The Italian armored component on the Russian front

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

On June 22, 1941, the Armed Forces of the Third Reich began the so-called "Operation Barbarossa", the full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union. During what became the bloodiest and most contested military campaign of all time, the Germans did not act alone but obtained significant aid from their European allies.

Italy was engaged on the "Eastern Front" from the summer of 1941 until the beginning of 1943, first with the sending of Italian expeditionary force in Russia (CSIR), about 62.000 men strong, under the command of General Giovanni Messe, later expanded into theItalian army in Russia (ARMIR), aligning 230.000 men under the command of General Italo Gariboldi.

Much has been written about the epic and tragedy of the Italian soldiers who fought and died (often in atrocious conditions) in that inhospitable part of the world. However, among the many pages dedicated to the Alpini, to the cavalry departments, to the rapid and infantry units, little if anything has been written in relation to the Italian armored component employed there. The reason for this "omission" is soon apparent; in fact, this use was absolutely minimal, if not ridiculous.

Italy had entered World War II with the smallest and least technologically advanced armored force of all the major powers in the war. Even states of lesser importance (such as Hungary) managed to produce vehicles with more reliable mechanics than the Italian ones.

Not only was Italian industry never able to equip the Royal Army with state-of-the-art means, but it even struggled to keep pace from a quantitative point of view given that only a few thousand (or even a few hundred) of our armored vehicles were produced ) of specimens. The massive employment required by the needs of the Balkan Front and the North African Front meant that there simply were not available that "operational residues" of little value for the Eastern Front.

When the CSIR was finally ready to move against the Soviet Union, the only armored element it had at its disposal was the III armored group "San Giorgio" of the 3a "Principe Amedeo Duca d'Aosta" rapid division, part of the CSIR Rapid Corps, which lined up 61 light tanks (or tankettes) CV-35 (also known as L3/35).

The long marches, the rugged terrain and the immensity of the territories to cross, proved to be obstacles for the light tanks and their tankers as difficult as the enemies in flesh and blood. The reduced weight, the practically non-existent armor and the armament limited to two 8mm light machine guns soon exposed our men to bloody lessons, even in the context of the victorious advance of 1941 and the subsequent winter resistance.

By the spring of 1942 the few surviving CV-35s were so worn out that they had to be taken out of service and replaced by new ones. With the reinforcements and subsequent transformation of the CSIR into ARMIR, the aforementioned 3a rapid division incorporated the LXVII Bersaglieri battalion, equipped with two companies of L6/40 light tanks (60 tanks in all) and the XIII self-propelled group of the XIV "Cavalleggeri di Alessandria" regiment, equipped with two squadrons of L40 Semovente assault guns 47/32.

However, the description of the armored vehicles available to ARMIR would not be complete if a small number of T-34 tanks taken from the Soviets during the battles of 1941-1942 and put back into service were not mentioned, in particular in the ranks of the LXII group. CXX artillery regiment. It should be added, however, that ours always employed the T-34s with extreme caution, given the high danger of fratricidal clashes with the crew of the German anti-tank guns.

After a summer and an autumn of advances and bloody defensive fighting along the bend of the Don, the sparse Italian armored formations were fully invested by the impetus of the "Little Saturn" offensive (begun on December 16th), launched by the Soviet forces against the Axis forces garrisoned along the bend of the Don and the southern course of the Volga, on either side of the 6a Paulus' army engaged in house-to-house fighting in Stalingrad. The LXVII Bersaglieri Battalion was completely destroyed in the fighting around the villages of Arbuzovka and Boguchar on 21-25 December. The surviving elements of the Italian armored formations were then destroyed during the Ostrogozhsk-Rossosh offensive launched by the Soviets in the period between 13 and 27 January 1943 and which led to the final crash of what remained of the ARMIR.

Originally, Mussolini and the Italian high command had foreseen a further strengthening of the ARMIR for the year 1943 and the sending of other armored units but the twin catastrophic defeats of the bend of the Don and of North Africa put an end to any further ambitions and Italy opted for the withdrawal of the survivors of the betrayed army who, once back home, openly accused Mussolini and Hitler of their miseries and contributed with their simple degraded appearance to further precipitate the popularity of the Duce and the "cause" Of the war.

When compared to the titanic clashes between German and Soviet armored vehicles on the Eastern Front throughout the period from 1941 to 1945, the use of Italian armored vehicles in the lands of Eastern Europe appears to be very little. However it must always be present in front of our eyes as example of carelessness that too often prompted the Italian political and military elites to sacrifice our best men in a villainous way without them being adequately equipped to cope with the mission assigned to them.

Photo: Online / web defense