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Battle of Authion

Battle of Authion
Part of World War II
Date10–12 April 1945
LocationAuthion massif, France
Result Allied victory
Belligerents
Axis:
 Germany
Allies:
 France
 United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Nazi Germany Ferdinand Hippel France Pierre Garbay
Units involved
34th Infantry Division
5th Gebirgsjäger
1st Free French Division
3e RIA
1st Brigade
2nd Brigade
4th Brigade[1]
Strength
Germany:
14,000 men
France:
16,000 men
unknown number of planes, tanks and artillery
British Empire:
unknown number of men
Casualties and losses
Germany:
100 killed,
unknown number of wounded or missing
France:
280 killed
1,000 wounded
British Empire:
unknown number of men killed or wounded[2]

The Battle of Authion was a military engagement that took place towards the end of World War II, shortly before the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. Units of the British Army and Free French Army were sent to the French Alps to clear an important route from central France to Italy. A critical choke point was the 2,080 metre (6,820 feet) high Authion massif, held by determined but weakened German and Italian forces.

Field Marshal Harold Alexander authorised the assault on Authion on 10 April 1945.

The German defences on Authion massif

The Authion massif has a height of 2,080 metre (6,820 feet), it dominates about 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) over the Alpine Valleys of Cairos, surrounded by steep slopes and deforested ravines. It is very difficult to access, only by a strategic path of switchbacks, containing mostly rocky ridges. This mountain range was crowned by important military works, namely Forca au Nord and Milles Fourches au Sud. These were strong, concrete protected forts topped with several meters of earth and locked by high gates and a deep ditch. There were also three towns in the North East and East of the forts.

Authion was therefore of decisive strategic importance in this part of the Alps. The German Command had this alpine area of this massif, the very basis of their defensive system. A Bavarian battalion of the 34th Mountain Division held the fortifications. The flanks of the massif were bombarded by enemy fire. German troop reserves were stationed in the Roya Valley and were ready to intervene at threatened points. These forts were also protected by important defensive works, namely trenches, dense networks of wires, barbed wire and anti-tank mines.

Preparations

In the beginning of April 1945, the Command was informed that the Allies were to begin a general offensive on the Italian front. The offensive under the command of British Field Marshal Harold Alexander, was focused on capturing the highest point of the mountain. However, on that date the Germans were strongly established on all fronts and in particular on that of the Alps, so that no unit of the Axis could be beaten.

The date of the offensive on the Authion was therefore set to 9 April 1945. Unfortunately, due to particularly unfavorable weather in the Alpine area, marked by heavy snowfall and a total lack of visibility, the attack would begin at the dawn of 10 April 1945. The DFL Division (1re Division Française Libre) had reinforced its infantry with several elements. Their duty was to lead the first part of the attack and then to capture the dominant peaks in the East as soon as possible.

The battle

On 9:15am on 10 April 1945, the French artillery stationed in Peira Cava, systematically shelled Fort de la Forca. The destruction brought on this objective, was relatively small. The projectiles were of inadequate size, not allowing the shelling to obtain significant results on those concrete structures that were particularly well protected.

At 9:30am, two companies of the BIMP (Bataillon d'Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique) departed from Tueis. One of the companies went to the crest of the spur located between Fort de la Forca and the Three Commons, the 2068-meter peak at the North of this spur. No progress beyond here was possible because of the barbed wire. They were also under heavy fire by automatic weapons installed on the slope. The Piton northern spur quickly came under fire from with the German armored company's turrets so they couldn't move. However, they clung to the ground, making best use of the craters left by artillery shells, but many were killed while under fire from enemy mortars. The losses were suddenly increasing while the next arrival of reinforcements were 15 hours away, with only seven men operational on the ground.

At 5:30pm., with the support of an assault section, the armored turret was destroyed and all the spur could then be occupied. The other company took advantage of BIMP during the fierce fighting to infiltrate the mountain road towards Cabanes Vieilles, surpassing without getting caught in Forts of Forca and Milles Fourches. The imaginative company Commander Barberot bustled to plug the loopholes with a bulldozer to make the route passable for light tanks.

Further to the right, a company of BMIX whose objective was the head of Vaiercaout, met with strong resistance from the enemy, forcing them to remain clinging on a slope and not reaching the top of this spur. Another company BMXI, climbing the rocky ridges of Mount Giagiabella was counterattacked on the way to its goal and had to retreat to its starting point, because of the number of losses.

In the north a company of scouts' skiers RIA 3, attached to the battalion reached the summit of Rauss.

Around 17 hours after the start of the battle the 4th Brigade from the Lower Camp Silver, allowed a company of the BM21 (reinforced with assault section) to remove the concrete structure of the Col de Rauss.

To the south, the work of the 2nd Brigade to cover the right slope of the main operation was almost complete, and a group of 2nd Battalion North Africans (Commander Bertrand) seized Mangiapo and held it himself.

At 7:00pm, a company of the 4th battalion (BM4) (Commander Buttin) occupied the top of Bosc. At noon a violent attack against the Germans starting from the Cross Cougoule, forced them to abandon the summit. Another company BM4, reinforced elements of an assault section, attacked le col de Brouis, but suffered heavy losses.

The results of this first day were quite minor, the Allies could not bite significantly into the enemy's defensive system, and the casualties were quite severe: 66 killed and wounded.

In the evening of 10 April, Harold Alexander decided to continue the offensive according to plan with a joint action on the Fort Miles Forts, by an assault group led by Lieutenant Colonel Lichtwitz.

The assault group was a relatively recent creation at the time, specialized in the attacks of fortifications (forts, bunkers, etc. ...) was armed with special weapons, especially bazookas and flamethrowers to complete the operation.[3]

The group had several assault sections, each section comprised six bazooka shooters, six machine guns, grenade throwers, six flamethrowers and six machine guns. The section also had several light mortars with smoke shells.

The battle on 11 April 1945 started with German counterattacks. At 3AM, the enemy vainly tried to regain one of the mountain tops.

At 6:30am, the BIMP section which occupied the northern peak of the spur of the Forca, suffered another attack and had to retreat.

At 8:00am, before the combined attack of BIMP and light tanks, the Germans abandoned the Cabanes Vieilles Camps.

In the early afternoon, the BMXI held Parpella Vaiercaout. Four sections of the assault group, reinforced with two sections of BMXI, seized Fort Milles.

At 3:00pm, the BMIP tried in vain to retake the north peak of the spur of Forca.

In the evening of the second day, a very serious breach was finally made in the defense system of Authion and the Allies could now walk on the massif.

The enemy however, did not seem willing to yield. Their reactions early in the day, were always very violent.

At 9:00am, a company within the BIMP was stopped before reaching the spur of Forca.

At 6:00pm, The forts were abandoned by the enemy, who retired on Beole quickly.

At 20:30pm the garrison of the Three Commons, violently subjected to the firing of artillery, surrendered.

The enemy, at end of the day, began to falter. Mountain hunters, captured, confessed their astonishment at the presence of tanks in these places deemed impractical for such vehicles.

Aftermath

12 April 1945 marked the final day and success of the operation conducted on the Authion, which ended the Second World War in France and made a clear path for the Allies to Italy.[4]

References

  1. ^ Bataille de l'Authion, francaislibres.net, retrieved 17 November 2015 
  2. ^ Authion Fortifications, exploguide.com, retrieved 17 November 2015 
  3. ^ Les combats de l'authion, musee-resistance-azureenne.com, retrieved 17 November 2015 
  4. ^ 1st-free-french-division, cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr, retrieved 17 November 2015