A Book and a Rifle: The Vercors Resistance in WWII

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One of the single largest actions of the French Resistance during World War Two was Operation Montagnards – the plan to drop about 4,000 Allied paratroops onto the Vercors Massif when the resistance was activated in support of the Allied landings in Normandy and Provence. If you are scratching your head trying to figure out why you don’t remember that operation, it is because it never actually happened. The two Allied landings were originally intended to take place simultaneously, but logistical limitations forced the southern landings to be delayed about two months. In an deliberate decision to prevent the Germans from immediately understanding the nature of the Allied attack, the whole of the French Resistance was activated to support the Normandy landings in June 1944. The internal attacks in the south would force the Germans to keep significant forces in that area in expectation of a second landing, which would increase the chances of the Normandy landings succeeding. Unfortunately, the other result of this decision was that Resistance cells would come into the open in anticipation of imminent military support, which would not be coming. The southern elements of the Resistance were basically sacrificed in this gambit.

The Vercors Massif is a large geographical feature near Lyon and Grenoble which comprises basically a triangular sheer-walled plateau rising well above the surrounding plains. It offers an fantastically defensible redoubt, and that is what it was planned to be. Paratroops dropped onto the top of the massif  would reinforce a substantial force of Maquis fighters, and create a serious strong point behind the German lines to aid in the fight inland from the landing beaches. The plan was organized in Algiers by Resistance representatives from the Vercors and Free French officers earlier in the war. Some have argued that the lack of support was simply due to the compromises of the single-landing plan, while others fault de Gaulle for deliberately abandoning the men and women on Vercors as part of a strategy to consolidate post-war political support – but that debate is beyond the scope of today’s discussion.

The fighters and civilians on the massif ultimately held out for about 6 weeks – only just too little to still be there when the Allied armored columns reached Grenoble. The German commander in the area spent several weeks making small probing attacks before the final assault with about 10,000 veteran Wehrmacht soldiers, glider-borne infantry, and tanks. Once that attack came, the fate of the Vercors was sealed. With proper military backing they could have defended their redoubt, but instead they had only a smattering of small arms and not heavy weaponry at all. It was a fight that was gloriously courageous but hopelessly doomed to failure.

I am privileged to have in my own collection a Berthier carbine tied to the Vercors Resistance, as evidenced by the brass embellishments on its stock. While I cannot conclusively prove it came from the Resistance, it was sold to me without any premium attached to them, and I have no reason to believe it is fake. And, of course, since I have no plans to sell it, I am not really concerned about conclusively proving its veracity to others. For me, it is a poignant icon of a tremendously heroic group. I hope I would live up to the bar they set should I ever be in a comparable situation!

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