By a happy accident of history the village of Fayence was liberated on 15 August 1944 by British paratroopers operating as part of the US and French Allied forces invading the south of France.
They were dropped in the wrong place because of a communications failure but linked up with the local resistance and dealt with strong but sporadic German resistance based on the rocks dominating the road to Mons. A particularly vicious fire fight took place at Quatre Chemins in the valley below the village. This vital cross roads changed hands several times in the struggle to dominate the main highway barring enemy reinforcements menacing the right flank of the main invasion forces landing on the coast on either side of Dramont.
The full story of the Battle of Fayence is to be found in the British National Archives at Kew, near London, where the war diaries for the fighting services are stored.
The airborne soldiers were part of the Second Independent Brigade, commanded by Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard, on detachment to the United States First Airborne Division under General Frederick. They were supposed to be dropped in the hills around Le Muy so as to block enemy reinforcements coming up the N7 and the road between Grasse and Draguignan. Because of communications difficulties and the confusion inevitably linked to such hazardous operations, substantial units of the Brigade landed around Fayence and Tourrettes.
There’s a personal element in this story. When my wife and I were looking for a house in the area, we chanced on a one-man agency in St Paul-en-Forêt. It was run by Charles Pasqua who mentioned his part in the Liberation fight as we discussed our search. He even showed me a testimonial from the commanding General. But, alas, we didn’t pay proper attention to his story at the time.
It was only when another reference to the Red Berets in the fight for Fayence caught my attention as I wrote a short history of the village (q.v.) that I began a serious search for the full story.
The official history is especially notable for the tributes paid to the assistance the soldiers received from the local Maquis including our estate agent. They knew the area, provided swift intelligence of enemy movements and even set up hospitals to treat the wounded.
Here is the dramatic story as it appears in the Second Independent Brigade’s War Diary deposited after declassification in the National Archives. The text is from the carbon copy of a five-page report composed originally on a typewriter evidently immediately after the operation. I’ve left in spelling mistakes and the Map References (although the maps themselves were not to be found) as well as bits of military jargon with some explanations in Italics as they appear.
Once the invasion had succeeded and the main forces were racing north up the valley of the Rhône aiming to link up with the liberation armies who’d landed in Normandy two months earlier, the British Paras were withdrawn. They found themselves heavily involved in operations in Greece and northern Italy shortly afterwards.
SECRET OPERATION DRAGOON
After weeks of intensive preparation ‘D-day’ dawned on 15 August 1944. In the early hours, the Independent Platoon had taken off and preceded the Bde (Brigade) in order to establish homing aids on the DZ (Dropping Zone). Despite clouds and heavy ground mist the drop was successful; Captain Baker, the first paratroop to land in Southern France, had assembled with his stick of 12 at the RV (Rendezvous point) and with the aids of local guides proceeded to the DZ, set up a Eureka Beacon by 0445 hrs. A further party with a second Eureka and four lights had arrived and these were immediately established in the vicinity of LE MITAN.
The Bde Gp (Brigade group) crossed the coast at approximately 0440 hrs and flew into France without opposition. Unfortunately owing to the cloud and heavy mist many planes wandered from their course and only 73 sticks dropped on the Brigade DZ. The remainder were dropped as far apart as FAYENCE and CANNES. The landing was unopposed but there was a certain amount of firing on the DZ by our own troops who failed to identify fellow parachutists.
On reassembly it was found that Brigade Headquarters was intact, 4 Bn (Battalion) 30 - 40% intact, 6 Bn 70% intact, but the 5 Bn could barely raise a company as most of the 5 Bn had been dropped in the FAYENCE area.
By 0615 hrs Bde HQ was established at LE MITAN as per plan and within 20 minutes wireless contact was established with Tactical Bde HQ who were accompanying 36 US Division.
The 4 Bn despite their low strength succeeded in carrying out their first task and by 0730 hrs reported to Bde HQ that pt (point) 113 on the high ground dominating LE MUY had been occupied. The strength of 5 Bn personnel in the area prevented them carrying out their original task and Major McCall brought his small force to LE MITAN to act in defence of Bde HQ.
6 Bn who had been more fortunate, occupied LA MOTTE and the high ground and later, after the German garrison at CLASTRON had surrendered, one coy (company) was put into CLASTRON.
During this period the Independent Pl (Platoon) and the RE (Royal Engineers) had been heavily occupied in clearing the LZ (Landing Zone) of hundreds of poles which had been erected by the enemy as anti airborne defences. Owing to ground conditions, the glider force which had been due in at 0800 hrs did not arrive until 0920 hrs, having spent some time circling above CORSICA until the mist cleared. The ATk (AntiTank) Bty (Battery) in Horsas (High Wing Gliders) had returned to ITALY and did not arrive until later in the afternoon.
The initial glider landing was completely successful and unopposed; the sight was so impressive that the German Garrison at CLASTRON surrendered immediately and with this the area of the LZ was entirely clear of the enemy. The small group of houses at LES SERRES controlling the bridge over the River Naturby and leading into LE MUY was still occupied and ‘C’ Coy of 4 Bn was sent to clear the area and hold the bridge.
This was successfully carried out, not however without some casualties which were considerably lighter than the enemy’s. The enemy had 16 killed and 29 PW (Prisoners of War) as against our 7 killed and 9 wounded including the only officer killed on the operation – Lieutenant Stewart.
By 1015 hrs in the morning the Bde had successfully accomplished its first tasks although operating with less than 60% of its strength. 4 Bn had occupied the high ground NORTH of LE MUY; they had also captured LES SERRES and held it against a series of minor counter attacks.
The 5 Bn had established standing patrols on the two roads leading EAST and NORTH of the DZ whilst 6 Bn had occupied LA MOTTE and the high ground to the NORTH as well as CLASTRON. All RE road blocks had been successfully established and. the Lt Bty (Light Battery) had several guns in action close to Bde HQ.
The Field Ambulance had been unable to adhere to their original plan of setting up a dressing station at ST MICHEL which was situated on the northern part of the DZ as the 5 Bn force holding the road was rather under strength. However, a temporary dressing station was set up in a small house next door to Bde HQ which proved inadequate. Despite an acute shortage of both accommodation and orderlies, the two surgeons, Major G. C. Wells and Captain T. B. McMurray, were able to deal with all casualties, though at times they had to carry the cases into the room and after operating to carry them out themselves. The position was eased slightly by some German prisoners who were put to work as orderlies and proved very efficient.
The remainder of the morning was comparatively quiet around the LZ area. Stray sticks which had dropped wide of the DZ began to trickle in and the strength of the Bde Gp grew hourly. Parties began to clear the DZ, towing away gliders, burning others which could not be moved and removing more poles which were still obstructing the landing areas. During this time 6 Bn had sent patrols to contact 517 RCT (Regimental Combat Team) which had dropped WEST of LA MOTTE to block the roads leading towards LE MUY from the WEST. Physical contact had not yet been established with 509 Bn but a wireless message reported that elements had occupied the high ground SOUTH of LE MUY and that eleven 75 mm guns were in position on the heights overlooking the town. Messages Colonel Pearson indicated that the initial landing of 36 Division was going according to plan.
Meanwhile scattered groups of parachutists who had been dropped many miles NORTH of the DZ were beginning to work their way SOUTH towards the RV. A party off 4 Bn including the CO (Commanding Officer) and eighty men was dropped in the neighbourhood of FAYENCE. Three separate groups of 5 Bn were dropped in the FAYENCE area, the first consisting of' the C0, half' Bn HQ and. the majority of ‘C’ Coy; the second consisting of' 'D' Coy and a number of American parachutists under command of 'D' Coy Commander, Major J.A. Blackwood, and the third consisting of the IO (Intelligence Officer) - Lt J.S. Holden, and twenty men. The first group started off for the Bn RV and proceeded SOUTH not meeting much enemy opposition.
The party split into three, the CO with an escort of two men moved on ahead to contact Bde HQ as soon as possible and arrived at 1530 hrs. OC ‘C’ Coy, Maj S.K. Hart and the Adjutant, Capt M.H. Shepherd each took half of the remaining force and arrived at Bde HQ at 2030 and 2230 hrs respectively. The second group under Maj Blackwood was dropped NE of Fayence in the area MR 524744 and by 0830 hrs 4 Officers and 64 ORs (Other Ranks) including a section of Divisional Signal Coy was assembled. At 0845 hrs the group left the area with the intention of proceeding to LZ via road junction 520728, river valley 5256. Approaching the village of TOURETTES (sic) 5256, the group heard firing in FAYENCE and shots were being fired in their direction; at the same time it became obvious that if enemy were in TOURETTES, the village could not be bypassed without the party coming into full view of the enemy. A patrol was sent forward to report on the enemy situation. The village was found to be clear but FAYENCE was reported held by the enemy. The group entered TOURETTES and took up defensive positions. The Maquis reported that there were some wounded parachutists a few kilometres north of the village; a stretcher party was organised to go out and collect them. The 2 IC (Second in Command), Maj P.B. Dudgeon, was found to be amongst the wounded, who were brought back and put in the Partisan Hospital.
At 1330 hrs the village was taken over by the Maquis and the group proceeded SOUTH towards LE MUY. Just SOUTH of TOURETTES a convoy of enemy vehicles was sighted about two miles to the WEST moving Eastwards. Maj Blackwood ordered the group off the road and an ambush was laid. However just before the convoy was due to pass the group, fire was opened up further down the road and the vehicles stopped. Maj Blackwood sent a patrol forward to investigate the source of the firing. During this time an officer from 517 RCT reached the group stating that he had a force of 60 men with him as well as an 81 mm and a 60 mm mortar. A few minutes later the patrol returned with the information that about 15 enemy vehicles were being held up by a mixed British and American force of about 25 men, but they were now being attacked by a force of 60 to 70 Germans. The group then moved down towards the vehicles, took up position and fired on them with LMG (Light Machinegun) and Mortar fire, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and damaging several of the vehicles. The enemy withdrew to Vic 5216 LZ leaving 8 killed and 4 wounded, as well as an officer and two men who were taken prisoner earlier in the battle. A farm house nearby was found to contain five Americans, one of whom was the Chief of Staff, 1 ABTF (AirBorne Task Force), who immediately put themselves under command of Maj Blackwood. After consolidating the position a party of Maquis were contacted and the German PW were handed over to them. A few hours later contact was made with a strong U.S. group from 3 Bn 517, and the Force group proceeded SOUTH towards LE MUY, bivouacing near BICNOLES (sic) for the night.
The third group of 5 Bn under the IO Lt Holden was dropped 2 miles NE of Fayence, No contact was made with the enemy that day, but progress was very slow owing to a number of men who had received minor injuries on landing. At 1100 hrs Lt Miller was found together with a number of his platoon. Lt Miller had been injured on landing and could not walk. He was put under the care of the Maquis and the remainder of the party joined Lt Holden. By 1230 hrs the force had grown to 1 officer and 30 men and was moving towards the WEST of FAYENCE. FAYENCE was still held by a small number of enemy who were occupying the high ground to the NORTH of the town. At 1800 hrs Lt Holden and 3 ORs entered the town to visit Maj P.B. Dudgeon, who was still being looked after by the Partisans, and who was unable to walk. Later the party returned to a bivouac area a few miles to the WEST of FAYENCE.
Meanwhile all was still quiet in the area of the LZ. Preparations for the reception of the gliderborne force had been completed. By 1600 hrs 4 Bn had almost two rifle coys but very few supporting arms. The CO had been contacted by W/T (Wireless Telegraph) and had reported that he was bringing a force of 80 men SOUTH from the FAYENCE area. 6 Bn strength was by this time 17 officers and 300 ORs and the missing platoon of ‘A’ Coy was on its way to join the Coy. ‘C’ Coy had been sent out as a standing patrol to a point on the road between LE MUY and LE LUC with a view to ambushing any enemy withdrawing WESTWARD from LE MUY, but the patrol returned at 2200 hrs reporting that no enemy had been seen . Other patrols were sent towards LE MUY to ascertain the strength of the enemy in the town. Col Hunter arrived at Bde HQ at 1600 hrs and reported to the Bde Comd (Commander) that a large force of 5 Bn was making its way SOUTH from FAYENCE. By this time 5 Bn had grown sufficiently in strength to form a stronger position round the NORTH road leading into the LZ from the NORTH, and it was agreed that the dressing station should be moved to ST MICHEL, a building NORTH of the DZ, which was far more suitable for the surgical work.
At 1800 hrs the leading planes of the air armada arrived carrying 551 Para Bn, 550 Glider Bn, two coys of the mortar Bn, 300 AL ATk (Air Landing AntiTank) Bty, Medical Services and the remainder of Div HQ. For over half an hour the sky was filled with planes and gliders. The LZ was by no means perfect and many rough landings were made, thanks to the great skill and tenacity of the Glider Pilots the percentages of casualties were very low; only two gliders overturned and the total casualties for the landing were 1 killed and 7 injured (a handwritten amendment here alters the killed to 2 – Ed.), though at times it appeared impossible that guns, jeeps and men could come unscathed from some of the more spectacular crashes.
After the landings were completed 300 ATk Bty took up defensive positions in support of the Bns (Battalions) and also manned ATk defences on the road blocks. Div HQ was established at LE MITAN next to Bde HQ and 550 Glider Bn assembled SE of the DZ preparatory to attacking LE MUY.
After dark an attack was put in on LE MUY by the Glider Bn supported by fire from 64 Bty – owing to the darkness and the heavy fire brought down by the enemy it was realised that it was hopeless to attempt to take the town that night and 550 Bn withdrew to wait until the following morning.
The night 15/16 Aug was quiet, no counter attacks materialised and the enemy made no attempt to break out of LE MUY. At first light patrols from 4 Bn made contact with 509 Bn across the Argens valley whilst a patrol from 6 Bn to LE MUY returned with 11 PW who had tried to escape from LE MUY when they realised the hopelessness of the situation. Later in the morning 550 Glider Bn attacked LE MUY and by 1530 hrs LE MUY was completely in our hands and resistance had ceased – 170 PW were taken.
6 Bn though not participating in the attack had sent a patrol of 4 men to a house SW of the town and 6 officers and 54 ORs surrendered to them, handing over 6 ATk guns and 2 staff cars.
Meanwhile the two parties of 5 Bn were making their way SOUTH from FAYENCE. ‘D’ Coy force reached the road leading to the LZ from the WEST, and Maj Blackwood went ahead to report the arrival of the force, consisting of 5 officers and 110 ORs. Throughout the long trek to the LZ area they suffered no casualties. Just as this force had returned, information was received that a convoy of 15 enemy vehicles was forming up in he area of track 4743. The CO ordered Maj Hart and 20 ORs to move along the road and engage the vehicles. However, the convoy had been seen also by Lt Holden’s party which had been moving SOUTH in the direction of LE MUY. His party opened fire on the four leading vehicles, killing the drivers and wrecking the machines. As the vehicles were still being attacked, enemy infantry were seen to be approaching the force. Fire was brought to bear on them and the enemy dispersed, but owing to the superiority in numbers of the enemy, Lt Holden’s force withdrew to the hills. A fierce fight then ensued, during which the enemy tried to pass through more vehicles, but fire was opened on the trucks and the infantry escorting them, and eventually the trucks were abandoned and the infantry took to the hills. During this action 7 enemy were killed and 7 more taken prisoner. The party then repaired two staff cars and one heavy vehicle out of the convoy and drove to BAGNOLS where the prisoners were handed over to Partisans. When Maj Hart’s party arrived at the track junction 4743, the action was over, and all that was found was eight abandoned cars and 7 dead Germans, although 12 enemy were still in a nearby farm. These were engaged by the force, but only two PW were taken as the remainder dispersed.
During this time the Adjutant, who had been on patrol with another officer and 10 men in the area of ST PAULEN FORÊT (sic), returned to Bn HQ with the information that there was no enemy traffic on the lateral road between FAYENCE and DRAGUIGNAN, but that a small force of enemy were known to be operating between ST PAULEN EN FORÊT (sic) and crossroads LES QUATRES CHEMINS 411502. The Partisans were erecting a road block at the cross roads. On receipt of this information the CO sent Capt Hunter, Lt Brammall and 12 ORs to contact the Partisans at the crossroads, spending the night there, and then moving on in the morning to harass enemy movement in the area CALLAS, MONTFERRAT. The Partisans were contacted, but could not report any fresh enemy activity.
For the remainder of the Bde Gp the day had been comparatively quiet, the first flight of aircraft carrying supplies for the Bde flew over the area during the morning, dropping the containers from a height which in some cases exceeded 2,000 feet, consequently the supplies were scattered and dropped over a wide area; this made their collection exceedingly difficult, but a salvage party was organised under the Staff Capt, Capt Heygate, and by the afternoon a Divisional supply dump had been set up at the side of the LZ. A landing strip had been prepared at the NORTH end of the LZ and just prior to the supply dropping an Auster aircraft carrying Col Pearson landed on the DZ. Col Pearson reported on the progress of 36 Div. FREJUS and ST RAPHAEL were in our hands and 142 RCT would start to move up the ARGENS valley towards LE MUY in the afternoon. COL Pearson’s visit was significant in that he was the first direct contact between 36 Div and Airborne Forces.
Throughout the night 16/17 Aug, nothing had materialised in the area of the crossroads 411502 (Quatre Chemins – Ed.), so the party moved NORTH to contact the Maquis at CALLAS. Whilst they were here, the CO with a party of 6 ORs left Bn HQ in a jeep to proceed to Fayence which had been reported clear of enemy, and where Maj P.B. Dudgeon was reported to be, having been taken there by Partisans. The party moved to Fayence via the X rds at QUATRES CHEMINS and contacted the Partisans force there, who reported that Capt Hunter’s party had moved to CALLAS. He was also told that the enemy expected the night before were now approaching the X rds. An ambush was laid and the enemy, preceded by scouts, were attacked at point blank range. A fire fight ensued. The enemy then took up defensive positions around the X rds. As the CO’s party was obviously outnumbered the party retired and returned to Bn HQ. The CO then ordered ‘B’ Coy less one platoon to move up to AUBERGE PENNAFORT 422474 with the object of dealing with the enemy at the X rds. This force was later joined by the remaining platoon of ‘C’ Coy, making the total strength of approx 130 all ranks. While this preparation was taking place, the Bde Command ordered 6 Bn to send 2 platoons to X rds 383478 to prevent any enemy (sic) who had escaped the 5 Bn action. At 1400 hrs a number of enemy were engaged at the X rds on arrival and were pursued as they withdrew towards the EAST. Meanwhile Capt Hunter’s patrol had heard through Partisans that there was considerable enemy activity on the DRAGUIGNAN – FAYENCE road to the WEST of QUATRE CHEMINS causing a certain threat to CALLAS. The patrol reached the road 1 mile WEST of QUATRE CHEMINS, saw the enemy in a farm house and engaged them by fire, taking them completely by surprise. The enemy were engaged until ammunition had run out. It then withdrew to CALLAS to get some more ammunition from the Partisans. By the time this was done, a report was received that some of the enemy were moving from the road towards CALLAS. At about 4 kms from the village the enemy turned WEST in the direction of DRAGUIGNAN. Capt Hunter then split his patrol, leaving all but two under command of Lt Brammall to organise the defence of the village while he took the two ORs to the farmhouse on the road where the enemy were still in position: a short fire fight ensued, Capt Hunter was forced to withdraw owing to enemy superiority in numbers and firepower, and returned to CALLAS where he found the village completely organised for defence. The patrol had been strengthened by the arrival of Capt Cruden and his stick (twelve men – Ed.) which had been dropped several miles NORTH of the village. During this series of small actions it was estimated that some 20 enemy were killed and wounded for the loss of one man killed and one wounded.
Early that morning Bde HQ received a message that forward elements of 36 Div had reached LE MUY, and an hour later the commander of 142 RCT arrived at Div HQ. This meant that the Div had been joined by both of the seaborne forces, and was no longer acting in an isolated role. Throughout the day the two Divs moved through LE MUY and continued to advance towards DRAGUIGNAN and TOULON. For the Airborne Task Force the roles of securing the LZ and preventing enemy movement towards the beachhead from the WEST were completed. However, until 45 Div captured DRAGUIGNAN, the right flank was still open, and while seaborne elements were advancing Eastwards ‘B’ Coy and ‘C’ Coy of 5 Bn were in contact with the enemy at QUATRES CHEMINS. So it was not yet possible for the Div to come into Army reserve until the enemy threat in the NORTH had been cleared.
At 1830 hrs news reached Bde HQ that the force holding LES QUATRE CHEMINS had been heavily counter-attacked, and had been forced to withdraw to some high ground nearby. By dark the situation was not clear, although it was certain that the enemy were in possession of the X rds. The Bde Command went to the AUBERGE area to ascertain the position and came back to report to the Divisional Command, to find out whether the policy was to keep contact with the enemy or to allow them to withdraw NORTH, as they would eventually have to do. The Div Command gave orders to keep contact with the enemy; the message was passed to 5 Bn, but through sources unknown the message was not received and contact was lost. However, at dawn movement was observed by ‘B’ Coy which turned out to be the enemy trying to withdraw to the NORTH; a party was sent round to cut them off, and the enemy eventually surrendered consisting of 10 officers and 87 ORs.
So ended the action at LES QUATRES CHEMINS, and so ended too the Bde’s immediate contact with the enemy. When it was ascertained that the area of QUATRES CHEMINS was clear of the enemy, the two Coys of 5 Bn were ordered to withdraw and the whole Bde concentrated in the area of LE MUY with the object of acting as part of the Army reserve and at the same time patrolling to roads within an area of 5 miles of the town, to round up any enemy stragglers.
(This completes the text of the official report. The Independent Brigade had paraded for the Pope in Rome shortly before the operation and had conducted training near Naples. The War Diaries show that sporadic fighting in the Pays de Fayence continued for some days.
On 20 August, for instance, the Brigade had established a base near Fréjus but news was received of enemy concentrations in the Grasse – Cannes area. Elements of the Brigade’s 4th Battalion moved to meet them in an assortment of captured German and borrowed American vehicles. A fire fight occurred in which the Germans lost one Sergeant killed and two men as Prisoners of War.
Montauroux was declared clear of the enemy on the same day as was Fayence, Tourrettes and Callian where fighting had taken place in the centre of the town.
Cannes was declared liberated on 25 August and the entire Brigade were ordered to embark at Cannes and sail away by 26 August. They reached Naples on 28 August.
Passwords chosen to distinguish friendly from enemy forces were:
D-Day = Democracy, (answer) La Fayette
D +1 = France - Liberty
D + 2 = Columbia – Madagascar
The Universal password was Billy-the-Kid
Each man in the Airborne Force was ordered to have in his pack:
Complete set of underclothes
2 pairs of socks
1 pair of boots with two pairs of laces
1 pair of battle dress trousers
6 razor blades
I soap tablet
I tube tooth paste
Each man also had to have one blanket rolled round his pack as well as all his anti-gas equipment including respirator. Then the Paras needed food and other comforts;
two 24 hour packs
two packets of dates
half pound (250 grams) boiled sweets
1 box matches
1 twelve ounce tin of bully beef
ten packets of chewing gum
1 hexamine (solid fuel) cooker
I mepacrine container (mosquito cream, salt tablets and anti-malaria tablets.
Some British humour can be detected in the code names of the various elements in the Brigade. The boss as always in the British service was code-named ‘Sunray’. Code for the Paymaster was ‘Slippery.’
The Second Independent Brigade was made up as follows:
4 Para Battalion
5 Para Battalion
6 Para Battalion
64 Field Battery Royal Artillery
300 Air Landing Antitank Battery Royal Artillery
127 Para Field Ambulance
2 Para Squadron Royal Engineers
T Company Royal Army Service Corps (Independent Parachute Brigade)
2 Ind. Para Brigade Signal Company
2 Ind. Para Brigade Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Workshops
1 Ind. Glider Pilot Squadron
1 Ind. Para Platoon
2 Ind. Para Brigade Provost Unit
2 Ind. Para Brigade Postal Unit.)