The very idea of the cavalry charge died in front the trenches and machine guns of World War I. The development of the machine gun and the invention of the armored tank destroyed the thousands year old tradition of noble men on noble steeds dashing forward to meet the enemy head-on.
The first years of World War Two found the Polish Army, British troops in India and the Americans in the Philippines still using the cavalry to fight the Axis. By 1942, very few military leaders would have thought that the cavalry was still an effective combat arm.
Colonnello Alessandro Bettoni-Cazzago, commander of the Italian 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalleggeri was one of those that could still see a role for horsemen in 20th century warfare. Dispatched by Mussolini to the Eastern Front as part of his alliance with Hitler, the Savoia was a look backward at the golden age of mounted combat.
The Savoia Regiment still carried cavalry sabers and captured Cossack swords. They were also armed with the model 1891 Carcano short carbine and captured Soviet PPSh41 submachine guns. They wore steel helmets embossed with a black cross commemorating the 1706 Battle of Madonna di Campana where the regiment captured a French battle flag. Each trooper also had a red necktie symbolizing when a member of the regiment delivered an important message.
In August 1942, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army managed to drive a wedge along the River Don in the Ukraine between the Italian Army and the German 6th Army. To restore the Axis position, the Savoia Regiment was sent to stop the advancing Russians.
On 24 August 1942, following a day of screening movements and minor skirmishing Colonel Bettoni decided that a charge could stop the Soviet advance. In the damp morning the three mounted squadrons of the regiment formed up. One squadron was dismounted due to lack of horses. With flags a flying, bugles blowing, sabers drawn and 600 throats crying “Savoia” and “Caricat” (Charge), the regiment advanced. Moving first at the trot, then as they drew closer to the enemy, moving into a canter and at last to a full gallop, the Italian horsemen crashed into the Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment.
Supported by the dismounted 4th squadron and the regiment’s machine gun unit, the Savoia decimated the Siberians. Out of 2000 men the Siberians lost 150 dead and over 900 captured for Italian loses of 40 dead and 79 wounded. The regiment won two gold medals and 54 silver medals for valor for one of the last cavalry charges of all time.
The regiment is still on the rolls of the Italian Army as the Reggimento Savoia Cavalleria. Now equipped with armored vehicles, the troopers still wear red ties and black crosses on their helmets. The Regimental Day is now August 24th, in memory of that last charge.
Andreanelli, Sergio. “The Last Cavalry Charge in WWII” in The Shotgun News, March 1990
Fowler, Jeffery T. Axis Cavalry in World War II
Dunnigan James F. Dirty Little Secrets of World War II