Côte d’Azur autumn 1939: a not too phoney war

Young wartime soldierThe Second World War began just after eleven o’clock in the morning on September 3rd, 1939 when Neville Chamberlain made that famous broadcast – who hasn’t heard the clip a dozen times? – from “the Kebnit Room” at number Ten Downing Street announcing that Britain was “at war with Germany”. Paris lined up with London six hours later. Then, of course, there was anti-climax until the following spring with nothing much happening in what Brits called “the phoney war”, the French “la drôle de guerre” and the Germans “der Sitzkrieg”.

But things were a little different in this part of France. Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator and ally of Hitler, had long thought of recovering Nice and its surrounds for Italy from which it had been separated, by negotiation, in 1860. When war was declared he launched an attack across the frontier.

The Italian soldiers looked great, with their moustaches and the officers with their plumed hats, but – Madre mia! – did they get a surprise!

The French troops were better trained and better equipped and gave the invaders a very hard time. Italian losses were heavy – 200 men died in a vain attempt to take Menton; finally, Musso’s troops only seized thirteen small communes, including Castellar and Isola.

The French had something to be proud of for a while even though the Italians and later the Germans eventually returned to the Côte d’Azur in force.