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Sacrifice on the Steppe Book Preview

by Jim H

Alpini on the Don

Every once in a while a new book comes out that really creates a buzz. A recent book on Italian actions in World War Two titled Sacrifice on the Steppe: The Alpine Corps in the Stalingrad Campaign 1942-1943, written by Hope Hamilton and published by Casemate is one such book.

Yesterday, I received an email from Melissa Wright of Casemate, who kindly provided me the author’s press release on this book. I have asked her permission to publish this information and she has kindly agreed. I am looking forward to my copy. Below is an Amazon link if this book interests you.

Press Release for Sacrifice on the Steppe

The impact of Mussolini’s disastrous decision to send Italian troops to Russia during World War II still resonates within Italy. Although historical accounts of the Second World War exist in all languages, this little-known event outside of Italy has received scant attention in most books written in the English language. In Sacrifice On the Steppes, the Italian Alpine Corps in the Stalingrad Campaign 1942-1943, published by Casemate Publishing (908 Darby Road, Havertown, PA 19083), Hope Hamilton provides this first full English language account of one of WWII’s legendary stands against great odds, drawing on interviews, massive research, and written documentation by Italians who survived this tragic conflict.

When Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, his Italian ally Mussolini declared war on Russia and wasted no time to send a hastily organized Italian Expeditionary force of 62,000 men to join the Russian campaign even though Hitler discouraged such a move. Although entirely unprepared militarily, Mussolini meant to be at Hitler’s side partaking of the spoils following an imagined rapid Nazi victory on the eastern front.

The following year he provided even more troops. By late summer of 1942, allied Hungarian and Romanian armies and a force of 227,000 soldiers of the Armata Italiana in Russia the ARMIR (also known as the Italian Eighth Army), aligned along a front on the Don River to protect the left flank of the German assault on Stalingrad. Sixty thousand of these were Alpini, Italian mountain troops serving in three divisions of the Alpine Corps. In November of 1942, the first of three Russian offensives encircled German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. In December, Russian forces smashed through Italian infantry divisions on the lines to the southeast of the Alpine Corps. Although units of one alpine division fought valiantly to protect the remaining two alpine divisions to their north, enemy forces rapidly encircled the entire Alpine Corps necessitating their withdrawal from the Don in January 1943.

This story of Italian troops sent to Russia is tragic, complex, and unsettling, but most of all it is a human story, which the author narrates “from the bottom up”, giving voice to the men who experienced the conflict on the ground. Mussolini sent thousands of poorly equipped soldiers far from their homeland to a country few could have pointed to on a map, on a mission with an unclear mandate to wage war against a people they didn’t consider their enemy. Raw courage and endurance blend with human suffering, desperation, and altruism in the harrowing saga of the withdrawal from the Don lines, the capture, and imprisonment of thousands and survival of the few.

At war’s end, authorities declared 95,000 soldiers of the ARMIR dispersed. By 1946, 10,000 of these returned from a Russian prisoner of war camps, but the fate of most of the remaining 85,000 missing remains unclear to this day, a source of anguish within many Italian families.

Review from Jeff Leser

My copy of ‘Sacrifice on the Steppes’ arrived this last week and was able to finish reading the book yesterday. It is an easy read and is well edited. A plus, given some of the books I have recently slogged through on various topics.

I do recommend the book with the understanding presented below.

The best place to start is what this book is not. It is not a military history of the Alpini Corps in Russia. As always, I first scanned the bibliography before I began reading. There isn’t a single source listed that comes close to being a detailed ‘military history’ of the campaign. The best titles that approach a campaign history are likely are Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943; Faddella’s Storia delle truppe alpine 1872-1972; Messe’s La Guerra al fronto russo; and Valori’s Gli Italiani in Russia. What is noticeably absent are the Italian officials and other titles like Germany and the Second World War.

This highlights the greatest weakness of the book; there isn’t enough solid history to frame what the author presents. I have some knowledge of the events of the ARMIR. in 1942-43 and I had to refer to Le operazione delle unità italiane al fronte russo to understand the history of the narrative and place it within the context of the larger events. For those readers without any background in the Italian military operations in Russia, it will be difficult to follow the action in terms of what is happening. The sparse use of dates (or referring to the 11th day of the withdrawal) also hinders the reader, forcing one to check and recheck to correlate events in time.

What the book does offer is the story of these events through the emotions, perceptions, and feelings as experienced and told by the participants themselves. What Hamilton has done is to paint the Alpini’s experience in Russia for the reader by weaving their diaries, letters, articles, and interviews into a narrative. I would estimate that 2/3 to 3/4 of the text is in the Alpini’s own words. These in themselves are powerful stories, describing the campaign at a level not often provided in military history. The story follows 10-12 men, both officers, and alpini, letting them tell their stories of their experiences in Russia. Interwoven are additional descriptions from those that only left an intermittent record or from those alpini who didn’t survive the war.

This is interesting reading. The alpini discuss a range of topics, from why Italians were serving in Russia, to the inadequate equipment and supplies, their relationship with the Germans and other nation’s troops, and the brutality of the weather among other topics. A constant theme in all the writings by these men is the generosity of the Russian people and the brutality of the Germans, of which the latter is only partially balanced by the recognition of their fighting abilities. 

“[Lieutenant] Vittorio Trentini of the Julia Division recalls entering an izba in an unnamed village with a number of fellow soldiers [sometime between 23-25 January 1943]. The exhausted men were seeking a few hours of warmth and rest. Trentini had lost his gloves and suffered indescribable, piercing pain in his hands. The Russian woman living in the izba gazed at his purple hands. Silently, without speaking, she removed a sheepskin serving as a rug and left the room, returning shortly with two sheepskin mitts she had cut and sewn. “Lovingly she urged me to try them on, smiling once she was certain they fit well. I have kept those mitts; they saved my hands…I shall always remember that dear mother whom I hugged with intense emotion…I shall always remember her with infinite gratitude.” [page 157]

“[Lieutenant] Zavagli tackles ‘the myth of German heroism”. In general, he admits, the Italians had a certain amount of admiration for German soldiers, especially their discipline, their ability in the use of weaponry, and their seeming ease of understanding basic warfare. Referring to “the myth”, Zavagli offers his own opinion of the German soldier who was also capable of “unimaginable cruelty fueled by unlimited egoism and unnecessary ferocity…His egoism trampled enemies and friends indifferently, without mercy, often thoughtlessly. During the withdrawal, after our initial admiration of these [German] groups mixed up with us in a common tragedy, we could observe unlimited wickedness and egoism, causing them to carry out operations that could only be justified by fear, bordering on madness.” [page 161]

“Lieutenant Eugino Corti, Chief Patrol Officer of the 61st Artillery Battalion, Pasubio [one of the original CSIR units] writes about his impressions of the Germans, who withdrew from the Don along with his division in mid-December 1942. “…while on one hand I abhorred the Germans for their inhumanity (which at times disqualified them, in my eyes, from membership in the human family), and for the really trivial haughtiness with which they demonstrated that they considered every other man as an inferior being—born to be exploited and expected to be grateful to his exploiters—I also thanked heaven that were with us there in the column…” Although Corti disliked them, he acknowledged, “As soldiers, they have no equal. Whatever my human aversion to them as a man, it is only right that, as a soldier, I acknowledge this.” [page 189].

The second half of the book covers the Alpini as prisoners of war. This is the part of the war most don’t read about. The narrative paints a living picture of this life which is mostly presented as dispassionate facts in other books. It was the little details that caught me up. When the Russians were taking the best pairs of boots from the Alpini prisoners, two officers traded their left boot figuring [correctly] the Russians wouldn’t take mismatched pairs. The lack of food, miserable living conditions, and the indifference of the Russian military to the prisoners are all highlighted in the stories. This last point is throughout this part of the book. The Russians really didn’t care about the men as prisoners; they were pawns for after the war. The attempts to turn men into Soviet agents after they return home, to learn the names of possible supporters for communism in Italy; all directed toward activities in the postwar period. Even the reparation of the soldiers was delayed to ensure they weren’t home in Italy until after the 1946 elections. This was to prevent them from affecting support for the Italian communist party.

This book is not all about the heroic Alpini; all the participants paint both the light and dark side of the Italian soldier. What I came away with is that the Italian soldier is only human, and in desperate times, they are capable of great feats and inhuman actions.

I recommend this book for what it provides: a personal look at these events. It should change your opinion of the Italian soldier by offering a deeper understanding of their thoughts and feelings.

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