Americans in Vercors II

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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

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

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

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

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

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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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