Operation Hoch-Savoyen

high Savoy

This was a German offensive against the French resistance forces based on the Glières plateau of the Massif des Bornes in the Haute-Savoie area (31 January/26 March 1944).

Created by the Armée Secrète on 31 January 1944 , the Maquis des Glières was a resistance force led by Tom Morel, who had been an officer of the French regular army, under the guidance of older officers who had serviced in the 27th Battalion des Chasseurs Alpins at Annecy. On 26 March 1944, the Maquis des Glières became the first major resistance force to confront German occupation forces.

The Glières plateau had become a French refuge area soon after the defeat of France in June 1940, its primary attractions being its proximity to neutral Switzerland and its advantages as an area in which disintegrating military units and Jewish refugees could seek sanctuary and resistance forces could be established and sheltered. The Glières plateau refuge was established by a Franco-British team (Lieutenant Colonel Heslop or ‘Xavier’ of the Special Operations Executive and Capitaine Rosenthal or ‘Cantinier’) as an area into which agents and weapons could be dropped, and in February 1944 this persuaded two leaders of the Armée Secrète, Capitaines Clair and Anjot) to use the area for the establishment of a base from which to harass the Germans during and after the planned Anglo-US landings in France, and to confirm that the resistance, under the aegis of the Free French leader, Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, that the resistance was able to undertake large-scale actions.

Late in January 1944 and unhappy with the disaffection that had emerged in the region, the Vichy French regime committed its security forces to putting the Haute Savoie under what was in effect a state of siege, and as a result many Armée Secrète veterans moved onto the plateau of Glières under the command of former officers of the 27th BCA. Here they were soon joined by two groups of some 80 communist-leaning adherents of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans resistance movement, 56 Spanish republican refugees, and men who had escaped from the Service du Travail Obligatoire forced labour system, so raising the resistance force’s strength to slightly more than 600. These elements received military training and became the core of an expanded resistance force.

From a time in the middle of February 1944 this growing resistance force was put under steadily increasing pressure by Intendent de Police George Lelong’s force of 1,125 men of the Gendarmerie, 906 men of the mobile security arm, 790 men of the Groupe Mobile de Réserve (mobile reserve group) of the Vichy French police, and 250 men of the Milice Français para-military force. In this manner the Vichy French regime hoped to maintain the semblance of French control and security. On 12 February these Vichy French elements had begun a reconnaissance in force of the plateau of Glières, but were ambushed with the loss of two killed, six wounded of whom two later died, and three taken prisoner; the maquis had no losses.

Soon after this the maquis received three drops of light infantry weapons, the most important of these on 10 March. Just before this, Morel had decided that the maquis should attack the command post of the GMR ‘Aquitaine’ group at Entremont at the foot of the plateau of Glières. During the night of 9/10 March, some 150 maquisards encircled the village and thereby trapped about 60 men of the GMR. One group, led by Morel, managed to take the Hôtel de France, where the GMR ‘Aquitaine’ was headquartered. As the maquisards started to disarm their prisoners, there developed a heated dispute between Morel and Commandant Lefebvre, the GMR leader, who drew a revolver and shot Morel in the heart, killing him instantly before he himself was killed. Acting command of the Bataillon des Glières was assumed by Lieutenant Louis Jourdan-Joubert and then, from 14 March by Lieutenant Pierre Bastian until 18 March, when the Capitaine Maurice Anjot assumed permanent command.

Following the failure of the Vichy French forces to ensure security, the Germans decided to intervene in support of the Vichy French with a force of more than 4,000 men supported by artillery and warplanes. On 12 March the Luftwaffe began to bomb the building from which the maquis operated, and the Milice Français launched a few attacks, but without success.

It was at this stage that the Germans launched ‘Hoch-Savoyen’. For purely military reasons, Anjot believed that the maquis should retreat while they still had the opportunity to do so on the face of an overwhelmingly superior enemy. For Free French reasons, however, Rosenthal wished there to be a battle, much discussed by the German-controlled Radio Paris and Free French-controlled Radio Londres, in which the valour and determination of the Free French movement could be validated on the international stage and win over a significant portion of French public opinion to the Free French cause. Anjot therefore opted for a two-part effort in which his forces would fight ‘for the honour of France’ but from which as many men as possible would be extricated. Thus was set the scene for the first major engagement in France between Free French and German forces.

On 26 March three Gebirsgsjäger battalions of Generalleutnant Karl Pflaum’s 157th Reserve-Division, with a fourth in reserve, prepared to assault the plateau with the support of a grouping of German infantry and Vichy French paramilitaries (Milice Français, GMR and Gendarmerie). While German aircraft attacked and set fire to 10 buildings and the Vichy French group failed to make progress on the Col de l’Enclave, Pflaum committed attacks at two points to make an initial test of the maquis defence. The first, in the rocky terrain of the Lavouillon area, was beaten back without difficulty, but the second, in the less easily surveilled Monthiévret area, bypassed a forward position and forced the maquisards to pull back into the night. Two maquisards had been killed and several injured, one of them seriously. Learning that the Germans had broken though, and were well equipped, Anjot decided that honour had been saved, ordered the Battalion des Glières to retreat at 22.00 on 26 March.

Lacking heavy weapons, bombed by the Luftwaffe and shelled by the German artillery, the maquisards had shown that they could fight the Germans as well as the Vichy French, and then evacuated the plateau on the night of 26/27 March. On the following day the Germans, who had taken several maquisards prisoner, decided that the general assault planned for 28 March was no longer required and also left the plateau.

However, hunted and often denounced by collaborators, the maquis suffered heavy losses: about two-thirds of their men were taken prisoner, about 140 died (killed in action, tortured, executed or deported as snipers and terrorists), and many of the wounded were killed on the spot. Almost all the weapons and equipment which had been para-dropped to the maquis were destroyed or fell into the hands of the Germans and Vichy French.

The Germans lost only three men killed and seven wounded (five of them in accidents), while the Vichy French lost about 20 men killed.