From the « Out of the Woods » to the « Forgotten Front

Summer 1944: Adolf Hitler orders his troops to take position on the Atlantic coast.

Atlantic coast.

7 September 1944: the 4th FTP battalion arrives at the gates of La Rochelle.

15 September 1944: beginning of the war of position in La Rochelle.

18th October 1944: agreement between General de Larminat, commander of the French Forces in operation on the Western Front, and Vice-Admiral Schirlitz, in charge of the Atlantic coast command, not to destroy La Rochelle despite the orders of Hitler’s staff.

30 April 1945: Hitler commits suicide in Berlin.

7 May 1945: German General Jodl signs an act of surrender of the German army in Reims.

8th May 1945: Vice-Admiral Schirlitz signs the surrender in La Rochelle.

The Dordogne is liberated. But the fight is not over. On 28 August, the maquisards of the 4th FTP battalion and those of the 14th battalion join up in Libourne, in Gironde. They were on the trail of the German troops who were retreating towards Bordeaux. On the way, in Libourne, they left the city without fighting, but blew up the Dordogne and Isle bridges.

At the end of August, a large part of the German troops succeeded in reaching the centre and east of France. On the Führer’s orders, several thousand soldiers remained entrenched in the strategic ports of the Atlantic coast. The aim was to slow down the supply of the allied armies and their advance as much as possible, while keeping control of the submarine bases. Nearly 15,000 men blocked La Rochelle, one of the country’s most important ports, for nine months, transforming it into an entrenched camp.

The units of the 4th FTP battalion of the Double forest and those of the 6th battalion of Bergeracois played their part in this war of position led by General Edgard de Larminat. Appointed in October 1944 as commander of the French Forces on the Western Front, his mission was to reduce the pockets of Lorient, Saint-Nazaire, La Rochelle and Royan-Pointe de Grave. Anxious to avoid the destruction of the precious port installations of La Pallice, near La Rochelle, and to spare the lives of civilians, the General asked Commander Hubert Meyer to hold talks with Vice-Admiral Ernst Schirlitz.

They concluded a tacit agreement adopted on 18 October 1944. The Allies undertook not to cross the boundaries of the pocket. For their part, the German troops promised not to destroy the port facilities and the town of La Rochelle. Moreover, a belligerence zone was defined. The Germans did not fail to exploit this advantage by multiplying their attacks on the Resistance lines. The latter did not learn of the existence of such an agreement until well after the war, and then they felt they had been duped.

Between September 1944 and May 1945, the resistance fighters held a front of almost fifty kilometres under particularly difficult conditions. Not only were their numbers and weapons very inadequate, but the sanitary conditions were deplorable and the food insufficient. They also faced a harsh winter. Some were even taken prisoner during German incursions.

On 8 May 1945, one day after the surrender of the Reich, Vice-Admiral Schirlitz accepted the surrender of the La Rochelle pocket. The next day, the Resistance fighters in the Double forest suffered a final affront. They were forbidden to enter the streets of La Rochelle first. It was the men of the 4th Zouaves Regiment, a unit considered more « presentable » by the command, who had this privilege.

All the former Resistance fighters, except those who had signed up for the army, were demobilised at the end of 1945, when they returned home.

Group of maquisards in Surgères.

Maquisards of the 4th FTP battalion in Surgères (Charente-Maritime), early September 1944.