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White Devils! "Monte Cervino" Alpine Ski Battalion, 1941-1943

jwsleser

Administrator
Staff member
This is my review of this book. I plan on posting this on Amazon, but will listen to any suggestions to better the review. I am considering 2-3 stars.
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Peirluigi Romeo di Colloredo Mels’s White Devils! “Monte Cervino” Alpine Ski Battalion, 1941-1943 is the first English language book on this highly decorated Italian unit that fought during the Second World War. It is story worth telling, yet this book fails more than it succeeds.

Disclaimer: I have researched the battaglione alpini sciatori « Monte Cervino » for several decades and possess nearly all the listed sources in the bibliography on pages 97-98. It is my long-term interest in the « Cervino » that found me purchasing this book.

The text is sparse and the presentation of the history of the unit is very uneven. Given the subtitle is “Photos & Images form the World Wartime Archives”, the sparse text is expected as this book is meant to be mainly a visual presented of the unit. But the text is very difficult to follow and doesn’t position the reader to understand the few events described. The battalion’s entire time in Greece is covered in less than two pages (10-11) , yet the conditions under which the ‘cervinotti’ fought are not given to the reader. The Mali Treshines was a steep, long ridge that was 1923m high. In January-February 1941, Greece was undergoing its worst winter in decades. The Mali Treshines was constantly wind swept and the rocky surface offered no protection from freezing temperatures or the snow/sheet combinations of weather that stopped the fighting for many days. The 'cervinotti' manned a line along crest, unable to dig fighting positions, and slept in makeshift shelters 100-200m below the crest that provided a little protection against the weather. Men using their blankets and shelter sections would sleep huddled together, often awakening to the snow and ice that encased them during the night. Tents that were upright during the day were often blown down or collapsed by snow/ice during the night. In all this were the Greeks, often attacking this 320 man battalion with several battalions of 1,000-2,000 men. The « Cervino » was finally withdrawn on 27 March due to losses. Of the 320 men that initially held the line on 18 January, only 49 came down off the ridge for rest. Called back onto the front line on 5 March, the battalion held a section of the Mali Schendeli, a twin ridge to the Mali Treshines. When the campaign was finally over, only 152 men returned to Italy. The section on Russia is similar, with some highlights provided but the narrative never gives a solid, flowing overview of the actions of the « Monte Cervino » during that time period.

There are numerous factual errors. The « Cervino » was never issued the Carcano M91 Truppe Speciale (TS) (page 22). The main weapon was always the M91/38 moschetto da cavalleria (cavalry carbine). Forty MAB 38A were issued for Russia, not twenty as stated on page 21. In fact, the armament list on p.21 is full of errors, partially due to poor translation from Italian to English (more on this below). The Breda 37 was a weapon assigned to the 80º compagnia acc. and not part of the « Cervino » when formed for Russia (p.21); being celibate was not a requirement (p.22); the long pants were not skier’s pants but pantaloni da paracadutisti (paratrooper) M41 (p.22); the battalion was never intended to go to Finland (p.22-23), but was mobilized as the reconnaissance unit for the Corpo Spedizione Italiano in Russia (CSIR); the battalion wasn’t a reparto d’assalto (assault unit), but was authorized to carry the fascist combat knife due to training for small raids and as a mark of elite status; the Vibram ski boots were first worn in Greece at the instance of maggiore Gustavo Zanelli (he actually developed the boot); he was the first commander of the battalion and set the standard for equipping the battalion, he led it in Greece, and is never mentioned in this book. The scarponi con soule Vibram became the defining uniform element of the battalion.

The book suffers from poor computer translation from Italian to English. Reparto is translated as department instead of unit. Fucili mitragliatori is translated as submachine guns instead of light machine guns. Pista is translated as ‘Stay Away’ instead of the traditional downhill skier’s cry of ‘make way’ or ‘coming through’. Compagnia armi d’accompagnamento is translated as accompanying weapons instead of weapons support company. This latter error is made worst as the author uses the abbreviation AA in subsequent mentions which is anti-aircraft in English, instead of the Italian cp. acc. Use of personal pronouns he/she instead of it. Calling the unit ‘Matterhorn’ (the correct translation for Monte Cervino) instead of the unit’s Italian name in the picture captions is odd to my reading. Awkward phrasing can challenge readers not familiar with the unit’s history or the various campaigns. I have seen all these translation errors when using computer programs without proofreading.

The pictures are the core of the book, and here it is a mixed bag. Pictures of the « Cervino » in Greece are rare; the weather, nearly constant combat, and physical deterioration of the men likely limited those who could take pictures. Of the ten pictures of the battalion in Greece, only one is of the « Cervino ». None of the pictures in Cossard’s excellent Il battaglione sciatori « Monte Cervino » sul fronte Greco-Albanese are featured in this book. The other pictures are of different alpini battalions and are likely taken after the campaign was over. On the other hand, the pictures of the battalion in Russia are numerous and generally excellent. I believe several are stills taken from the various LUCE films made in Russia. Many of the pictures feature the 80º cp. acc., both in training prior to departing for Russia and of the company during the advance to the Don.

In all, ‘White Devils’ can give English readers a taste for this truly amazing unit, but falls short of providing a solid history. The Osprey book Italian Army Elite Units & Special Forces 1940-1943 provides a short but readable historical overview. I believe the Osprey book is a major source for White Devils as the few odd errors in the former are seen in the latter.
 

DrG

Member
The author has published too many books in a short time span. Whenever I read something by him it's plagued with typos and erratic organization of the text: I fear he never re-reads and checks what he has written. He is surely a clever and gifted scholar (he is much better when he writes short articles, and has a wide culture), but he lacks focus when he works on longer essays and I don't remember him making use of archival sources.
 

jwsleser

Administrator
Staff member
DrG

No archival sources are listed. He doesn't list either Ruffo's Lo sci nell'Esercito Italiano dal 1896 ad oggi or Bertone's biography of Lamberti (Giuseppe Lamberti alpino ribella) as a source. He uses many quotes, but none are cited. If he actually read Viazzi's or Longo's books (both listed), many of the errors would have been avoided. Very disappointing as he had all the information needed in the books he listed. This has all the signs of a very quick book by an author who wasn't that interested in the topic.
 

1089maul

Member
Jeff,
I wasn’t aware of this book and have just ordered it. Will read it and review the osprey book which I have and update this thread in due course.
Regards,
Bob
 

jwsleser

Administrator
Staff member
Bob

I will be interested in reading your opinion of the book.

v/r Jeff
 

1089maul

Member
Jeff,
I have now read the book. First thing to say Jeff is that you are an expert on the Monte Cervino and I have read it with little knowledge. I was hoping that I would learn a great deal but this wasn’t the case. But that could possibly be the fact that this book is advertised as photos and images from archives.
The forward written by the Lieutenant Colonel was interesting and wetted my appetite for what was coming. Oh dear, the fact that Lieutenant was spelt wrong should have warned me.
Even the very first page was difficult to read due to its style and grammar errors. This continued throughout. I am somewhat surprised that an author and a publisher would allow a book to be printed in such a manner.
This really spoilt the written content some of which is even more worthless when one considers the points raised by you Jeff. I finished the book without gaining a good knowledge of this battalion. Can I give it any praise. Possibly the photographs. There is plenty of interesting photographs but not of a great quality. What let them down was the lack, in some cases, of information in the captions. I liked the photographs of named individuals with information provided. The individual memories of soldiers were also interesting.
Would I recommend, possibly. This is one of a series books but if their quality is the same as this one then I won’t bother.
I would give it two stars.
Regards to all,
Bob
PS Jeff, Did Italy ever raise a battalion of single soldiers or who were celibate????
 
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