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Here are notes I have compiles about the combats in June 1940 between the German and the French troops in the Alps and in the Rhône Valley.
BATTLE OF THE ALPS IN JUNE 1940 - German versus French forces -
1. GERMAN FORCES
On June 21, the German forces in the Alps (XIIth Army – General List, including General's Hoeppner XVI.AK) are split in 3 combat groups:
Combat group A: the main advance is towards Chambéry
---o 13.ID (mot.)
---o Elements of the 1. Gerbirgsdivision
---o Motorized detachment from IIIrd Army Corps
Combat group B (Colonel Baron von Funk): the main advance is towards Grenoble and Lyon
---o Elements of the 1. Gerbirgsdivision
---o Motorized detachment from XIIIth Army Corps
Combat group C: the 4.PzD (reinforced by other elements like several troops apparently detached from 7.ID) is ordered to secure the southern flank and to advance in the Isère and Rhône valleys.
Once these objectives reached, the Germans plan to reach several passes (Saint-Bernard, Mont-Cenis and Mont-Genèvre) to try to join the Italian forces stuck on the French border and unable to reach the main line of resistance.
2. FRENCH FORCES
The French forces in the Alps totalize about 175,000 men at this date. Only about 60,000 of these men really face the 312,500 Italian troops set on the border, the others were deployed in other sectors. The numeric superiority of the Italians is very limited because of the mountainous area, which hampers the concentration of forces and the use of motorized elements. Only part of their troops really meets the French outposts. The Italian troops are also engaged unprepared and with equipment not adapted to the cold. Between June 21 and June 25, the Italians lost 642 KIAs; 2,691 WIAs; 2,151 frozen men and 616 POWs. The French Army lost only 20 KIAs, 84 WIAs and 152 WIAs/MIAs against them.
The French Army in the Alps has not only to fight on the borders but it is dispersed in the whole Savoie, Dauphiné and Alpes-Maritimes areas and it also had to stop the Germans in the Rhône and Isère valleys.
To complete the French troops already deployed on the northern flank of the Alps, General Olry forms a combat group (Groupement of General Cartier) to face the new German threats added to the Italian attack. The French troops facing the Germans will reach about 30,000 men in the Rhône and Isère valleys but all the units don’t arrive at the same moment. These forces consist roughly in:
- I/20e RIC
- II/20e RIC
- III/20e RIC
- IV/20e RIC
- V/27e RTNA
- VI/27e RTNA
- Bataillon de recrues X/341 (recruits)
- Bataillon de recrues XI/341 (recruits)
- V/28e RTT
- VI/28e RTT
- 17e BTM
- V/141e RIA
- IV/281e RI
- HQ and 1 battalion from 14e RTS
- III/25e RTS
- 2 companies from dépôt d'infanterie 142
- 3 companies from dépôt d'infanterie 143
- 1 battalion from dépôt d'infanterie 144
- 2 Moroccan tirailleurs battalions from Dépôt d'Infanterie 14
- 1 battalion from dépôt d'infanterie 147
- 1 company from 6e BCA
- About 14 engineer companies
- 614e RP (pioneer regiment)
- 3 signals companies
- 10 companies from the Air Force (1,200 men and 150 MGs)
- 1 Navy detachment
- 76e RR
- 1 half company from 143e RR (regional regiment)
- 1 battalion from 145e RR (regional regiment)
- I/142e RR (regional regiment)
- the 4th company from 343e RI
- CID n°66 (divisional training centre)
- 1 mobile guards platoon
- the "groupe forestier n°10" (probably a wood labor group)
- 12 75mm guns ("portés" or on "trains rouleurs") (COA 314, Valence)
- 12 65mm Mle1906 mountain guns (94e RAM)
- 4 75mm Mle1897 field guns portés (Grpt de B.I. n°4)
- 2 75mm Mle1928 and 2 65mm Mle1906 mountain guns (Grpt de B.I. n°4)
- 1 platoon of 95mm guns (perhaps Mle1888)
- 1 anti-tank battery with 8 47mm Mle1937 AT guns (14e RM, Nîmes)
- 1 platoon of 75mm Mle1897 field guns (Dépôt n°97)
- 1 group of 75mm Mle1897 field guns portés
- 3 105mm field guns (20/113e RA)
- III/113e RA (COAH, Nîmes)
- IV/113e RA (COAH, Nîmes)
- 5-6 75mm T Mle1915 trench mortars (329e RA)
- 5-6 75mm T Mle1915 trench mortars (302e RA)
- 3 105mm L Mle1936 field guns
- 8 155mm GPF field guns (COA, Nîmes)
- 3 47mm Mle1937 AT guns (COA, Nîmes)
- 5th battery from 374e RALVF with 194mm TAZ guns (rail road guns)
- 1 battery of 240mm guns of the ALFV (rail road guns) - eventually
- 1 platoon of 75mm guns mounted on half-armored trucks (COA, Nîmes)
- Elements of the 182e RAL (155mm GPF guns)
- 2 25mm AA guns from 405e RADCA
- Elements of the 404e RADCA
- DCA 59/403 group
- 1 battery of 2 25mm AA guns (Dépôt, 504e RCC)
- The French Navy adds 21 47mm Mle1902 naval guns and 17 65mm naval guns (Mle1888/91 or Mle1902 ?) with 250 sailors, led by Capitaine de vaisseau de Bernard de Tessier. These guns need 48 hours to be deployed since they are on fixed mounts which need a concrete basement. Their high muzzle velocity enables nonetheless to use them in AT role.
- II/104e RALT (105mm Mle1936 and 155mm GPF field guns). The II/104e RALT is led by Capitaine Azaïs de Vergeron and has then a strength of 14 officers and 175 men. This group is formed with the remnants of I/104e RALT and II/104e RALT, which fought in Belgium. On May 29 they retreated to Dunkirk and the guns had finally been scuttled. The men left Dunkirk for England. Beginning June the men are back in France (Brest harbor) and transported to Lyon, where the new II/104e RALT is equipped with 105mm L Mle1936 field guns. These guns were originally planned for export to Rumania but they have no sight and the gunners are devoid of firing tables. The missing sights are replaced by other models. They are equipped with the new guns while the German tanks are entering in Lyon! Retreating to the south they receive also 155mm GPF guns coming from a dump in Toulon. General Olry picks this group to fight the Germans in the Isère. From the troops evacuated from Dunkirk (about 123,000 French) about 52,000 men back in France in June 9. Most of them were regrouped in Normandy but from this example it seems that some were sent as far as south-eastern France.
- 1 horse mounted squadron (Dépôt n°15)
- 1 motorcyclist squadron (Dépôt n°15)
- 60e GRDI
- 1 motorized squadron
- 1 spahi squadron (Dépôt 10e Dragons)
- 2 infantry companies (Dépôt 504e RCC and 10e Dragons)
- Compagnie de marche du 10e BCC (8 Renault B1bis tanks)
- 145e section de chars FT (3 Renault FT17 tanks)
- 1 platoon with 5 Renault R35 tanks (Dépôt 504e RCC)
- 2 tank platoons (Renault R35 or FT17 ?)
The "compagnie de marche du 10e BCC" is equipped with 8 tanks from factories:
- 2 B1bis from the FAMH factory (June 21)
- 6 B1bis from the FCM factory (June 23)
Four of these tanks have no turret. Apparently these tanks were operated by workers from the factories. These 8 tanks were hidden at the armistice in a tunnel next to Baux-de-Provence. They have been discovered in February 1941 by German troops after a denunciation. A couple of them were given to Italy.
MAP: German attacks against the French troops in the Alps and Savoy in June 1940
Source: "La bataille des Alpes 10-25 juin 1940" (General E. Plan and Eric Lefèvre)
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The battle in the Alps against the German forces can be depicted in 3 stages:
- Stage 1: June 15-17. The French Army prepares to stop the Germans on the Rhône River, between Bellegarde and Lyon.
- Stage 2: June 18-21. Lyon has been declared as "open city" to avoid destructions. The French Army organizes a new deployment on the Isère River and on the western edge of the heights of La Grande-Chartreuse. A second line is planned in the Drôme River and on the heights of the Vercors, of La Grande-Chartreuse and of the Bauges.
- Stage 3: June 22-25. The Germans are stopped on the first line planned in stage 2 and the French troops are reinforced each day. Preventive destructions are operated on roads and bridges to block eventual German moves. A 3rd line is planned on the Durance River.
3.1 Stage 1: June 15-17
The French Army prepares to stop the Germans on the Rhône River, between Bellegarde and Lyon. The command of the front is shared on June 15 by the "Secteur Défensif du Rhône" and the "14e Région Militaire" (Lyon) with regional troops only. The area north of the River is abandoned and various destructions are organized to delay the German troops.
General Cartier sends troops to reinforce this front on June 15-16 with:
- 25e RTS (from 8e DIC)
- II/20e RIC
- 2 artillery groups (75mm portés guns, 65mm moutain guns, 47mm AT guns)
- 1 motorcycle squadron from 55e GRDI (64e DI)
- 1 engineer company
Part of these troops is transferred under command of Army Group n°2 on June 17.
3.2 Stage 2: June 18-21
Lyon has been declared as "open city" by the political authorities (e.g. pressure of Edouard Herriot, the mayor of Lyon. Note: the government is at Bordeaux at this moment): no defense and no destructions can therefore be organized in the city. It becomes impossible to defend this front since the 10 bridges of Lyon cannot be defended.
Thousands of men from the regional troops as well as a lot of equipment will not be evacuated from this front due to lack of transport and will be captured because of this political decision.
General Olry will learn the lesson and later in the Isère, the mayors asking for their city to become "open cities" will be arrested.
The French Army organizes a new defensive line of 150 km in the Isère. The city of Voreppe is a key point in the valley. The regional troops from the "15e Région Militaire" (Marseile), from the "Secteur Défensif du Rhône" and the forces from XIVth Army Corps (Tarentaise and Maurienne) are reinforced on June 18 by the I/20e RIC, III/20e RIC and 1 75mm field guns battery. Several sources mention also 2 194mm GPF self-propelled tracked field guns but it seems to be a mistake, the guns are probably rather 194mm TAZ rail road guns.
On June 19, the German Army crosses the Rhône and Saône Rivers at Lyon. The Germans plan to attack the French lines in the Alps in the rears, while the Italians are attacking on the front. The meeting of German and Italian troops is planned at Chambéry but it will never occur.
The Germans are in front of the destroyed bridges on the Rhône River at Sault-Brénaz and Lagnieu. They try to cross on June 20 but they withdraw in front of the French resistance.
The "groupement Cartier" is still attached to the 2nd Army south of Lyon and cannot operate within the Army of the Alps. Fighting rear guard skirmishes, the "groupement Cartier" moves back on the Isère River during the June 20-21 night. The "groupement Cartier" moves to Voreppe, the Guiers River and the Montagne de l'Epine, where it is again attached to the XIVth Army Corps.
The Germans are stopped on the first line planned in stage 2 and the French troops are reinforced each day. Preventive destructions are operated on roads and bridges to block eventual German moves.
All the bridges covering the flank of the first line (on the Isère and on the Rhône Rivers) are destroyed in front of the enemy, except 1 or 2 passages enabling communication with the "groupement Cartier" and the planned retreat of these troops. The flow rate of the Isère River is increased from 600 to 1,100 cubic metres / second and its level climbs from 1 meter. In this condition it would be very difficult for the German engineers to cross it.
On June 21, a third line is also planned on the Durance River (General Gérin)
After reorganization, the defense of the Isère River (from the Rhône to Saint-Nazaire) is given to General Vichier-Guerre with only weak elements: 10 infantry battalions, 11 75mm field guns, 10 65mm mountain guns, several rail-road artillery batteries and a few Renault R35 tanks (park of the 504e RCC) coming from school units.
The "Secteur Défensif du Rhône" (S.D.R.) cannot fulfil its mission anymore since the French Army has lost the right to defend Lyon, the 3rd biggest French city, overlapping the Rhône River. The S.D.R. has anyway only 4 infantry battalions, 11 47mm AT guns and the 1st spahis brigade (north African light cavalry) has been sent south of Lyon.
The 4.PzD reaches the Isère River at Romans, where the 2 bridges have been blown on June 20. The areas facing the bridges are under the fire of 2 French 65mm naval guns used as AT guns (platoon commanded by Enseigne de Vaisseau Vassal). These guns are on fixed concrete emplacements, in the middle of the road, without protection! They welcome warmly the first German troops. The gun defending the first bridge is destroyed but the gun defending the second bridge manages to destroy 1 armored car and 1 truck. The Schützen-Regiment 12 (12th rifle regiment) leaves its KIAs in Romans and retreats on the heights.
A German tank platoon reaches Saint-Nazaire and the bridge, which has been blown at 12h30. The French naval gun defending this bridge manages to destroy 3 tanks from Panzer-Regiment 36. A second French gun is destroyed by German mortars and artillery.
Facing a stiff French resistance, the 4.PzD is then ordered to limit its action to patrols. Downstream of Voreppe, the XVI.AK is preparing the crossing of the Isère River at Pont-de-l’Isère, planned for June 23-24 at night.
The objectives of Grenoble and Chambéry are the more important ones. The Germans would like to reach them quickly in order to attack the French troops facing the Italians in the back.
The Italians have started their offensive on June 21. The aim of the Italians is to have as much French territory as possible to be able to negotiate something during the Armistice. General Halder, at this moment commander of staff of the German Army HQ wrote: “On June 24, the Italians are stopped in front of the Army of the Alps, without hope of success. They propose then to the Germans to airlift battalions to Lyon. These battalions would be deployed behind the German troops in the Alps in order to seize the southern area of France.” Facing a German refusal, the Italians will sign the Armistice agreement as such on June 24 at 19h30.
On June 21, the "groupement Cartier" has evacuated the position of the Rhône to be deployed on the first line in the area of the XIVth Army Corps. With 10 infantry battalions and 35 guns it has the task to cover the rear of the XIVth Army Corps (engaged against the Italians) in front of the Germans, by blocking the accesses to Grenoble and Chambéry. The "groupement Cartier" consists then in:
- "Sous-groupement" from General Clarion is deployed on the Rhône River downstream from Culoz. It blocks the road from Yenne to the Bourget by the pass and tunnel of the Mont du Chat. It has 1 battalion from Dépôt d'Infanterie 147 and the 142e groupe regional du train (logistics/transport unit). They are reinforced by miscellaneous troops with the manpower of 1 battalion on June 22.
- "Sous-groupement" from Colonel de Bissy holds the Guiers River and controls the accesses to Chambéry by the passes of l'Epine and of Couz. It has the III/25e RTS, 3 companies from Dépôt d'Infanterie 143, 1 mobile guards platoon, 1 half company from 143e RR (regional regiment), 1 battalion from 145e RR (regional regiment), 1 tank platoon with 3 Renault FT17 tanks (usually such a platoon has 5 tanks ?), 3 batteries of 75mm Mle1897 field guns (COA Valence) reinforced by several additional 75mm guns and 65mm mountain guns.
- "Sous-groupement" from Colonel de Héricourt holds the crossroads at Saint-Laurent-du-Pont and blocks the accesses to the Grande-Chartreuse. It has the I/142e RR, 2 companies from Dépôt d'Infanterie 142, the 4th company from 343e RI, the "groupe forestier n°10" (probably a wood labor group), 1 naval 47mm gun, 3 platoons of 65mm portés guns and 2 tank platoons (Renault R35 or FT17 ?).
- "Sous-groupement" from Colonel Brillat-Savarin holds Voreppe and blocks the road to Grenoble. It has 2 Moroccan tirailleurs battalions from Dépôt d'Infanterie 145, elements of the Dépôt d'Infanterie 143, the 76e RR, the CID n°66 (divisional training centre), 2 companies from 614e RP (pioneer regiment), 1 Renault R35 tank platoon (Probably 5 tanks - Dépôt 504e RCC), 1 65mm guns battery, 2 75mm guns batteries, 1 platoon of 47mm naval guns and elements of the 404e RADCA.
NB: the CID was theoretically the size of a small battalion and provided specialist weapons training to members of the division to which it was attached.
- "Sous-groupement" from Lieutenant-Colonel Dumont holds the Isère from Voreppe to Saint-Nazaire with the II/20e RIC, the bulk of the 614e RP (pioneer regiment), 47mm and 65mm naval guns and the 31/102e Air Force infantry company.
The 47mm and 65mm naval guns are sent from Toulon with trucks from the Navy to reinforce the infantry positions with AT means. The Army engineers have to prepare the concrete basement for these guns, which will be in fixed and open emplacements.
A Navy detachment from Toulon (5e dépôt des équipages de la flotte - all reservists) reaches Voreppe on June 21 with 40 men and 8 47mm Mle1902 naval guns. Each gun has 200 shells available and is manned by 1 NCO and 5 men. 2 additional 47mm Mle1902 naval guns are deployed in Les Echelles.
A second batch with 15 65mm guns is deployed downstream of Saint-Nazaire. Other guns are deployed on the Drôme (2nd line) and on the Rhône.
The COA from Nîmes (Artillery Organisation Centre) had already sent 8 47mm Mle1937 AT guns north of Lyon on June 16 and 3 additional AT guns to the front on the Drôme River.
This COA sends 2 47mm Mle1937 AT guns, which will also be manned by sailors. One of these guns will be deployed at Saint-Laurent-du-Pont in order to guard the northern exit towards Les Echelles.
The II/104e RALT is first deployed on the 3rd line (Galibier, Bayard pass, Lus-la-Croix-Haute pass) at 80 km south of Voreppe. This unit is only sent to Voreppe on June 21.
3.3 Stage 3: June 22-25
The German combat group B has the task to capture Grenoble by surprise during the night of June 22 to 23. For that objective, Colonel Baron von Funk forms a Kampfgruppe with a tank regiment from 3rd Panzerbrigade, infantry elements from Schützen-Regiment 3 and the M.G.-Btl.7 (MG battalion including also 12 3.7cm PaK L/45). The spearhead leaves Bourgoin at 0h00 but at 4h00 they face a first French roadblock covered by artillery support.
3.3.1 The battle of Voreppe
Thanks to private phone networks, the French troops in Voreppe are informed at 2h30 that a strong German force with about 150 AFVs has crossed Moirans and is approaching Voreppe on 2 roads: RN85 (national road n°85) and the trail of the dike along the Isère River.
Voreppe is defended by troops under Colonel Brillat-Savarin, including the sailors from Capitaine de frégate Protche.
The II/104e RALT is not yet deployed in the area. The single available guns are 4 75mm Mle1897 field guns, 2 47mm Mle1937 AT guns and several 47mm naval guns used in AT role.
Apparently, according to several sources there would have been 2 194mm GPF tracked SPA along the Isère River. These self-propelled guns would have retreated from north-east and reached Grenoble on June 18. Other sources seem to indicate that there were 2 194mm rail-road guns instead.
MAP: The battle of Voreppe – Deployment and main fire missions of the II/104e RALT
Source: "La bataille des Alpes 10-25 juin 1940" (General E. Plan and Eric Lefèvre)
PHOTO: 47mm SA37 AT gun manned by sailors near Voreppe
Source: "La bataille des Alpes 10-25 juin 1940" (General E. Plan and Eric Lefèvre)
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The 3.PzD launches then about 50 AFVs against Voreppe. Once again, the French guns block the German advance. The Germans begin then to deploy their artillery batteries at Charnècles-Creil, on the heights of Parménie, at Le-Grand-Lemps and at Rives.
A new assault is planned for 17h00 with the II/Schützen-Regiment 3 supported by 6 tanks and artillery. This 3rd German attack fails like the previous ones because of the action of the French artillery. 3 tanks are destroyed by the French artillery and the German infantry looses 11 KIAs and 40+ WIAs. The Germans ask for a strong artillery barrage to be able to retreat in good conditions but the French counter-battery fire neutralizes the action of the enemy batteries. The fire is very well directed by the forward observer (Capitaine Lambert) deployed on the Bec-de-l’Echaillon (height of 628 meters with a panoramic view 20 km around). According to the war diary of the 3rd PzD, “the French artillery is admirably camouflaged and impossible to locate”.
The Germans plan then a 4th assault with a strong artillery support for June 24. This renewed attack is combined with an outflanking attack coming from La Placette pass, supposed to seize Saint-Julien-de-Ratz and to cut the communications between the "Sous-groupement" from Colonel de Héricourt and the "Sous-groupement" from Colonel Brillat-Savarin.
The battle remains long indecisive, until the arrival of the II/104e RALT with its 105mm Mle1936 and 155mm GPF field guns. The batteries moved on mountain roads during the night, all lights off and under a heavy rain in order to reach their new positions.
Commandant Dutrou (staff from XIVth Army Corps) worked all night long to prepare a detailed map for each battery and to deploy telephone cables for all the planned artillery positions and observatories.
Capitaine Azaïs de Vergeron moves himself to the Bec-de-l’Echaillon. The guns will have to fire at ranges of 8-12 km for the 4th battery of Capitaine Leguay (105mm L Mle1936), 9-13 km for the 5th battery of Capitaine Ghika (105mm L Mle1936) and 11-17 km for the 8th battery of Capitaine de Sérigny (155mm GPF).
All the enemy movements and positions can be seen from the observation post. Overconfident, thinking that they have only several 75mm and 47mm guns used in AT role to face, the Germans don’t try to hide seriously.
At 11h00 the German artillery starts opening the way to the Panzer-Regiment 5. The bulk of the 3.PzD is following in column on the road, thinking that the spearhead will easily pierce the French lines.
Suddenly the first French 105mm shells explode at the crossing of Moirans, next to German tanks. These are only adjustment fire since the firing tables are missing and the available shells are not the standard ones for this gun. At 12h00, the 105mm L Mle1936 batteries fire for effect. On its side, the 155mm GPF battery will only be ready to fire at 16h30.
The rain stops and the clouds are replaced by a clear sky. 2 German columns are stopped on the RN85 between Moirans and Charnècles (armored cars, tanks, artillery, trucks, motorcycles etc.).
The 4th and 5th batteries from II/104e RALT fire 32 shells and spread havoc amongst the first column which is dispersed in disorder. The road is blocked by destroyed vehicles.
The 2nd German column is following the 1st one on the same road. It is unable to make a U turn and is targeted at its turn. 24 shells are exploding among the German troops in movement, disorganizing them.
The commander of the II/104e RALT sees a castle in the plain he is observing, the castle of Vergeron… his own castle, explaining his perfect knowledge of the area. On the roads, the cars of the German high ranked officers are recognized thanks to the escorting motorcycles around them. They are chased by the French 105mm shells.
The civilian airfield of the Dauphiné is located at 2 km from Moirans. It is full of supply tractors, trucks and German planes taking off or landing. 40 shells reach the airfield, triggering a panic and a big fire.
Along the railroad, at the Grand Verger, there is a park with stopped German tanks. This time the 155mm GPF battery is ready. This objective is treated with 40 105mm shells and 20 155mm shells. Many German tanks are put on fire. Another tank concentration is shelled by 54 105mm shells and 20 155mm shells for the same result.
At 18h00, the German batteries deployed north and north-east of Moirans are targeted. They are firing against Grenoble. One battery after the other is silenced by the French artillery.
A German heavy battery is spotted at Saint-Jean-de-Moirans and receives 80 105mm shells and 20 155mm shells. Grenoble will not be shelled again by the Germans. At 18h30 all the German batteries are neutralized.
Around Voiron, a big vehicle park is forming. It is targeted with 94 105mm shells and 20 155mm shells. High flames can now be seen over the park. Capitaine Leguay is now targeting German mortar emplacements as well as troops concentrations.
All the German attacks and movements have been blocked by the French artillery. The enemy is simply unable to locate the origin of the shelling. The German planes don’t manage to spot the French batteries and observatories positions.
The outflanking German attack is a failure too. Everywhere the French troops defeat the German attacks. The few guns of the II/104e RALT and the crew evacuated from Dunkirk played a major role in this success.
9 German artillery batteries have been neutralized, various guns have been destroyed on the field, 2 tank parks contains now many wrecks, ammunition dumps and fuel supplies are on fire, an airfield is out of use and the 3.PzD sustained more than 1,000 KIAs and WIAs.
Capitaine de Vergeron receives a note from XIVth Army Corps’ HQ. Due to the close Armistice he is ordered to stop the combats at 0h35 and to retreat.
Grenoble, the city that General Beynet wanted to declare as “open city” (but General Olry always refused) is finally saved. Voreppe remains French like Grenoble when the cease-fire occurred.
3.3.2 The battle of Les Echelles
The town is between the Guiers and the Guiers-Mort Rivers. It is controlling a crossroads between RN6 and RN524, leading to Chambéry and Grenoble. It is therefore a main objective for the Germans.
The French have prepared the defense: the bridges have been blown, the town has been fortified, the roads and streets are blocked, firing holes have been prepared in the houses, the naval AT guns are controlling the access roads etc.
Les Echelles is in the area hold by the "Sous-groupement" from Colonel de Bissy. The French troops in the town consist in:
- 1 company from III/25e RTS (Capitaine Tournier)
- 1 company from 215e RI (Capitaine Viane)
- 1 engineer platoon
- 2 47mm Mle1902 naval guns manned by sailors
- 2 75mm Mle1897 field gun batteries
The first troops arrived on June 18. The concrete basement for the naval guns is still wet when the combats start.
On June 24, 3 German columns are directed by reconnaissance planes, which spot the single bridge in the area that has not been destroyed at Saint-Albin-de-Vaulserre. The bridge had been kept intact by the engineers to enable troops to retreat. It is only defended by several men from 145e RR (Régiment Régional = 3rd line troops), who flee at the arrival of the German armored forces.
The Germans from Kampfgruppe Kleeman use this bridge to move towards La Bridoire and Les Echelles.
At 7h00, the spearheads from 3.PzD arrive at Les Echelles. A 47mm naval gun opens fire at 50 meters and hits 2 tanks. The concrete, which was not dry enough, is cracking after 10 shots. The men are forced to abandon the gun and join the infantry. Nonetheless, the Germans don’t manage to reach the blockade controlling the entry of the town.
The Germans renew their attack after a heavy artillery preparation. They are defeated by the 2 French infantry companies and dense MG fire. The German troops launch a big movement to outflank the defenses. They arrive by the heights of Saint-Pierre-de-Génébry and take by surprise the company of the 25e RTS. The French soldiers are forced to retreat and to abandon equipment. At 10h30, the heights 100 meters above the town itself are in German hands.
The French troops are roughly encircled in the town but the German advance is still blocked by MG fire. All day long the situation remains unchanged; the Germans are unable to break the French resistance. At 18h30, the Armistice is announced and the enemy wants the French to leave the town. Atfer 19h30, Capitaine Tournier meets Oberleutnant Möll from I/Schützen-Regiment 3. The German congratulates the French for its stiff resistance and gives to the French troops 55 minutes to retreat with men and weapons to Saint-Laurent-du-Pont.
In the town of Les Echelles, the Germans lost 400 KIAs + WIAs without being able to open the way to Chambéry and Grenoble.
At Pont-de-Beauvoisin, elements of the Schützen-Regiment 3 attack the bridge over the Guiers River. It is defended by 2 instruction platoons from 6e BCA and 1 platoon of mobile guards. In front of the stiff resistance, the German troops are reinforced by infantry, engineers and artillery. The war diary of the 3.PzD reports that these combats remind the hard breakthrough on the Dyle position (Gembloux gap). Several French strongpoints are only conquered after ferocious close combats.
3.3.3 The bridge of Culoz
The fate of this bridge is more or less similar to what happened in Remagen in 1945. Between Fort-l’Ecluse and Chanaz, there are 2 main bridges on the Rhône River (Bellegarde and Culoz) and 2 secondary bridges (Seyssel and Pyrimont). The secondary ones are blown on June 19.
On June 20, the German group A moves to the south by Nantua and Ambérieu. On June 21, the 13.ID (mot.) advances towards Talissieu and Culoz and meets the first French elements from General Clarion.
Two bridges are crossing the Rhône River 1 km east of Culoz: 1 railroad bridge leading to marshes on the left (French) side and 1 bridge (300 meters long) for the RN504 (also called Laloi Bridge). The River is wide but not very deep. The road bridge is defended by the “23e compagnie de marche” (Lieutenant Bossane) from 28e RTT. They have 1 37mm infantry gun and MGs. The railroad bridge is defended by a company from 189e RR. This 3rd line unit did unfortunately not occupy the heights dominating the bridge 100 meters above.
The compagnie de sapeurs-mineurs 114/1 (Capitaine Mazet) is in charge of the destruction of the bridges. Permanent mine holes and double ignition systems are installed on the road bridge. The railroad bridge is initially not planned to be destroyed because of the marshes around (vehicles cannot move in the area). A train is immobilized on the bridge in order to block the access.
During the night from June 21 to June 22, the Germans engage reconnaissance elements from II/I.R. 93 (mot.) to seize the road bridge. Lieutenant Bossane’s company prevents the Germans to take the bridge. The French engineers ignite the destruction charges… but they don’t explode.
A renewed German attack is launched, this time supported by a tank. The Panzer is destroyed on the bridge and the enemy retreats.
Capitaine Mazet and Commandant Dulac (commanding the engineers from S.D.R.) try, without success, to reach the demolition charges. A light truck with 40 20 kg explosive charges is coming from the dump at Annecy, but it is belated during several hours because of all the blockades and trees on the road. During the end part, the explosives are carried by the men themselves.
The intensity of the combats is such that no one can go close to the bridge. Lieutenant Bossane is then ordered to launch a counter-attack to take again control of all the bridge. At the same moment, a more violent German assault is launched, in coordination with another attack on the railroad bridge.
On the road bridge, the German attack is blocked at the level of the tank wreck. On the railroad bridge, the German infantry manages to reach the French bank by advancing from one car to another in the immobilized train. They take the height dominating the bridges and capture the few territorial troops. The tirailleurs company is attacked on its rear and forced to retreat, leaving few POWs to the Germans. The bridge of Culoz is now in German hands.
On June 24, LeO 451 bombers (from GB I/12 and II/12) are sent in the area. 1 plane bombs Romans, 4 planes attack an engineer bridge at Saint Brenaz and 1 plane bombs the Laloi Bridge but without success. The artillery from XIVth Army Corps wants to shell the bridge but the German advance is too fast. The Germans are now at 30 km from Chambéry.
On June 23, the XIVth Army Corps gives the Groupement Trolliet to General Cartier in order to block the Germans:
- 2 companies from depôt d’infanterie n°143
- 1 battalion from depôt d’infanterie n°142
- 93e BCA
- 1 75mm Mle1897 battery
- 1 105m L Mle1936 platoon from II/104e RALT
1 tirailleurs battalion from 14e RTS is formed at Salon with elements from depôt d’infanterie n°159. They are loaded in trucks at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on June 23 and reach Montmélian on June 24 after a movement of 340 km with only 4 hours resting.
As soon as June 23, the 60e GRDI coming from the north-east is attached to the deployment. It covers the Plainpalais pass to protect Chambéry against an outflanking manoeuvre. The other units from General Cartier are anchored in the heights of the Grande-Chartreuse.
From June 23 to June 24 the 13.ID (mot.) is blocked in front of Brison and Grésy. The Germans capture Aix-les-Bains, which had been declared as “open city” but they reach the city only at 18h00, having spent 10 hours to cross the last 15 km.
On June 24, the 13.ID (mot.) tries again to reach Chambéry but it is blocked at the Mont Revard. A second attack is launched but it fails. The I.R. 93 (mot.) meets the 93e BCA at Drumetaz but at 13h00 the German attack is definitely blocked. The road to Chambéry is closed; the Germans or the Italians will not reach the city in June 1940.
In the Alps the German Army suffered heavy losses during these last days of the 1940 western campaign. On its side the French Army lost only 32 KIAs, 121 WIAs and 249 MIAs / POWs against them. Like against the Italians, the enemy lost much more men than the French troops.
4. THE SACRIFICE OF THE 1st SPAHIS BRIGADE IN THE RHÔNE VALLEY
Colonel Jouffrault’s 1e BS:
- 4e RSM (Moroccan Spahis Regiment) [Lieutenant-Colonel Roman-Amat]
- 6e RSA (Algerian Spahis Regiment) [Lieutenant-Colonel Hennet de Goutel]
In November 1939, the 1e BS had:
- 80 officers
- 2,240 NCOs and spahis (including 930 Europeans)
- 2,009 horses
- 150 motor vehicles
The brigade has been engaged as soon as May 10 in Luxembourg and later in the French Ardennes. Retreating from the north-east (therefore not part of Groupement Cartier) the remnants are integrated in June 1940 in the defense of the 1st position defending the Rhône River from Lyon to Genève.
MAP: Operations of the 1e BS in the Rhône Valley (June 18-25)
Source: "Les Spahis au feu, la 1e Brigade de Spahis pendant la campagne 1939-1940"
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On June 20, the 1e BS is attached to XVIIIth Army Corps and is ordered to block the north to south axis in the Rhône Valley. The defense is mainly prepared at Condrieu and at the level of Annonay and Andance.
In front of these positions, Commandant Fauré with a group of squadrons from 6e RSA have the task to establish early contact with the enemy and then to fight delaying and harassment combats, while retreating to the Condrieu - Chavaney level.
The 1e BS is reinforced by:
- 20e GRCA (Lieutenant-Colonel Cottin – reconnaissance group from XIVth Army Corps)
- 3 75mm Mle1897 field guns (Capitaine Chapuis) (motorized)
- 1 regional battalion from 75e RR (3rd line troops, Alsatians)
- 2 47mm Mle1937 AT guns
The 75mm guns are remnants from the 311e RAP (Régiment d’Artillerie Porté), which fought lately hard against the German tanks in the Champagne area. The hydraulic breaks of the guns are currently out of use. Special oil has to be found in Valence.
There is a first strongpoint around Condrieu with:
- 6e RSA (-) [except the squadrons of Commandant Fauré]
- 1 regional battalion from 75e RR
- 2 47mm Mle1937 AT guns
The defense is then anchored around Annonay and Andance with elements of the 4e RSM:
- Half of the support / heavy weapons squadron
- Half of a squadron
Troops from the 4e RSM are placed in reserve around Pélussin:
- Half of the support / heavy weapons squadron
- 1 squadron
- 2 25mm AT guns
4.2 June 21
The 1e BS is always very well informed about the enemy by its own patrols but also by the civilian telephone network and the post office employees.
The troops are ordered to retreat on the Annonay - Andance line. The regional battalion is transported to Tournon, forming a line behind the 1e BS.
The spahis brigade is reinforced by 1 65mm Mle1906 mountain gun battery from 94e RAM. It is the instruction battery from the depot at Nice, commanded by Sous-Lieutenant Palloc. It is motorized with brand new vehicles.
- The 4e RSM holds the line between Annonay and Andance (excluded). Many outposts, blockades and patrols are organized (Davezieux, Saint-Cyr, Saint-Etienne-de-Valoux etc.)
- The 6e RSA with the 47mm Mle1937 AT guns holds the line between Andance, Sarras and Arras-sur-Rhône. In front of these troops, there is a strong outpost/blockade organized at Serrières with squadron Chabot.
- The group of squadrons of Commandant Fauré is maintained in reserve at Sarras.
- The brigade HQ is installed at Sarras.
- The 65mm guns battery is deployed on the heights dominating Andance. The 75mm guns are deployed at Saint-Bosé, 3 km south of Andance. They have an interdiction mission: controlling the roads going parallel east and west of the Rhône River.
Each spahis regiment has 350 AT mines and prepares its defense. Gasoline is stored in the higher levels of the houses to spread it on enemy tanks passing in the streets. Many traps are installed as well as wires on the roads to kill German motorcyclists.
The AT mines proved to be efficient. Several overconfident German tanks exploded on them and it forced the enemy to advance cautiously and slowly.
During the night, a German spearhead made of motorcyclists and armored cars capture a suspended bridge over the Rhône River at Saint-Vallier. The middle of this bridge is higher than the ends and therefore the men at one end cannot see the other end.
The Germans enter in Saint-Vallier and capture a small group of old 3rd line soldiers regulating the traffic. They learn that the other side of the bridge is defended by spahis. One civilian is sent to the spahis with the message that a German officer would like to meet the commander of the post.
The French NCO follows the civilian… but he is immediately captured by the Germans despite his resistance. French teens and their bicycles quickly move to warn the French troops of what happened. Angry and frightening that the bridge could be blown, the Germans take 50 civilians as hostages (1 of them, probably a very old man, dies). The Germans threaten to kill the civilians if the bridge is destroyed. Finally, during the night, the Germans abandon Saint-Vallier and moves back.
At Serrières, squadron Chabot defeats all the German attacks but at 1h30 it is ordered to retreat in the French lines at Annonay.
The Germans launch also a serious attack against Andance with a rifle battalion and numerous tanks. The combat is very violent and reaches the center of the town. The enemy infantry is supported by the direct fire of the tanks but also by light artillery and mortars. Lieutenant-Colonel Goutel’s HQ is near to fall in enemy hands but a French counter-attack forces the Germans to retreat.
4.3 June 22
At 2h00, the brigade HQ begins to move from Sarras to Eclassan. It is installed in the “château des Prés”, a castle belonging to Commandant de la Roque, the commander of the 14e BCA. The castle is located on a hill at about 450 meters high. It dominates the entire valley.
The XVIIIth Army Corps is impressed by the duration and intensity of the combats during the night. It fears that the spahis brigade will disappear in future combats. The 1e BS is ordered to retreat on the Annonay – Ardoix – Tournon line. The strongpoint at Sarras will have to fight as long as possible to enable the retreat of its neighbours.
Nonetheless, Colonel Jouffrault is completely opposed to these retreat orders. He thinks it would be better to anchor the defense as close as possible to the Rhône River. He sees no reason to retreat since all the German assaults of the night have been defeated.
General Doyen leaves finally his HQ at Lamastre to come himself to evaluate the situation. In Sarras, he sees the spahis very confident, with a strong moral and in well prepared emplacements. He chooses to cancel the retreat orders.
Squadron Chabot (6e RSA) is moved in reserve at Saint-Jeure-d’Ay and 1 47mm AT gun is moved from Annonay to Tournon to reinforce the regional battalion.
Colonel Jouffrault and one officer of his staff visits all the positions and find the troops very confident and very well deployed everywhere.
The 65m mountain guns battery from Sous-Lieutenant Palloc shells German positions around Andancette. A second 65mm mountain guns battery is attached to 1e BS. It is deployed on the heights south of Tournon.
Everywhere the French horse mounted or motorcycle patrols are very active. Important German motorized columns are spotted on the Lyon – Marseille road (east of the Rhône River). The 75mm battery has opened fire on these objectives. The 65mm battery continues at first to treat objectives around Andancette but engages also the German convoys. The traffic is interrupted on this road. Each time German motor vehicles try to advance they are quickly blocked by the barrage.
One German convoy, trying to avoid the French artillery, chooses a road leading to Andancette. This road is directly in the axis of the 65mm guns battery. Palloc opens fire on the first vehicles and destroys them. The convoy is blocked. Palloc sees the vehicles at the end of the convoy trying to manoeuvre. He opens fire on them and destroys them too. The whole convoy is now blocked and systematically targeted. The wrecks will remain for long on this road.
German light elements cross Saint-Vallier and reach Tournon but they find the well-prepared positions of the 75e RR.
It is to note that most of the French communications are depending from the civilian telephone network. Saint-Vallier is really a key in this network and is occupied by the Germans, who have still not yet cut the lines. The civilians in the post office continue to transfer the communications. They would probably be shot if caught working for the French Army.
The Germans are reinforcing their troops in Andancette and preparing an assault against Andance and its bridge. E.g. at 13h20, about 30 motorcycles and several tanks are seen moving from Bancel (on the Lyon – Marseille road) to Andancette.
At 13h50, the German attack is launched and supported by planes. All the weapons of the spahis as well as the artillery open a dense fire. The Germans disperse and retreat. There are still little combats until 14h30.
The women of the post office of Serrières warn the 4e RSM that numerous motorized troops are crossing Serrières and moving towards Annonay and Andance. Shortly after that, motorcycle troops, armored cars and several tanks are approaching the French outposts with caution. They are on reconnaissance mission to test the French deployment. After several light skirmishes they move back, probably fearing the French cavalry on there rears.
During all the afternoon, the artillery of the brigade (commanded by Chapuis) opens fire on the Vienne – Valence road to block German movements.
At 17h00, numerous German concentrations are spotted by Palloc and treated by his 65mm guns. The battery would need ammunition supply. At 19h00, a strong German artillery concentration shells the French positions around Andance. The 65mm battery tries to respond but the German guns are out of range. The French battery is directly targeted by 150mm heavy howitzers. A gun is destroyed and another is upside down. There are many WIAs and the evacuation is impossible because of barrages behind the battery and up to the castle of Blacieux. Many of the young gunners and cadets of this instruction battery have fled. Colonel Jouffrault sends a platoon of veteran spahis to help Chapuis and Palloc. They have to retreat the battery and to rally the young gunners.
A staff officer from 4e RSM, Lieutenant Guerrini and Lieutenant Moura from 4e RSM, a truck, ambulances and medics are sent to help. Under enemy shelling, the whole battery (except 1 destroyed tractor and 1 destroyed gun) is slowly moved to the west of hill 351.
This operation is hard and between 22h00 and 2h00 the men witness a hard combat below them in Andance. Despite the situation, one of the 65mm guns opens fire to support the troops in Andance.
These combats and especially the action of this mountain guns battery were striking for the Germans. It must have caused them serious losses. After the Armistice, numerous Germans went on this hill to see with their eyes the French emplacements scattered with shell holes. They even had to organize a bus service 3 times a day to transport all the visitors. On June 23, the battery is completely exhausted and sent at Quintenas in order to rest.
The previously mentioned attack against Andance started short before 22h00 and is very important. The French positions are first heavily shelled. The town has been previously roughly surrounded by German “stormtroopers”, who managed to infiltrate during the night. The surprise attack is very violent. The “stormtroopers” infiltrate and try to open the way to the other elements. Another German attack is launched from Andancette to Andance at the same moment.
Colonel Jouffrault orders Capitaine de Saint-Quentin from 4e RSM to launch a counter-attack in order to help Lieutenant-Colonel de Goutel in Andance. He is attacking the Germans on their rears, trying to cut their retreat.
In Andance, the resistance is stiff in all the houses and streets. Platoon Gieure, a 25mm AT gun and 2 Hotchkiss Mle1914 MGs are encircled in the northern part of the town and cut from the other French troops. The rifle platoon manages to breakthrough and to flee in the mountains but the men with the heavy weapons don’t want to abandon their MGs and the AT gun. They will fight on the spot and to the last man if needed.
The Germans reach the center of the town but are unable to take the town to the spahis, who resist in each house. During more than 2 hours the Germans try to capture Andance. Having used all their hand grenades and facing a determined resistance, the German assault is broken.
At the same time, Lieutenant-Colonel de Goutel launches a counter-attack with elements of his 4th squadron. The counter-attack led by Capitaine de Saint-Quentin with 2 platoons emerges on the rears of the Germans at this precise moment.
In a hurry the Germans flee to Andancette and to the north. They find their motor vehicles, which bring them again east of the Rhône River.
Colonel Jouffrault had ordered Capitaine Perret to warn General Doyen of this heavy assault and moved to join Andance. On the road he met the platoon from Lieutenant Guettaf, a very good Arab officer. The latter sent 10 men, with their pockets full of grenades, to climb on the Hotchkiss car of the colonel. Advancing cautiously, they reached the first houses of Andance and the first troops from 6e RSA. Colonel Jouffrault learns then that the 6e RSA is abandoning Andance despite its victory during the night, according to General Doyen’s orders given at 0h15.
The bulk of the 6e RSA is sent in reserve at Saint-Jeure-d’Ay. Platoon Gieure, which has fled in the mountains, is nowhere to find.
The 4th squadron (Commandant Droz-Grey) from 6e RSA is reinforced by a 25mm AT gun and sent to Ardoix in order to block the Ay Valley. East of Ardoix, at Sarras, the squadrons group of Commandant Fauré is reinforced by a 47mm AT gun. West of Ardoix, there is the 4e RSM around Annonay and the 20e GRCA.
The squadron Verselippe from 4e RSM is sent in Tournon to lengthen the defense of the 75e RR to the west and hold the bridges at Doux.
The HQ from 4e RSM is transferred to Quintenas.
4.4 June 23
After their failure in Andance, the Germans have retreat beyond the Rhône River. The French patrols meet no enemy north of Annonay – Andance.
The 75mm guns battery has moved to the Bille farm, 1.5 km north-west of Eclassan.
At daybreak, the forward observers report numerous German convoys in Saint-Vallier. The 75mm guns block all the German movements. Only isolated cars can cross the town at high speed.
Colonel Jouffrault, can see that the Germans massing artillery and preparing emplacements on various hills from his observation post in the castle. They want probably to silent the French guns hampering their movements and plan an attack against Sarras. A squadron from 4e RSM is immediately placed in reserve.
General Freydenberg and General Doyen visit the HQ of the spahis brigade. They congratulate the troops for their outstanding behaviour.
By the end of the morning, an important German column occupies Andance and launches reconnaissance patrol towards Sarras. 2 km south of Andance, the Germans meet platoon Gieure, which had been lost last night. They try to join the French lines by foot. Surprised by the German motorized troops, they find cover in a farm and fight to the last cartridge before surrendering.
The French brigade HQ is warned of the German advance. A civilian, who witnessed the end of platoon Gieure reports the events by telephone. The horse mounted patrols from 6e RSA and 4e RSM present in the area are sent to harass the enemy on its flanks and rears. The patrols are ordered to set traps and bend wires on the retreat roads of the enemy.
A platoon from 4e RSM and motorcyclists from 20e GRCA set an ambush on the Andance – Serrières road. The German trucks passing on the road are stopped. In one of them they have the luck to free Lieutenant Gieure and 25 spahis!
At 11h00, the German motorized column in Andance starts its movement towards Sarras. The spearhead consisting in motorcyclists reach the first French blockade on the bridge over the Ay River. The post is led by Lieutenant Guettaf.
The Germans advance by foot. They shout to cease fire, pretending that the Armistice has been signed and tell the French that they are comrades. Once they are close enough and in front of the FM 1924/1929 LMGs, Guettaf opens fire and cleans the road. The German survivors flee thanks to ditches along the road. A full batch of motorcycles and side-cars has been captured.
Immediately the Germans organize an important attack. It starts with a heavy shelling of the northern edges of Sarras (batteries deployed east of the Rhône River and mortars deployed on hill 162, 2 km north of Saint-Vallier). The French 75mm battery tries to answer but due to lack of telephone cables, the observation post cannot be installed where it should an the adjustment is too difficult.
The German infantry crosses the Ay River and captures the rail-road bridge. Advancing along the rail-road it enters in the town. A violent French counter-attack with bayonets and grenades is launched. The Germans retreat from the town but they cannot be repulsed from an orchard between the Rhône River and the rail-road. Lieutenant Fourquet from 2nd squadron is KIA.
It is raining but the combats go on. The infantry having failed, the Germans send 10 light tanks coming from Silon to the northern blockade of Sarras. The ground on both sides of the road is not friendly for tanks but in the turn before the blockade 3 tanks can concentrate their rapid fire against the blockade. They fire shells on the blockade but also on the road in front and behind the blockade, probably trying to hit French AT mines. After a moment, these 3 tanks are replaced by 3 other tanks, which start the same game. Between these fires or each time riflemen try to advance to the blockade, the FM 1924/1929 LMG from Lieutenant Guettaf fires.
The 1st blockade becoming too difficult to defend is abandoned. The French soldiers move back to the 2nd blockade several 200 meters behind. This blockade has been installed between buildings. The spahis are deployed in the houses. They hope that the tanks will advance in order to launch gasoline on them. Several spahis try to sneak to the tanks with AT mines in order to place them in the tracks. This fight will last about 1h30.
Their tanks being blocked, the Germans launch another infantry attack, trying to outflank the 2nd blockade by advancing among orchards, gardens and houses. Platoon Tramoni deployed in the center of the town launches a counter-attack and rejects the enemy infantry. Lieutenant Tramoni is KIA.
The light tanks in front of the blockade, probably out of ammo, retreat to Andance.
Now the Germans are attacking Sarras by the east. They attack the bridge over the Rhône River between Saint-Vallier and Sarras. After artillery and mortar shelling, the Germans capture the French post guarding the bridge. The commander, Maréchal-des-Logis van Pouck, is KIA and the French soldiers are fighting a delaying combat between the bridge and Sarras. At 14h00, the Germans are stopped at about 200-300 meters from the level / grade crossing. The situation was critical around 13h00 when at the same time the Germans launched their outflanking attack in the northern part of Sarras. Platoon Tramoni stabilized the situation as explained previously.
At this moment, all the French communications with the HQ are still dependent from the civilian telephone network of Saint-Vallier… a town in German hands. The employees of the post office played their lives in that story; even because of French fire since the 75mm guns, the 47mm gun and all the 25mm guns had opened fire against Saint-Vallier.
Platoon Guettaf, exhausted, has been replaced by platoon Pazzis on the northern blockade. Colonel Jouffrault visits Commandant Fauré and the defenders of Sarras. During the return to the castle des Prés, he spots German columns on the Vienne-Valence road. Once in his HQ, the 75mm guns are ordered to fire at them.
At 14h15, the Germans enter in the post office at Saint-Vallier. Most of the French communications are therefore impossible. Part of them can use the central of Annonay and Capitaine Mouret (in charge of the signals of the brigade) has to find a solution. There aren’t enough telephone cables and the radios are also not sufficient because the troops are too dispersed on a wide front. Many liaisons have to be organized with motorcycles and cars.
The 75mm guns cannot fire accurately on the Saint-Vallier bridge from their current emplacement. One of the guns is moved on the Saint-Jeure-d’Ay to Saint-Vallier road at about 1.4 km from the bridge. As soon as the gun begins to fire it is targeted by German MGs and mortars. The first French shells are for troops concentrations on the embankment. Then Chapuis targets the bridge itself. At the 6th shell, the explosive charges placed for a possible destruction of the bridge explode. The frightened German attack is stopped. It is about 16h00.
Most of the bridges in the area of the 1e BS had indeed been prepared for destruction but unfortunately the brigade commander never received the authorization to destroy them. According to the order, the destruction charges were not ignited but this bridge has finally been destroyed.
In Tournon, the bridge is also still there but the bolts holding the wooden crosspieces forming the roadway have been removed. The special tools needed for that task have then been thrown away in the River.
At 16h00, the German motorized troops (infantry carried by trucks) are very aggressive in front of the 4e RSM. They encounter French horse mounted patrols east and north-east of Annonay, which fight a kind of guerrilla war. The German elements meet French blockades at Croix-de-la-Justice, Davezieux and Saint-Cyr. A German officer is KIA during these skirmishes.
North-west of Annonay, the area seems empty of Germans. The horse mounted patrols and deeper the motorcycle platoon from 20e GRCA (Lieutenant Mazenot) launch many successful raids on the flanks and rears of the enemy.
The northern front of Annonay is commanded by Capitaine Brière (3rd squadron from 4e RSM). The MG platoon of Lieutenant Leroy reinforced by 2 60mm Mle1935 mortars and 1 25mm AT gun is taking part to the defense. During the afternoon, the front is reinforced by Mohamed and d’Almont platoons. The latter is just back after having been cured from his wounds received in Luxembourg in May 1940. When the German assault is launched, Capitaine Brière has only 5-6 platoons to defend the 4 km between Vidalons, Croix-de-la-Justice and hill 415 (east of Davezieux).
The German attack starts around 16h00, without artillery preparation, against Croix-de-la-Justice and Davezieux. It is launched by riflemen brought by truck at 1,500 meters from Croix-de-la-Justice. These men are supported by tanks. One of these tanks explodes on a mine near hill 451 (Croix-de-la-Justice). That leads the other tank to stop. They will not advance anymore but just support the infantry with their guns.
Despite dense French fire, the German infantry arrives very close and manages to occupy the woods on hill 466, north of Davezieux. They create therefore a salient between Leroy’s and d’Almont’s positions.
Suddenly, the enemy troops retreat to their starting line except the men in the salient. The remaining German troops are attacked with the 60mm mortars. The fire is very accurate and reduces very quickly the enemy. A 3.7cm PaK, which tried to intervene, is also destroyed.
One hour later, the Germans renew their attack but this one is less powerful and is quickly defeated.
At 18h00, the assaults against Davezieux and Croix-de-la-Justice are renewed. Anonay is threatened by important German forces. The German armored cars and tanks are trying to find a gap in the French deploy and to outflank the positions. The fear of the AT mines and the accurate fire of the AT guns keeps the German AFVs at a safe range for the French troops.
According to General Doyen’s orders, the positions at Davezieux and Croix-de-la-Justice are nonetheless evacuated. The remaining outposts north of Annonayare are in Vidalons and on the hill south of Davezieux.
Exhausted, the Germans will not even try to follow the French troops. They break the contact and retreat to Serrières. That explains that on June 24 the outposts at Davezieux and Croix-de-la-Justice are again occupied by French forces.
At Sarras, the German pressure is increasing especially on the north. At Saint-Vallier German troops are concentrating but are shelled by the French artillery. During the night there are skirmishes between Germans infiltrated in the orchards around Sarras and French patrols.
4.5 June 24
On June 24, the Germans are attacking:
- On the north: numerous infantry supported by tanks and artillery attacks towards Annonay and the area east of Annonay on a front of about 4 km. The 4e RSM will resist, supported by the reconstituted 65mm guns battery deployed at Félix (south of Annonay).
- On the Andance - Sarras axis: supported by artillery, the Germans will finally capture Sarras around 11h00. The elements of the 6e RSA are supported by the 75mm guns and will hold its positions west of Sarras.
- In Tournon: there is only a skirmish and artillery fire over the River. The Alsatians have shot down a German plane with their small arms. Capitaine Verselippe is facing German reconnaissance elements and has killed a German captain.
At daybreak, the sky is very cloudy and it is raining. The whole area is still covered by many French patrols.
At 6h00, German troops (about 500 men, 6 guns and AFVs supported by artillery) are again in front of Capitaine Brière’s troops. At 7h30, infantry brought by trucks starts an attack around Annonay. The first outposts at Davezieux and Croix-de-la-Justice are again slowly abandoned by French troops fighting bloody delaying combats. Nonetheless, the Germans stop their advance at several hundred meters from Davezieux. A spahis fells WIA near the Germans. Part of his platoon charges then the Germans with their sabres drawn. The Germans retreat and the French WIA is picked up. Again Lieutenant Mazenot’s motorcycle platoon launches raids on the rears of the enemy.
Around 16h00, the French main line is now anchored south of Annonay, along Cance gully. There are about 5 platoons and the 3 65mm mountain guns deployed at Félix. This battery is protected by 2 strong blockades, each with a 25mm AT gun.
The German infantry advance in the suburbs north of Annonay, supported by armored cars. They meet French outposts. One armored car is destroyed by a mine in front of Vidalons and another one is damaged by a mine at Croix-de-Fer.
The motorcycle platoon from 20e GRCA harasses again the German attackers on their flanks and rears. At 16h30, Lieutenant Mazenot warns also the spahis that 3 armored cars, 10 light tanks and 40 to 50 trucks have been spotted at the crossing at Croix-de-la Justice. They are moving towards Annonay.
The Germans enter in Annonay but the bulk of their forces outflank the city. The 3 65mm guns from Lieutenant Palloc open fire on the enemy troops as soon as they are spotted. One of the guns is malfunctioning. The guns target mainly the German MGs, guns and mortars.
The Germans reach the Cance gully and are very close to the spahis. The French light cavalry is completely outnumbered and they lack hand grenades because the light ammunition resupply trucks made a mistake on the road. The combats are very intense around 17h00. The LMGs and carbines are facing the numerous SMGs of the enemy but the French manage to throw the Germans back in the gully.
Because of their small number, the French are outflanked by the Germans. The 65mm guns open fire at them at 1,000 meters and they move back. But at 18h00, the HQ from Commandant Chapuis is taken by German troops. The men have just the time to flee, abandoning their equipment and cars. At the Cance gully, the French platoons are often encircled and have to launch bayonet counter-attacks to restore the situation. The lack of grenades is a big issue in such a combat.
In the Mohamed platoon, most of the men are WIA. All the spahis still able to ride start a charge with their sabres on the main road towards Quintenas. The first German elements are surprised but at Beaumarais they face a stronger resistance. Lieutenant Mohamed flees then in the landscape. He will manage to join the French lines at Roiffieux but with only 6 men.
The combats on the gully are desperate between 19h00 and 20h00. Numerous German light and medium mortars are shelling the French. The Moroccans, among them many sharpshooters, are often stopping them just thanks to their carbines.
On the German rears, platoon Dauger is still anchored on the Chevalier Bridge, at the southern exit of Annonay. They intercept the German resupply and evacuation columns.
The platoons from Fournoux are back from their raid (see below, after the combats in Sarras) and are ordered to evacuate the 65mm guns. Quintenas is quickly fortified with blockades and 25mm AT guns.
The combats south of Annonay are very intense until 22h00 and diminish slowly after that. The Germans break the combat and moves back. They are in a difficult situation since platoon Dauger (still on the Chevalier Bridge) is controlling the single road used by their trucks on their rears.
During this time the situation is worsening in Sarras. Around 7h00, the Germans infiltrate in the mountains and in the orchards, threatening to encircle the town. Fortunately platoon Vezins is deployed on the heights west of Sarras, preventing a complete encirclement.
Colonel Jouffrault moves to Sarras in his car. He meets Commandant Fauré, tired but still full of energy. Sarras is still quiet except skirmishes near the blockade at the level / grade crossing (platoon Fourquet). Enemy AFVs are continuously coming to test the blockades. Jouffrault moves back to his HQ in the castle.
At 8h15, the Germans launch a heavy assault supported by mortars and artillery. The combats are very violent, often from house to house with handguns and grenades. The French platoons are forced to move back gradually and are anchored around 10h00 in the western part of Sarras, on the national road. They are covered by the fire from platoon Vezins deployed on the heights and dominating Sarras. From the heights and also thanks to the artillery, every movement out of Sarras to the south can be blocked. It is therefore judged as not useful to launch an expensive counter-attack to take the town again.
Around 10h15, a heavy artillery shelling targets platoon Vezins and blinds it. The heights are captured by a strong German assault which cuts the retreat to the last defenders of Sarras. Nonetheless, part of the troops, including Commandant Fauré, manages to evacuate in the mountains and to join the French troops.
Only Capitaine de Luget, Lieutenant Pazzis and several spahis from 1st squadron are trapped. They will fight to the last cartridge and finally with their sabres before surrendering. The 2 officers and 24 spahis, roughly all WIA are POWs.
Around 12h00, the 1e BS is reinforced by about 10 officers and 200 men (including mobile guards) transported by trucks (Lieutenant-Colonel Durand de Villers). They have MGs, light mortars and 2 37mm infantry guns. These troops are directed to Sécheras and Lemps, in order to eventually block Germans moving from Sarras along the Rhône River and prevent them to reach the plateau between Eclassan and Tournon. Their HQ is installed at Cheminas.
Colonel Jouffrault sends 2 spahis platoons (Lieutenant de Fournoux, from the reserve in Ardoix) on the rear of the enemy, north of Sarras. They are ordered to cut transiently the German communication lines with a dense fire before moving back to the French lines. There is also a hope to deliver the men, who were captured at Sarras, like it already happened.
Arrived on the heights dominating the northern exit of Sarras, with the road and railroad bridges over the Ay River, Fournoux sees a long column of German trucks, apparently empty. The drivers are in small groups and are talking. The 6 LMGs and all the carbines are suddenly firing at the Germans. The Germans are firing back with MGs from the ruins of the Revirans castle below. According to the orders, to avoid being blocked, the French platoons end their raid and move back to the French lines. A bit later the German artillery shells the heights, where the French were deployed. 3 German planes tries also to find the raiders but without success. The result is that many enemy troops are deployed north of Sarras. The pressure against the 6e RSA west of Sarras is therefore decreasing. They will be able to hold their positions on these heights.
During the night, the 1e BS is ordered to retreat on the Saint-Romain – Saint-Jeure-d’Ay – Cheminas line. Platoon Dauger south of Annonay has the more difficult task. The men are encircled but resisted to all the German attacks. By phone, during a discussion with a German officer, the French officer deceived a German officer about his real strength. At 0h30, the platoon with only 17 remaining men (and 37 horses) charges on the bridge to break the German encirclement. Surprised, the Germans at the other end of the bridge hide in a house and let them simply go by.
Colonel Jouffrault learns that the end of the combats is ordered on June 25. The brigade is therefore ordered to occupy all possible positions as far as possible to the north in order to hold the ground at the time of the cease-fire. The 1e BS will remain on its positions until the 1st of July 1940, before being ordered to move to Saint-Etienne. At the end of August 1940, the brigade is sent to Morocco and is dismantled.
During the operations in the Rhône Valley between June 18 and June 25, the spahis faced more numerous enemy troops but the Germans were largely dependent from the roads. The Germans deployed their troops to attack the French outposts, which retreated after furious combats to rear positions. During this time the reserves (horse mounted patrols and motorcyclists from 20e GRCA) attacked continuously the German rears and flanks, managing e.g. to liberate POWs. The 1e BS fulfilled its coverage mission for the left flank of the Army of the Alps and blocked the German movements to the south.
- "La bataille des Alpes 10-25 juin 1940" (General E. Plan and Eric Lefèvre)
- "La campagne de 1940" (Christine Levisse-Touzé)
- "Les Spahis au feu, la 1e Brigade de Spahis pendant la campagne 1939-1940" (Général P. Jouffrault)
- "Mai - Juin 1940 : les combattants de l'honneur" (Jean Delmas, Paul Devautour and Eric Lefèvre)
- "La bataille des Alpes 1939/1940” – Gazette des uniformes hors-série n°10
- Bulletin de liaison de l’association des amis du musée du canon et des artilleurs n°15 (juin 1995) – L’artillerie dans la bataille des Alpes en 1940, 1ère partie – Zone Nord.
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Sadly almost all english language accounts of the French campaign of 1940 end with the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk. Even though the battle for France didn't end until the Armistice on 25 June 1940.