View Full Version : Forgotten war: the front of the western Alps 1944-45.

03-24-2015, 04:18 PM
The front line of the Alps wasn’t continuous: it was formed by a set of block-houses, some of them armoured, deployed in depth and with different distances between them. It was mainly a front of patrol warfare. No second or third lines existed, only Piedmont valleys and Padana Plain. Of course it was a secondary front, opened by the Allied landing in Provence in summer 1944. If effective in defense, anyway it was very difficult to supply the positions in high mountain: horses were ill-suited to the terrain and the few mules available were almost all consumpted due to fatigue. The movement of supplies was left to Alpini and Fanti.

The troops on the front line had to conserve their ammo and wood reserves in advanced positions during the harsh winter of 1944/45. In spite of the low temperature and heavy snow, among the Italian troops there were no more than 50 frostbite/cold related cases and only two losses because of avalanches (the Germans, even if better equipped, suffered heavier losses). The soldiers from sunny southern Italy, the Sicilians in particular, distinguished themselves despite the alien conditions.

On the opposite side the French troops had no such supply difficulties and had huge supplies of ammunition available. They would use their advantage at every opportunity of bombing and artillery barraging Italian positions even against very few soldiers or even a single man. The number of men available was also in French favour. In front of 3rd Infantry Regiment of Littorio division, for example, were deployed three Chasseur Regiments and at least four artillery groups, with 75, 105 and 155mm guns.

Western Alps defence was entrusted by LXXV German Corps (34. Infantry division and 5. Gebirgsjäger division) to whom were added the main part of Monterosa division, Littorio division and other units (Xa Mas, Cacciatori delle Alpi, ANR paratroopers).
On September 1944, the Monterosa deployed the Tirano and Bassano battalions and the artillery group Vicenza on this front.
In February 1945 the Italia Division replaced the Monterosa on the Gothic Line, and the latter unit was transferred to the Piedmont Alps, except for the engineers, the Intra battalion and some artillery, which held their Gothic Line positions to the very last days of the war. In the Alps the Division took part in some hard fighting with French regular and partisan forces as well as Italian partisans. A Monterosa detachment also carried out garrison duties in Liguria until the end of the war.

From late summer to autumn 1944 the war on the Alps was above all a war of artillery bombings and patrols. But closing the war's end, the French command started major actions intended at first to test the enemy line, and then possibly to break through to reach some territorial gains that allowed France to obtain, at the end of the war, the annexation of certain territories (like Val d'Aosta and some western Piedmont valleys).

The Bassano btl occupied the 2,500-2,800 meter high mounts of Colle dell’Agnello, St. Veran, Longet, and of Autaret di Maurin. The zone was under maquis (French partisans) and Italian partisans control. The Monterosa troops had to undertake some hard fightings to clear the area and prepare fortifications before winter.

Tirano battalion relieved the 5. Gebirgsjäger and deployed from Rocca Clary, above Claviere, to Punta Rascià, and Mount Gimont to Chenaillet. The positions were well fortified, but under heavy mortar and artillery fire. In mid October French troops, by a coupe de main, occupied Chenaillet Fort, but on the 21 October the Alpini were able to re-conquer it with a strong counter-attack. During the action the Alpino Renato Assante was killed; he had come from Turkey to enlist as volounteer. Assante was the first Alpino to reach the mountain top and launch himself against the defenders.

He was posthumously awarded the gold medal, the highest Italian decoration.

Vicenza Artillery Group batteries were deployed at the start of the operation on the French side of the frontier, near Maddalena hill. Unfortunately due to the bad weather and snow they had to be withdrawn towards the valleys. The positions were then occupied by Aosta battalion coming from Garfagnana with Brescia battalion and Mantova artillery group.

So, after fifteen days of snowfall, on 18 December 1944 the Allies decided to test the Littorio division defensive line. A French attack assailed 1st battalion, but was driven back. More attempts with the same results occurred in January, against 2nd battalion positions. French companies, supported by mortars, tried to occupied pill-boxes no. 8, 9 and 10 on two occasions. Initially they were able to penetrate the defensive line, but were immediately hit by Italian guns and mortars and repelled by the counterattacks of the pill-box garrisons themselves.

In front of IV Alpini Regiment was positioned a French mountain brigade with an artillery regiment. They tried to force the line on 21 December near Traversette and on 8 January 1945 against 8th Alpini Company on Mount Rutor without results.

On 23 December 1944 it was the Monterosa turn to attack. A patrol of 25 Alpini and 25 German Gebirgsjäger carried out a raid on the enemy lines and destroyed the Mont Janus fortifications.

When the Gothic Line was broken and Allied troops spread out into the Padana plan, the French began a last attempt to reconquer their national territory and occupy the Piedmont and Val d’Aosta.

On 23 March 1945 a French battalion attacked Colle Traversette again, supported by a heavy artillery bombardment. The assaults continued without pause until the month’s end during which the area of fighting was extended to Roc de Ballaface and Rutor. The French were repelled and only occupied Roc Noir, losing about three hundred men. The Alpini lost 90 men during the assaults.
The stubbornness of French attacks along a secondary front (as the Alps was) can be explained in two ways. Most of the main Littorio positions, the IV Alpini Regiment in particular, were still on French land and the French desired revenge against the Italians for the invasion of June 1940. Furthemore, they pointed to the annexation of some Italian territories.

At the beginning of April (10) they tried a coupe de main against Roc de Bellaface, which was taken after an hard fighting. But the following day an Alpini counterattack regained the position, which was held until 29 April.

On 22 April the garrisons of Meyronnes’ (1st Infantry Regiment) pill-boxes held out a French battalion supported by artillery. The Italians were able to repell the attack thanks to a good forward observation post positioned very close to enemy positions. The Littorio’s artillery drop a barrage, sparing no ammunition, and was able to break the French attack.

Traversette was attacked on the night of 27/28 April, but the little garrison of 46 Alpini was able to repell the enemy. At that point the entire IV Alpini Regiment was still deployed in French territory and none of its sectors had been encroached on by the French.

However the situation had begun to become unsustainable.

The Alpini and most of the Littorio units were fighting on two fronts: against the French, to prevent them from occupying Valle d’Aosta and part of Piedmont, and against the Partisans, that with the Allies advancing in the Padana valley, increased the attacks on the communication lines. Even the Germans became a trouble, because the Italian troops had to avoid the destruction of factories, bridges and roads by the Germans retreating. For this reason more than one commander got in touch with the local partisan leaders, who were also interested in the same goals.

While, by about 25 April, some battalions, according to “Georg plan”, left the front to gain the “Ticino” Line and surrender to the Allies coming from the Po River (as 2nd battalion, after having reached Borgo S. Dalmazzo), others, as IV Alpini Regiment, maintained their positions until 29 April, according with CNL (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale, National Liberation Committee, the main Italian partisan organisation). Only on 4 May they ceased their frontier duties, obtaining military honours from US troops.
At the end of March the Mantova artillery group, with its 305mm heavy howitzers, deployed two batteries in Susa valley to guard Monginevro pass, and another one near la Thuile. This one drove a French attack back on 26 April and, although the Liguria Army surrender was signed the following day, it resisted as late as 8 May 1945 until US troops arrived from the Padana plan.