An Outline of Alpine Strategy in World War II
J. Monroe Thorington
Map 1. This map shows in diagram form how the Alps form an arc from the Mediterranean, just E. of Nice, to the head of the Adriatic at Trieste. The Ligurian and Etruscan Apennines are represented as a secondary range, extending eastward as a spur from the Maritime Alps, and separating the Po basin from the sea, but breaking down before reaching the Adriatic near Rimini. These two units, taken together, form a mountain circle, complete except for the short break at the head of the Adriatic.
In a general way the passes of the Western Alps connect France and Italy; those of the Central Alps join Switzerland and Italy;
while those of the Eastern Alps cross the pre-World War I boundary of Austria.
The routes of invasion in ancient warfare, with few exceptions, led to and not from Italy, the invader crossing the Alps from the outer perimeter with the Po basin as the objective. Thus, the Mont Genévre Pass was probably Hannibal’s route in 218 B.C. from France to Lombardy, although it was traversed in the reverse direction by Caesar in 58 B.C. during his campaign for the conquest of Gaul. Napoleon came southward across the Great St. Bernard on his way to Marengo in 1800. The Brenner Pass was the route by which the northern barbarians swept into the Italian plain in the fifth century.
If our invasion of Italy in World War II, which was unique in coming from the S., had been the only second front, we should have been under the unpleasant necessity thereafter—once the Po basin had been reached across the Apennines—of crossing passes of either the Western Alps from Italy to France, or passes of the Eastern Alps from Italy to Austria. Passes of the Central Alps— Great St. Bernard, Simplon and St. Gotthard—could not be used owing to Swiss neutrality, Switzerland itself forming a land-block against direct N.-S. action.1
The alternatives of passes through either the Western or the Eastern Alps, with the exception of the Brenner, lead into routes diverging from the direct lines to Germany, and could not have led to rapid military success.
Map 2. The strategy of World War II in the Alps, therefore, was based on a combination of actions, as follows:
Following the taking of Rome, General Clark’s 5th Army advanced to the Apennines, while
General Patch’s command, driving from the Mediterranean through the Rhone Valley to the Swiss border near Geneva, secured the passes of the Western Alps2 (afterward taken over by the Free French; Lanslebourg, September 18, 1944), and continued N. of the Swiss border through the Belfort Gap of the Jura toward Strasbourg.
Following the crossing of the Rhine, at the mouth of the Moselle, General Patton’s 3rd Army drove through Bavaria, continuing from Garmisch-Partenkirchen into Austria and the Brenner Pass, linking with
General Clark’s command which, assisted by the 10th Mountain Division’s capture of Mt. Belvedere (February, 1945), later crossed the Apennines and the Po, thence driving to the Swiss border at Como (April 18, 1945) and fanning out to the Brenner Pass (Verona, April 26, 1945). Thus neutral Switzerland advantageously became General Clark’s fixed northern flank, splitting enemy forces in Italy. The Ligurian Army surrendered on May 1, 1945.3 The Apennine action led to the outflanking of the German Gothic line at the Po and allowed
The advance of Free French and Italian partisan forces through the passes of the Western Alps toward Turin and Milan.
Thus the pattern of classical antiquity was repeated, the Italian plain in all instances being attained from outside the Alpine arc. World War II, however, differs from any other in that, at its end, for the first time the Alpine ring itself was entirely encircled by victorious armies.
1 “Alpine Invasion Routes from Italy” (A.A.J. v, 255).
2 “The War in the Alps" (A. A. J. v, 441).
3 “The War in the Alps” (A.A.J.vi, 166).