The Liberation Of Vence

August 31, 2020

The very first time I climbed the Col de Vence (in 2012, I think) I noticed a small stone “stele” along the side of the road about 3 kilometers up the hill. It was marked with “Mouvement Combat – A La Memoire des Victimes des Mines Nazi” at the top so I knew it had something to do with World War II. My French wasn’t too good at the time but when I translated it later a story began to emerge. A story about French Resistance fighters, Americans, Canadians, liberation, Nazis and landmines.

This week the main street into Vence is adorned with French, Canadian and American flags to commemorate the liberation of Vence by the Canadian and American forces on August 27, 1944. The French have never forgotten the sacrifices made by their Allies and friends during that awful war. Every year the people of Vence mark the occasion with multiple ceremonies, observances and celebrations that last throughout the day.

Steve and Carole in Vence - The Liberation of Vence
French, American and Canadian flags line the streets of Vence in memory of the liberation.

A Little History

In August of 1944 the war in Europe had taken a major turn. On June 6th the Allies invaded northern France in a major offensive named Operation Overlord (known to almost everyone as D-Day.) What most people are not nearly as familiar with is “Operation Dragoon” which began on August 14th when the Allied forces invaded Provence in the south of France. Operation Dragoon was originally intended to be executed at the same time as Operation Overlord but a lack of resources made that impossible.

The first forces to land in the south were the elite 1st Special Service Force, an American-Canadian commando unit known as “The Devil’s Brigade” or “The Black Devils,” who came ashore via the islands of Port Cros and Île du Levant (two Mediterranean islands a little southwest of Saint-Tropez). The U.S. VI Corps landed on the southern beaches the next day with the task of securing the important ports along the coast and opening up a second front against the Germans. Several divisions of the French Army B followed the Americans and a huge uprising of the French Resistance joined in.

The Germans were quickly defeated and withdrew to the north. On August 26th they blew up the bridge of Malvan, just outside of Vence, in an attempt to slow down or stop advancing Allied troops. They also destroyed a part of the St. Michel school which served as an ammunition depot.

Vence was freed on August 27th when, around 4:00PM, the first Allied jeeps arrived at Place du Grand Jardin. I was told by one local that the first troops to arrive were Canadian, and as such, they spoke French. The people of Vence were stunned. “The Americans speak French!” they cried in amazement. “No,” the soldiers replied, “We’re Canadian!” The locals, delirious with joy, swarmed the small square, waving flags and singing “La Marseillaise.” My French friend Patrick, a native of Vence, tells me that when the Americans rolled in on the road from Tourrettes-sur-Loup the next day his grandmother Betty (who was American) met the U.S. troops and they pulled her up on a tank on which she rode into town.

As the celebrations continued on the 27th French Resistance fighters from nearby Gréolières were coming over the Col de Vence to join up with the Allied forces in Vence. Retreating German troops had destroyed a portion of the road just above where the Château Saint-Martin Spa & Resort now stands. In addition to destroying the road the Germans had scattered numerous landmines throughout the area. The Resistance fighters from Gréolières had been alerted to the fact that the road had been mined but in their excitement to reach Vence, and celebrate the liberation they had spent years fighting for, they became a bit careless. A few of them jumped from the trucks they were traveling in and set off a string of explosions that killed five of the men, four of whom were from the nearby village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup.

Adding to the tragedy four American soldiers were killed the next day attempting to clear the mines. On the following day, August 29th, two sisters and the son of one of them were also killed.

The Liberation of Vence was followed quickly by that of Grasse, Saint Vallier, Cannes, Mouans-Sartoux, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-du-Var, Nice and Menton. In just four weeks most of Southern France was liberated and the important ports of Marseille and Toulon were in Allied hands.

Steve and Carole in Vence - The Liberation of Vence
The steles on Col de Vence marking the tragedies that occurred on the road.

The Steles

In fact, there are two steles, side by side, on the Col de Vence to mark these three days of tragedy. The first one reads as follows (a loose translation by me):


In memory of the victims of the Nazi mines
On August 27th, 28th and 29th, at the time of the liberation of Vence by the Allied troops, the following were killed on this location.

Marcel Briquet – 30 years old
Jean-Marie Boursac – 24 years old
Auguste Baron – 25 years old
Roger Gazagnaire – 24 years old
Constant Naso – 37 years old

All members of the FFI Combat Group, they died so that France could live.

4 soldiers of the American Army died in service.

Marcelle Zimmer-Voisen – 26 years old
Jeanne Zimmer-Caparros – 31 years old
Joseph Caparros – 14 years old
Victims of fate.

Those passing by: look and remember the glory of these dead and Long Live FRANCE.

The Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of Free France and the Freedom fighters during the war, is displayed next to the names of the Resistance fighters.

You’ll notice that the four American soldiers killed are not named. This was rectified in 2013 when a second stele was erected next to the first with their names.

The Commemorations

Every year on August 27th the town of Vence schedules a variety of day long commemorations and activities to mark the liberation. These include an exhibition of World War II vehicles, an exhibition of photos, documents and other articles about the liberation, a trip to the steles for a special tribute ceremony, ceremonies at the Monument de la Résistance and Monument aux Morts in the local cemetery and several musical events.

Exhibition of the Liberation

In a small room next to the town hall in Place Clemenceau an exhibit is set up with all kinds of documents, photographs, timelines, flags, memorabilia and more. Presented by Bernard Joudon, President of the Legion of Honor and Patriotic Assocations committee, the material and resources provide a detailed history of Operation Dragoon and the liberation of Vence. The exhibit lasts for one week and provides a lot of interesting information about not only the liberation of Vence but Operation Dragoon as well. It is staffed by knowledgeable locals who are happy to discuss the events and answer any questions.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Old Vehicles Exhibition

A group based in Le Tignet (about an hour west of Vence) called the “Association des Véhicules Historiques du Tignet” brings together amateurs and collectors of military vehicles and other related objects such as uniforms, badges and documents. Each year they bring a collection of World War II jeeps, trucks and other vehicles to Vence for the liberation ceremonies. During the day the vehicles are parked on the Grand Jardin (the large public square in the middle of town) and members of the organization, dressed in authentic military uniforms, show visitors the various jeeps and trucks and answer questions. This year there were thirteen jeeps and two large trucks. All of the vehicles seemed to be American in origin and all of them were meticulously restored and preserved. Many were adorned with American and Canadian flags and many contained other artifacts such as weapons, shovels, ammunition boxes, tools, food rations and more.

Each of the vehicles is individually owned. I spoke with one of the owners who bought his jeep in 1985 and spent a lot of time and money restoring it. He said that the Americans and French kept meticulous records over the years and it was possible for him to trace exactly where his jeep had been and what battles and conflicts it had been involved in. After World War II ended his jeep was sold (or given) to the French and then used for a few decades by the French Army before being retired, at which time he purchased it.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Ceremony at the Steles

At 4:30 in the afternoon the caravan of military vehicles and a bus (for the rest of us) headed out of Vence and made its way up the Col de Vence to the spot where the mines were placed. Carole and I rode in one of the buses along with our American friend Gloria. Not only were we the only three Americans to make the trip, we might very well have been the only three “civilians” as well! Everyone else seemed to have a direct connection to the military.

It’s a short ride to the steles and once we arrived there everyone piled out of the jeeps and buses. A small crowd had already arrived ahead of us. The road was blocked off in both directions. A small group of nine flag bearers were already present, as was a small group of eight current soldiers. The soldiers stood in formation blocking the road and the flag bearers lined one side. Several dignitaries gave short speeches and the French, Canadian and American national anthems were played. Flags were raised and lowered and the soldiers brought to attention. Four large flower arrangements were ceremoniously laid beneath the steles. Several of the descendants of the people killed helped to lay the flowers. When the event was finished we all walked down the road about one hundred meters for the next ceremony.

In addition to the two steles a plaque for Joseph Chierico, a French Resistance fighter who was tortured and assassinated by the Nazis on August 25, 1944, just two days before the liberation, can be found on a nearby wall. A similar ceremony was held at his plaque with more speeches, more flag raising, more national anthems and more flowers. All in all we spent close to an hour on the road for the two ceremonies before heading back down into town to the local cemetery for the next events.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

Ceremonies at the Cemetery

The town cemetery in Vence is home to two very important monuments: the Monument de la Résistance honoring the local French Resistance fighters and the Monument aux Morts honoring the dead from World War I, World War II and several smaller conflicts. The ceremonies at each of these monuments was very similar to those on the road to the Col de Vence. Several dignitaries gave speeches, national anthems were played, flags were raised and lowered and multiple flower arrangements were laid at the base of each monument. It was getting late in the day and the sun was beginning to go down. The people involved in these ceremonies had been at it for several hours now but no one showed any lack of attention. Everyone was amazingly respectful, focused and attentive throughout the entire afternoon and evening. It was really inspiring to see.

[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]

An Apéritif and Some Music

After the ceremonies at the cemetery everyone moved across the street to the Ephad la Vençoise, a retirement home which hosted the final activity of the day, a small “party” with drinks and live music. There was also a ceremony to award a soldier from World War II with a medal. Carole and I both found the day to be very interesting, very touching and very inspirational. Carole’s father landed on the Normandy shores five days after D-Day and while she says he never really talked about his experiences during the war she has always been interested in knowing more about the liberation of France that he was a part of.

Speaking strictly for myself I can say that these days I am often a bit embarrassed to be an American. However, on this day I felt very proud of my country and the good things we have done in the past. These ceremonies reminded me that the United States has indeed lived up to its potential in days gone by. As I said at the beginning of this article, regardless of what has happened since or what is happening now, the French have never forgotten the sacrifices the United States made for them in World War II. And they never will.

Juste les Faits:
What: Yearly celebrations marking the Liberation of Vence
Where: Vence (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: August 27th, every year
Phone: Vence Office de Toursisme: 04 93 58 06 38
Facebook: vencetourisme
Download a PDF brochure about the commemorations.

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