This fascinating and unique piece comes in the form of a large-format printed military topographical map of Northeastern Italy, printed in Florence in 1936 by the Istituto Geografico Militare, but importantly augmented by original and extensive manuscript additions made by the Italian Fascist High Command to depict their defensive formations made in response to the Allied invasion of adjacent lands in the south of France, in August and September 1944. The underlying printed map embraces all of Northwestern Italy, from Milan westwards; southwestern Switzerland; and all of the southern France as far west as the Auvergne and Montpellier. All significant towns, roads, coastlines, rivers, waterways and points of elevation are marked, true to the conventions of its cartographic genre. Running roughly up the middle of the map is the Franco-Italian border, which is the focal point of the piece.
The unique highlight of this particular example of the map is in that it features extensive manuscript additions, evidently made for the Italian Fascist High Command during, and in the wake, of the Allied invasion of the South of France in August-September 1944. The Italians, with good reason, fared that the Allies would, as an extension of their successful invasion of the southern France, attack Northwestern Italy. Shown here is the extensive Italian cordon militaire that was formed just behind the Italian-French frontier. Numerous named battle regiments are outlined in coloured crayon, while various lines and shaded areas indicate secondary cordons and fallback positions. The regiments are often named after their towns or regions of origin, while some have more colourful names, such as the ‘Cacciatori delle Alpi’ (Hunters of the Alps). The Italian formations closely cover all sections of the highly mountainous borderlands, from the Mediterranean up to the point where France and Italy meet neutral Switzerland.
As the defensive plan, presented in manuscript, upon the present map was of the highest possible sensitively, the map was obviously marked up by and exclusively for the use the Italian High Command in the region. It was almost certainly employed by senior officers for strategic planning, although it is not clear as to precisely when the manuscript additions were added, although they were clearly made between the commencement of the Allied Invasion of the South of France in August 1944, and before the Italian forces depicted were redeployed, in April 1945, to defend Northwestern Italy from Allied attack from the east.
Historical Context: Fascist Italy’s Last Stand
Following the collapse and capitulation of Fascist Italy’s central government, in September 1943, Nazi Germany reformed the Italian Social Republic as their puppet state in Northern Italy, with the former national leader, ‘Il Duce’, Benito Mussolini, as its figurehead. The Italian Social Republic was always under great pressure from internal threats from both the Yugoslav and Italians partisans, in addition to the constant spectre of an all-out Allied invasion of Northern Italy. As it turned out, by the summer of 1944, the Allies, who had conquered all of the Southern and Central Italy became bogged down by the Germans along the ‘Gothic Line’, which ran along the northern ridges of the Apennine Mountains. Northern Italy was safe from a southern attack – at least for some time.
The Allies decided to strike at the Axis’s weak underbelly, the South of France, nominally controlled by the collaborationist Vichy Regime. In Operation Dragoon (August 15 to September 14, 1944), Allied forces successfully invaded the southern France.
Meanwhile, the forces of the Italian Social Republic feared that the Allies would continue their run and cross the Alpine frontier into Italy. The defensive plan depicted on the present map was made by the Italian High Command in an effort to discourage and, if necessary, halt this invasion.
As it transpired, while the Allied commanders in the South of France seriously considered making a run at Northwestern Italy, the invasion never occurred. As shown on the present map, most of the Franco-Italian frontier is comprised of high Alpine territory, with only the narrow Mediterranean coastal strip and a series of high passes providing any possible routes for an army. The Allies had their hands full consolidating their gains in France and feared becoming over-extended and trapped by Italian forces, an especially unpleasant prospect, as winter was fast approaching.
The Allied conquest of Northwestern Italy would have to wait until the dying days of the war, when, as part of Operation Grapeshot, or the Spring 1945 Offensive (April 6 – May 6, 1945), the Allies swept into the region from the east, so ending Fascist rule in Italy once and for all.
The present example of the map is unique owing to its manuscript additions. That being said, we can only trace 2 online records of the underlying printed map (without manuscript additions), held by the Università di Padova – Biblioteca di Geoscienze (CIPE) and the British Library.
References: OCLC: 497492650.