Cosseria Division Captures Mentone, Briançon & Lablachère
Italian invasion of France
The Italian invasion of France in June 1940, also called the Italo-French War, was the first Italian military campaign during the Second World War. The Italian invaders attacked the French Alps and town of Menton. The French defenders resisted fiercely, but had to ultimately surrender territory to reinforcements from the Cosseria Division and to prevent the Regia Aeronautica from continuing bombing French cities.
On 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on France and Britain. With the French Armed Forces collapsing faster than expected in the face of the German onslaught, the Italian Fascist Regime under Benito Mussolini had to act quickly if it wanted to seize disputed territory long considered to be Italian, such as Savoy and Corsica.
Italian Divisions attacked through the Little Saint Bernard Pass in the French Alps, but encountered stiff resistance. The Italians suffered some early losses but ultimately prevailed in the short few days of battle, capturing Menton and Briançon in house-to-house combat as well as Lablachère on the Riviera after successfully overcoming the heavily fortified French defences at three points on the Isère Valley in the final stages of the operation.
On the night of 11/12 June, British bombers operating from French airfields, bomb the Italian cities of Turin and Genoa.
On 12 June, the Italian submarine Bagnolini sinks the British cruiser Calypso with the British only admitting the loss on 15 June.
That day, the Royal Navy attacked Tobruk. The British naval force involved, including the cruisers HMS Liverpool and HMS Gloucester bombard Tobruk and exchange fire with the protecting cruiser San Giorgio. Royal Air Force Blenheim bombers from Squadrons No. 45, No. 55, and No. 211 intervened, scoring a direct hit on the San Giorgio, crippling it.
On the night of 12 June, Italian ‘Alpini’ Brigade spearheaded across the Alpine Border, taking up positions on a number of strategic peaks in the Nice-Chambray area.
Under the cover of darkness, the Regia Aeronautica in the form of 33 Sparviero bombers from the 2a Squadra Aerea successfully bombs the French Toulon and Bizerta naval bases, putting out of action nine aircraft on the ground.
On 13 June, the Italian Navy destroyers Strale and Baleno sink the British submarine HMS Odin off Taranto.
On 14 June, the Italians defeat a French counterattack to drive them out of Galisia Hill.
That day, the British 7th and 11th Hussars, supported by a company of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, successfully attack and capture the Italian Capuzzo and Maddalena Forts in Libya.
On the night of 14/15 June, the French Navy in the form of four cruisers and 11 destroyers bombards Genoa, Savona and Vado Ligure. Italian shore batteries return fire and hit the French destroyer Albatros, killing 12 sailors
On 16 June, the British submarine HMS Grampus is sunk by Italian destroyers.
That night, British bombers drop leaflets in Rome in an attempt to stir the civilian population:
|“||France has nothing against you. Drop your arms and France will do the same … Your sons and husbands and sweethearts have not left you to defend their country. They suffer death to satisfy the pride of one man. Victorious or defeated you will have hunger, misery and slavery.||”|
On 19 June, in the first dogfights over North Africa, five CR.42s from 84a Squadriglia of the Tobruk-based 10° Gruppo escorting Breda Ba.65 Bombers, encounter four Gladiators from No. 33 Squadron and a Hurricane from No. 80 Squadron. In the fight that takes place, Sergeant Giuseppe Scaglione shoots down the Gladiator piloted by Sergeant Roy Leslie (lost in the action), but the Italians lose two CR.42s and their pilots, Lieutenant-Colonel Armando Piragino and Sergeant-Major Ugo Corsi.
On 21 June, the French battleship Lorraine, accompanied by the British Cruisers HMS Orion and HMS Neptune, the Australian Cruiser HMAS Sydney, and supported by four British destroyers, bombard the town of Bardia in Italian Libya.
On 22 June, the Italian Air Force bombs the British Mersa Matruh fortress in Egypt, and the Armée De L’Air bombs Cagliari and Trapani, in Italy.
On 23 June, the British destroyer HMS Khartoum is sunk off Eritrea by the Italian Submarine Torricelli, and the Armée De L’Air bombs the city of Palermo.
The main invasion commenced on the morning of 21 June. The Italian troops advanced through the so-called “No-Man’s-Land” on the French side and were held up by the French defense lines. Along the coast the Italians sent forward three armored trains armed with four 120 mm guns to bombard the French coastal batteries.
On 22 June, infantry from the Sforzesca Division penetrated into Bois de Sestriéres and Bois de Prairia together with a platoon of Carabinieri and supporting light tanks. The invaders quickly took Montgenèvre and la Crete de Chaussard in this action.
On 23 June, Fort Chenillet was captured by Arditi Guastatori, a Carabinieri platoon and infantry from the Assietta Division advancing under heavy French artillery fire. The French were also forced to abandon the fort of Trois Tetes, but continued to resist well all along the rest of the fort line.
The next day, 200 soldiers of the Guardia Alla Frontiera supported by a column of light tanks attacked Moncenisio and conquered Fort Arcellins, Cima della Nunda but the French Chasseurs Alpins checked the Italian advance at le Petit Turra. Nevertheless, Mentone, Briançon, Lablachère and a French Rearguard all fell into Italian hands after fierce house-to-house fighting in Mentone and Briançon.
The fourth day of the invasion seemed to be a repeat of the previous day of fighting with fierce French resistance all along the line, until the afternoon, when French artillery fire began to decrease in intensity. Many Italian officers were surprised by the sudden change of behavior of the French defenders, but in the late evening a dispatch from the Italian Supreme Command ordered all units to halt further operations, confirming that France had finally agreed to ceasefire terms with Italy.
On 25 June, the Italian Supreme Command reported the final breakthrough achieved by the Cosseria Division in the Isère Valley:
|“||ROME. June-25 Italian troops massed today to march triumphantly into conquered France to occupy Nice and Savoy, as Italy’s 14th communique of the war, announcing cessation of Franco-Italian hostilities, said that the “war continues against Britain and will continue until victory” … an earlier dispatch by the official news agency Stefani said that before the cease fire order Italian Alpine detachments had passed La Biachere and were marching on the Riviera road. Stefani said that Italian forces had penetrated into French valleys after breaking through French lines at three points … The end of hostilities found the Italian army ready to take positions in the territory of the vanquished.||”|
The Italians had scored their first victory in the war.
- ‘Attack By French Repelled, Rome Says’, Toledo Blade, 14 June 1940
- ‘Italy advances in French Alps, Rome asserts’, The Pittsburgh Press, 16 June 1940
- “The group of two armies … scored only some minor local successes in the Isere valley, near Uodane, and Briancon and Mentone on the Riviera was taken after heavy fighting.” World War II German Military Studies: Introduction & Guide, Donald S. Detwiler, Charles Burton Burdick, Jürgen Rohwer, Garland Publications, 1979, p.19
- “The Luftwaffe also attacks the Citroën works on the Quai Javel in Paris and targets as far away as Cherbourg and the Loire valley, while the Italian Air Force hits Orleans and Marseilles,” Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945, Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012, p.7
- ‘Fatal Hour for England Near, Rome Paper Asserts’, St Petersburg Times, 23 June 1940