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Wartime poster for the United Nations, created in 1942 by the US Office of War Information, showing the 26 members of the alliance.
By the winter of 1942, the Kingdom of Italy found itself at war with the British Empire, which included at the time the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia, British East Africa, Kenya plus all of land mass of what are now the modern day countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, India, and other British colonies too numerous to mention. Italy had also declared war on the United States of America, the Soviet Union, France, and Albania. One really has to wonder what in the hell was going through the minds of Mussolini and the King and the military. Obviously not much.
On the home front dancing had been forbidden when war began (and this was Italy for Pete’s sake), food rationed so severely that most people were entitled to only 1,000 calories a day which isn’t enough to keep an adult from starvation. Coffee was unobtainable in the country where cappuccino had been invented, the beverage so named because it is the same color as the habit worn by the Capuchin Friars. There was no gasoline. Rail transportation was limited. There were no medicines. Worse, there was no hope. Anyone with a brain, and there were many, understood that Italy was courting disaster.
Mussolini sent Italian troops to fight in the USSR alongside the Germans. And not just a handful either. In the beginning he sent a 60,000 man army with the grandiloquent name, Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia, or CSIR). Presumably two or three generals of the Royal Italian Army brought to the attention of Mussolini and the King the following minor issue: the Germans had not asked Italy to send troops to Russia. Details, details. The Italian troops arrived in Russia in August of 1941.
German soldiers thought Italian soldiers lacked discipline, order, and cohesion.
“But how can you expect people who are unused to being well ordered in normal civilian life to become orderly, as if by the wave of a wand, simply because they find themselves in uniform?” – writes Italian author and Russian front veteran Eugenio Corti. A good point but not one the Germans appreciated.
However, after taking over a million casualties in the first ten months of their invasion of the USSR, the Germans swallowed their pride and asked Italy for more soldiers. So in the summer of 1942, Musso and Victor Emmanuel III sent tens of thousands of additional men to help out their German allies in Russia. At its peak, the Italian Army in Russia, also known as the Italian 8th Army, fielded 220,000 men. (Source: The Oxford Companion to World War Two.)
|However, as can often be the case in “shotgun” weddings, unhappy differences arose between the Germans and Italians. The Italian soldiers wouldn’t help the Germans murder Russian Jews and other civilians. They sold weapons to the partisans. In Russian villages where Italian soldiers were quartered, friendly relations often sprang up between the soldiers and the lonely Russian women, whose men were away fighting.|
|The movie, Sunflower (I Girasoli), starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, takes this as its subject. Made in 1970 on location in the USSR, it is the story of an Italian soldier who marries his much beloved fiance in Italy just days before he is sent to Russia. After the war he is listed as “missing in action” in Russia. Unable to accept this, his wife travels to Russia to try and learn more and there she finds her husband. Only he is now married to a Russian woman.||