Book Review: Mussolini's Army in the French Riviera: Italy's Occupation of France


by Emanuele Sica

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. Pp. xx, 276. Illus., maps, chron., notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 0252039858

The Italian Occupation of France

In Mussolini's Army in the French Riviera, Emanuele Sica covers more than his title indicates. In his first seventy-two pages, Sica describes the hostile relations between Fascist Italy and the Third Republic prior to 1939; the tense period of Italian neutrality; the disastrous June 1940 Italian Alpine; Mussolini’s unrequited claims on Vichy French territory and French contempt for their Italian neighbors. Following the French-Italian armistice, Hitler and Mussolini decided not to arouse additional French resentment. The Italians occupied only a thin strip along the French-Italian border. There they remained for twenty-nine months.

However, on November 8, 1942, British and American forces landed in Morocco and Algeria. The mixed reaction of French forces aroused Hitler’s suspicions. He decided to bring Southern France under direct Axis control. But operational demands elsewhere left few German troops available. Hitler called upon Italian assistance. Mussolini willingly agreed. He hoped occupation would lead to annexation. In the next 106 pages Sica tells what followed.

On November 11, the Italian Fourth Army, seven small, badly equipped divisions, advanced into southeastern France. Passive French resistance and vehicle shortages slowed Italian movements. Thus the Germans initially occupied Marseille and the Toulon naval base, although too late to prevent scuttling of the French fleet. Inadequate manpower forced the Italians to restrict themselves to coastal defense and attendant security measures. Given their limited resources, they hoped to avoid armed resistance. Furthermore, unlike Balkan populations, the Italians considered the French to be civilized Europeans. Sica describes initial relations between occupiers and civilians as reserved but not hostile.

Italian soldiers, however, impressed neither the French nor the Germans. Corruption and shortages afflicted the military supply system. That resulted in wretchedly housed, shabbily dressed, and poorly fed troops. In contrast, the privileges of Italian officers contrasted with the condition of their men shocked German and French observers. Enlisted morale plummeted and discipline suffered. As time passed, Italian soldiers spent increasing time searching for food or dealing on the black market rather than patrolling the coast. Desertions to their nearby homeland were common.

In April 1943, as Axis forces in Tunisia collapsed, active French resistance in the Italian zone grew. It consisted mostly of sabotage with occasional bombings and shootings. The Italians imposed a curfew and made arrests. But anti-Italian activities hardly threatened Italian control. For instance, the Italians took only one thousand prisoners during the occupation. Furthermore, unlike German and Vichy French anti-Semitic measures, official Italian restraint and individual Italian compassion made their zone a haven for Jewish refugees.

Mussolini’s overthrow on July 25, 1943 and the downfall of the Fascist regime initiated the breakdown of Fourth Army discipline. However foolishly, many Italian soldiers thought peace imminent. Six weeks later, after the Italian government abandoned the Axis and fled Rome, the Italian army in France collapsed. The Italian high command had not warned subordinate commanders. But the Germans had planned for the eventuality. Some Italians resisted, more fled over the Alps but most of the Fourth Army surrendered. Over 60,000 were sent to prison camps in Poland.

Sica contrasts Italian and German occupation methods in southern France. He treats the Italian rather favorably, listing German arrogance, harsh racial policies and greater military strength as factors. Yet Italian counterinsurgency campaigns elsewhere were conducted with extreme brutality. The author argues that minimal French resistance and Latin consanguinity, not greater Italian virtue, explain the difference.

A volume in the University of Illinois Press series “History of Military Occupation, Sica’s book deals with war rather than warfare. But it tells a story previously uncovered in English-language historical literature. His book is well written and extensively researched. It contains excellent maps, detailed and highly useful notes, and an extensive bibliography.


Note: Mussolini's Army in the French Riviera, is also available as an e-pub, ISBN 978-0-252-09796-6.


Our Reviewer: Dr. Brian Sullivan, former professor of history at Yale and later the Naval War College, , has written and lectured extesively in Italian military history, is the author, among other works, Il Duce's Other Woman, a biography of Mussolini’s influential mistress Margherita Sarfatti, and the editor of Sarfatti’s My Fault: Mussolini As I Knew Him. A founding member and for many years the first president of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, his presentations at NYMAS include “The Italo-Ottoman War, 1911-1912”.


Reviewer: Brian Sullivan   

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