The Italian 8th Army had been retreating since the prior morning in the face of the Russian winter offensive aimed at encircling and destroying Paulus’s 6th Army in Stalingrad. Charged with defending the flanks of the 6th Army, Germany’s brittle allies had been shattered by the mighty blow of the Russian counteroffensive, with many units swallowed up by the advancing Russian armies. Lt. Felice Bracci and the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment were ordered to destroy all heavy weapons, save Bracci’s two anti-tank guns, and lead the Italians’ retreat to the town of Meshkov. Late in the afternoon of the 20th, Bracci saw a “fairy castle”, the cathedral in Meshkov, dominating the skyline. Forming a skirmish line, the Bersaglieri approached the town. Suddenly, mortar shells began to fall and Russian machineguns opened up on the advancing troops. The Russians had beaten them to the town and were using the cathedral as a strongpoint.