10-24 June 1940
On 10 June there was no longer any hope of defending the French capital. Paris was declared an open city, and the French Government fled to Bordeaux.
On the same day, Italy declared war on France and Britain. Easily perceived as an act of loyalty to the 1939 Pact of Steel with Germany, Italy’s entry into war was a purely opportunistic and cynical move on the part of Benito Mussolini, the country’s dictator. He simply estimated that with the war in France soon over, the Allies would soon sue for peace and Italy could share some of the gains of the imminent peace treaty.
“I only need a few thousand dead so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought”
Mussolini in private to Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the Chief of Staff of the Italian Army
Entering or staying out of the war had been Mussolini’s dilemma ever since Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The size and success of Germany’s territorial conquests was impossible to ignore, and the temptation of following suit was probably too hard to resist for the power-thirsty Italian. General Wavell, commanding British forces in Africa, predicted that Mussolini’s personal ambition would ultimately cause him to take the plunge – comparing him to someone standing at the top of a diving board:
“I think he must do something. If he cannot make a graceful dive, he will at least have to jump in somehow; he can hardly put on his dressing-gown and walk down the stairs again.”
However, there was a very important distinction between Hitler and Mussolini. Where Hitler made his name as a successful military gambler, the Italian dictator came to the table merely as a naive wannabe. His country was woefully unprepared for war. His war aim was expanding the Italian colonies in North Africa by taking land from the British and the French, but he could not set up any convincing military objectives for his generals in the metropolitan France. Nobody was prepared; Italy’s merchant fleet had been given no forewarning of Mussolini’s rash decision and about a quarter of its tonnage was seized in foreign harbours. Within a week’s time Italy actually lost some of its territory to the British in Libya. Ordered to advance into France, the Army had to hastily muster its divisions at the border, their equipment even more lacking and outdated than that left behind by the BEF at Dunkirk.
Consequently, the Italian military exploits in France were rather miserable. Their offensive through the Alps into Provence stalled after two days. Total advance into French territory varied from nil to several miles. The numerically inferior French defenders, firing from well prepared mountain positions, slaughtered the Italian infantry trying to force their way through mountain passes. Being totally untrained in conducting an offensive campaign, the Italian infantry could only launch frontal assaults like in 1915, often ending up in carnages. Italian casualties mounted up. In nine days of the offensive, the official statistic of the campaign lists 1,247 men dead and 2,631 wounded. A further 2,500 Italians had to be hospitalised due to frostbite in snow-covered high Alps, again purely because they lacked proper equipment and clothing.
Mussolini got his “few thousand dead”. But there was to be no peace conference.
“Starace, returning from the front, says that the attack on the Alps has proved the total lack of preparation of our Army, an absolute lack of offensive means, and complete lack of capacity in the higher officers. Men were sent to a useless death two days before the armistice, employing the same technique that was employed more than twenty years ago. If the war in Libya and Ethiopia is conducted in the same way, the future is going to hold many bitter disappointments for us”
Diary note by Count Ciano, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs