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 the German capi­tal Berlin. Since then Hitler had destroyed two countries, Czecho­slo­va­kia and Poland, while a hesi­tant Mus­so­lini watched from the sidelines, building up his armed services 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 (Regia Marina Italiana) shared sub­marine bases with the German Kriegs­marine at Bor­deaux and La Rochelle in the Bay of Biscay in South­western France. From there Ital­ian subs parti­ci­pated with mixed success in the Battle of the Atlantic, patrolling off the Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Azores as well as oper­ating in the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea until Marshal Badoglio, Mus­so­lini’s suc­cessor at the helm of govern­ment, worked out an armi­stice of his own between Italy and the Western Allies in September 1943. The Germans promptly seized the Italian bases and sub­ma­rines until the Allies forced the Kriegs­marine to abandon their French facilities in August and September 1944.

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

Italian occupation of France: German-occupied, Italian-occupied, and Vichy France

Above: The original Italian zone of occupation (1940–1942) in France was minus­cule and is shown in olive. A demili­tarized zone separated Ital­ian armed forces from those of German collab­o­ra­tor Marshal Philippe Pétain’s unoccu­pied Vichy France (the so-called “Free Zone,” or Zone libre in French). The hash marks extending west into the “Free Zone” indi­cate Ital­ian-occupied Vichy France following Operation Torch, the Allied inva­sion of North Africa in Novem­ber 1942. German mili­tary (Wehr­macht) and secu­rity ser­vices (Gestapo and Abwehr, secret police and mili­tary intel­li­gence, respec­tively) swept in from the north and west to occupy the rest of Pétain’s Vichy France. After Mus­so­lini’s over­throw in July 1943 and the sub­se­quent Ital­ian armi­stice in Septem­ber of that year, the same German elements rushed east to occupy all of metropolitan France.

Italian occupation of France: Italian invasion of France, June 1940Italian occupation of France: Italian 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. (An addi­tional 1,850 men were stationed in the southern coastal mili­tary zone (dark pink in the map above) at Bordeaux as part of the Italian sub­marine presence.) 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