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In spite of seducing lonely Russian women, life for most Italian soldiers in the Soviet Union was brutal and cold.
In mid-November of 1942, the Soviets executed a double envelopment movement against the German Six Armee in Stalingrad and after four days of intense fighting, the Soviets had encircled the city and trapped the Germans. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets attacked the German and Italian troops guarding the lines of communication along the River Don and succeeded in enveloping those units.
The only choice the Italians had was to follow the German troops as they made their breakout attempt. Whatever sympathy German soldiers had for the Italians fell victim to the German will to survive. Italian units lost their cohesion. Officers ran off and left their men. Soldiers threw away their weapons. The Italians were no longer an army, they were a mob. The Germans, who maintained their organization and rigid discipline, were disgusted and hardly cared whether the Italian soldiers lived or died.
Germans threw Italian wounded off panje carts and put German wounded on aboard. They pushed and bullied the Italian soldiers, took their horses and hitched them to German wagons, stole their food and medical supplies. 30,000 Italian troops were in the Don pocket.
With German units leading the way, the breakout took place over a 28 day period. The Italians made one forced march after another, men constantly dropping out of the ragged column from exhaustion and illness. Incredibly, they succeeded in breaking out of the Russia encirclement. But of the 30,000 Italian soldiers who began the 28 day trek, only 4,000 made it out alive.
Of the many memoirs from soldiers in World War Two, few are as powerful, as graphic or as doleful as Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1942-43 by Eugenio Corti, one of the 4,000 Italians who survived. The author, a lieutenant of artillery, was young, just 21. He came from an upper class background, was not a Fascist or supporter of Mussolini, was well educated and was a very good writer. It is hard to imagine surviving cold such as described below by Corti in his memoir.
Who knows what degree it reached that night! Not that we thought of the cold in those terms: it was something murderous besieging us from every side, causing us immense suffering, busying itself with tearing and sucking the life out of our limbs.
I was dying of tiredness…I returned to the freezing cold stable, Before long I was in deep slumber, huddled under the blanket that the cold had stiffened to sheet metal.
The temperature continued to drop, so much so that after a while we felt we had never known it so low. [Some of his men told him later that the temperature was minus 47 degrees which is so low that Celsius and Fahrenheit almost read the same.] The cold was such, and the wind so sharp, that it felt as if we were walking completely naked there on the snow…
And the wind assailed me ceaselessly, sucking up the skirts of my blanket and my greatcoat, cold beyond human imagining. This – I stuttered in my mind – is what the dead coldness of the abysses between the stars must be like: a cold from other worlds.
[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]