Italian Operations in the Alps 1940
- Published: 31 December 2010 31 December 2010
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
Italian troops at San Bernardo
The Italian Fourth Army, operating on the right flank of the Italian western front, had the following objective: through a blow in the direction of Albertville, toward the German motorized forces advancing from the north, to emerge in the rear of French fortifications. According to calculations of the Itlian command, this maneuver, coupled with the breakthrough to be achieved by the First Army in the maritime direction, should have brought about the collapse of the entire French defensive system.
In the principal direction—Little St. Bernard Pass—Albertville-an Alpine army corps acted, and in the auxiliary direction-Mt, Cenis, Bourg St. Maurice-the I Army Corps.
The Alpine Corps, consisting of two Alpine divisions, five separate Alpine battalions and a battalion of blackshirt militia (totaling 19 battalions), reinforced by four artillery battalions of corps artillery (from the resources of the IV Army Corps on the left flank), took up the initial position for the beginning of the offensive, in the sector stretching southward from the Seign pass, In this sector were the French fortifications at Solage, the Traversette forts, situated directly at the border, and the Bourg St. Maurice fortified region covering the Isere river valley. The garrison of these fortifications consisted of 3,000 men with 350 machine guns and 150 guns. Besides this, in the zone of offensive action of the corps the French had 18 battalions of field forces with 60 guns.
To the Alpine Corps, advancing on a 21 to 25 miles front, was assigned the task of capturing Chapieu, Setz, Tignes to demolish the Bourg St. Maurice fortified region, and to continue the offensive against Beaufort, Albertville.
The principal blow was delivered by the right flank (eight Alpine battalions) over the Seign pass.
The offensive began on the morning of 21 June. The right column, emerging from the Seign pass, was stopped by strong artillery tire from the Solage fortifications. After covering several kilometers over the glaciers, the Alpine rifles outflanked the enemy position, and up to the moment of the Armistice one part of the column charged on the line Roselend, while the second was completing the encirclement of the Solage fortified region.
The central column getting over the Little St. Bernard pass, found itself under artillery fire from Fort Traversette and also was stopped on the very border. To relieve the Alpine units there came up the Trieste motorized division, At 11 o’clock the motorcicle battalion of this division slipped through the pass and under cover of fire began to move fast towards the Isere river valley. Two kilometers from the border the motorcycle battalion encountered a demolished bridge, and after dismounting proceeded to ford the river under few machine-gun fire. At the same time, in spite of heavy losses, engineers had restored the bridge.
On the following day (22 June) the tank battalion of the motorized division, after passing across the front of the motorcycle battalion, lost one tank on the mined field and stopped. One, battalion of the 65th Motorized Regiment attempted to emerge in the rear of Fort Traversette, but was counterattacked from the flank by French infantry, protected by field fortifications, and stopped its advance. Other battalions of the motori zed regiment, reinforced by machine-gun units, relieved the motorcycle battalion, and renewed the advance on Setz, At the same time the left flank column, after overcoming weak French resistance, descended into the Isere river valley, and also began to advance upon Setz along the right bank of the river.
At 1:30 o’clock cm 25 June military operations ceased. To that time the central column had captured Setz, Fort Traversette, however, reinforced by the garnisons from the field fortifications, continued resistance, and continued to hold under its fire the Little St. Bernard pass. Thus the objective assigned to the Alpine Corps remained unattained.
Somewhat more successfully operated was the I Arms Corps, advancing in the sector from Mt. Cimis to the Etache pass, along a front of 25 miles. The corps had to break through a line of border fortifications and emerge on the line of Fort Bessans, Lanslehourg, Bramans, Modalle, and, turning north, to advance on Albertville.
The corps consisted of the 59th Infantry Division with added Alpine unit “Cemschia.” the 11th Infantry Division with the Alpine unit of Colonel Cobianchi, two Alpine “Boccaliatte” battalions, and other corps elements. In operative respect, the Superga Infantry Division, advancing to the left of the corps, was also subordinated to the latter The principal forces of the division proceeded in three columns on Bramans, and thence on .Modane along the Arc river valley. The principal column of the division, consisting of the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 64th Infantry, and the 3d Battalion of the 62d Infantry, moved through the Glazette pass and further along the Ambin river valley.
The 2d Battalion of the 63d Infantry advanced to the right over the Little Mt. Cemis pass to Le Plenet, where it was to Join the main column. The 1st Battalion of the 63d Infantry, advancing over the Bellecombe pass and valley, had to reach the La Villette region in order to join the main forces.
On the right flank advanced the “Boccaliatte” Alpine unit, with the objective of capturing Bessans. To the left, in cooperation with the 59th Infantry Division, over the Mache pass, advanced the “Cemschia” Alpine unit. This unit had to emerge against the flank of the Modane fortifications, simultaneously with the approach of the main forces to take this point. The second echelon, in the Mt. Cenis lake region, consisted of the 11th Infantry Division.
The directions Mt. Cenis-Lanslebourg and the roads to Bramans, were protected by permanent French fortifications.
These fortifications were built in cliffs and consisted of reinforced concrete construction s, each armed with two machine guns and nne antitank gun. On the lower story of the fortifications were stores for ammunition and provisions, and room for rest. All the approaches were within good range, the most important sectors were mined and had various antitank obstacles. The permanent garrison of these fortifications consisted of 4,500 men, and in addition to this two divisions with 60 tanks and artillery were stationed in this sector. It should be noted that during the operations it rained or snowed all three days, and there was a dense fog. After midday on 21 June the main column (three battalions) descended from the Giazette pass into the Ambin river valley. The encountered obsticles and the strong fire forced the column to turn right in order to flank the positions from the north. Here the column was reinforced by the 2d Battalion, 63d Infantry, which had easily overcome the weak French resistance at the Mount C4nis pass. After assigning to small units the task of liquidating individual enemy groups remaining in the rear, the colunm continued its advance on Bramans.
Cv33 in France
Upon meeting at a chapel, the individual columns of the 59th Infantry Division reached Bramans toward the close of day on 22 June. Here the Italians limited themselves to the suppression of field fortifications by artillery fire. Following this one battalion proceeded toward Termignon to meet the “Boccaliatte” column, and the other four battalions turned toward Modane. In the meantime the “Cemschia” Alpine unit, sent over the Bramanet mountain, having met no resistance, emerged in the rear of the for-tification at Balm. On 23 June the 59th Division easily captured these rather weak Balm fortifications and, after joining the “Cemschia” Alpine unit, continued to advance upon Modane. Meeting in the ,Villarodin and Esseillon region strong fortifications, protecting Modane from the east, the Italians went around them from the south. The artillery was given the task of silencing the tire of these fortifications.
The Armistice found elements of the 59th Infantry Division beyond Villarodin, 2 - 3 kilometers from Modane.
Somewhat differently developed the action in the Mt. Cenis-Lanslebourg direction, where the French offered stubborn resistance to the 3d Battalion of the 64th Infantry.
The road along which this battalion advanced was mined and protected by anti-infantry and antitank obstacles, while all the approaches were exposed to fire. In this direction were sent the Alpine unit of Colonel Cobianchi, a battalion of the 231st Regiment and a tank battalion of the 11th Infantry Division. However, two tanks which struck mines and were disabled, blocked the road for the entire tank battalion, while the Alpine riflemen and the infantry could overcome French resistance only with heavy losses and moved forward slowly. Well concealed French machine-gun nests permitted small Italian units to pass them, and then fired in their rear.
Armistice found the Italians here on the first line of French fortifications, which continued to resist, in spite of the fact that Lanslebourg, in the rear, was already occupied by the “Boccalliate” Alpine unit. The Alpines, after crossing the border over difficult, snow-covered Chapeau and Novalesa passes (altitudes 3,298 and 3,209 yards), descended into the Ribon river valley, and not meeting any French forces, which did not anticipate the appearance of the enemy at this point, occupied the Bessans settlement.
Advancing then along the Arc river valley the Italians emerged in the rear of the Lanslebourg fortifications. Upon capturing Lanslebourg and relieving the situation of the units which were advancing upon these fortifications from the front, the “Boccaliate” column moved against Termignon, where it joined the battalion of the 59th Division, sent from Bramans. In this manner the task assigned to this Alpine unit was fulfilled.
As a result of the 4 day engagements in the Alps, the units of the Italian Fourth Army, which were operating in the direction of the main blow, advanced to the depth of from 21/2 to 11 miles, but the border line fortified zone was not pierced in its full depth in any one direction. A part of the outflanked and encircled French fortifications continued to resist even after conclusion of the Armistice. Due to inclement weather aviation was not employed.
The failure of the Alpine corps, which on 21 June undertook to advance upon Bourg St. Maurice, may be explained by two reasons:
(1) The initial grouping of Italian forces in this direction was weaker than that of the defenders. The Italians had 18 battalions of Alpine troops, 18 mountain batteries and 12 batteries of corps artillery—altogether 120 guns; while the French had 18 battalions and 3,000 men of the garrison of fortified zone and 150 fortress and 60 field guns.
(2) At first the Alpine mountain units were used in a wrong manner for frontal advance against a fortified zone.
An Alpine unit, having rather small attacking strength, but being greatly maneuverable, should have heen employed for maneuver only. An example of proper employment of Alpine forces was set only by the “Boccaliatte” Alpine unit, which advanced where the French did not expect the enemy to appear, and by the “Cemschia” Alpine unit, which outflanked the enemy after climbing over the Bramanet Mountains and finally, by the passage of right columns of the Alpine corps over the glacier.
From the review of this Alpine operation, the following conclusions may be drawn:
In the mountains the employment of tanks and other means of speedy movement is rendered difficult. The employment of aviation for tactical purposes is greatly limited as it is helpless against ,fortifications built into the mountains.
The basis of mountain warfare is the maneuver, with maximum utilization, of all the elements at hand. There are impassable mountain regions; the most difficult routes are frequently most convenient for attaining the element of suddenness and for gaining the opportunity for outflanking.