Operation 2nd Battle of the Alps

The '2nd Battle of the Alps' was the campaign fought between forces of the re-established France and the combined forces of Germany and the Italian Social Republic in the border area between south-eastern France and north-western Italy (23 March/2 May 1945).

Since 1943, Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces, had planned a blow to repay Italy for the latter’s 'stab in the back', as the French considered the Italian invasion of southern France in June 1940 while France was fighting for its life against the German 'Rot' (iii). While in Algiers after 'Torch' as as president of the French National Committee of Liberation, de Gaulle began to consider a plan for the seizure and occupation of Italian territory with an appreciable French influences: these were seen as being the Aosta valley, western Piedmont, and the coastal cities of Ventimiglia and Imperia in Liguria. The armistice between Italy and the Western Allies signed at Cassibile on 8 September 1943 led to the division of the Italy between the pro-Allied Kingdom of Italy in the south, under King Vittorio Emanuele III, and the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic), led by Benito Mussolini, in the north as what was in effect a German client state. The conditions of the Cassibile armistice made the USA, UK and Italian Co-belligerent Army the only powers permitted to occupy Italian territory, thereby ignoring French territorial ambitions. After the 'Dragoon' landings of 15 August 1944 on the southern coast of France, the Allies were able to advance their campaign up to the Alps by the autumn of 1944.

During 1945 de Gaulle was able to send soldiers and resistance elements to help some of the Italian resistance groups near the town of Aosta, and these could have occupied an area to the depth of 12.5 miles (20 km) from the Franco/Italian border if necessary. de Gaulle used this 'excuse' to gather a large number of soldiers near the front, ready to seize as much Italian territory as possible from between the Aosta valley and the Ligurian coast. French agents were despatched to spread French propaganda as a means of fomenting support among the local population, but the majority of Italians had no wish to become part of France. French soldiers retreated in the summer of 1945, except from the villages of Tende and Brigue, which were later annexed with the treaty that formally ended hostilities between France and Italy in 1947. A significant part of the population left the two villages to avoid becoming French citizens.

Between November 1944 and March 1945 France set up the Détachement d’Armées des Alpes (Army Detachment of the Alps) under the command of Général de Corps d’Armée Paul André Doyen, an officer of the Chasseurs alpins who had been recalled into active service.

In the northern part of the theatre the main French formation was Général de Division Marie Eugène Aimé Molle’s 27ème Division d’Infanterie de Montagne, which was formed from local French resistance units, among whom were veterans of the defence of the Alps in 1940. Within its ranks were some of France’s foremost mountaineers, but the division’s overall level of training was poor, and the division was very short of equipment and supplies as the revived French army was reliant on US aid that the Americans preferred to channel toward the more important offensive into Germany.

Farther to the south, in the Alpes-Maritimes, was deployed Général de Brigade Pierre François Marie Joseph Garbay’s 1ère Division Française Libre. This was a well equipped and well trained, and had acquired extensive combat experience in different theatres of war. The division comprised three motorised infantry brigades (1st, 2nd and 4th), one armoured reconnaissance regiment (the 1er Régiment de Fusiliers Marins) equipped with Stuart light tanks, one artillery regiment and various support units, and several other units were attached to the division for the offensive. These included the former 3ème Régiment d’Infanterie de Montagne, which was a former Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur unit, a ski reconnaissance company and sundry ad hoc units. The bulk of the French troops, totalling some 30,000 men, were deployed in the southern part of the front, whereas the units in the northern sector numbered only a few thousand. This balance was based in part on political considerations as French claims on Italian territory in the southern sector, namely the districts of Tende and La Brigue, were more likely to be accepted by the international community.

Also committed by the French were a number of Italian guerrilla brigades, which had been created largely on the basis of local men, and these were intended for service in the mountains and for the seizure of the last Aostan towns still controlled by the Reggimento paracadutisti 'Folgore', the X Flottiglia MAS and some German units. Most of these guerrilla forces were in fact sent to prevent the Germans retreating to Germany from undertaking massacres and violence against Italian civilians.

The French troops on the Alpine front were technically subordinate to Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers’s Allied 6th Army Group, though in practice they received their instructions from the French army headquarters and thus from de Gaulle himself. At first they were assigned the strictly defensive mission of defending the lines of communication serving the 6th Army Group’s supply lines. However, Devers later authorised a French attack in order to support the Allied offensive in Italy, the French then being allowed to advance up to 12.5 miles (20 km) into Italian territory.

The defence of the Franco/Italian border was entrusted to General Hans Schlemmer’s LXXV Corps of Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani’s Armeegruppe 'Ligurien', with all Axis forces in the area coming under its purview. The German formations were Generalleutnant Theobald Lieb’s 34th Division and Generalleutnant Max-Günther Schrank’s (from 18 January 1945 Generalmajor Hans Steets Januar’s) 5th Gebirgsdivision. The latter included the elite Lehrbataillon 'Mittenwald' of skilled mountaineers from Bavaria and Tyrol. The 34th Division was an experienced formation which had fought for three years on the Eastern Front. The first of the corps Italian formations was Generale di Divisione Tito Agosti’s 2a Divisione fanteria 'Littorio', which was later joined by Generale di Divisione Mario Carloni’s (from 20 February 1945 Colonello Giorgio Milazzo’s) 4a Divisione alpina 'Monterosa'. Another Italian element was the Reggimento paracadutisti 'Folgore'. The two Italian divisions had been trained in Germany before being deployed to the front, and were equipped with a mix of German and Italian weapons. Conscripted from Italian prisoners in German labour camps, the troops were for the most part opposed or indifferent to the 'blandishments' of Fascism, and thus suffered from low morale. The men had been selected from among natives of German-controlled areas of Italy so that reprisals could be taken against their families in case of desertion. Despite these measures, desertion remained a problem and the Germans were forced to deploy commissioned and non-commissioned officers in Italian units.

The Axis defences relied heavily on French fortifications, from both the 19th century Séré de Rivières system and the Alpine sector of the Ligne Maginot, as well as on the Italian Vallo Alpino. In 1943 a detailed inspection had convinced the Germans to halt the dismantling of the French forts by the Organisation 'Todt' so that these could be used against a possible Allied offensive from Italy. In the summer of 1944, given the probability of an Allied landing in southern France, plans were laid to hold the front in that direction with a force of two German divisions, though an offensive through the Alps was judged to be unlikely.

The first French target was the Fort de la Redoute Ruinée defending the Little St Bernard pass, and this was attacked 21 December but the French were checked. On 23 March a second attack toward the Little St Bernard began. On 27 March, French artillery began to pour fire onto the Redoute Ruinée while the 13ème Bataillon des Chasseurs Alpins advanced on the fort. A heavy fog prevented accurate artillery observation and the attack was called off. A second assault on 31 March resulted in the capture of Le Roc Noir, but the Redoute Ruinée remained in Axis hands, and thus the offensive between 23 and 31 March failed.

Early in April 1945, the Italians of the 4o Reggimento alpini of the 2a Divisione fanteria 'Littorio' and the Germans of the 100th Gebirgsjägerregiment were holding a long front extending between Rifugio Benevolo near Rhêmes to La Forclaz, passing through several peaks including the Roc de Belleface and Traversette. On 10 April, the French captured the Roc de Belleface, but this was retaken by the Alpini and some Germans of the 100th Gebirgsjägerregiment on the following day. On April 25, Molle’s 27ème Division d’Infanterie de Montagne was readying itself to enter Italian territory in the Val d’Aosta area across the Little St Bernard pass. Between 23 and 25 April, the Germans abandoned their positions on the Aosta front, including the Redoute Ruinée, as they had been ordered to concentrate in the area to the south of Ivrea. During their retreat, the Germans were harassed by Italian partisans. Although the Germans intended to blow up bridges and tunnels and render the Strada statale 26 della Valle d’Aosta and the nearby railway unusable, in an effort to prevent such demolitions the commander of the 4o Reggimento alpini, Tenente Colonnello Armando de Felice, threatened the German troops with retaliation. On 27 April, de Felice contacted Augusto Adam, the leader of the local partisan group affiliated to the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (National Liberation Committee) and secured this group’s co-operation against any French invasion of Italian territory.

By 25 April the French were preparing to cross into Italian territory, and on the 10 April the French began a series of attacks in the direction of the Little St Bernard pass.

By a time late in April the Redoute Ruinée was garrisoned by a 46-man unit of the esploratori-arditi (elite reconnaissance scouts) of the 4o Reggimento The chasseurs alpins attacked the fort on the nights of 27/28 and 28/29 April, and in both cases there was severe fighting. On the morning of the 29 April, de Felice ordered that all the positions of his regiment on French soil, including the Redoute Ruinée, be abandoned, and on this same day the French occupied the fort. It was, along with the Roc de Belleface, which was also occupied in this day, the last pieces of French soil under Italian occupation.

The retreat of the Italians to their own territory was deliberately slow, at the suggestion of Adam, in order to deter and slow the French, and had been completed by the time the agreement at Caserta which finalised the surrender of the German forces in Italy. The 4o Reggimento alpini surrendered to US forces in Aosta on 4 May.

Codenamed 'Izard', the French assault on the Mont Cenis pass began on 5 April. It was carried out by the 3,000 men of the 7ème Demi-Brigade des Chasseurs Alpins of the 27ème Division d’Infanterie de Montagne, under the command of Colonel Colonel Alain Le Ray, reinforced by two batteries of heavy artillery from the 1ère Division Française Libre. The position was defended by the 1,500 men of one battalion of the 5th Gebirgsdivision and another battalion of the Reggimento paracadutisti 'Folgore', supported by German artillery.

'Izard' began with an attack on the German observation post at the Pointe de Bellecombe. Lying at a height of 9,020 ft (2750 m), this was reached after a 1,970-ft (600-m) night climb in difficult weather. The post was destroyed, but a counterattack forced the French off the feature later in the same day. The main objective for the French was the old fort at Mont-Froid, which commanded the surrounding area. After gaining a foothold in the fort on 5 April, French forces took the fort after several days of confused close-quarter fighting. An attack on the Fort de la Turra failed, however, and the French offensive stalled when the heavy artillery units were withdrawn for the operation against the Authion massif. On the 12 April a perfectly executed counterattack by the German and Italian force recaptured the fort and evicted the French from the Mont-Cenis plateau.

The failure of 'Izard' had severe consequences for Doyen’s force, for it served to persuade the Americans to withhold further supplies. The Mont-Cenis pass was taken only on the 27 April after the Axis forces had fallen back from the area.

The French also needed to open the important route between central France to and Italy, on which a critical chokepoint was the 6,820-ft (2080-m) high Authion massif, which was being held by determined but weakened German and Italian forces.

It was on 10 April that Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Headquarters for Mediterranean operations, authorised the assault on the Authion massif, which dominates the area above the Alpine valleys of Cairos, surrounded by steep slopes and deforested ravines. Access is very difficult, and requires movement along to access, only by a switchback path comprising, for the most part, rocky ridges. This mountain range was topped by important military works, namely Forca to the north and Milles Fourches to the south. These were strong, concrete-built forts topped by several metres of earth and enclosed by high gates and a deep ditch. There are also three towns in the northeast and east of the forts.

Authion was therefore of decisive strategic importance in this part of the Alps, and the Germans had made this alpine area the core of their defensive system. The fortifications were held by a Bavarian battalion of the 34th Division held the fortifications, and the flanks of the massif were covered by artillery fire. German troop reserves were stationed in the Roya valley, in which they were well sited to intervene at threatened points. The forts were also protected by important defensive works in the form of trenches, dense entanglements of barbed wire and fields of anti-tank mines.

At the beginning of April 1945, the Germans knew that the Allies were about to launch a general offensive on the Italian front. This offensive, under Alexander’s overall command, was focussed on the seizure of the massif’s highest point. At this time, however, the Germans were strongly established on all fronts and in particular on that of the Alps.

The start date of the offensive on the Authion massif was set as 9 April 1945. Then the weather intervened on the Alpine front, and heavy snowfalls and snowfall and non-existent visibility forced a postponement to dawn on 10 April. The 1ère Division Française Libre had reinforced its infantry element with several additional unit, and the division’s task was to spearhead the first part of the attack and then to capture the dominant peaks in the east as rapidly as possible.

At 09.15 on 10 April, the French artillery sited at Peira Cava systematically shelled Fort de la Forca. The destruction wrought on this target was relatively small: the artillery lacked weapons of large calibre, and this meant that the bombardment could not obtain significant results against the concrete structures of the German position.

At 09.30, two companies of the Bataillon d’Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique departed from Tueis. One of these companies moved to the crest of the spur located between the Fort de la Forca and the Trois Communes, the 6,785-ft (2068-m) peak at the northern end of this spur. No progress beyond here was possible because of the barbed wire entanglements, and the French troops were also under heavy fire from automatic weapons higher up the slope. The Piton northern spur quickly came under fire from a German armoured turret so the French troops were pinned. They held their ground, however, exploiting the craters left by the detonation of artillery shells, but many men were killed by German mortar fire. Losses increased steadily as the French, steadily whittled to a mere seven men, awaited the arrival of reinforcements, which was 15 hours away. At 17.30, with the support of an assault section, the French destroyed the armoured turret, and the complete spur could then be occupied.

The other company took advantage of the fierce fighting to infiltrate the mountain road toward Cabanes Vieilles, passing relatively unscathed by the fire of the Fort de Forca and the Fort des Milles Fourches. The company, Commandant Barberot, ordered the use of a bulldozer to make the route passable for light tanks.

Farther to the right, a Bataillon d’Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique company, whose objective was the head of Vaiercaout, met strong resistance that left the French clinging onto a slope rather than reaching the top of this spur. Another company of the Bataillon d’Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique, climbing the rocky ridges of Mt Giagiabella, was counterattacked and had to retreat to its starting point.

In the north a company of scout skiers attached to the battalion reached the summit of Rauss. Around 17 hours after the start of the battle the 4th Brigade from the Lower Camp Silver managed to get one company, reinforced with assault section, into the position where it could remove the concrete structure of the Col de Rauss.

To the south, the work of the 2nd Brigade to cover the right slope of the main operation was almost complete, and a group of 2nd Battalion, under the command of Commandant Bertrand, seized and held Mangiapo. At 19.00, a company of the 4th Battalion, under the command of Commandant Buttin, occupied the top of Bosc. At 12.00 a well-pressed attack from the Cross Cougoule, forced the Germans to abandon the summit. Another of the same unit’s companies, again reinforced with elements of an assault section, attacked the Col de Brouis, but suffered heavy losses.

The results of this first day were quite minor: the French had not been able to bite significantly into the Germans' defensive system, and their casualties were quite severe at 66 men killed and wounded.

In the evening of the 10 April, Alexander decided to continue the offensive according to plan with a joint action on the Fort Miles by an assault group led by Lieutenant-Colonel Lichtwitz. The assault group was a relatively recent creation, for it was a specialised unit for attacks on fortifications with special weapons, which included bazooka rocket launchers and flamethrowers. The group had several assault sections, each with six bazookas, six sub-machine guns, grenade throwers, six flamethrowers and six machine guns. The section also had several light mortars with smoke bombs.

The battle on 11 April began with a determined German counterattacks. At 03.00 the Germans attempted in vain to retake one of the peaks. At 06.30 the Bataillon d’Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique section which occupied the northern peak of the spur of the Forca suffered another attack and had to retreat. then, at 08.00 and before the combined attack of the Bataillon d’Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique and light tanks, the Germans abandoned the Cabanes Vieilles Camps.

Early in the afternoon, the French held Parpella Vaiercaout, and four sections of the assault group, reinforced by two more sections, seized Fort Milles. At 15.00 the Bataillon d’Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique tried unsuccessfully to retake the northern peak of the Forca spur.

In the evening of this second day of the battle, a major breach was finally opened in the German defences of Authion,. The Germans were apparently unwilling to yield their positions to the French, however, and their reactions early in the day were always very determined. At 09.00 a Bataillon d’Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique company was halted before reaching the Forca spur. At 18.00 the forts were abandoned by the Germans, who pulled back to Beole. At 20.30 the garrison of the Trois Communes, now under heavy artillery fire, surrendered. At end of the day, therefore, the Germans had started to falter. Prisoners confessed their astonishment at the presence of tanks in these places, which had been deemed by them as impractical for such vehicles.

On 12 April there came the end of the battle of Authion, and this success brought to an end World War II in France after it had opened a clear path for the Allies to Italy. The battle had pitted some 16,000 French troops, supported by artillery, tanks and aircraft, against 5,200 German and 4,800 Italian troops. The French had suffered the loss of 280 men killed and about 1,000 men wounded, while the Germans had lost 120 men killed, 480 men wounded and 242 men taken prisoner, and the Italians five men killed and 155 men taken prisoner.

The Col de Larche, linking the Ubaye valley via a tributary, the Ubayette, to the Valle Stura di Demonte, was defended by several Ligne Maginot forts, namely the Ouvrage Roche la Croix, the Ouvrage St Ours Haut and the Ouvrage Saint Ours Bas held by German and Italian troops.

An assault was launched on 22 April by French forces including elements of the 159ème, 99ème and 141ème Régiments d’Infanterie Alpine and the dragoon regiment which was the divisional reconnaissance unit. The attack was supported by aircraft and an artillery unit detached from the 1ère Division Française Libre. After a powerful artillery preparation, the French forces captured the village of Larche, cutting off the German-held forts from their rear, and in the evening Roche la Croix fell after a brief fight. On 23 April, St Ours Haut was found to have been abandoned and was occupied without a fight, but St Ours Bas had to be taken by storm. The French employed the next day in forcing the surrender of isolated pockets of resistance, but their artillery unit had to be withdrawn and this led to a measure of reorganisation. On 26 April the offensive was to have been renewed against the col itself, but was not implemented as the French discovered that the Germans and Italians had abandoned the area. Fighting in the Col de Larche area cost the French 15 men killed and 38 men wounded, while the Axis forces lost 34 men killed and 150 taken prisoner.

Alexander now established a military government in the north under plans previously agreed by the British and US governments. The Western Allies allowed the French forces to penetrate Italy to a depth of 18.5 miles (30 km) after the Axis collapse in May 1945, although in some places the French violated this permission and penetrated much farther. After the war’s end, Alexander ordered Doyen to withdraw the Armée des Alpes behind the Franco-Italian border, but the French commander, under orders from de Gaulle, refused to do so.

In messages between the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff it was reported that Doyen had threatened to prevent the establishment of an Allied military government in Aosta, claiming that his orders came from de Gaulle’s provisional French government. US president Harry S Truman appealed directly to de Gaulle, warning him that under the circumstances he had no choice but to cut off US military supplies and ammunition but would continue to provide rations. Général Alphonse Pierre Juin, the chief of the French national defence staff, arrived the next day at Alexander’s headquarters in order to clear up any misunderstanding. It was agreed that the French would immediately withdraw from the Val d’Aosta and Susa but would delay their withdrawal from Tende in order to save face. The last French soldiers withdrew from Ventimiglia a month later.

de Gaulle’s ambitions had been checked by the Americans and British, and France had little input in the subsequent reconstruction of Italy. The Italian democratic parties became disillusioned by de Gaulle and accused him of trying to assert potential French leadership in subsequent Franco/Italian relations. The plans of de Gaulle to annex territories of the Val d’Aosta, Piedmont and Liguria could therefore be classed as a failure.

After the Treaties of Paris in 1947, the French and Italian governments agreed to a number of comparatively small adjustments to the Franco/Italian border, considered as a punishment for Italy joining the Axis in 1940. The border was modified only slightly in favour of France, for the most part in uninhabited Alpine areas except for the Tende valley and La Brigue.