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Since the autumn of 1942, the Alpine Army Corps had been deployed on the front of the River Don in southwest European Russia, alongside other Italian infantry divisions, German units and Hungarian units.
On the 15th of December, the Soviets broke the front thanks to the enormous difference in the balance of forces (the Soviet Union had 750 tanks, the Alpini had neither tanks nor anti-tank weapons). The Red Army spread and surrounded the Pasubio, Torino, Celere and Sforzesca Divisions, forcing them to retreat. The terrible retreat into hostile territory in the middle of the Russian winter resulted in the loss of around 55,000 men, including casualties and prisoners. The Alpine Army Corps was ordered to hold its positions on the Don front to defend the desperate retreat.
On the 13th of January 1943, the Soviets broke through the Hungarian front to the north and the German front to the south. But they could not penetrate the positions fiercely defended by the Alpine troops. With a pincer manoeuvre, they enclosed the Alpine Army Corps in a “pocket”. The only alternative for the Alpine troops, surrounded by the enemy, was immediate retreat. For fifteen interminable days, around 40,000 men in prohibitive temperatures fought desperately for safety, covering around 600 kilometres on foot.
On the morning of the 25th of January 1943, however, the “Tridentine” Division Alpine troops found shelter in the village of Nikolayevka, near the Ukrainian border. During the night, the Soviets began the attack with mortar fire, while other units attacked the southwestern side of the village.
Around 9:30 in the morning of the 26th of January, the Alpine Corps received the order to attack. After bloody battles and despite heavy losses, Alpini positioned their machine guns and organised a counterattack. The Soviet reaction was violent and forced the Italian soldiers to retreat and wait for reinforcements. However, only the remains of a battalion and an artillery group joined the survivors. The situation was desperate as the night hours approached, when temperatures could reach between 30 and 40 Celsius degrees below zero: for the Italian soldiers, such temperatures were synonymous with death by frostbite.
When there seemed to be no hope of breaking through the encirclement, General Luigi Reverberi, commander of the “Tridentina” Alpine Division, shouted “Tridentina avanti!” (“Tridentine Forward!”). By doing so, he dragged his men to the attack. The Soviets, surprised by the speed of action, fell back. The encirclement was broken.
After Nikolayevka, the Alpine troops continued their march to Shebekino, a village located outside the enemy encirclement, which they reached on the 31st of January. From Shebekino, the column resumed its march to cover the distance of about 700 kilometres to the Belarusian town of Gomel’, from where the survivors could finally be evacuated. Two hundred trains were needed to transport the Alpine Army Corps to Russia. Only seventeen were needed for the return journey.