Eastern Front Italian Cavalry
in Flames Of War

By Nicolò Da Lio

Italian Cavalry begun WWII with thirteen mounted regiments, plus a cavalry group, three light tank squadron groups (battalion-sized units) equipped with L3 tanks, as well as colonial cavalry units.

During the Greek campaign, where the "Aosta", "Milano" and "Guide" regiments were present, cavalry units engaged in some very hard battles. In Yugoslavia the Corpo d’Armata Celere (fast corps) took their objectives in just eight days. As the war in these countries ended, the regiments found themselves involved heavily in garrison duties, facing fierce partisan forces that continuously engaged the Italian forces in extremely vicious battles. It is in one of these battles that the "Alessandria" Regiment made the last cavalry charge of the Italian Army, in the Poloy sector.

The regiment charged with all its squadrons a far superior enemy that had just encircled the unit. Their charge broke through the encirclement and allowed them to withdraw back to a safe position. Obviously many considered that a battle fought to flee from encirclement wouldn’t represent a "good" last charge, so the action at Ibushenkij took its place in legend.
Italian Cavalry in Russia

In addition to anti-partisan duties Italian Cavalry continued front line military operations in the form of the 3a Divisione Celere of the CSIR, the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia in 1941.

3a Divisione Celere (Fast) "Principe Amededo Duca d’Aosta" (PADA for short) was composed of 3rd "Savoia Cavalleria" regiment, 5th "Novara Cavalleria" Regiment and (3rd) Horse Artillery Regiment, as well as 3rd Bersaglieri regiment and 3rd "San Giorgio" Group equipped with L3 tanks.

Italian Cavalry

The division was ferried to Hungary and then moved on to the Dnepr River in a road march of about 750km on rough Russian roads. The first 3a Celere division operations were carried only by the Bersaglieri, as the mounted troops where too exhausted by their road marches to be of any use in combat. After the breakthrough on the Dnepr PADA was regrouped and refitted in Deyvka, from which the CSIR restarted its operations on 3 October 1941 in concert with the German 1. Panzerarmee’s advance. The CSIR was positioned on the left flank with XLIX Alpine corps and XIV Infantry corps to the south, and the German III Panzerkorps moving to take Rostov. CSIR objective was the industrial town of Stalino.

As Russian roads were covered with mud, General Messe, commander of the CSIR, decided to employ the 3a Celere division, which was less subject to difficult terrain as it was almost entirely mounted. With 9a Divisione Autotrasprtabile “Pasubio” in Novomoskovsk and 3a Celere still crossing the Dnepr, the offensive begun. The 3a Celere Division covered the southern flank of Pasubio, which was advancing on the only road serviceable for trucked movement. 

Troopers of the Savoia Cavalry Regiment.

On 8 October the 3a Celere Division reached Yakaterinovka, and would soon precede the Pasubio Division in its advance.

Heavy snow halted the advance, and it wasn’t resumed until 13 October. By 16 October the 3a Celere Division had passed the Zgl Vassiliyevka-Bol Ionissol line where they made contact with XLIX Alpine corps. While advancing PADA division encountered strong rear guards in Suchye Yaly, but the quick reaction by the division combined with an envelopment move made by "Savoia" and "Novara" forced the Soviets to retreat.

On 20 October the 3a Celere began its direct attack on Stalino, and despite heavy rain and mud hampering movement, the 3a Celere was able to take Stalino with XLIX Alpine corps, achieving its goals on schedule.

On 22 October 3a Celere was ordered to occupy Rikovo, Gorlovka and Nikitovka as well as Trudovaya’s oil pipeline. The 3a Celere continued the advance until the beginning of the Gorlovka-Rikovo operations, in which it assisted in breaking the envelopment of Chiaramonti Column (80th Infantry Regiment of Pasubio plus some support). The first attacks of 79th infantry regiment (Pasubio division) aided by dismounted cavalry was fended off, only when the 3rd Bersaglieri and 81st Infantry Regiment (Torino) joined the battle was the Chiaramonti column able to break out of the encirclement. This ended autumn operations for the CSIR.
The Christmas Battle

When the Germans lost Rostov, finally stopping their operations in mid December, CSIR fortified its defensive positions. "Pasubio" and "Torino" (51a Divisione Autotrasportabile) held the first line between Gorlovka and Kol David Orlovka, while PADA (3a Celere) was kept as a mobile reserve in Korsuni. Facing the Italian line there were two infantry divisions and two cavalry divisions. The Cavalry took part in very few operations during the in winter, since the bitter cold killed many of their mounts.

However, the PADA division did take part in the operation to advance the front defensive line, known as battle for Chazepetovka, in the first half of December.

Charging Cavalleria!
Meanwhile the Soviets prepared their own winter offensive, and the CSIR sector was attacked on Christmas Day. PADA held the most exposed sector, to the south, as it was the linking point between the CSIR and the rest of the German 1. Armee. The Soviets were able to take the Charzyk road that linked the sector with Stalino, the only road suitable for heavy trucks.

Eventually 3a Celere were able to stabilise their line, but without its Cavalry, only Bersaglieri and the 63rd CCNN legion took part in the battle. The battle itself lasted until 31 December.

Elements of the Division ("Novara" Regiment and "San Giorgio" Group, that had yet to see action, both dismounted) took part in the operations to stop the Soviet offensive to take Isyum, which began on 21 January 1942. The Soviet attack created a large bulge in the German line, as deep as 100km, so the Germans opted to encircle this bulge and destroy it. On 28 January German 17. Armee and 1. Panzerarmee were grouped in an Army Group under General von Kleist. Assigned to the northern sector were Kampfgruppe Mackensen, and the southern sector to XI Korps. Mackensen moved first and XI Korps followed soon after, but Kleist feared a Soviet counterattack on the Stalino-Grischino railway and asked the CSIR to assist in the operation. The Italian corps wasn’t ready yet to see action, and the only troops available were a Squadron Group of "Novara" cavalry regiment and "S.Giorgio" group, both dismounted, as well as two bridging battalions. These forces were grouped under Colonel Musino, and were sent to support Manckesen group. The Soviet soon counterattacked to save their forces, and Mackensen’s group found itself heavily engaged. Raggruppamento Musino, despite its odd composition, held the line and fended off many Soviet attacks.

Italian cavalry on the move.

After this engagement the bridging battalions were retired from frontline combat, and the second Squadron Group of "Novara" was sent in its place. The offensive soon halted and it wasn’t until March that the Soviets renewed their attacks, but this time the Axis forces were ready to take them on. The bulged was transformed into a pocked, after which the summer offensive operations restarted.   

Raggruppamento Barbò

In March 1942 PADA was reorganized, being transformed into a motorized division with two Bersaglieri regiments and other units.

The two cavalry regiments were then grouped under "Raggruppamento Barbò" directly under corps control. The group itself had: "Savoia" and "Novara" cavalry regiments, "Monte Cervino" Alpini battalion, the "San Giorgio" group without their tanks (which had been unserviceable since November), 1st Bersaglieri Motociclisti company, a Flamethrower company and two German training battalions as well as a horse artillery group.

8th Italian army was activated, even if the majority of the troops were still on their way to the front, and the only ready formation was the XXXV corps, new name for the CSIR, now part of the ARMIR.

It was in this fashion that 8th Army operated with the Germans during the advance to Don river, Raggruppamento Barbò held the southern flank and was later able to take what is wrongly thought to be the last Cavalry Charge of the Italian Army.

During its advance on the Don the 8th Army was under pressure from Soviet forces. When the advance stopped on Kargynskaya the group was counterattacked by the Soviets in late August 1942.

The first defensive battle on the Don began on 20 August 1942 and involved the XXXV Italian corps (Sforzesca and Pasubio, plus corps support from Raggruppamento Barbò) and the Soviet 197th, 203rd Rifle and 14th Guards divisions in the sector held by "Sforzesca" division. 

Savoia troopers take up position behind a prone horse.
The Soviets attacked with 7 battalions. The first day of battle ended with a slow fall back by the Italian division. On 21 August General Messe ordered a counterattack, but another 10 Soviet battalions were already on the Italian side of the Don River, the counterattack met heavy opposition and failed. The Italians where forced to fall back once again. The Sforzesca division’s withdrawal was covered by "Savoia" cavalry and the LXIII and LXXIX CCNN battalions, suffering heavy losses during the rearguard actions.
3a Reggimento "Savoia Cavalleria" crest The new defensive line was held in two strongholds, Tschebotareskiy and Yagodniy, the former being the most vulnerable of the two, having just 1000 men in defence, opposed to the 3500 that defended the latter. Raggruppamento Barbò acted as a covering unit for both the positions, engaging in many scouting actions against the Soviets. Soviet attacks where fended off on 22 August, ending the first part of the 1st Don Defensive battle.

On the same day 3a Divisione Celere came back under Italian command, after its operations in Serafimovitsch, as did Alpini battalion "Monte Cervino" and the German 179. Infanterie Regiment, which where used to counterattack the Soviets. The attack itself began in the morning of 23 August and forced the Soviets to fall back. The Soviet forces regrouped and then renewed their assaults, forcing Raggruppamento Barbò to commit to the battle.

The "Novara" cavalry made a number of disrupting probes were able to penetrate deep into the Soviet deployment, before being forced to fall back. Their action forced many soviet units to engage them, thus easing the pressure on other sectors of the line. Occupied in similar actions, the "Savoia" Cavalry made the famous charge at Ibushenkij.

The "Last" Charge

The "Savoia" Cavalleria Regiment, reinforced by the "Horse Artillery" group, reached Hill 213 in the afternoon of 23 August and engaged strong enemy forces. Colonnello Bettoni, commander of the column, decided then to regroup to rest for the night and renew the attack in the morning, thus he formed a square with his squadrons. During the following day early scouting revealed a strongly held position just a few hundred meters away, in which at least two Soviet battalions were entrenched and supported by many automatic weapons, artillery and mortars. Despite his inferior numbers Bettoni decided to concentrate all the automatic fire of his regiment on the Soviet position before attacking. Meanwhile he sent the 2nd Squadron around the Soviet left in an enveloping manoeuvre. The 2nd squadron began its flanking movement by moving out of the square at a trot. After they had positioned themselves on the Soviet flank they began their charge. Their charge forced the Soviets off of their position. After the initial success they slowed down their advance, but then renewed the assault to coincide with the rest of the regiment. At this point 4th squadron began it own attack on the front of the Soviet position dismounted, while the 3rd squadron was sent mounted to the other Soviet flank to carry out their own charge led by the Gruppo Squadroni commander, Maggiore Litta. The charge continued and almost destroyed all the Soviet opposition, but at the Soviet command post it was halted by a wall of fire, which inflicted heavy losses on the 3rd squadron. Maggiore Litta was wounded, but continued to fight until he was hit a second time and mortally wounded. During the operation every member of Litta’s staff is wounded or killed. Capitano Abba, commander of the 4th squadron, was also killed. The charge destroyed two Soviet battalions, and disperses a third. The regiment captured a hundred prisoners and four guns. The charge ended the second part of the Don Defence.

The End of the 1st Don Defensive Battle

The 3a Celere division itself was attacked on 26th August by overwhelming forces (4 infantry and one guards regiment, faced by the two Bersaglieri regiments of the division). The first assault failed, so the Soviets tried to envelop the Celere from the south, taking Bachmutkin and menacing on Hill 204 and the division’s artillery. It was to fend off this envelopment that "Savoia" and the 1st motorcycle Bersaglieri company counterattacked. 

The attack was such a success that not only were the Soviets forced to halt the attack, but forced to withdraw and lose Hill 226, reducing the pressure on the whole Italian line. The "Novara" cavalry in the meantime held off many Soviet assaults on Bolskoj between 27 and 29 August. As more reinforcements, in the form of 2a "Tridentina" Divisione Alpina (alpine division), moved into the area the Don battle came to an end. The Soviets stopped their assaults and the Italians reinforced their defensive positions for the upcoming attacks, which when they came would eventually lead to the destruction of the 8th Italian Army in January 1943.

Most elements of the Cavalry forces were retired before winter, as the previous winter had proved that the cold hampered their fighting capabilities. Some forces remained, and were encircled with Alpini corps, which eventually escaped from this critical situation in the epic battle of Nikolayevka.

5a Reggimento "Lancieri di Novara" crest

The Italian Cavalry had a different terminology than the Infantry. First, the cavalry had no "battalions" or "companies", the companies where called "squadrons" while "battalions" where usually "squadron groups". In Italian this is written as "Squadroni" and "Gruppo Squadroni".

So, as an example, 3rd "Savoia Cavalleria" regiment was composed of two "Gruppo Squadroni" of two "Squadroni" each, plus a "Squadrone Mitragliatrici", a mounted HMG squadron.

"San Giorgio" group, as it was a cavalry unit, in Italian was called "Gruppo Squadroni San Giorgio", or "Gruppo S.Giorgio" for short.

Squadroni Cavalleria in Mid-war

New updated Intelligence Briefing...

Miniatures for fielding the Squadroni Cavalleria

We are yet to release any specialised miniatures to represent the mounted squadrons of the Italian Cavalleria, but a handy substitute are the Romanian Cavalry of RO708. Painted in Heer Green (FWP340) they suit the role quite well.

Romanian cavalry

Romanian cavalry miniatures suitable for conversion to Italian Cavalleria.

If you have some spare Fucilieri miniatures and would like to take that extra step further you can also swap some heads to give you Cavalleria the correct Italian helmet. Though the Romanian helmet is close enough to pass a casual inspection.

Colours are:

Trousers and Tunics: Heer Green (FWP340)
Helmet: Grenadier Green (FWP349)
Canvas webbing: Afrika Green (FWP346)
Boots, Leggings and cartridge belt: Black (FWP300)
Horse fittings: Battlefield brown (FWP324)

Last Updated On Wednesday, July 1, 2015