a compromise one. Each raggruppamento would be directly attached to an army corps and represent its mobile reserve.
The utilization of M battalions during Operation Little Saturn followed this notion. Blackshirt battalions acted as fire brigades trying to plug the gaps that Russian offensive was denting in the Italian defense. Their employment doctrine called for them to be used in assaults or counter-assaults. On the contrary they should not be used for long-term, static, defensive duties. Once a position had been conquered, the Blackshirts were to re-deploy to the army reserve.
During the campaign Blackshirts fought with bravery and were even praised by Germans, who were in general very harsh about military capabilities displayed by Italians. Losses were very high, like for any other unit of the 8th Army. However, interestingly, the percentage of leaders lost was greater than that of the troops. This shows — to the credit of MVSN leaders — that Blackshirt leaders did not spare themselves and operated at the forefront.
These units were generally more aligned than the majority of their compatriots with the Fascist regime doctrine and supported — at least initially — the idea of the "crusade against Bolshevism." However, there was no racial hatred toward local population and, to my knowledge there is no record of atrocities committed by Blackshirt troops in Russian territory. Still, the voluntary basis for their recruitment and their political commitment was enough to make these troops subject to immediate execution if captured. Thus, before being forced to surrender the legionnaires would try to get rid of their black collars.
The free download provides MVSN leaders and a few support weapons that complement existing Fronte Russo counters so that the order of battle for a full Blackshirt gruppo becomes complete.
Tenente colonnello: Primo seniore
Tenente: Capo manipolo
Sergente: Capo squadra
MVSN leaders behave, to all respects, as army leaders. For instance, they can take part in a chain activation, so no special rule is needed to use them. The mortar and AT guns are not required for playing existing Fronte Russo scenarios because the support weapon battalion attached to the Legione Tagliamento was an army one. They could be used, however, for future scenarios devoted to the Little Saturn operation.
You can download the new Blackshirt pieces here.
And order Fronte Russo today, right here.