A Book and a Rifle: The Vercors Resistance in WWII

One of the single largest actions of the French Resistance during World War Two was Operation Montagnards – the plan to drop about 4,000 Allied paratroops onto the Vercors Massif when the resistance was activated in support of the Allied landings in Normandy and Provence. If you are scratching your head trying to figure out why you don’t remember that operation, it is because it never actually happened. The two Allied landings were originally intended to take place simultaneously, but logistical limitations forced the southern landings to be delayed about two months. In an deliberate decision to prevent the Germans from immediately understanding the nature of the Allied attack, the whole of the French Resistance was activated to support the Normandy landings in June 1944. The internal attacks in the south would force the Germans to keep significant forces in that area in expectation of a second landing, which would increase the chances of the Normandy landings succeeding. Unfortunately, the other result of this decision was that Resistance cells would come into the open in anticipation of imminent military support, which would not be coming. The southern elements of the Resistance were basically sacrificed in this gambit.

The Vercors Massif is a large geographical feature near Lyon and Grenoble which comprises basically a triangular sheer-walled plateau rising well above the surrounding plains. It offers an fantastically defensible redoubt, and that is what it was planned to be. Paratroops dropped onto the top of the massif  would reinforce a substantial force of Maquis fighters, and create a serious strong point behind the German lines to aid in the fight inland from the landing beaches. The plan was organized in Algiers by Resistance representatives from the Vercors and Free French officers earlier in the war. Some have argued that the lack of support was simply due to the compromises of the single-landing plan, while others fault de Gaulle for deliberately abandoning the men and women on Vercors as part of a strategy to consolidate post-war political support – but that debate is beyond the scope of today’s discussion.

The fighters and civilians on the massif ultimately held out for about 6 weeks – only just too little to still be there when the Allied armored columns reached Grenoble. The German commander in the area spent several weeks making small probing attacks before the final assault with about 10,000 veteran Wehrmacht soldiers, glider-borne infantry, and tanks. Once that attack came, the fate of the Vercors was sealed. With proper military backing they could have defended their redoubt, but instead they had only a smattering of small arms and not heavy weaponry at all. It was a fight that was gloriously courageous but hopelessly doomed to failure.

I am privileged to have in my own collection a Berthier carbine tied to the Vercors Resistance, as evidenced by the brass embellishments on its stock. While I cannot conclusively prove it came from the Resistance, it was sold to me without any premium attached to them, and I have no reason to believe it is fake. And, of course, since I have no plans to sell it, I am not really concerned about conclusively proving its veracity to others. For me, it is a poignant icon of a tremendously heroic group. I hope I would live up to the bar they set should I ever be in a comparable situation!


  1. “(…)they had only a smattering of small arms and not heavy weaponry at all(…)”
    I understand that Allies has not enough resources to drop mentioned 4000 paratroops, but can’t they air-drop some weaponry? Or if Resistance could organize field airfield use transport planes for delivery?

    • The Allies dropped a lot of Sten, Lee-Enfield No4 and a few Browning M1919A4. But no heavy weapons : no mortar, no air defense guns, no anti-tank weapons.

  2. Thanks for that. It’s a campaign I had never heard of. You have to wonder what the gun’s story is. Who made the brass and nailed it to the stock, and why? How did it survive the rout? Although seeing any French being caught in possession of any gun by the occupying German would have almost certainly be executed; adding a V and a Cross of Lorraine to it would make little difference.

  3. [Off-topic so ignore if you wish]
    VHU PRAHA has interesting artifact in collection, see photos:
    So far I understand it was designed by Adolf Freiherr Odkolek von Újezd (you might do not associated it immediately, however you should heard about Hotchkiss 1900 or Hotchkiss 1914 machine gun, with which he was linked). It was patented in 1899 – German patent 123 900 for gas-operated weapon and German patent 123 203 for trigger mechanism.
    In 1900 he got Swiss patent. Sample held by VHU PRAHA is incomplete, as it lack fire mode selector, it has pistol grip which serves to cycling (?)[notice similarity to UK vz. 59], it was belt feed with belt of unknown construction, incoming to weapon from top(?). It has sights, but they are remain unscaled (clear). For some time it remained unknown machine gun, but examining patents allowed to show author of this design.
    Caliber: 7,92 mm Mauser
    Overall length: 1365 mm
    Barrel length: 763 mm
    [I don’t understand here]
    Mass: 10 500 g

    Notice that by-patent-priority it is 19th century weapon. I found this design very untypical for 19th century machine gun, putting in points:
    – not water-cooled
    – lack tripod or even bi-pod (it might be missing, however I don’t see any remnants of bi-pod/tripod mounting), thus apparently it was created to be fired from shoulder
    – significantly lower mass (~ 11 kg) than belt-fed weapons of that caliber (7,9 x 57 Mauser)
    – “in-line” stock which should minimize muzzle rise during fire, I am wondering if that was made intentionally?
    – spring in stock layout (predating MAS-38 sub-machine gun)
    – belt moving vertically rather than horizontally through weapon, I am wondering where belt was supposed to be stored and how it would affect ergonomics?
    – was it tested by Austrian-Hungarian or any other military?
    Generally it looks to be more slick than contemporary machine guns and even might be only 19th century fully automatic weapon created with idea of walking fire in mind.
    However it might meet lack of enthusiasm from people then (1899) responsible for adoption of infantry weapon as not fitting in vision of future war or how machine gun should looks like.

  4. Excellent post, Ian. I never realized the extent of the sacrifice made in the South. I wonder if the fact that many Resistance groups were Communists had any influence on DeGalle and the Allies to eliminate post war internal opposition?

  5. I’ve spent a little bit of time in and around the Vercors over the last twenty or so years

    I’ll be checking the book out.

  6. Recently found several cartridges, produced by Ukrainian Resistance, WWII. Shells are rust-ridden(obviously, were of `tompaque’ alloy), projectiles seem to be compatible with Mannlicher-1896 style(probably, with minimal tremble at internal ballistics). The propellant is still active, though pistons are far from being identified.
    The remnants of suggested firearm were found nearby: carbine `Żul’, barrel of thoroughly metallized wood(fibres as ligature/cementation net), bolt of forged/machined steel(too ruined to detalize, except pendant — stock recoil with inertial locking system). The firearm was simply buried(ammo in clips by 5), without means to preserve for following re-metallization/restoration(restoration in appropriate electrolytes in duration of 2-3 weeks, followed by probes at shooting-range — according to Resistance regulations for firearm preservation and restoration).

    Unfortunately, now is rather wrong time to publish photos… Heredity — but the current war is not inherited.

  7. Nudging someone to initiate resistance and withhold support later had happened in recent history several times – one such case was Warsaw uprising and there were more. After all, Britain and France called out Germany after 1. Sept. 1939 but did not move a finger until they were forced to act in May of following year.

    Recalling hazily couple of movies made to celebrate French resistance heroes, which typically lampooned Germans as cowardly stooges; reality was vastly different though. French population paid high price.

    • Percentage of french population that was active with the resistance is surprisingly (but understandably) low, especially compared to partisan movements in south-central and eastern Europe.

      Most of the people wisely chose to keep a low profile and wait to see how will it end.

  8. I remember hiking in the vercors in 1976 at the time I had never heard about the resistance there.
    We were caught out in a mountain lightning storm with strikes coming down all around us
    Looking back now I can understand how the resistance must have felt while under german bombardement

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