Brenner Pass, Austria · March 18, 1940

On this date in 1940 on the Austro-Italian border, German leader Adolf Hitler and Ital­ian strong­man Benito Musso­lini met for their fifth face-to-face meeting. Hitler had requested the sum­mit in order to force Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”) to take sides within the frame­work of the so-called Pact of Steel, signed by the for­eign minis­ters of both states the pre­vious May in Ber­lin. Since then Hitler had de­stroyed two countries, Czecho­slo­va­kia and Poland, while a hesi­tant Mus­so­lini watched from the sidelines, building up his armed forces and dithering over when and how he would end Italy’s “non­bel­ligerent status.” The summit did not change Mus­so­lini’s position; instead, he in­sisted on waiting for “mathe­ma­tical cer­tainty” before entering the war. The com­bi­na­tion of Nazi suc­cesses in occupying Den­mark and Nor­way (April 8 to June 8, 1940); the Ger­man in­va­sion of Hol­land, Bel­gium, and Luxem­bourg on May 10; and the Battle of France, launched May 14, was pre­cisely the math needed to con­vince the Duce on May 26, 1940, to declare war on France. “I only need a few thou­sand dead so that I can sit at the peace con­fer­ence as a man who has fought,” Mus­so­li­ni told the Ital­ian Army’s Chief-of-Staff, Marshal Pietro Ba­doglio. Hitler, how­ever, was not about to share France’s humi­li­ation or French spoils with his junior part­ner, so he pushed back Mus­so­lini’s de­cla­ra­tion of war against France to June 10, 1940. The short-lived Ital­ian of­fen­sive into south­ern France stalled in a moun­tainous region with few passes suit­able for in­vading armies. During the opera­tion, Ital­ians suf­fered 1,229 killed or missing and 2,631 wounded. Almost as many men were hospi­tal­ized due to frost­bite as were wounded in the con­flict. On June 24, 1940, France signed an armis­tice with Italy. The terms allowed Italy to occupy a por­tion of France along their com­mon border (see map below). Also, from 1940 to 1943, the Ital­ian Navy oper­ated a sub­marine base at Bor­deaux in south­western France. From there Ital­ian subs parti­ci­pated in the Battle of the Atlantic until Marshal Ba­doglio, Mus­so­lini’s successor at the helm of govern­ment, worked out an armis­tice of his own between Italy and the Allies in September 1943.

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German and Italian Zones of Occupation in France, 1940–1943

German-occupied, Italian-occupied, and Vichy France

Above: The original Italian zone of occupation (1940–1942) was minis­cule and is shown in olive green. A demili­tarized zone (light olive) separated Ital­ian armed forces from those of Vichy France (the so-called “Free Zone”). The hash marks extending into the “Free Zone” in­di­cate Ital­ian-occupied Vichy France following Operation Torch, the Allied inva­sion of Northwest Africa in Novem­ber 1942. German forces swept in from the north and west to occupy the rest of Vichy.

Italian invasion of France, June 1940Italian occupation forces in France, 1940–1943

Left: Although Mussolini declared war against France on June 10, 1940, the in­vaders faced the rugged and steep French west­ern Alps, 7,000–10,000 ft high. Mus­so­lini ordered Marshal Badoglio’s forces to attack French al­pine posi­tions on June 18, 1940, but it was not until June 21 that Ital­ians launched an attack. French forces suc­ceeded in limiting Ital­ian pene­tra­tion so that the last days of the Franco-Italian war were not much dif­ferent from the pre­vious ones. On June 22, 1940, a French dele­ga­tion signed the terms of the Franco-German armis­tice in Com­piègne, Northern France, while the next day a French dele­ga­tion was in Rome to nego­ti­ate a sim­ilar docu­ment, at Hitler’s in­sis­tence, between Italy and France. Com­bat ceased on June 25.

Right: The Italian Army of occupation in southern France in Novem­ber 1942 con­sisted of four in­fan­try divi­sions of 136,000 sol­diers and 6,000 offi­cers, while on the French Medi­ter­ranean is­land of Cor­sica there were 66,000 sol­diers with 3,000 offi­cers. Ital­ians faced no opposi­tion from the col­labo­ra­tionist forces of Vichy France (even after Novem­ber 1942), and vir­tually no guer­rilla activ­ity was directed against them by mem­bers of the French Resistance (Maquis) until the summer of 1943.

Contemporary Newsreel Account of Italy’s Occupation of France (in Italian)