The Vercors is a rugged area of mountains and plateaux in south-east France, about 100 kilometres south-east of Lyon. The area measures about 50 kilometres from north to south, and thirty kilometres from east to west; straddling the departments of the Isère and the Drôme. The corner of the Vercors is clearly visible from Grenoble. The plateau is guarded by almost sheer cliffs on all sides. Road access is limited. The most direct access from Grenoble is on the north eastern flank via Saint-Nizier du Moucherotte, the highest village in the northern Vercors. This was the route of an electric tram until the 1950s.
The bus from Grenoble to Lans-en-Vercour climbs up from Sassenage, and gains access to the plateau through the Gorges du Furon. Access from the west, from Romans and from Pont-en-Royans, involves balcony roads which cling to the cliffs high above the Gorges de la Bourne and Combe Laval and Grands Goulets. These vertiginous roads were built in the 19th century, mainly to serve the forestry industry; they are a nightmare for acrophobes like me, but much prized by adventurous bikers. . From the south, from Die, a sinuous road climbs through many hairpins to the Col du Rousset [1,254 metres] and thence to la Chapelle. There are no roads at all on the eastern flank, merely a handful of hikers’ tracks. There are ten principal summits of about 2,000 metres; the highest le Grand Veymont at 2,341 metres. And there are more than a dozen road cols of more than 1,200 metres.The massif is a natural abode for brigade and fugitives. Francis Brook Richards described the plateau, fancifully, as being “like a great aircraft carrier steaming north from the middle of France towards the English Channel”.
What became known as the Vercors plan originated in 1941, in occupied France. The writer Jean Prévost, initially a pacifist but an energetic anti-fascist, was visiting his friend, Pierre Dalloz, an architect, writer and keen mountaineer, at the latter’s home at La Grande Vigne, close to Sassenage. As they worked on cutting down an old walnut tree in Dalloz’s garden, they looked up at the cliffs of the Vercors, and speculated how paratroopers could be dropped clandestinely onto the plateau, which could then serve as an enormous resistance base behind enemy lines. Resistance men from the plain would join up with maquisards from the Vercors camps, and when the invasion of France came they would attack the Germans from the rear and cut off their supply lines.
Over the next two years ‘Operation Montagnards’ was refined and warmly received by French Resistance leaders. The plan was to transform the Vercors into a vast fortress base in the heart of German-occupied territory on the day that Europe was invaded. Support for the plan was expressed in both Algiers and in London, and it was said that General de Gaulle had personally approved it. But it remained to be seen when and where the invasion of Europe would take place. .
Eugène Chavant, a veteran socialist politician and onetime red mayor of St Martin d’Hères, was the unchallenged civilian leader, acknowledged as ‘Le Patron’ by everyone in the towns and villages across the Vercors. The first military commander of the Vercors was Alain le Ray, a young ex-Army officer and mountaineer; one of the few Frenchmen who had escaped from Colditz. But in December 1943 le Ray fell out with his superior, Marcel Descours and resigned. To replace him Descours chose Narcisse Geyer, a diminutive, haughty, right-wing cavalry officer, seen mostly in full uniform mounted on his favourite stallion. Geyer was brave and dashing, but insensitive and anathema to Chavant and his socialist colleagues. Who were affronted by Geyer’s demeanour. In order to smooth relations, in May 1944 Descours appointed Major François Huet, another Catholic and regular soldier, tall, calm, and humourless, to take command over Geyer.
The Free Republic of the Vercors
By the opening months of 1944, there were significant tensions on the plateau. As more resisters and réfractaires made their way to the plateau, there was some resentment from the local community who had the most to suffer from any German reprisals. In January 1944 the Germans had invaded the north-western village of Malléval, killed thirty alpine troops who had installed themselves there, and set the whole village on fire, burning eight of the inhabitants alive including a Jewish doctor and his wife. There was a polarisation between the maquisards, some of whom resisted any kind of discipline, and the regular soldiers under Geyer and Huet. The two soldiers maintained separate headquarters and rarely spoke to each other.
As the French Resistance gained in confidence, so the Germans responded more forcefully executing punitive attacks on whole communities. News came to the plateau of assaults on resistance groups in other areas, including an awful massacre at Glières, a little to the north. For a week in April 1944, a large force of nearly a thousand miliciens in their dark-blue uniforms conducted a punitive operation in Vassieux and La Chapelle, conducting a reign of terror and interrogating villagers about maquis camps and arms dumps. Torture was regularly employed.
When would the promised invasion come ? Why were there no clear orders ? In May 1944 Chavant made his way, clandestinely, to Algiers to seek clarification. Algiers in 1944 was home to a cumbersome set of French political and military structures hampered by continual in-fighting. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a fighter pilot there at the time, described it as a petaudière [literally, a fart chamber]; Chavant himself described it as a panier de crabes. Chavant had a plethora of meetings, including one with Jacques Soustelle, de Gaulle’s principal gate-keeper, who signed off on the plan. On June 7th Chavant returned in triumph. There were no longer any doubts about the role of the Vercors; they must prepare to receive four thousand paratroops. De Gaulle had spoken. “The General will almost certainly be establishing his headquarters here in the Vercors … We must find him a suitable house”.
On June 6th crowds throughout the Vercors celebrated the long-awaited D-Day. [On June 10th the SS Division Das Reich descended on Oradour-sur-Glane and massacred 624 civilians including 190 children, many of them burnt alive. The division was substantially from Alsace.] On June 8th Descours ordered Huet to mobilise the plateau. Huet as a good soldier obeyed, even against his better judgement. He had neither the men nor the arms to defend the Vercors. But he was persuaded that reinforcements – paratroopers, mortars, artillery – would arrive shortly.
On June 11th the Germans invaded the Vercors with a reconnaissance-in-force against Saint-Nizier. On June 15th they returned with a larger force, including artillery, and forced the maquis to withdraw to the southern part of the plateau..
On July 3rd the Free Republic of the Vercors was proclaimed in an impressive ceremony in Saint-Martin. Chavant and Yves Farge were prominent in the Committee for National Liberation. Geyer, complete with kepi and white gloves, sitting erect on his horse, saluted with his sword. The Free Republic had its own flag, featuring the Cross of Lorraine and a V for Vercors, and its own coat of arms. It was the first independent territory in France since the German occupation of 1940. All the independent Maquis groups on the plateau were now incorporated into regular army battalions and regiments. An airfield expert, Jean Tournissa, had been parachuted in; and work began on the creation of an airfield on the flat meadow at Vassieux. In order to receive Dakotas bringing paratroops and heavy weapons. It was to be ready for the August moon period, from the end of July.
The end of dreams
Repeated and increasingly urgent messages to Algiers went unanswered. Military men were preoccupied with the plans for Operation Anvil, the landing in the south of France, which would happen against Churchill’s preferences in mid-August. De Gaulle himself was distracted by Plan Caiman, his own wholly unrealistic project for landing an exclusively French force in the Massif Central. Meanwhile the German forces, commanded by General Karl Pflaum, drew up their plans for Operation Vercors. It was a classic ‘surround, attack, annihilate, destroy’ model, such as they had already used at Malleval and on the plateau de Glières. Pflaum’s plan called for 10,000 men, organised in three columns: one to attack from the north through Saint-Nizier and breaking through Huet’s forces at Valchevrière; one armoured column approaching from Die in the south and forcing the defensive line at the Col de Rousset; and a third column of Alpine battalions and mountain artillery forcing their way through the passes on Vercors’s forbidding eastern ramparts. Cruelly Pflaum inserted a fourth, airborne column, some twenty-two assault gliders which would carry troops in to the heart of the southern massif making use of Tournissa’s painfully constructed new airstrip at Vasssieux. The German assault came on Saturday, July 22nd.
The maquis fought bravely at Vassieux and at Valchevrière, and at the Pas de l’Aiguille in the east where a tiny group of maquisards held out for 24 hours. But they were outnumbered and outgunned. At 16.00h on Sunday, July 23rd Huet gave the order for all troops to disperse. Different groups under Huet and Geyer and Beauregard went into hiding deep in the forests and high in the mountains. For the next two weeks the German forces mercilessly punished the Vercors farms and villages. Atrocities were committed by some of the troops. The total German casualties from the conflict and the subsequent harrowing are said to be 65 killed and 133 wounded. The French casualties are said to be 201 civilians and 639 maquisards killed. A post-war estimate is that 500 houses were burnt, a further 650 severely damaged, and some 700 cattle driven from the plateau. If it was a victory, as some argue, it was a cruel and bloody one.
I first came across the story of the Vercors in a book Tears of Glory: The Betrayal of the Vercors 1944 by Michael Pearson, which I must have bought in Shakespeare’s bookshop in Paris in the 1980s. And more recently I have been looking at Paddy Ashdown’s 2014 book, The Cruel Victory: The French Resistance, D-Day, and the Battle for the Vercors 1944. They are both very readable books, but Ashdown has more to say about the complexities of life in wartime Algiers, and more information about SOE’s role, and the involvement of Francis Cammaerts and Christine Granville. For Ashdown the hero of the story is François Huet, who was highly criticised after the war by some commentators. But Ashdown thinks he got all the major decisions right, including the final dispersal order. And the other heroes are the young maquisards, men and women, under-armed and massively outnumbered, who ultimately denied the Germans the success they sought – the total destruction of French resistance on the plateau.
Susie and I could see Saint-Nizier and the Vercors from the chaplaincy flat in Grenoble when we were there in 2019. Very bravely, so I thought, we ventured up on the bus to Villard-de-Lans. It was a glorious sunny day, with snow on the hills. We took some photos, and had lunch, and admired the healthy brown-and-white cows in the fields. I was very pleased to be there. But it felt a long way from the sad and bloody days of July 1944. Not quite eighty years ago.
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Thank you for once again being my primary teacher of European history, a subject sadly lacking in my own schooling.