Operation Achse Part I


Ex-Duce of Italy Benito Mussolini during the Operation Oak, where the duce was rescued by German Paratrupes – Italian Front.

When Hitler had met Il Duce at Feltre in the Italian Alps on 19 July 1943, it had been clear to the Führer how close to the end of his tether was his old ally. Yet even Hitler was caught by surprise by the speed of subsequent events in the Italian capital that led to the dismissal of Mussolini. By 24 July he had been replaced by the seventy-two-year-old Pietro Badoglio, former Chief of Staff of ‘Dictator Number One’. Soon the news from Rome filtered through to Hitler in Rastenburg.

On 27 July 1943 Rommel was summoned to attend the noon conference at the Führerhauptquartier. ‘The Italians are obviously planning to betray us!’ Hitler declared. It was hardly a controversial opinion. He gave the Afrika Korps veteran his top-secret orders to return to his HQ in Munich and prepare for Operation Achse: the infiltration of the Alpine passes, the occupation of northern Italy and – if need be – the disarming of Italian forces. On 29 July Hitler gave the necessary order to Rommel for the first stage of the plan to proceed. The following day, 30 July 1943, a spearhead of the 26th Panzer Division headed south from Innsbruck up towards the Brenner Pass, the ‘great gate of Italy’, the border between the Reich and her increasingly nominal ally. The Italian border guards watched in astonishment as the motorised infantry column ground its way slowly towards the railway station that marked the border itself, a frontier hemmed in by the high ridges of the Eisack valley. The spearhead was a squadron of Tiger tanks. The column’s weapons were trained, its guns cocked and the turrets of the tanks were traversing. It was ready for anything.

What should be done? Clearly a reference must be made to higher authority.

General Alessandro Gloria was in command of the XXXV Corps at Bolzano, the Alpine capital of South Tyrol. This was some thirty miles south of the Brenner Pass into Italy, a handsome medieval city dominated by the 10,968-foot Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites. The General himself, a veteran of the Italians’ disastrous North African campaign, was as undecided as his border guards on the Brenner. Suspicious though he might be about the purpose of the Panzer division, resistance by force of arms could be personal and professional suicide. By the time he had telephoned Rome to check whether the Wehrmacht had the necessary permission to pass, the 26th Division already held the border. Fait accompli. Forty-eight hours later, on 1 August 1943, the 44th Infantry and the 1st SS Panzer Divisions followed. Rommel had given his commanders strict orders to provoke the Italians no more than the very presence of his troops dictated. General Gloria’s patience had been tried and it was tested further when the 44th Infantry arrived in Bolzano itself. Here Germans and Italians were forever at loggerheads. It will be remembered that the German-speaking inhabitants had been placed under Italian control when the South Tyrol was gifted to Italy after the First World War by the Treaty of Saint-Germain. Now the tables had once again been turned. Gloria protested vehemently and vociferously to Rommel but he restricted himself to words. The Desert Fox was unyielding. As a fighting force he regarded the Italians with contempt. What had they done in North Africa? Nothing. In the end the Axis generals came to terms. Whatever the future might hold, Italy and Germany were not yet at war.


A month later they were. On 3 September 1943 General Giuseppe Gastello signed an armistice with the Allies in Cassibile, Sicily. At 6.30 p.m. on 8 September this agreement was published by the Allies as the Badoglio Declaration. Dwight Eisenhower’s Kansas drawl declared on Radio Algiers, ‘The Italian government has surrendered its armed forces unconditionally.’ The breaking of this news on that stifling airless evening was premature, for it caught the three million men of Italy’s armed forces by surprise: Badoglio had yet to inform the Regia Marina, the Regia Aeronautica and the Regio Esercito of the armistice. Orders are the sine qua non of the military. The Italians had none. The three Italian armed services were poleaxed. The Wehrmacht was not. At 7.50 p.m. the OKW phoned the codeword ‘Achse’ to Rommel’s headquarters, a special command train simmering in a siding just south of Munich. The second part of Operation Achse swung smoothly into action.

The very evening of Eisenhower’s announcement, Rommel’s forces seized the French Alps occupied by the Italians. In a lightning operation, all points of strategic importance were taken. These were the Alpine passes of the Little St Bernard, the Great St Bernard, the Mont Cenis, the Col de Montgenèvre and the Col de Larche – all the passes in the Rhône-Alpes and the Alpes-Maritimes where the Italians had fought the French in the Alpine campaign of June 1940. The occupying Italian Fourth Army, amounting to about 100,000, largely disintegrated. In Albertville in the Savoie, in the happier times of 1992 host to the Winter Olympics, the Italians resisted all night. Other units had the initiative to mine the Fréjus tunnel leading from France to Italy under the Col de Fréjus in Savoie. Mostly the Italians simply melted away, a rag, tag and bobtail army scattering arms and equipment and even uniforms in its wake, careering back to Italy. For them the war seemed over. It was a rout.

The Italian high command had spent weeks planning the defence of these Alpine choke points against the anticipated German ambush. It had not had the will to put the plans into action. Goebbels commented in his diary that had the Italians blown the Alpine bridges and tunnels, the forces engaging Eisenhower’s armies in Sicily would have been trapped. How fortunate that the Italians were Italian!


And the Italians were not the only ones to be caught out by Eisenhower’s broadcast.

One of the first things on the Germans’ agenda in the old Italian zone was the Jews. The most vulnerable were those in the communities perched along the Alpine Franco-Italian border. These were the five thousand or so refugees in Megève, St Gervais, Barcelonnette, Vence, Venanson, Saint-Martin-Vésubie and Nice: those enjoying assigned residence under the protection of Guido Lospinoso, Il Duce’s Inspector General of Racial Policy.

Six weeks earlier in the last week of July, the news of Mussolini’s fall had been received by these refugees in the Alps with outbursts of joy. The wildest of hopes sprang up that the collapse of the whole Axis was at hand. In Nice, a young refugee recorded that 26 July 1943 ‘was a night of delirium. People celebrated the event as though it was 14 July [Bastille Day, when the French celebrate the storming of the prison-fortress in Paris], the cafés remained open all night. It seemed that the nightmare was nearing an end and the war would be over any moment.’

Over the following few days in early August 1943, more sober counsels prevailed. The Italians had been the bulwark between the Jewish communities and the combined anti-Semitic forces of the Vichy French and the Germans in the interlocking and overlapping administration of the Italian zone. Now it was said that the Italians would withdraw and leave the Jews to fend for themselves. In the first few hours of his administration Badoglio had tactfully declared that ‘The war continues on the side of our Germanic ally.’ Who knew how long this might last?

On 15 August 1944, a deal had been struck in Bolzano between Generals Rommel and Gloria, between the German and Italian forces. The Regio Esercito would cede the territory to the west of the Var and Tinée rivers to the Germans and continue to hold the Alpine foothills and the Alpes-Maritimes themselves to the east. This meant not much more than a small enclave around Nice itself and was obviously a fragile, temporary arrangement, and from Annecy and Megève in the north to Saint-Martin-Vésubie and Nice in the south there was growing panic. Those Jews who had prospects of legally entering neighbouring Italy or Switzerland desperately sought the necessary papers to do so. Those without such hopes made other arrangements. In Saint-Martin-Vésubie, the Alpine settlement high above Nice, the Movement of Zionist Youth defied the orders of the Italian authorities to stay within the confines of the town. It sent scouts eastwards from Saint-Martin up to explore the two high passes over into Italy, the 8,342-foot Col de Cerise and the 8,106-foot Col de Fenestre. How practicable were these tracks for the very young and very old? These were their escape routes should the need arise.

In Rome, there was also action. At the end of August 1943 a ministerial meeting took the decision that the Jews in the assigned residence settlements should be returned to the small Nice haven. Lospinoso was duly instructed to make the necessary arrangements. Some were to be taken by train, some by truck. Meanwhile, in Nice itself, the Comité d’Assistance aux Refugés had conceived an ambitious plan to rescue all 30,000 Jews in the Alps by chartering four ships – Duilio, Giulio Cesare, Saturnia and Vulcania. This was the brainchild of one of the less sung heroes of the war, a fifty-eight-year-old Jewish banker called Angelo Donati. These ships would ferry the Jews from all the assigned residence communities from the port of Nice to mainland Italy, thence to Allied North Africa. Here they would be placed in US and British camps.

Not knowing that the armistice between Badoglio and the Allies had already been signed, during the course of the second week of September, Lospinoso’s Jews from the north – from Barcelonnette to Vence – set off. Many of them actually arrived in Nice on 8 September itself, returning – as they thought – to the Italian sanctuary. That evening they heard to their horror Eisenhower’s announcement of the armistice. They knew what it meant.


Within thirty-six hours of the broadcast – on 10 September 1943 – a commando unit of German security forces arrived in Nice. It was led by SS-Hauptsturmführer Alois Brunner. This brave fellow was the right-hand man of one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann: he who had set up the office for Jewish emigration in Vienna. The thirty-one-year-old Brunner had already distinguished himself in his merciless treatment of Jews in Salonika, Greece’s second city, and at the Paris holding camp at Drancy.

At 3.30 p.m. on the day of his arrival Brunner unleashed a manhunt. It was led by the Gestapo, energetically aided and abetted by the French fascists, the Parti Populaire Français. Word went round the Jewish community like wildfire. A few of the refugees – some of whom had only just arrived – gathered up their portable possessions, rushed to the railway station in the Avenue Thiers, and found places on the last train from Nice. This steamed slowly east along the spectacular Riviera coast, the azure seas glittering in the autumn sunshine, through the belle époque resorts of Beaulieu, Monaco and Menton, across the border at Ventimiglia into the Italian province of Cuneo. Other refugees, the less fortunate, were seized in their homes and hotels, on the roads to the north and east and in the city itself. According to one witness, Léon Poliakov, ‘Those official black Citroëns cruised the streets of Nice, and passengers attentively scrutinized passers-by. At any moment, a pedestrian would be asked to get into a car … The car went to the synagogue. There the victim was undressed and, if he was circumcised, he automatically took his place in the next convoy to Drancy.’6 Brunner’s Gestapo also headed for the offices of the département prefect Jean Chaigneau and the Italian consul-general Augusto Spechel. These two men held the names and addresses of the Jews in Nice itself and all the assigned residence communities on the Alpine border. Prefect Chaigneau was a courageous man. He had burned his lists. Spechel had taken the precaution of transferring his to Rome. The Gestapo left empty-handed and furious.

As the manhunt progressed over the following thirty-six hours, two other groups of Jewish refugees were still on their way to Nice. One was a party of two hundred elderly, children and young mothers from Megève. They had been brought by truck from the resort to Chambéry, there to take a train to Nice via Grenoble. As the train neared the Dauphiné capital, so too did the Wehrmacht approaching from the west. Somehow word was passed to the train and it was diverted to the relative safety of Turin, over the Italian border. The younger and fitter from the community in Megève were to undertake the whole journey by road. On the morning of 11 September 1943, a long line of charcoal-burning gazogènes could be seen heading east along the coast road from Cannes. As the convoy approached the Var to the west of Nice, a roadblock barred its way. At first no one could make out by which forces it was manned. Soon it became apparent. Field grey: it was the Wehrmacht. A few of the Jews had the energy and strength of will to jump out of the trucks and disappear into the stony Provençal countryside. The rest were captured.

For them it was Drancy, Auschwitz and the gas chambers.


Meanwhile, in Saint-Martin-Vésubie the contingency plan of escape over the border to Italy was put into effect. It had been an agonising decision for these benighted people. They could stay where they were: perhaps the Germans would not trouble themselves with such a remote place. They could seek refuge in the immediate – and inhospitable – surroundings. Or they could head for Italy: another country with another language and another people, where they had no idea of what they would find. Most chose to head over the two passes for Italy, perhaps feeling that it was better to act than to await events. Few had any experience of the high Alpine world: of hanging glaciers, loose screes, of precipices and rockfalls, of foot- and handholds that could crumble at a touch.

The first of them set out within hours of Eisenhower’s announcement, on the evening of 8 September 1943. Autumn was already closing its fist on the terrain, turning the leaves in the lower valley around Saint-Martin-Vésubie to russet and yellow, the light shading upwards to the evergreen spruce and fir, and then to the bare rock above the treeline. Snow was in the air, ibex and chamois grazing in the middle distance, birds of prey circling high above.

Through this epic landscape around a thousand Jews – the young and the old, the strong and the weak – headed for the Col de Cerise or the Col de Fenestre – the two routes established just days previously by the young Zionists. It was an exodus. Many carried in small fibre suitcases all that they owned. Most took two days to make the journey, some more. The first day on either route was relatively easy, along mule tracks. That night, the refugees slept under the stars. The second, where the trail – such as it was – ran through a boulder field, was much tougher. There were no yellow waymarks to point to the next mountain restaurant: rather a switchback climb with the rocks shifting underfoot and snow-clad peaks staring down. The two passes themselves were high, windy, bleak places, windows from one valley – one world – to the next. On the third day the exiles descended into the Gesso valley and what they believed might be sanctuary.

As the ill-shod, poorly clothed parties – in ones and twos and groups of half a dozen or so – straggled down the rugged paths clutching their suitcases, they were watched with gathering interest by the Italian locals. Men, women and children loitered on their doorsteps and hung around on street corners, observing the refugees with considerable curiosity. One of the footsore, William Blye, ‘thought it was because the Jews were speaking languages other than Italian and wearing city clothes … Only later was he told that the peasants were looking for horns. They thought that Jews had horns on their heads, like Moses and other Old Testament characters they had seen in church.’ Full of hope and fear, the exhausted refugees wound their way down the paths leading to the communities of Entraque, Valdieri and Borgo San Dalmazzo in the province of Cuneo. These were medieval villages hewn out of rock, where the peasant community gleaned a subsistence living out of the thin Alpine soil.


The haven the Jews had hoped for they did not find. As in Nice, Rommel’s forces had got there before the persecuted could escape. On 12 September 1943 a battalion from the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had occupied the provincial capital of Cuneo, within a few miles of all the refugees fleeing from Saint-Martin. On 18 September the battalion commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, ordered the Jews in the area to assemble at the barracks close to the railway station in Borgo San Dalmazzo. Two months later, of the 349 who had gathered or who were subsequently captured, 328 were dispatched to Drancy. On 7 December 1943 they were entrained to Auschwitz. Twelve survived.

Most of those who remained in Saint-Martin-Vésubie were captured by SS-Hauptsturmführer Alois Brunner’s police, who arrived in the mountain settlement on 21 September 1943. They were deported and gassed. A few remained in hiding, helped by the locals. Only when Allied soldiers reached Saint-Martin-Vésubie from the beachheads of the south of France landings on 2 September 1944 did they know they would survive.


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