Alfred de Grazia: The campaign of Provence

from: A Taste of War

  • Alfred de Grazia on deck ship before landing in Provence August 1944
  • Alfred de Grazia 1944

Calm seas, with many streams from many ships of different forms: I studied them through my binoculars and wished I might see them from the air. Hardly any friendly planes in the sky: they were probably routed off the flanks to preserve them from Friendly Fire. No signs of an enemy at sea or in the air. Two years earlier a quarter of the Allied Fleet would have been blown from the water. Now we sailed through the Straits of Bonifacio between Sardinia and Corsica, where once we would have been clobbered from both sides.

Word passed that we had been joined by an equally large fleet from Africa. I was not sure where we’d go ashore; it would be near a resort village called St. Tropez. It didn’t matter much. So long as it was not heavily defended. It will be largely a matter of luck, as in Normandy, one beach blasted, another abandoned quickly.

The lounge was crowded with officers all day and night, smoky, blacked out. I had finished the Turgenev novel in my bunk. I wrote a long letter to my wife on deck. It carried slight overtones of a finale, appropriate to the circumstances. I played chess with Captain Foster, my old friend. I had just come to know my Team commander, a Major Erik Roos. Roos was a blonde civil engineer in his thirties with an unbecoming, down-turned mouth. I was to be his Executive Officer; we had only a half-dozen going in on the first wave, but a hundred more men and thirty vehicles would arrive to join us over the next two weeks - if all went well. Then more later.

This was Roos' first experience of close-in warfare. Nor had he education or experience in propaganda or public opinion or psychology. Nor of Germany; he had worked once in the Middle East; he spoke Danish. He had been sent up from Africa for the expedition; Mike Bessie, an American civilian who had been a book editor, a dark skinny little guy, pleasant enough, together with a British counterpart, had chosen Roos from the PWB pool, and put him in charge of the operation. The team had not trained at Naples; Roos hardly spoke at all, and could hardly impart such knowledge as he conceivably possessed. There was no use asking him about anything. What is more shocking, or should be, was that the I and the Captain were neither surprised nor indignant. Being badly commanded was ordinary in the US army, whether infantry or intelligence, and you might as well throw in the British Army on the balance.

The night of the Fourteenth of August, 1944, before landing, the saloon was jammed with officers. Foster and I were hunched over our tiny chessboard room, breathing befouled air, concentrating fiercely, for we were well-matched, both poor players. All of a sudden the ship's guns blasted into action and as by a word of command, the officers stampeded from the lounge. Two chess players lifted their heads and slowly returned from the game to awareness. We looked about the empty room. We had lost our moment to panic. An ineffectual air raid apparently - lucky if nobody was clipped by Friendly Flack while out on deck. Since there was nowhere else to go, the officers straggled back in abashedly.

We were up at dawn; amidst heavy firing, we were served breakfast. We clutched our packs and guns and went out on deck where the early light had the shore well in sight, no batteries firing from it, a calm surf, a fine prospect. Puffs of smoke appeared where the shore was being struck by naval gunfire. The landings began at eight o'clock, the first assault boats motoring in without immediate opposition, striking no mines. My group watched for a signal to disembark from our loading master, the particular one who had us on his list. The sun was well out before we jumped into the landing craft and went ashore. We trotted up the beach, over rocks, through brush, always following a path marked by the sappers, hastening because of the lines of men converging upon our path from the beach. After a mile or so, the line became a fan as the soldiers went off into their own units at their assembly points.

Since my mission was not to seize terrain from the enemy, I lead the group in search of a billet. No civilians were to be seen; they were off the roads, hiding back of the coast in the hills. We found a partially destroyed villa. A cursory inspection detected no booby traps: “Remember Catania,” I thought. We took it over. The furnishings were largely gone. The water and light did not function. The garden was overgrown. We could have done better, but a colonel might have come along and turned us out of a luxury dwelling at this point, or a whole company might have descended upon us. We no sooner settled in than our two jeeps and drivers arrived. Several slept in, several outside.

There was no telling if the enemy was still about, they may have assembled to attack the beachhead from somewhere out yonder. I took a jeep and went in search of an operations intelligence officer, some S2 of a task force or battalion, who may have heard some news from the flanks and ahead. There was little for us to do, we discovered. The Germans were retiring generally and were not waiting for messages inviting their surrender or exhorting retreat. There were reconnaissance units out searching for them, picking up contact, cornering them. I picked up souvenirs that the Germans have left behind, a fur-lined pack from the Russian campaigns, a flat canteen that I considered superior in design to my rounded one. They had left in a hurry, probably as soon as the first shells from the boats began to come in.

The conquerors were eating K-rations, with some C-rations thrown in. There was little food to be seized or scrounged. General Washington's surprise crossing of the Delaware River at Trenton found Hessian tables laden with a Christmas banquet. Here, five generations later, everybody ate badly. It would take a while for the better grade of ration to come ashore, and I would be gone by then. I walked Foster down to the beach road and said good-bye; the Lancastrian hitch-hiked on an armored weapons carrier; he was going to work the Eastern end of the Front, over by Italy.

The night was not too noisy: the artillery had already moved beyond its position and the enemy had withdrawn his pieces. Not the distant sounds, but the passing vehicles and men going this way and that, to and from the beaches, disturbed your sleep. Major Roos awakened me. “I hear noises from the garden, go see if it's the enemy,” he ordered. No use arguing: I put on my boots and took a walk outside, saw nothing and pissed in the starlight. “Nothing to worry about, Major, maybe some of our men looking for a place to sleep.”

The next day I took off by myself to drum up trade and to make observations.


Alfred de Grazia, France, 1944

What happens in the end? During the eight days of the Montelimar Battle, the cannon of the Seventh Army units of the East, not counting the Third Division and Forty-fifth Division who came firing up the roads from the South, shoot off 7000 rounds a day upon the Germans along the Rhone Valley roads and at the units of the 11PD defending them. My 35 rounds of leaflets in the battle of Montelimar amounted to 1/1500th of the 54,000 rounds that were fired by the cannons of the 36th Division and Task Force Butler and I was 1/60,000th of the total manpower engaged (counting the aviation troops) or 1/30,000 of just the American combat troops alone. To the artillery fire must be added the small arms ammunition, the machine guns, the mortars, the automatic rifles, rifles and handguns (practically none), but emphatically the bombings and firings of the Twelfth Tactical Air Force that rattled off an abundance of machine gun ammunition and at the same time dropped 851 tons of bombs upon communication facilities and 953 tons on troops.

Notwithstanding, three bridges over the Rhone were partially maintained until the last Germans had escaped to the North. At times, wreckage rather than artillery and small arms fire blocked the route of the escaping Germans. And of the advancing Americans of the Third Division! For the Germans blew up on the road whatever could not carry them farther. Viewing the approach of the Americans to the South of Montelimar, the German rearguard on August 29 barred their route by an assemblage in three files of the wrecks of 500 trucks and cars, and of metal junk galore.

The 11th Panzer Division did its job well. Despite a flash flood that made the Drome River almost impassable for a day, and despite repeated, if half-hearted attacks, from the hilly flanks to the East, by the much better armed and more numerous American forces, they were able to withdraw without surrendering a single unit as such, and furthermore, before they pulled out their own last element, had protected the withdrawal of most of the rag-tag Nineteenth Army, perhaps as many as two-thirds of the total, the remaining third having fallen into the hands of the Americans and French.

There were some bitter complaints from German infantry commanders whose troops had legged it for seven hundred kilometers from the coastal defenses to the final line established across Northern France. They felt that they had been contemptuously abandoned by the 11th Panzer Division. But on the whole the Germans could claim victorious retreat.

And the Americans might have asked themselves, once more, why they did not pursue the enemy vigorously, why they retreated from the high ground that they had first taken in several places over the Rhone Valley, why they had tended to let air power and artillery take on the total job while the infantry stood by like lazy male lions waiting for an easy kill.

I got back to Grenoble. The party of the students and my team was enjoyable, said Anspacher; Roos did not attend. Tant pis. I got some sleep. I was roused up by Captain Galitzine (Prince Yurka Galitzine, had czardom not perished) of British Intelligence, who had joined the team. I was his friend from Italy, the favorite American of “D Section,” and Yurka said: I have just been to a trial of some Vichy militiamen, they didn't get much of a trial, they're just young kids. The maquisards have them in hand. They're going to shoot them. This morning! Galitzine was disturbed, almost as if the Royal Family of the Czar was being gunned down. Well, I said, the least we can do is go take a look.

The event is pure Hollywood. But all too real! It takes place in a grand square with a convenient great wall that will catch the most errant bullet from a firing squad. A large patriotic crowd has assembled, buzzing with excitement. The lorries drive up with the condemned. They are ordered to stand against the wall. They are indeed young; what could these teen-agers have known about what they were doing, what they stood for; were they being executed for being of the militia that had as a corporate group committed so many crimes, or for being criminal as individuals? If the latter, then individual trials and varying sentences might have been called for. So they represent the militia and the deeds and the principles of the Pétain government and as such they would die. A couple of them are smiling, others put on a brave face, one is crying.

An American soldier, a red Indian, is staggering drunk and is impressed by the dense crowd to the point where he thinks he must keep it in order during the ceremonies. So he moves about shouting commands, which the crowd takes in good humor, since he makes no effort to force their compliance. To me, when he encounters us, and quite ignoring Captain Galitzine’s more resplendent outfit, he casts a stiff salute, and, with grave concern and respect says: “Lieutenant, Sir, you have to be careful here, now, but don't you worry, I’ll keep them under control.”
The shots ring out, the men slump drearily to the ground. The officer in charge gives a couple of them the coup de grâce with his hand-gun. The crowd disperses. I leave Yurka, walk thoughtfully and somberly about, then go find someone with a large bottle of Chanel #5 perfume to exchange for one of the cartons of the cigarettes that I had carried ashore. It is for Jill.

The troops were moving north and northeast, away from Provence. Tentacles moved West to contact the Americans of Patton’s Third Army. I headed back South to check the situation of Toulon and Marseilles. The cities were still under siege, heavily penetrated. The French divisions were converging upon them in several columns from several points. They could not hold out much longer. Scattered resistance. I write to Jill about a French intelligence officer I transported with me, and of another action:

Lt.Samarselli didn't sleep all last night. It is his first night in France in three years and he was too excited to sleep. The French are that way now, not too excited not to fight, but almost. The other day I was with a French battery that was set up near Toulon. We had just captured the ground they were emplaced on, and there was a full scale celebration going on in the middle of the battle. There were several farm houses and the families and soldiers were eating in shifts at a great table outside under a tree. The wine was drunk as fast as it hit the table and the rations were spread all over the place, with bowls of fresh tomatoes and fried potatoes here and there. With one hand they were fighting the war and with the other they were celebrating the liberation of France. The cannon were set up hardly ten yards away and went booming off over the heads of the celebrants all the time. The captain of the battery would snatch himself a glass of wine and a handful of pommes frites and dash over to his CP a few yards away to give the order to fire. This kept up for hours, well into the darkness. The guns kept hammering away at the bedeviled Germans who were fruitlessly counterattacking, old diners would get up and fresh ones would take their place. The black-as-tar Senegalese sweated, swung their trucks around, and fed up the ammunition, grinning broadly and almost dancing while they worked, in their enthusiastic excitement. A forest fire on a nearby hill lit up the sky as it darkened and the volleys of the howitzers flashed brighter and brighter. The vineyards were coated with dust, many of the grapes crushed under the great wheels and trampling feet. But no one cared -- they were French feet and French wheels. The French were liberating themselves.

Then I turned my wheels toward Marseilles and took up a main road into the city. Halfway in I noticed some skirmishing ahead. I parked behind a wall and ventured along the street. Snipers - some guys never give up - especially when they are convinced, with some reason, that they will be killed; this is better; you die in a duel; like I say, it’s more of the ideal war. I espied a bookstore. It was open. I entered and browsed. I came upon a book that I had never heard of, in my own field, Théorie des Opinions Publiques, by a scholar I had never heard of, named Jean Stoetzel; it was published in Paris only the year before, employed American sources profusely, almost as if there were no chasm of war splitting the scholarly world. It handled the material with a competent theoretical system, too, and I recognized promptly that it was superior to any American work in this regard. I paid for it with Allied francs that the proprietor accepted with pleasure.

The firing had stopped. I weaved my jeep through the debris of the Old Harbor. Most places that were not damaged were open for business. A barber shop, what a luxury! I got a haircut, shampoo and shave. No charge, said the Proprietor. You are the first American to arrive. I walked about the breakwater, it was quiet out there, the sea was calm and dark blue. A pretty flame-headed freckled girl, full-bodied in a tight white dress, was also walking about, and responded smiling to my greeting. She was a nurse and was from Corsica. I talked with her for a while as I peered through my binoculars at the half-demolished old city. I felt I must move on, take her name, should I ever be back, and drive North. I never returned.

From A Taste of War by Alfred de Grazia, Metron Publications, 1992 & 2010

Commemorating the end of World War II

Read here Joseph Bialot's account of the liberation of Auschwitz (translated from the French)

Actually, you may add this to the failure of the Seventh Army at Montelimar...

Read here Alfred de Grazia's reflections about the latter part of the war, and his role in it.