Landing in Provence and Liberation of the South of France
Jean Marie Guillon
This long documentary is attempting a quick overview of the region's history from the time it was occupied in November 1942 until its liberation in August 1944. Made up of fragments from different sources, it is unfortunately silent. But it is still interesting on several levels, first of all by showing us a few shots of what life was really like at that time, then by providing a representation made up of some of the first images of the historic events which Provence had just lived through, intensely and sometimes painfully. We can break this representation down into three sections (each being combined with various elements) which follow the obvious stages of: the Occupation, the Landings and the Liberation.
1 -- the first sequence shows us some of the difficult times experienced under German occupation (the Italian occupation is ignored). First we see the occupation of Marseille with classic views of the Old Port (and its transporter bridge which the occupier blew up during the liberation) and the destruction of the working class area which was on the north side of the port in January-February 1943. This view of Marseille under the heel of the Germans – the sign saying "Passage forbidden for military reasons", the soldiers seen through a barred window – is completed by the image of the Hotel de Noailles, the biggest hotel on the Canebiere, temporarily transformed into the occupier's headquarters and by some rapid shots of the defences along the coast (the Mediterranean Wall) being constructed so as to impede Allied Landings. The film then moves on to Toulon with the ships which had been scuttled in the harbour on November 27th 1942. The Germans arriving in the south tried to seize the Mediterranean fleet, which had let itself be blocked in there, but the French navy, faithfully obeying orders from Vichy, refused to let the ships fall into German hands. We should notice the inscription "Jews here" – evidence of the persecution of that part of the population. This choice – others could have been made (the departure of the requis [those requisitioned by the Germans to work in German factories], the daily suffering of a starving population) – shows that even then people were fully aware of the Jewish issue. The end of the sequence is given over to the Allied bombing of the region, which began at the end of the summer of 1943 and accelerated through to the spring of 1944, aiming at communication routes, railway stations, military installations. By killing thousands of people in the region's towns, Allied bombing was the principal cause of unnatural death, although it did not turn the population against the Allies. The bombing provides the link through to the landings, since that was preceeded, from August 11th onwards, by systematic aerial operations along the coast. That's what we see just before moving to the Allied fleet -- some 2,000 ships -- shelling the coastal defences.
2. The Landing in the Mediterranean – operation Dragoon – took place on the beaches of the Var between the islands of Hyeres and Esterel on August 15th 1944 from 8:00 o'clock in the morning. The operation was almost entirely run by the Americans, using General Patch's 7th Army, he being supervised by General Maitland Wilson, supreme commander of the Mediterranean theatre. The landings were preceeded by night commando operations, led by French units, at the zone's two extremities (the head of Esquillon to the east and Cap Nègre to the west). After the bombardment of the coast begun one hour earlier (16,000 shells and 800 tonnes of bombs), the men of three American divisions -- the 3rd, 45th and the 36th, landed respectively at Cavalaire and Ramatuelle (Pampelonna), Saint-Maxime (La Nartelle) and Saint Raphaël (Le Framont, having failed to land at Fréjus beach). The operation was a complete success, the resistance and the losses were both far less than during the Normandy landings on June 6th. The principal losses were from troops parachuted or brought over in gliders (434 killed), which we can see crashed a little further on. These troops (1st Airborne Task Force), commanded by General Frederick, were dropped in the early morning on the far side of the Maures, not far from the Route National 7, in the sector of Le Muy. By the evening of the 15th they had joined up with the troops who had come ashore on the coast. Only on the following day, the 16th in the evening, did the men of General de Lattre de Tassigny, head of the B Army, begin to land at Cavalaire (the beach at Pardigon, as we can see) and at the base of the Gulf of Saint Tropez at La Foux (Cogolin). Meanwhile the Americans were advancing towards Le Gapeau (where the French had to take over to begin the battle for Toulon) and in the direction of Brignoles and Draguignan, the region's main town. De Lattre's divisions were made up of different units. The 1st DFL (Division française libre – division of Free French) is the main Gaulliste unit, made up of men who had joined-up very early into the Free French Forces (Foreign Legionaires, the Pacific battalion), which is why they were given the honour of being the first ashore in France. The other divisions – 3rd DIA (Division d'infanterie algérienne) and the 9th DIC (Division d'infanterie coloniale) – came from the Army of Africa, colonial army which had remained faithful to Vichy until November 1942 and then rallied to General Giraud. They were mostly made up of North Africans, Algerian light infantrymen or, as we see here, Moroccan auxiliaries, but also Africans (Senegalese light infantry). De Lattre made his headquarters at Cogolin, while Patch was at Saint Tropez. It's there that on August 17th on the Place des Lices, the two officers accompanied by Maitland Wilson, pay tribute to the fighters of the Resistance – organised here in a group called the Brigade of the Maures, covering the sector going from Lavandou to Saint-Maxime – very well bedded-in and who had taken a very active part in the fighting. Patch awarded their leader, the architect Marc Reynaud (who is wearing a neck brace and who was later nominated sub-prefect at Toulon) with a Silver Star and gave citations (the order of the American Army) to seven members of the FFI (the town of Saint Tropez was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1948). Beside Reynaud are several notorious elements of the local Resistance, in particular the man who was a sort of master-mind, Jean Despras, and a courageous young woman, daughter of the painter Marko Celebonovitch, who was himself head of the local FTP (Franc Tireurs et Partisans – irregular "free shooters" and partisans)
3. The FFI (Forces françaises de l'interieur) also played a very active role in the fighting, particularly in the towns which the B Army liberated after several hard-fought battles, the most difficult of the whole campaign in Provence. We see them at Toulon where the battle lasted from August 21st to 28th. FFI and FTP were there the whole time, particular in the centre, along the Boulevard de Strasbourg. The battle for Toulon was murderous, nearly 2,700 were put out of combat (killed or wounded), the worst being at Hyères (Golf Hotel), around and in the arsenal. In addition the Resistance had a political role and also had to police the towns. That is shown with the shots of the prison where collaborators were taken. That is the only mention of the purges which went on in the midst of the excited crowds. They were exasperated by the suffering of the previous months. The violence of the purges (which is not shown here: we see neither the lynchings nor the shaved women being led through the streets) is the flip-side of the general happiness we can see everywhere, the jubilation of being free again. There was also violence sometimes meted out to the enormous numbers of German prisonners --17,000 around Toulon alone – or men wearing German uniform, led towards the warehouses where they remained for several months. The population, who had longed for this liberation, suffered from both pain and fear. Many had to leave their houses to take refuge in the woods or grottos waiting for the fighting to finish. The German authorities wanted to evacuate Toulon to transform the camp into a pocket as on the Atlantic coast where the route for the refugees is glimpsed.
The documentary then comes back to the fighting of the liberation. The camera lingers on the Sherman tanks of the under-group Letang (Duquesne, Desaix, Sainte-Odile). This squad belongs to the Combat Command 1 of Colonel Sudre, a French unit part of the 1st DB which landed at Saint-Maxime on the evening of the 15th to head for the middle of the Var before being ordered to take part in the battle for Marseille. The tanks we see are doubtless at Aubagne where the battle for Marseille began and which was fought at the same time as the battle for Toulon, thanks to the initiative of General Montsabert who forced De Lattre's hand. During this time the American troops were liberating the centre of Provence, driving on towards the Rhone valley. By the end of the month only the Alpine frontier with Italy had not been taken (Briançon, Mercantour). They did not expect to get so much help from the population, nor to see so many in the Resistance. All the accounts by the American generals agree on this. At Marseille as at Toulon and in the back-country, the FFI are present. They were a mixed unit, some came from the maquis and joined the units which had landed, others belonged to urban groups, some were gendarmes – we can see one of them – sailors, firemen or police. Several groups tried to get control of the FFI. Among them we can see many FTP (Franc Tireurs et Partisans), an armed element of the Communist Party. An example of the fierce competition between these groups is shown in Aix-en-Provence – it was liberated when the Americans got there on August 21st, only to find the FTP had already taken possession of the town hall.
The report ends with the great parade on August 29th marking the liberation of Marseille in the presence of the highest military and political authorities (Le défilé des troupes coloniales dans Marseille libérée). You cannot help noticing how much this film emphasises the participation of women in the fight for liberation (they can be seen in the parade, bearing arms), this is a significant point. There was a desire -- which we find in the press as well -- to give a rightful place to those who, at last, saw themselves recognised as fully-fledged citizens with political rights.
Antoine Champeaux et Paul Gaujac dir., Le débarquement de Provence, Paris, Lavauzelle, 2008.
Arthur Layton Funk, Les Alliés et la Résistance, un combat côte à côte pour libérer le Sud-Est de la France, Aix-en-Provence, Édisud, 2001.
Paul Gaujac, La guerre en Provence 1944-1945, une bataille méconnue, Lyon, PUL, 1998.
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, Histoire de la Première Armée française, Paris, Plon, 1950.
Michel van Zelle, Nancy a le torticolis, 1994, FR3/Méditerranée Films Productions.