Col de Braus and the siege of Sospel

The Touët-de-l'Escarène

Richard Seitz' 2/517 begins to move on Lucéram the 2 of September. Two days before, on August 31, a group of a local french resistance attacked Wehrmacht soldiers on the road to the Col de Braus. Part of them takes refuge in the railway tunnel at the bottom of the village of Touët-de-l'Escarène prohibiting the approach to any resistant equipped only with light weapon. The resistance fighters then search the Americans who have just arrived at l'Escarène. The first vehicles that tumble through the streets of the village are two jeeps and two half-tracks from 3-3 of the First Special Service Force arriving around 17h. French fighters are then posted at the entrance of the railway tunnel. A half-track of the Cannon Company just arrived in the Paillon valley delights them around 18:30 in opening fire with their 75mm guns. After a brief patrol inside, a machine gun opens fire and it can not be dislodged. Some slight losses have been deplored and the Forcemen wait for 8 hours until they retry another patrol, no German is found.

Lt. Carl Starkey's 1st Platoon starts immediately from Mont Ferion. In Touët, Starkey’ platoon passes close to the men of the 3-3 FSSF and fighting at the tunnel and this attracts paratroopers who go to meet them. The next day, the group continues its march on the road of the pass and arrive at Luceram where they are welcomed by the population. At present, l’Escarene sector is being held by FABTF, which has been ordered to stop their progress for several days and send only strong patrols to the east. In the period from 1 to 2 September, 3rd Regiment patrols clear the Braus Pass to the Tête de la Lavina

On September 4, the FSSF will travel south to the coast, starting from l’Escarène area and Col de Braus, thus becoming the area of ​​operation of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team. It is here that the Germans realize the strategic importance of the Braus Pass and considerably strengthen their position.

On the way to the Caïre de Braus

On the same day, Colonel Seitz ordered the D Company to go to Touët-de-l'Escarène, and secure the road leading to the Col de Braus to send scouts. The road, already very steep, had been cut in several places during the German withdrawal, many sections are also mined. Although the ascent to the pass seems tricky, but the information obtained by Starkey seems to suggest that Col de Braus is unoccupied.

Illusion quickly vanished, because the section is taken under sniper and machine guns fire. The officer with two scouts undertakes a bypass by climbing a steep and rugged hill to the northeast. One of his scouts is injured by an explosion, but this does not stop "Muscles" Starkey and the progression continues and the rest of the platoon follows suit. The German position is attacked by surprise (7 killed and 11 prisoners) but the enemy reinforcements are not made wait, supported by mortar fire, making the situation critical. The men then place themselves in a semi-circle at the edge of the cliff placing the prisoners and the wounded in the center while the counter-attacks penetrate deeper, Starkey decides to raise more men. As night falls, he sends platoon messenger Felix Povinelli to warn the battalion by sneaking through enemy positions.

On September 6, the FABTF sets a goal of establishing the 517th on a line overlooking the Bevera Valley, delimiting the border with Italy. Taking Sospel and therefore the pass of Braus giving access to the village becomes unavoidable. Colonel Graves then decided to hire his 3rd Battalion, which has just arrived on L'Escarène on September 5th.

Prevented by Povinelli, the remaining of the D Company arrived on site on the morning of the 6th with machine guns and mortars. The duel continues until 7 when relieved by the G Company. Robert Frederick then gives D / 517 a Task Force Commendation for his actions between September 5th and 7th. Seven men died during the fighting in Caïre de Braus.

The I Company is sent to the contact of the FSSF in Mont Meras, while G and H companies come in support of the D Company in the ascent to the pass. However, at Mount Meras, fierce fighting broke out between the German troops and the Forcemen. The Germans make a determined attempt to regain control of the pass and its surroundings. In the early hours of September 6, they attack not only the positions of the D/517th PIR in Caire de Braus, but also simultaneously attack Mont Méras and the summit of the Cime de Baudon which are held by the 1st and 3rd Regiment of the FSSF . The fighting lasted from the morning of the 6th until that of the 7th. The Germans forcefully defenses the defenses and the men of the Force have a hard time containing them, which gives them a withdrawal and a counterattack the next day. Four men were killed during this assault.

The Col de Braus

The Col de Braus is composed of a road going towards Sospel and some buildings. A narrow ridge, called "Bloody Stump" and Ridge X heading south, leading to the positions of the First Special Service Force. On Ridge X, the Americans counted 22 pillboxes.

The whole area is dominated by the Tête de la Lavina. La Lavina was to be captured before the Col de Braus, for it to be considered safe, but La Lavina and Ridge X must be taken. North of Col de Braus, Lt. Col. Dick Seitz goes through the back door to Lucéram having cleaned Plan Constant and then trying to take Hill 1098.

Ridge X

Lt. Colonel Forest S. Paxton, Commander of 3/517, give the mission to the 2nd platoon of the G Company, commanded by the Lts. Arthur W. Ridler and Dick Spencer to go as close to the German infestation. The defenders occupy a series of fortified pillboxes, seeming impervious to shells thrown by the 460th PFAB and heavy mortars. On September 9th, the C & D Batteries of the 460th PFAB move to Plan Constant. From there, the battery commanders can open fire on enemy positions, but they are subject to mortar and patrol fire.

The Ridge X assault was launched on September 9 at 1 pm by the 2nd Platoon of the G Company of the Lts. Arthur Ridler and Dick Spencer, supported by the howitzers of the 460th PFAB. The Germans let the paratroopers approach before leaving their shelters and suddenly, the hell is unleashed: shots of MG42 and mortars, and panzerfaust rained on the soldiers progressing hard on the slopes. Enemy reinforcements arrive quickly from Lavina. Four men fall, including the 1st Lt. Art Ridler cut in half by a machine gun and 10 others are wounded in this unsuccessful attack. The next day, watching this action with his binoculars, Paxton discovers that the Germans took refuge behind thick walls of stone of some buildings beyond the reach of Ray Cato's artillery. They can then quickly deliver ammunition and mortars to repel the attackers. Paxton then communicates with Cato to tell him to stop his barrage momentarily. When the Germans emerge from their hiding places to enjoy another apparent lull, the 460th guns, open fire again.
The only way to overcome this plug is a second attack better prepared. Artillery shelling was to be settled by 11th, but the paratroopers' attack would be launched immediately afterwards, without giving the enemy time to emerge from his shelters. Given that the rest of the G Company is looking to uncover the last pockets of resistance, Paxton orders the I Company to conduct an attack near Mount Scandeious to Tête de la Lavina to establish ties with the G Co.

Mont Scandeious

When Paxton at his command post receives no messages from the I Company, he asks Captain Joe "Big Mac" McGeever, commander of the HQ-3/517, going to Mont Scandeious from l’Escarene to relay the 2/517. McGeever discovers the I Company Commander’ Captain Marty Fastia, an officer always suspicious in the eyes of his men, curled up in a cave and unable to command.
McGeever then assumed command and chose Lt. Reed Terrell's platoon to lead the attack. He warns Big Mac of the trouble they may have, having already met them. Aware of the German pressure against the G Company on Ridge X, he does nothing about it and rejects this information.

The G Company managed to reach Ridge X and a first aid post was set up in one of the houses on the Col de Braus. No artillery support is provided for the assault on Ridge X, and the paras should be content with their bazookas, their gunman standing at the back of the column. Then suddenly, a machine gun fire sounds, then nothing ... The Captain McGeever is fatally shot with 4 bullets in his chest and some of his men are captured or wounded. The mission is a failure.

The enemy keeps his positions on these heights. The threat of the heights of the Lavina continues. Rupert Graves then begins to prepare a strategy to eliminate the enemy to take this height.

Hill 1098

Another 517th PIR objective is Hill "1098" (Ventabren Peak) north of the pass. Colonel Graves in person puts together a major attack to claim control of La Lavina and Ventabren in the process. Meanwhile, the opposing positions remain under the almost constant fire of 460th PFAB and 83rd Chemical Bn.

The 596th PEC is active to clear the area, and especially reopen the route down the Escarene, essential for the evacuation of wounded and supplies, provided by the 442nd Antitank Company.

John Lissner's F Company occupies the west mound (Hill 1040), and the Germans cling to the eastern mound, a few hundred yards away. There is only enough place to deploy a platoon for each attack. The F Company attacks Hill 1098 once on September 13th, twice on the 14th, and once more than 15. The first three attempts are postponed. At the fourth attack, the Germans abandoned the eastern point, but launched an immediate counterattack; the Fox Company must retreat once more. The hill is nicknamed "Lissner's Folly" in honor of the fearsome Fox Company Commander. On September 16th, D Company occupies Mont Farguet on the left flank of the First Special Service Force which relays the I Company for the attack.

Hill 1098 is in a very exposed position, Fort Barbonnet is built on top of another hill to the east from where the Germans can water the hill with its artillery. Hill 1098 is also an excellent observation point on Sospel and the road between Sospel and Castillon, where the Germans resist the attacks of the FSSF.

The final assault

On September 18th at 8am, the 517th is ready to give the final assault on the Tête de la Lavina.

Long before the assault, Rupert Graves himself prepared the assault plan for the final control of the Col de Braus. Graves wants to send again his 3/517 to the assault, as well as two companies of 2/517. The I and G Company must attack the Tête de la Lavina (separated into two distinct objectives) while the F Company must attack Hill 1098 from Hill 1040.

A very violent artillery preparation from 83rd Chemical Bn. and the 460th PFAB but also the guns of the French cruiser Lorraine anchored in front of Menton strikes again the pass at 8 am, followed by a two-part attack launched thirty minutes later: The I Company of Lt. James Birder attack La Lavina from the south, and the G Company leaves from Ridge X attack from the north while the D Company remains in reserve. The assault is violent, the stunned Germans see their shelters bludgeoned with bazooka, or burned by phosphorus grenades.

At 9 am Lt. Birder's company I (coming from the Farguet forest) reaches the furthest point of its objective, the artillery and the mortars move their shots on the rest of the Lavina. The furious Pvt. Woodrow W. McQuaid on his own captured eight German soldiers on La Lavina by sending a phosphorus grenade into the embrasure of one of the pillboxe (coming from Col de Brau) progressing from bunker to bunker to reach his goal distant only a few hundred meters at about 11 o'clock. Support shots then take Hill 1098 (Ventabren) while the F Company secures the east to wipe out the last pocket of resistance.

The enemy artillery counterattack is immediate and targets such as Ridge X are crushed by guns firing from Fort Maginot de l'Agaisen. But the objectives are taken and the F Company even seizes Hill 1098 with relative ease. Forty Germans perish in the attack. The prisoners, in shock and whose uniforms burned with phosphorus still smoking, are directed on the neck. They had never been crushed by such bombing and even on the eastern front! 61 enemies surrender while nearly 40 were killed. The prisoners approaching with their hands in the air, their clothes burned with phosphorus. The American losses are comparable, but the area of ​​the Col de Braus is now secure, the Germans having regrouped below, in the bowl of Sospel and on the Bevera valley

From Hill 1098 we can see Sospel, part of Monte Carlo, the Mediterranean and Italy. The perfect position to direct the shots on Sospel. On September 22, the Germans counter-attack on the summit of Ventabren and are repulsed.

After the fighting of Peïra-Cava, the 1st Battalion of William Boyle changes his position with the 3rd Battalion. For five weeks the situation remains frozen, the strategy of both sides is resolutely defensive, with artillery duels punctuated by patrols.

Those of the 1st Battalion who hold the Braus, see their number diminished little by little ... Most skirmishes are small spans, although sometimes the German shell them.

A stagnant front line

Any movement during the day is impossible on Bowling Alley because of the German artillery firing from Mount Agais Fort. This road was cut in two places by the Germans in their retirement, the Americans manage to rehabilitate the road after one week. The latter being dominated by the German positions, the work done during the day was difficult, being at any moment the target of mortars, automatic weapons and German artillery.

Germans frequently test American positions around Sospel with aggressive patrols. American paratroopers also probe German defenses, collect intelligence, destroy sites and lead a campaign of attrition.

From the Tête de la Lavina, patrols consisting of about 16 men each time are deployed around Sospel. They were told to spread fear among the Germans, to make them fear the coming of the night. Troopers must constantly pay attention to German mines and theirs. At the end of October, the enemy realizes that he can not destroy the forces deployed against them. The Americans, in particular the 596th Airborne Engineer, lay mines that effectively reduces the advance of German patrols. A sort of WWI-like siege takes place with sporadic patrols, mortars and intermittent artillery.

Liberation of Sospel

In 1944, the population in Sospel decreased from 3815 to 2000 women, children and old people. Younger, valid men had left with the maquis, the French army, or in German work camps.

The summit of Ventabren (like Lavina) offers an exceptional point of view on Sospel. From there the enemy movements in the village and on the supply lines are constantly monitored and sanctioned by artillery fire.

The engineers of the 596th are busy raising hundreds of mines and kilometers of barbed wire. The arrival of winter and snow poses problems of road maintenance. On the side of the 460th, the daily average of the shells fired on the basin of Sospel and its surroundings amounts to 415. From its side, the 517th receive 105 mm shells on Mount Grosso, and every day about fifty of Shells come down on the Braus, Ventabren or l’Escarene, where the regimental PC remains established. This fight of attrition was to last until October 28, 1944.

In the village, refueling is becoming increasingly rare. The bridges over the Bevera river are mined and recovery units sent from the Roya Valley in Italy meticulously dismantle the electrical cables, and any material that can be reused. The German commander wants to move the population to northern Italy, which his representatives refuse, preferring to be directed to the liberated part of the department. On the night of October 27 to 28, the occupant made the decision to withdraw, without forgetting to blow the bridges. Although the blasts are heard by the 517th, the shelling continues ... In the night, a patrol led by 1st Lt. George Giuchici, commander of the F Company’ 3rd Platoon is sent to Sospel to see what's happening. In the night a group of villagers comes to meet them, and the action of the cannons is stopped. The village offers a spectacle of desolation: homes and hospital destroyed, infrastructure unusable.

The reception of the population (44 killed, more than 100 wounded) is naturally not very welcome at first.

The Germans are removed in good order on the Col de Brouis and the Italian side, abandoning the forts of the Maginot line (Agaisen, Grosso, Grazian).

Colonel Paxton’s 3rd Battalion settles at the Hotel du Golf, still exposed to sporadic shooting of the Col de Brouis.

The city of Sospel is the last city in the south of France to have fallen. The population never understood why.

The paratroopers of the 2/517 who arrive in the city find a large empty villa with welcoming air and decided to establish their neighborhood on November 3rd. Several men are checking the house to see if the Germans have not left a time bomb and the result is that the house is safe. There are several men of 2/517 and the squad mortar of the D Company. Having not been raised for several weeks, the men rest, play cards, dice, drink wine they found in the cellar and discuss the girls and the country. However, a grouchy officer approaches and orders the mortar squad to leave the villa and move to the next house because "there are too many". The men disapprove of this order, but go away with a groan at 2 o'clock in the morning. Only minutes later, a huge explosion erupts in the villa spraying it burying several men.

After taking Sospel, Graves orders several companies to go and seize the forts of the Maginot Line such as Mont Grazian, Mont Grosso, Fort Agaisen, Fort Barbonnet and set a company on Mount Mangiabo which is a perfect observation post from which observations can be made over several kilometers. These are two patrols of the B Company that simultaneously seize Mont Grosso (1272 meters) and Mont Mangiabo (1821 meters) located south of Massif de l’Authion. The Germans are found on Monte Grosso and Monte Grazian but are repulsed and the heights are occupied. At the fort Agaisien, the troopers discover an immense structure powerfully armed. The main enemy forces retreated to Breil and Olivetta in Italy, but left a detachment to protect their retreat. One of these groups is spotted in small buildings under Monte Grosso. It was Colonel Cato's Howitzers who dislodged the Germans from their position, firing for several hours.

Other companies grow beyond Sospel and some settle on the collar Linières where there are old positions of Italian artillery.

Bibliographie

Archer, Clark. Paratroopers' Odyssey: A history of the 517th Parachute Combat Team. Paperback – 1985

Graves, Rupert D. Combat Team. Blue Book Magazine. Décembre 1947 et Janvier 1948.

Astor, Gerald. Battling Buzzards: The Odyssey of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team 1943-1945 . Dell, October 9, 2001