The WWII Liberation of Nice: What Really Happened
The summer of 1944 was a scorcher, in every sense. The beaches of Nice were peppered with mines and lined with barbed wire and anti-aircraft weapons: a German precaution in case the Allied forces had any ideas of debarking on the Promenade.
Looming over the scene was the phantom of the formerly magnificent Casino de la Jettee, the opulent symbol of the Riviera, which the Germans had dismantled in March and April of 1942 to demoralize the population and then sent off the scrap metal to build Nazi aircraft.
The buildings lining the seaside all along the Promenade were requisitioned by the Germans and were emptied, barricaded, and painted with camouflage…! All except for the Hotel Negresco, which had been taken over as an elegant sea view Nazi administrative center.
The Nazi ‘interrogation’ center however, the Hotel Excelsior, had a different view from its top floors. It was located farther inland on Avenue Durante, with a view of the Nice train station, where by this time 3485 Jews had been captured and forcibly deported in train cars to Drancy, then on to death camps in Poland or Germany.
At the beginning of the war, Nice had been a haven for escaping European Jews, as the local authorities were subversively uncooperative with the Germans and often sabotaged their orders or tipped off their targets. Noticing the weak deportation numbers coming from Nice, in 1943 central command sent the infamously brutal SS Commander Alois Brunner to Nice, where he ruled with an iron fist, torturing and killing reluctant informers and filling up those trains cars.
So in August of 1944, although the Allied forces had come ashore in the Var just 2 weeks earlier, they had their hands full and had orders not to cross the Var river. The Allied proximity had not even paused the reign of terror in Nice, which Commander Brunner continued with impunity. Tensions reached an apex with the public execution of 23 young resistants’ caught in the Ariane neighborhood just a few days prior, so on the night of the 27th, the resistants’ in Nice decided that they had to take matters into their own hands. They were 350 “soldiers without uniforms” against 2000 armed German occupiers.
The guerrilla operation started at 6am on the 28th, with simultaneous attacks all over Nice, using every explosive possible down to Molotov cocktails and firecrackers, to give the impression of a force far greater than the motley crew they actually were. Early on, the surprise attack succeeded in overtaking a munitions storage near Gambetta-Cessole, which helped rearm the volunteers, whose number grew to 1500 as the day progressed. Around noon the fighting intensified at Place Garibaldi, Riquier, Gambetta, Magnan, Avenue Thiers and Jean Medecin. From their base on top of the Chateau, the Germans fired round after round aimed at at the rooftops and terraces of Vieux Nice.
The Germans were not sure what was happening, and cabled the command that Nice was infested with terrorists. With the Allied forces known to be just down the coast, the writing was on the wall, and at 7pm the Germans evacuated their fortifications at the Chateau, blowing up the Port on their way out. At 9pm the Allied ships arrived and bombed the armaments on the Promenade des Anglais. At 11pm it was over: the 2000 German soldiers left Nice in a long convoy, machine gunning the buildings along Jean Médecin on their way out of town towards Villefranche.
The battle that day cost the lives of 31 insurgents with 280 injured; the Germans lost 25 of their men and 105 were taken prisoner. (In a side note, some of those prisoners were later made to clear the beaches of mines, and several were killed by exploding mines that they themselves had placed.)
Two days after the Nicois liberation, the American tanks arrived at Place Massena.
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Nowadays as you walk around town, you will see countless plaques commemorating the resistants’ that were caught and publicly hung, including a plaque inside the courtyard of the high school Lycee Massena just across from Old Nice, listing their students that were taken and assassinated by the Germans soldiers.
And on top of the Chateau Hill next to the Jewish cemetery, you will fine a Wall of Remembrance recently inaugurated in 2020, listing the names, ages, and countries of origin of the nearly 3500 Jews captured and subsequently sent to their deaths from Nice.
To read more: City of Nice remembers the thousands forcibly deported
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Photos: Nice-Matin 2002: ’28 aout 1944 : Le jour le plus long’, photos collection Musee Azureen de la Resistance