Operation Christopher

'Christopher' was a US special forces operation to parachute a 52-man operational group of the Office of Strategic Services into the Poitiers area of German-occupied France to attack German forces retreating from south-western France toward the Belfort gap and thence Germany, and to aid local resistance forces (3/14 September 1944).

On 3/4 September 10 Consolidated Liberator adapted four-engined heavy bombers took off from a base in the UK with the 'Christopher' operational group, led by Captain M. J. Hjeltness, as well as the 'Jedburgh' team for 'Desmond', in all 57 officers and men, and dropped them between 23.15 and 01.30 in the area of Poitiers. The two groups were met by resistance forces and provided with food and sleeping quarters in Avot. Two men incapacitated in the drop, one with an ankle injury and the other with a knee injury, received care in a resistance hospital.

On about 6 September, and after spending some time searching vainly for German units to attack, the operational group moved toward Chatillon, and at Maissy joined a resistance group under fire from several hundred Germans. The operational group was recalled and continued into Chatillon, which had just been evacuated. The operational group moved 5 miles (8 km) to a nearby village and fired mortar bombs into an area believed to be occupied by Germans who had been threatening the village. Moving forward near Villotte and Maissy, with the squads led by 1st Lieutenant L. P. Fletcher and 1st Lieutenant W. Larson on the left and right respectively, Hjeltness set up a machine gun fire and fired on a number of Germans seen in the woods, into which a resistance team was firing a Bren light machine gun. When the volume of German return fire lessened, the men of the operational group moved forward, but ran into renewed German fire and Larson was fatally shot. The operational group then pulled back to Maissy.

On about 7/8 September the resistance fighters on the right pulled out during the night, and the operational group moved back to Avot.

About two days later the Americans spotted a number of Germans from a hill at Geosmes, to the west of Langres, and dropped dozens of mortar bombs into woods round the village and then pulled out. On the following day it was reported that seven Germans had been killed.

On the following day the operational group moved to Langres and found advance elements of the French 1st Army approaching from the south, and on 12 September the men of the US group worked with a French cavalry unit in blowing a gate leading to a large fortress held by the Germans. After an hour of artillery and mortar fire, French tanks moved forward with support from men of the US group. At the outer gate the first tank met intense fire and withdrew, and the men of the operational group established a nearby defensive position in case the Germans made a counterattack. Then the firing ended and word came that between 1,200 and 1,300 Germans had surrendered in Langres and in the fortress.

On 13 September the men of the operational group returned to Langres and stayed with resistance in a seminary previously occupied by Germans, and on the following day moved to Auberive for rest.

On 15 September a lieutenant of the French army, sent by Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army, arrived to establish communications between the 3rd Army and Général d’Armée Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny’s French Armée B (redesignated as the 1ère Armée on 19 September) moving up from the south. With his group now overrun by Allied forces, Hjeltness contacted London, received instructions to return, and reached London 22 September.

2nd Lieutenant William L. Coulehan had been left on 10 September to recover the body of Larson. While reconnoitring the area he came under German fire, and then went to Chatillon where he learned of a telephone line over which communications could be established between Patton’s 3rd Army advancing to the south-east from Normandy and Lieutenant Alexander McC.Patch’s US 7th Army advancing to the north-east from the south of France. Coulehan reported this fact, and also the defenseless state of Chatillon, to a US photo-reconnaissance officer for relay to the 3rd Army. On returning to Chatillon, where the Germans were surrendering, Coulehan resumed his search and recovered the body of Larson. Arrangements were made for the burial of the bodies of Larson and Captain Joseph J. Kielbowicz, who had been killed on the jump of 'Adrian' a few nights earlier. Coulehan eventually reached an operation group base at Auberive on 14 September.