SOSPEL, FRANCE – The wild Maritime Alps are the most remote and least known part of this country, a chain of vertiginous, snow-capped peaks and narrow defiles running due south along the Franco-Italian border from Switzerland down to the Mediterranean on the Riviera.
As a military historian, I’ve come here to remember the heroic stand against overwhelming odds in June, 1940 of Gen. René Olry’s Army of the Alps: a little French Thermopylae.
The German offensive in the West that erupted on 10 May, 1940 was a revolutionary kind of fluid warfare based on fast-moving armor and mechanized units, close air support, and advanced communications.
In only six weeks – by 20 June 1940 – France’s proud army, considered the finest in the world, was shattered; 240,000 French soldiers were killed or seriously wounded; 2,000 French tanks were destroyed by the German “blitzkrieg.”
Germany’s generals had learned much from the slaughter of World War I, vowing to make their troops mobile to avoid static warfare. France’s hidebound generals, by contrast, planned to refight World War I in a defensive campaign based on fortified regions and massed artillery.
The German armored attack cut through the dense Ardennes Forest, crossed the moat of the Meuse River, and broke into the open plains of Picardy before the slow-moving French forces could effectively respond. The German 1940 offensive, planned by Gen. Erich von Manstein and Adolf Hitler, and executed by the dashing Generals Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian, was one of history’s greatest military triumphs.
France’s powerful Maginot Line forts, backed by 400,000 interval troops, was not outflanked, as is wrongly believed. The Line achieved its twin goals of defending Lorraine’s iron and steel industry from a surprise German attack and forcing the Germans to attack through Belgium or Switzerland’s fortress chains.
The Maginot Line was never designed to defend the entire Franco-German frontier. Not one of its major forts was taken by German assault.
France’s unwieldy field army was scattered by flank and rear attacks by German armor. France’s air force proved ineffective. Britain’s army abandoned its French ally and ran for the coast.
As France lay dying, Italy’s swaggering dictator, Benito Mussolini, frantic he might miss out on the spoils of war, declared war on 10 June on France and Britain. Italy demanded France return former Italian possessions of Nice, Cannes, Marseilles, and Menton.
France’s first Maginot fort, Rimplas, was begun in 1928 after “Il Duce” intensified his irredentist demands. A score of major forts and smaller works were built to guard the river valleys and passes leading into Italy. Sospel, the back door into Nice, received particular attention.
Mussolini launched two armies, some 340,000 men, along three axis against France’s Maritime Alps, Savoy and the Dauphiné. Some of the units, like the elite “Alpini,” were crack troops; others were mediocre.
France’s Army of the Alps has been denuded of men and material to oppose the relentless German advance on its rear down the Rhone Valley. General René Olry, had only 35,000 men. Among them were light ski units and elite Alpine infantry in their trademark big berets known as “tartes.”
Italian troops swarmed over the high mountain passes and ridges running at high as 2900 meters. But their main attacks concentrated on the Col de Larche with the road leading from Turin to Grenoble, Sospel, and Menton.
The southern Maginot forts performed perfectly. They spotted the advancing Italians and brought down a devastating crossfire of 75mm shells on them. Other French 155mm heavy artillery units blasted the Italian columns, guns and armored trains, forcing the Italians to retreat in disarray. The famed French 75mm field and fortress gun was light but it could fire up to 18 shrapnel shells a minute, producing a lethal a blizzard of steel.
Overlooking the French border fortress city of Briancon was the menacing 3,130 meter Mt Chaberton, on which Italy had emplaced eight 149mm guns in turrets. On 24 June, French 280mm mortars, firing with amazing accuracy, blew away all eight turrets, ending the threat to Briancon.
The biggest Italian offensives broke against Sospel, the backdoor into the Riviera, and Menton. The ten Maginot forts between Mt Gros north of Sospel to Cap Martin next to Menton on the Mediterranean, crossed their flanking fire and shattered the advancing Italian infantry columns.
Italy’s deepest penetration was 1.5 km in Menton/Cap Martin. Before Menton, eight French soldiers at the border post of Pont St Louis stopped an entire Italian division for a day.
The southern arm of the Maginot Line worked brilliantly, resisting all Italian attacks and shelling. The Line was designed for a repeat of WWI; the Italians waged a 1914-style battle. The Germans did not.
But France’s little Army of the Alps, all but abandoned and forgotten in the debacle of 1940, stood firm and fought with skill and panache against odds of ten to one, aided by the Maginot Line and the difficult terrain.
Olry and his men fulfilled the motto of the Maginot Line: “on ne passé pas.” They shall not pass.