March 1944: Glières

Between 5 and 13 February the German 157. Reserve Division carried out Aktion Korporal, a push against the Maquis of the Ain Département. The opening day’s attack on the Bugey area (east of the River Ain) was supported by aircraft but the whole operation was curtailed by heavy snowfalls.

In March Luftflotte 3 again deployed airpower, in support of Hochsavoyen (High Savoy) an operation by the same division and the Vichy Milice against the Maquis of the Glières Plateau, between Annecy and the Swiss border. As early as 7 February Vichy authorities had called for photo-reconnaissance of the Plateau to locate Maquis encampments, followed by air attacks. A conference took place in Annecy on the 21st, attended by Oberstleutnant Walter Killian, a staff officer with Luftflotte 3 and a recce ensued on 4 March. A single aircraft was seen to reconnoitre the plateau on the 8th and four days later three He 111 dropped 50 kg bombs, destroying two chalets.

This raid, on the afternoon of Sunday the 12th, was witnessed by Serge Thélen:

Three planes are flying over Cenise — we’re talking about old crates. They head for the Plateau of Glières. “Take cover!” Lalande shouts, “They’re Boches!” A moment later we hear explosions and see clouds of smoke … we hear engine noise for a moment longer, then nothing more …

That evening, Jeewe reported to his superiors in Paris:

Today a Kette of three machines bombed that Glières Plateau from 13.30–15.00 hrs. [local time].

Two days later, he elaborated on this:

On Sunday 12 March, three planes from the flying school at Dijon were committed. In all 110 x 50 kg bombs were dropped. Results are not known at present [as] we have not received the photographs taken after the bombardment.

An unnamed resistance member from Savoie gave his account to the Swiss Gazette de Lausanne three months later:

The 12th of March, first attack by the German air force. Forty bombs are dropped on our camp without conspicuous result. We hit a plane which disappeared while in flames. Two other enemy planes shoot up our chalet without success.

We have an alert every day from 12–24 March from midday to 17.00 hours. Lacking AA to defend ourselves, we take refuge amongst the boulders. During this period we he had two seriously wounded.

Swiss reports also speak of aircraft immediately reporting every movement attempted by the Maquis on the snow-covered plateau.

NOTE: “The flying school at Dijon” may refer to IV./KG 55, the training and replacement formation based there at the time. Also relevant may be a report from Aerodrome Regional Command Lyons on the 13th that a detachment of IV./KG 27 had arrived in Dijon. Led by Oblt. Gustav-Adolf Meisenholl, this formation consisted of four He 111, six officers and 29 NCOs and men; a week previously the Lyons command had requested provision of 500 cbm of B4 fuel. On 5 April, approval was given for five He 111 of IV./KG 27 to remain at Dijon but it was learned subsequently that the unit’s personnel had returned to Königsberg.

Events in the area seem to have been attracting nationwide attention for, in a rather bizarre piece of propaganda on 12 March, Radio Paris attempted to link them to the suspect in a newly-discovered case of serial murder: “Dr [Marcel] Petiot has fled Paris. He will likely return to the terrorist bands of Haute-Savoie and resume his position as Staff Medical Officer.” (In fact, Petiot had been in Gestapo custody in Paris from May 1943 to January 1944, on suspicion of being involved in an escape line).

There was another reconnaissance on the 17th and an afternoon attack by Heinkels, one of which the Maquis thought they had hit with machine gun fire (a bullet did pierce a radio operator’s glove during one raid). Thereafter German aircraft are recalled as having strafed whenever the weather permitted. Luftwaffe Officers arrived in Annecy on the 19th to coordinate with the HQ of Genltn. Karl Pflaum, commander of the 157. Reserve Division. In its edition of 18 March the clandestine Bulletin d’Information , Presse et Radio had reported on “the setback to German military operations against the Jura Maquis, directed by General Scharks [sic] who had at his disposal aircraft and tanks … the Germans took their revenge for this setback on the rural population.”

On the 19th, Jeewe reported that the bombing had not achieved the hoped-for success because the He 111 was unsuited to this type of operation. A French author has suggested that the deep snow contained the effect of high explosive bombs and that incendiaries were used in subsequent missions.

LaRepressionA regular feature of Clermont-Ferrand newspaper Le Petit Journal was a column entitled “The Repression of Banditry and Terrorism”, faithfully retailing the official Vichy line on the activities of the Resistance. On 23 March it reported from Annecy that “the forces for the maintenance of order have carried out numerous offensive reconnaissances in Haute-Savoie”, citing actions by the paramilitary Franc-Garde and Groupes Mobile de Réserve (GMR) in the region. A subsequent press release on “clean-up operations in Haute-Savoie” was vivid:

A violent encounter took place during the morning of 24 March in the Cluses area, between a unit of the guard and a group of terrorists. Numerous shots were exchanged. In the course of this engagement, three bandits were killed, among them a particularly dangerous gang leader. The guard and the gendarmerie are on the track of the other members of the gang, five of whom [were] captured the previous day.

Conspicuously absent from this is any mention of the Germans’ involvement, whether on the ground or in the air. Vichy propaganda was insistent that it was Frenchmen alone fighting the “self-styled terrorists … mere bandits” of the Maquis. Equally, the regime was keen to play up the French lives lost to Allied bombing, so to have acknowledged that the Germans too were dropping bombs on French homes and farms would not have fit the official line.

The 10./ZG 1’s usual role was patrolling from Brest-Lanvéoc to protect German surface vessels and U-boats in the Bay of Biscay, so it was possibly not the most obvious choice to undertake ground attack operations amidst snow-covered mountains. Nevertheless, at least five of its Fw 190s were deployed to Lyon-Bron to support the assault on the Glières. On 23 March, four Focke-Wulfs shot up chalets at Les Auges and Nôtre-Dame des Neiges: one Maquisard was killed and at least one wounded while buildings were set ablaze by gunfire. Between 16.00 and 17.00 hrs. [local]:

… we suddenly heard the sound of planes.“They’re coming back”, I shouted, “take cover.” The plane was already diving. I tucked myself into a hole. Bullet fragments were exploding in the snow which turned black.

A second strafing run ensued, in which Gabriel Bermond was struck by two fragments. Another witness, Marcel Gaudin, remarked that while the previous bombing had damaged chalets it was rarely accurate enough to hit and destroy them. Gunfire proved much more effective; although stopped by stone walls, the tracers could penetrate wooden structures, roofs, doors and windows, setting stores of hay ablaze.

Canon Henri Pasquier set down his impressions of the attack:

As I was returning to the Command Post around 17.00 [local time], the Stukas [sic] appeared in an absolutely clear sky, flying low. Some distant explosions, coming from the south of the Plateau, told us they were attacking. For some minutes they flew back and forth over us. When they’d gone, and we were able to leave the CP, two smoke columns in the direction Dran showed us the results of their aggression. A chalet was burning … and further away the chalets of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges were no more than a brazier … The target had been shot up with incendiary bullets and the explosions [we’d] heard were those of a store of grenades in the chalet. Two seriously injured people had been extricated immediately from the burning ruins and sheltered in the chapel of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. It was there that my colleague and I gave them the Last Rites …

As seen by Bermond:

Four fighters suddenly emerged from the Col de la Buffaz and charged at us. We saw some puffs of smoke and immediately the shells were passing by our heads. One after another the four fighters fired machine guns and cannons. They returned to the attack several times, then vanished. Nobody had been hit but the snow near the chalets had been ploughed up in several places.

The plateau was attacked again on the 25th, and the day after there were raids at around 09.00 (local time) and midday in which 10 or so chalets burned and a munitions dump was blown up. In 1985, Swiss Colonel Christian Wyler wrote that aircraft were summoned when the ground forces’ progress on 26 March fell short of expectations:

The fighter bombers leave their base at Dijon at 15.10 hrs, cover the 180 km separating them from Annecy in a quarter of an hour, and dive on the plateau. In several passes the incendiary bombs cause important damage, notably to the Frenchmen’s command post.

NOTE: Unfortunately Col. Wyler’s article did not give any sources. No Fw 190 then in service could cover 180 km in 15 minutes (= 720 km/h). In addition, the Focke-Wulfs appear to have been based at Lyon-Bron (see below) about 65 km closer to the battle than Dijon-Longvic.

On 30 March five of 10./ZG 1’s Fw 190s left Lyon-Bron along with two officer and four NCO pilots and six technicians. On 11 April, the unit’s Fw. Rudolf Schönbach was recommended for the Iron Cross, First Class, having flown 105 Fw 190 sorties over the Atlantic and 13 “attacking guerillas on the Plateau of Savoy.” Schönbach’s award was approved on 14 April.

According to the Free French Committee of National Liberation’s communiqué of 7 April: “The German victory has cost the enemy 400 dead and 300 wounded. The patriots shot down two enemy aircraft.” This massively overstated German and Vichy troop casualties and none of the other sources I have consulted to date mentions any aircraft lost on these operations, indeed Glières veteran Roger Cerri recalled of the air attacks: “one resists by lying low because there’s nothing to be done against them: we lack anti-aircraft guns!”

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