Operation Bugatti

This was an Allied special forces operation by the US Office of Strategic Services to parachute a four-man US, British and French team into the Haute Pyrenées area of German-occupied France to aid the local resistance forces (28/29 June 1944).

To co-ordinate operations by Allied special forces in the south of France, the USA created a Special Operations Center in Algiers, and both British Special Operations Executive 'Jedburgh' and OSS Operational Group staged through this. One of these was the 'Jedburgh' team for 'Bugatti', which was led by Major Horace W. Fuller, an officer of the US Marine Corps Reserve who had previously served with the French army in 1939/40 and was later wounded in the 'Watchtower' campaign on Guadalcanal. With Fuller were a British officer, Major Hiram Crosby, and two French army officers, Capitaine Guy de la Roche and Lieutenant Marcel Guillemont. The team’s target was Tarbes, a market town which was the provincial capital of the Haute Pyrenées and also had some industry. This latter included the Hispano-Suiza aero engine factory and the Arsenal National, which manufactured artillery. There was also a railway yard with facilities for the repair and refurbishment of rolling stock, and situated not far away was the oil refinery at Peyrouzet. The area was garrisoned by several German regiments.

The SOE had been active in the Tarbes area since January 1943, when Maurice Southgate had been parachuted into the area along with a courier, Jacqueline Nearne. Southgate’s mission had been to determine the status of resistance forces in the Pyrenees foothills and along the Spanish border, and Southgate was able to report that these were effective and totalled about 100 personnel who had all escaped from German prisoner of war camps.

With the start of 'Overlord' approaching, the SOE increased its activities in the Haute Pyrenées, and it was the SOE’s 'Wheelwright' circuit that 'Bugatti' was to support.

After completing his recovery from the wound he had received on Guadalcanal, Fuller communicated with the Office of Naval Intelligence to request transfer to some type of operational role in the European theatre, in which there was no formal US Marine Corps involvement, citing his previous military experience in France and also his knowledge of the southern European coast as a result of a stint of almost two years as part of the crew of a US motor yacht and other vessels. On 1 September 1943 Fuller received orders to report to OSS, and on 1 January 1944 he was in England and awaiting assignment to the OSS Parachute Training Unit, then commanded by another marine, Major Bruce B. Cheever. Soon after this Fuller was earmarked for 'Jedburgh' work.

The 'Bugatti' team departed Blida airfield, near Algiers, early in the evening of 28 June 1944 in a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and five hours later parachuted into south-western France. Here a resistance reception committee was on hand, and by 02.00 on 29 June the 'Bugatti' team had been accommodated in a farmhouse some 3.75 miles (6 km) from the small town of Montrejeau. On the following day, Fuller left to meet George R. Starr, one of the SOE’s most daring organisers in south-western France and the creator of the 'Wheelwright' circuit. Accompanying him was Anne Marie Waters, Starr’s courier.

As there were large numbers of German troops in the area, Fuller travelled in civilian clothes, which was not standard practice for the members of 'Jedburgh' teams as capture in such clothing meant execution as a spy. But Waters convinced the members of the 'Bugatti' team that there was little chance of avoiding Germans and uniforms would therefore lead to combat. Waters was right, and soon Fuller departed a company of SS troops was spotted moving toward the farmhouse. Only a quick exit from the second story saved detection.

The men then taken to the maquis camp near Arbon. Here all attempts to contact Algiers failed as the team’s radio equipment had been damaged in the drop. The maquis group had about 100 men, all poorly armed, but with their remaining store of explosives the team blew up four pylons on the power line through the Armon valley to supply electricity to the aircraft factory in Toulouse.

After a fortnight of frustration caused by faulty radios, the 'Bugatti' team finally managed to contact Algiers and asked unsuccessfully for drops of weapons and ammunition for as many as 3,000 maquis personnel.

By 10 July, and still without supplies, Fuller decided on a risky move as a new radio and some previously delivered weapons were concealed in the village of Lannemezan, which was garrisoned by 1,200 German soldiers. de la Roche and a four-man team volunteered to try to retrieve these the radio and weapons. Moving by night in a truck, they succeeded in bringing the equipment back to the Arbon hideout. With the new radio, Fuller was finally able to regain ungarbled contact with the SPOC, and on the night of 16 July a single aeroplane dropped containers to the maquis. Though many of these broke open before reaching the ground, the resupply proved a life-saver as on the next day 600 Germans began to invest the farm area.

Fuller pulled his men back to an open hillside flanked by protective wooded areas. Here de la Roche and a special contingent equipped themselves with British Gammon grenades in case the Germans brought up armour. At about 17.30 the Germans began a slow advance toward the maquis positions and, after being taken under maquis fire, brought mortars and heavy machine guns into play. Eventually, the maquis withdrew into the forest leaving 16 Germans dead for no casualties themselves.

Fuller immediately shifted his headquarters deeper into the Pyrenees, this time to the vicinity of St Bertrand des Comminges about 16 miles (26 km) farther to the west. While on the move, he learned that the Arbon farm had been compromised by an Italian who lived in Montrejeau, and ordered the resistance to deal with him. Several days later a maquis patrol shot and wounded the man in Montrejeau: after he had been taken to hospital, the maquis sent a 'visitor' to cut his throat.

The main camp of the 'Bugatti' team now contained about 35 men, who were well armed but with little ammunition and only a small quantity of explosives. Another maquis unit at Arbas was better equipped, and began a systematic campaign of sabotage directed at railway lines and power stations.

On 20 July Fuller decided that the local situation could best be served by the division of his team into two parts. de la Roche was directed took charge on the Tarbes area while Fuller directed the maquis in the Nistos and Luchron valleys and as far east as St Gaudens. Both groups were busy. On one occasion, de la Roche was ambushed while riding a motorcycle. He lay in a ditch while the Germans unsuccessfully searched all around him and had to lie concealed even as the Germans captured, tortured and executed his companion on the spot.

In addition to the Germans, Fuller and de la Roche had also to address the difficult problem of internal rivalries in the resistance, a task in which they were badly hampered by their continuing inability to produce either weapons or money: the entire course of the 'Bugatti' team’s operation was characterised by only a single supply drop. The air of suspicion and mutual antagonism which surrounded the Franc Tireurs et Partisans, the Mouvements Unis de la Résistance and the Corps Franc Pommiès was never fully overcome, but de la Roche, in particular, succeeded in bringing about an uneasy accommodation between these politically antagonistic factions, and the internecine warfare which characterised eastern European resistance and guerrilla movements was thereby avoided.

By 20 July the 'Bugatti' team had struck at all its designated targets and was busy blowing railways faster than the Germans could repair them. One of the biggest successes was complete interdiction of the line which ran south into Spain. This blocked 50,000 tons of iron ore at the frontier.

The 'Bugatti' team had also been ordered to destroy the oil refinery at Peyrouzet. Fuller was unhappy with the idea of this mission because of its potential impact on the area’s power economy. The refinery’s manager was a confirmed supporter of the resistance and had participated in several stiff firefights as a maquis commander, and proposed a simple but effective plan for eliminating production without sabotaging the equipment.

The refinery required large amounts of water and, under the manager’s supervision, the canals which delivered this were bled dry. The Germans could not locate the control valves, and were therefore powerless to resume operations. Two days after the Germans pulled out, the refinery was producing enough fuel for the entire Toulouse area.

With the 'Dragoon' landing on the south coast of France about to take place on 15 August, Général Charles de Gaulle, the Free French leader, issued orders for a full-scale rising in southern France. When the coded message was broadcast by the BBC on 14 August, Fuller and his team were still desperately short of explosives and ammunition, but even so managed to take action throughout the Haute Pyrenées area. This effort paralysed German road movement, for every road which could be covered was allocated to various ambush parties, and road transport havoc resulted.

On 18 August, Fuller received word that the commanding general in Tarbes was attempting to flee. The Germans had assembled a column of trucks and civilian cars, and were preparing to withdraw toward Montrejeau along the main road. Every available maquisard was directed to stop this movement. The Germans were now in a state of confusion, for Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s US VI Corps of Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army was driving north from its riviera beach landing areas spearheaded by a mechanised brigade, and Général de Corps d’Armée Edgard de Larminat’s French II Corps of Général d’Armée Jean de Latte de Tassigny’s Army 'B' had forced the Germans back into Toulon and was also pushing westward toward Marseille. With the prospect of crumbling defences along the Rhône river valley, the Germans faced the possibility that all their forces between the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay would soon be faced with surrender or encirclement.

The local commander in Tarbes, Generalmajor von Mayr, found neither of these options palatable. but within minutes of leaving the town with his forces both became more inviting as the evacuation column was immediately attacked by the maquis. Mayr and his chief-of-staff, Oberst Kuntze, were both hit in the first bursts of fire from Bren light machine guns and Sten sub-machine guns, and the Germans were soon in flight. Trucks and cars were set alight, and the German soldiers had nowhere to turn: 20 were killed, 35 wounded and the rest taken prisoner. Tarbes was liberated.

The 'Bugatti' team now moved into the Hôtel Moderne in Tabes, but Fuller and de la Roche did not spend much time there. For the next three weeks both were involved in a series of actions which culminated in the establishment of an organised maquis force of nearly 5,000 men. While most of these drove north toward Bordeaux, the others organised a series of ambushes along the Franco/Spanish frontier, and patrols in this sector captured more than 400 Germans, bringing the haul of 'Bugatti' to about 1,000.

Operations were now going so successfully that Fuller was no longer content to wait for air support from Algiers. Having overrun several airfields, he simply organised his own 'air force'. Although hampered by a lack of fuses for the German bombs, the aircraft proved useful in the reconnaissance and liaison roles.

Fuller finished the war with a Chinese commando battalion, having been promoted to lieutenant colonel while in the Pyrenees.