The département that liberated itself

While the British were concerned this year with commemorating the beginning of the First World War in September 1914, the people of Haute-Savoie, conscious that the last of those concerned would soon no longer be with us, were remembering events in the département seventy years ago, in 1944, a year which began terribly but which eventually saw the deliverance of Haute-Savoie  and the whole country from the yoke of German occupation which had been in place since September 1943, when Mussolini had capitulated to the Allies and Hitler had ordered his army to invade the zone the Italians had been occupying since February 1942.

Various commemorative ceremonies and events took place from January to September this year, including an excellent travelling exhibition reminding people of the fateful events of 1944, which was set up in seven places during the summer term and was visited by many schoolchildren, who were able to take away a carefully-compiled and well-illustrated booklet about the people and the events which  people who should never be forgotten.

In February 1943, it had been decreed that all young men aged between 20 and 22 had to go to Germany for two years of “work service” towards the German war effort.  As a result, many of them instead heading for the mountains to become maquisards.  But the French Milice had been created by the Vichy government in January 1943, and the period of German occupation towards the end of that year and into 1944 became a time of horrors in Haute-Savoie when, as I have previously described (La quinzaine sanglante), the miliciens collaborated with the Germans in ruthlessly rooting out and executing members of the Resistance.    In particular, the story of the brave events of February-March 1944 on the Plateau des Glières, also described in earlier posts (La Bataille des Glières), is a tale of resistance which has acquired legendary status in this area.  In spite of that apparent failure, 129 maquisards having lost their lives or been deported, and 20 civilians having died, Glières remained a focus for the maquis, who gradually regrouped.  On 15 May, the departmental civil Comité de Libération and the military French Interior Force combined, including also the Secret Army and the Francs Tireurs et Partisans.

Then on 6 June, the Allies landed on the coast of Normandy and the slow, painful liberation of France began.

On 14 July, the day of the annual Fête Nationale, the “Foresters” company of maquisards, which had been on the Plateau des Glières during February and March, processed through Thorens, accompanied by a brass band, in a display of strength.  Other similar displays took place in Saint-Jean-d’Aulps, Morzine and Bellevaux.  The repression continued, however.  On 23 July, in revenge for an action of the maquis, the Nazis descended on Saint-Gingulph, a French border town on the south side of Lake Geneva; seven people were killed and 34 houses were burned down.  The remaining inhabitants fled across the border into Switzerland.

But on 31 July, the maquis received a coded message via the BBC:  Sur mon balcon, je ferai pousser des volubilis (On my balcony, I shall make volubilis grow), and at midday on 1 August six waves of twelve USAF aircraft, escorted by 63 fighters, dropped 400 containers containing more than 1000 tonnes of arms and explosives.  Nearly 2,000 men were there to receive the cargo, and another 1,000 encircled the plateau, keeping guard.  The Germans reacted by bombarding Thones during the next two days, killing fourteen people and injuring another twenty-six.

The maquis had been instructed to await the planned invasion of Provence before acting.  Those landings, of American and French forces, took place on 15 August to the east of Toulon, with air support (1500 aircraft and 5000 airborne troops) and in the presence of Winston Churchill on board a destroyer.  During the following fortnight, troops pushed their way east to St Tropez, St Maxime, Fréjus and St Raphael, and on to Cannes; others moved west to Toulon and Marseilles.  Some continued to Narbonne; others took Aix-en-Provence, then moving on to free Gap and then Grenoble.  Forces moving north up the Rhone valley liberated Arles, Avignon and Montelimar, reaching Lyon and then Chalon-sur-Saone, Besançon, Beaune, and finally Dijon on 11 September, where they were able to link up with forces coming from the north.

But by then, Haute-Savoie was already free, liberated solely by the efforts of its forces of the Resistance.

The operation had been worked out at the headquarters of the Forces Françaises de l’Interieur in Grand-Bornand.  The first part of the plan was to sever all the main roads into Haute-Savoie in order to prevent the arrival of enemy reinforcements from Lyon or Grenoble.  Next, the German garrisons would be isolated from each other and neutralised, dealing with those around the periphery of the department before attacking the Wehrmacht’s headquarters in Annecy, with its thousand-plus well-trained soldiers.

The order to mobilise was given on 11 August, when control of the road from Aix-les-Bains was seized.  The following day saw a violent engagement with the Germans on the road between Annecy and Roche-sur-Foron.  Access to and from Lyon was blocked at the Carnot bridge over the Rhone to the east of Bellegarde.

On Monday 14 August, the “Glières” company of the Secret Army, led by Lieutenant Jordan, codename “Joubert”, the only officer to have escaped the battles on the plateau in March, moved to reinforce those on the road from Aix-les-Bains and prevented the passage of several enemy convoys; the aim was to keep the road closed until the end of the week.

Once the Allies had landed in Provence on 15 August, an attack was mounted in Haute-Savoie against the towns occupied by the Wehrmacht.  On 16 August, Evian-les-Bains surrendered without a battle.  Saint-Julien was surrounded, but that evening a German counter-attack, launched from the next department, Ain, sowed terror in the local villages.  Fifteen people were killed, others fled to Switzerland; many owed their lives to the courageousness of those on the other side of the frontier.  On 17 August, Saint-Julien was at last liberated.

On the same day, at Chamonix and at Fayer in the west of the department, the presence of Allied officers forced the Germans to capitulate.  But on 16 and 17 August, the battles for the liberation of Thonon-les-Bains were heavy.  On the 18th, some of the garrison at Annemasse negotiated their free passage to Switzerland in return for the liberation of some resistants from prison.  At Cluses, in spite of a strong defence on the part of the garrison occupying the famous watch-making school, the resistants held the area.

Finally, on the evening of 18 August, all the forces of the department converged on Annecy, capital of Haute-Savoie and seat of the principal German garrison.  Representatives of the Resistance suggested a meeting with Colonel Meyer, who commanded the 3,000 men of the occupying forces in Haute-Savoie.  The meeting was arranged for the following morning at Chavoire on the Lac d’Annecy.

At dawn the following day, the hundred or so miliciens stationed near Annecy negotiated their surrender.  At 7 a.m., the leaders of the Resistance set before the German officers representing Colonel Meyer a formal notice of unconditional surrender.  At the same time, the quarter where the main occupying troops were stationed was taken.  At 10 a.m. the capitulation was signed at the Hotel Splendid.  The next day, 20 August, a jubilant crowd greeted the maquisards who marched through the streets of the town.  And in November, General de Gaulle would come to visit Annecy, capital of the department which had freed itself.

But the war was not yet over; battles over the high mountain passes between France and Italy from Mont Blanc to the Haute-Maurienne continued through a particularly hard winter through to May 1945…

Fascinating film footage exists of the landings and the movements of the troops involved in the landings in Provence:
And for photographs of the liberation of Dijon, see: