The Killing Fields of Provence – Occupation, Resistance and Liberation in the South of France, James Bourhill

The Killing Fields of Provence – Occupation, Resistance and Liberation in the South of France, James Bourhill

This book covers the period from the French defeat in 1940 to the liberation of the South of France in 1944 and on to the end of the war. As a result we cover a wide range of topics – as well as the expected sections on the Resistance, the role of SOE and the OSS and the German response to them, we also get sections on ordinary life in the area, the nature and scale of collaboration, the period just the Allied invasion, Operation Dragoon itself and the campaign that followed, and life after liberation, including the ‘purge’ of suspected collaborators. 

The main focus is on Provence, in the south-eastern corner of France, but we do get some coverage of events outside that area, in particular the Vercors plateau, just to the north, where the Resistance fought a major and costly battle against the Germans. Life in the area was hard, and got worse after the German occupation of the Free Zone at the end of 1942. Food was in short supply, with country areas suffering more than you might expect, mainly because many areas were grape or olive growing areas rather than food growing areas.

There are some difficult issues to be addressed here, in particular the issues of collaboration and of the post-liberation ‘purge’ of suspected collaborationists. There were clearly different levels of collaboration, from the fairly passive act of continuing in a government job, to actively fighting for the Germans. This included the well known milice¸ the Vichy militia, who played an active part in attacks on Resistance bases. The post-liberatuon ‘purge’ fell into two parts – the ‘savage’ period of spontaneous actions and the later ‘legal’ phase when de Gaulle’s government took over. The first phase in particular saw some legitimate executions of Vichy militia but also the settling of personal scores and political disputes

As you would expect we get plenty of material on the Resistance, which in this area included both the Resistance legaux, the familiar image of the resistance fighter living their normal life and operating secretly within normal society and the Resistance illegaux, who fled into the countryside and hid from the Germans. Many of the second group were part of Maquis groups, and either took an active part in military resistance or prepared for the Allied invasion, but others were simply hiding to avoid arrest or compulsory work for the Germans. Tragically this section also includes many examples of the Vichy French or Germans capturing and executing members of the Resistance, demonstrating how dangerous it was to take an active role against the Nazis.

The tone shifts for the last third of the book, with the coming of the Allies in Operation Dragoon. While the Resistance still plays a role in the text, they are now operating alongside a more traditional military. We get a good campaign history, but with more emphasis than in most accounts of Dragoon on the role the Resistance played in the early battles, in particular in launching uprisings in a number of cities as the American and French armies approached.

This is an excellent study of the impact of the Second World War on one part of France, with the area chosen well to give us an account of life under Vichy and then German rule, the struggles of the Resistance, and the military account of Operation Dragoon. 

1 – Humiliation
2 – Humanity
3 – Menace
4 – Defiance
5 – Evasion
6 – Duplicity
7 – Despair
8 – Audacity
9 – Courage
10 – Cruelty
11 – Reckoning
12 – Confusion
13 – Force
14 – Fraternity
15 – Persistence
16 – Desolation
17 – Momentum
18 – Stagnation
19 – Deliverance
20 - Monotony

Author: James Bourhill
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 416
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2019

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