Operation Vallo Alpino

Alpine wall

This was the Italian system of fortifications along the 1,150-mile (1850-km) length of Italy’s northern frontier (June 1940/May 1945).

Built in the years leading up to World War II at the direction of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the ‘Vallo Alpino’ defensive line faced France, Switzerland, Austria and Yugoslavia, and was garrisoned primarily by the 21,000-man Guardia alla Frontiera, which was a specialist corps created in 1937. This held the Italian frontier, which was divided into the ‘Vallo Alpino Occidentale’ of 303 miles (487 km) with France, the ‘Vallo Alpino Settentrionale’ of 450 miles (724 km) with Switzerland and 261 miles (420 km) with Austria, and the ‘Vallo Alpino Orientale’ of 137 miles (220 km) with Yugoslavia.

The ‘Vallo Alpino’ was conceptually akin to other fortifications of the same era, including France’s ‘Ligne Maginot’ and ‘Ligne Alpine’, Germany’s ‘Siegfried-Linie’ and Switzerland’s national redoubt known within that polyglot country as the Schweizer Reduit in German, Réduit suisse in French, Ridotto nazionale in Italian, and Reduit nazional in Romansch.

In the period between the world wars, Italy’s land frontiers were in most places mountainous and thus easily defended. In the years leading up to World War II, however, Italy’s relations with its neighbours were largely uneasy, and even in its dealings with its German ally, Italy was concerned about German ambitions towards the province of South Tyrol, which was inhabited by a German majority.

As a result of the rugged nature of Italy’s Alpine frontier regions, there the defences were confined to passes and observation posts in accessible locations. Work on the ‘Vallo Alpino’ started in 1931 and continued to 1942 within the context of a plan to provide cover for the arc of northern Italian territory between the Mediterranean Sea coast at Ventimiglia in the west to Fiume on the Adriatic Sea coast in the east. Three zones were designated at increasing distances from the frontier: these were the ‘zone of security’ intended to absorb initial contact with the enemy, the ‘zone of Resistance’ with heavier fortifications capable of sustained resistance in isolation, and the ‘zone of alignment’ offering assembly areas for counter-offensives and counterattacks after the enemy’s advances(s) had been channeled appropriately. The types of fortifications envisaged were the ‘Tipo A’, which were the largest fortifications, generally built into mountainsides; the ‘Tipo B’, which were smaller point-defence fortifications; and the ‘Tipo C’, which were shelters and rallying points spread over a large area.

The work on the ‘Vallo Alpino’, which was carried out in great secrecy using only Italian labour, was a significant economic burden of the already straitened Italian economy, and created 208 opere (works) with 647 machine guns and 50 pieces of artillery. The forts of the ‘Vallo Alpino’ were equipped with a mix of modern and World War I weapons, and provision was made to cope with a poison gas attack. Much of the armour required for the forts, it should be noted, was obtained from Germany in compensation for Italian military ventures on behalf of the Axis alliance.

The fortifications of the ‘Vallo Alpino’ were built largely in the flanking heights of the valleys to enfilade any enemy advance along the valley floor, and works within the valleys were constructed only where the valleys were sufficiently wide. Anti-tank guns, artillery and machine guns were trained on prepared and pre-registered fields of fire, with observation positions at higher points. Shelters for infantry were located farther to the rear, and a system of communications links and roads or, for higher locations, ropeways were provided for communication and supply.

Individual fortifications were typically built in rock on valley sides. Where this was not feasible, concrete to a thickness of 9.8 to 16.4 ft (3 to 5 m) was used for protection. The fighting compartments were located at each fortification’s forward section, with ammunition rooms to their rear. Underground galleries connected the combat blocks and their support areas, which included utility rooms, barracks, storage and command centres, and the main entrance was located farthest to the rear. Combat areas were isolated from the rest of the structure by gas-tight doorways, and the units constructed between 1939 and 1942 were designed for independent operability without externally supplied power and other utilities.

The fortifications were camouflaged to merge into their surroundings regardless of whether doors or embrasures were open or closed. Emergency escape routes were also provided.

The standard armament included the 0.315-in (8-mm) Fiat modello 35 machine gun in a casemate or metal turret, 0.256-in (6.5-mm) Breda modello 30 and Breda modello 37 machine guns for the defence of entries to the fortifications, the Cannone da 57/43 RM modello 887 2.24-in gun on naval mounts, the Cannone da 75/43 2.95-in gun on a ball mount in a 3.94-in (10-cm) steel slab, the Cannone da 47/32 modello 1935 1.85-in anti-tank gun, the 3.2-in (81-mm) modello 1935 mortar, and a flamethrower.

The fortifications were usually surrounded by minefields, barbed wire and, where feasible, an anti-tank ditch.

Little use was made, or indeed required, of the ‘Vallo Alpino’ in World War II. During the Italian invasion of France in 1940, some of the western forts, such as Fort Chaberton, exchanged fire with their French counterparts of the ‘Ligne Alpine’. Chaberton was hit by French 11-in (280-mm) field mortars and in fact suffered disabling damage. Some of the ‘Vallo Alpino’ fortifications were used as part of the defence of northern Italy in 1944/45.

At the end of the conflict some of the western fortifications were destroyed, but parts of the eastern works were transferred to Yugoslavia as part of the occupation of ex-Italian eastern territories by that country. The 1947 Paris Peace Treaty forbade the construction or expansion of fortifications within 12.5 miles (20 km) of the border. However, with Italy’s admission to membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, construction of a new defensive line from Austria to the Adriatic along the Yugoslav border, along the Natisone and Tagliamento rivers, was initiated. The new line used emplaced tank turrets, in a manner similar to German defences of World War II, which provided 360° traverse and a high rate of fire. By 1976 this system was still considered useful in any conflict short of nuclear war. The end of the Cold War in 1991 brought an end to the utility of the ‘Vallo Alpino’, however, and the emplacements were stripped and sealed in 1991/92.