Battle of Nikolayevka
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|Battle of Nikolayevka|
|Part of World War II|
Alpini route toward Nikolaievka, from the Don river
|Commanders and leaders|
| Giulio Martinat †
| Fyodor Isidorovich Kuznetsov
Dmitri Danilovich Lelyushenko
|40,000 infantry (Alpini); but only 4,000 were combat ready||6,000 infantry (plus Soviet partisans)|
|Casualties and losses|
|30,000 dead, wounded, or captured||1,000 dead & wounded|
The Battle of Nikolayevka was fought in January 1943, as a small part of the larger Battle of Stalingrad. The Battle pitted forces of the Italian 8th Army's Alpini Corps against the four Soviet Armies of the Voronezh Front. Since the war the village has been absorbed by the nearby village of Livenka.
On December 16, 1942, Soviet forces launched Operation Little Saturn aimed at the Italian 8th Army. The Soviet plan was to force the River Don, encircle and destroy the Italian 8th Army along the Don, then push towards Rostov on Don and thus cut the line of communication of Army Group A fighting in the Caucasus and the line of communication of 4th Panzer Army, which was in the midst of Operation Wintergewitter—the attempt to relieve 6th Army from encirclement in the city of Stalingrad.
On December 16 General Fyodor Isidorovich Kuznetsov's 1st Guards Army and General Dmitri Danilovich Lelyushenko's 3rd Guards Army attacked the units of the Italian 8th Army, which were quickly overcome, encircled and crushed—in three days the Soviets had opened a gap in the Axis front 45 km (28 mi) deep and 150 km (93 mi) wide and destroyed two of the Italian Army's Corps (2nd and 35th). The Soviet armored columns now rapidly advanced south towards the Black Sea. Thus 4th Panzer Army was forced to abandon its relief attempt of the 6th Army and fall back to halt the advancing Soviets.
The battle 
The Italian 8th Army's Alpini Corps, consisting of Alpine Divisions 3rd Julia, 2nd Tridentina and 4th Cuneense and the 156th Vicenza Infantry Division to their rear, were at this point largely unaffected by the Soviet offensive on their right flank. But on January 13, 1943, the Soviets launched the second stage of Operation Saturn.
In this stage four armies of Soviet General Filipp Golikov's Voronezh Front attacked, encircled, and destroyed the Hungarian Second Army near Svoboda on the Don to the northwest of the Italians, they attacked and pushed back the remaining units of the German 24th Army Corps on the Alpini left flank and then attacked the Alpini themselves. The Alpini held the front, but within three days the Soviets advanced 200 kilometers (120 mi) to the left and right of the Alpini, who were thus encircled.
Although the Alpini corps was ordered to hold the front at all costs, preparations for a general retreat began on January 15. On the evening of January 17, the commanding officer of the corps General Gabriele Nasci finally ordered the full retreat. At this point the Julia and Cuneense divisions were already heavily decimated and only the Tridentina division was still capable of conducting effective combat operations.
The 40,000-strong mass of stragglers—Alpini and Italians from other commands, plus various Germans and Hungarians—formed two columns that followed the Tridentina division which, supported by a handful of German armoured vehicles, led the way westwards to the new Axis front. The Soviets had already occupied every village and bitter battles were fought by the soldiers of the Tridentina to clear the way. In fifteen days the soldiers covered 200 km on foot, fought twenty-two battles and spent fourteen nights camped in the middle of the Russian steppe. Temperatures during the night fell between −30 °C (−20 °F) and −40 °C (−40 °F).
On the morning of January 26, the spearheads of the Tridentina reached the little hamlet of Nikolayevka, now part of the village of Livenka. A Soviet division of nearly 6,000 well armed soldiers occupied it and the surrounding area.
The Alpini immediately began their attack with their last 4,000 combat-ready soldiers, as they knew that this was the last Soviet position blocking their way to safety. But the Soviet forces held their ground, and after hours of fighting the Italian units became desperate as each hour increased the risk that Soviet reinforcements could arrive.
Although the chief-of-staff of the corps, Brigadier General Giulio Martinat, had already been killed earlier that day while leading an assault of the "Edolo" battalion, General Luigi Reverberi, commander of the Tridentina division, stepped onto one of the last three Panzers as the sun began to set and, yelling "Tridentina, Avanti!" (Tridentina Forward), led his men personally on the final assault. As the 4,000 Alpini advanced, all remaining soldiers of the columns fell in and the Soviets, facing a human wave attack by many of the 40,000 Italians (with some Germans and Hungarians), relented and abandoned the village after suffering huge losses.
The retreat of the Alpini was no longer contested by Soviet forces and on February 1 the remnants of the Corps reached Axis lines, under the leadership of general Reverberi (who later received the Italian gold medal of honor).
The Alpini did pay a high price in Russia. The 4 Alpine Division Cuneense was annihilated. Only about one tenth of the 3 Alpine Division Julia survived (approximately 1200 survivors of 15000 troops deployed) and only about one third of the 2 Alpine Division Tridentina survived (approximately 4250 survivors of 15000 troops deployed).
A tenacious urban legend often heard in Italy quotes an alleged Soviet war bulletin N.630 read on February 8, 1943 at radio Moscow stating that "the only force that can regard itself as undefeated on Russian soil is the Italian Alpini corps": actually, this bulletin was never issued by the Soviets.
Another myth is that "Blessed Father" Carlo Gnocchi participated in the Battle of Nikolayevka: he was present in the final attack on the Soviet troops, but as the chaplain of the Alpini.
See also 
- Nikolayevka (in Italian)
- Reverberi's Gold Medal of Honor
- Hamilton, H. Sacrifice on the Steppe. Casemate, 2011 (English)
- Italian Army homepage: History of the Tridentina Division (Italian)
- Survivors account (Italian)
- Alpini association site (Italian)
- Mario Rigoni Stern: "The Sergeant in the Snow" (Marlboro Press - 1998)
- L'Alpino, Alpini association magazine