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.

Italian Newsreel of Mussolini Speaking Before Ecstatic Crowd Announcing War on France and Great Britain, Rome, June 10, 1940. Click “CC” for English Subtitles