Americans in Vercors II

In the first days of July, Eucalyptus settled at the Huet’s headquarters in Saint-Martin-en-Vercors, twelve miles north of Vassieux. The team became the primary channel of communication between Huet and the outside world, with Pacquet exchanging hundreds of messages with Algiers and London. On the other hand, Captain Hoppers and the OGs of Team Justine took a much more visible role among the Maquis as they began preparing their first action against the Germans. They also equipped and trained a group of Maquisards to add strengths to their own group.

The French proposed a location suitable for an ambush at the southeastern extremity of Vercors, near the village of Lus-la-Croix-Haute, about forty-five miles south of Grenoble. On July 7, Hoppers and his men travelled to that location, a strip of road about three hundred yards long, shaped like a horseshoe and flanked on the east by an escarpment thirty feet high. It was perfect for an L-shaped ambush. On the short end of the L the OGs placed only two men armed with a bazooka and a Browning machine gun. The remainder of the group took positions along the long end the L. After waiting for about an hour, they saw a column of six trucks and a bus carrying about 120 Germans approaching. A bazooka round hit and disabled the leading truck as it came around the bend of the road. The machine gun fire stopped the second truck that attempted to drive around the disabled truck. The remainder of the convoy had nowhere to go and came under a barrage of fire from the OGs and the Maquisards lined up along the kill zone. Particularly effective were Gammon grenades, bags of canvas-like material and a fuse, which the OGs filled with one pound of C-2 explosives and one pound of scrap iron. The Gammon grenade was activated by removing the fuse and throwing the bag toward the enemy. Upon impact, it exploded, sending shrapnel in all directions and killing or maiming everyone in the vicinity.

In true guerrilla fashion, the attack ended almost as soon as it began. By the time the Germans had taken cover, set up mortars, and began to return fire, Hoppers gave the order to withdraw to the prearranged rendezvous point ten miles from the ambush location. They had destroyed three trucks and one bus, killed sixty Germans and wounded another twenty-five. One Maquisard was killed in action, and another one was missing. The next day, they learned that the Germans had captured the wounded Frenchman and had tortured him to death in front of the villagers of Lus-la-Croix-Haute.

This operation was the only successful combat operation the Maquisards had conducted since the Germans had dislodged them from Saint-Nizier near Grenoble. It added to the fascination the Maquisards had developed with the Americans’ appearance, their weapons, and the aura of abundance and modernity that seemed to surround them. It also added further credit to rumors of a massive arrival of Allied soldiers in Vercors, rumors that puzzled Pecquet who wondered about their precise origin in a report to Algiers. The diary of Henri Audra from the town of Die, about twenty miles south of Vassieux, allows us to trace the progression of these rumors among the population of the area. On June 19, he noted, “the imminent parachuting of 2,000 Canadians coming to support the dissidents in Vercors.” On June 25, hearing airplanes flying overhead, he wrote, “most certainly, they are parachuting the Canadians we have been expecting for several days.” On July 10, he noted that he saw passing though the town “trucks carrying Canadians to attack a German convoy.” Then, on July 13, he noted that it was not Canadians after all, but “Americans from New York!”

The Germans were well informed of such rumors, as well. In its orders for the final preparations for Operation Bettina, issued on July 8, 1944, the headquarters of Army Group B responsible for defending South France said:

The concentration of important enemy troops in the zone of Vercors, their increasing equipment with heavy weapons, their probable reinforcement by Canadian paratroopers, and a considerable number of enemy forces expected to be transported by air in the plateau of Vassieux, make us think that in case of further landings by the enemy we should expect greater offensive actions launched from this region aiming to occupy Valence and the valley of Rhone, and perhaps at the same time to take the city of Grenoble.

The Germans tightened the stranglehold on the region in preparation for the final assault. General Pflaum began concentrating his men for the attack on Vercors. He set the D-day for operation Bettina on July 21, 1944. The initial striking point would be the town of Vassieux. The German soldiers were ordered to “hit fast and hard” and to show no mercy because Vassieux harbored the supreme command of the Resistance and considerable forces protecting it. The Luftwaffe flew multiple reconnaissance missions every day over the plateau photographing the terrain, roads, towns and villages.

Through communications with Team Eucalyptus, French authorities in Algiers sent warnings to the leaders of Vercors to expect a major attack at almost any moment. Local intelligence services of the Maquis confirmed this information: three German divisions were closing in on Vercors from Valence, Romans-sur-Isère, and Grenoble. The command of Vercors issued a general mobilization order on July 11. Six hundred men volunteered as laborers to prepare an airfield in Vassieux where Allies could land troops and supplies if they decided to come. Another one thousand men were called to the colors, but arming and equipping them remained a problem.

On July 12, the Germans were on the move. Chapelle-en-Vercors, in the heart of the plateau, was bombed on July 12 and 13 while surveillance airplanes flew over the plateau constantly during that time. In the evening of July 13, London sent word to expect a mass parachute drop the next day. On July 14, Bastille Day, at 0900 hours, eighty-five Flying Fortresses flew in formation over Vassieux in three waves and dropped 1,457 containers with red-white-and-blue parachutes in honor of France’s national holiday. The inhabitants of Vassieux celebrated in the streets, waiving at the planes and thanking the members of Eucalyptus and Justine for their efforts.

It was a sight to celebrate, but the joy was short-lived. Thirty minutes later, German airplanes began to bomb and strafe the town, and continued to do so for three days in a row, from dawn until well into the evening hours. The Germans used explosives during the day and incendiaries in the evening. The town was set ablaze, and the planes machine-gunned people trying to salvage belongings out of their homes. By July 16, Vassieux was completely in ruins, and the Germans began to destroy Chapelle-en-Vercors, seven miles to the south. From all the containers dropped to them, the Maquisards were able to retrieve only about two hundred during the night.

On July 17, the 157th Reserve Division and selected mobile units of the Ninth Panzer Division moved in on the Vercors triangle and began engaging the Maquisards at a number of outposts and mountain passes. The bombing and strafing of the towns and villages continued incessantly. According to estimates, seven hundred Germans closed in from the east, three thousand from the south and west, and four thousand from the north. No other Maquis group in France had drawn this many enemy troops against them.

Commandant Huet proclaimed martial law throughout the Vercors and all units were put in battle positions. The Maquis counted in their ranks two thousand fully armed men, one thousand partially armed men, and another one thousand unarmed men. Desmond Lange and John Houseman, the officers of Team Eucalyptus, sent requests to London and Algiers for heavy weapons and additional support troops, without effect. Houseman noted in his diary entry of July 18, “Commandant H[uet] maintaining extraordinary calm. He seemed (as in fact he had) to have the situation completely in hand. Signs of nervousness in the P. C. [command post] among the junior officers—Desmond and I trying hard not to show signs of alarm!”

In the morning of July 21 at 0930 hours, French volunteers working at the airfield in Vassieux saw twenty airplanes carrying enormous gliders approaching from the south. The sight lifted their spirits with the hope that these were the much-expected paratroopers and heavy equipment coming to the rescue of Vercors. The hope disappeared moments later when the gliders began their final approach and the Frenchmen noticed the Luftwaffe markings on them. One by one, twenty DFS 230 troop gliders touched ground, some of them in the airfield itself and the rest in the plateau outside Vassieux. Within minutes, two hundred German paratroopers of special commando units of the Luftwaffe stormed Vassieux under the protection of Stuka fighters overhead. Each glider had a machine gun mounted in front, which the pilot used to cover the exit of the paratroopers from the aircraft and their rapid advancement toward the objective. The element of surprise was complete, just as it had been when Germans had used the same technique to take the Belgian fortress of Eben Emmael in 1940, occupy Crete in 1941, and rescue Mussolini in 1943. “It was as if lightning struck Vassieux,” was how a number of Frenchmen described those initial moments.

The shock did not last long, however. The Maquisards around Vassieux rushed to block the German paratroopers. The officers and men of the OG mission Justine organized the Frenchmen into surrounding the Germans in town and attacking them with all the weapons at their disposal. According to German sources, during the first day of fighting, the German paratroopers suffered over 25 percent casualties, twenty-nine dead and twenty wounded. The attacks on all sides, the constant bombardment of towns and villages, and the fierce battle in Vassieux rattled the nerves of the Maquisards. Houseman described “an oppressive atmosphere of confinement in our house with bombing and machine gunning off and on all day.” When assistance from the outside failed to materialize, a feeling of abandonment if not betrayal set in. Eugène Chavant, the civilian leader of Vercors, who had traveled to Algiers in May 1944 to meet with De Gaulle’s military staff and believed he had received assurances of help from them, fired off a message on the night of July 21:

La Chappelle, Vassieux, Saint-Martin bombarded by German aircraft. Enemy troops parachuted on Vassieux. We demand resupplies in men, foodstuffs and supplies. Morale of population excellent but will turn quickly against you if you do not take immediate measures and we will be in agreement with them in saying that those sitting in London and Algiers have understood nothing of the situation in which we find ourselves and are considered criminals and cowards. Let us be clear on this: criminals and cowards.

The next day, the Americans and Maquisards continued their attacks on the German paratroopers, helped by the rain that prevented the Germans from reinforcing their men. But the following day, on July 23, the weather cleared and another 250 German paratroopers landed in Vassieux aboard twenty DFS 230 gliders. While the Maquisards and the American OGs were going through their last reserves, the Germans used larger Go242 gliders to bring supplies and ammunition for their beleaguered paratroopers. The Germans dropped in a 20-mm Flak 38 antiaircraft gun, which could fire eight hundred rounds per minute from four independent guns at a range of 2,200 meters. They used the gun to destroy the Maquisards’ positions and force them to withdraw.

The Germans came out of the three-day battle victorious, losing 101 paratroopers and four glider pilots. Elsewhere around Vercors during these three days, two heavy mountain battalions took all the mountain passes to the southeast of Vassieux from ill-equipped Maquisards. German infantry pushing south from Grenoble broke through the northern positions in the key town of Valchevrière. Armored columns from the Ninth Panzer Division moving from Valence breached the southern defenses in the town of Die. On July 23 in the afternoon, the battle was over. In a telegram to Algiers sent on the night of July 25–26, Huet summarized the situation as follows:

Defenses of Vercors pierced on the 23rd at 1600 hours, after 56 hours of battle. Have ordered the dispersion in small groups with the hope to resume the fight when possible. All did their duty courageously in a desperate struggle and all carry with them the sadness of having succumbed to superior numbers and having been left alone in the moment of battle.

What followed is the most bloody and tragic chapter in history of the Maquis of Vercors. The Germans cordoned off the entire area and set up surveillance posts on all the roads, primary, secondary, and even forest tracks. Airplanes constantly flew overhead searching for movements in the mountains and woods. The German command ordered:

It is now the time to mop up Vercors methodically, to find the bands and the terrorists dispersed in their hiding places and to exterminate them completely, to discover the stockpiles of ammunition and provisions of the enemy, and to destroy their depots and hiding places, to make impossible any future resurgence of the enemy in Vercors. A period of seven days is envisioned for the mopping up…. The houses that have been points of support and supply for the terrorists, especially in the Vercors proper, shall be burned.”

Thus, seven days of reprisals and barbarity were unleashed upon Vercors. The toll mounted to 840 killed, of which 639 were Maquisards and 201 civilians. In Vassieux alone, the Germans massacred one hundred civilians, often killing entire families on sight. Only seven houses remained inhabited out of the 120 houses that the town had before the operation.

On July 27, a surveillance plane noticed a Red Cross flag spread at the entrance of the cave of Luire, three miles east of Vassieux. A German infantry unit arrived around 1700 hours to discover that the cave had become a temporary refuge for the military hospital of Saint-Martin, evacuated since July 21 to escape the bombing and strafing of the Luftwaffe. Most of the wounded were Maquisards, but they also included First Lieutenant Chester L. Myers of the OG team Justine, who had come down with appendicitis and was recovering from surgery,46 four Wehrmacht soldiers from Poland, and two women from Vassieux.

The German soldiers sprayed the walls of the cave with bullets and began searching the place for hidden resistance fighters and arms. They ripped off bandages of the wounded to make sure they were not fake. The Poles tried to intervene, explaining that they had been treated well, but without success. The Germans marched everyone down the ridge where they shot thirteen gravely wounded Maquisards as they lay in their stretchers. They took the rest to the nearby village of Rousset, where they executed twenty-five lightly wounded Maquisards. They considered the four Poles deserters and shot them as well. Then they unleashed reprisals on Rousset and the nearby town of Saint-Agnan, where they interrogated, arrested, or killed several civilians.

The Germans took the rest of the prisoners to the Gestapo headquarters in Grenoble. An aerial bombardment was going on when they arrived, and, in the confusion, one of the doctors managed to escape together with his wife, daughter, and a Red Cross nurse. The rest were not so fortunate. The Gestapo interrogated and then executed Lieutenant Myers that night. They executed two French doctors and a priest on August 10. They sent eight nurses to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück where one of them died of disease and the rest managed to survive until liberation.

When Commandant Huet gave the order to disperse on July 23, Team Eucalyptus split up. The French-speaking members of the team, including the OSS radio operator, André Pecquet, moved up the mountains, where they hid the W/T equipment in caves. Pecquet changed into civilian clothes and made several dangerous reconnaissance trips into villages and towns in the area, collecting information about the disposition of enemy troops in the area that the Allied command used to great benefit during the landings in the south of France in mid-August.

During one of these trips, Pecquet went to a post office outside Vercors to buy stamps. He was an avid stamp collector and showed great interest in the stamps issued by the Vichy government, although they had been in use in that area of France for almost four years. His unusual interest attracted the attention of the man standing in line behind him, who could tell that Pecquet had not lived long in the country. The girl at the post office winked. Pecquet realized his error and left the post office in a hurry with the man following him. Pecquet was able to get rid of his pursuer but only after a great deal of trouble.

On August 21, 1944, when the German 157th Infantry division retreated and the US forces arrived in Grenoble, Pecquet assumed a liaison role between the FFI and the US Army command. The French considered Pecquet one of the heroes of Vercors, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for “his devotion to duty, perseverance and courage displayed throughout his hazardous assignment” in Mission Eucalyptus.

The two British officers of Eucalyptus, Major Lange and Captain Houseman, travelled through the mountains and woods with a small group of four Frenchmen, including a young girl who had worked for the mission as a cipher clerk. The journey was harrowing, with hair-raising escapes from German and Milice patrols, which forced the members of the party to talk in the mildest whispers. Houseman wrote in his diary, “every unusual sound in the woods caused an instant silence among the party—a hunted dog look, as everyone strained his ears and slowly, but with calculated intention, reached for his gun.”

Further complications came from scarce food, and especially lack of water in the mountains. “The meagre ration of half a cupful of water a day (sometimes) and two table-spoons of goat’s milk were not much help.” Houseman wrote. “So I settled down to squeeze water out of moss irrespective of the physical effort which it entailed. After two or three hours of hard work, sometimes with the assistance of one or another member of the party, I had perhaps 3/4 of a pint which, though muddy and having an unwelcome taste, was nectar.”

On July 26, the party decided to split to make it easier to move undetected and to find food and water. Lange, Houseman, and a French guide left in the afternoon to climb down in the valley in search for food and water. “We were to learn later that the remainder of the party were surprised by a German patrol.” Houseman wrote. “The men, after castration, were beaten to death with rifle butts and the girl disemboweled and left to die with her intestines wound round her neck. I saw the photographs later—they were unrecognizable.” Throughout the night, Lange, Houseman, and their French guide, made their way through the valley and across German lines, “running, walking, crawling and rolling” under bursts of fire and pursued by attack dogs, until they were able to reach the mountain ridge and forests on the other side.

After several days of experiences like this, the team was finally able to exit Vercors on August 3 from the north by crossing the river L’Isère. There, Lange and Houseman established contact with the local Maquisards who guided them on a 125-mile journey through the mountains to the city of Chamonix on the Swiss border. On August 11, 1944, Lange and Houseman crossed into Switzerland.

The OG team Justine had a similar harrowing escape. After breaking off the engagement with the German paratroopers in Vassieux, the members moved to the northeast to the plateau of Presles in an attempt to break the encirclement toward the town of Saint-Marcellin. When four hundred Germans appeared on Presles, the OGs took to the woods, where they remained in hiding for eleven days, subsisting only on raw potatoes and occasionally a little cheese. They were never allowed to speak above a whisper. Not more than one man moved at a time, and then never more than fifty feet. Finally, on August 9, when the situation had calmed down a little, a French guide went to Saint-Marcellin and stole a truck that the OGs used to drive outside the Vercors plateau to the west across the L’Isère. From there, they moved along the Isère valley for ninety miles to the Chartreuse Mountains, twenty miles to the north of Grenoble. Then the team crossed L’Isère again this time eastward to the Belledonne Mountains. By this time, the American army had arrived in Grenoble, and Team Justine moved into the city. They were all in poor condition. Many had severe cases of dysentery, three men were unable to walk and all had lost weight, including Captain Hoppers who had lost thirty-seven pounds.

The experiences of the Maquis of Vercors, the pitched battle it put up against the Germans during the assault of July 21–23, 1944, and the bloody reprisals that followed have been a source of debate and controversy in France since the end of the war. The prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials, under the charge of “senseless destruction of cities, town, and villages, and devastations unjustified by the military necessity,” cited the example of numerous villages destroyed in their entirety in France, among others “Oradour-sur-Glane, Saint-Nizier, and in the Vercors: La Mure, Vassieux, La Chappelle-en-Vercors.” Nevertheless, not a single soldier of the Wehrmacht who participated in the operations against Vercors was held accountable for war crimes.

Countless accounts have been written to discuss whether the French authorities in Algiers gave false hopes to the leaders of Vercors on their support for the Plan Montagnards. The fact is that this plan was never part of the Allied strategy for using the French Resistance in coordination with the landings in Normandy and Provence. The reprisals in Vercors left the participants in the Resistance with a feeling of having been misunderstood, abandoned, and even betrayed by the Allies. Historians have established that there were not sufficient means among the French officials in Algiers or among the Allies who supported them to match the enthusiasm of the members of the Resistance. Several members of the Resistance have pointed out that shortly after the reprisals, the region rose up again when the Allies landed in the south of France, which they would not have done had they felt betrayed.

The military choices of the Maquis leaders have been questioned as well, and their decision to engage in frontal battles against a much stronger enemy has been called in various degrees a tragedy, a disaster, and a mistake. Alain le Ray, one of the proponents of the original Plan Montagnards, rejected the aura of disaster and strategic error. In a debate in 1975, he suggested that guerrilla tactics in Vercors might have provoked even more reprisals and that the battle of the Vercors tied down an important section of the Germans army. It “induced in the German war machine a kind of paralysis, both moral and material in the very locality where the Allied forces would penetrate into France after the landings in Provence.”

In the end, General Koenig probably summarized best the story of the Maquis of Vercors when he told an enquiry commission in 1961:

Due to circumstances that were quite unfortunate at the time, you became soldiers assigned with a true sacrificial mission. You became, pardon the expression, “laboratory rats …” I tell you this to remove a little bit of the bitterness that you who lived through those hours feel. There are moments when we find ourselves, pardon the expression, in deep s … and unfortunately the story has a sad ending, meaning no one is able to escape.