The Isbuscenskij Charge, complete with drawn sabers, hand grenades, and white gloves, occurred on 24 August 1942 on the banks of the Don River. Approximately 650 cavalrymen of the Savoia Cavalry (3rd) charged a 3,000 man Soviet infantry regiment encircling them. It is considered the last Italian cavalry charge using a horse regiment against an enemy formation (1).
Background on the Savoia Cavalry 3rd Regiment
The 3rd Regiment Savoia Cavalry (Savoia Cavalleria) is one of the most ancient and glorious Italian units. Vittorio Amedeo II, Duke of Savoy and future King of Sardinia, formed the unit in 1692.
The 3rd Regiment Savoia Cavalry participated in 18th-century succession wars but dissolved in 1799 after the Savoia family’s exile in Sardinia. It became reconstituted by Vittorio Emanuele I in 1814. It participated in the wars of the Risorgimento, entering Rome on 20 September 1870 and Udine on 3 November 1918.
World War Two
The 3rd Regiment Savoia Cavalry’s participation in World War 2 commenced in Yugoslavia in June-July 1941 with the Celere Army Corps of General Pecetti Weiss. However, the regiment was re-deployed as part of the CSIR (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia) of General Messe. They accompanied the Turin and Pasubio Divisions, the 5th Regiment “Lanceri di Novara and 2,000 Blackshirts from Tagliamento Legion.
After a short period in cantonment at Lonigo, Vicenza, the unit transferred to Romania by train and traveled on horseback to the Carpathians, Moldova, Bessarabia, and Ukraine. They traveled 1,200km in 35 days. The men remained on the saddle for 8-10 hours a day.
At the end of September, the regiment arrived on the banks of the Dnieper. On 25 October, it took part in the conquest and occupation of Stalino with the 3rd Regiment Bersaglieri and the German 11th Army.
The following spring, the Regiment traveled another 400 km, and 11 July 1942 arrived on the banks of Don Rivier. The 3rd Regiment Savoia Cavalry attached to the Celere division “Principe Amedeo d’Aosta,” of XXXV Corps and the 8th Army (Italian Army in Russia ARMIR) of General Italo Gariboldi.
The experience on the Russian front clearly showed the Italian M91 rifle as inferior to the Soviet automatic and semiautomatic guns. The command decided to replace their sabers with weapons stolen inside the Cossack area.
On 19 August 1942, the Soviet counter-offensive began with the liberation of the town of Simovskij and the retreat of infantry units at the front. On the 20th, a detachment led by Lieutenant Conforti joined the Legion Tagliamento to give a hand to the 2nd Infantry Division Sforzesca positioned near Bobrowskij and Tschebokarevskij. The regiment needed to contain the enemy’s offensive and, if possible, push it beyond the Don.
After four days on horseback under the command of Colonel Count Alessandro Bettoni di Cazzago, the Regiment positioned itself on a hill at an altitude of 231.5 meters north of Cebotarevskij in order not to be caught by surprise. The Regiment arranged itself in a defensive position.
It was 0330 AM on Oct. 24, a recon patrol of six troopers under the command of Sergeant Comolli, who reported the Soviets had partly surrounded the outpost. The Soviets hid among the surrounding sunflower fields with their machine guns surrounding the cavalry on the right and left. Other Italian troops were 50 km away.
Colonel Count Alessandro Bettoni di Cazzago decided to attack the enemy forces head-on. A successful charge would allow the Italians to complete an orderly withdrawal back across the Don River.
The 2nd Squadron under Captain F. De Leone was the first to charge towards the left flank. Major Manusardi, commander of the 1st Squadron Group (1st and 2nd Sq) and superior in rank, wanted to join in the action. Manusardi told Leone, “A saber more to your orders.” At this point, Soviet machine-gun fire mowed down Captain Leone’s horse, and Manusardi assumed the lead.
The Russians, initially surprised, quickly reorganized themselves. Manusardi ordered his ranks for a second charge. When the sun rose high, the 4th Squadron assumed the charge under Captain Silvano Abba, a former Olympian athlete. The Soviets killed many horses as the assault commenced. Savoia cavalrymen dismounted and initiated close-combat against the Soviets. The struggle cost Captain Abba’s life.
Bettoni realized the Soviets were in chaos. He ordered a full-frontal assault with the 3rd Squadron of Captain Francesco Marchio. Meanwhile, the 1st, led by Captain Aragona, occupied the enemy’s attention with gunfire.
Italian journalist, Osvaldo Pagani, present during the conflict, stated it was “Almost a folly.” Captain Marchio lost his arms almost immediately. Major Alberto Litta Modigliani, Group Commander of the 2nd Squadron, 3rd, and 4th Sq, remained on foot and wounded.
Reports state Major Modigliani rose back to his feet, drew his sword, and pointed it to the direction of charge. This act energized the soldiers to continue the attack. Cavalry charges continued one after another, and Colonel Bettoni finally reached the second line of enemy defenses.
Results and Aftermath
The squadrons captured the Soviet battalion headquarters, seizing the officers and the political commissar. At 0930 AM, the battle was over. The Regiment regained the Don. The cavalry charge cost the Italians 32 killed, including three officers, and 52 wounded. Russian deaths amounted to 150 dead, 300 wounded, and about 500 prisoners. Gariboldi distributed two Gold Medals of Military Valor to Modignani and Abba. A total of 54 silver medals of Military Valor issued other personnel of the Savoia Cavalleria.
The Luce Institute (an acronym for the Educational Union Film Festival) had the Regiment reenact the Isbuscenskij Charge that October for the benefit of newsreels and propaganda.
The gains achieved at the Don perished during the Russian “Operation Uranus” of November-December: Soviet forces surrounded the German VI° Army at Stalingrad. The Italian, Rumanian and Hungarian troops conducted a disastrous retreat. Some of whom fell victim to distressing imprisonment and death.
The “Savoia Cavalleria” returned to Italy in spring 1943 at Castel Guelfo and Castel S. Pietro in the Emilia Romagna region, near Bologna. After the armistice, it disbanded on September 15, as it was impossible to cross the lines and to reach the new government in Brindisi. The regimental standard, decorated with the Gold Medal for the bravery, remained in Bettoni’s hands until given to King Umberto II, who lay in exile at the Portuguese town of Cascais.
(1) The Battle of Poloj on 17 October 1942 was the last Italian cavalry charge utilizing horses. The 14th Light Cavalry Regiment “Cavalleggeri di Alessandria” charged Yugoslav Communist partisans.