Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia)
As Europe’s first fascist dictator, it was inevitable that Mussolini would commit troops to the “anti-Bolshevik crusade”. However, up to June 1941, World War II had gone badly for Il Duce. He had nothing to show in comparison with Hitler’s territorial gains. In May 1940, Mussolini’s frustration was further heightened when the German armies drove the British forces off the continent and brought France to her knees. It now seemed certain that Germany would win the war. Desperate to share in the spoils of war, Mussolini announced on 10 June 1940 to an enormous crowd gathered in the Piazza Venezia that Italy was at war with Britain and France. Unfortunately, Il Duce was caught in what his Foreign Minister Ciano ironically called “an outbreak of peace” which left Mussolini in a state of limbo. His ego and thirst for power drove him subsequently to invade the Balkans. The Italians invaded Greece in October 1940, only to be militarily humiliated by the Greeks. However, fascist honour was restored by the German Blitzkrieg in the Balkans in April 1941. Greece and Yugoslavia were quickly conquered, and a British expeditionary force was expelled from the mainland. It found refuge on Crete, which was then taken by a German airborne assault in May. This was followed by Turkey signing a formal treaty with Berlin that granted the Germans passage through the Dardanelles.
These factors convinced Mussolini of the Führer’s invincibility and that the impending German attack on the Soviet Union would be an unqualified success. He was convinced he would gain the prestige that he longed for, and Italy would share in the spoils of war. He thus joined the war against Russia and committed a force of 60,000 men to the struggle, known as the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia). This force comprised three divisions: Pasubio and Torino, which were 1938-type binary divisions (two infantry regiments and an artillery regiment each plus support services), and the 3rd Mobile Division Principe Amedeo Duca d’Aosta. The latter had two mounted cavalry regiments, a Bersaglieri cycle regiment, a light tank group with obsolete L-3s, an artillery regiment and service units. Later, he sent the 63rd Assault Legion Tagliamento to represent his fascist Blackshirts.
The CSI on the Eastern Front
In July 1941, the supposedly motorized CSI followed the German Army through the Ukraine, mainly on foot. Morale was high at the prospect of an easy campaign, and the Germans were impressed with their Italian allies. Unfortunately, this initial euphoria soon disappeared. Inadequate leadership, armour and transport, plus shortages of artillery and anti-tank weapons, revealed the corps to be ill-equipped for the fighting it was to encounter. Undeterred, in March 1942, Mussolini sent II Corps comprising the Sforzesca, Ravenna and Cosseria Infantry Divisions, together with the élite Alpine Corps comprising the Vicenza Infantry and Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions. Further Blackshirt units were also sent, formed into the 3 Gennaio and 23 Marzo Groups to reinforce the CSI, now designated XXXV Corps. This force of 227,000 men became the Italian Eighth Army. In August 1942, it was guarding the Don Front north of Stalingrad with German liaison officers and formations attached to ensure its reliability. Although a Russian attack had been expected, the Italians were unable to resist the massive armoured thrust that was hurled against them on 11 December 1942. II and XXXV Corps crumbled almost immediately, leaving the Alpine Corps stranded and resulting in a huge gap in the Don defences. The lack of anti-tank guns and medium tanks was keenly felt in this rout. The Italians were left to fend for themselves during their retreat, in which they were harassed continually by the Red Army. In January 1943, the survivors regrouped in the Ukraine but the Italian Eighth Army had ceased to exist. The disillusioned Germans sent the survivors back to Italy.
The Fall of Mussolini
Once in Italy, the survivors bitterly blamed both Mussolini and Hitler for the suffering they had endured. This, in part, influenced the events that were to follow in Italy when, on 25 July 1943, Mussolini was voted out of office by his own Fascist Grand Council and subsequently placed under arrest. On 8 September, Italy officially quit the war. After the fall of the fascist regime, the liberated areas of the country turned to the Allies. On 12 September, Mussolini was rescued from captivity on Gran Sasso by a German commando unit under the leadership of Otto Skorzeny and then evacuated to Germany. Later, in the town of Salo on the shores of Lake Garda, Il Duce set up a puppet fascist state, the so-called Italian Social Republic or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Republic of Salo. The official foundation of the armed forces of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) was on 28 October 1943.
A virtual civil war had broken out in Italy after Mussolini’s deposition and Italy’s exit from the Axis camp. Some of the Italian forces actively resisted the Germans and were defeated and made prisoner; others deserted to swell the ranks of the resistance; and a few remained loyal to fascism. The Germans were anxious to utilize the pro-fascist elements in the struggle against the now greatly augmented resistance. Above all, they were determined to keep open the vital lines of communication between Austria and northern Italy. Mussolini’s republic cannot be considered anything but a puppet state of the greater German Reich. Four infantry divisions were formed and trained in Germany: the Italia, Littorio, San Marco and Monterosa Divisions. These and other units were under German control. For example, a unit that was formed in France after the fall of Mussolini from two battalions of the Blackshirt militia wore Italian Army uniforms with the Wehrmacht eagle and swastika above the left breast pocket and as a cap badge. It returned to Italy in October 1943 to fight the partisans and later the Allies at Anzio. It was granted the title, 1st Battaglione 9 Settembre, by Mussolini in August 1944. In October 1944, it was attached to the German Brandenburg Division and, as part of this unit, fought against the Red Army on the Eastern Front from October 1944 to January 1945, when it was brought back to Italy to take part once again in anti-partisan fighting.
The Germans also raised a unit composed of Bersaglieri personnel. Before the RSI was proclaimed, this formation was called the Voluntary Battalion of the Waffen-SS. It should not be confused with the 29th Grenadier Division of the Italian SS, which appeared later and was formed by more than 15,000 Italian recruits who joined the Waffen-SS.
From September 1943 to the end of February 1944, a separate SS battalion was being formed at the SS Heidelager Training Centre at Debica, Poland. Major Fortunato, a former Bersaglieri officer who had served in Russia, was tasked in the selection of new recruits loyal to the Germans. Most of the volunteers came from the Italian 31st Tank Battalion of the Lombardia Division and the élite alpine Julia Division.
The formation, which had 20 officers and 571 men, was referred to as the SS Battalion Debica. For the most part, these troops were considered as Waffen-SS men; and by early March 1944, the men of the SS Battalion Debica had been kitted out in German paratrooper uniforms.
On 21 March 1944, the SS Battalion Debica was deployed to carry out anti-partisan operations around the Pellice Valley, southwest of Turin. On 12 April, the SS Battalion Debica was incorporated into SS Battle Group Diebitsch. However, it was not deployed to the Anzio frontlines. During April and May, the battalion fought around Nocera Umbra, Assisi and San Severino Marche against Italian partisans, suffering 50 casualties. New volunteers were able to keep the battalion’s strength at 500 men and 20 officers.
In early June 1944, SS Battalion Debica, now subordinated to the German I Parachute Corps, was in action to the north of Rome along the Tyrrhenian coast. It suffered heavy losses while fighting American tank units in this area and against partisans behind the German lines. The 200 or so survivors were then dispersed among small battle groups. On 16 June, the SS Battalion Debica was ordered to Florence to help guard the defensive positions of the Gothic Line under Army Group von Zangen. Because the battalion was understrength, it was sent to Pinerolo for refitting. By August, the battalion was back to full strength and ordered to take part in Operation Nightingale against partisan strongpoints in the Chisone and Susa Valleys. On 7 September the SS Battalion Debica became part of the new Waffen Grenadier Brigade der SS (Italian nr. 1), being converted into the new 59th Waffen-SS Reconnaissance Battalion.
Fourteen captured Italian Carro Armato P 40 tanks were supplied to the newly formed division, 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger, in July 1944, but they proved unreliable.
The 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger was a mixed German Volksdeutsche and pro-fascist Italian formation. To combat Tito’s partisans in the Carso and Julian Alps, the SS Karstwehr Company had been formed in the summer of 1942, initially to combat partisans in the Karst alpine regions bordering Austria, Italy and Slovenia. Out of this special anti-partisan mountain combat company grew a division (after Mussolini’s removal made Himmler decide that the Karstwehr Battalion should be strengthened with locally recruited Volksdeutsche from the South Tyrol, and subsequently by Italian fascist “loyalists”). A divisional headquarters was set up in the town of Moggio in the province of Udine. The division consisted of two mountain infantry regiments and one mountain artillery regiment. Apart from one brief encounter with the British in the latter stages of the war, all the actions fought by this unit were against the partisans. General Paul Hausser, a Waffen-SS corps commander, referred to the non-German part of the division as, “a mixture of Italians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Ukrainians”. The division began to fall apart in the closing weeks of the war, with only the German component fighting on to the end. The remnants surrendered to the British 6th Armoured Division in Austria at the beginning of May 1945.