The Vercors Uprising, July 1944

When the French Resistance launched a brave assault on the Nazi and Vichy regimes.
French Resistance fighter moves into attack
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At 23:15 hours on 5 June 1944, a broadcast was made from the BBC in London. It was the second part of the poem Chanson d’Automne – “Blessent mon coeur, d’une langueur, monotone” (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”). Upon hearing this, Resistance leaders in France knew this was a call to arms as the Allied invasion was imminent. Their job, to tie up German forces, to prevent them engaging with the Allies. On the Vercors Massif, a plateau just south of Grenoble in the south-east of the country, it was something they had been waiting for, for four years. The Vercors Uprising had begun.

Scattered around the plateau were a number of camps containing large groups of maquisards, armed young patriots led by ex-French army officers. Over the last few years they had grown to over four thousand strong. These men had chosen to fight the Nazis rather than be subjected to the humiliation of the STO order (Service du Travail Obligatoire) which the government in Vichy had agreed with their Nazi puppet-masters in Berlin. This order involved the forced deportation of men over the age of twenty to work in Germany, to assist the Nazi war effort. Rather than do this, thousands took to the hills in places such as the Vosges and the Vercors to offer their services to the Maquis, whilst many more fled to North Africa to join the Free French.

With mixed messages coming from both London and Algiers, as well as Resistance leaders in France itself, de Gaulle’s call to arms was seen as something that should be acted upon immediately. It was either that or wait until Allied forces were much closer, a tactic the Allied commander, General Eisenhower, preferred.

Those on the Vercors thought the area was a perfect place to start an insurgency, as long as it was supported with reinforcements and heavy weaponry that could be flown in from North Africa. The Maquis commander on the Vercors, François Huet, was subsequently given orders by Marcel Descour, the regional Resistance leader, to mobilise his forces and start an uprising. Despite his reservations, Huet was informed that the troops and equipment he needed with which to conduct it would be forthcoming. In preparation for this, large groups of maquisards and civilians were utilised to build an airstrip just outside the main town of Vaissieux-en-Vercors.

Of course, the Germans were aware that the Maquis were operating in the hills on the plateau and on 11 June sent in troops to take the northern village of St Nizier, taking control of it and the area immediately around it. However, at this stage the Maquis were in control of the rest of the plateau, with Huet desperately attempting to arm and train his fighters.

Not to be put off by this, on 4 July, the Maquis leadership declared the Vercors to be independent of German and Vichy rule. The tricolour and Cross of Lorraine were flown from towns and hamlets all across the massif. The passes and roads leading to the plateau were now defended by groups of maquisards, intent on protecting the area for the reinforcements they felt were sure to come.

Seeing this as provocation the Germans now began a series of aerial attacks on the area, planes flying in from the nearby base at Chabeuil.

Eventually, on Bastille Day, 14 July, some of the assistance they had been asking for arrived, in the form of an airdrop carried out by the US Air Force. However, troops and heavy weaponry were not forthcoming, the airdrop containing only small arms, ammunition, clothing, medicines and food. Many of the canisters dropped blew off course and could not be recovered.

Eventually, their patience wearing thin, the Germans attacked. On 21 July 1944 a full scale assault began with the Germans pushing down into the plateau from the captured village of St Nizier and attacking the passes and roads to the south, east and west. At the same time, glider troops landed on the newly constructed airstrip to attack the town of Vaissieux-en-Vercors. Over ten thousand battle-hardened Alpine troops were soon able to push into the plateau, giving no quarter as they advanced. Desperate pleas for assistance to Algiers and London went unheard. It was not long before Huet conceded the plateau could not be defended and ordered a withdrawal of his maquisards from their fixed positions to the hills and forests within the massif. By 25 July the insurgency had been crushed.

Vassieux-en-Vercors Memorial to the uprising.

However, the Germans did not let it lie there. After their victory, they systematically carried out reprisals. Any maquisards captured were summarily executed, villages and hamlets burned to the ground and their inhabitants massacred, some in quite brutal ways. Twenty wounded fighters in the Grotte de la Luire, a large cave used as a first aid station, were murdered where they lay. The town of Vaissieux-en-Vercors, where some of the heaviest fighting had taken place, was razed to the ground.

The insurgency on the Vercors Massif in July 1944 was doomed to failure. After its declaration of independence, the Maquis leadership on the plateau incorrectly assumed they would be supported in full by the Allies.

Four thousand ill-equipped and poorly trained maquisards were simply no match for ten to twelve thousand experienced and well-equipped German battle troops. The tactics of fighting from fixed positions against a much superior enemy force was completely ineffective and guerrilla warfare may have had more success.

Pleas to Algiers for reinforcements proved fruitless. The explanation for this lack of support has been debated for years. Reasons vary from military incompetence to simple forgetfulness. The probable truth is that resources were needed for the upcoming invasion of Southern France (Operation Dragoon), the success of which eventually saw the Germans abandoning the plateau some weeks later.

John McKay is the author of Hell & High Water.