Thursday, 31 December 2015

Mussonlini’s Death March: Eyewitness Accounts of Italian Soldiers on the Eastern Front - Nuto Revelli

This review was submitted to Army History Magazine.

Title: Mussonlini’s Death March: Eyewitness Accounts of Italian Soldiers on the Eastern Front
Author: Nuto Revelli
ISBN: 978-0-7006-1908-5
Pages: 540
Illustrations: 2 maps
Publisher: University of Kansas Press

                When one considers the war on the Eastern Front, it is very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the war was exclusively between the Germans and Soviets (with a smattering of other nations). This is far from the truth; other nations provided significant forces operating under their own command and control, to the struggles in the East. The Italians provided an expeditionary army known as ARMIR (Italian Army in Russia and later the Italian 8th Army) consisting of a total of approximately 230,000 men. A vast majority of them (150,000) operated along the Don River and were thus overwhelmed by the Russian Operation Uranus (the code name for the overall operation in Stalingrad) in Dec 1942; of this total the Italians suffered 85,000 dead or missing and 27,000 wounded or frostbitten. An additional tragedy for the Italian servicemen was that, following the end of the war 10,000 prisoners were returned in either 1945 or 1946 by the Soviets (even though Italy had surrendered in 1943).

                Following the cessation of hostilities, Italy succumbed to a significant amount of internal upheaval as it struggled to emerge from the shadow of fascism and the extensive amount of destruction wrought by the war. Central to this were the struggles between the supporters of communism and capitalism. Veterans were therefore treated with varying degrees of disdain depending upon who they were dealing with in government.

Nuto Revelli was a veteran of the Eastern front; a veteran who escaped capture by the Russians and became a partisan following Italy’s surrender. A resident of the Cuneo region of Northwestern Italy, he was a member of the elite Alpini; divisions trained for conflict in the rugged mountains of Italy’s northern border. He became a professional historian after the war and decided that the story of Italy’s efforts, as related by the soldiers that fought, was lacking. He therefore interviewed 43 veterans of his region, all having experienced combat on the Eastern front and transcribed their stories verbatim. Originally collected and printed in Italian in 1966, the text has been translated by John Penuel for a reissue in English for the first time.

                There are a number of lessons which may be gleaned from the writings provided and it must be emphasized that the texts are all from the perspective of, for the most part, private and junior NCO soldiers (there are two officers, a lieutenant and a captain also included). They therefore did not have access to high level planning, strategy or visibility. Thus their views are quite narrow in keeping with what they were exposed to; but very telling in what they recall and what was of significance to them:

1.       Logistics at most levels of engagement were disastrous. Soldiers did not receive proper food or clothing to the point where, even within the Italian peninsula, there were still multiple cases of having to ‘live off of the land’. Uniforms and footwear were inadequate for conditions and were of poor quality. Mail delivery was inadequate and unreliable. The entire logistics system of the Italian military appears (from the perspective of the soldiers involved) to have been extremely tenuous and quickly failed under the pressure of the Russian campaign.

2.       Utilization of the forces in question was inappropriate. The divisions of the Alpini were trained and equipped to operate in mountainous conditions, not as general infantry. Thus their equipment (ie mountain artillery), training and expertise was not only misapplied but inadequate to deal with the equipment and numbers of the Soviet forces facing them.

3.       Leadership was found wanting within the Italian military as was training. As a general rule, officers did not mix with the soldiers and information regarding locations, destinations and conditions were withheld from the troops. Thus they lacked not only situational awareness but trust in their chains of command.  

4.       There was significant animosity and mistrust between the Germans and the Italians even during the period that they were allies. This perception of being the weaker of the allies and the condescension with which the Germans treated them did not promote harmony or develop common goals and visions. The Italian perception as they deployed for Russia was that Germany will have taken care of a vast majority of the fighting.

5.       Transport was very poor for the Italians. The Germans had requested “truck transported” units. The Italians provided “truck transportable” units meaning that they were trained to move by vehicle but had no integral transport equipment. This resulted in long marches, frostbite and soldiers that were both exhausted and suffering from terrible morale.

6.       Post war Italy was more interested in moving forward then caring for their injured, repatriating soldiers. The soldiers were eligible for multiple war pensions but the process and timeline set up by the government to have them actioned was so convoluted and inefficient that many were still not receiving money ten years following their return.

This is not an easy book to read. Notwithstanding the impact of the raw testimony from the survivors that, in itself, strains one’s ability to comprehend, the reader certainly feels the extent of the resignation to their individual fates. They have lost the passions of youth and have been crushed by fate and circumstance.

This book is also very difficult to read because of the style of the presentation. Because the testimony of the veterans is presented verbatim with very little editing, it is at times hard to follow and understand. This style is a two edged sword as it presents with deep legitimacy but also, lacking in context, it can be somewhat confusing.

Overall, this is a very moving work to the sacrifices of the Italian soldier on the Eastern front. It does not look at strategy or operational success and failure; it serves merely as a medium by which the soldier can tell his story. It provides very interesting insight into the experiences of these men in captivity and their reception upon repatriation and, additionally, what they anticipated going into Russia. The production value of the book is high and the translation from Italian very good. It is a work that should be read in conjunction with an operational history of the Italian Expeditionary Army in order to assist with context. 

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