Amidst the mechanisation of the Eastern Front in WW2, Italy’s much maligned military reputation received a shot in the arm when the Italian Savoia Cavalleria cavalry regiment daringly charged Soviet infantrymen.
It was August 1942 and the tide of WW2 was just beginning to turn in favour of the Allies after the surging, seemingly unstoppable Axis ‘Operation Barbarossa’ petered out.
Now the Soviets turned the tables with an offensive of their own. The Italian 2nd Infantry Division manned a sector on the Don River and when the Soviets launched an assault on their positions, the Italians couldn’t fend them off; after two days they were routed and needed help fast.
High command ordered the Savoia Cavalleria cavalry regiment to the rescue. This unit, still mounted on horseback from a bygone age, was about to perform one of the most extraordinary acts of the war. On the 23rd it moved to occupy a position, stopping short 1000m (1100yrds) and unaware that two thousand Soviet infantry were already there. Early the next day a troop moved in to recce the position and made contact with the enemy, who, now aware of the cavalrymen’s presence, opened heavy fire.
Realising they were in a tight spot and faced annihilation if they didn’t attack immediately regimental commander Colonel Alessandro ordered his men into a do-or-die charge. The situation was desperate yet the cavalrymen had one ace up their sleeve.
A winding gorge nearby came out on the Soviet’s flank and 2nd Squadron quickly launched themselves down the gorge. Pouring out at the other end they fell upon the alarmed Soviets, sabres thrashing wildly and hand grenades flying among their ranks. Corporal Lolli, unable to draw, as his sabre was stuck in its sheath, charged holding high a hand grenade; Trumpeter Carenzi, having to handle both trumpet and pistol, unintentionally shot his own horse in the head. Some horses, even though riddled by bullets, would keep galloping for hundreds of metres, squirting blood at every beat, suddenly collapsing only a while after their actual death.
After having crossed just about half of the Soviet line the strength of the squadron was already reduced by half, and the commander himself was grounded. Realising 2nd Squadron was getting shredded to pieces, Allesandro ordered his 3rd Squadron into the fray. This they did and, with their blood up, they eschewed the gorge’s cover and charged headlong forwards.
For the loss of 32 soldiers and 100 slain horses, the Savoia Cavalleria Regiment managed to kill and capture hundreds of Soviets and bought time for the routed 2nd Division to seek safety. German liaison troops looking on were full of admiration for what the cavalry had just achieved. Addressing Allesandro, they said: “Colonel, these kinds of things, we cannot do them anymore”.
The Italians had just performed the last ever major cavalry charge in history.