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June 1940, the Invasion of France

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Italian soldiers in occupied France

I need only some thousands of casualties to have a place at the peace treaty table”.

According to many historians, this was Mussolini’s phrase that generated the Italian invasion of France (June 13 – 24, 1940) which was the first Italian military operation in World War Two, and without any doubt, was one of the most criticized of the whole Italian war. Indeed, the larger opinion is that Mussolini ordered the attack after he saw the brilliant results that Germany was obtaining in the French campaign. Hoping to gain as many benefits as possible from the armistice, Mussolini jumped on the German bandwagon when France was almost beaten.

For this reason, the invasion of France was considered by many observers as a very dishonorable action, and Italy was defined as the nation that “stabbed the neighbor’s back” ( F.D. Roosevelt) or which “killed a dying man” (G. Salvemini).

This interpretation of the facts has a partial truth, but an accurate analysis of the military and political aspects of the operation reveals a scenery which is not so plain and where an action like the Italian one seem to require an explanation more extensive and complex than expected.

Military aspects of the invasion of France
The operations against France started two days after the Italian declaration of war ( June 10, 1940), during the night between the 12th and the 13th of June, when squadrons of Italian bombers attacked southern France and hitting two small towns, Hyeres and St. Raphael, and the Naval base in Tolon. Additionally, Bastia and Calvi on the Corsican Island and Bizert in Tunisia were also bombed.

The French response was done by the French Navy in the morning of the 14th of June, when the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, under the command of Admiral Emile Duplat bombed the fuel depot of Vado Ligure and the harbor of Genoa. The squadron was composed of 4 cruisers (ALGERIE, FOCH, DUPLEIX, and COLBERT) and 11 destroyers. The French mission wasn’t too effective because it was efficiently contrasted by the coastal artillery and also by some naval units. During the bombing of Genoa, one of the French destroyers, the Albatros, was hit by a 152 mm. shell of a coastal battery and by a torpedo launched from the escort vessel “Calatafimi”. The destroyer was damaged and reported 10 crewmen killed, and the squadron returned back to his base.

After these preparative engagements on June 20th, the land operation against France commenced; successively called “ The Battle of Western Alps”. The declared target of the Italian attack was the conquest of Nice and Savoy, the ex-Italian territories yielded to Napoleon III by Cavour after the Plombières Accords of 1858.

The front was the borderline between Italy and France which was 520 km long and was settled along the mountain range of the Western Alps from Monte Dolent near Switzerland to the sea.
So, the whole front was a really impervious mountain territory with an average altitude of 2500 meters, which was fortified by both the sides during the various ages. It must to be mentioned that during the centuries a French attack to Italy was often feared, but an invasion of France from Italy was never considered because France had three parallel rows of mountains along its borderline and no great targets immediately behind the mountains. Alternatively, Italy had only one row of mountains and many targets in the vicinity. Carl von Clausewitz said: “Attacking France from the Alps is just like try to lift a rifle by grabbing it from the tip of its bayonet”.

When it was attacked, France had along his borderline a system of modern fortifications called “The Alpine Maginot’s Line”. Italy also had its fortification system called “The Alpine Wall”.

To execute its attack, Italy deployed along the front two armies: the IV° Armata under the command of General Alfredo Guzzoni (from Monte Dolent to Monte Granero) and the I° Armata under the command of General Pietro Pintor (from Monte Granero to the sea).

Italy had a total of 22 divisions equivalent to 300,000 men, and 2,900 cannons of various caliber plus the “Alpine Wall” garrisons.

On the French side, under the command of General Renè Orly, was deployed the “Armeè des Alpes” which still wasn’t totally repositioned to the German front. In fact, of the 550,000 soldiers deployed along the borderline in September 1939, only 150,000 were present in the same zone in June 1940. So the French forces were 70 platoons of “èclaireurs-skieurs” (mountain scout-skier troops) plus the Alpine Maginot’s garrisons for a total amount of circa 180,000 men.

The battle started on the morning of June, 21. The order for the two Italian armies was the same for all the front: The advanced troops ( mostly “Alpini” brigades) would have to break through the French line to create as many passages as possible then they would have to take possession of the strategic peaks. The other troops would have to descend into the French valleys to begin the occupation, and a part of these troops would have to attack the French line at the back.

So, the first day a generalized attack was moved against the French line. The Italian troops penetrated into the French territory for a few of kilometers because they occupied the no man’s land between the border and the actual French Army’s line of resistance but the Italians weren’t able to create any passage into that line. Along the sea coast the Regia Marina sent three armored trains equipped with four 120 mm cannons each of which were hidden in the railway galleries near the border to bomb the French coastal batteries. But even on the coast no passages were opened.

The second day the Italian Army did another large offensive all along the front, which seemed to be slightly more incisive than the previous one. In fact the Italian pressure against the French line was increased and near the Isere Valley the Italian troops were able to bypass the defenses and begin the occupation of the valley. The same day, along the coastal front the armored trains continued the bombing without an appreciable result, until one of the three trains was practically destroyed by some French shells which also killed the train commander G. Ingrao (who was awarded a gold medal) and 8 crewmen.

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  1. Paulo Lima says:

    This is a really interesting article cause we have only a few information about the Regio Esercito´s performance during the battle of France. When the french armistice was assigned by General Hutzinger is known that he refused to pronounciate the name of Italy, a country that, by his point of view, had not defeated France…But, altough we know the problems that the italian army feced at the beginning of the campaign, we must recognize the efforts of italians soldiers to let their forces inside french territory. By this way, I would like to thanks for this example of historical search of truth, in memory of all italians fighters.

  2. Nice article Lorenzo. Faced with the immense geographical obstacles an army would face advancing north from Italy into France, an attack would make more sense if the objectives were in fact more limited, as the theory you mentioned touches upon. You would think that some type of official record would have appeared in either Mussolini’s or the Regio Esercito archives after the war if the theory had some meat to it. Maybe something will show up some day, and give some degree of credibility to a military operation that seemed rushed, ill prepared, and for the most part ineffective. Again, thanks for the cool article!!!