Italians Die for Hitler in Russia: a Forgotten Chapter of WW2

Hitler had a mixed opinion of Italy

“The Duce is a great statesman. He knows the mentality of his country perfectly and what he’s managed to achieve with Italy and those lazy people is a miracle…” – Adolf Hitler (1940)

“Italy is an enchanting country: it’s just a pity it’s inhabited by such lazy slobs.” – Adolf Hitler (1943)

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Mussolini and Hitler: two evil men of the 20th Century who I hope are in hell

A little known episode of World War Two

Large numbers of  Italian soldiers sent by Mussolini to the Soviet Union to fight with the Germans in the Ost Krieg or Eastern War. The Germans attacked the Soviet Union on 21 June 1941. The Germans had not asked Italy for soldiers but Mussolini had insisted on sending 60,000 men to participate in Operation Barbarossa, the German Invasion of the Soviet Union, to curry favor with Hitler and to be able to bask in a small part of the glory which would come from the crushing defeat the Germans were going to inflict on the Soviet Union.

An der Sowjetfront: Eine Mauleselkolonne der Italiener wird zur Tränke geführt. PK-Aufnahme: Kriegsberichter Lachmann "Fr" "Fr.OKW" Juli 1942
Italian soldiers on the Eastern Front in July, 1942. Photo courtesy German national archive.

Only the Germans didn’t manage to quite do that in 1941 so they asked Mussolini for more troops which he sent. By the summer of 1942, Italians reached their high point on the Eastern Front with 220,000 men, 16,000 motor vehicles, almost 150 aircraft as well as all of their small supply of modern heavy artillery. Italian navy units, primarily special forces, operated in the Black Sea. It’s easy to joke about Italian military capabilities but their naval special forces were as good as any in the world at that time.

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Italian motor torpedo boats like the one pictured above, achieved a fearsome reputation for daring and effective attacks.

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The lines below, from the memoir, The Sergeant in the Snow, by Mario R. Stern, an Alpine soldier from the mountains of Northeastern Italy, give a sense of the unreality of Italian soldiers in Russia.Yet this adventure ended in tragedy for the Italians with 90,000 soldiers dead. I say tragedy since most of the soldiers were illiterate conscripts, the elite divisions having creamed off the best men early on to fight in North Africa, and most of these young conscripts were badly led and poorly trained with only the most basic equipment.

“What direction is Italy in, Sergeant Major?”

“Over there, you see? A long way over there. The earth is round, Marangoni, and we’re among the stars. All of us.”

Stern’s memoir is one of the few written by an Italian soldier on the Eastern Front. It is matter-of-fact. He simply describes the retreat of Italian troops in winter after the Russians pushed them back. Nothing else is needed to create a story of such terrible reality. Tens of thousands of hungry men, cold and frostbitten with inadequate footwear, sanitation and medical services. A rabble.  Many units had weak-willed and incompetent officers and under pressure these units disintegrated.

The only thing worse than being in an organized and disciplined unit retreating in the brutal winter was to be in mass of terrified men whose units had collapsed.  At every turn the Russians were shooting at the ragged Italian troops, many of whom had dropped their rifles and ammunition because they were too weak to carry them. The Germans cursed them, kicked them, even shot some of the Italians because they wanted them to stand and fight but they refused to give the Italian troops any food or other supplies.

The Sergeant in the Snow  is a memoir like no other because the very idea that Mussolini sent troops to Russia–in the winter– to fight with the Germans is so astonishing, so surprising, and so revealing of the contempt Mussolini had for his own countrymen that just to read the memoir is to be shocked.

 

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Italian self-propelled anti-tank Semovente da 47/32. These vehicles were mainly used by the Italian Army in Russia. The vehicles have open tops so there was little protection against the climate or shrapnel. These lightly armoured vehicles were no match against Soviet tanks and the narrow tracks did not grip in heavy snow rendering them less than helpful in the Russian winter. Soviet tanks had much wider treads with steel spikes which help them move through snow.

Few Italian soldiers were properly clothed to fight in the Russian winter or any severe winter.  The only troops of the Royal Italian Army who were both equipped and trained to fight in anything resembling the brutal cold of Russia were the elite Alpine troops–many of these regiments descended from the Alpine troops of old Hapsburg Empire.  But there were only several division of these soldiers and in the vastness of Russia, what matter were a few divisions of the Italian Alpini anyway?

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Italian POWs in Russia. Most of these men died of disease and starvation.

 

Mussolini and the spineless generals and senior officers of the Royal Italian Army (Italy was still a monarchy) knew that not one of the Italian divisions would ever had enough food. Don’t worry. The Führer would provide. That wasn’t true, of course. The Italian logistics system was almost non-existent and they depended on the Wehrmacht to supply them. Since the Germans barely had enough food for themselves–with much of that having been taken at gunpoint from Russian peasants–they hardly had a surplus to give the Italians.

German commanders were unhappy with the behavior of the Italian soldiers. The Italians wouldn’t shoot prisoners of war or Jews or Communists or anyone really except Russian soldiers and they preferred not to do that.

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Instead of treating the Russians like the sub-humans many (but not all) Germans said them to be, the Italians took up with the Russian village women. Local males had all been murdered by the Germans, sent to be slave laborers in Germany, conscripted into the Red Army or had run away to join the partisans.

The Russian women were lonely. Many were young and beautiful. The soldiers were Italians. Yet the Germans were shocked, shocked I tell you to discover the Italian soldiery were sleeping with the Russian village women instead of terrorizing them. What did they expect? This happened in Germany itself. Italians who had gone to Nazi Germany as “volunteer laborers” or were soldiers temporarily stationed in Germany took up with lonely German women whose husbands were at the front.

MAKING A TRUCE WITH THE PARTISANS: our weapons for your women.

As you might imagine, what annoyed the Germans the most was many Italian units sold their excess arms and ammunition to the Russian partisans in return for food– as long as the partisans didn’t use the weaponry on Italian troops. If the partisans wanted to use Italian weapons to shoot German troops, well, that was a different kettle of fish altogether.

In the last days of the war, Hitler re-evaluated the assistance he had received from his Italian allies:

“Anything would have been better than having the Italians as comrades in arms.” 

Adolf Hitler in his political testament dictated in the several days before he committed suicide on 30 April 1945.

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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