Sunday, 12 June 2016

Impeding Hitler’s endeavour to capture Mont Blanc – The battle of the Vallée Blanche


A small, conspicuous metal gate is all that guards the high mountains above Chamonix from the hordes of Japanese tourists, eager to capture a glimpse of Western Europe’s highest mountain through the eyes of a lens. Without this selfless guardian, the Col du Midi would be a sea of Hello Kitty trainers, SuperDry jackets and more thumbs up than a picture of Kim Kardashian’s breakfast on Facebook. That is assuming they manage to make it down the ridge! Yet, 71 years ago the scene from the Aiguille du Midi was of a darker nature. Aspirant guides took on the physical form of Terminus to Mont Blanc. Their presence was not to guard against a few harmless tourists, but to keep Mont Blanc from the hands of a growing evil, to keep the Swastika from ever desecrating the summit.


But what did Hitler know of mountaineering? Where did this notion of capturing Mont Blanc come from? One man unintentionally set this wheel in motion back in 1938; a well known  climber, but lesser known skier, named Anderl Heckmair. After successfully claiming the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, Heckmair was welcomed home as a national hero. His achievement was published on the front page of every German newspaper, a triumph which Hitler and the Nazi party used as Propaganda in the build up to war. Subsequently, the Italians used similar propaganda tactics after Cassin made the first ascent of the Walker Spur a month after. Heckmair used his first ascent and new found fame to his advantage. With Hitler’s eagerness to expand German prestige abroad by any possible means, Heckmair was able to gain funding through the Nazi party, begrudgingly, to mount an expedition to the Himalaya. Heckmair wanted this for personal reasons, Hitler wanted this to show his unstoppable power. However, Heckmair was never able to commit. With his 1938 Eiger success, he had planted a seed deep in the Fuhrer’s mind. Yet it wasn’t for another six years, during the winter of 1944-45, until this seed could germinate.

Chamonix was an important frontier post for the Germans and was under occupation up until August 1944 after the French resistance liberated the Chamoniards. The ridges of the Mont Blanc Massif now became a new front line in the ongoing war. To protect their beloved mountain town, the Mont Blanc Battalion of the Resistance, comprised of French resistant fighters and aspirant guides, stationed themselves at the Abri Simond hut on the Col du Midi. Eight to ten men, all experienced skiers and climbers, would patrol the Vallée Blanche over a ten day period, before being relieved. The reconnaissance patrols these men undertook to protect their town, mountains and country are now very popular alpine climbs and ski tours in the winter: From the Col du Midi to the Torino Hut, Col de Toule, Mont Blanc du Tacul and the Rochefort Arête. Further defensive positions were established at the Requin hut and Montenvers, where machine gun positions were set up on either side of the Mer de Glace. These positions enabled the Mont Blanc resistance to gain the upper hand in the defence along this frontier. Their advanced post at the Torino refuge, at an altitude of 3,365m, enabled the Resistance to observe far into the German occupied Aosta valley and to regularly meet with the Italian Resistance to exchange information.


French resistance fighters observing into the German occupied Aosta valley from the Col de Toule

Machine gun position on the Mer de Glace

Guards at the Montenvers station

My Image. Looking out across the Col du Midi and the highest battle field of World War Two. 

The Germans occupied Italy right up to the village of Entrèves, which included the operation of the cable car leading to Mont Frety. The top, Helbronner, cable would not be completed for another three years. The only access to the Torino hut from Mont Frety was via the Toula Glacier, now a very popular off-piste ski descent. With most of Haute Savoie taken back from the hands of the Germans by the French resistance, it was only a matter of time before the Germans attempted a last-ditch attempt to regain control. On the 2nd October 1944, the Germans took full advantage of a snowstorm to surprise the French resistance stationed at the Torino hut. Their approach up the Toula glacier would have been far from easy. Heavy snow and crevasses would have impeded the soldiers progress had it not have been for their guides, one of which, was Anderl Heckmair. 

My image. Looking down onto the top section of the Toule glacier from the Helbronner station near the Torino hut.

Heckmair was called up for duty at the start of war and placed in the Infantry on the Eastern front. In March, 1940, his mountaineering experience was recognised as a valuable asset to the German army and so he was enrolled in a Jäger (mountain regiment) and stationed in France and Italy. It was his role to train the mountain troops skiing and climbing techniques for battles in the Alpine mountains. A short battle ensued at the Torino refuge and several members of the resistance were killed. This was a sorrowful event in the history of mountain guides. Guides fighting Guides, in the environment in which in other circumstance, they would be partners. The hut was mostly destroyed through grenades and machine gun fire, but the Germans now had full control of the Italian border of the Mont Blanc Massif, another step forward for Hitler in his endeavour to capture Mont Blanc.

German soldiers outside the Torino hut
The resistance, having now lost their advanced post, could no longer make reconnaissance patrols, from the Col du Midi to the Col de Toule. However, they were still able to venture to the Col D’Entrèves where they could observe down to Courmayeur.  The Geant basin and Vallée Blanche now became a 4km no man’s land and the two sides continued to watch each other over the winter of 1944-45. Hitler’s seed was now on the verge of flowering. Orders were given in February 1945 to attack the Col du Midi and to destroy the cable car. From there they would continue down the Vallée Blanche and Geant Ice Fall to capture the Requin hut and finally Montenvers. This would have prevented the French from occupying the frontier along the Mont Blanc Massif and allowing Hitler to stage an ascent of Mont Blanc, proving he had still not lost the war. 

On the 16th February 1945, French reconnaissance patrols at the Col D’Entrèves observed German supplies being moved up the Toula Glacier to the Torino hut. Fearing an immanent attack, they swiftly returned to the Col du Midi to call for reinforcements from Chamonix. By the morning of the 17th, a further 10 men had joined the 10 already at the Abri Simond hut. 20 men, now holding up in defensive positions below the Aiguille du Midi, were protecting Mont Blanc.

Those who have skinned from the Aiguille du Midi to the Torino hut would know that it would be extremely dangerous to undertake this journey at night, especially with no light. Large crevasses cut across the glaciers of the Vallée Blanche and knowing this, the French did not expect an attack until at least first light. Yet, at 03:30 in the morning a flare was seen, illuminating the mountains, above the Gros Rognon. Little did the French know that their lives had just been saved by three British officers. They were making their way, from Montenvers, up the Geant icefall and on to the Torino hut and into Italy. Whilst crossing the Vallée Blanche under the cover of darkness, the British Officers stumbled upon the advancing Germans. To warn the French of this imminent threat, they fired off a flare, which led to their capture.


My image. Looking across the classic Vallee Blanche variation. Notice the large crevasses on the left which the German forces would have had to have avoided at night on their approach to the Col du Midi.

My image. Looking toward the Aiguille du Midi and the path the German soldiers would possibly have taken, avoiding the crevasses.

Within the hour, the French were at the base of the Pyramide du Tacul*, ready to confront their enemy. A silhouette was spotted ahead of them and the command to open fire was given. Gunfire echoed off the seracs high above them on Mont Blanc du Tacul but shortly after, the command to retreat back to the Col du Midi until first light was given. The darkness proved too difficult to differentiate the enemy to their own men. With both sides dressed in white uniforms, it became too dangerous to fire sporadically at figures in the dark. Upon the confusion and the gun fire however, the order did not reach Sergeant Jacquet and his group of three men.

(* In my research, I think there is confusion here with the location name. I believe it to actually be the base of the Triangle du tacul but found no maps or sources to clarify this. My reasoning behind this is apparent in my next point below)

Soldiers at the foot of the NE arete of Mont Blanc du Tacul
Sergeant Jacquet and his men climbed up onto the NE ridge** of Mont Blanc du Tacul to seek shelter until first light. As luck would have it, Jacquet now quite literally had the higher ground. From his position, he had the perfect view down onto the enemy. Ironically, like a lamb to the slaughter, the 45 Germans did not stand a chance against the four French resistant fighters. With the element of surprise, the first burst of machine gun fire killed the German officer. Uncertain what to do now, the Germans posed as sitting ducks. Sergeant Jacquet’s group opened up everything they had on the unsuspecting enemy. With no cover on the Vallée Blanche to shelter from the barrage of bullets, the Germans tried to flee for their lives, but to minimal avail. Their skins, still attached to their skis, proved to be deadly in their retreat downhill.

(** Again, I believe there is confusion in the actual location. I can not find any reference to the location of the NE ridge on MBduT. I believe that the location was in fact the rocky ridge on Pointe Lachenal. This makes sense when looking at the images and the location in which they were taken.)

Through looking at the location of the image above, this map and the accounts of the British Officers, I firmly believe that the battle ensued somewhere around the area between Pointe Lachenal and the Gros Rognon.

Reinforcements now arrived at the Col du Midi to relieve Sergeant Jacquet and his men. The fierce battle at 3,600m would surely have taken its toll on these men. Through luck and determination, these brave guides and fighters had defended their mountains, but not without a struggle. A respite and celebrations were short lived. The attack by the Germans had proved just how determined they really were to capture the Col du Midi and bring a much needed victory in these diminishing days for the Nazi party. The only way now to avoid a repeat of the battle was to impede the Germans access to the mountains all together. This would involve destroying the Mont Frety cable car.

The resistance outside the Abri Simond hut after their battle with the German's at 3600m.
Their target stood over 6km away and 1,500m in vertical altitude below them. The only possible way to destroy the cable car from their base at the Col du Midi was via artillery guns. However, this posed a problem in itself. How do you transport two artillery guns, 20 gunners and 500 shells from the town of Chamonix at 1,030m to the Col du Midi at 3,600m? After all, the Aiguille du Midi lift that we know today had not been built yet and would not operate for another 10 years. Instead, the only access to the Col du Midi was via a small service lift from the les Glaciers station (2,400m). It took only a few hours to transport the artillery to Les Glaciers lift station from the hamlet of Les Pelerins in the valley, situated below where the Mont Blanc tunnel is today. But due to the size of the tiny, wooden cars of the service lift, the guns had to be dismantled and transported to the Col du Midi in pieces. This effort took three days and involved five men spending three nights bivouacked on a pylon, on an arête at 3,000m overlooking the Glacier Rond, to transfer the parts from one car to the other.
The small wooden service lift which transported the men and supplies from the Les Glaciers station at the foot of the N.face of the Aiguille du Midi to the Abri Simond hut on the Col du Midi.
The Les Pelerins station is located in the top left hand side of this image. The Les Glacier station is just off centre and down to the right and the Abri Simond hut is bottom right.
To maintain the element of surprise and avoid the prying eyes of the Germans in full view across the valley, the Guns were assembled at night. The calculations were made and the trajectory of the shells would just scrape the crest of the ridge between the Aiguille du Grand Flambeau and the Tour Ronde. Would this be enough to hit their target? On the 8th April, after a violent storm which lasted several days and buried the guns in several metres of snow, the order to fire the first shells was given. After destroying a machine gun emplacement on the rocks of the petit Flambeau, they turned their attention to their primary target: the pylons of the Mont Frety cable car. A spotter plane had arrived to help direct the gunners aim onto the pylons, however, the radio link between the Col and the plane failed to work and so, the plane returned to the air base. The moment the plane departed, German shells started exploding around the Col du Midi and the gunner’s position. Their element of surprise was lost. For many hours, shells continued to fall around their position until one scored a direct hit on the Abri Simond hut, completely destroying it. Intermittent fire continued into the night. All the men could do on the Col du Midi, was to sit out the freezing night in their snow holes.
A look at the Toule glacier where Heckmair guided the German soldiers up to attack the Torino refuge. And a visual representation of what the gunners at the Col du Midi were up against. Mont Frety is situated bottom right of this image.

The following afternoon, the spotter plane had returned and the radio link working. A strong wind was now blowing the German shells well over the heads of the gunners and the resistant fighters positioned at the foot of the Cosmique Arête. With the wind speed unknown, Captain Lapra, the man in command of the gunners, watched the clouds. By counting the seconds it took for the clouds to blow from the top of one Aiguille to another, he could determine the wind speed and direction. Two crucial corrections needed to recalibrate their trajectory calculations to hit their target. The first four shells fired fell short. The next several barrages were reported by the spotter plane to have fallen around their target. But finally, the 5th burst of shells was reported to have hit the pylon just below Mont Frety. The gunners roared with celebration. They had pulled off one of the most elaborate and difficult operations of the war, all whilst living in harsh Alpine winter conditions at high altitude and under constant bombardment by the enemy artillery. With several hundred shells left over, the gunners fired them all in celebration, inflicting continuous damage on the already defeated enemy. With the Cable car destroyed, the Resistance had won. Germany, and more importantly Adolf Hitler, no longer had access to the Mont Blanc Massif. The summit of Mont Blanc was still in the hands of the Chamoniards with thanks to the courage and determination of the guides, resistant fighters and the artillery regiment.

A map showing the full overview of the battle locations. From Les Glaciers in the top left corner, The Vallee Blanche off centre-left and mont Frety in the bottom right corner.

The next time you venture out of the Aiguille du Midi, take a minute to look out across the highest battlefield of World War Two and spare a thought for the brave men who fought and died for the freedom of their mountains. And instead of following the crowds down the Vallée Blanche to the Mer de Glace, step back to 1945 and follow in the footsteps of the French resistant fighters. Wooden skis and machine gun optional.

For the full historical effect, I have highlighted three itineraries for the keen skier and historian. They incorporate not only some of the finest ski descents in the Mont Blanc Massif, but also take the skier through the heart of the locations mentioned in the above article to truly experience what these men went through. Enjoy.

Glacier Rond & descent down to MB tunnel:
Follow the line of the old cable car and service lift that transported the men and the artillery guns to the Albri Simond hut and to WW2’s highest battle field. As you descend the Glacier Rond, take a moment to think about the poor men who spent three days at 3,000m bivied next to a pylon to transfer the artillery pieces from one car to the next. The cables from Les Glaciers to the Col du Midi are long gone, but the Les Glaciers station building is still visible as you pass it to descend down through the forest to the MB tunnel. And keep an eye out for the old pylons.
Ski tour Aiguille du Midi – Col D’Entrèves/Torino hut. Descend Combe de la Viage:
From the Aiguille du Midi, follow the classic Vallée Blanche over the Col du Midi and toward the Gros Rognan. Follow the crowds past Mont Blanc du Tacul but where they turn off below the Pyramid du Tacul, and head for the Geant Icefalls, continue into the Cirque Maudit. Skins on and head up towards the Tour Ronde and on to the Col D’Entrèves. Observe the German forces in Courmayeur, then skin to the Torino hut to meet with your Italian counterparts and discuss information (over a coffee of course), before heading back on yourselves and open up your turns down the glorious powder bowl that is the Combe de la Viage. Continue down the Italian side of the Geant Icefalls to join the Mer de Glace. Watch out for those machine gun sentries…
Toula Glacier:
Best accessed from Courmayeur or from an early start from the Cosmique Hut and following the above itinerary. Marvel in the dedication of the German forces who battled the elements to ascend the Toula glacier to attack the Torino refuge. And only when you’re sat drinking a coffee at the Pavilion Mont Frety does the sheer scale of the task involved to destroy the pylons from the Col du Midi become apparent.

References:

1.     CLARKE Sue
“1945 – The battle of the Vallée Blanche”
High mountain sports magazine
January 1995 Issue No. 146 pages 15 - 20

2.    CORTAY Philippe 
“Chamonix: souvenirs de bataille dans la montagne (Chamonix: Battle of memories in the mountains)”
http://www.ledauphine.com/france-monde/2014/07/13/souvenirs-de-bataille-dans-la-montagne
14th July 2014

3.    DEMOUZON Laurent
“Le battalion du Mont-Blanc et les engagements dans le massif (The Mont Blanc Battalion and commitments in the massif)”
http://www.memoire-des-alpins.com/historique-des-troupes-alpines/1944-1945-2/bataille-des-alpes/mont-blanc/

4.    HECKMAIR Anderl
"Anderl Heckmair My Life"
Trans. Tim Carruthers
London
Baton Wicks
2002
Print

5.   Research into the old Cable car stations:
http://chamonicime.fr/remontee/aglacier.htm
http://www.aiguilledumidi.net/index.html

6. All images, unless otherwise stated, are scanned copies from the original article in reference point 1. I take no credit. Images will be removed immediately if I have violated copyright agreements. 

4 comments:

  1. Great account. Having spent loads of days up there I'd never had have known

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  2. For those interested in WW2 in the Alps there are some interesting facts here http://goo.gl/anLWdy as well: Val d'Isère Tragedy - Allied POWs died at the Colle Galisia in 1944

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  3. As a retired artillery officer and now a keen skier in this area the report is fascinating. Many thanks.

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  4. Fascinating history from another climber & skier who has spent a lot of time in this beautiful but dangerous environment...
    Great research, presentation and story.

    ReplyDelete