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It is late October in the upper Great Plains, and when I leave in the pre-dawn hours for work, there is a noticeable chill in the air. It is subtle, but it is real and those of us who have lived here for any stretch of time know that this cool zephyr is the harbinger of winter. Winter, that dreaded six letter word that is the scourge for so many of us.
Writing these blogs is never easy work, and sometimes I am scrambling for a topic. As I pored over my past 40 plus contributions, I realized that there have been several “summer reading lists” but never one for “winter.” So here it goes.
The book to read is: Few Returned by Eugenio Corti. Try your public library, or check online. Believe me, this is such a page turner that I ripped through it in just several days.
The complete title is: Few Returned: Twenty-eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1942-1943. Now I know what you are thinking, and no it is not just another book on the eastern front, because this one deals with the Italian 8th Army and its unfortunate situation to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But first, we need a little history lesson to set the stage for this tragedy.
Benito Mussolini seized power in the early 1920s, and along with his black shirts inflicted a reign of terror and turmoil on all of Italy. He was under the delusion that it was once again time for Italy to reclaim its former glory of ancient Roman days, and to do so by way of conquest. But Italy was completely unprepared for any type of military action. From their small arms (Carcano rifle) to their vehicles (ever try to start a 1970s Fiat in 30 degree weather?) to their re-victualing; all was in chaos or simply archaic. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Benito saw his chance to grab a small piece of pie easily and so committed the Italian 8th Army.
But the Germans saw through the farce instantly and they treated the Fascists for what they were: incompetent, inefficient, and unprepared. So in order to keep things simple, they placed the Italian 8th Army in a defensive position where they could do no harm. It was a horrible mistake.
In the late winter of 1942, the Red Army (three in total) launch a massive assault and of course the Italians are now smack dab in the middle of the fighting. With their soldiers dressed in summer garb (boots lined with cardboard), with supply lines that had to come from Italy (sometimes by horse and mules!), and with only a dozen small planes to perform air drops of supplies (they did not have parachutes so most of the equipment would just split open and scatter over the ground), the Italian 8th Army now faced complete annihilation. Amidst all this is a very kind-hearted 21-year-old second lieutenant artillery officer of the 35th Corps 61st Battalion by the name of Eugenio Corti. This is his story, and it is all true and oh so gruesome.
The book is a memoir of his twenty-eight days of hell, and is the only book of the conflict, in which the Italians participated, that is still in print. Once the German/Italian army is surrounded, it is now necessary to fight their way out of the Don pocket and make it back to friendly lines. But that’s a lot easier said than done. With temperatures now dropping to -30 degrees Fahrenheit, lack of food, lack of ammunition (there are many instances of bayonet charges and hand to hand fighting), no re-supply etc. the future is most grim. Corti, who is to become one of Italy’s finest writers of the 20th century, is impeccable in his retelling of this enormous fiasco. Of the 15,000 men in the 35th Corps, fewer than four thousand come out alive.
The book is comprised of just six chapters that begin with From the Don to Arbuzov to The Valley of Death to Out of Encirclement. The middle chapters are just as frightening as we learn of men freezing to death while on guard duty, and thousands more not having so much as a cracker crumb in three days.
So as November approaches, and you climb that deer stand, and the cold icy wind whips you in the face; think happy thoughts. Your discomfort is temporary, and your hand-warmer is just inches away. Not much farther than that, there is a good meal and a soft bed. Happy hunting!
Corti, Eugenio. Few Returned : Twenty-eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1942-1943. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1997. Print.