Free France

On 18 June 1940, General Charles De Gaulle broadcasted an appeal on BBC radio for French men and women to join him and the British in the fight against Nazi Germany. The Free French forces were vital in the southern landing also playing an important role in Italy with the other allies.


On 10 May 1940, the German forces attacked The Netherlands and Belgium without a war declaration, and although they had done the same in Poland in September 1939, nobody seemed to have expected them. Using Revolutionary new tactics, including paratroops, gliders, deception and hollow charges, they quickly disposed of the major obstacles and succeeded in fooling the French and the British into rushing North to defend their neighbours. Meanwhile, slowly, the Panzer divisions made their way through the deemed impassable Ardennes forest, avoiding the formidable Maginot line and once across the Meuse at Sedan, started the famous Blitzkrieg campaign that would see the British surrounded at Dunkirk and the French surrendering on 25 June 1940, the worst defeat of our history. The Vichy puppet government was installed and the French Army, prisoner, made to work at labour camps in Germany. Vichy was allowed to keep 100,000 men (the same number imposed on Germany in 1918) for law and order purposes without tanks, heavy artillery or poison gas equipment.

Free French Flag with Cross of Lorraine
Free French Flag with Cross of Lorraine

General de Gaulle had started recruiting volunteers in England among the rescapees from the Narwick campaign and from Dunkirk. Everywhere French overseas territories were alongside British ones, some French troops rejoined the British forces. Known as the Free French they would be equiped by the British and participated to all the campaigns : Eritrea (Dec 1940) against the Italians, Syria (Jun/Jul 1941) against Vichy France, Lybia (Bir Hakeim, 1942) the two Fezzan campaigns (Leclerc's Column) against the Italians, and Tunisia (Apr 1943) against the Germans and Italians. Some ex-Groupes Francs and Commandos would rejoin the SAS, or the Royal Marines.

However attempts, like in Dakar in September 1940, by the Gaullists to rally the Colonial troops, loyal to Vichy, failed, mostly due to their association with Britain. This dilemma about loyalties tore apart Frenchmen everywhere. However, some 16,500 French Colonial troops under the then acting Colonel Leclerc, would make a 1500 miles trek from Equatorial Africa to rejoin the British in Egypt in 1943.

On the 8th November 1942, the US joined the British for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, designed to trap Rommel in Tunisia. The French commander General Juin, after a secret meeting, was happy to order his land and air forces to surrender to the allies, but the sailors, remembering Mers el Kebir, refused to have anything to do with the British and fought bitterly against overwhelming odds. On the 11 November the Germans, in reprisal, moved in France to disarm the Vichy Army allowing only one Regiment to be kept. On the 15th the French Army of Africa rejoined the war on the allies side, although many soldiers chose to be demobilised and returned to occupied France instead. Some others went back to organise the Maquis or FFI (French Forces Inside France).

Called the 19th Corps, or later the French Corps this ill equiped 1940 style Army of 60,000 men was immediately sent to hold the centre of the Allies line in the Tunisian hills, the 1st British Army being to the North, the American 7th Corps to the South, with the French Saharan cavalry raiding the extreme South. The 6 months Tunisian campaign from Nov 1942 to May 1943 will be one of the costliest the French would have to fight against a desperate opponent with modern weapons. But they held their lines and inflicted telling losses on their opponent. France's honour had been restored at the cost of 16,000 casualties.

In November 1943, under the Lend/Lease agreement Giraud-Murphy, the US delivered enough equipment and armament to equip 8 French Divisions, including 3 Armoured ones. Unfortunately all British weapons had to be given back to the British, who at that point were desperate for them. The exception were the French SAS squadrons and the handful of Marine commandos who stayed with the British forces and obviously continued to use British equipment and weapons.

The Free French, when their British weapons had to be given back, were eventually almagamated in August 1943 with the French Corps, although, having taken opposite sides in 1940, this did not happen without acrimony!

From then on the French Divisions would actively participate to all allied campaigns in Italy 1943/1944, Normandy June 1944, Provence Aug 1944, Ardennes Dec 1944, Germany and Austria in 1945, with Leclerc, now a Brigadier, liberating Paris in August 1944 leading his 2nd Armored Division through the Champs Elysees.

Battle of France

Neither the French nor the British anticipated such a rapid defeat in Poland, and the quick German victory, relying on a new form of mobile warfare, disturbed some generals in London and Paris. However, the Allies still expected they would be able to contain the enemy, anticipating a war reasonably like the First World War, so they believed that even without an Eastern Front the Germans could be defeated by blockade, as in the previous conflict. This feeling was more widely shared in London than in Paris, which had suffered more severely during the First World War in blood and material devastation. The French leadership, in particular Edouard Daladier, Prime Minister of France since 1938, also respected the large gap between France's human and economic resources as compared to those of Germany.

Sherman Tank, 2nd French Armoured Division, 1940
Sherman Tank, 2nd French Armoured Division, 1940

The Supreme Commander of France's army, Maurice Gamelin, like the rest of the French government, was expecting a campaign from the Germans that in the strategic sense would mirror the First World War. The Von Schlieffen Plan, Gamelin believed, was to be repeated with a reasonably close degree of accuracy, and even though important parts of the French army in the 1930s had been designed to wage offensive warfare, it would be preferable to confront such a threat defensively, as the French military staff believed its country was not equipped militarily or economically to launch a decisive offensive initially. It would be better to wait until 1941 to fully exploit the combined allied economic superiority over Germany. To confront the expected German plan - which rested on a move into the Low Countries outflanking the fortified Maginot Line - Gamelin intended to send the best units of the French army along with the British Expeditionary Force north to halt the Germans in the area of the river Dyle east of Brussels until a decisive victory could be achieved with the support of the united British, Belgian, French and Dutch armies. The original German plan closely resembled Gamelin's expectations.

The crash in Belgium of a light plane carrying two German officers with a copy of the then-current invasion plan forced Hitler to scrap the plan and search for an original alternative. The final plan for Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) had been suggested by General Erich von Manstein, then serving as Chief of Staff to Gerd von Rundstedt, but had been initially rejected by the German General Staff. It proposed a deep penetration further south of the original route, which took advantage of the speed of the unified Panzer divisions to separate and encircle the opposing forces. It had the virtue of being unlikely (from a defensive point of view) as the Ardennes were heavily wooded and implausible as a route for a mechanized invasion. It had the considerable virtue of not having been intercepted by the Allies (for no copies were being carried about) and of being dramatic, which seems to have appealed to Hitler.

Manstein's aggressive plan was to break through the weak Allied center with overwhelming force, trap the forces to the north in a pocket, and drive on to Paris. The plan benefitted from an Allied response close to how they would have responded in the original case; namely, that a large part of French and British strength was drawn north to defend Belgium and Picardy. To help ensure this result, the German Army Group B was still expected to attack Belgium and the Netherlands in order to draw Allied forces eastward into the developing encirclement, as well as obtaining bases for a later attack on Britain.

The Allied general staff and key statesmen, after capturing the original invasion plans, were initially jubilant that they had potentially won a key victory in the war before the campaign was even fought. Contrarily, General Gamelin and Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, were shaken into realizing that whatever the Germans came up with instead would not be what they had initially expected. More and more Gamelin became convinced that the Germans would try to attempt a breakthrough by concentrating their mechanized forces. They could hardly hope to break the Maginot Line on his right flank or to overcome the allied concentration of forces on the left flank. That only left the centre. But most of the centre was covered by the river Meuse. Tanks were useless in defeating fortified river positions. However at Namur the river made a sharp turn to the east, creating a gap between itself and the river Dyle. This Gembloux Gap, ideal for mechanized warfare, was a very dangerous weak spot. Gamelin decided to concentrate half of his armoured reserves there. Of course the Germans might try to overcome the Meuse position by using infantry. But that could only be achieved by massive artillery support, the build-up of which would give Gamelin ample warning.

Campaign in the Low Countries and France

Germany launched its offensive, Fall Gelb, on the night prior to and principally on the morning of 10 May. During the night German forces occupied Luxembourg, and in the morning German Army Group B (Bock) launched a feint offensive into the Netherlands and Belgium. German Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) from the 7th Flieger and 22nd Air Landing divisions under Kurt Student executed surprise landings at The Hague, on the road to Rotterdam and against the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael on its opening day with the goal of facilitating AG B's advance.

The Allied command reacted immediately, sending forces north to combat a plan that, for all the Allies could expect, resembled the earlier Schlieffen plan. This move north committed their best forces, diminished their fighting power through loss of readiness and their mobility through loss of fuel. That evening French troops crossed the Dutch border.

The French and British air command was less effective than their generals had anticipated, and the Luftwaffe quickly obtained air superiority, depriving the Allies of key reconnaissance abilities and disrupting Allied communication and coordination.

While the German invaders secured all the strategically vital bridges in and toward Rotterdam, which penetrated "Fortress Holland" and bypassed the Water Line, an attempt to seize the Dutch seat of government, The Hague, ended in complete failure. The airfields surrounding the city (Ypenburg, Ockenburg, and Valkenburg) were taken with heavy casualties on 10 May, only to be lost on the very same day to furious counterattacks launched by the two Dutch reserve infantry divisions. The Dutch would capture or kill 1,745 Fallschirmjäger, transporting 1200 prisoners to England.

The French marched north to establish a connection with the Dutch army, which came under attack from German paratroopers, but simply not understanding German intentions they failed to block German armored reinforcements of the 9th Panzer Division from reaching Rotterdam on May 13. The Dutch, their poorly equipped army largely intact, surrendered on 14 May after the Germans bombed Rotterdam. However the Dutch troops in Zeeland and the colonies continued the fight while Queen Wilhelmina established a government-in-exile in Britain.

The centre of the Belgian defensive line, Fort Eben-Emael, had been seized by German paratroopers using gliders on May 10, allowing their forces to cross the bridges over the Albert Canal, although the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force managed to save the Belgians for a time. Gamelin's plan in the north was achieved when the British army reached the Dyle; then the expected major tank battle took place in the Gembloux Gap between the French 2nd DLM and 3rd DLMs (Division Légère Mécanique, "Mechanized Light Division") and the German 3rd and 4th Panzer divisions of Erich Hoepner's XVI Panzer Corps,, costing both sides about 100 vehicles; the German offensive in Belgium seemed stalled for a moment. But this was a feint.

German Breakthrough

In the center German Army Group A smashed through the Belgian infantry regiments and French Light Divisions of the Cavalry (Divisions Légères de Cavalerie) advancing into the Ardennes, and arrived at the Meuse River near Sedan the night of May 12/13. On May 13 the Germans forced three crossing near Sedan. Instead of slowly massing artillery as the French expected, the Germans replaced the need for traditional artillery by using the full might of their bomber force to punch a hole in a narrow sector of the French lines by carpet bombing (punctuated by dive bombing). Sedan was held by the 55th French Infantry Division (55e DI), a grade "B" reserve division. The forward elements of the 55e DI held their positions through most of the 13th, initially repulsing three of the six German crossing attempts; however, the German air attacks had disrupted the French supporting artillery batteries and created an impression among the troops of the 55e DI that they were isolated and abandoned. The combination of the psychological impact of the bombing, the generally slowly expanding German lodgments, deep penetrations by some small German infantry units and the lack of air or artillery support eventually broke down the 55e DI's resistance and much of the unit went into rout by the evening of May 13/14. The German aerial attack of May 13, with 1215 bomber sorties, the heaviest air bombardment the world had yet witnessed, is considered to have been very effective and key to the successful German river crossing. It was the most effective use of tactical air power yet demonstrated in warfare. The disorder begun at Sedan was spread down the French line by groups of haggard and retreating soldiers. During the night some units in the last prepared defence line at Bulson panicked by the false rumour German tanks were already behind their positions. On May 14 two French tank battalions and supporting infantry from the 71st North African Infantry Division (71e NADI) counter-attacked the German bridgehead without success. The attack was partially repulsed by the first German armor and anti-tank units which had been rushed across the river as quickly as possible at 7:20 A.M. on pontoon bridges. On May 14 every available Allied light bomber was employed in an attempt to destroy the German pontoon bridges; but, despite incurring the highest single day action losses in the entire history of the British and French air forces, failed to destroy these targets. Despite the failure of numerous quickly planned counterattacks to collapse the German bridgehead, the French Army was successful in re-establishing a continuous defensive position further south; on the west flank of the bridgehead, however, French resistance began to crumble.

2nd French Armoured Staging Area
2nd French Armoured Staging Area

The commander of the French Second Army, General Huntzinger, immediately took effective measures to prevent a further weakening of his position. An armoured division (3rd Division Cuirassée de Réserve) and a motorized division blocked further German advances around his flank. However the commander of XIX Panzer Corps, Heinz Guderian, wasn't interested in Huntzinger's flank. Leaving for the moment 10th Panzer Division at the bridgehead to protect it from attacks by 3rd DCR, he moved his 1st and 2nd Panzer divisions sharply to the west on the 15th, undercutting the flank of the French Ninth Army by 40 km and forcing the 102nd Fortress Division to leave its positions that had blocked XVI Panzer Corps at Monthermé. While the French Second Army had been seriously mauled and had rendered itself impotent, now Ninth Army began to disintegrate completely, for in Belgium also its divisions, not having had the time to fortify, had been pushed back from the river by the unrelenting pressure of German infantry, allowing the impetuous Erwin Rommel to break free with his 7th Panzer Division. A French armoured division (1st DCR) was sent to block him but advancing unexpectedly fast he surprised it while refueling on the 15th and dispersed it, despite some losses caused by the heavy French tanks.

On the 16th both Guderian and Rommel disobeyed their explicit direct orders to halt in an act of open insubordination against their superiors and moved their divisions many kilometers to the west, as fast as they could push them. Guderian reached Marle, 80 kilometers from Sedan, Rommel crossed the river Sambre at Le Cateau, a hundred kilometers from his bridgehead, Dinant. While nobody knew the whereabouts of Rommel (he had advanced so quickly that he was out of range for radio contact, earning his 7th Panzer Division the nickname Gespenster-Division, "Ghost Division"), an enraged von Kleist flew to Guderian on the morning of the 17th and after a heated argument relieved him of all duties. However, von Rundstedt would have none of it and refused to confirm the order.

Allied Reaction

The Panzer Corps now slowed their advance considerably but had put themselves in a very vulnerable position. They were stretched out, exhausted and low on fuel; many tanks had broken down. There now was a dangerous gap between them and the infantry. A determined attack by a fresh large mechanized force could have cut them off and wiped them out.

The French high command, however, was reeling from the shock of the sudden offensive and was stung by a sense of defeatism. On the morning of May 15, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned newly minted Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill and said "We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle." Churchill, attempting to console Reynaud reminded the Prime Minister of the times the Germans had broken through allied lines in World War I only to be stopped. However, Reynaud was inconsolable.

Churchill flew to Paris on May 16. He immediately recognized the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a somber meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, "Where is the strategic reserve?" which had saved Paris in the First World War. "There is none," Gamelin replied. Later, Churchill described hearing this as the single most shocking moment in his life. Churchill asked Gamelin when and where the general proposed to launch a counterattack against the flanks of the German bulge. Gamelin simply replied "inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of methods".

Gamelin was right; most reserve divisions had by now been committed. The only armoured division still in reserve, 2nd DCR, attacked on the 16th. However the French armoured divisions of the Infantry, the Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve, were despite their name very specialized breakthrough units, optimized for attacking fortified positions. They could be quite useful for defense, if dug in, but had very limited utility for an encounter fight: they could not execute combined infantry-tank tactics as they simply had no important motorized infantry component; they had poor tactical mobility as the heavy Char B1 bis, their main tank in which half of the French tank budget had been invested, had to refuel twice a day. So 2nd DCR divided itself in a covering screen, the small subunits of which fought bravely - but without having any strategic effect.

Of course, some of the best units in the north had yet seen little fighting. Had they been kept in reserve they could have been used for a decisive counter strike. But now they had lost much fighting power simply by moving to the north; hurrying south again would cost them even more. The most powerful allied division, the 1st DLM (Division Légère Mécanique, "light" in this case meaning "mobile"), deployed near Dunkirk on the 10th, had moved its forward units 220 kilometers to the northeast, beyond the Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch, in 32 hours. Finding that the Dutch had already retreated to the north, it had withdrawn and was now moving to the south. When it would reach the Germans again, of its original 80 SOMUA S 35 tanks only three would be operational, mostly as a result of break down.

Nevertheless, a radical decision to retreat to the south, avoiding contact, could probably have saved most of the mechanized and motorized divisions, including the BEF. However, that would have meant leaving about thirty infantry divisions to their fate. The loss of Belgium alone would be an enormous political blow. Besides, the Allies were uncertain about German intentions. They threatened in four directions: to the north, to attack the allied main force directly; to the west, to cut it off; to the south, to occupy Paris and even to the east, to move behind the Maginot Line. The French decided to create a new reserve, among which a reconstituted 7th Army, under General Touchon, using every unit they could safely pull out of the Maginot Line to block the way to Paris.

Colonel Charles de Gaulle, in command of France's hastily formed 4th Armored Division, attempted to launch an attack from the south and achieved a measure of success that would later accord him considerable fame and a promotion to Brigadier General. However, de Gaulle's attacks on the 17th and 19th did not significantly alter the overall situation.

Channel Attacks, Dunkirk, and the Weygand Plan

While the Allies did little either to threaten them or escape from the danger they posed, the Panzer Corps used the 17th and 18th to refuel, eat, sleep and get some more tanks in working order. On the 18th Rommel made the French give up Cambrai by merely feinting an armoured attack.

Dunkirk at the end.
Dunkirk at the end.

On the 19th German High Command grew very confident. The Allies seemed incapable of coping with events. There appeared to be no serious threat from the south - indeed General Franz Halder, Chief of Army General Staff, toyed with the idea of attacking Paris immediately to knock France out of the war in one blow. The Allied troops in the North were retreating to the river Scheldt, their right flank giving way to the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions. It would be foolish to remain inactive any longer, allowing them to reorganize their defense or escape. Now it was time to bring them into even more serious trouble by cutting them off. The next day the Panzer Corps started moving again, smashed through the weak British 18th and 23rd Territorial Divisions, occupied Amiens and secured the westernmost bridge over the river Somme at Abbeville isolating the British, French, Dutch, and Belgian forces in the north. In the evening of the 20th a reconnaissance unit from 2nd Panzer Division reached Noyelles, a hundred kilometers to the west. There they could see the estuary of the Somme flowing into The Channel.

On May 20 also, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud dismissed Maurice Gamelin for his failure to contain the German offensive, and replaced him with Maxime Weygand, who immediately attempted to devise new tactics to contain the Germans. More pressing however was his strategic task: he formed the Weygand Plan, ordering to pinch off the German armoured spearhead by combined attacks from the north and the south. On the map this seemed a feasible mission: the corridor through which von Kleist's two Panzer Corps had moved to the coast was a mere 40 kilometers wide. On paper Weygand had sufficient forces to execute it: in the north the three DLM and the BEF, in the south de Gaulle's 4th DCR. These units had an organic strength of about 1200 tanks and the Panzer divisions were very vulnerable again, the mechanical condition of their tanks rapidly deteriorating. But the condition of the Allied divisions was far worse. Both in the south and the north they could in reality muster but a handful of tanks. Nevertheless Weygand flew to Ypres on the 21st trying to convince the Belgians and the BEF of the soundness of his plan.

That same day, May 21, a detachment of the British Expeditionary Force under Major-General Harold Edward Franklyn had already attempted to at least delay the German offensive and, perhaps, to cut the leading edge of the German army off. The resulting Battle of Arras demonstrated the ability of the heavily armoured British Matilda tanks (the German 37 mm anti-tank guns proved ineffective against them) and the limited raid overran two German regiments. The panic that resulted (the German commander at Arras, Erwin Rommel, reported being attacked by 'hundreds' of tanks, though there were only 58 at the battle) temporarily delayed the German offensive. German reinforcements pressed the British back to Vimy Ridge the following day.

Although this attack wasn't part of any coordinated attempt to destroy the Panzer Corps, the German High Command panicked a lot more than Rommel. For a moment they feared to have been ambushed, that a thousand Allied tanks were about to smash their elite forces. But the next day they had regained confidence and ordered Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps to press north and push on to the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais, in the back of the British and Allied forces to the north.

That same day, the 22nd, the French tried to attack south to the east of Arras, with some infantry and tanks, but by now the German infantry had begun to catch up and the attack was, with some difficulty, stopped by the 32nd Infantry Division.

Only on the 24th the first attack from the south could be launched when 7th DIC, supported by a handful of tanks, failed to retake Amiens. This was a rather weak effort; however on May 27 the British 1st Armoured Division, hastily brought over from England, attacked Abbeville in force but was beaten back with crippling losses. The next day de Gaulle tried again with the same result. But by now even complete success couldn't have saved the forces in the north.

In the early hours of the 23rd Gort ordered a retreat from Arras. He had no faith in the Weygand plan nor in the proposal of the latter to at least try to hold a pocket on the Flemish coast, a Réduit de Flandres. The ports needed to supply such a foothold were already threatened. That day the 2nd Panzer Division assaulted Boulogne and 10th Panzer assaulted Calais. The British garrison in Boulogne surrendered on the 25th, although 4,368 troops were evacuated. Calais, though strengthened by the arrival of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment equipped with cruiser tanks and 30th Motor Brigade, fell to the Germans on the 27th.

While the 1st Panzer Division was ready to attack Dunkirk on the 25th, Hitler ordered it to halt on the 24th. This remains one of the most controversial decisions of the entire war. Hermann Göring had convinced Hitler the Luftwaffe could prevent an evacuation; von Rundstedt had warned him that any further effort by the armoured divisions would lead to a much prolonged refitting period. Attacking cities wasn't part of the normal task for armoured units under any operational doctrine.

Encircled, the British, Belgian and French launched Operation Dynamo and Operation Ariel, evacuating Allied forces from the northern pocket in Belgium and Pas-de-Calais, beginning on May 26. (see Battle of Dunkirk) The Allied position was complicated by King Léopold III of Belgium's surrender the following day, which was postponed till the 28th.

Confusion still reigned however, as after the evacuation at Dunkirk and while Paris was enduring its short-lived siege, the First Canadian Division and a Scottish division were sent to Normandy (Brest) and penetrated 200 miles inland toward Paris before they heard that Paris had fallen and France had capitulated. They retreated and re-embarked for England.

At the same time as the Canadian 1st division landed in Brest, the Canadian 242 Squadron of the RAF flew their Hawker Hurricanes to Nantes (100 miles south-east) and set up there to provide air cover.

France Defeated

The best and most modern French armies had been sent north and lost in the resulting encirclement; the French had lost their best heavy weaponry and their best armored formations. Weygand was faced with a haemorrhage in the front stretching from Sedan to the Channel, and the French government had begun to lose heart that the Germans could still be defeated, particularly as the British were evacuating the Continent, a particularly symbolic event for French morale, intensified by the German progaganda slogan "The British will fight to the last Frenchman".

The Germans renewed their offensive on June 5 on the Somme. A panzer-led attack on Paris broke the scarce reserves that Weygand had put between the Germans and the capital, and on June 10 the French government fled to Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city. Churchill returned to France on June 11, meeting the French War Council in Briare. The French, clearly in a panic, wanted Churchill to give every available fighter to the air battle over France; with only 25 squadrons remaining, Churchill refused, believing that the decisive battle would be fought over Britain (see Battle of Britain). Churchill, at the meeting, obtained promises from French admiral François Darlan that the fleet would not fall into German hands.

On June 10, Italy declared war on France and Britain. On June 21, Italian troops crossed the border in three places. Roughly thirty-two Italian divisions faced just four French divisions.

Fighting continued in the east until General Pretelat, commanding the French Second Army group, was forced to surrender on June 22.


France formally surrendered to the German armed forces on June 22 in the same railroad car at Compiègne that Germany in 1918 had been forced to surrender in. This railway car was lost in allied air raids on the German capital of Berlin later in the war. Paul Reynaud, France's Prime Minister, resigned because he believed a majority of his government favored an armistice. He was succeeded by Maréchal Philippe Pétain, who announced to the French people via radio his intention to stop fighting.

The Formation of Vichy France

Metropolitan France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west and an unoccupied zone in the south. Pétain set up a collaborationist government in the spa town of Vichy and the regime came to be known as Vichy France.

Map of a WW2 Divided France
Map of a WW2 Divided France

Two politically conservative men dominate this time period in French history Henri Petain, who was President of the Vichy Government, and Charles de Gaulle who led the Fighting French back into the war and into Paris in August 1944. The Vichy years are painful even to this day in France. This is mainly due to the fact that so many Frenchmen collaborated with the Nazi occupiers from July of 1940 until the Liberation in 1944. As a result investigation into the past can reveal awful secrets: witness the humiliating discovery that France's Socialist President Francois Mitterand had collaborated with the Nazis in WWII.

The Vichy Government was born of defeat at the hands of the Germans in June of 1940. Military weakness and political divisiveness had combined to ensure a French defeat in only six weeks of fighting.

With such a disaster on their hands, the French were hardly in a mood to continue the failed Third Republic. France turned to the aged Hero of Verdun, Henri Petain to save France in this dark hour. Petain took over and negotiated with the Germans to leave part of France unoccupied. The unoccupied part of France was ruled from the city of Vichy (famous for its 'Vichy water'). The new government had a much stronger president and brought more stability to the French political system. Petain was viewed as a veritable national savior. He promised to get peace with honor--or as much honor as could be gained in such circumstances.

One thing Petain would certainly do: rid France of the faulty Third Republic and its wobbly constitution. The Vichy Government was much more authoritarian than the Third Republic. A secret police force, more restricted civil rights and less power for the legislative branch were characteristic. Vichy also cooperated ('collaborated') with the Nazis partly out of sympathy, but mostly out of intimidation.

Vichy ruled, after all, purely at the pleasure of the masters in Berlin. This even took the form of a "draft" of young French men to serve as workers for German industry. Over a million were deported to Germany to work as near-slave laborers. This was bitterly resented by the French, as were the enormous levels of taxes exacted by the occupying Germans. Another example of collaboration is how the Vichy government would cooperate in turning over foreign Jews to the Nazis, but was very reluctant to turn over French Jews. However, as Nazi pressure increased, Vichy began to cooperate even more.

One aspect of the cooperation was in the form of Pierre Laval. Laval had been an extreme Leftist as a young man, but had journeyed to the right by the mid-1930s. He had even tried to sort out the mess of the Third Republic as Premier but had failed miserably to keep his British allies close or to win over Mussolini in an anti-German front. He also failed to gain Russian support on the eve of WWII.

Not long after the fall of France in 1940, Laval was part of the Vichy government. Soon, he was the Premier and along with Petain, he ran Vichy France. Laval was constantly trying to get better terms from the Germans and to keep the burden of defeat off the backs of the French. However, he failed repeatedly and was finally shoved out by the Germans for his ineffectiveness as a German ally. However, his failures along with his disgraceful collaboration with the Germans earned him nothing but hatred - especially from his fellow rightist de Gaulle.

However, as the Russians switched sides and the Americans entered WWII, it was clear that the Germans would almost certainly lose. As this became clear, many Vichy officials began to drag their feet in collaboration while the Germans became suspicious of their "friends." Finally, in 1942, the Germans occupied the rest of France, but forced Vichy to continue to rule its part - at German whim.

The Free French or "Fighting French"

Charles de Gaulle, who had been made an Undersecretary of National Defense by Paul Reynaud, was in London at the time of the surrender: having made his Appeal of 18 June, he refused to recognize the Vichy government as legitimate - the President of France function was vacant - and began the task of organizing the Free French forces. A number of French colonies like French Equatorial Africa joined de Gaulle's fight, while others like French Indochina were soon attacked by the Japanese or remained loyal to the Vichy government. Italy occupied a small area, essentially the Alpes-Maritimes, and Corsica. As French armies were crumbling in May and June of 1940 there was a notable French counterattack at Arras led by Charles de Gaulle. However, not even his efforts made any significant difference against the German war machine. De Gaulle ended up serving in the French cabinet in the waning days of the war and fled France rather than surrender. Not long after the surrender, de Gaulle broadcast from Britain that some Frenchmen would fight on. He was sentenced to death in abstentia by the Vichy government, but de Gaulle did offer a glimmer of hope to the demoralized French.

That hope was fanned in June and December of 1941 as Hitler turned on his Russian allies and the Americans were dragged into the war.

Members of the Free French Forces fight from inside the Paris Prefecture (police headquarters)
Members of the Free French Forces fight from inside the Paris Prefecture (police headquarters)

De Gaulle's "Fighting French" (FF) forces soon began a string of operations against Vichy forces in Africa. Working up from the equatorial colonies, the FF was soon helping out British forces in North Africa. At the Battle of bir Hakim, the FF made a name for heroism at the side of the British as they made the Germans pay a heavy price for their victory.

Soon, the Americans were in the war and landing in the western part of North Africa--in Vichy colonies. American President Franklin Roosevelt had a deep, personal dislike of Charles de Gaulle. For his part, de Gaulle sometimes referred to Roosevelt as, "the cadaver." As the US troops moved ashore the Vichy forces there put up little fight against the people who had helped France win WWI and who hoped would free France from German control. However, the Americans tried to keep de Gaulle from gaining control of the French administration in North Africa.

De Gaulle was not to be denied. He quickly secured the votes and then the control of the entire French force in Africa and managed to get the Fighting French forces augmented with the previously Vichy forces. This provided de Gaulle with a sizeable force and a real claim at showing how France was still a player on the international scene. Churchill always supported and understood the French need to restore some honor after the catastrophe of 1940. The Americans, and Roosevelt, viewed the French as an overly proud nuisance. The US was the real force in this war and the British were helping. The Americans saw the FF as almost an expensive and irrelevant force. This attitude was easily detected by the always-sensitive de Gaulle. However, now that de Gaulle had a sizeable force again, the Americans were starting to show more respect.

In 1943, the Allies invaded Italy. This Mediterranean Theater of Operations was a multi-national effort led by British general Alexander. Alexander had Indians, Americans, British, Australians, New Zealanders, Poles, Brazilians and Free French under his command.

In 1943 and 1944, a huge obstacle to allied progress was the German position at the famous Monte Cassino Abbey. Multiple attacks by the Americans, Poles and Zealanders all failed. After months of failure, Monte Cassino was finally taken by Fighting French Moroccan troops who were magnificent mountain fighters. The French simply attacked through a narrow part of the German line and then in a series of rapid movements outflanked the Germans who fell back in a near panic.

With Monte Cassino out of the way, the road to Rome was open and US General Mark Clark finally took it on June 5, 1944. Even the Americans had to admit the French were again real players on the world scene.

Only one day later, the French were again players in a very big play: The Invasion of France. French general Leclerc's forces were among the first ashore at Normandy. De Gaulle had insisted upon, and received, the right of his forces to be among the first to help in the liberation of France. In only a few weeks the Allies had routed the German army in Normandy and the road to Paris was open.

The Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower did not want anything to do with taking Paris. He wanted the Germans to keep the city and to provide for the entire population. Capturing the city would only slow down the clearly emerging Allied victory.

However, Charles de Gaulle wanted Paris liberated and immediately so. He even threatened to order Leclerc's army to simply ignore orders and march on Paris regardless of what the Americans thought. Finally, Eisenhower relented and gave Leclerc the green light. However, the French did not move as rapidly as seemed possible to the Americans. US general George Patton (always guaranteed to offend an American ally) said the French were, "dancing all the way to Paris." However, part of the reason Leclerc was slowing his advance was that his forces were greeted wildly in every city on the way to Paris and his troops could hardly move any faster.

Finally, in August, Parisians knew liberation was coming, but when should they revolt against the Germans? The Communists wanted to declare the revolt the next day after a meeting, but de Gaulle's men got the Communists to wait another day. However, the next morning, de Gaulle's men had already begun to fly the Tricolor announcing the revolt had begun. De Gaulle was going to call all the shots, even if it meant pulling such a stunt.

Soon, the German commander of Paris had surrendered and two days later, Leclerc's forces entered Paris. De Gaulle was not far behind. He was going into Paris, no matter what. As he walked through an enraptured crowd on his way to Notre Dame Cathedral to offer his thanks to God, a sniper opened up. All around the 6' 8" hero people dropped to avoid the bullets. Not de Gaulle, he stood calmly erect and waited until the sniper was silenced by his soldiers. Then, he quietly went on his way to offer prayers of thanksgiving for the deliverance of France.

With the capture of Paris, de Gaulle was the unquestioned leader of France. However, he was intent on keeping his nation in his control. As a result, he again began to have conflicts with the Americans. De Gaulle wanted his troops to be able to help control France. The Communists already were jockeying for position in post-war France and de Gaulle wasn't about to let them take control. As a compromise, de Gaulle sent a sizeable French force to help conquer Germany, but kept enough behind to win control of his beloved, "La France."

De Gaulle had ended Vichy and the humiliation of 1940, had restored French military honor at bir Hakim, Monte Cassino, Normandy and finally in the Liberation of Paris by the French themselves. After the war Henri Petain was sentenced to death for his collaboration with the Germans during the war. De Gaulle simply did not have the heart to execute his former commander and national hero. Showing another aspect of his sentimentality, de Gaulle commuted the sentence of the old man to life in prison. On the issue of Pierre Laval, de Gaulle was of a lower character. Laval, was given one of the most ridiculously unfair trials of the postwar period and sentenced to death as a war criminal. Laval bitterly complained, "but I am a peace criminal!" It was to no avail. Laval was executed by firing squad.

References and Resources

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Retrieved October 12, 2009, from

From Calvin College website
Retrieved October 12, 2009, from

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

Churchill, Winston S. The Second World War: Their Finest Hour (Volume 2). Houghton Mifflin Company, Cambridge, 1949.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.