SABRES FOR SAVOY
History's last successful cavalry charge was much more recent than the British
think, says Nicholas Farrell WE ARE often told by British historians that the last successful cavalry charge in history was 100 years ago at the battle of Omdurman in 1898. But the last successful charge did not happen in Sudan, nor was it by the British. It happened on the Russian front in 1942 and it was by the Italian Savoy cavalry.
By the start of the second world war there were still six Italian cavalry regi- ments, including the Savoia. By then, these were part of the Italian army's three Celere (mobile) divisions — two per division. At full strength each regiment consisted of 872 men, 818 horses, 39 bicycles, 6 motorcycles and 17 motor vehicles. There were horses everywhere on the Russian front — 90 per cent of the German army, for example, was horse-drawn. But only the horses of the Savoia charged in a full-blooded battle.
The late Andrea Giovene, born into an ancient Neapolitan ducal family, whose autobiography, Sansevero, told the story, through himself, of Italy in the first half of the 20th century, was in the Italian cavalry during the 1920s, the years which saw Mussolini's star rise on the world stage to such an extent that Churchill hailed the dictator as a 'genius'.
In his book, a majesterial Italian alterna- tive to Proust which is curiously neglected in Britain, Giovene wrote:
In these regiments ... a feudal spirit reigned — the only example still extant in modern Italy — founded on what had seemed ... to embody the pure sense of nobility: an abso- lute domination, but an absolute dedication of self, in the presence of all, in a moment of risk.
The colonels, the commanding officers of the cavalry regiments, were treated like divinities. Giovene, a noble, found himself `surrounded by the greatest names among the Italian — and in particular the Roman — nobility'. Of the 900 young men who each year joined as officer cadets only 30 passed out. As for the horses, they 'kicked, bit, reared, stalled spitefully before an obstacle, grazed the trees or walls to break the horseman's leg'. They, like the men, required domination by any means fair or foul. The point was to reduce 1,000 men and 1,000 horses to 'one powerful and homogeneous shock force, heroic in itself through the submission of all to the will of one'.
The Savoia had been in Russia since the summer of 1941, as part of the 61,000 strong Italian Expeditionary Corps, com- plete with officers of noble birth, bad-tem- pered horses and ancient rituals. In the summer of 1942 Mussolini increased Ital- ian strength in Russia by sending another 229,000 men. By the spring of 1943, 90,000 had died and 60,000 been taken prisoner (of these, 10,000 were not freed until 1954).
The Savoia's commanding officer typi- fied the regimental tradition: Count Alessandro Bettoni had won two Olympic gold medals for equestrianism and wore a monocle. In the summer of 1942 his regi- ment was stationed in the line just south of the Don 125 miles north-west of Stalin- grad. At dusk on 23 August the Savoia was on reconnaissance patrol when it came upon a strong Russian force outside a vil- lage called Isbushenski. It was late, so Colonel Bettoni ordered the regiment to dismount and form a defensive square. The regiment then settled down for the night, which meant, among other things, dinner. As they had always done, the officers sat at folding tables covered with white linen table-cloths, their food served by orderlies and eaten with the regimental silver.
At first light, it became clear that during the night three battalions of Russian infantry had moved up to threaten the Savoia's position, supported by machine- gun and artillery units. The Russian force was far stronger in numbers and weaponry than the Savoia. Despite this, Colonel Bet- toni decided over breakfast that the regi- ment's moment had come. The Savoia would charge the enemy line a few hun- dred yards away. The terrain was flat ideal for a charge — and full of bright yel- low sunflowers. Here in the Russian steppe the Savoia would relive for the one and only time in the second world war and for the last time ever the good old days.
So, as was the tradition before battle, the colonel and his officers put on their white gloves, then mounted. The regiment consisted of four cavalry squadrons with 150 men in each and one horse-mounted machine-gun squadron. The first to charge was the 2nd Squadron. Its officers and men processed, as if on parade, out of the defensive square, drew sabres and moved towards the enemy, first at a trot, then at a canter, and finally at the gallop, shouting the regimental battle-cry, 'Savoy!' They did not shout 'Duce!' Their loyalty was to their king, the head of the house of Savoy. Later, a captain who took part recalled, In the ranks enthusiasm was unstoppable, especially when in the early stage of the gal- lop we were joined by Major Manusardi (a veteran) followed by his orderly. The major, formerly commander of the 2nd, ever faithful to his quality as a soldier, had leaped into his saddle to be part of such a big moment with his old troopers ... The enemy was drawn up in two lines: 'Sabres ... To hand ... Charge!' It was the cry awaited for so long, the cry that we had dreamed of since childhood. Now at last it had come amidst the roar of battle, the explosions, and the howling of the machine- guns ...
The 2nd charged the Russian left flank, `terrorising the enemy' according to the memoirs of Lt-General Giovanni Messe, commander of the Italian Expeditionary Corps, recalling what he described as 'the epic beauty' of the Savoia's actions that day. It then charged the same flank again from behind, 'completing its work with hand grenades'. Colonel Bettoni, in Messe's words, 'judging the enemy to be already shaken', now ordered the 4th Squadron to dismount and attack the Rus- sian line across its front. This caused the Russians to withdraw en masse. Finally, the colonel sent the 3rd into action, with another charge. The rout was complete.
The Savoia took 500 Russians prisoner. The rest had fled. It had lost 29 men dead and three officers — the Russians 150. It was showered with honours — 54 silver medals (the second highest award in Italy for valour) and two gold medals (the highest). `You were magnificent. We no longer know how to do these things,' a senior German officer told Count Bettoni after the battle.
During the second world war the Italian army had a reputation for cowardice. Thla reputation was not deserved. The reason for Italian military failure was not cow- ardice but incompetent leadership, poor, equipment and a people who did not feel right fighting on the side of GermanY. There were of course many acts of bravery by Italians in the war. Those Italians who took part in the last successful cavalry charge in history on 24 August 1942 in the sunflower fields by the Don were brave to the point of recklessness or, as Giovene would have put it, to the point where they embodied the pure sense of nobility: an absolute domination, but an absolute dedi- cation of self in the presence of all, in a moment of risk.
The author is writing a biographY of Mussolini for Weidenfeld and Nicolson.