River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The French in the Second World War

January 2010

Ron examiones the role of the French in World War II

The French were our allies in the first world war and in the second. Prior to the start of hostilities in the second world war we signed a joint pact with the French that neither would agree to an armistice with the Germans without mutual consent. At the start of the war the French and the British forces outnumbered the Germans in men and tanks and their generals were confident that they could contain any attack by the Germans, complacent even. The truth is, however, that they were mostly old men still living in the times of the first world war. The French General Gamelin was overall commander of the allied forces, he was confident that the defensive Maginot Line would contain a frontal attack. According to General De Gaulle, Gamelin had no radio or telephone communications with his forces from his HQ and relied on driving round to the different sectors, thinking that 48 hours was an adequately quick response to a changing situation. Although, with the British, he had more tanks at his disposal than the Germans they were inferior tanks and he had chosen to distribute them amongst his infantry. He had more artillery than the Germans but the French relied entirely on horses to move their guns. Once the Germans launched their blitzkreig attack in April 1940, using massed panzers to attack the forces through the lowlands to the north, the inadequacies of the allies' strategy and equipment became apparent and the outcome was inevitable. General Gamelin was sacked and replaced by 74 year old General Weygand, who was equally incompetent. The French president, Reynaud, resigned and they called on 86 year old Field Marshall Petain.

The British fought hard but soon realised that the situation was hopeless and concentrated on evacuating as many of their troops from Dunkerque as possible. Some of the French forces also fought bravely but the situation for them was even more chaotic. Petain was quick to sign an armistice with the following terms:

Germany would occupy three fifths of France.

All French warships to be recalled and placed under German supervision.

All German refugees from the Nazis to be handed over.

France to pay the cost of the German occupation.

The 1.5 million French PoWs would remain PoWs.

That any French national found fighting with the British would be shot.

Two fifths of France remained unoccupied and Petain subsequently set up a French government at Vichy to control the unoccupied territory. Before the total collapse of France the British managed to evacuate over 338,000 British troops and 118,000 French, Dutch and Belgians. These French forces formed the core of what was to become the Free French. Many French people quite unjustifiably blamed the British for the collapse of France and old rivalries and hostilities between France and Britain resurfaced in some quarters. Some French people were sympathetic to the Nazis and others became so.

Just before the French surrender Churchill's government offered France a solemn union with Great Britain. "France and Great Britain to become one nation every citizen of each country would become a citizen of the other, no longer two nations but one Franco-British Union" - but France declined. The motive behind Churchill's offer and the reason for France declining can only be a matter of conjecture.

As a boy during the war I accepted the view given by our leaders of the French as our brave allies, we saw the Free French forces depicted on newsreels with De Gaulle strutting like a peacock. Then, after the war, the French were regarded as victors and given a sector to control in Western Germany. It was not until some time after the war that I realised the extent to which some of the French were somewhat embarrassed to talk about the war, a situation that I think has persisted to this day. The first indication that I had was around about 1960 when we had a young French au pair. She told me that her father had been an airforce pilot during the war, when I asked her what type of aeroplane he flew she told me it was a Messerschmitt. It became clear that there were some French in Vichy France that volunteered to join the German forces. I do not know the extent to which that occurred, it is something that nobody wants to talk about.

France had a significant empire, mostly in Africa and the far-east, with some French forces and personnel located in those places. The sudden and unexpected collapse of France left French people in their colonies in a difficult position, most opted to give their allegiance to the nominally neutral Vichy government, the exceptions were Chad, The Ivory Coast and the New Hebrides. The first major problem for the British was the French navy, if that was to fall into the hands of the Germans it would seriously threaten the British position at sea where the Royal Navy had supremacy. A major part of the French fleet was located at Oran in Morocco. Churchill sent a British force there to confront the French. The British admiral, Admiral Somerville, gave the French admiral a number of options;

to join him, to take his ships to a British port, to take his ships to a port in the French West Indies or to scuttle his ships. The French rejected these offers stating his intention to remain loyal to the French government and to obey his orders to return his ships to France to be put under German supervision. With regret the British admiral gave the orders to fire on the French ships. In just five minutes three French battleships were destroyed along with a number of smaller naval ships and over 1000 French sailors were killed. The French people were extremely upset over the incident. Many people in this country were shocked, but there can be no doubt it was the right thing to do.

After the Battle of Britain, Hitler realised that without control of the air and without a stronger navy he could not launch an invasion force across the channel. Equally there was not the slightest chance that Britain could launch an attack on the Germans in France. The war between Britain and Germany in Europe became an air-war with both sides resorting to bombing. The ground battles moved to North Africa. Ethiopia was part of the Italian Empire and Mussolini, aware of Britain's weakness, had joined with the Germans, and sent his forces from Ethiopia, where he had 300,000 troops, to invade British Somaliland. A force of 30,000 Italians succeeded in driving the 6,000 British out. The Italians then launched attacks on Kenya and the Sudan, but they had their eyes on the big prize - Egypt. On 13 September 1941 the Italians crossed the border from Libya, another part of their empire, into Egypt and three days later succeeded in taking Sidi Barrani. 30,000 British troops under Wavell found themselves facing 250,000 Italians. Churchill had no choice but to send more men and tanks even though that left him weak at home. The Suez canal was absolutely essential to Britain's supply situation and had to be defended.

At about the same time, the willingness of the Vichy French to fight the British was demonstrated again when an attack was launched by the British against the port of Dakar. Free French forces were involved in the attack supported by the Royal Navy. It was hoped, that this attack would prevent Dakar falling into German hands to be used as a U-Boat base. It was thought that some of the French forces in Dakar would support the Free French forces but they did not, they fought hard and drove off the assault. To further demonstrate the position of Vichy France in the war, the Vichy air force launched a 100 bomber raid on the British base at Gibraltar and Petain repealed the French Law forbidding the incitement of racial hatred and action began against the Jewish community in Vichy France. A month later Petain, who had become an autocratic leader, called upon the French people to co-operate with the Germans. (The neutral USA impounded French ships in American ports in retaliation.)

In December 1940 it was reported that Admiral Darlan, the most senior military figure in Vichy France, had met with Hitler and tried to convince him that France would be a better ally for Germany than either Italy or Spain. It became apparent that Vichy France was an enemy of Britain rather than an ally.

Suggest break here.

At the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941 British and Commonwealth forces started to strike back in Africa. Under General O,Connor greatly outnumbered British forces drove the Italians out of Egypt, taking 100,000 prisoners, and followed the retreating Italians into Libya taking Benghazi and Tobruk. Under General Smuts British forces drove the Italians out of Ethiopia, restoring the Emperor to the throne. They also entered Italian Somalia from Kenya.

Another significant event relating to the colonies of European countries was the escape from Vichy France of the Belgian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, they escaped into fascist Spain but a clandestine British operation got them out of Spain. They then set up a Belgian cabinet in exile in London. The significance of these events was that the Belgian Congo gave allegiance to that cabinet and they provided a major source of raw materials for the British war effort.

By June 1941 the Germans had come to the support of the Italians in North Africa and counter attacked under Rommel, driving the British back towards Egypt. Rommel's forces were held but events on the other side of Egypt were worrying the British. Iran had become friendly with Germany and their oil would be a great asset to the Germans. British forces invaded Iran from the south whilst Russian forces invaded from the north, the country was occupied ensuring that the oil would be available to the allies. Iraq was not part of the British Empire but it was treaty bound to provide bases and airfields for the British. The Germans managed to engineer a rebellion against the British, Iraqi forces tried to seize the bases and the British were concerned that their bases should fall into German hands enabling them to launch attacks against Egypt. To prevent this they sent additional forces to Iraq and forced the signing of an armistice which allowed Britain to retain its bases, the German and Italian diplomats fled. A similar problem existed with Syria. Syria was part of the French Empire and was loyal to Vichy France and the Germans were introducing forces and airfields there. They launched air attacks from Syria against the British and French forces in Iraq.. A combined force of British and Free French invaded Syria but they met bitter resistance from 45,000 Vichy French forces comprised of French soldiers, Legionnaires and colonial troops, and once again the British found themselves fighting the French. This was also another instance where French forces that were supporting the British were fighting French forces that were fighting in support of the Germans. The British and French did ultimately defeat the Vichy French and German forces in Syria and the Lebanon and declared them independent states. (The French later reneged on that agreement).

In August 1941 Petain delivered a proclamation that effectively imposed fascist rule in Vichy France. The Vichy French police, set about rounding up all foreign born Jews, they sent 13,000 to the concentration camps.

Madagascar was part of the French empire, the Vichy government had already agreed to allow the Japanese a free hand in Indochina and the British were concerned that they would do the same in Madagascar. The British called upon the Governor to join with the Free French but he refused, remaining loyal to the Vichy government. A South African force landed on the south of the island and a British force landed in the north. These forces eventually took control.

In November 1942 the Germans occupied Vichy France but left the government nominally in charge because by this stage they fully supported the Nazis. Von Runstedt, who was really in charge, described the attitude of the French population as indifferent. The French in Canada voted against the imposition of conscription by the Canadian government. Possibly because they weren't sure which side they should support.

In June 1943 De Gaulle set up a Committee of National Liberation in Algiers (Algeria was another French colony) with General Giraud as Commander in Chief of Free French forces. De Gaulle tended to stay in Algiers setting himself apart from the Allied leaders. Subsequently De Gaulle got rid of Giraud as a rival, called the Committee the Provisional Government of the French republic with himself as President in sole charge. He told his audience:

"France does not want to be liberated by others, even by her best friends. She does not want gifts. We intend to win our liberty ourselves."

Such stupid arrogance is almost beyond belief. As we all know, it took hundreds and thousands of British and American troops to liberate France and thousands of them died. Free French forces under De Gaulle were relatively few in number and played a minor roll. De Gaulle's forces were not an integral part of the Allied effort, tending to ignore orders from General Eisenhower, the overall commander. When the allies neared Paris DeGaulle wanted to liberate Paris. Eisenhower was more cautious, he did not want to risk a battle in the city and he was concerned at the problem of feeding four million people. He told DeGaulle that he would wait but DeGaulle ignored this and took an armoured column and rushed to Paris. In the event the Germans decided not to defend the city and DeGaulle was able to strut through Paris as its liberator.

In the September 1943 Free French forces from North Africa landed on Corsica, to support 20,000 resistance forces that had rebelled against the German occupation after Italy surrendered. The Germans did not resist but they managed to get away with 26,000 men, over 3000 vehicles and 5000 tons of equipment. They even managed to take 1200 of the prisoners of war with them.

Despite pressure from the UK and the US, the French forces in Lebanon arrested the Lebanese government and put the country under French control, reneging on the assurance given of independence at the time of the liberation of the country.

Of course there were many Free French soldiers who fought bravely to defeat the Nazis, there were resistance fighters who risked torture and death in order to strike against the German occupation and to help the British in many different ways, including the shielding and escaping of British airmen. Many of the resistance were communists, however, and not popular with all French people. The French suffered much of what is now referred to as 'collateral damage' or 'friendly fire' during and before the liberation. Overall the record of the French in world war II was mixed and, I suppose, most French people were conscious of this, which probably explains their ambivalence. Despite the fact that, had it not been for us and the Americans, they would have either remained subservient to the Germans or the Russians, in my experience they never expressed much appreciation for their liberation, unlike their northern neighbours. Perhaps they really believed that it was DeGaulle and the Free French that liberated them. It is easy to be critical of the French but one can only wonder how the British might have behaved if we had been occupied? I would like to think that we would have maintained greater unity and remained more loyal to our allies.

Ron Watts


I was watching a TV programme on the war in the Atlantic recently. The period was just after the USA had joined in the war. The Americans chose to ignore our advice and refused to adopt the convoy system. As a result the U-boats had a field day. In one mission U 123 sank 24 merchant ships off the east coast of the USA. There was some newsreel footage of the return of U 123 to its port in France, the dock was lined with a cheering crowd, mostly women and, presumably, mostly French.

Ron Watts

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