Champagne Campaign wasn’t an easy one for Gingerbread Men and Goya Birds. Since the combat jump, the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion had lost 171 men, of whom 24 had been killed (not counting the 17 missing men of the B Company's Captain Ralph Miller Jr. stick). Major Apperson, second in command of the 509th was killed at La Napoule on August 21, while driving on a mine in a jeep with 1st Lt. Hubert Fiander having also been killed. Captain Edmund Tomasik was then promoted to second in command of the 509th. Captain Roy E. Baze, a battalion surgeon, was also killed while jogging a mine.
The 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion had lost 180 men, 30 of whom had been killed, most of them on Hill 105.
On September 3, Frederick can deploy enough forces to occupy the center sector of the Maritime Alps not occupied and selects the 509th Combat Team for this task. Paras back to Nice, to receive other assignments in the Maritime Alps.
The 509th CT leaves Nice on September 4th and goes north along the Var and La Tinée area towards Saint-Sauveur to gather at Pont de Clans. It must occupy the Vesubie valley on a line from Plan du Var to Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée via Saint-Martin-Vésubie. The Command Post is located at La Bolline-Valdeblore.
Before heading to the mountains, the 551st PIB is in Villars where the battalion stays a few days to rest. It then occupies a defensive line of about 64 kilometers against the Italian border. The 509th occupies the right flank, while the 550th keeps the left flank.
Above them, the Maritime Alps appear indistinctly, the rugged mountains separating northern Italy from the parasols of Southern France. This also separates the retreating German forces east of the allies with a thick snow wall protecting the belly of Bavaria.
For three months, they played the creepy game of cat and mouse with an Austrian ski battalion that the Germans had left as the guardian of the snow wall. The mission had changed and was now perilous, almost sterile and contemptuous.
German forces, and more particularly the 7th Austrian High Mountain Assault Division, retreat further into the mountains. From their positions, perfectly fortified, they dominate the different elements of the 551st scattered in the valleys. Thanks to his artillery, the enemy has all the advantages. These first-class Austrian mountain troops are mostly made up of young people who have lived in the mountains all their lives.
The 509 in Saint-Martin-Vésubie
A Company of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion occupies St. Martin-Vésubie on 9 September, about nine miles north-west of Lantosque. The next day, two German companies of the Mittenwald Battalion attack the village.
A Co. is not alone. The mortar platoon supporting the C Company is called on a new position to help the A in Saint-Martin-Vésubie. Ten minutes after the mortars have been put in place, the movement sets in and the heavy shelling barrage begins. The Germans are attacked relentlessly and are pounded on any previously designated target. The 2nd 81mm mortars squad supports the 1st platoon directly north of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. Here too, the enemy activity is very strong. The shooting starts as soon as the mortars are put in place. The paratroopers are attacked by 2 German companies of the Mittenwald Battalion.
At 4:30 am on September 11th, the mortar sections attack targets 50 meters in front of the two platoons on outposts. The mortar barrage lasts 20 minutes. As the day approaches, the enemy activity does not stop and it continues all afternoon in front of the positions of the A Company. Until the next day, the fighting will follow and the Germans will be dislodged in particular by the mortar fire. A resident living in the area says that the enemy forces suffered a lot of loss. 10 are presumed dead and 8 others are seriously injured.
On September 14, the B/551 takes the place of the 509th at Saint-Martin-Vésubie.
The forces of the 551st PIB are now dispatched as follows: from the north, C Company is concentrated around Saint Étienne-de-Tinée, A Company occupies Isola, HQ Company is located in Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, and the battalion headquarters reinforced by the B Company is entrenched in Saint-Martin-Vésubie.
By mid-September, the command post of the 509th Combat Team is located in Lantosque and its outposts at Bollène-Vésubie and Belvédère. While the A Company is maintained in Lantosque, the B Company occupies Bollène-Vésubie and the C Company is in Roquebilière. Daily patrols are organized on the sector to identify enemy points of support.
During this period the 509th Combat Team stabilizes its front line, prepares defensive positions and marks the German outposts.
FFI groups and Italian partisans are organized. They assist the troopers mainly during intelligence actions or surveillance of the front. Many patrols are organized to intercept German travel. These are mainly content with artillery fire along the road Lantosque-Saint-Martin-Vésubie and against the areas of Isola and the Tinée Valley, 5 km southeast of Saint Etienne de Tinée . Patrols reach the Italian border in the 509th sector but do not establish permanent positions along the border.
During the first days of October, activities are reduced to artillery duels and patrols. They are concentrated on the right flank where the enemy is the strength of a battalion. The A Company is in Lantosque for long patrols and also as a counter-attack force. This company patrols every day along all of the Combat Team's advanced positions. The left flank of the CT is in Saint-Étienne and Isola. On the right flank, the positions on and around La Bollene receive shelling constantly with each time about a hundred shots. Tank Destroyer's battery in Roquebillière forces the enemy light artillery to retreat to their effective shooting range. The TD platoon attached to the 551st fires at battery positions near Saint-Dalmas and also fires at enemy positions near the 551st on the left flank.
In 1944, winter begins very early in the Alpes Maritimes and on October 5th the snow falls already between Saint-Martin-Vésubie and Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée. The men of the 551st arrived in the Maritime Alps still have their camouflaged outfits and equipment of the summer campaign. They had not been re equipped since.
Several patrols of 15 to 40 men are often organized but from early October the snow does not make things easy. Another thing, before falling back, the enemy carefully mined the roads.
Lt. Col. Wood Joerg then asks for volunteers with ski experience to form long-range patrols in the snow-covered mountains, a dozen patrols are then formed.
These patrols are sometimes a feat since many battalion men have never seen the snow!
Ironically, the 551st PIB, a unit trained in jungle warfare and in a tropical environment, stands out as a mountain troop evolving under extreme weather conditions! These men sent to Auron in small groups, receive ski lessons, the objective being to patrol the Franco-Italian border in search of Austrians 4th Höhesgebirgesjäger.
To carry out their mission, paratroopers are equipped with reversible parka and skis. A ski patrol is made up of 15 men who can cover 25 or 30 kilometers on the mountains in order to seek contact with the enemy or to follow his movements and activities. Many 551st men on mountain patrol fear falling into a ravine. Some fall in precipices and disappear.
In Isola during the autumn of 1944, the weather conditions are very hard and the village is constantly subjected to harassing artillery fire. The Germans shell the village with 150mm guns. Many Isolians still live in the village and suffer the horrors of war along with Joerg's Goya Birds. These fires are concentrated on a bridge south of the village. Artillery is also directed at all vehicles on the road to Isola.
Part of the HQ & HQ Co. of the 550th AIB arrives on October 21 in Lantosque and the rest of the battalion arrives on the 23rd. Each day, patrols take contact with the 551st PIB in Saint-Martin-Vésubie. Recce patrols of 6 to 20 men from Able and Charlie Company positions try to make contact with enemy groups in the east but for the most part contacts are limited because of the distance from which they observe them . The 509th had not been much luckier in these same positions; it was so quiet that a few days before the 550th Gliders took position here, they were made aware that the Krauts had captured "4 or 5" 509th sleep observers.
The activities of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion then concentrated around the Turini Pass and the Authion Massif.