Your cultural guide to the 2023 Tour de France: stage 17

In today's episode we head back to the Second World War.

A map of France as occupied by Germany during the Second World War. (Image: Eric Gaba/Wikimedia Commons)

For every stage of the 2023 Tour de France – men’s and women’s – José Been is bringing you stories about the history, castles, geology, culture, food, and people around the race. A bit of couleur locale while you enjoy lush fields of sunflowers, beautiful mountains, and pretty little villages, oh, and the bike race too.

We are in the Alps, which was one of the places where the French Resistance, or Maquis, was strongest during the Second World War. One heroic act took place on the Col des Saisies which we find after 28 km into stage 17. It’s time for a bit of history.  

After the German invasion of France in 1940, the French government signed an armistice with Germany. France effectively surrendered to the German forces. As part of the armistice agreement, Germany occupied northern and western France. The southern part of the country was left under French control.

The French government, led by Marshal Philippe Pétain, established itself in Vichy, not far from the Puy de Dôme, and collaborated with the German occupiers. This regime, known as Vichy France, enacted policies that aligned with the interests of Nazi Germany.

Under Vichy rule, France adopted an authoritarian and conservative government. The regime pursued policies of collaboration with the Nazis, including the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, the persecution of political dissidents, and the suppression of civil liberties. 

Vichy France also cooperated with Germany in the administration of the occupied territories. Of course, not all French people agreed with this situation and the resistance was strong. And they were brave people. As Charles De Gaulle, leader of the ‘Free French’ government-in-exile, had said back at the beginning of the war:

“Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”

Back to the Col des Saisies. During the Second World War, the Col des Saisies, like many other places in the Alps, was an important place for the resistance. On August 1, 1944, an exceptional parachuting of arms and ammunition took place. They had wanted to do it much earlier but adverse weather and the presence of German troops in the region made it impossible. In early July, a month after the invasion in Normandy on D-Day, the German troops started to retreat and the all-clear was given for the drop. 

In accordance with Allied directives, Captain Bulle, the local French commander, set up beaconing consisting of three lights arranged in a triangle and emitting enough smoke to be visible from 10 km away by planes. The entrances to the Massif des Saisies were occupied and secured by the men of the Maquis. More than 400 men equipped with about 50 carts gathered on the plateau in order to receive the material. 

A first wave of 36 aircraft was seen, followed by a second on the horizon. A feeling of despair overcame Captain Bulle and his men when they saw the planes fly over the pass and move away without parachuting anything. It suggested yet another failure. But the squadron was actually turning around to face the wind and perform the parachute drop in the best conditions.

That day 78 planes dropped more than 800 containers of weapons, ammunition, explosives, and equipment. Seven Americans also jumped that day, landing there to train the local forces how to use the weaponry. Sergeant Charles Perry, of the Marine Corps, died when he crashed to the ground. His parachute didn’t open. He was buried on the spot.

Sergeant Perry received a Silver Star after his death for, and I quote, “gallantry and intrepidity in connection with military operations in German occupied territory on 1 August 1944.”

The weapons drop enabled Captain Bulle to arm thousands of men. Despite the Germans initially sending more troops to the region, the Maquisards together with the Allied troops eventually were instrumental in liberating France in 1944 and 1945.

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