After the First World War, France was left devastated by the loss of 1.4 million lives and 3 million more injured along with the destruction of its towns and cities. It was a loss that weighed heavy on the French. Even with the Versailles treaty that required the Germans to pay war damages and the French occupation of the German Rhineland to the Sarre River, they still didn't feel safe from further invasion.
After such a devastating event not everyone was ready to go to war again. Some believed that it would be better to capitulate than to lose more lives. Better to live as German than die as a Frenchman was a phrase that would come back to haunt them. The more pragmatic thought a series of defences should be built to ward off any attack from the Germans.
After WWI the French occupied the German Rhineland and took back control of the Alsace and Lorraine regions where the Germans had built a series of fortifications. After analysing these fortifications, a line of defences from the English Channel to the Mediterranean was seen as the way forward. Some fortifications already existed from past wars but a major expansion was required. It was reasoned that if no one could breach the defences then no fighting beyond the border could take place, that and its deterrent value.
A massive building project took place, with two notable exceptions - Belgium and Switzerland. Belgium had signed a defence treaty with France and the Swiss remained neutral so any attack that came from these countries was seen as unlikely, so the heaviest defences would be created outside of these areas. The German and Italian borders in the Alps were seen as the most vulnerable and where the French built the heaviest fortifications.
The man championing this approach in the Third Republics' parliament was André Maginot, a veteran of the horrific battles in Verdun and later the Minister for war. This line of defence would be called the Maginot Line and across the Alps, the Petit Maginot or Alpine Line, giving the impression of an unbroken line of defences throughout the entirety of France.
Work began in 1930 with billions of French Francs invested. The fortifications were advanced in their construction with testing done on concrete density to withstand 300kg of TNT, ventilation systems to prevent a gas attack, lifts, underground train lines and backup systems for power. All options were looked at in building them - this intensive specification meant some were not completed when war came.
In the Alps, the terrain made building a challenge with observation towers (cloches) weighing up to 30 tons being difficult to construct often only in the summer months. Materials were transported by any means available including rudimentary cable cars or even mules. Some of the locations were impossible to attack with a tank or heavy artillery so didn't require such heavy defences. Since the 17th century, the strategic value of the Alpine passes was already known. Many of the fortifications had already been constructed and it was the ouvrage (works or bunker) at Rimplas in the Alpes-Maritimes sector, that was the first to be completed. This made it the first ouvrage of any portion of the Maginot Line to be finished.
Of the 25 fortified sectors of the Maginot Line, three were in the Alps. The fortified sector of Savoy in the north, the fortified sector of Dauphiné in the middle and the fortified sector of the Alpes-Maritimes covering the coast. In June 1940, only five Alpine passes between France and Italy were accessible for motorised vehicles: the Col du Petit Saint Bernard, Mont Cenis Pass, Col de Montgenèvre, Col de Larche and the Col de Tende. These were seen as the most likely invasion points.
In the fortified sector of the Alpes-Maritimes, the terrain was less rugged but had important coastal access roads and train lines. This presented the best possible invasion route for the Italians and was heavily fortified. In the Dauphiné, the main points of attack were seen as the Montgenèvre and in the Savoy the Col du Petit Saint Bernard.
In 1936 Hitler had come to power and reoccupied the Rhineland. Belgium had broken its treaty with France to become neutral and the Maginot line became active for the first time. In 1939 the Germans had annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia and were studying the Czech fortifications due to their similarity to the French ones. On September 9th the Hochwald fortifications in the north of France opened fire for the first time. The Germans invaded Belgium in May of 1940 and used the Ardennes as a way through the Maginot line's major defences.
Battle of the Alps
On the 10th of June 1940 Italian dictator, Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini declared war on France. Four days later he sent 650,000 Italian troops to attack the Alpine passes on the borders of France and Italy.
In the Dauphiné region of France, the Italians captured the village of Montgenèvre just over the border but were unable to make any other advances. In the Savoie, the Italian Alpine Corps took the Seigne Pass and advanced as far as the Cormet de Roselend. The Col du Petit Saint Bernard was also under attack only to be stopped by fire from the fort of the Redoute Ruinée high above the pass. A motorised division was brought up to reinforce the attack and broke through the pass. By the armistice, they had occupied Séez but never managed to take the Redoute Ruinée or their objective of Bourg-Saint-Maurice.
The Italian Army Corps advanced on Mont Cenis and crossed the Little Mont Cenis pass on the way to Modane taking the village of Bramans. The forts at Saint-Gobain and the Barrière de l'Esseillon halted the Italians as they progressed and Modane was not taken before the armistice.
In the Alpes-Maritimes, the Italians planned attack on the coast road towards Nice was halted when a seaborne attack on the Cap Martin Ouvrage was called off. The Italian division was met by a barrage of shellfire from the forts at Cap Martin and Mont Agel and an armoured train was destroyed on the tracks. During the night and under the cover of thick fog they bypassed Cap Martin and entered Menton. The fighting in the streets of Menton was fierce and continued until the armistice.
On the 25th of June, an armistice was signed but many forts in the Alps continue to resist. The French eventually evacuated the Alpine Line and the forts were abandoned, becoming part of the non-occupied zone. Some of the forts were occupied by Italian and German troops until late 1944 when the French Alpine troops engaged the German and Italian forces in the Second Battle of the Alps. Fort Sapey is the first to be captured and fighting continues until all the lost territory is recovered by the French forces.
Relics of a forgotten past
Today these fortifications remain part of the Alps. Many were partially destroyed by the fighting and nature is working its magic to reclaim the spaces. Many of the bunkers survived attempts by the French, Germans and Italians to destroy them. They still sit unmoved by time casting a watchful eye on the horizon. Some have found themselves as part of the urban landscape. At the side of a road, at a roundabout or next to some tennis courts. Some can be visited and their history learned.
Others are far from the towns, alone in their remote locations and partially hidden with only a Chamois or passing hiker left to wonder at what they are seeing or perhaps what they have seen.