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I wrote this “haiku” a couple of years ago:

Two Yank commandos 

Machined gunned from a sidecar

‘Mort pour Liberté’

Robert Spaur and Bernard Gautier were members of a fifteen-strong American commando unit parachuted into the south Tarn on the night of the 6th of August 1944, as part of an allied plan to disrupt supply lines in southern France prior to D-Day in the South–scheduled for the 15th August.

On patrol, a couple of days after the drop, the group spotted a Nazi motorbike unit heading up from Mazamet towards the small village of Le Rialet to investigate an attack by local maquis–that had succeeded in killing a cow and injuring a German soldier.

The  commandos decided to ambush the unit on its way down.

The plan went awry and in the skirmish two Americans, the oldest (Gautier 33) and youngest (Spaur 19), were shot and killed.

The story of the ambush on the back of the memorial at the spot where it happened

“Can you imagine the disbelief of a Nazi patrol driving up the narrow road from Mazamet towards Le Rialet in August 1944 when they see young men in American uniforms come out of the woods to attack them,” Meredith said, as we headed up the road to the annual commemoration ceremony on Saturday.

“D-Day had happened on June 6th in Normandy and the allies were still stuck there. The Germans must have thought–‘what on earth are American soldiers doing–so far south?’.”

The element of surprise might have given the OSS commandos (Office of Strategic Services–forerunner of the CIA) an added advantage as they attacked the German column–that split-second that counts.

Meredith was scheduled to carry the Stars and Stripes at the ceremony to mark the 74th anniversary.

She is the flag carrier (Porte Drapeau) at annual commemoration ceremonies in Castres and a few years ago was asked to attend this event in Le Rialet.

We learned the remarkable story of the commando unit’s existence from Gilbert Brial–whom we met at one of the commemorations.

Gilbert Brial with Thierry Pauthe–in the uniform of a GI.

Gilbert was 18 in August 1944 and a member of Corps Franc du Sidobre–one of several Maquis groups operating in this mountainous region of the Tarn.

The number of surviving ancien combatants has dwindled over the years Meredith has been attending the ceremonies.

Gilbert is 92 now and ailing, but has been an active campaigner to keep the story alive.

The French expression le devoir de mémoire–the duty to remember–perfectly describes Gilbert’s attitude.

Meredith had assumed the story was well known and that Gilbert must have told it to the media many times.

“Jamais!” [Never!] Gilbert said.

Intrigued and moved, she pursued the story and with the help of the American consul at the time, obtained a Fulbright grant, enabling her to record a series of on camera interviews with most of the surviving members of the Maquis–French rural Resistance fighters.

She was hoping to make a documentary of the story.

Sadly none of the American OSS commandos were still alive, though she made contact with some of their families and several have visited the Tarn.

The OSS team’s code name was PAT.

Read her full account of the remarkable Fourteen days in August 1944, when the surviving members of the commando unit succeeded in preventing local occupation forces from rushing troops and guns to Provence, where the southern D-Day was launched on a beach near St. Tropez.

They also helped liberate our local town, Castres, from Nazi occupation.

Next year is the 75th anniversary and Meredith is hoping for a large turn-out.

At the war memorial, Monsieur Yvan Cros, one of the few maquisards still alive, laid a wreath in memory of his comrades.

M.Cros with La Porte Drapeau Americaine

As the names on the memorial are read out, each is remembered with the spoken words–Mort pour la France for the French and Mort pour La Liberté for Robert Spaur and Bernard Gautier.


It touches the heart.

 

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We were on top of the world Saturday afternoon in the high hills of les Monts de Lacaune to the east of Lautrec–waiting with an expectant crowd…

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…for four French paratroopers to fall from the sky.

Both the crowd on the ground and the “angels” about to descend, were–perhaps unknowingly–re-enacting events that happened here, in an occupied wartime France, 70 years ago.

In early August 1944 the Allies organized several parachute missions to deliver weapons, supplies and soldiers to the resistance fighters in the Tarn. The German occupation forces got wind of one of these midnight drops and on the night of August 8th, they attacked the drop zone killing seven young maquis fighters. Their sacrifice was being remembered and honored at Saturday’s event.

In 1944 Guy de Rouville (below) was commander of the Maquis of Vabre–the Resistance group in charge of the secret drop zone. He was 29 years old.

At 99 his memory of these events is remarkable and his enthusiasm to communicate it, undiminished.

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Guy de Rouville laying  flowers in honor of the slain young men whom he had once commanded.

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Guy, in full flood, telling his story.

Guy and his wife, Odile (96), still live in the hill village of Vabre, where they once welcomed a young English major and two French officers from the Jedburgh mission who had parachuted onto this hillside on the night of the 8th August 1944.

The previous night they had taken in an American soldier who had broken his leg landing in the same drop zone with 14 comrades. They were an OSS commando unit sent from a base in North Africa to support local partisans and disrupt the German supply lines before the still little-known southern D-Day landings near St. Tropez on 15th August 1944.

All the parachute drops, made under cover of darkness and in a remote place, put the local population in peril on a day to day basis from the Nazi occupation forces.

The drop zone is on the opposite side of the valley from Vabre near the village of Viane.

Viane is en fete this weekend and murmurs were heard about the commemoration stealing its thunder.

Small murmerings–most of the crowd, like us, were looking forward to the parachute jump by the 8th RPIM (8e régiment de parachutistes d’infanterie de marine) based in nearby Castres.

We were not disappointed.

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Despite an unpredictable wind making it more difficult…

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…three hit the orange target…

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…and the fourth was within twenty feet or so.

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Meredith and “an angel that fell from the sky”!

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Guy stands with today’s “angels”, 70 years after he welcomed the war-time flights.

Meredith is an American porte drapeau, carrying the American flag at ceremonies of remembrance in the region.

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It was at one of these ceremonies where she heard the story of the American OSS team’s landing and their vital contribution to the liberation of the south Tarn two weeks after their arrival.

She received a Fulbright grant to document the history of that mission, interviewing most of the surviving members of the maquis group involved with the OSS mission. Two of the OSS men were killed in action in the Tarn. Their sacrifice and the memory of their deeds are honored by French veterans every year here–sometimes in the presence of American family members who come to see where their loved ones served.

Unlike the French paratroopers we watched Saturday, the OSS and the Jedburgh teams parachuted at night, laden with heavy equipment, into occupied France–with little idea what awaited them.

Their courage has never been forgotten here.

 

 

 

 

 

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