Throughout France the French Resistance had burst into activity since D-Day, with many acts of sabotage and direct attacks on the occupying German forces. In many places they were supported by Allied troops operating behind enemy lines, providing communication links with London and supplying arms and other munitions by parachute drop. Their disruption to German units attempting to travel to Normandy had provoked acts of savage repression and massacres of civilians.
In the remote upland region of Vercors in south east France the French went further. Its isolated position gave the Resistance the confidence to declare the ‘Free Republic of Vercors’ on the 3rd July. it was a provocation too far for the Germans , who despatched up to 10,000 troops to put down the insurrection.
Approximately 3,500 French Resistance fighters put an unequal struggle against much better armed German units. On the 23rd July they had to accept they were virtually surrounded and nearly overcome – the order was given to disperse.
John Houseman was one of the British agents who had parachuted in to support the French, he was now on the run alongside them:
Moved again. The goat began bleating for her kid though, needless to say, she was milked frequently enough. She was, however, becoming a danger and we thought she’d have to be killed. Still no sign of Cmdt. H, Andre or anyone else.
The planes kept up their tireless search, and every unusual sound in the woods caused an instant silence among the party – a hunted dog look, as everyone strained his ears and slowly, but with calculated intention, reached for his gun.
The strain was beginning to mean something, and we were all getting weak. The usual rations for the day were: breakfast – one handful of dry cornflakes; lunch – a slice of raw goat’s flesh and half a piece of bread; supper – goat’s meat and bread again.
Desmond and I had some emergency rations e.g. raisins, dried figs, a little chocolate, etc, but shared between six people they went only a short way. Thirst was far worse than hunger.
Realising the futility of sitting where we were, getting nowhere and gradually growing weaker besides the fact no one had contacted us which was the primary object, we decided to move across the valley. Desmond, Boise, who said he’d like to come, and I. We realised the risks entailed, but saw in it the only hope of making contact with Andre, possibly Cmdt H, who, by now, must have sought hiding on the opposite side of the valley. At 3.30pm we said “good-bye” to the rest, who didn’t appear to take our leaving them particularly well, took a few rations and left.
We were to learn later that the remainder of the party were surprised by a German patrol. The men, after castration, were beaten to death with rifle buts and the girl disembowelled and left to die with her intestines wound round her neck. I saw the photographs later – they were unrecognisable.
We surveyed St. Martin (now without any field glasses – I had lent mine for a coup-de-main raid a week or so ago). There was practically nothing living to be seen, beside an occasional motor car or bicycle. One or two farms were still burning, and the still afternoon was only disturbed by irregular rifle or machine gum fire besides patrols.
Three can move so much more easily than a larger party, besides which, there was no water to be had in the evening. I dreamed and thought of it.
We worked our way down disused tracks, stopping frequently to listen and sometimes hearing imaginary sounds. We all were very tired and weak.
Down the mountain side and through the undergrowth took us to a dangerously open track. There was, however, no alternatives so we moved as quickly as we could. Intermittent firing continued, but not, as far as one could tell, aimed at us.
About 7pm while forcing our way through thick undergrowth in an attempt to keep under cover and to take a short cut, a machine gun opened up just above our heads. We froze. I saw my much dreamed of drink fading before my eyes. They had evidently heard us, if not seen us, and anyhow no longer needed an excuse to spray the hills and bushes with frequent bursts. We waited where we fell until well after dark.
About 11 o’clock, Desmond and I could stand it no longer – we had craved so long for water, which was now actually within earshot, and we were parched. Leaving Bois where he was, and taking every sort of container we had, we crept out into the fields and towards the stream below.
Apart from the fact that I had little or no sense of direction, I am almost completely blind in the dark, and, for these reasons, I fear I represented an additional and unwelcome burden at times upon Desmond. I just couldn’t help it, try as I might.
With some difficulty we found our way via tracks and trees to a large open field which led to this little stream. I was terrified lest finally we would not be able to reach it, or that we would be seen and be forced to turn back. Stage by stage we advanced with the usual sound of rushing water growing louder minute by minute.
While still in the open field across which we had to go a brilliant flash lit up the sky. The Germans were firing Very lights from the opposite hill to light up the woods. We fell on our faces. The flare died down, and we continued.
Then another – and I thought the stream would prove to be nothing more than a beautiful mirage. Eventually, however, we made it – I shall never forget my relief. Lying beside the rushing torrent of water about which you had thought for several days perhaps more than anything else, to feel the cold clear water which fell straight from the mountain above – and to drink again. I went on. drinking until I thought I’d burst, and then drank more.
We filled our containers, had a final drink and returned to Bois still sitting where we had left him.
We spent an exceptionally uncomfortable night sleeping on a gradient of 1 in 2.
Read the whole of John Houseman’s account in several instalments on BBC People’s War.
For much more on the background to the French Resistance, and the situation in France generally in 1944, see the French site 70e Anniversaire.