On this day in 1940, Britain demonstrates that it will not remain on the defensive, by bombing Italian targets in response to Mussolini’s declaration of war on England and France.
Having already marked out an offensive strategy in the event of Italian aggression, Britain bombed targets within the cities of Genoa and Turin. Africa was also another theater of conflict, as Italy and Britain were imperial neighbors. Italy had just bombed targets in the British-controlled Suez Canal territory, as well as the British-controlled island of Malta, in the Mediterranean. Britain retaliated with a raid on the Italian military installation in Eritrea. Even the Pacific would see fallout from this new conflict, with an Australian merchant cruiser giving chase to an Italian vessel, which ended up scuttling itself rather than surrendering.
Allies launch counterattack against Germans in France
After several months of an aggressive German offensive on the Western Front during the spring and early summer of 1918, the Allies begin their counterattack, including an assault on June 10, 1918, by four French and two American divisions on German lines near the town of Antheuil-Portes in central France, some 45 miles from Paris.
Code-breaking by French intelligence at the beginning of June 1918 had allowed the Allies to prepare for a German attack in France that was to begin at midnight on June 7. The French launched their own massive artillery bombardment some ten minutes earlier, catching the Germans while they were still preparing for the attack. The Germans countered with an even stronger assault, firing 250,000 rounds of poison gas—including mustard, phosgene and diphenyl-chlorarsine—into the French trenches, incapacitating some 4,000 French soldiers and killing 32.
After three days of battle, the Germans had forced the French back to Antheuil-Portes. Winston Churchill, in Paris at the time coordinating Allied munitions, wrote to his wife on June 10 that “If the French cannot hold [the Germans] back on this sector, it is not easy to see what the next step on our part should be.” The following day, four French and two American divisions launched a counterattack aided by significant air support as well as over 150 tanks. They successfully pushed the Germans back from Antheuil, taking more than a thousand German prisoners. A German attack west of Soissons on June 12 made negligible gains, and German Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff called off the offensive that same day. The Allies continued their push, however, beginning a change of momentum that would gain force throughout the summer of 1918 and the final months of World War I.
On this day in 1940, after withholding formal allegiance to either side in the battle between Germany and the Allies, Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy, declares war on France and Great Britain.
What caused Il Duce’s change of heart? Perhaps the German occupation of Paris did it. “First they were too cowardly to take part. Now they are in a hurry so that they can share in the spoils,” reflected Hitler. (However, Mussolini claimed that he wanted in before complete French capitulation only because fascism “did not believe in hitting a man when he is down.”)
Italy’s lack of raw materials had made Mussolini wary of waging all-out war previously. Britain and France were also wooing him with promises of territorial concessions in Africa in exchange for neutrality. But the thought of its Axis partner single-handedly conquering the Continent was too much for his ego to bear. While Germany had urged Italy’s participation in September 1939, at this late date such intervention would probably prove more of a hindrance than a help. For example, despite Italy’s declaration of war on the 10th, it wasn’t until the 20th that Italian troops were mobilized in France, in the southwest-and easily held at bay by French forces.
The reaction by the Allies to the declaration of war was swift: In London, all Italians who had lived in Britain less than 20 years and who were between the ages of 16 and 70 were immediately interned. In America, President Roosevelt broadcast on radio the promise of support for Britain and France with “the material resources of this nation.”
Italians renew battle on mountain-tops in Trentino
On June 10, 1917, Italian troops launch a renewed assault on Austro-Hungarian positions in the mountains of the Trentino region in northern Italy, on the border with Austria.
The formidable nature of the northern Italian terrain—four-fifths of the 600-kilometer-long border with Austria was lined with mountains, with several peaks rising above 3,000 meters—made the Italian, of all the fronts during World War I, the least well-suited for battle. Nevertheless, upon their entrance into the war in May 1915 on the side of the Allies, the Italians immediately took the offensive against Austria in the Trentino, with little success. By the end of 1915, after four battles fought on the Isonzo River, in the eastern section of the Italian front, Italy had made no substantial progress and had suffered 235,000 casualties, including 54,000 killed.
The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo—by the end of the war there would be 12—in May 1917 had met with a similar lack of success for the Italians. A major Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive launched on June 3 reclaimed virtually all of the ground Italy had gained; Italian Commander-in-Chief Luigi Cadorna shut down the attacks on June 8.
Two days later, the increasingly frustrated Italians renewed the battle, attacking six mountain peaks in the Trentino. Italian deserters had revealed details of the assault to the Austrians, however, and they were able to counterattack successfully and hold their positions. The Italians did manage to capture one mountain peak, however—the nearly 7,000-foot-high Mount Ortigaro—and take some 1,000 Austrian prisoners. Two weeks later, the Austrians seized control of Ortigaro again, taking 2,000 Italian prisoners. By the end of June, after three weeks of heated battle on the mountain peaks and passes, the lines of territory had barely changed, at the cost of 23,000 Italian and nearly 9,500 Austrian casualties.
On this day in 1944, Russia penetrates into East Karelia, in Finland, as it fights to gain back control of territory that had already been ceded to it.
According to the terms of the Treaty of Moscow of 1940, Finland was forced to surrender parts of its southeastern territory, including the Karelian Isthmus, to the Soviet Union, which was eager to create a buffer zone for Leningrad. To protect itself against further Russian encroachment, Finland allowed Germany to traverse its country in its push eastward into Russia, despite the fact that it did not have a formal alliance with the Axis power. Emboldened by the damage Germany was inflicting on Russia, Finland pursued the “War of Continuation” and won back large parts of the territory it had ceded to Moscow in the 1940 treaty.
But as Germany suffered setback after setback, and the Allies continued bombing runs in the Balkans, using Russia as part of its “shuttle” strategy, Finland began to panic and made overtures to Stalin about signing an armistice. By June 9, the Red Army was once again in the East Karelia, and Stalin was in no mood to negotiate, demanding at least a symbolic “surrender” of Finland entirely. Finland turned back to its “friend,” Germany, which promised continued support. A change in Finnish government resulted in a change in perspective, and Finland finally signed an armistice that gave Stalin what he wanted: all the old territory from the 1940 treaty and a guarantee that German troops would evacuate Finnish soil. Finland agreed but the German army refused to leave. Terrible battles were waged between the two behemoths; finally, with the defeat of the Axis, Russia got what it wanted, not only in Finnish territory, but also in war reparations to the tune of $300 million. Finland would become known for its passivity in the face of the Soviet threat in the postwar era.
As British and American troops meet up at Normandy, Stalin Rejoices
U.S. General Omar Bradley, following orders from General Eisenhower, links up American troops from Omaha Beach with British troops from Gold Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer. Meanwhile, Russian Premier Joseph Stalin telegraphs British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to announce that the Allied success at Normandy “is a source of joy to us all,” and promises to launch his own offensive on the Eastern Front, as had been agreed upon at the Tehran Conference in late ’43, and thereby prevent Hitler from transferring German troops from the east to support troops at Normandy.
On this day in 1941, British and Free French forces enter Syria and Lebanon in Operation Exporter.
In May, the pro-Axis Rashid Ali rose to power in Iraq and refused to allow British maneuvers within his country in accordance with the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. Britain quickly restored the status quo ante by driving Ali and his followers out of Iraq. And to ensure that German military supplies shipped to Ali via Syria did not result in Axis control of that country and neighboring Lebanon, Britain decided to take preventive action. With Australian and Indian support, as well as that of Free French forces, Britain invaded both Syria and Lebanon, fighting Vichy French garrisons loyal to Germany. Resistance lasted five weeks before an armistice was finally signed on July 14, giving the Allies control of both Syria and Lebanon. Among those wounded in the fighting was the 26-year-old leader of Palestinian volunteer forces, Moshe Dayan, the future hero in the fight for an independent Jewish state. He lost an eye.
German Military History with a focus on World War 2 History including other areas of German History