A Family Memoir Brings Italy’s Eastern Front Tragedy to Light

By Gene Santoro
6/2/2011 • World War II Conversations

Ten years ago, retired teacher Hope Hamilton began a memoir about her two Italian uncles that turned into a groundbreaking book. Sacrifice on the Steppe: The Italian Alpine Corps in the Stalingrad Campaign 1942–43 is the first comprehensive exploration in English of the corps’ horrific experience. Fluent in Italian, Hamilton used interviews, diaries, and other neglected sources. “I wanted to tell this from the bottom up,” she says. “A wide range of emotions emerged in my interviews. Veterans said it was rare to speak about experiences in Russia. Some said, ‘No one would believe us!’”

Your uncles were mountain soldiers—Alpini.
They were second lieutenants, drafted like regular soldiers, then given the chance to become officers because they were university students with more privileged backgrounds than the mountain villagers they led. They were sent to fight in the Caucasus, but when Hitler decided to attack the Caucasus and Stalingrad at the same time, he sent the three Alpini divisions to the Don River. Some Alpini marched 190 miles, some 450; the Tridentina Division marched 800.

How many Italians were at Stalingrad?
There were 227,000 on the Germans’ left flank—170 miles as the crow flies, more because the Don twists. They were spread extremely thin, with a tiny mobile reserve force and gaps everywhere. They had very few trucks, and weapons from the First World War. Only 60,000 were Alpini. The rest were infantry, far less trained and equipped, with summer uniforms meant for Africa.

Where was your uncle Nello Corti?
With the Julia Division. In December 1942, the Russians broke through the Italian infantry lines southeast of the Alpini Corps. The Julia was sent southward to protect their flank. Nello was marching to Ivanovka when one of his Alpini asked, “What are we doing here?” Nello kept asking himself that during the month-long battle. They were defending a line in the snow; there was no way to dig a refuge, no protection. Gradually he realized this was a dirty war with no point.

What made him feel that way?
Like many Italians, he empathized with the Russians. He admired how they fought for their motherland, with everything they had. Human waves of Russians were mowed down, then more came. Many were drunk. Commissars behind them shot them if they stopped. It was amazing the Alpini could hold the line, but they didn’t give an inch.

How did they view the Germans?
Most disliked them. Many Alpini had fathers who fought against Germany in the First World War. Going through Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, they saw how the Germans treated people, especially Jews, how they took over civilians’ homes and food, and starved prisoners. They quickly realized they were fighting a war for Greater Germany; it was not their war. The Germans were so ruthless, it made the Italians more empathetic to Russians than their own allies.

For example?
In the villages near the front there were only women and children and the elderly. The Russians needed food and the Italians baked their own bread, even on the Don. So the women did their laundry or gave them eggs in exchange. The Russians were as curious about the Italians as the Italians were about them, and liked them. They would yell “Italiani chorosho” (Italians are good). They fed and hid Italians even during the withdrawal. Russian soldiers gave themselves up to the Italians, knowing that German POW camps were death camps. The Italians avoided handing them over to the Germans, though they were supposed to do that immediately.

How did the Germans treat the Italians?
For the most part, with arrogance and disdain. They thought of Italians as Untermenschen (inferior people). The Germans never gave them information until the last minute—if then. It only got worse during the fighting on the Don. They complained the Italians didn’t perform well, though without better equipment and communication it’s hard to see how they could have done any better.

How was your uncle Nello wounded?
In a southern battle in December, checking out an outpost the Germans abandoned without telling the Alpini. He was shot in the arm and continued fighting; his hand was paralyzed, which he didn’t realize yet. Eventually he was sent to Kharkov on a hospital train, then weeks later to a hospital in Senigallia, Italy. When he arrived, he just about threw up from the stench. He passed bins of gangrenous limbs. Soldiers had wound dressings that hadn’t been changed since Kharkov. One peasant farmer had his fingers amputated with pliers.

Meanwhile, the Red Army was encircling Stalingrad.
Nello was lucky: the Julia division was almost annihilated. So was the Cuneense, which my uncle Veniero Marsan was in. There were 4,000 men left in January, when they walked unknowingly into Russian-held territory at Valuiki. There was no air reconnaissance. None of their radios worked. The Germans didn’t tell them the Russians were there. The Tridentina trekked cross country through the snow in subzero temperatures for 150 miles in 12 16-hour days, and fought 20 battles. Many of them escaped. Unorganized bands of Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, and civilians attached themselves to the Tridentina in a column almost 20 miles long, about 100,000 men. In order to fight, the Alpini had to set up roadblocks to hold this column back. It was a chaotic mess.

What happened to Italian POWs?
Veniero was among 70,000 men captured at Valuiki on January 27, 1943. Some went to camps on trains; most went on foot in snow and subzero temperatures without food. Whether you survived depended on who you were with: a lieutenant named Vincentini tried to keep the Russians from shooting stragglers by pacing himself to the slowest. Often at night there was no shelter. They finally got hot food on February 20.

How were the trains?
They were cattle cars or freight cars with one tiny window and no sanitary facilities, no water, no heat. Veniero was on one. They stopped regularly in the middle of nowhere. Periodically the Russians came to remove the dead. Many men suffered from frostbite and gangrene. Sometimes they were allowed to get a bucket of water or snow. They drank urine. Some men were in these trains for 25 days. They talked a lot—about food, the past, poetry, books, anything to distract from hunger and stench and cold and lice.

Your uncle ended up at Khrinovoje, a temporary POW camp.
Twenty thousand died there. They sifted their feces to find millet seeds, when they weren’t eating garbage. They dragged the dead to pits and buried them in mass graves. Some Italians pulled gold teeth from the corpses; morale and solidarity decayed as they starved. Finally they were moved to sorting camps, then labor camps, and were better fed and taken care of. Veniero went to Suzdal.

What was that like?
It was for officers: Hungarians, Germans, Romanians, a few Spaniards and Finns, and 700 Italians. Veniero saw the tensions between Italian Fascists, anti-Fascists, and Communists. The Fascists greeted each other with the Roman salute. The NKVD ran reeducation programs constantly. Most Italians were telling stories, playing cards, and making things to swap with peasants for eggs and tobacco. Cobblers made shoes for the commandant’s wife and her friends; they ate well.

When did the soldiers come home?
Some came back in March 1945, the rest as late as fall 1946. Many wrote on their boxcars “abbasso comunismo” (down with communism), but many Italians greeted the trains with red hammer-and-sickle flags. There were a lot of brawls. In some places, like Rome, their return was kept quiet. They got no official recognition. Only 14 out of every 100 made it home. The rest, called dispersi, disappeared without a trace. It’s a sad ending.

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