“HOW COULD WE BE DEFEATED WHEN WE DIDN’T EVEN FIGHT?” May, 1940

(Second blog in this series of seven: events that occurred before the book begins at Churchill’s country home.)

“How could we be defeated when we didn’t even fight?” I remember heatedly responding to my commander’s announcement that France had surrendered to the Germans. My beloved France had been crushed by Hitler’s army, but I hadn’t surrendered. In fact, I hadn’t done a thing! And I was furious.

At the time of the surrender, I was armed only with a revolver and bullets. My men each had one band of rifle ammunition for their Lebel rifles with bayonets attached that were left over from World War I—well over twenty years before. My company had some grenades and mortars and a few cases of backup ammunition packed on our mules with additional ammo in underground storage. Yet, I heard we were better equipped than other French troops. At least, we had the correct ammunition for our rifles and mortars. Apparently, many units didn’t.

My French Alpine Ski Troop, an elite unit of the French army, was stationed in Grenoble. Though only seventeen, I was a lieutenant and commanded 125 soldiers. I quietly told my men to disperse quickly so as not to be taken prisoner. I suggested they go to North Africa or to England if they could find a way.

I myself decided to take a train from Grenoble to Nice because I remembered that neighbors of ours in Monte Carlo owned a hotel in the city. When I arrived, my family friends apologized that there were no rooms available. So, I continued on with a taxi but could not find one vacant room in all of Nice. So many citizens were escaping to the Free Zone in the south of France where an independent pro-Nazi state had been established. The southeast coast was inundated with immigrants.

With the north and much of the west of France now under Nazi occupation, and Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg already defeated by the Germans, the Swastika was becoming a common sight on the continent. World War II was an unfortunate reality. But I knew I had to find a way to fight these barbarians. I considered my options. I couldn’t go to my parents’ home in Monte Carlo. My father and I were not on speaking terms. Anyway, he was a Fascist, and I despised him for abusing my mother. I couldn’t go to my former boarding school in Nice because a few of the Jesuits were Nazi sympathizers.

I decided to take the taxi to Cap d’Antibes to see my godfather. With the exception of the vast numbers of French citizens streaming into the region, life seemed otherwise normal on the Côte d’Azur.

My godfather didn’t recognize the bearded and able-bodied lieutenant at his door. I looked much older than seventeen and hadn’t seen him since the age of seven. When I told him who I was, he broke into tears. We talked for a long time, and I was able to express my fury and frustration. What was I to do? I was determined to find a way to fight the Third Reich. What would they do next? Would they occupy the south of France? What could I do to fight them?

My godfather came up with an inspired solution. He placed a call to Winston Churchill who he had come to know during the time Mr. Churchill vacationed at a neighboring villa. That phone call changed my life.

Talk to you again soon.

–Max Ciampoli, as told to Linda

Comments

  1. victoria branch says:

    Very interesting. I never knew that the Cote d’Azur was a “Free Zone” after the Nazi occupation of the North and West. How long did it remain so? For the duration?

  2. Hello Victoria,

    I found a map indicating France’s Occupied Zone and Free Zone at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_libre

    Here’s an article on the same page:
    “The zone libre (French: free zone) was a partition of the French metropolitan territory during the Second World War, established at the Second Armistice at Compiègne on June 22, 1940. It lay to the south of the demarcation line and was administered by the French government of Marshal Philippe Pétain based in Vichy, in a relatively unrestricted fashion. To the north lay the zone occupée (“occupied zone”) in which the powers of the Vichy regime were severely limited.

    “In 1942 the zone libre was invaded by the German and Italian armies in Operation Attila, as a response to Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. Thenceforth, the zone libre and zone occupée were renamed the zone Sud (south zone) and zone Nord (north zone) respectively.”

    I found a lot of other explanation on Wikipedia, including this paragraph about Nice:
    “After November 1942 and the arrival of Italian troops occupying the city, a certain ambivalence remained among the population, many recent immigrants of Italian ancestry. However, the resistance gained momentum after the Italian surrendered in 1943 when the German armies occupied Vichy France. Reprisals intensified between December 1943 and July 1944 when many partisans were tortured and executed by the local Gestapo and the French Milice. Nice was also heavily bombarded by the American aviation in preparation for the Allied landing in Provence (1000 dead or wounded and more than 5600 people homeless) and famine ensued in the course of the summer of 1944. Finally American paratroopers entered the city on August 30, 1944 and Nice was finally liberated.”

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