Voloire, which means ‘flying’ in the ancient Piedmont dialect, was the name given in 1831 to the mounted artillery batteries from the mountainous region of the northern Italian peninsula for the speed with which they moved, drew up positions even from a gallop and opened fire. They had been created to function primarily with the cavalry, to be able to follow it on any terrain at any speed and also to support the infantry. After Italian unification, the Voloire became the elite mounted artillery regiment of the Italian army. In 1941 the regiment was part of the force that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini initially contributed to the Axis forces taking part in Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Russia.
One of those who rode into Russia with the Voloire was 23-year-old Albano Castelletto, a lieutenant in the elite artillery regiment. Born in Bologna, Italy, in 1918, Castelletto had studied engineering at Padua before his love of horses motivated him to enlist in the mounted artillery. In the spring of 1941, Castelletto was in garrison in northern Italy when the regiment was alerted to prepare for a grand review for Mussolini. In perhaps one of the last great displays of cavalry ever witnessed, three mounted divisions consisting of more than 10,000 horses and men paraded past the reviewing stand. Following the review, the regiment made final preparations for its journey to the Russian Front. Castelletto’s nephew, Philip Monteleoni, translated this rare first-person account of one Italian’s service in Russia for World War II Magazine.
ON THE DNIEPR
At the end of August 1941, after a train ride from northern Italy to Romania and a long march through the steppe, my unit arrived at the Dniepr River and was deployed, as part of Armored Group Kleist, along its west bank. The 2nd Mounted Artillery Group was assigned to support the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment. I still remember those magnificent soldiers and officers, nearly all of whom fell in the first year of operations, when the regiment was practically destroyed. I was a lieutenant commanding an observation and communications squad in the 2nd Group of the mounted artillery, assigned to a battalion of motorcycle bersaglieri deployed in the suburbs of Dnepropetrovsk. It was a fairly tranquil period, excepting a few salvos fired against enemy artillery. Near our camp was a large industrial zone with numerous large factories already demolished by the Russians before retreating. Out of curiosity, I made my way into some of the ruins to obtain an idea of the degree of Soviet industrialization, of which in Italy little, if anything, was known. Suddenly from one of the buildings a dozen unarmed Soviet soldiers came out with their hands up and saying, ‘Dobry Italianski‘ (‘Good Italians’). I returned to our battalion with the prisoners, and was greeted with great laughter from the bersaglieri.
Actually, in those days entire Soviet units were crossing the river at night to give themselves up, and the bersaglieri had their hands full in registering the names of all these prisoners, some of them officers and noncoms. They were convinced that they would be transferred to Italian prisoner of war camps, but we had no such camps and had to immediately turn prisoners over to the Germans. I still remember some, with tears in their eyes, begging us not to hand them over to the Germans because the rumors had already circulated about the inhuman treatment to which Soviet prisoners were subjected. Naturally, even in the Soviet army scuttlebutt was active, and so, all of a sudden, the arrival of Soviet deserters into our lines ceased.
BEYOND THE DNIEPR
After our stay along the Dniepr, in early October 1941 we crossed the river on a very long barge bridge (over 1 kilometer long) built by our engineers, several times destroyed by Russian artillery and several times rebuilt under enemy fire. Our group crossed fairly peacefully, despite a few large shells whistling overhead and landing, fortunately, in the water. I know however that when the 1st Mounted Group was crossing, a shell hit the bridge squarely, breaking it into two arms. Drawn downstream by the current and pivoting around their respective attachment points, these drifted farther and farther apart. Great credit must be given to the German engineers who, heedless of enemy fire, managed to latch onto the two arms, draw them together and repair the bridge. Our artillerymen on the bridge also deserve credit for maintaining their composure as they calmed the horses, which had become very nervous.
Shortly after the middle of October, when the rains had begun and the dirt paths were becoming almost impassable due to deep and viscous mud, we were organized into four columns and headed toward Stalino. So deep was the mud that the roads were indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. While all the Italian and German motorized units were stuck in the mud, unable to advance, the horse-mounted units were able to keep going. However, we could not count on supplies, which should have followed us on the SPA 38 trucks, which themselves had been stuck in the mud for some days. But while the Savoia Cavalry, one way or another, was able to make progress, the march became a real torture for our artillery batteries. The wheels of the cannons, the carriages and the caissons loaded with munitions sank to the hubs, and the horses sank up to their hocks. Urged on and even whipped, they would rear up and try to advance but could not move. At this point the artillerymen, having left their horses with the horse-bearers, with mud up to their knees, lightened the trunk carriages and caissons by making repeated trips forward carrying crates of ammunition in their arms. Others threw their weight on the spokes of the wheels of the cannons, which obviously could not be made lighter, to help the exhausted teams of horses. Having gotten past the worst stretch and arrived where the mud was less deep, we were able to join up again with the Savoia. Thus the two cavalry columns, supported by the mounted artillery, fighting alone against the Soviet rear guard, were first to reach and occupy the important city of Stalino.
THE FIRST WINTER CAMPAIGN
Winter was now at our doorstep, and it started to snow. Once during our stay in Yassinovatoye, where there was a railroad station, we were fairly astounded by the behavior of a contingent of Finnish volunteers. As soon as they arrived, they jumped down from the rail cars, took off all their clothes and began to roll around in the snow. We Italians were already well bundled up because the temperature was below freezing!
Toward the beginning of November my squad was assigned to a battalion of the 79th Infantry to direct the fire of the mounted artillery in support of the battalion. For various reasons I also found myself directing the fire of the 100mm cannons of the 8th Artillery and a little later also of a battery of 105mm. Meanwhile our fighter-bombers had come on the scene, and the explosions from their bombs added to the bedlam created by our own artillery. And our position was under enemy fire as well.
At a certain point I noticed that a substantial Soviet force was attacking the lancers on the right of our lines. I radioed Lieutenant Bodo, who was commanding the 3rd Mounted, to shift his fire to the right to protect the lancers. He did so immediately. But at that moment a voice on the radio interrupted me, yelling, ‘How dare you shift fire without proper authority?’ I replied, ‘Because in my judgment the lancers, attacked by overwhelming force, need the help of the artillery.’ But the voice, extremely angry, called, ‘This is 33 speaking (I think it was 33, however I do not exactly remember, but I knew that it was the code name of the general commanding the engagement), and I order you not to shift the fire on your initiative, but to limit yourself to your assignment, which is to correct it.’ I replied, ‘Whether you’re 33, 66 or 99 or anything else, get off the line and leave it open because here all hell is breaking loose, and I need to communicate with the batteries.’ The voice went silent and I was able to continue calmly, as it were, to direct the fire until the end of the battle, which opened a breach in the Soviet lines through which the 80th Infantry could surge, after being surrounded. The general later generously forgave me for my rudeness in the heat of battle.
On Christmas Eve 1941, the Russians, believing that the Italians were busy celebrating, attacked our forward positions in great force. These were defended by Italian infantrymen supported by the mounted artillery, whose cannons were abreast of the soldiers. Our stronghold, the village of Krestovka, where the mounted battery was deployed in support of a battalion of Black Shirts (Fascist militia), was attacked by heavy Russian forces, aided by fighter-bombers, which strafed and shelled us, forcing us to lie face down in the snow.
After the air attack I went out on scouting patrol. Realizing the enormous superiority of the enemy and the impossibility of resisting, I radioed headquarters about the gravity of the situation. As the line of resistance of the infantry was falling behind, I was isolated between the retreating troops and the advancing enemy. I radioed the battery command to continue firing, and with my two radiomen I began to retreat. We remained in contact by radio, which, being on a sled, could transmit even while moving. As soon as I reached them, two officers calmly hitched up two of the cannons while the other two kept firing, along with the machine guns. We thus pulled back two cannons at a time, and by alternating fire in this fashion, the entire battery was able to reenter our lines. Two days later our infantry, always supported by the mounted artillery, took back the strongholds we had lost on Christmas.
On January 4, 1942, a violent wind and snowstorm began and the temperature plummeted to minus 47 degrees Celsius, or so we were told since we had no thermometers with a low enough scale. Fortunately we were set up well enough in the houses, the population having been evacuated from the village, with stoves and oil lamps. Outside was another matter. If we didn’t wear earmuffs, our ears felt like they were breaking in two. We could only take our gloves off for a moment. Nose, mouth and forehead were covered, but the freezing wind felt like so many pins were pricking our eyeballs. Tears froze on our eyelids, and beards and mustaches also froze. Without gloves we dared not touch metal objects because the skin of our fingers would stick to them.
The greatest cold weather problem was the machines. The oil in the cannons’ shock absorbers froze, making some pieces unusable. Freezing oil also disabled machine guns and vehicles. As to the horses, although sheltered in a well-sealed barn, their coats had grown so long that they looked like mountain goats. When we took them out for exercise, their coats were covered in ice that had to be removed with a currycomb. Fortunately, the Soviets also must have been suffering from the weather because they were quiet.
From the supply depot, wine frozen into blocks arrived in sacks of jute. After three or four days, the storm let up and the temperature started to slowly rise. According to Russian civilians, the winter of 1941-1942 was one of the coldest, and even the old people did not remember such frigid temperatures. Today I wonder how much more devastating might have been the retreat of 1943 if we had similar temperatures, which I recall as never falling below minus 20 to 22 degrees Celsius.
A FRIEND DIES FOR ME
In front of the village of Malo Orlovka was a small rise around 250 meters beyond our lines, indicated on maps as elevation 296.6; it prevented a good open view toward the enemy. The command decided to build a small lookout station on that hill, to be defended on the right and left by two machine gun emplacements. It was a simple ditch, approximately 3 meters wide by 3 meters long, with a depth of about 2 meters. The pit was paneled with wood planks on the walls and floor and covered with sections of tree trunks crisscrossed and topped off with earth. Facing the Soviet lines, a slot was opened to observe the area in front, and in the rear a door was installed.
In the observation post, heated by a stove, the group’s two observation squads, mine and the one commanded by 2nd Lt. Buzzoni, took turns every 24 hours. The changeover happened early in the morning. The night of February 27, before my turn, I had been very sick, fainting and nauseous. As I was preparing to relieve Buzzoni, Lieutenant Alessandro Santandrea, the group’s adjutant, having heard of my terrible night and seeing me pale and the worse for wear, generously and spontaneously offered to take my place. He reached the observation post, together with my squad. Never, up to that point, had that post been bombarded. On a few nights sporadic attacks of small enemy squads had easily been turned back by the machine guns. But on that morning, who knows why, the Russian artillery zeroed in on that post. While at group command we were trying to understand what was happening, a squad artilleryman arrived in anguish, saying, ‘Run to Lieutenant Santandrea; he has been gravely wounded by a shell.’
We immediately ran to the post, accompanied by a medic, eased the wounded man onto a sled and carried him to headquarters. It seemed that he might rally, but the medical officer, examining the wounds and realizing that numerous shrapnel splinters had punctured the lungs, had to admit that nothing could be done. And after a few minutes our ‘Sandro’ began to bleed from the mouth and the nose and died. He had fallen in my place, generously offering himself for an assignment that was not his duty, so that I could recover better with a few extra hours of rest. It is difficult for anyone who has not found himself in this situation to imagine how desperately sad and overcome I was. A friend of mine and a comrade for these long months of the war had fallen, not doing his duty, but doing mine. Even now, thinking back to that morning, I feel remorse that Sandro fell in my stead.
Spring and summer found us with the Savoia moving forward by long mounted marches in the interminable steppe between the Donets and the Don rivers. It was really hot, often 40 degrees Celsius and above; the only water, brought to us by tanker trucks, was doled out one liter a day for each man, but only one every other day for the horses. When the water arrived the poor animals, who were always thirsty, had to be restrained with great effort so they would drink in small sips to avoid colic.
Toward the end of September the group was assigned to support the Novara Lancers. One day, marching to intercept Soviet units that were withdrawing, we arrived at a village with a large barn. The column commander decided to leave behind some exhausted horses, including the teams of our two caissons, and to proceed with the rest. Captain Bodo charged me with staying in the village that day and night and leaving the next morning to catch up. Instead, early that same afternoon a junior officer arrived with the order to rejoin the column, where my presence might be useful. The same officer would catch up with us the next day.
Having saddled Badesi, my splendid 7-year-old Irish sorrel, I advanced at a trot across the grass plain, following the tracks left by the previous passing of so many horses. But, as often happens in the endless Russian plains where night descends very fast almost without twilight, after little more than three hours I suddenly found myself alone in the dark. No moon, no path and the tracks of the column no longer discernible in the uniform expanse of grass; on my right and on my left I heard automatic weapons fire. Realizing that in those conditions I was more likely to become a Soviet captive than to meet my column, I turned Badesi around and entrusted myself to him. With slack reins, at a gentle trot, after about three hours’ march in the blackest darkness, I found myself in a completely deserted village with all the houses shuttered. But Badesi kept on steadily until he finally stopped in front of a closed door. After some hesitation, not knowing if the village was occupied by Italians or by Russians, I dismounted and with heart pounding I decided to knock. When the door opened I found myself in the barn I had left from, with the horses we had left behind and the artillerymen and lancers who were guarding them. With a huge sigh I embraced the head of my beautiful sorrel, murmuring, ‘Thank you, Badesi.’ Poor friend of mine, who knows what happened to you in the nightmare of the retreat? I will always remember you. You were assigned to me when I arrived at the regiment, and you were my faithful companion in peace and in battle.
The next day I rejoined the column and resumed observation duty. I was with a squadron of the Novara, deployed on an absolutely deserted hill, the closest town more than six kilometers away. We dug holes for ourselves and covered them with beams and dirt to protect us both from the cold at night and the sporadic Soviet artillery salvos. Colonel Albini charged me with finding an observation point from which to locate the enemy cannons and to direct our eventual fire against them. My squad and I mounted. This time my horse was Ural, a light Irish sorrel, almost a palomino, 11 years old. We chose a high spot on the plains, and having confirmed that we had good visibility to the Soviet battery, we dismounted, leaving the horses behind a mound. I radioed our batteries, and having given the coordinates of the Soviet emplacement, I communicated with them to open fire on a false target. After adjusting it, I shifted it onto the real target, striking the Soviet battery dead center.
The two radiomen and I were well stretched out on the grass, but the Soviet spotters quickly realized that the salvos they were receiving were directed from this small hill, and they zeroed in on us with preliminary rounds. By now the squad’s assignment was accomplished, having well adjusted our battery’s fire, and it was time to fall back. Just at that moment a shell came in that exploded near the horses. Poor Ural reared up, desperately neighing, and collapsed to the ground with his intestines falling out, his belly ripped apart. All I could do was to finish him with a pistol shot into his ear and abandon our position, by now spotted. Ural had saved us and the other horses because the shell had exploded directly under his belly and between his legs, so that his body shielded us from much of the shrapnel. I did not even notice that a tiny fragment piercing the glove on my right hand had inserted itself under my skin, where even now it remains as a memento. Twice I had been saved by my horses.
AT THE DON
We arrived at our destination at the Don, and the group was assigned to support the Cuneense Alpine Division as reinforcement for the 4th Regiment of Alpine Artillery. We were at the great bend of the Don at Novaya Kalitva, perhaps the easternmost point of the whole bend.
By now winter had arrived and all was already covered with snow. The Don was iced over, but the temperature remained tolerable, a few degrees above 0 Celsius. Our squad was with the Saluzzo Battalion of the 2nd Alpine Regiment. The Alpini had excavated a true subterranean village: a system of rooms and paths 3 meters deep, all covered and armor protected, where one could comfortably stand up. I spent my days in this comfortable, heated lodging. At night I was in the armor-protected observation post, high up on the steep banks of the Don.
The days went by slowly while we counted down to the end of our tour of duty. We were waiting to finally receive the order to transfer to the regimental base in Schapolnikovo, where the operations for our expected repatriation would begin. And meanwhile I thought to myself that this assignment with the Cuneense would be my last, completing a cycle that began in the summer of 1941. It started with the 3rd Bersaglieri, continued with the motorcycle bersaglieri, Savoia Cavalry, Novara Lancers, the 79th Pasubio Infantry, the 81st Torino Infantry, the Black Shirt Legion, again with Savoia and Novara, then with the German infantry (where our mounted battery so distinguished itself with its promptness and accuracy that the German commander exclaimed to me that ‘Italian artillery is fantastic!’) and then with the Edolo and Tirano Battalion of the 5th Alpini.
However, those last days were not quiet at all, because the iced-over Don could permit Soviet units to cross at any moment. At night all that was needed was for a soldier at any one of the observation posts, ours or Soviet, to see or to think he saw a shadow or maybe something that could have been a fox, for him to start shooting. Immediately from the opposite bank rifles and machine guns would open fire with a great racket, only to die down after a few minutes. A useless waste of ammunition, but it kept all of us in a state of alarm.
From my observation post and from others on my right and on my left, we noticed a great movement of vehicles and troops on the Russian bank. We saw huge flashes of artillery salvos and of Katyushas, multiple truck-mounted rocket launchers. These were not aimed at us, but to our right, where the infantry and the ‘Rapid’ Division were deployed. On our left were the Julia and then the Tridentina divisions and then the Hungarians and Romanians. The other squad leaders and I from our respective observation posts diligently informed the commanders about what we were seeing. We could not imagine that what was happening in front of our lines was the start of that powerful Russian offensive that eventually would practically destroy all the Axis forces deployed along the Don.
On the right and left of the Italian Alpine Army Corps, the Soviets were able by December 10 to break through the Italian, German, Romanian and Hungarian lines, so that the three Alpine divisions remained isolated, unwarned of the situation by the Italian-German supreme command. The command had purposefully kept them in the dark, trusting that the resistance of the Alpini would allow those units that had needed to yield to reorganize themselves. But it was an erroneous hope, because the Soviet avalanche was by now unstoppable.
Translator’s note: All along the front, the Axis forces were pushed back and many of the Italian units were captured. When Castelletto’s unit was forced to surrender, two of his fellow officers shot themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Russians. After his capture, Castelletto and some of his fellow artillerymen were handed over to partisans who force-marched the prisoners toward a concentration camp. For three days the Italians were deprived of food and adequate clothing before they were rescued during an Alpini counterattack.
Although he was no longer a Soviet prisoner, Castelletto and the Alpini were now encircled by the Soviet forces. After a series of desperate battles around Nikolayevka, on January 26, 1943, the Alpini broke out of the encirclement and headed west. At the time of the battle, Radio Moscow reported that ‘Only the Italian Alpini Corps is to be considered unbeaten on the Russian Front.’ The retreat was a nightmare. Castelletto remembered that despair overtook some of the men: ‘What was so sad was to see big fellows, to all appearances strong and healthy, collapsing in the snow and refusing, despite our urgings, to get up. At times I even tried slapping them, but even if they then got up again, staggering, they would go on for a few steps and, in fact, when I looked back I saw them collapse again. Nothing could be done, and so I continued on despondently because we could absolutely not stay behind.’ Fortunately, Castelletto and many of his men eventually reached their own lines. After recovering from his ordeal, he was repatriated to Italy.
This article was written by Albano Castelletto and originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!