National Geographic : 1944 Oct
Marseille, Battle Port of Centuries BY A STAFF CORRESPONDENT With Illustrations from Photographs by W. Robert Moore A QUARTER-CENTURY after a large segment of the American Expedition ary Force sailed home from Marseille a new generation of American soldiers again fights in France, driving on that tough old seaport, liberated by the Allies, August 23. On August 15, 1944, one day after the enemy ordered Frenchmen to evacuate Mar seille, invasion struck the French Mediter ranean coast (map, page 428). Parachutes, gliders, and a huge fleet poured Yanks, Tommies, and poilus ashore. Between two world wars Marseille was the chief sea gateway of France. In the whole Mediterranean area no other port was so big or so busy (page 439). Every day an average of more than fifty passenger liners and cargo boats steamed in and out of its harbor. They flew the flags of virtually every maritime nation. In their vast maws were stacked products of infinite variety from all over the world. Within miles of sea walls and jetties and be side huge warehouses was a maze of bristling masts, smoking funnels, and gaunt cranes. Then Came the Nazis Germany requisitioned, dismantled, and shipped away much of the harbor equipment, a vigilant Free France reported. At the same time the Nazis constructed submarine pens, and behind the jetties they organized convoys to the Italian front. To cripple these enter prises, the United States Army Air Forces and the RAF bombed Marseille from North Africa, southern Italy, and Britain (page 427). Before the Nazis came, Marseille's airport, too, swarmed with commercial planes. Huge sky birds of Imperial Airways splashed down and took off on their swift flights to and from the Far East and Australia. Here was the terminal for the southern transatlantic hop of Pan American Clippers. French, German, Italian, and Dutch planes that winged the air lanes to Africa, Spain, Italy, to faraway Indochina and Java, and also to northern Europe, roared off its runways. Marseille derives its name from its predeces sor, the Greek city of Massalia. Into its Vieux Port (Old Port) Greek colonists from Phocaea (Foga), Asia Minor, sailed in 600 B.C. They settled on the northern bank. Ancient Massalia's limits were roughly those of modern Marseille's Old Town. It founded its own trading posts. In Roman times it out lived Carthage, its rival; finally submitted to Julius Caesar. During the Crusades knights and pilgrims set out from its harbor for the Holy Land. Expanding Marseille allowed the Old Town to become a rabbit warren of timeworn struc tures threaded with a maze of narrow, twisting alleys. The area was tough, rowdy, and raffish. It contained some criminals whom the police were never able to root out. But for every outlaw it housed half a hundred honest fisher folk. Massalia-the City That Was Old Town lived through centuries of siege, capture, sack, and pestilence. Neither enemy nor disease succeeded in doing what Germany did. On a January morning in 1943, two months after the Allied invasion of North Africa and the German occupation of southern France, the Nazis and their Vichy satellites threw a police cordon around the Old Town, blocking every exit. Loud-speakers in the streets ordered all inhabitants to assemble on the quay. Some 40,000 were rounded up. Half of them were singled out for a concentration camp 60 miles away. Though it was mid winter, little or no baggage was permitted. To some, especially to children and invalids, the journey proved fatal. Homes were pillaged for lead pipes and other fixtures. Then dynamite charges were laid. Demolitions began February 1. The following evening a Swiss reporter toured the ruins. "In the growing darkness," he wrote, "the scene assumes the hallucinating grandeur of a modern Pompeii. The silence is complete." After 25 centuries "Massalia" shared the fate of Carthage. Germans Explain Old Port's Destruction Berlin said the deed had been done to "clear the city of an ugly stain and build a clean district where once hung a false halo of apache romanticism." A more plausible explanation pictured the Germans as killing two birds with one stone. First, they obtained room for harbor defense guns; second, the labyrinthine Old Town of fered search-proof sanctuary to patriots of the Underground.