The XXX Battaglione Guastatori, part of the Italian 8th Armata (ARMIR, Armata Italiana in Russia) was deployed on the lower River Don late in September 1942. During the Soviet winter counter-offensives north and south of Stalingrad, this was to be one of the many Italian units to be surrounded and destroyed north-west of the city. On 13 January 1943 the Red Army’s Voronezh and South-West Fronts launched Operation Little Saturn against the positions held by the ARMIR; the following day the XXX Battaglione was deployed along with other units (including the Monte Cervino Alpini battalion – see below) in defence of the HQ of the Corpo d’Armata Alpino at Rossosh. On 15 January a Soviet tank column attacked the army corps HQ, and the XXX Battaglione lost some 160 men before withdrawing westwards with the rest of the corps. On 27 January its men were part of a column that attacked and seized Nikolayevka, thus opening the road for the withdrawal west, but at a high price. The following day, when the column made contact with German forces, there were just 121 men left out of the 480 Guastatori who had been on the battalion strength on 1 January.
At sunset, Jan 25th, 1943, the Tridentina column arrived in Nikitowka. The Command decided, in order to find enough suitable places for the fighting troops to sleep and to prepare for the following fights (it was known that at Nikolajewka there were the Soviets) to have the following units continue the march towards Nikolajewka and to stop for the night at the small village of Terinkina.
These units were: “Verona” Btl., “Val Chiese” (only the 255th Cp) Btl., the remnants of the “Vestone” Btl, (these three Btls formed the 6th Alpini Regiment that had formed during all the retreat the infantry part of the lead of the column and, consequently, had always faced the hardest fighting) 32nd Battery of “Bergamo” Group plus some Germans with a couple of Stug IIIs and some Artillery.
At Arnautowo, a small village placed between Terinkina and Nikitowka, a little bit on the right of the “road” that leads from Nikitowka towards Terinkina and Nikolajewka, found place for the night the following units (also part of the lead of the column): 253rd, 254th and 112nd Heavy Weapon Company’s of “Val Chiese” Btl., 33rd Battery of Bergamo Group, a platoon of the XXX Combat Sapper Btl., and the “food and ammunition” unit.
The Command and the rest of the column units remained at the bigger village of Nikitowka. Of the other “Tridentina” Alpini Regiment, the 5th, only two Btls. remained: “Edolo” and “Tirano”, having the third one, the “Morbegno” being destroyed at Warwarowka in the succesfull attempt of blocking a very strong Russian armoured unit that was trying to break the right flank of the column, aimed at dividing the column in several smaller pieces.
At about 24:00, Jan 25th, the Soviets attacked Arnautowo, with the usual goal of dividing the Tridentina column. For more than 5 hours, the Alpini in Arnautowo fought one of the hardest, albeit lesser known, battles of the retreat. It was really a desperate fight, with continuous counterattacks against tanks and heavy mortar fire. When ammunition began to run out, they fought with their bayonets, knowing only too well what the Russian’s aim was and consequently trying their best to avoid it. Finally, warned by dispatch riders, from Nikitowka the “Tirano” Btl. was sent to help the units in Arnautowo. It arrived there about at 05:00, Jan 26th, when only a few bunch of desperates were still alive and fighting there. The “Tirano” attacked and sustained there its last combat as a Btl sized unit (hundreds of casualties) but was able to keep the “road” open for the rest of the column and to make the Russian flee. As soon as the Soviets saw the column leaving Nikitowka, they tried to encircle them there and so another battle began there.
Meanwhile (early hours of Jan 26th) from Terinkina the units stationed there moved, in accordance with the plan decided the evening before, towards Nikolajewka. This village was on the bottom of a rather large “balka” (sort of a valley). The Alpini arrived there having the village down on their left. Between them and the village several hundred meters of open terrain and, above all, the railroad embankment.
Lt. Col. Policarpo Chierici, CO of “Val Chiese” Btl and Commander of the lead of the column, carefully displaced his (scarce) troops and took quite a lot of time studying the best way to move the attack. He took this time because, even if he was ordered to attack at dawn, he knew of the battle at Arnautowo that was preventing the troops placed there to enter the battle at Nikolajewka as foreseen the evening before and, above all, was preventing the rest of the division to be able to reach the place in time to give help in the battle, that, considering the Russian’s strength and the terrain, was going to be a very hard one.
But this was his delaying tactic that he decided with the complete accordance of the other present officers, Germans included. During this briefing it was also decided to place the Artillery in open, in order to try to suppress with direct fire the huge quantity of PAK, mortars and artillery of the Soviets in the village. Orders are orders and his men (and himself) were beginning to freeze alive, having to stand still in the snow.
So the attack was ordered and began. The first obstacle (the railway) was pretty soon got over by foot troops, not by the German armour, due to the very intense Russian PAK that was blocking the only underpass through the railway*.
The most advanced units managed to reach the houses near the Church of the Village and the Station. There they began to take a hell of a fire from the Soviets and, worst thing; they were beginning to be short of ammo (and men). So desperate requests of ammo and reinforcements began to reach Lt. Col. Chierici by means of dispatch riders.
It was the first hours of Jan 26th afternoon. The only reinforcement at hand were artillery men and the personnel of the mule column. It was decided to organize a company with them and to send them in the Village.
When this was done, Gens. Reverberi and Nasci (together with Col. Signorini, CO of 6th Alpini Rgt.) reached the place with the HQ and took the action under direct command. They met Lt. Col. Chierici and ordered him to try to put order, by all means, into the “stragglers” because they were blocking the advance of the rest of the Division.
The scene, according to the reports, must have been very similar to a frozen Dante’s Inferno: in the Village a fierce struggle, on the slope that brought to the railway and to the village, hundreds of dead bodies, with the terrain ruined by the intense mortar fire of the Soviets. At the top of the balka the few Axis artillery desperately trying to counterfire the Russian’s one and, literally tens of thousands of “stragglers” (Italians, Hungarians, Germans) waiting for the battle to come to an end and enter the village: This, though, was causing a lot of delay for the rest of the fighting capable units of the column (there were also few remnants of Julia and Cuneense Divisions that had managed to reach – absolutely by chance – the Tridentina column). So Lt. Col. Chierici began to try to open a passage in this crowd while other of his officers (his son included) tried to organize them in to units. He was doing so when all of a sudden he met Gen. Martinat who was regaining the head of the column just then. Gen. Martinat and Lt. Chierici knew each other very well and Gen. Martinat told Lt. Col. Chierici that he had passed the last days in trying to reach Julia and Cuneense and to warn them of the danger they were facing, but to no avail. He was not able to find them and so decided to return to his Command.
Lt. Col. Chierici asked the General to help him in putting order into the crowd (meanwhile the “Edolo” Btl and few remnants of the “Tirano” and “Morbegno” were beginning to reach the top of the balka), he thought that seeing a General might have better convinced the stragglers. Gen. Martinat though, declined the request and said that he had to reach the other two Generals (Nasci and Reverberi). On his way towards them, he saw his old Btl., the “Edolo”. He picked up a rifle from a dead solder nearby and (as the “almost-legend” says) saying “with the “Edolo” I began, with the “Edolo” I want to come to an end” put himself to the head of a group of Alpini of the “Edolo” and run towards the village of Nikolajewka in attack. He was killed few meters after (a single shot on the forehead? Mortar shell? MG burst? All the three are equally reported as the cause of his death). The motivation for his Gold Medal refers specifically to this action. It is sure that he died here.
At this point, evening of Jan. 26th, it was only a matter of who, Axis or Soviets, was able to prevail.
Gen. Reverberi saw the “Edolo” attacking and, behind it, the rest of his division and the other Alpini of the column trying to reach him. He decided that this was the last possibility for all of them: that to convince all the “stragglers” that their last hope was to take part to the battle. He jumped on the roof of a Stug III (that was out of ammo) and making it advance towards the village yelled the famous (again, it is almost a legend today) “Tridentina, Avanti!!” while firing his MG. (He was awarded the Gold Medal for the actions during the retreat).
Everybody saw him and followed. Witnesses reported that it was a sort of a human avalanche that, from the top of the balka, all of a sudden began running towards the village yelling and firing their weapons. For the Soviets this must have been too much: tens of thousands of people running from the top of a hill towards you must be really a scary vision and they decided to leave the village.
After the sunset the village was cleared of the last Soviets that were not able to leave it and the column was able to find a place to sleep.
Some days later the head of the column reached the first advanced points of the new Axis line.
As you can see more or less the 24 hours beginning from late night of the 25th to the night of the 26th can be considered as one continuous battle that took place in three villages: Arnautowo, Nikitowka and Nikolajewka.