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Italian 8th Army in Russia

Ostfront A Brief History of the Italian 8th Army in Russia

By Erik Mozolik

Barbarossa, The CSIR 1941

Mussolini, humiliated that Hitler did not council him about Barbarossa, immediately requested an Italian Expeditionary Force to join in the German-led invasion. Four days later, Mussolini reviewed 60,000 Italian troops as they marched from Rome on their way to the Eastern Front. The "Corpo di Spedizione Italiano en Russia" comprised of several of the best Italian divisions available led by the able General Giovanni Messe.

The units assigned to the CSIR were the Pasubio and Torino infantry divisions, the Amedeo D’Aosta celere division, and Blackshirt combat group. During the initial onslaught, the Italians fought well, assigned to Army Group South, commanded by Field Marshall Rundstedt.

With their German counterparts, the Italians drove hundreds of miles into Russian territory, helping to capture the Dnepier and Bugs rivers.

In August, Mussolini flew to the Ukraine to review the troops. General Messe informed him that his soldiers lacked proper weapons and supplies, and vehicles had inadequate stores of fuel. He also warned that the Germans were reluctant to share supplies, even though they were quick to criticize their Italian counterparts due to supply problems. Mussolini merely tells Messe to make do with what he has. 

The substantial victories and territory won convinced many, Mussolini included, that the war in Russia would indeed be short. 

However, by October, the situation was gradually changing for the invading armies.

General Giovanni Messe
Italian soldier

Even after summer gains of nearly 250 miles per week, the Italian forces were now spread thin and vulnerable. At one point, the CSIR was spread over a front almost 500 miles long.

They still dealt with supply shortages and inadequate equipment, and now were begging for winter clothing. By the end of November, the CSIR had secured several points in the Donets Basin. Winter now set in.

The emphasis on the winter campaign lay in Moscow to the north, but the CSIR also dealt with smaller counterattacks in their sector of operations.  

With some German assistance, the CSIR, along with Army Group South, held their ground. The Italians used the ensuing spring to rest and prepare for the new summer offensive. In the first year of conflict on the Eastern Front, Axis forces suffered over 1 million casualties. Hitler, experiencing extreme manpower shortages, stripped defensive forces in Western Europe and pleaded with Axis allies to send more divisions to Russia. Italy answered the call, upgrading the CSIR to the Italian 8th Army. The Italian Army, along with two Rumanian and a Hungarian Army, would assist Army Group South in a new summer offensive in 1942.

Fall Blau, Italian 8th Army, Summer of 1942

The first phase of Operation Blue was to capture the city of Voronezh. The second phase was to trap the bulk of Soviet forces in the area in a giant pincer movement west of the Don River.

The German forces of Army Group South, comprised of the 1st Panzer and 4th Panzer Armies, and the 6th and 17th Armies, fought the bulk of the offensive. Secondary forces included the German 2nd Army under von Weichs, the German 11th Army under von Manstein, the Italian 8th Army under Italo Gariboldi, the Hungarian 2nd Army, and, at that time, various Rumanian and Slovak forces attached to German units. Later in the campaign, the Rumanians would also answer Hitler’s call, like the Italians, and enlarge their forces to the Rumanian 3rd and 4th Armies.

Winter sets in
May to November 1942

Initial advances for Fall Blau during the summer went very well. In Hitler’s eyes, the retaking of Kharkov only reaffirmed German supremacy. He was so certain of the success of Fall Blau, and the capture of the Caucausus oilfields, he talked with von Manstein about disbursing the entire Army Group, dispatching the Eleventh Army to Army Group North, and forming a new force to launch into the Middle East and India, possibly to link up with the Afrika Korps.   

While Fall Gelb was commencing, the bulk of the new Italian 8th Army did not arrive until August along with its new commander, Gariboldi. The old CSIR remained under control of Messe, and the CSIR was renamed the Italian 35th Corps. Also added to the 8th Italian Army was the Alpine Corps, comprised of the Tridentina, Julia, and Cuneense Alpine divisions. The bulk of German forces conducted the offensive, and the Italians were left largely to rearguard action. However, the Italian forces fought continually to keep the flanks of Army Group South intact. The 8th Army fought back a Russian counteroffensive around Serafimovich on the Don. The counteroffensive was designed to stall the German advance on Stalingrad by pulling German units in to support the supposed weaker Axis allies.

It failed, and in the end, the Italians actually launched a counter attack. It was one of the last pure cavalry attacks of the war, and resulted in the destruction of 2 Soviet battalions, and the loss of 500 as prisoners, along with various arms and equipment.

Italian forces were outnumbered more than three to one, yet they prevailed. Despite the lack of sufficient equipment and supplies, always a problem for Italian units on the Eastern Front, they were able to successfully fight back Russian counterattacks and proved their worth in combat.

Stalingrad, Italian 8th Army, Fall of 1942

As the fall commenced, the Italian 8th Army settled on the Don River bend as the German 6th Army commenced assault on Stalingrad.  

Black Shirts
Alpini radio operator The sector became relatively quiet as available Russian troops concentrated on the even decreasing bridgehead on the west side of the Volga River. The flanks of the entire 6th Army, almost exclusively concentrated in the ruins of Stalingrad, were held by Axis allied forces. On the immediate flanks of the 6th Army were the Rumanian 3rd and 4th Armies. Neighboring to the immediate west of the Rumanian 3rd Army was the Italian 8th Army, and to the west of the Italians was the Hungarian 2nd Army. All of these allied armies were spread thinly and had comparatively weak anti-tank weaponry, which would prove disastrous in the coming months.

As the fall drew on and the battle for Stalingrad ground on, the Russians began mounting a massing winter counteroffensive designed to destroy the entire Army Group South. The offensive, devised by Russian Marshals Zhukov and Vasilevsky, was designed to smash the surrounding Axis allied armies, trap the massive German 6th Army in Stalingrad, and cut off the rest of the Southern Army Group fighting in the Caucasus Mountains. This was to be the most ambitious and devastating Russian offensive to date in the Second World War.
While the vulnerability of the Axis forces grew apparent with time, Hitler, now in charge of the German army, continued to focus all attention on Stalingrad. Obsessed with capturing the city, he ignored pleas from allied and German commanders alike that saw the danger that he did not. Even Marshal Ion Antonescu warned Hitler of the dangers likely facing the Rumanian forces, especially the 3rd Rumanian Army. His word, like others, was ignored.   
   
Operation Uranus, Italian 8th Army, Winter of 1942

On November 19th, the Soviet Union struck in an offensive such as the Wehrmacht had never seen before. A Soviet force of 12 infantry divisions, 3 tank corps, 2 cavalry corps, and 3,500 artillery pieces hit the 3rd Rumanian Army.

Aplini 47/32 gun team
Fucilieri take cover among some stumps

While the Rumanians fought valiantly, by the end of the second day the entire army was smashed. Also, on the 20th, a second attack was launched to the south of the city against the Romanian 4th Army, and this army collapsed almost immediately. The Soviet attackers met in a pincer movement, spearheaded by tank corps, near Kalach two days later, trapping Wehrmacht soldiers of the 6th Army and about half of the 4th Panzer Army in and around Stalingrad, and shattering both Romanian armies in the process.

Within days, the perception of the German High Command went from imminent victory to imminent defeat.

Hitler, in a move that would doom his troops, ordered the Axis forces in the Stalingrad area to hold fast, as a relief effort would be attempted. Focus was now drawn to a relief effort for the soldiers in the Stalingrad area. With each passing day, the Soviet armies tightened their noose on the Axis troops trapped in the area. Supplies soon became scarce, and the Luftwaffe air bridge promised by Goring failed miserably.

German high command immediately planned for a counter attack aimed at rescuing the trapped army. Hitler devised a plan to use scattered units of the 4th Panzer Army to launch a two-pronged attack in order to open a bridgehead to reinforce and re-supply the troops. The plan, Winter Storm, would begin with assaults from forces on the Chir River, only 40 miles from the salient, and the LVII Panzer Corps in Kotelnikovo, 100 miles south of the salient. Soviet high command knew that an attack launched from the Chir River would seem prudent, so used the 5th Tank Army in an effort to harass and tie down those German units.
Italian cavalry
November 1942 to March 1943

This left only the LVII Panzer Corps to strike north in the harsh winter. The Corps consisted of two German Panzer divisions, the 6th and 23rd, and two Romanian cavalry divisions. The first Tiger battalion commissioned was also rushed to the Panzer Corps to bolster tank strength. A third Panzer division, the 17th, was used to bolster the Italian 8th Army. On December 12th the Panzer units struck north with all their strength. The offensive took the Soviets by surprise, the initial day proved a gain of 30 miles, but soon a three-day battle took place at Verkhne-Kumsky. The 17th Panzer was now belatedly dispatched to General Hoth’s troops to continue the thrust.

Operation Saturn, 16th December 1942

Just four days into the German advance, with German troops within 40 miles of the cauldron, Soviet forces consisting of the 1st and 3rd Guards Armies and the Soviet 6th Army all struck the Italian 8th Army still defending the Don bend. The Italians fought bravely, but with inadequate anti-tank weaponry and a shortage of supplies, they were overwhelmed within days. What troops could break free did, but overall losses were catastrophic.
   
The Alpini Corps was at one point surrounded, but managed to retreat back to new defensive lines.

Because of the loss of the 17th Panzer division, the front had no reserves. Soviet forces now ran free in the rear areas, even smashing the main airfield for Stalingrad re-supply by air. Roughly 10 percent of total Luftwaffe transport aircraft was lost when Soviet tanks rushed the airfield while the Ju-52’s narrowly escaped to the skies.

This signaled the end to the relief effort in Stalingrad. Losses would take time to tally, and the situation was not fully assessed until the 6th Army had finally fallen January. 

German General von Manstein said these words regarding the total Axis losses during the winter months: 

Alpini ski troops reteat during the winter of 1942/43
Italians dress for the cold winter “In conclusion, we cast a final glance at the full course and outcome of the 1942-43 winter campaign in South Russia, we much begin by acknowledging the successes attained on the Soviet side, the magnitude of which was incontestable. The Russians had contrived to encircle and destroy the German Sixth Army, the strongest we had in the field.

They had, moreover, swept four allied armies clean off the map. Many brave members of the latter had fallen in battle, and considerable numbers had gone into captivity. What allied troops remained had disintegrated and had sooner or later to be withdrawn for good from the zone of operations.”


Last Updated On Tuesday, May 13, 2008 by Wayne at Battlefront