Italian invasion of France
|Italian Invasion of France|
|Part of the Battle of France during World War II|
|Commanders and leaders|
|René Olry||Umberto di Savoia|
|Casualties and losses|
|229 casualties [nb 1]
1 destroyer damaged
1 sloop damaged
|6,029 casualties [nb 2]
1 submarine sunk
Italian imperial ambitions
During the late 1920s, imperial expansion became an increasingly favoured theme in Benito Mussolini's speeches. He argued that Italy needed an outlet for its "surplus population", and it would therefore be in the best interests of other countries to aid in this expansion. The aspiration of the regime was "for hegemony in the Mediterranean-Danubian-Balkan region" and the gaining of world power status by the conquest "of an empire stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Strait of Hormuz". There were imperial designs upon Albania, Dalmatia, and large parts of modern day Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Greece based on the precedent of previous Roman dominance in these regions. In addition, the regime also sought to establish protective patron-client relationships with Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Among Mussolini's (non-publicly proclaimed) aims were that Italy had to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean that would be able to challenge Britain and France, as well as attain access to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. On 30 November 1938, Mussolini addressed the Fascist Grand Council "on the subject of what he called the immediate goals of 'Fascist dynamism'", these were Albania, Tunisia, Corsica, the Ticino canton of Switzerland, and "French territory east of the River Var (to include Nice, but not Savoy)". Italy's position in the Mediterranean became an increasing vocal concern of Mussolini between 1939 and 1940. Mussolini alleged that Italy required uncontested access to the world's oceans and shipping lanes to ensure its national sovereignty. He elaborated that Italy was a "prisoner in the Mediterranean" and had to break the chains of Britain and France's control. To do so Corsica, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, and Tunisia would need to be taken and Egypt, France, Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom would need to be faced. Through armed conquest Italy's north and east African colonies would be linked, and this 'prison' destroyed. Then, Italy would be able to march "either to the Indian Ocean through the Sudan and Abyssinia, or to the Atlantic by way of French North Africa".
Battle of France
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland initiating the Second World War. Following a month of war, Germany defeated Poland. A period of inaction, called the Phoney War, then followed between the Allies and Germany. On 10 May 1940, this inactivity ended as Germany launched an offensive against France and, for reasons of military strategy, also attacked the neutral nations of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. By the end of May, The Netherlands and Belgium had been overrun.
During the 1930s, the French had constructed a series of fortifications - the Maginot Line - along their border with Germany. This line had been designed to deter a German invasion across the Franco-German border and funnel an attack into Belgium, which could then be met by the best divisions of the French Army. Thus, any future war would take place outside of French territory avoiding a repeat of the First World War. The main section of the Maginot Line ran from the Swiss border and ended at Longwy. The area immediately to the north, was covered by the heavily wooded Ardennes region. French Général Philippe Pétain declared the Ardennes to be "impenetrable" as long as "special provisions" were taken. If so, he believed that any enemy force emerging from the forest would be vulnerable to a pincer attack and destroyed. The French Commander-in-chief Maurice Gamelin likewise believed the area to be of a limited threat, noting that it "never favoured large operations". French war games held in 1938, with the scenario of a German armoured attack through the Ardennes, left the military with the impression that the region was still largely impenetrable and that this, along with the obstacle of the Meuse River, would allow the French time to bring up troops into the area and thus counter such an attack. With this in mind, the area was left lightly defended. German strategy sought to advance through the Ardennes with a large concentration of armoured forces, who would then push towards the English Channel encircling the Allied armies in Belgium cutting them off from any reinforcements from France.
On 13 May, having traversed the Ardennes, the Germans broke through the French lines and crossed the Meuse at Sedan. The Germans rapidly encircled the northern Allied armies. On 27 May, trapped Anglo-French forces began evacuating the continent from Dunkirk, abandoning their heavy equipment in the process. Following the Dunkirk evacuation, the Germans continued their offensive towards Paris. With over 60 divisions, compared to remaining 40 French divisions in the north, the Germans were able to breach the French defensive line along the River Somme by 6 June. Two days later, Parisians could hear distant gunfire. On 9 June, the Germans entered Rouen, in Upper Normandy. The following day, the French Government abandoned Paris, declaring it an open city, and fled to Bordeaux.
Italian decision to go to war
On 26 May, Mussolini informed Marshals Pietro Badoglio and Italo Balbo that he intended to join the war so to be able to sit at the peace table "when the world is to be apportioned" following an Axis victory. The two marshals unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Mussolini that this was not a wise course of action, arguing that the Italian military was unprepared, divisions were not up to strength, troops lacked equipment, the empire was equally unprepared, and the merchant fleet was scattered across the globe.[nb 3] On 5 June, Mussonlini told Badoglio "I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought". On 10 June, Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano presented the declaration of war to the British and French ambassadors. Later in the day, Mussolini addressed a crowd from the Palazzo Venezia, in Rome. He declared that he had taken the country to war to rectify maritime frontiers. Mussolini's exact reason for entering the war has been much debated, although the consensus of historians is that it was political opportuitism and "for the single purpose of bringing his plan for a Mediterranean and African Empire to fruition."[nb 4] Commenting on the declaration of war, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described Italy's action as "the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor".
Based in the French Alps was Army of the Alps, under the command of Général René Olry. His mission was defensive, with orders not to engage the Italian military unless fired upon. At the start of the war, Olry's command consisted of ten divisions with over half a million men. By June 1940, all mobile troops had been stripped from the army and redeployed north to the main front against Germany. This left Olry with "three Alpine divisions, some Alpine battalions, the Alpine fortress demibrigades, and two Alpine chasseurs demibrigades" totaling between 175-185,000 men. Of this force, only 85,000 men were based on the frontier: 81,000 men (in 46 battalions) facing Italy, supported by 65 groups of artillery, and 4,500 facing Switzerland, supported by three groups of artillery.[nb 5] Olry's remaining force consisted of Series-B reserve divisions: second-line troops, typically comprising reservists in their forties. Overall, series-B divisions were a low priority for new equipment and there were also issues regarding the quality of training provided to the soldiers over the years. However, the Army of the Alps maintained 86 platoons of section d'eclaireurs-skieurs (SES). These were elite troops trained in mountain warfare, skiing, mountain climbing, and equipped appropriately.
In addition to this force, the French had constructed a series of fortifications known as Maginot Line of the Alps, or the Little Maginot Line. In contrast to the Maginot Line, facing the German border, the fortifications in the Alps were not a continuous chain of forts. In the Savoy and Dauphiné areas, several passes allowed access through the Alps between Italy and France. To defend these passes the French had constructed nine artillery and ten infantry bunkers.[nb 6] In the Maritime Alps, the terrain was less rugged and presented the best possible invasion route for the Italians. In this area, 35 miles (56 km) long between the coast and the more impenetrable mountains, the French constructed 13 artillery bunkers and 12 infantry forts. Along the border, in front of the above main fortifications, numerous blockhouses and casemates had been constructed. However, by the outbreak of the war some of the Little Maginot Line's positions had yet been completed and overall the fortifications were smaller and weaker than those in the main Maginot Line.
On 31 May, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council came to the decision that, if Italy joined the war, aerial attacks should commence against industrial and oil-related targets in northern Italy. To facilitate this, the French allotted the British Royal Air Force (RAF) the use of two airfields, north of Marseilles, to act as forward refueling and operation base for bombers flying from the United Kingdom. The RAF would provide Haddock Force, comprising Whitley and Wellington bombers from No. 10, 51, 58, 77, 102, and 149 Squadrons.
During the inter-war years and 1939, the strength of the Italian military had dramatically fluctuated due to waves of mobilization and demobilization. By the time Italy entered the war, over 1.5 million men had been mobilized. The Royal Italian Army had formed 73 divisions out of this influx of men. However, only 19 of these divisions were complete and fully combat ready. A further 32 were in various stages of being formed and could be used for combat if needed, while the rest were not ready for battle.
On the French border, 300,000 men – in 18 infantry and four alpine divisions – had been massed. These troops formed the First and Fourth armies, which were under the command of General Umberto di Savoia of Army Group West.[nb 7] A further ten mobile divisions, part of the Army of the Po, were based in reserve.[nb 8] However, most of these latter divisions were still in the process of mobilizing and not yet ready for battle. Supporting Army Group West was 3,000 pieces of artillery and two independent armoured regiments. After the campaign opened, further tank support was provided by the Littorio Armoured Division bringing the total number of tanks deployed to around 200.
Despite the numerical superiority, the Italian military was plagued by numerous issues. During the 1930s, the army had developed an operational doctrine of rapid mobile advances backed by heavy artillery support. Starting in 1938, General Alberto Pariani initiated a series of reforms that radically altered the army. By 1940, all Italian divisions had been converted from Triangular divisions into Binary divisions. Rather than having three infantry regiments, the divisions were composed of two bringing their total strength to around 7,000 men and therefore smaller than their French counterparts. The number of artillery guns had also been reduced, each division had a single artillery regiment whereas their contemporary counterparts had three or four. Pariani’s reforms also promoted frontal assaults to the exclusion of other doctrine. Marshal Rodolfo Graziani had complained that due to the lack of motor vehicles, the Italian army would be unable to undertake mobile warfare as had been envisioned let alone on the levels the German military was demonstrating. The issues also extended to the equipment used. Overall, the Italian troops were poorly equipped and such equipment was inferior to that in use by the French. The vast majority of Italy’s tanks were L3/35 tankettes, mounting only a machine gun and protected by light armour unable to prevent machine gun rounds from penetrating. They were obsolete by 1940, and have been described by Italian historians as "useless". The same issue extended to the artillery arm. Only 246 pieces, out of the army’s entire arsenal of 7,970 guns, were modern. The rest were up to forty years old and included many taken as reparations, in 1918, from the Austro-Hungarian Army.
On 7 June Superesercito (the Italian army supreme command) ordered Army Group West to maintain "absolute defensive behavior both on land and on air". On 9 June the army general staff (Stato Maggiore del Regio Esercito) ordered the army group to strengthen anti-tank defences, but no attack was planned or ordered for the Italian declaratin of war the following day. The British and French made the first moves. The Royal Air Force bombed Turin on 12 June. That same day, some SES groups crossed the border and skirmished with Italian units. In the Colle della Maddalena an Italian outpost was surprised, an NCO killed and two others wounded. This situation changed with the collapse of Paul Reynaud's government in France on 15 June. Since Reynaud's successor, Philippe Pétain, was known to favour an understanding with Germany, Mussolini believed it was imperative that the Italians make gains before an armistice could be signed. The same day he ordered Army Group West to prepare to begin an offensive in three days—an unrealistically aggressive timeline. The general staff turned Mussolini's order into two directives: the first permitted Italian incursions into French territory, while the second abrogated the staging plan then in force (P.R. 12) and ordered the army group to prepare to take advantage of the possible collapse of the Armée des Alpes.
The Marine Nationale (French Navy) was the only service in a position to act against the Italians. At dawn on 14 June, the French 3rd Squadron based in Toulon carried out an operation in Italian waters. Four heavy cruisers and 11 destroyers opened fire on the oil storage tanks and military installations on the Ligurian coast and in the port of Genoa. No Italian aircraft appeared and the coastal artillery scored only one hit. The French destroyer Albatros received a 155 mm (6.1 in) round on her boiler room, which killed 12 seamen.
On 16 June, the French sloop La Curieuse forced the Italian submarine Provana to surface off Oran and then sank it by ramming. La Curieuse also sustained heavy damage. This was the first Italian submarine to be sunk by the French Navy. During the night of 16 June and into the morning of 17 June, Marshal Philippe Pétain proposed an armistice with the German government. On 20 June, the French government asked the Italian government for an armistice.
On 20 June, the Italian campaign began and, by the 21 June, troops of the Italian Royal Army had crossed the French border. One force attempted to advance through the Alps and another force attempted to advance along the Mediterranean coast towards Nice. Initially, the Italian offensive enjoyed some level of success. The French defensive lines on the Italian border were weakened due to French High Command shuffling forces to fight the Germans. However, the Italian offensive soon stalled at the fortified Alpine Line in the Alps and along the Mediterranean coast. The attack through the Little Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps had to stop due to a massive snow storm. The Italian forces attacking through the French Riviera advanced only about 5 mi (8.0 km) and were stopped in the vicinity of the town of Menton. On the same day, the French battleship Lorraine opened fire on the port of Bardia in Italian Libya. French naval aircraft also attacked Livorno in mainland Italy during some of the last actions of the French against the Italians.
On 24 June, following the French surrender to Germany, France and Italy signed an armistice. Unlike the Franco-German armistice talks, the Franco-Italian negotiations were genuine. The French refused to surrender their air force or the "Italian anti-Fascist émigrés", points on which the Italians yielded. Italy also dropped its claims to the Rhône Valley, Corsica, French Tunisia, and French Somaliland. The Franco-Italian Armistice thus established a modest 50 km (31 mi) demilitarized zone. With Germany′s blessing, Italy occupied Corsica and the Alpes-Maritimes, in addition to areas along the Franco-Italian border further north. This occupation zone contained 832 km² and 28,500 inhabitants which included the city of Menton. In addition, demilitarized zones were established the Italian and French colonies in Africa. Italy was granted the right to use the port of Djibouti with all its equipment, along with the French section of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway. More importantly, the naval bases of Toulon, Bizerta, Ajaccio and Oran were also to be demilitarized.
The limited demands of the Italian Government, at the armistice, provoked several theories from contemporary Italian sources. General Mario Roatta believed that Mussolini curbed his intentions because the military had failed to break the French frontline and Mussolini was thus "demonstrating his sportsmanship". Italian politician Dino Alfieri advanced the, popular but controversial, argument that Mussolini weakened his armistice demands to "maintain some semblance of a continental balance of power". Historian MacGregor Knox argues that the claim of good sportsmanship and Alfieri's position is fanciful and does not "hold up when tested against the evidence". Knox states that "Mussolini's humiliation over the results of the first day's attack in the Alps ... did contribute to his decision to reduce his demands". Furthermore, Knox comments that Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano's diary and Mussolini's comments to Adolf Hitler "quite adequately explain" the Italian position given the "strategic situation". The military had failed to break through the Alps, and the French were willing to fight on. Historian Samuel W. Mitcham argues that Mussolini was forced to abandon most of what he saw at the behest of Hitler who did not wish to see the late and unwanted arrival of the Italians to be greatly rewarded. This is a view shared by Gerhard Weinberg who comments that "the singularly inglorious record of the Italians in what little fighting they had done ... facilitated German policy", which forced Mussolini to review his armistice demands.
The overwhelming historical consensus is that the Italian military fared poorly during the invasion. On 21 June 1940, Ciano recorded in his diary that Mussolini was very humiliated by the invasion of France as "our troops have not made a step forward. Even today, they were unable to pass, and stopped in front of the first French strong point that resisted." Mussolini lambasted the spirit of the Italian people for the failure of the first day of the offensive. Following the armistice, highlighting his unhappiness, he remarked that it was "more a political than a military armistice after only fifteen days of war - but it gives us a good document in hand." Mitcham comments that the severely depleted Army of the Alps, commanded by General Rene Olry, had "held off 32 Italian divisions for five days and inflicted severe casualties" upon the Italians. Mitcham notes that this French victory came as a "surprise and delight" to many "including the vast majority of the German General Staff". Knox calls the Italian attacks into the Alps a "fiasco", which had morale implications upon the Italian generals, and notes how the campaign was a humiliation for Mussolini. Paul Henry Collier called the Italian attacks "hapless" and the Italian contribution to victory over France as "ignominious". Italian historian Giorgio Rochat called the end result "of the great Italian offensive" as being "miserable". Historians J. E. Kaufmann and H.W. Kaufmann likewise highlight how "seven French divisions ... managed to halt an Italian army group of more than 30 divisions". The Italian military had to request aid from the Germans, to outflank the French positions. The initial German attack was checked, and the "French soldiers of the Alps ... did not have to face military defeat as their government had finally succeeded in negotiating an armistice with Italy". The duo highlight several individual cases for example. The French fort of Pont. St. Louis was bypassed by the Italians who then entered the city of Menton. The bypassed French troops continued to fight, firing the fort's armament at Italian coastal shipping, until the armistice. On 22 June, 50,000 Italians troops were unable to breach the French positions at Bourg St. Maurice, held by 5,500 troops. In an attempt to explain the Italian deficiency, they comment that the Italian superiority in numbers was betrayed by the troops being poorly equipped and such equipment being inferior to their French counterparts.
- French army casualties amounted to 37 killed, 42 wounded, and 150 reported missing.
- Italian casualties amounted to 631 men killed, 2,631 wounded, and 616 reported missing. A further 2,151 men suffered from frostbite during the campaign.
- Historian Paul Collier comments that up to "a third of the Italian merchant shipping fleet ... was caught without warning in neutral ports".
- This view is also supported by historians such as MacGregor Knox, Circo Paoletti, Giorgio Rochat, Gerhard Schreiber, and Gerhard Weinberg. This argument is supported by contemporary Italian politicians such as Dino Alfieri and Filippo Anfuso. Historians such as Denis Mack Smith partially support this viewpoint, arguing that Mussolini wanted to enter the war yet not actively partake. Alfieri and the contemporary Italian journalist Virginio Gayda argue that the decision to go to war was based in part on the fear of German aggression against Italy. Paoletti discusses this concern, noting that Mussolini feared an Italian-German war following the conclusion of the fighting with the Western Powers. Thus, in order to seize his imperial ambitions Mussolini envisioned a limited war with few casualties in order preserve his military strength for the post-war era.
- On 10 May, the order of battle was as follows:
Army of the Alps
- Army reserve
- 8th Colonial Light Infantry Division
- 14th Corps
- Fortress troops
- 64th Mountain Infantry Division
- 66th Mountain Infantry Division
- 15th Corps
- Fortress troops
- 2nd Colonial Infantry Division
- 65th Mountain Infantry Division
- Army reserve
- The French referred to these as ouvrages, in reference to forts from the First World War, which were split into several categories. Gros ouvrages were artillery forts and petits ouvrages were infantry forts. For a full list and details on the ouvrages, which comprised the Alpine line see List of Alpine Line ouvrages.
- The Italian order of battle for the invasion of France was as follows:
Army Group West: General Umberto di Savoia
- First Army: General Pietro Pintor
- II Army Groups
- III Army Corps
- XV Army Corps
- Army Reserve:
- Fourth Army: General Alfredo Guzzoni
- I Army Corps
- IV Army Corps
- Alpine Corps
- Army Reserve
- The Army of the Po was composed of two armoured divisions (equipped with L/3 tankettes), three fast divisions (consisting of cavalry regiments and bersaglieri mounted on cycles and motorbikes), three "autotrasportabili" (Truck-transportable. These units had mobile artillery and support units, but the infantry was foot bound.), and two motorized divisions (while comparable to motorized divisions in other armies, they lacked firepower).
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- Mitcham, p. 345
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- Weinberg, p. 140
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- Kaufmann (2002), p. 302
- Porch, p. 43
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