We had our house near Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort in the Gard for several years before we noticed a monument outside Anduze, near the village of La Madeleine.
The village is noted for its ceramic pots, favoured by French royalty and foreign residents, but has a far more enthralling story to tell.
One day, we decided to pull over, and were amazed to read the plaque – “In this place, on August 25, 1944, 32 Spanish guérilleros and eight French résistants stopped a German column of more than a thousand men. Remember this when passing.”
We were intrigued. Even a cursory knowledge of past wars would indicate that 40 people halting a thousand Germans was unusual, to say the least.
Soon our research revealed an even more extraordinary story. To escape the victorious Nationalist forces of General Franco, half a million Republican Spaniards had poured north through the snow of the Pyrenees into France in the winter of 1938 in one of the greatest and most sudden movements of people in the world’s history until then.
Half of them were soldiers, whom the overwhelmed French authorities, supposedly allies, were forced to pack into “concentration camps” in the most primitive conditions.
Soon France herself was plunged into war with Germany – and unexpectedly lost in just six weeks. Nearly two million of her menfolk were in prison camps in Germany.
Suddenly, the Spanish were valuable to the French and were enlisted to help with agriculture and work in the mines. As the war progressed, and an Allied invasion loomed, the Spanish began slipping into the hills, strengthening the growing French Resistance.
They were combat veterans, in contrast with the inexperienced young Frenchmen who had recently joined up, many to avoid being sent to work in Germany for the dreaded STO (Service de Travail Obligatoire).
The people of the Languedoc, especially in the wooded and mountainous Cévennes, resisted many of the impositions of the pro-German Vichy government, including those against the Jews who had hidden there.
The Spanish first made their mark in February 1944, when they sprung 23 resistance fighters from the prison at Nîmes. The furious Germans tried to react by sending the SS Hohenstaufen Panzer Division to sweep into the Cévennes to root out evaders of the STO and resistance fighters.
They failed, but publicly hanged and shot innocent locals.
The next few months saw the gradual build-up to the Normandy invasion in June 1944, shortly followed by another one in Provence in August.
Suddenly, the Germans were in danger of being trapped and were ordered by Hitler to escape eastwards. The Resistance could be unleashed at last. German columns came through the Languedoc and were ambushed and harried by resistance fighters, who were supplied with arms and expertise by parachutists of the British Special Operations Executive.
One column, a thousand strong, had fought its way through Ganges and Saint-Hippolyte to arrive at Anduze, heading for Nîmes. But a tiny force of Spaniards was waiting for them,
supported by a handful of young Frenchmen – just 40 fighters in all.
As the first vehicle of the German column reached the railway line, the Spaniards blew up the bridge, blocking the road. They then opened fire, moving from place to place to appear to be a much larger force.
Most had rifles, but there were two British Bren guns and a Hotchkiss machine-gun. Heavy firing continued for many minutes, with the German vehicles trapped between vineyard walls and deep ditches. Suddenly, a German officer appeared with a white flag and there was a discussion about surrender but not to “irregular” forces only to someone in “proper” uniform.
Two Germans were driven into town to meet a gendarme. While the discussions continued, German fire broke out again and one of the Spaniards was wounded in the thumb.
Then came the sudden roar of aircraft. Four Mosquito fighter-bombers, summoned by a British radio team, banked over Anduze and strafed the line of trucks. Firing redoubled, another white flag appeared and the Germans started giving up.
At last, the 40 stood up, and a shot rang out. The German general, realising he had surrendered his men to so few attackers, had killed himself.
Former guérillero Ange Alvarez is the last surviving veteran of the battle. Now 93, he was 18 at the time. He recently met Major Jonathan White of the Parachute Regiment.
It was Parachute Regiment antibiotics that saved his wounded leg and his life later in the war, enabling him to go on to become a miner. As well as the battle at Anduze, he was the first to escape from the Train Fantôme, bound for Dachau.
- Liz Cowley and Donough O’Brien have written a novel centred on the events outlined here, called From One Hell to Another. It is available at the Librairie Coularou in St Hippolyte or via Amazon.