September 1943, the Liberation of Corsica

A group of resistance fighters in the Sartene region during the liberation of Corsica in 1943.
A group of resistance fighters in the Sartene region during the liberation of Corsica in 1943. Source: English press

September 1943, the Liberation of Corsica

Corps 1

Corsica, occupied from 11 November 1942 to 4 October 1943, was a theatre of war that encompassed North Africa and the mainland and islands of Italy. Its fate was closely linked to the political developments of Fascist Italy and its military happenings.

Corps 2

On the evening of 8 September 1943, the BBC announced the armistice between Italy and the Allied British and American forces. The cessation was kept a secret since being signed in Cassibile, Sicily, five days earlier, as Italy feared that this declaration would encourage the German forces to accelerate their penetration into Italian territory that had begun in August. In Corsica, occupied by the Italians since 11 November 1942, an order to insurrection was issued to the members of the Resistance. It was signed by the National Front Departmental Committee, a resistance movement initiated by the communists in 1941. Its decision was not extemporary. The Corsican National Front, which had succeeded in unifying the regional resistance during the course of 1943, had mobilised 12,000 men ready and willing to fight even before a landing had occurred. The battle would be directed towards the Germans since Italy had surrendered.
After the Allied landing in North Africa on 8 November 1942, more than 80,000 Italians had landed in Corsica from 11 November. A record density as the territory covered a mere 8,800 km2 for a population no bigger than 200,000 citizens (1). The German presence, meanwhile, was reduced to one SS brigade stationed since June 1943, the Germans having relinquished control of the island to the Italians. The Corsicans feared losing their French identity and were frequent victims of attempts on their liberties. Prison sentences were enforceable in Italy and death sentences declared in presentia by the military tribunal were immediately applied. Some 110 people, mainly prominent citizens, were imprisoned on the island of Elba without receiving a proper sentencing. Corsica had lost its elite. The resistance movement, supported by missions coming from London and Algiers from 15 December 1942 onwards, increased in influence and members. The resistance fighters, concealed in cubbyholes in the mountains and forests, awaited the distribution of arms brought in by submarine or parachute. The French submarine, the Casabianca, commanded by Frigate Captain L'Herminier, who had refused to scuttle the craft and managed to leave Toulon on 27 November 1942, successfully completed six clandestine missions in Corsica.
Due to the isolation of the islands and losses caused by repression, the resistance drew closer between April and July 1943 around the movement that had remained the strongest: the Corsican National Front. In April, General Giraud, then civil and military commander in chief in Algiers, tasked Paul Colonna d'Istria to prepare the Corsicans for fighting. He was fully aware that the majority of the movement were communist but believed there was no other choice but to recognise the situation. While the possibility of liberation seemed near, this was because the political and military situation had changed in Italy: on 25 July, after the Allied landing in Sicily, Mussolini had lost power. In August, peace demonstrations took place in the cities of Italy. The German forces penetrated into Italy and strengthened their positions in Corsica due to the strategic location of the island on the peninsula's western side. The SS brigade moved south to link up with the 90th Panzergrenadier Division which had received the order to travel from Sardinia to Corsica when the Italian surrender was announced.
Covert contacts with the Italians
From late July, there was some debate among the leaders of the National Front: Was an insurrection possible without a simultaneous landing? Was there any possibility of finding non-Fascist elements among the occupying forces, forging an alliance with them, and thus counting on their heavy artillery and transport resources for support? The decision was made by late August with the order issued to attack the German troops the moment the Italian armistice was announced. Contact was covertly made in early August by the National Front leaders with the Blackshirt Colonel (2) in Bastia, Gianni Cagnoni, and General Stivala, who commanded the Italian garrison in Bastia. Cagnoni was made responsible for supplying information on the activities of the police, helping draft tracts to be distributed among Italian soldiers and, in the event of an Allied landing, creating a beachhead in Bastia.
The Allied forces arrived in Salerno, south of Naples, on 9 September. On the evening of 8 September, the decision to go ahead with an insurrection was upheld. Colonel d'Istria notified Algiers and summoned the Italian General Magli, who led the 7th army corps, to choose between a stance of neutrality, hostility or cooperation with regard to the resistance. The first paradox was that this general, who had subjected the population to a constant aggravated military regime since April, responded: ”... I am with you”. The troops were left confused. Desertions occurred. During the night of 8 to 9 September, the Italian and German navies came head to head. The town remained temporarily in the hands of the Italians. Yet the paradoxical alliance was not guaranteed: on 9 September, Magli met German General Von Senger, head of the German forces on the island, and assured him of his benevolent neutrality and ordered the release of German prisoners. It was only on 11 September that he received the order from the Comando Supremo to ”consider the Germans enemies”.
General Magli ordered the release of resistance prisoners in Corsica. The final fate to consider was that of the Corsican deportees held in Italian prisons on the island of Elba. The incarcerated Corsicans in Calabre were the first to be delivered by the Allies when they landed there on 3 September. Among those on the island of Elba, some 15 men were able to escape by sea following the Germans' arrival on 16 September. The others, transferred to Carinthia, an Austrian province annexed to Germany, were only able to return when war had ended.
The Germans, appalled by the Italians' behaviour, mercilessly attacked them. The 90th Panzer coming from Sardinia followed the eastern coast towards Bastia taken over on 13 September. Now the only port accessible for launching a rescue operation was Ajaccio. The resistance fighters delayed the Germans at the same time as weakening them and preventing enemy forces from crossing the mountainous ridge that separated the two sides of the island. Patriots and Italian soldiers (around 20% of Italian troops stationed in Corsica chose to fight against the Germans) won a decisive battle in Levie on 17 September.
They were then joined by men from the shock battalion: 109 of them having made the crossing aboard the Casabianca. These were the first French soldiers arriving in Ajaccio from Algiers: the vanguard of the Operation 'Vesuvius' troops (3) prepared in Algiers by General Giraud and placed under the command of General Henry Martin. With the exception of an American commando, Captain James Pitteri, the troops were French, carefully selected for their ability to wage a mountain combat against an enemy whose weaponry and gear were superior.
In addition to the 'shock' troops under Commander Gambiez, the troops consisted of Moroccan infantry led by Colonel de Butler, Moroccan tabors (4) under Lieutenant Colonel de La Tour as well as Moroccan Spahis, an African artillery unit, military engineers and telegraphists. The 'shock' troops were volunteers led by the same spirit of resistance as the patriots. They came from different army corps in North Africa or were escapees from occupied France. In collaboration with the Corsican patriots, they harried German convoys and checkpoints along the east coast.
The mission of the other troops was to occupy the passes, liberate the coastal road and take Bastia. Action was taken in the south near Borgo, in the west in Teghime Pass where the fighting was particularly harsh, and in the northwest under Lieutenant-Colonel de La Tour. The battle for Bastia, waged in very bad weather, lasted from 27 September to 4 October. The 73th Goum of the 6th Tabor entered the town first at dawn. German losses in Corsica and onboard aircraft and ships totalled 3,000 of which 2,000 were killed.
Corsica, a strategic operational base
The Italian units involved in combat did so under inter-Allied command. In total, they lost more than 600 men. Their evacuation began in October. There were some 13,000 Corsicans engaged in the war of reconquest. Self-motivated or mobilised by a simple notice in the press on 30 November, they landed in Algiers to be enlisted. Some joined the 1st Free French Division and others the 2nd Armoured Division. Despite Corsica's initially weak resources, its geographic position made it an important strategic point. The Americans established 17 airports on the island. They also sanitized the eastern plain where malaria was still a problem. As much as possible they used the port of Ajaccio since Bastia's port was destroyed. Corsica was connected to North Africa by an 800-km 'zigzagging' shipping line depending on the risk of attack by the Luftwaffe and German submarines. The French controlled this line used to transport equipment, arms, munitions and vehicles.
Corsica was thus a strategic operational base. It was an important point on two key occasions: in the Tyrrhenian zone firstly, with the reconquest in June 1944 of the Tuscan archipelago (5) then, in August, in Provence when the second wave of the Allied assault headed to Corsica with 2,000 vessels towards the Var coast.
(1) INED, Le contrôle des recensements, April-June 1949, no. 2.
(2) Militia created in Italy in 1923 to support the Fascist regime and integrated into the Italian army in March 1940.
(3) Code name chosen to create a diversion.
(4) Battalions of Moroccan foot soldiers in units called 'goums'.
(5) The island of Elba and the small islands of Pianosa, Monte Cristo and Capraja.