11 July 2011

Sacrifice On The Steppe - The Italian Alpine Corps in the Stalingrad Campaign, 1942-1943

When Germany’s Sixth Army advanced to Stalingrad in 1942, its long-extended flanks were mainly held by its allied armies—the Romanians, Hungarians, and Italians. But as history tells us, these flanks quickly caved in before the massive Soviet counter-offensive which commenced that November, dooming the Germans to their first catastrophe of the war. However, the historical record also makes clear that one allied unit held out to the very end, fighting to stem the tide—the Italian Alpine Corps.

As a result of Mussolini’s disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany, by the fall of 1942, 227,000 soldiers of the Italian Eighth Army were deployed along a 270km front along the Don River to protect the left flank of German troops intent on capturing Stalingrad. Sixty thousands of these were elite mountain troops incongruously put into combat on the vast steppe. When the Don front collapsed under Soviet hammerblows, it was the Alpine Corps that continued to hold out until it was completely isolated, and which then tried to fight its way out through both Russian encirclement and “General Winter,” to rejoin the rest of the Axis front. One division was all but destroyed, but two others were able to emerge with survivors. In the all-sides battle across the snowy flatlands, thousands were killed and wounded, and even more were captured. By the summer of 1946, ten thousand survivors returned to Italy from Russian POW camps.

The consequences of Mussolini’s decision to send troops to Russia is complex and unsettling, but most of all it is a human story. Raw courage and endurance blend with human suffering, desperation and altruism in the epic saga of this withdrawal from the Don lines, including the demise of thousands and survival of the few.

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