This week, during our walk with our local group we took a route that we had never followed before. At once point we crossed a road and came upon a granite monument, which marks the spot where a local resistance group had a fatal skirmish with the occupying German forces in 1944. I hadn’t come across this before so when we got home I did some research into the story.
Compared with other parts of France, there wasn’t a huge amount of activity in this corner of the southwest for much of World War II. Even after the Germans occupied the so-called zone libre, they had other preoccupations. As the dénouement approached, however, things heated up.
The Germans made a cardinal error – among others – in obliging the Vichy Government to introduce the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO). This required able-bodied young Frenchmen to go to Germany and work in factories and on farms, thus contributing to the German war effort. This policy, more than any other perhaps, propelled young men into the resistance movement rather than go to Germany. It also crystallised hostility towards Vichy.
In August 1943, the Secret Army in Tarn-et-Garonne, founded a maquis group called ‘Ornano’ to help young men escape from the STO and aid the cause of the resistance. This group of around 30 men was based in the woods on the Causse de Penne du Tarn within the Saint-Antonin-Montricoux-Penne triangle. They set up camp in an isolated farm called Labouriette and in an uninhabited house at the lieu-dit Lautenel.
At that time, these places were in the back of beyond. The roads were little more than tracks and the thick woodland and steep hillsides below the causse provided reasonable protection. Even today, you can lose yourself in the silent scrubland on this sparsely-populated plateau.
These factors made the place a prime candidate for parachute drops of matériel and men. A specific place, codenamed Volcan, was identified on the causse above the Aveyron River and supplied with radio guidance and communication equipment. The coded messages broadcast by the BBC alerted the group to imminent parachute drops.
The group received one successful parachute drop on 7th March 1944. Adverse weather conditions thwarted a couple of further drops. But, on 20th March the BBC announced in code a double drop for that night.
Shortly before midnight the first plane arrived and dropped a parachutist and several containers. Having waited in vain several hours for the other plane, the maquisards started to load the containers onto a lorry. Then they heard the rumble of engines in the distance, which they took for the second plane. In fact, it was the sound of Wehrmacht lorries in the process of surrounding the area. They were probably tipped off about the drop.
Alerted by the sound of machine gun fire from the look-out, there was momentary confusion. Then the leaders decided it was a false alarm: the Sten gun was notorious for setting itself off. They continued to load the lorry. Moments later, further machine gun fire and orders shouted in German proclaimed the start of a pitched battle.
Six maquisards were killed in the fighting: three of them were killed and their bodies burnt in the farmhouse at Labouriette, to which they had retreated; two others, wounded, were captured and immediately shot; one was killed in an ambush. The rest escaped, including the parachuted agent whose safety was judged pre-eminent.
It has never been firmly established how many German soldiers were killed or rendered hors de combat during this incident, but estimates put the numbers at around 40.
Every year on 21st March a ceremony is held at the Monument d’Ornano, which was erected on the site of the Labouriette farmhouse. In March 2011, according to La Dépêche du Midi, three members of the Maquis d’Ornano were still alive and attended the ceremony – Louis Antoine alias Tonin, Jean Renoird alias Loulou and Elie Molinié alias Georges.
Tomorrow is Armistice Day, 11th November. Although this marks the end of an older war, in many ways World War II was simply unfinished business. The events I have described above took place more than 67 years ago but still make a powerful story. They were replicated many times before peace finally broke out.
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