In Southeastern France lies a rugged region called the Haute Savoie. Today the area is largely known for the imposing Cathedral of Notre Dame at Grenoble and the chic ski resort of Val d'Isere. But during the long dark night of German occupation, Frenchmen came to the Haute Savoie not to pray or ski, but to fight. There, on a high plateau surrounded by mountains, a melancholy drama was played out during 1943-44.
"Who Knew Not Fear . . ."
Vercors plateau is thirty miles long and about twelve miles wide. A foreboding natural fortress, 3,000 feet above sea level, it is covered by one of the largest forests in all France. On its windswept top live 5,000 small farmers and a few of Western Europe's last surviving wild bear.
Vercors was of special interest to General de Gaulle as well as the clandestine warfare planners of SOE and OSS, for in addition to the bears, 3,000 Free French maquisards were lying low there. "A vast plan was being worked out to turn Vercors into a redoubt against which enemy attacks would beat in vain and which, by its example, would summon the entire Alpine resistance to the colours. From it raiding parties would descend into the plain and it would perhaps even form a corner of liberated France, the "Vercors Republic."1
Contacting and arming this group would be difficult, but it was deemed a vital task. Special men were required, and SOE decided to form an inter-Allied team: British, French, and American. The mission was to be called UNION. The job of organizing it fell to SOE's "Section RF" headed by Sir Colin Gubbins, the real "M"* of British secret operations.
RF was located in London's Dorset Street quite near the offices of Free France at Dorset and Wigmore. It was there that the three men chosen for UNION assembled. The British member was H.H.A. Thackwaite, a pre-war schoolmaster who had become a clandestine warrior by way of St. Paul's and Corpus Christi, Oxford. As radio operator, the French supplied "Monnier" one of the best in the business. The American was Marine Captain Peter J. Ortiz, last seen in North Africa. It was to be a "first team" effort in point of quality as well as chronology.
UNION had a singular task: determine the military capabilities of maquis units reported active in Savoie, Isere, and Drome. Its ordre de mission emphasized that the leaders of such units should be impressed with the fact that "organization of guerilla warfare activity, especially after D-Day, is now their more important duty."2
On the moonless night of 6 January 1944, five months before OVERLORD, a Briton, a Frenchman, and a U.S. Marine jumped from a RAF bomber in their own personal invasion of "Fortress Europe."
* James Bond aficionados will recognize the fictional "M" as 007's boss.
The members of UNION followed the standard SOE practice of parachuting in civilian clothes. This time however, each carried his military uniform. Once they linked up with the maquis reception committee at the drop zone, Thackwaite made it clear that they were military men on a military mission. The small band thus became "the first Allied officers to appear in uniform in France since 1940." In this regard, Thackwaite was later to write: "Ortiz, who knew not fear, did not hesitate to wear his U.S. Marine Captain's uniform in town and country alike; this cheered the French but alerted the Germans, and the mission was constantly on the move."3
UNION found several very large groups of maquisards itching to fight; however, only about 500 had weapons, and it would take considerable time to arrange for clandestine arms drops and training. Thackwaite, Ortiz, and Monnier took the time, maintaining a running contact with London by radio.
It might reasonably be supposed that the team remained hidden in the high country, but this was simply not the case. Ortiz in particular was fond of going straight into the German occupied towns. On one occasion, he strolled into a cafe dressed in a long cape. Several Germans were drinking and cursing the maquis. One mentioned the fate which would befall the "filthy American swine" when he was caught. This proved a great mistake. Captain Ortiz threw back the cape revealing his Marine uniform. In each hand he held a .45 automatic. When the shooting stopped, there were fewer Nazi's to plan his capture, and Ortiz was gone into the night.4
When he was not emptying bars and training partisans, Captain Ortiz displayed yet another remarkable talent--stealing Gestapo vehicles
from local motor pools. The citation from King George VI which made him a member of the Most Honourable Order of the British Empire reads in part:
For four months this officer assisted in the organization of the Maquis in a most difficult department, where members were in constant danger of attack . . . he ran great risks in looking after four RAF officers who had been brought down in the neighborhood, and accompanied them to the Spanish border.
In the course of his efforts to obtain the release of these officers, he raided a German military garage and took ten Gestapo motors which he used frequently. . . . he procured a Gestapo pass for his own use in spite of the fact that he was well known to the enemy. . . ."5
UNION found an extremely confused situation in its operational area. "Lack of transportation and money were serious problems and security at the regional and departmental levels was poor. UNION used its influence to coordinate several resistance organizations with divergent political views and loyalties. The maquis threat to German occupation forces grew proportionately.6 Clashes became more frequent as the resistance forces appeared in areas formerly thought "safe" by the Nazis.
Despite the winter weather, 3 Panzer Grenadier battalions attacked Vercors in February 1944. Ill-equipped though they were, the French fought back with such skill and determination that the Germans eventually were forced to employ two full divisions in sealing off the plateau.
While the maquis were brave, they continued to lack not only heavy weapons, but also blankets, field equipment, mess gear, uniforms, ammunition, and radios. They could fight hit-and-run actions, but their increasingly defensive posture did not bode well for long term survival.
In late May, UNION was withdrawn by Lysander utility aircraft. Within two weeks, however, two new missions--JUSTINE and EUCALYTPUS--were dropped into the same area.
By july, a general mobilization of all Vercors was in progress, and so were German countermeasures. As the French well know, these would be heavy. La Chapelle En Vercors was heavily bombed on 12 and 13 July. The following day--to celebrate France's greatest national holiday, Bastille Day--American B-17's parachuted nearly 1,500 canisters of arms and ammunition into the fields near Vassieux.
The inhabitants ran out in the streets shouting and waving to the fliers as the Fortresses circled over the roofs. Thirty minutes later the Germans began bombing and strafing the town. This continued from morning to evening and prevented the men from collecting the containers. Only at night was it possible to gather 200 of them. The Germans also started the destruction of La Chapelle en Vercors. The town was ablaze and fighters machine-gunned people endeavoring to save their belongings from their homes.7
On 19 July, the Germans launched a glider-borne assault directly into Vassiuex. Two companies of Waffen SS seized the town and held it against four violent maquis counterattacks. During the bitter fighting, the SS lost nearly 60% of their strength, but the French, lacking artillery, could not dig the survivors out of the town, which was almost completely destroyed. Those civilians who had not fled were rounded up by German relief forces and executed on the spot.
Thus, while the Allies were breaking out of the Normandy beachhead, in the Haute Savoie action going largely in favor of the occupation forces. It was into this deteriorating situation that Ortiz' second UNION mission parachuted.
UNION II was one of a new type OSS mission: the Operational Group. OG's were heavily-armed contingents whose mission was "direct action" against the Germans. The most militarized of OSS units, their jobs involved not only sabotage, but also seizing key installations to prevent the retreating Germans from destroying them. Members always operated in uniform.
UNION II took off from Knettershall Airfield in England aboard B-17's of the USAAF's 388th Heavy Bomb Group. With Ortiz, who was carrying one million francs for the resistance, were Air Corps Captain John Coolidge, Gunnery sergeant Robert La Salle, and Sergeants Charles Perry, John Bodnar, Fred Brunner, and Jack Risler, all U.S. Marines. Another member of the mission was a Free French officer, Joseph Arcelin (codename "Jo-Jo"), who carried false papers identifying his as Sergeant George Andrews, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.8
The mission began badly. It was a daylight drop into a good zone near the town of Beaufort, but despite ideal conditions, tragedy struck the team at once. Sergeant Perry's steel parachute cable snapped six inches from the drogue. UNION II jumped with British-style chutes--Backpacks with no reserve. Perry was dead on the drop zone.9
In addition to the men of UNION II, the 388th dropped 864 containers to the French "Bulle Battalion," which was operating in the Col d'Arecle. While the supplies were being gathered, Ortiz and Captain Bulle began working out plans to attack German security forces in hopes of taking some pressure from the Vercors.
During the next week, UNION II was busy instructing the members of the Bulle Battalion on the functioning and maintenance of the weapons which had been parachuted to them. Then they began a series of patrols
UNION II--the surviving members of Major Peter Ortiz' second mission behind the lines in France
designed to link up with other resistance groups believed to be operating around Beaufort.
On 14 August we proceeded to Beaufort where we made contact with other F.F.I.* companies and from there went on to Montgirod where we were told there were heavy concentrations of Germans. We were able to enter the town but had no sooner done so than we were heavily shelled by German batteries located in the hills around the city. We were forced to retire and his out in the mountains nears Montgirod with the Bulle Battalion. The Germans quickly surrounded the area.10
As soon as the mission left Montgirod, strong German security forces entered the town. They found two wounded maquisards in the parish church, shot them, and burned the building to the ground. Then they took hostages.
Meanwhile, UNION II came under heavy fire and was forced to retreat deeper into the hills. The Germans cleverly maneuvered Ortiz and his men into an unfamiliar area of steep ravines and blind canyons. By mid-day, UNION II was surrounded.
Ortiz had been in tight spots before, and, after conferring with Cooledge, Bulle, and F.F.I. Captain Escande, he decided to make an attempt at sneaking through the German cordon. As the sun sank below the surrounding mountain peaks, the trapped party crawled past the enemy and got cleanly away.
Crossing the Isere River at Centron, the party moved along the wooded southeast slope of the Isere Valley, and by the next morning was well hidden in rocky ground about a thousand meters from the
*Forces Francaises de l'Interieur
small village of Longefoy. Leaving Coolidge in charge, Major Ortiz set out on another one-man reconnaissance mission.
Carefully working his way into the village, Ortiz noted there were no Germans about. Feeling a bit more at ease, he next learned that Operation ANVIL--the invasion of Southern France--had begun and that German forces had passed through earlier heading northeast toward Aime.
I contacted the Mayor and requested food; he was understandably nervous at first, but as his confidence returned he and others became very hospitable. Food and drink were brought to us at our hideout. I found an excellent O.P. and spent much of the afternoon, observing enemy movement in the valley. At nightfall, UNION entered Longefoy and was comfortably lodged by the inhabitants.11
It was to be the last good night's sleep for Ortiz and several others for months to come.
The team was now far from its operational headquarters and everyone was anxious to return there as quickly as possible in order to coordinate operations in support of ANVIL. Ortiz explained it would be risky to move during daylight, but all agreed that time was vital.
On 16 August 1944, UNION II moved slowly back across the valley, crossed the same bridge at Centron and proceeded into the town. Coming out the other side, disaster struck.
As the group ascended a ramp leading to the main highway, a German convoy roared round the corner. Spotting the Americans, who were armed an uniformed, the German trucks screeched to a halt and soldiers tumbled out firing. Brunner later recalled:
Major Ortiz, Sergeant Bodnar and Sergeant Risler withdrew into the southwest section of the town; Major Coolidge, "Jo-Jo" and I took the southeast. We retaliated as best we could, working our way under fire toward the east. I called out to "Jo-Jo" to follow us but he remained in the town.
At this time Captain Coolidge received a bullet in the right leg but he kept going. By then we had reached the bank of the Isere, I dived in and swam across under fire. I had some difficulty as the current was very swift. It was then that I became separated from Coolidge and did not see him again until we met at the Col d'Arecle on 18 August.12
Ortiz,Risler and Bodnar were receiving the bulk of the German attention. As they retreated from house to house, French civilians implored them to give up in order to avoid reprisals. Ortiz ordered the two Sergeants to get out while they could, but neither would go without him. As the enemy fire increased, Ortiz remembered he hostages from Montgirod and the massacre at Vassieaux.
Since the activities of Mission UNION and its previous work were well known to the Gestapo, there was no reason to hope that we would be treated as ordinary prisoners of war. For me personally the decision to surrender was not too difficult. I had been involved in dangerous activities for many years and was mentally prepared for my number to turn up. Sergeant Bodnar was next to me and I explained the situation to him and what I intended to do. He looked me in the eye and replied, "Major, we are Marines, what you think is right goes for me too."13
Ortiz began shouting to the enemy--he tried English, French, and German--but the fire did not slacken. Finally a brief lull developed, and he yelled again, saying he was coming out. As he stepped into the street, an old Frenchwoman ran to him and tried to cover his body with her own. Disengaging himself from this human shield, he walked calmly toward the German lines, machine gun bullets kicking up dust around him. Finally, the firing ceased.
The German commander was suspicious, but agreed to Ortiz' proposal that his men would surrender if the townspeople were not harmed. When only two more Marines emerged, however, the enemy Major became agitated
and demanded to know where "the rest of the Company" was. It took a half-hour's search before the Germans were satisfied that three men had been holding off an entire battalion.
Bodnar and Risler were quickly disarmed,b ut before they could say much, Ortiz called them to attention and directed that they give no information other than that required by the Geneva Convention. This greatly impressed the Germans, who began treating them all with marked respect. A few hours later, Arcelin was caught in a nearby field.
The four prisoners were taken to the main enemy headquarters at Bourg St. Maurice. Ortiz told his men to claim they were paratroopers from the ANVIL operation, and that Arcelin should hold to the story that he was a U.S. Marine of French ancestry. This ruse worked well, despite the fact that "Jo-Jo" could not speak a word of English.
Later in the afternoon, while being transferred to Moutiers, Ortiz worked his cigarette lighter from his pocket and tried to set the back seat of the staff car on fire, hoping to escape in the resulting confusion. The attempt succeeded only in infuriating the Germans and ruining some velour. But it was a portent of things to come.
At the Kommandantur, Ortiz was searched and relived of his identification card, some papers, and 35,000 francs. He managed to conceal another 65,000 francs, however, and demanded loudly to be treated with the same respect due a German field grade officer. Soon, he met Major Kolb, his new guardian, who was tasked with delivering the "prize catch" to Albertville. Progress on the road was slow. The enemy now so feared the maquis that a company of motorcycle troops was employed to escort Ortiz' car. Ortiz was pleased to note that the little column stopped at every possible ambush site and sent out patrols.
Kolb, a veteran soldier who had won the Iron Cross in both World Wars, treated Ortiz like an indulgent father.
He quickly proved that he knew a great deal about me. In great detail and accurately he described our air operation, the burial ceremony for Sergeant Perry, various engagements and the manner and position of our movements since leaving Montgirod. These, he said, had been reported by a shepherd who was one of his field agents.14
The maquis of the Savoie had learned the lesson of Vercors well. The task of the guerilla is to delay, to disorganize, and to panic, not to defend in place. As Ortiz and the rest of UNION were moved progressively eastward, they had the satisfaction of watching their captors struggle with a succession of ambushes. It took the 157th Division three full days to move 40 miles through an area which they allegedly controlled.
On one occasion, Ortiz found himself in a small village which the retreating troops were systematically looting. Townspeople, seeing him surrounded by German officers and wearing an unfamiliar uniform. ignored his captors and begged him to discipline the unruly soldiers.
On 21 August, Ortiz was in Chambery. Sensing that the situation was becoming increasingly critical, he asked for an opportunity to see the local Commanding General. Surprisingly, the request was granted and the Marine Major marched in, saluted, and proposed that the 157th surrender to UNION! Unfortunately, General Flaum was not about to do any such thing. At least, it had been worth a try.
By early September, Ortiz, Bodnar, Risler, and Arcelin were in the northern Italian city of Bussolono. Here they received their first really professional search.
They examined every body hair, every orifice, and found the 65,000 Francs I had concealed as well as my map and compass. On or about 3 September, Germans escorted us to the Kommandantur and locked us in an office for the few minutes while the guards were being detailed to take us to Torino. I rapidly searched the office and pocketed several useful maps.15
At Turin (Torino), the members of UNION were thrown into a stinking civilian prison which already housed 25 U.S. Army officers and men from a chemical battalion. After a week in this pesthole, the entire group was moved to a German POW transit camp near Manatova. On the way, Ortiz tried to persuade the Army officers to join him in rushing the guards and commandeering the bus. They turned him down flat, saying that the war was almost over and it was not worth the risk.
From Manatova, the journey continued by rail. The POWs now numbered several hundred--British, French and Americans--most of whom had been captured in Italy. Crammed into boxcars of the famous French 40 hommes/8 chevaux variety, the prisoners began a 3-day trip to southern Germany via the Brenner Pass. On the way, Ortiz attempted to escape by twisting open a barbed wire barrier rigged along the boxcar's sliding door. He had almost completed his task when the train unexpectedly stopped, and an alert guard found his handiwork. For that, the Major received a beating and promises of future "special treatment."
Finally, on 29 September, Ortiz and the other members of UNION reached their final stop: the Naval POW camp Marlag/Milag Nord located in the small German village of Westertimke outside Bremen. Happily, this was one of the best Stalags in all of Germany. Except for periodic searches and thrice daily roll calls, the Germans were content to merely guard their "guests."
Marlag O, the officers' camp, contained about 400 men. Counting Ortiz, only three were Americans. The senior Allied officer was a Royal Navy Captain who made it plain to the new arrival that escapes "were out." Ortiz promptly proclaimed himself "senior American POW" and announced he would set his own rules. On 18 December 1944, he made his first try, accompanied by Navy Lieutenant (jg) Hiram Harris.
Ortiz spent more than an hour cutting away at a series of wire fences and managed to reach an open field beyond the camp. Harris, however, was caught by a roving patrol, and the alarm sounded. Searchlights picked up Ortiz, and both men were kicked around a bit before being thrown into solitary confinement. Since getting caught was nothing new for Ortiz, he merely bided his time waiting for the right moment to try again.
By February 1945, the small American contingent at Westertimke had grown. One new arrival was just the sort of man to work with Ortiz: Second Lieutenant Walter W. Taylor, USMCR.*
Walt Taylor had participated in OSS operations in Corsica. In August 1944, he joined the Strategic Services Section attached to the U.S. 7th Army for ANVIL. On D-4 (19 August 1944), Taylor reported to the headquarters of the 36th "Texas" Division along with Captain Justine L.Greene, USA--a noted New York psychiatrist--and Corporal James S. Sweeney, USMC.
The 36th was the right flank division in General Alexander Patch's drive northward. Greene, Taylor, and Sweeney were directed to determine the extent of German defenses near Grasse, an area which had been bypassed.
*For Taylor's earlier adventures, see Chapter XII
Leaving the American lines, the little reconnaissance party drove to Mons, an ideal observation post perched on a hill about twenty miles from Grasse. There they were welcomed by the local maquis, who offered to provide an agent for infiltration of the German-held city.16
The next day, Taylor and a Frenchman drove out of Mons in a "liberated" Citroen. The plan was simple. Taylor would take the agent as far as the last maquis outpost, drop him there and await his return.
The agent had been leading the resistance fighting ever since our landing and was absolutely exhausted, falling asleep time and time again while I briefed him . . . I headed for the town of Saint Cezaire, which was declared to be in the hands of the Resistance . . . However, during the night what evidently was a company of Germans had taken up positions in Saint Cezaire. On approaching the dead still town by a steep and winding road, we ran into a roadblock of land mines; we both thought it was the Resistance and the agent took my carbine and jumped out of the car to walk toward the lines of mines. He lasted just about 10 feet beyond the car and died with a bullet through the head.17
Taylor still thought it might be a trigger-happy maquis ambush, but then he spotted what appeared to be a German forage cap. Backing up as fast as he could, the Lieutenant slammed into the roadside coping. Rifle fire began perforating the Citroen.
Just as Taylor reached for the right door handle, a German leaped from a nearby ditch and flipped a "potato masher" grenade under the car. It exploded with a roar, blasting Taylor out into the road unconscious. When he came to, he was looking up at the stoney faces of his ambushers. Grenade fragments had chopped up his left leg and mangled his left hand.
After being strafed by American planes during the trip, Taylor and his escort arrived in Grasse. On the way, the Lieutenant managed to shred an incriminating document and stuff it behind the car seat. At Grasse, Taylor was "subjected to intensive interrogation which ended when he vomited on the uniform of his inquisitor.18
During the same period that Ortiz and the members of UNION were being shunted about,Taylor experienced a similar odyssey. He passed through six different hospitals before finally reaching the medical prison at Freising near Munich. A month later, Taylor was shifted to Moosberg. In January 1945, his wounds were considered sufficiently healed to allow confinement at Marlag Nord.
Despite the pleas of some of their fellow POWs, both Taylor and Ortiz were perversely impenitent. They immediately began planning another escape attempt.
With Allied forces drawing closer each day, the pair began collecting civilian clothes, maps, food, and other items which they could obtain through the well organized black market system operating in and around the camp> But suddenly, on 10 April, the Commandant ordered all prisoners to prepare to move within three hours. Their destination was the port city of Lubeck--a journey of at least 8 days on foot.
The column left with such haste that many POWs were imply left behind. Ortiz, however, was singled out for special observation, and his plan to hide in Westertimke was immediately foiled. About three hours after leaving Marlag Nord, opportunity beckoned in the form of marauding RAF Spitfires.
As the planes roared in low to shoot up the motley mass streaming north, Ortiz, Taylor, Air Corps Lieutenant Donald McNaughton, and Royal Marines Warrant Officer Stancombe made for a nearby wood. Panic reigned. The four escapees worked themselves deeper into the trees and waited. As the aircraft disappeared, the column moved on, leaving them behind unnoticed.
Ortiz expected Allied troops to pass through the region within a day or tow, but the progress of fighting was much slower than that.
We spent ten days hiding, roving at night, blundering into enemy positions, hoping to find our way into British lines, luck was with us, once we were discovered but managed to get away, and several other times we narrowly escaped detection. Fortunately, most Germans seemed to have a bad cough.
By the seventh night we had returned near our camp. I made a reconnaissance of Marlag O. . . . There seemed to be only a token guard and prisoners of war appeared to have assumed virtual control of the compounds.19
The little band was now in bad physical shape. A combination of little food and drinking swamp water had made McNaughton and Stancombe ill. Taylor was covered with boils, and Ortiz was very weak. On the tenth day, disgusted at the slow advance of the British Army, the four men decided it might be better to live in their old huts than starve to death outside. With Ortiz in the lead, they merely walked back into the camp. No commotion was raised by the guards, and the remaining POWs gave them a rousing welcome. Among the reception committee were Arcelin, Bodnar, and Risler, all of whom had hidden when the evacuation commenced.
At last, on 27 April, the battle reached Westertimke. German troops were still stoutly resisting the advance of the British 7th
Guards Armored Division, and much of the small village was destroyed. Knowing that the Allied forces would not fire on the POW camp, an SS unit parked several self-propelled guns there. The prisoners dug in. Soon the fighting was all around the compound, and Arcelin was wounded by flying shrapnel.
On 29 April, Marlag Nord was liberated. Most POWs were only too happy to board truck for the rear . . . but not Ortiz.
Along with Bodnar, Risler, and Taylor, he presented himself to Lieutenant Webb, a Navy radar officer who was attached to a Royal Marine commando battalion operating with the Armored Division. Ortiz later explained, "we Marines wanted to join this unit in order to bag a few more Germans before hunting season closed."20 The offer was rejected by the POW repatriation officer, and all went to staging areas behind the front.
Ortiz was evacuated to Brussels, where he immediately reported to the OSS officer-in-charge and requested assignment to further combat duty. When the war ended, he was in California being briefed for a mission to Indo-China.
Admiral H.K. Hewitt, USN, Commander of the Twelfth Fleet, recommended Major Ortiz for a second Navy Cross. The citation reads, in part:
On 16 August 1944, during the conduct of a special mission designed to immobilize enemy reinforcements, Major Ortiz and his team were attacked and surrounded. Disregarding the possibility of escape, which course of action would have certainly caused severe reprisals to be taken upon the villagers, Major Ortiz surrendered and the townspeople were thereby spared.
The story of the self-sacrifice of Major Ortiz and his Marines has become a brilliant legend in that section of France where acts of bravery were considered commonplace. Subsequently imprisoned and subjected to numerous interrogations, he divulged nothing . . .21
Hero of the Haute Savoie--Major Ortiz receiving his second Navy Cross from Colonel Harry "the Horse" Liversedge
In 1946, when Ortiz returned to civilian life and the film industry, he was the most decorated Marine Officer to serve with OSS.
In addition to the Navy Cross with gold star, he had also received the Legion of Merit and Purple Heart from the United States. Britain had made him a member of the Military Division, Order of the British Empire. But it was France which recognized the "hero of the Haute Savoie" most prolifically. Ortiz was made a Member of the Legion of Honor and awarded the croix de Guerre (two palms,gold star, silver star, and five citations), the Croix de Combattants, the Ouissam Alouite, and the Medaille Coloniale.
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