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.
On June 7, 1917, the British 2nd Army, led by Herbert Plumer, scores a crushing victory over the Germans at Messines Ridge in northern France, marking the successful prelude to an Allied offensive designed to break the grinding stalemate on the Western Front in World War I.
British forces put careful planning into the Battle of Messines Ridge: for the previous 18 months, soldiers had worked to place nearly 1 million pounds of explosives in tunnels under the German positions. The tunnels extended to some 2,000 feet in length, and some were as much as 100 feet below the surface of the ridge, where the Germans had long since been entrenched.
At 3:10 a.m. on June 7, 1917, a series of simultaneous explosions rocked the area; the blast was heard as far away as London. As a German observer described the explosions: “nineteen gigantic roses with carmine petals, or? enormous mushrooms, ?rose up slowly and majestically out of the ground and then split into pieces with a mighty roar, sending up multi-colored columns of flame mixed with a mass of earth and splinters high in the sky.” German losses that day included more than 10,000 men who died instantly, along with some 7,000 prisoners–men who were too stunned and disoriented by the explosions to resist the infantry assault.
Although Messines Ridge itself was a relatively limited victory, it had a considerable effect. The Germans were forced to retreat to the east, a sacrifice that marked the beginning of their gradual but continuous loss of territory on the Western Front. It also secured the right flank of the British thrust towards the much-contested Ypres region, the eventual objective of the planned offensive. Over the next month and a half, British forces continued to push the Germans back toward the high ridge at Passchendaele, which on July 31 saw the launch of the British offensive–known as the Battle of Passchendaele or the Third Battle of Ypres–in earnest.
Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.
With Hitler’s armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.
On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.
By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.
For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery–for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France–D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.
The heroism and bravery displayed by troops from the Allied countries on D-Day has served as inspiration for several films, most famously The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also depicted in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).