This was a German operation against the resistance forces of the Maquis de l’Ain et du Haut-Jura in the area between Bourg en Bresse and Annecy in the south-east of German-occupied France (5/13 February 1944).
The largest yet launched against the French resistance, this operation was the first in which the German had felt it necessary to commit army troops, earlier undertakings against the resistance forces having been seen as policing responsibilities and therefore allocated to the Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo, or security police) and Sicherheitsdienst (SD, or security service).
On 4 February 1944, the day of the funerals of resistance fighters recently killed in combat, a section of the group responsible for the security of Hotonness, where the funerals were taking place, stopped a car whose driver was identified as one Houizot, a leader of the local Gestapo team. Houizot was immediately seized and transported to the resistance camp at Pré Carré, a local farm, for questioning and the extraction of information on current and future operations. A resistance search found a detailed map of the département which, on closer examination a few days later after the end of ‘Korporal’, revealed to the resistance that the Germans had a very substantial body of information, network of informants, and plans for anti-resistance operations.
A German aeroplane, which had been reconnoitring the area for several days, spotted suspicious activity at the farm and strafed the area with machine gun fire. The resistance fighters escaped into the nearby woods even as the aeroplane started its second strafing run. As the fighters made their escape, they left Houizot without guards, and he was set free by a collaborator, and the Gestapo quickly seized and tortured to death the owners of the farm, the Berne brothers, who had actively aided the resistance movement by allowing the establishment of the resistance camp on their land. The brothers’ sister, Irène, was deported to Germany after been forced to see the torture scene, and the farm was burned to the ground.
On 5 February, at the instigation of the German military command in the south of France, Dr Werner Knab (military commander of the security service and Lyon area police), the Gestapo and the Milice française, ‘Korporal’ was launched by about 2,500 men of a German security battalion, foreign volunteers and mountain troops under the command of Generalleutnant Karl Pflaum’s 157th Reserve-Division. These troops quickly closed all the lines of communication into the area, and embarked on the task of combing the area for resistance fighters, tracking down all those suspected of being ‘terrorists’ or providing these latter with physical and logistical support, and at the same time searching out any persons who had managed to evade conscription into the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO, or compulsory labour service) designed to provide German factories with workers.
The German force had the advantage of artillery and armour for the mountain troops, reconnaissance and ground attack aircraft, and a large number of military vehicles. At this time of the year, there was much lying snow, and this was a severe hindrance to both the Germans, whose movement was made more difficult, and the French resistance forces as they attempted to leave the area as their footprints remained visible in the snow. The first victims of ‘Korporal’ were any who were suspected of aiding the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI, or French forces of the interior, as the three primary resistance elements had been combined on 1 February 1944). Around the scattered villages of the region, farms which were suspected of harbouring resistance elements or their camps were burned, and and resistance fighters who were captured were tortured and shot.
One of the events most characteristic of ‘Korporal’ was the attack on La Montagne farm on 8 February. The arrival of German search teams forced the personnel of the Maquis de l’Ain et du Haut-Jura’s local headquarters to make their escape, and these persons took refuge in the isolated La Montagne farm house near Abergement de Varey. SS-Hauptsturmführer Nikolaus ‘Klaus’ Barbie, the commander of the Lyon branch of the Gestapo, was informed by a member of the Milice française where the resistance team was hiding, the number of personnel involved, and the weapons they had available to them. At dawn 300 German soldiers surrounded the farm, where 22 resistance fighters were concealed. The men had to flee, and one of the men, Julien Roche, covered the escape until he was killed by German fire. Nine other resistance fighters, including the driver of the local commander, André Palisson, were killed, but 11 others managed to escape into the forest. In this engagement, the Germans lost two men killed and one wounded.
On 11 February the Germans undertook a raid in Oyonnax, as a result of which 27 persons from Oyonnax and 30 persons from Nantua were sent to Mauthausen concentration camp.
‘Korporal’ ended on 13 February, and in overall terms resulted in the deaths of 40 persons, the arrest of 339 persons, the deportation of 287 persons, and the burning of 99 farms and homes. As far as the FFI was concerned, the last meant that farms had become too vulnerable for use as bases, and as a result the FFI groups decided to become more mobile and rely largely on makeshift camps using woodland materials and parachute canopies. The FFI’s losses in weapons, equipment, vehicles and food reserves were also considerable. One commentator has shown that the local FFI units had wheat and potatoes sufficient for one year, as well as several thousands of pairs of shoes and boots: these were burned or otherwise seized by the Germans.