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Barracks and bunkers

Fortifications in the Maritime Alps

Bassa della Lausa, view from inside (A. Rivelli/PNAM).

Wherever they go, people leave a mark. In the case of soldiers, these marks are forts, barracks, bunkers, military roads. Often these are built on the site of previous military structures. The evolution of these fortifications gives us an outline of how military techniques developped and the changes in European politics. Their abandon is the pacific epilogue to centuries of tension in the Maritime Alps...

In 1871 the "General Plan for the Defence of the Nation" also known as the Ferrero Plan, was written. This was to protect the borders of the new Kingdom of Italy. In 1882 following the underwriting of the Triple Alliance Pact with Austria and Germany, the Plan was substantially reviewed: with France as an enemy, the Western front took on a considerable strategic importance. From 1876 we see frantic activity in the Western Alps, with construction or renovation of numerous fortifications that protected the main routes to the Po valley.

The Gesso valley with its impervious passes which allow only small contingents of light infantry through, was less affected by the building work. However, the main mountain passes were defended by foot soldiers, lodged in barracks and block houses high in the mountains. In the upper parts of the Valasco and Valletta valleys we find barracks at the lower Valscura lake and at the lower Fremamorta lake respectively; the upper Barra valley saw the building of two shelters, Lombard and Malariva near the Praiet lake, other smaller quarters, for few men, were built at the minor passes, of these only a few stones remain.

Within a short time the defensive system was completed with two large barracks. In 1894, the Umberto I barracks was built at the upper Fremamorta lakes, this could house 120 men and 3 officers, and a stable to house 10 men and 10 "quadrupeds" (horses and mules). A few years later the Druos barracks were built at the upper Valscura lakes, this could hold 400 soldiers, 6 officers and 10 mules. The actual date of construction of this building is in some doubt: military documents of the time mention 1903, whilst more recent sources put it between 1916-17. It is likely that in the First World War the barracks were only renovated, with the use of prisoners from the war with Austria, and that it was at this time that it was dedicated to the Captain Massimo Longà of the 1° Reggimento Alpini, who died at Monte Ortigara in June 1917.

The Valle Gesso, being inaccessible, lacks the imposing stone-built fortresses of the end of the nineteenth century that we find in neighbouring valleys. These were the nevralgic centres for the entrenched camps defending the easier (and therefore more vulnerable) mountain passes. In Valle Vermenagna, the Colle di Tenda was fortified with two defensive lines, hingeing on the Forte Colle Alto and the Centrale defensive barracks, supported on the right side by the Pernante, Giaura and Margheria forts, and on the left by Taborda and Pepino.

In Valle Stura, to support the Albertino Fort at Vinadio, the Batteria Neghino was built on the right side and the Batteria Serziera and Piroat on the left. In the First World War, which was fought on the Eastern Front there was no new fortification in the Maritime Alps: in the evolution of the defensive works certain things are missing, such as retractable turrets and armoured domes, which had found use in other areas to counter the greater precision and power of artillery fire.

Work on fortifying this part of the Alps recommenced in the mid 1920s. The new building reflected the change in defensive strategy, changing from a war of position which the First World War had been. Now a deep series of defensive lines, backed up by automatic weapons in casemates was employed creating an almost insuperable defence line, suited to weakening enemy assault and preparing a counter attack. On the basis of this idea the Vallo Alpino di Littorio, (Alpine Wall) was born, a fortified line along the whole of the Italian border, including thousands small barracks and proper bunkers, which were intended to protect the "Sacred Confines of the Fatherland" from enemy attack.

Once again the Valle Gesso was on the sidelines of military strategic interest. At the beginning of the 1930s when the building sites were already open in other areas of the Alps, there was still little movement on the Maritime Alps. Only at the end of the decade do we see the construction of two lines of defence, the first along the watershed, and the second where the main valleys meet. So, almost simultaneously a series of small combat blocks were built, these were single semisubmerged units made of concrete designed to withstand small calibre fire, armed with one or two machine guns and held by a handful of men. In most places the gun slits of the casemates were armoured with plate metal, this was not the case here.

The bunkers (called Opere) were often supported by little armed nuclei, protected from shrapnel and small arms fire, called NAS, these were perched on the mountainside to defend awkward secondary passes or simply to cross fire with the bigger bunkers. Along the first line of defence, we find both bunkers and NAS at Colle di Finestra (Opere 126 and 127), at Colle di Ciriegia (Opera 133 and Opera 134, this latter construction never left the drawing board), at Colle di Fremamorta (Opera 136 and Opera 135, never completed) and at Bassa della Lausa (Opera 144); only NAS at Passo di Pagarì and Passo della Rovina, at Colle di Mercantour and at Bassa del Druos (where to save resources a battery was built in a cave).

Foot soldiers also were posted at the passes, quartered in dozens of little barracks and bivouacs, sized according to the importance of the zone they were covering. The second line of defence was made up of five bunkers in all: three slightly above Terme di Valdieri, in the Valletta valley (Opere 274 and 275) and Valasco valley (Opera 276); two at Ponte della Rovina (Opere 270 and 271), at the entrance to the Rovina and Barra valleys. Between the two lines, at Gias delle Mosche, at Pian della Casa, at Gias Isterpis and at Piazzale dei Cannoni near Gias della Siula, these were artillery posts to support the front line.

Only at the beginning of the 1940s, when the risk of having to face armoured vehicles and heavy artillery became a hypothesis, did the third line of defence start to take shape. It was situated near Tetti Cialombard, between Andonno and Valdieri. There were plans, some of which were executed, for four large bunkers in the rock, each with several casemate positions, logistic rooms and dorms, presided over by dozens of men. The largest of these, the forward bunker Opera 8 Avanzata, on the left of the River Gesso, was almost completely destroyed by recent quarrying; further back the rear bunker Opera 8 Arretrata is still in reasonable condition. On the right of the river, Opera 9 can be considered almost finished and the work on Opera 10, which was designed to give depth to the defence, stopped at the excavation stage at the end of 1942, when the direction the conflict was taking became clear.

Ruined now and often camouflaged and well hidden, these military buildings surprise visitors for their ingenuity and the technical skills of the designers and builders... they are another good reason to keep your eyes open when walking along the roads and paths in the Park!

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