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Free France

La France Libre
Anthem: "La Marseillaise" (official)

*   Colonies under the control of Free France by September 1940 *   Colonies under the control of Free France by November 1942 *   Colonies under the control of Free France in November 1942 after Operation Torch *   Metropolitan France (French Algeria) under the control of Free France in November 1942 after Operation Torch *   Metropolitan France (zone libre) under Vichy control until occupied by the Axis in November 1942 after Operation Torch (with Corsica under the control of Free France in September 1943). *   Colony occupied by the Axis (French Tunisia) in November 1942 after Operation Torch, under the control of Free France by May 1943 *   Colonies under the control of Free France by July 1943 (French Somaliland and French West Indies) *   French Indochina colony (Tonkin) under Japanese occupation by September 1940. *   Rest of French Indochina under Japanese and Thai occupation by July 1941. *    Occupied metropolitan France under Axis control (German zones and Italian zones) after the fall of the Third Republic in June 1940, under Free French control by August 1944.
StatusGovernment in exile, provisional government over unoccupied and liberated territories
CapitalBrazzaville (1940–1943)
Algiers (1943–1944)
London (Seat of the French National Committee)
Secular state
Historical eraWorld War II
18 June 1940
• Creation of the CLFN
3 June 1943
3 June 1944
ISO 3166 codeFR
Preceded by
Succeeded by
French Third Republic
Provisional Government of the French Republic
Part of a series on the
History of France
National Emblem
National Emblem
National Emblem
Flag of France.svg
France portal

Free France and its Free French Forces (French: France Libre and Forces françaises libres) were the government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War and its military forces, that continued to fight against the Axis powers as one of the Allies after the fall of France. Set up in London in June 1940, it organised and supported the Resistance in occupied France.

Charles de Gaulle, a French government minister who had rejected the armistice concluded by Marshal Philippe Pétain and escaped to Britain, exhorted the French to resist in his BBC broadcast "Appeal of 18 June" (Appel du 18 juin), which had a stirring effect on morale throughout France and its colonies, although initially relatively few French forces responded to de Gaulle's call for resistance.

On 27 October 1940, the Empire Defense Council (Conseil de défense de l'Empire [fr]) was constituted to organise the rule of the territories in central Africa, Asia and Oceania that had heeded the 18 June call. It was replaced on 24 September 1941 by the French National Committee (Comité national français or CNF). On 13 July 1942, "Free France" was officially renamed France combattante ("Fighting France"), to mark that the struggle against the Axis was conducted both externally by the FFF and internally by the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). After the reconquest of North Africa, this was in turn formally merged with de Gaulle's rival general Henri Giraud's command in Algiers to form the French Committee of National Liberation (Comité français de Libération nationale or CFNL). Exile officially ended with the liberation of Paris by the 2nd Armoured Free French Division and Resistance forces on 25 August 1944, ushering in the Provisional Government of the French Republic (gouvernement provisoire de la République française or GPRF). It ruled France until the end of the war and afterwards to 1946, when the Fourth Republic was established, thus ending the series of interim regimes that had succeeded the Third Republic after its fall in 1940.

The Free French fought Axis and Vichy regime troops and served on battlefronts everywhere from the Middle East to Indochina and North Africa. The Free French Navy operated as an auxiliary force to the Royal Navy and, in the North Atlantic, to the Royal Canadian Navy.[1] Free French units also served in the Royal Air Force, Soviet Air Force, and British SAS, before larger commands were established directly under the control of the government-in-exile.

From colonial outposts in Africa, India, and the Pacific, Free France steadily took over more and more Vichy possessions, until after the Allied landings in North Africa (Operation Torch) in November 1942 Vichy only ruled over the zone libre in southern France and a few possessions in the West Indies (and nominally over Japanese-occupied French Indochina). The French Army of Africa switched allegiance to Free France, and this caused the Axis to occupy Vichy in reaction.

On August 1, 1943, L'Armée d'Afrique was formally united with the Free French Forces to form L'Armée française de la Liberation [fr]. By mid-1944, the forces of this army numbered more than 400,000, and they participated in the Normandy landings and the invasion of southern France, eventually leading the drive on Paris. Soon they were fighting in Alsace, the Alps and Brittany. By the end of the war, they were 1,300,000 strong—the fourth-largest Allied army in Europe—and took part in the Allied advance through France and invasion of Germany. The Free French government re-established a provisional republic after the liberation, preparing the ground for the Fourth Republic in 1946.

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  • ✪ Charles de Gaulle: The Leader of Free France
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Charles De Gaulle was the sort of man who turned heads. At six foot five inches in height, he towered over his contemporaries, and, with his regal bearing and firm gaze, he exuded an air of forthright self-confidence. Throughout his life, his unswerving love for France, coupled with his determination to right the wrongs of the past, turned him into a hero of the resistance movement and one of the French Republic’s truly great statesmen. In Today’s Biographics, we examine the very full life of Charles De Gaulle, Early Life Charles Andre Joseph Marie De Gaulle was born on November 22, 1890. He was the third of five children to Henri and Jean De Gaulle. Henri was a military man who had served in the Franco-Prussian War. By the time his second son was born he was a teacher at a Catholic school in the French industrial region of Lille. Shortly after the birth of Charles, the family moved to Paris, where Henri took up a position as the headmaster of the Jesuit College of the Immaculate Conception. Henri was a lover of history and the glory of France. Nights in the De Gaulle home would often be spent with the children gathered around to listen to their father regale them with stories of the country’s history and the part their ancestors had played in it. Charles would later recall the stories his father would tell about their most famous ancestor, Sieur Jehan De Gaulle, a knight who fought against the English at the Battle of Agincourt. The glorious history of his nation that Charles was learning at the feet of his father came with a distrust of the country’s natural enemy, the British. Henri would not allow his children to learn the English language. Charles’ mother, Jean, loved her country even more than her husband. Charles would later say that she had . . . An uncompromising love for her country that was equal to her religious piety. The defeat of France at the battle of Sedan in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war was a source of humiliation for all French patriots, including the De Gaulle’s. They seethed with the desire to avenge the shame that had fallen upon their once mighty nation. They kept this ambition alive in their children, with Henri regularly taking them to the cemetery at Le Bourget and having them read aloud the inscription to the dead of 1870 . . . The sword of France, broken in their valiant hands, will once more be reformed by their descendants. Even though he wasn’t the smartest of the five De Gaulle children, Charles was their natural leader. He had a mischievous, dominant attitude and he was always organizing some sort of practical joke on one of his siblings. When he was about six, he invented his own language, which involved speaking French backwards. He forced his brothers and sisters to learn it. They naturally objected but his insistence paid off and they all became fluent at it. This was an early sign of the determination and persistent force of character that would come to be his trademark as an adult. A Model Soldier Like most French boys, Charles loved to play soldiers. Yet, when he and his brothers lined up their model armies on the bedroom floor, he would exhibit a seriousness and intensity that went way beyond a childhood game. He always insisted on portraying the French army and would become cold and dispassionate during the war games as he put his total energies into defeating the enemy. Charles attended the Jesuit College where his father was the headmaster. He was a keen student who loved to read and developed an early interest in philosophy. By the age of ten, though, he had decided that he was going to pursue a life in the military. From that point onward, Charles was single-minded in his military focus. At the age of fifteen, he wrote an essay in which he projected himself forward to the year 1930 where, as General De Gaulle, he led the French army in defeating the Germans, finally inflicting vengeance for the defeat of 1870. Charles was determined to win a place at the military academy at Saint Cyr. His hard work at school paid off and he was accepted into the Academy in 1909. However, prospective officers were required to serve a year in the ranks before entering officer training school and so, in October 1909, he was enlisted into the 33rd Infantry Regiment stationed at Arras. Four months later he won his first promotion, to corporal. It was usual for an aspiring officer to reach the rank of sergeant during that first year, but De Gaulle’s company commander, Captain Tuguy, refused to bestow this rank upon him. When asked why he had not promoted De Gaulle, Tuguy commented . . . Would you have me nominate to sergeant a boy who would only be at his ease as the grand constable? In reflecting upon this time with the 33rd Infantry, De Gaulle later made the wry remark that the most valuable lesson he had gotten from his year in the ranks was that if you did the exact opposite to what you were told by the non-commissioned officers, you would get on fairly well. La Grande Asperge He entered the Military Academy of St. Cyr in the Autumn of 1910. He quickly earned a reputation as an arrogant dandy with an air of superiority. Two nicknames quickly became attached to him – ‘Le Grande Charles’ and ‘La Grande Asperge’. This last title translates as ‘the great asparagus’ and was, apparently a reference to his stature. At 6 foot, five inches in height he towered over virtually everyone he met. One of his classmates was the future General Bethouart, commander of French troops in 1940’s Battle of Norway. He remembered De Gaulle as a mediocre student who had few friends. The fact that he graduated 13th out of a class of 211 students in 1912 seems to indicate that he was somewhat more than mediocre. It was expected that a young man with the ambition of De Gaulle would choose to join a cavalry regiment as that was traditionally the fastest route to promotion through the ranks. However, Charles had already come to the conclusion that the days of the horse soldier were over. He believed that future wars would be won by the infantry. As a result, he made the decision to return to the 33rd Infantry at Arras. De Gaulle spent the next two years learning the craft of an army officer. It didn’t take long for the lanky officer to make an impression in the town of Arras. Heads turned when he passed by, with people being captivated by both his extraordinary height and his regal bearing. Yet, his rather caustic, cold nature repelled more than his impressive appearance attracted. Not long after De Gaulle’s arrival at Arras, the 33rd received a new commanding officer, Colonel Phillipe Pétain. Charles developed a great deal of respect for Petain. In his memoirs he wrote . . . My first colonel, Pétain, taught me the art of command. Petain was also impressed with De Gaulle. On October, 1913, he recommended his promotion to First Lieutenant. First World War When war broke out in August, 1914, the 33rd Infantry Regiment, as part of the French Fifth Army was deployed to Dinant in order to halt the German advance throughout that region. De Gaulle was immediately into the action, with his first engagement on August 15th being the Battle of Dinant. He was wounded in the knee and sent to hospital to recover. When he returned to the regiment in October, many of his men and fellow officers were dead. Two months later, he was promoted to regimental adjutant. The 33rd infantry regiment became famous for their ability to crawl out into no-man’s land in order to spy on the enemy. The intelligence garnered from this work won De Gaulle the Croix de Guerre medal. In February, 1915, he was promoted to captain. The following month an inconsequential hand wound became infected, leaving him out of action for the next four months. During the Battle of Verdun in March, 1916, De Gaulle was wounded in the left thigh by a bayonet and subsequently captured after passing out from the effects of poison gas. De Gaulle spent the remainder of the war in a German prisoner of war camp. He attempted to escape five times. He attempted escape by hiding in a laundry basket, digging a tunnel, digging a hole through a wall, and even posing as a nurse to fool his guards. In letters that he wrote to his parents during his captivity he expressed his great frustration that he was unable to participate in the war effort any longer. He referred to himself as being ‘cuckolded’ and fell into a state of depression. Following the Armistice in 1918, he was released and returned to his parents’ home in Dordogne in southern France. The Inter War Years In early 1920, De Gaulle was posted to Poland as part of the French Military Mission to Poland. There he served as an instructor to the Polish Infantry. He served with distinction, earning the rank of major in the Polish army and being awarded the distinguished Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration. He returned to France in 1921 and spent a year as a military history lecturer at the St. Cyr academy. He then spent two years studying at the Ecole Militaire in Paris. He graduated with a grade of assez bien, or ‘good enough’, and was then posted to the Rhineland area of Germany which was under French Army occupation. During the mid-1920’s De Gaulle worked as a ghost-writer for his old commander at Arras, the now Marshal Pétain. In 1926, the two had a falling out over a book on the history of the French soldier that De Gaulle had ghost-written called Le Soldat. In October of that year he returned to the Rhine to commence his military duties there. In 1927, after a dozen years in the army, De Gaulle was promoted to commandant. He was then posted to the occupying forces at Trier in Germany at the head of the 19th chasseurs a pied, which was a light infantry battalion. De Gaulle was a hard taskmaster on his soldiers, often pushing them beyond what was reasonable. On one occasion he got into hot water for throwing a soldier into prison for exercising his right to appeal to his member of parliament for a transfer to a less demanding unit. Even though he had had a falling out with Pétain, he called on his old commander to help get himself out of the mess. With the end of the Allied occupation of the Rhineland in 1929, De Gaulle was posted to Lebanon and Syria. He served with distinction, with his commanding officer providing him with an impressive recommendation when he returned to France in 1931. He then received a posting to the General Secretariat of the Supreme War Council, based in Paris. His job description was as a drafting officer. For the next six years, De Gaulle gained valuable experience in military bureaucracy. Over that time, he worked with government officials in drafting bills related to the military. He worked on a bill for the organization of France during the event of war, but it did not pass the senate. Throughout this period, De Gaulle was not shy about voicing his opinion on the military preparations that France was making in the event of another European war. He considered the line of fortifications known as the Maginot Line, on which billions of dollars was being spent, to be a wasted effort. Rather than focusing on a defensive footing, he contended that the French needed to be pro-active through mechanized warfare that was fast moving. In 1934, he wrote a book called ‘Toward A Professional Army.’ In it he outlined his plans for the Future French Army, with a hundred thousand men and three thousand tanks. In 1937, De Gaulle came a step closer to realizing this ambition when he was given command of the 507th Tank Regiment. With his promotion of the tank as the key to French infantry success, he became a nationally known figure, with people referring to him as ‘Colonel Motors.’ France Falls With the French declaration of war upon Germany in September, 1939, De Gaulle was put in command of the Fifth Army’s five tank battalions, mostly equipped with R35 light tanks. In early 1940, he lobbied for the position of Secretary General of the War Council, the government’s top military adviser, but was passed over. Towards the end of March 1940, De Gaulle was given command of the newly created 4th Armoured Division. With the German attack on May 10th, the 4th Armoured went into action. On May 17th, they encountered the Germans at Montcornet, near Laon. It was a disaster for De Gaulle, with 23 of 90 of his tanks destroyed by mines, anti-tank weapons, or Stukas, dive bomber and ground-attack aircraft. Two days later his reinforced division was decimated for a second time. Despite being ordered to withdraw, he fought on, demanding even more reinforcements. Even though this request was denied he managed to push the Germans back to Caumont. But this was only a temporary respite. On May 20th, De Gaulle began to retreat in the face of the unstoppable German advance. On May 23rd he was promoted to brigadier-general. On May 28th he led an attack on a German bridgehead at Abbeville, which captured some 400 prisoners. By the beginning of June, De Gaulle had been recalled to Paris where he was offered and accepted the position of under-secretary of state for National Defence for War. On June 8th, he met with Army Commander in Chief Weygand who was about to announce the French surrender. When De Gaulle tried to convince him to fight on, Weygand laughed despairingly. The following day De Gaulle flew to London where he met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the first time. His attempts to convince Churchill to put more RAF fighters into the Battle for France fell on deaf ears. Upon his return to Paris, he wanted to defend the city to the last man, but Weygand had other ideas. The government was relocated to Tours, where a series of meetings with British officials were held. During these meetings, De Gaulle’s fighting resolve impressed the Brits, standing in stark contrast with the other French leaders. On June 16th, De Gaulle was back in London discussing the logistics of a troop withdrawal to French North Africa. When he returned to France later that day, he discovered that Prime Minister Reynaud had resigned to be replaced by Marshal Pétain, who was intent on signing an armistice with the Germans. De Gaulle now fled France for London ahead of the German take-over. On June 18th, Churchill offered him air time on BBC radio to address the French people. In the speech, De Gaulle encouraged his countrymen to be brave during the occupation, resisting it as best they could. The next day he gave another broadcast. This time he was more critical of the Pétain government, denouncing it as illegitimate. On June 22nd, following the signing of the armistice, De Gaulle took to the BBC again. He denounced the surrender and again declared the French government illegitimate. On June 28th, the British government recognized De Gaulle as the leader of Free France. His government in exile consisted of three colonels, twelve captains and three battalions of legionnaires. Over the following months, De Gaulle’s main weapon was the BBC radio. He would give broadcasts an average of three times per month, denouncing the occupation government based in Vichy and urging Frenchmen to resist the occupation. The Pétain government sentenced De Gaulle to death in absentia. Throughout the war years, De Gaulle was able to slowly build up the Free French Army. On 21st April, 1943 he boarded a plane en route to Scotland to inspect his navy. The plane almost crashed on take-off and it was later found that it had been sabotaged using acid. In May 1943, De Gaulle moved his headquarters to French Algiers, where he became the head of the French Committee of National Liberation. He became involved in the planning for the D-Day, invasion, although the Americans and British became increasingly frustrated with his insistence that he was the rightful leader of France. He returned to Britain on June 4th, 1944 whereupon Churchill asked him to address the French people over BBC radio in anticipation of the allied invasion. However, the script he was given did not acknowledge him as the legitimate interim ruler of France and so he refused to deliver it. Reclaiming France In the wake of the D-Day invasion of June 6th, 1944 the Free French Army, under the leadership of General de Lattre Tassigny, landed in southern France and were instrumental in pushing back the Germans. On June 14th, De Gaulle returned to France. Travelling through newly liberated Norman towns, he was well received by the townspeople. He established the capital of Free France in Bayeux and then set off to Rome where he met with the newly installed Italian government. From there he flew to Washington for his first meeting with President Roosevelt. The visit was a strained one, with Roosevelt not providing the usual privileges of a visiting head of state. De Gaulle pushed for the allies to prioritize the liberation of Paris, fearing a communist take-over. But there was no strategic priority for the allies to focus on Paris. Still, through De Gaulle’s insistence, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower agreed that Paris would be prioritized out of humanitarian and symbolic need. He also permitted the Free French Army to be the first to enter the French capital. On Saturday, August 26th, De Gaulle entered Paris in a triumphal march down the Champs Elysees. As his procession made its way toward the Notre Dame Cathedral, it came under machine gun fire from Vichy government militia. A BBC reporter who was present noted De Gaulle’s demeanor as he confidently strode forward . . . General de Gaulle walked straight ahead into what appeared to me to be a hail of fire ... but he went straight ahead without hesitation, his shoulders flung back, and walked right down the centre aisle, even while the bullets were pouring about him. It was the most extraordinary example of courage I have ever seen. Upon reaching the Great Hall of Hotel de Ville, De Gaulle spoke before an ecstatic crowd. His inspiring message included these words . . . Paris! Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the assistance of the armies of France, wit De Gaulle commuted around a thousand of them. h the support and assistance of the whole of France! ... The enemy is faltering but he is not yet beaten. He is still on our soil. It will not suffice that we, with the assistance of our dear and admirable allies, will have chased him from our home in order to be satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory, as is fitting, as conquerors. ... It is for this revenge, this vengeance and this justice, that we will continue to fight until the last day, until the day of the total and complete victory. With his bold and triumphant entry into Paris, De Gaulle won the respect of the world. In the days that followed the allied leaders made statements recognizing his government as the legitimate ruler of France. The provisional Government of the French Republic was established on September 10th, 1944. De Gaulle then set out on a tour of the country. In each city he freely mixed with the crowds with no regard for his own safety. Towards the end of 1944, a Legal Purge was established to punish traitors during the occupation and remove the last vestiges of the Vichy Government. Over the course of the purge around 2,000 people were sentenced to death.In May, 1945 the Germans surrendered, signing an armistice with France in Berlin. However, on the very day that victory in Europe was proclaimed, May 8th, riots broke out in French Tunisia. Twelve days later, the French artillery fired on demonstrators in Damascus, leaving hundreds dead. This event caused the ever testy relationship between De Gaulle and Churchill to reach a low ebb. Churchill commented that De Gaulle was ‘a great danger for peace and to Great Britain.’ The New France The French Constituent assembly unanimously elected De Gaulle as head of the French government on November 13th, 1945. After two months of struggle with the Communists within his government he abruptly resigned and formed the right-wing Rally of the French People. He believed that his popularity as a war hero would propel him back to power, but this gamble failed to pay off. After three years in the political wilderness, he left the party and politics behind. The Algerian Crisis De Gaulle then retired from public life to write his memoirs. In 1958, a crisis in Algeria brought him back to politics. The Algerian National Liberation Front was waging a war for independence and De Gaulle was seen as the kind of strong national leader who could quash it. He was returned to the Presidency and proceeded to use brutal force to put down the rebels. Bu these harsh methods backfired. The Algerian people were driven further towards independence, while around the world’s there was condemnation against the French government. Under intense pressure from within his country and abroad, De Gaulle finally granted independence to all thirteen French African colonies in 1962. As the Cold War developed, De Gaulle advocated the development of a French nuclear arsenal. The country became the world’s fourth nuclear power in February, 1960. Three years later, De Gaulle refused to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty. In 1965, he was re-elected for a second seven-year term as French President. He ran his government and his country with a heavy-handed, dogmatic style that often drew criticism. In early, 1969 he called for a nationwide referendum on the reform of the senate. When his proposal was rejected by the people, he offered his resignation, following through on a televised promise made two days before the referendum. End of the Line At the age of 78, having lived an extraordinarily full public life, De Gaulle retired to write an updated version of his memoirs. He died suddenly on November 9th, 1970 while watching TV. He complained to his wife that he was feeling pain in his neck and then collapsed to the ground. He died within minutes. The autopsy revealed that he had suffered from a ruptured blood vessel. The funeral of Charles De Gaulle on November 12th, 19070 was the largest in French history. Today he ranks along Napoleon as among the greatest of French leaders.



Historically, an individual became "Free French" by enlisting in the military units organised by the CFN or by employment by the civilian arm of the Committee. On 1 August 1943 after the merger of CFN and representatives of the former Vichy regime in North Africa to form the CFLN earlier in June, the FFF and the Armée d'Afrique (constituting a major part of the Vichy regular forces allowed by the 1940 armistice) were merged to form the French Liberation Army, Armée française de la Libération [fr], and all subsequent enlistments were in this combined force.

In many sources, Free French describes any French individual or unit that fought against Axis forces after the June 1940 armistice. Postwar, to settle disputes over the Free French heritage, the French government issued an official definition of the term. Under this "ministerial instruction of July 1953" (instruction ministérielle du 29 juillet 1953), only those who served with the Allies after the Franco-German armistice in 1940 and before 1 August 1943 may correctly be called "Free French".[2]



Charles de Gaulle was an armoured division commander and a minister in the Reynaud government during the Battle of France.
Charles de Gaulle was an armoured division commander and a minister in the Reynaud government during the Battle of France.

On 10 May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, rapidly defeating the Dutch and Belgians, while armoured units attacking through the Ardennes cut off the Franco-British strike force in Belgium. By the end of May, the British and French northern armies were trapped in a series of pockets, including Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Saint-Valery-en-Caux and Lille. The Dunkirk evacuation was only made possible by the resistance of these troops, particularly the French army divisions at Lille.[3]

From 27 May to 4 June, over 200,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force and 140,000 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk.[4] Neither side viewed this as the end of the battle; French evacuees were quickly returned to France and many fought in the June battles. After being evacuated from Dunkirk, Alanbrooke landed in Cherbourg on 2 June to reform the BEF, along with the 1st Canadian Division, the only remaining armoured unit in Britain. Contrary to what is often assumed, French morale was higher in June than May and they easily repulsed an attack in the south by Fascist Italy. A defensive line was re-established along the Somme but much of the armour was lost in Northern France; they were also crippled by shortages of aircraft, the vast majority incurred when airfields were over-run, rather than air combat.[5]

On 1 June, Charles de Gaulle was promoted brigadier general; on 5 June, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud appointed him Under Secretary of State for Defence, a junior post in the French cabinet.[6] De Gaulle was known for his willingness to challenge accepted ideas; in 1912, he asked to be posted to Pétain's regiment, whose maxim 'Firepower kills' was then in stark contrast to the prevailing orthodoxy.[7] He was also a long-time advocate of the modern armoured warfare ideas applied by the Wehrmacht, and commanded the 4th Armoured Division at the Battle of Montcornet.[8] However, he was not personally popular; significantly, none of his immediate military subordinates joined him in 1940.[9]

The new French commander Maxime Weygand was 73 years old and like Pétain, an Anglophobe who viewed Dunkirk as another example of Britain's unreliability as an ally; de Gaulle later recounted he 'gave up hope' when the Germans renewed their attack on 8 June and demanded an immediate Armistice.[10] De Gaulle was one of a small group of government ministers who favoured continued resistance and Reynaud sent him to London in order to negotiate the proposed union between France and Britain. When this plan collapsed, he resigned on 16 June and Pétain became President of the Council.[11] De Gaulle flew to Bordeaux on 17th but returned to London the same day when he realised Pétain had already agreed an armistice with the Axis Powers.[8]

De Gaulle rallies the Free French

In Occupied France during the war, reproductions of the 18 June appeal were distributed through underground means as pamphlets and plastered on walls as posters by supporters of the Résistance. This could be a dangerous activity.
In Occupied France during the war, reproductions of the 18 June appeal were distributed through underground means as pamphlets and plastered on walls as posters by supporters of the Résistance. This could be a dangerous activity.

On 18 June, General de Gaulle spoke to the French people via BBC radio, urging French soldiers, sailors and airmen to join in the fight against the Nazis:

"France is not alone! She is not alone! She has a great empire behind her! Together with the British Empire, she can form a bloc that controls the seas and continue the struggle. She may, like England, draw upon the limitless industrial resources of the United States".[8]

Some members of the British Cabinet had reservations about de Gaulle's speech, fearing that such a broadcast could provoke the Pétain government into handing the French fleet over to the Nazis,[12] but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, despite his own concerns, agreed to the broadcast.

In France, de Gaulle's "Appeal of 18 June" (Appel du 18 juin) was not widely heard that day but, together with his BBC broadcasts[13] in subsequent days and his later communications, came to be widely remembered throughout France and its colonial empire as the voice of national honour and freedom.


On the 19 of June, de Gaulle again broadcast to the French nation saying that in France, "all forms of authority had disappeared" and since its government had "fallen under the bondage of the enemy and all our institutions have ceased to function", that it was "the clear duty" of all French servicemen to fight on.[14]

This would form the essential legal basis of de Gaulle's government in exile, that the armistice soon to be signed with the Nazis was not merely dishonourable but illegal, and that in signing it, the French government would itself be committing treason.[14] On the other hand, if Vichy was the legal French government as some such as Julian T. Jackson have argued, de Gaulle and his followers were revolutionaries, unlike the Dutch, Belgian, and other governments in exile in London.[15] A third option might be that neither considered that a fully free, legitimate, sovereign, and independent successor state to the Third Republic existed following the Armistice, as both Free France and Vichy France refrained from making that implicit claim by studiously avoiding using the word "republic" when referring to themselves,[citation needed] even though republicanism had been a core ideological value and central tenet of the French state ever since the French Revolution—and especially since the Franco-Prussian War. In Vichy's case those reasons were compounded with ideas of a Révolution nationale about stamping out France's republican heritage.

On 22 June 1940, Marshal Pétain signed an armistice with Germany, followed by a similar one with Italy on 24 June; both of these came into force on 25 June.[16] After a parliamentary vote on 10 July, Pétain became the leader of the newly established authoritarian regime known as Vichy France, the town of Vichy being the seat of government. De Gaulle was tried in absentia in Vichy France and sentenced to death for treason.[17] He, on the other hand, regarded himself as the last remaining member of the legitimate Reynaud government and considered Pétain's assumption of power to be an unconstitutional coup d'état.

Beginnings of the Free French forces

Emile Fayolle, pilot of the Free French Air Force, during the Battle of Britain.[18]
Emile Fayolle, pilot of the Free French Air Force, during the Battle of Britain.[18]

Despite de Gaulle's call to continue the struggle, few French forces initially pledged their support. By the end of July 1940, only about 7,000 soldiers had joined the Free French Army in England.[19][20] Three-quarters of French servicemen in Britain requested repatriation.[21]

France was bitterly divided by the conflict. Frenchmen everywhere were forced to choose sides, and often deeply resented those who had made a different choice.[22] One French admiral, René-Émile Godfroy, voiced the opinion of many of those who decided not to join the Free French forces, when in June 1940, he explained to the exasperated British why he would not order his ships from their Alexandria harbour to join de Gaulle:

"For us Frenchmen, the fact is that a government still exists in France, a government supported by a Parliament established in non-occupied territory and which in consequence cannot be considered irregular or deposed. The establishment elsewhere of another government, and all support for this other government would clearly be rebellion".[22]

Equally, few Frenchmen believed that England could stand alone. In June 1940, Pétain and his generals told Churchill that "in three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken".[23] Of France's far-flung empire, only the Franco-British ruled New Hebrides condominium in the Pacific answered on July 20 De Gaulle's call to arms. It was not until late August that Free France would gain significant support in French Equatorial Africa.[24]

Unlike the troops at Dunkirk or naval forces at sea, relatively few members of the French Air Force had the means or opportunity to escape. Like all military personnel trapped on the mainland, they were functionally subject to the Pétain government: "French authorities made it clear that those who acted on their own initiative would be classed as deserters, and guards were placed to thwart efforts to get on board ships".[25] In the summer of 1940, around a dozen pilots made it to England and volunteered for the RAF to help fight the Luftwaffe.[26][27] Many more, however, made their way through long and circuitous routes to French territories overseas, eventually regrouping as the Free French Air Force.[28]

The French Navy was better able to immediately respond to de Gaulle's call to arms. Most units initially stayed loyal to Vichy, but about 3,600 sailors operating 50 ships around the world joined with the Royal Navy and formed the nucleus of the Free French Naval Forces (FFNF; in French: FNFL).[20] France's surrender found her only aircraft carrier, Béarn, en route from the United States loaded with a precious cargo of American fighter and bomber aircraft. Unwilling to return to occupied France, but likewise reluctant to join de Gaulle, Béarn instead sought harbour in Martinique, her crew showing little inclination to side with the British in their continued fight against the Nazis. Already obsolete at the start of the war, she would remain in Martinique for the next four years, her aircraft rusting in the tropical climate.[29]


Initially at least, the Free French forces were drawn mostly from the French colonial empire, rather than from metropolitan France. French nationals from the tropical African colonies formed a large part of the recruited forces at the beginning, as did nationals from French Algeria following Operation Torch in 1942. Many combatants were drawn from the native populations of French colonies. Natives of Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other former French African colonies made up a large portion of the French forces, around 56% of the army at the time of Operation Dragoon in August 1944 (134,000 Algerians, 73,000 Moroccans, 26,000 Tunisians and 80,000 men from colonies in black Africa). Additionally, 176,000 men were Pied-Noir, French European settlers in North Africa, 50,000 men were from mainland France (15,000 had escaped France through Spain) and 13,000 Corsicans.[30][31][32] From September 1944 onward, the number of men recruited from metropolitan France dramatically increased. In late September 1944, most African soldiers were replaced by young recruits of the French Forces of the Interior to better deal with the cold weather. Bolstered by rapid recruitment from metropolitan France, the number of troops rose from around 560,000 in the summer of 1944 to 1 million by the end of the year and eventually 1.3 million by April 1945.

The Free French forces included men from the French Pacific Islands. Mainly coming from Tahiti, there were 550 volunteers in April 1941. They would serve through the North African campaign (including the Battle of Bir Hakeim), the Italian Campaign and much of the Liberation of France. In November 1944, 275 remaining volunteers were repatriated and replaced with men of French Forces of the Interior to better deal with the cold weather.[33]

The Free French forces also included 5,000 Non-French Europeans, mainly serving in units of the Foreign Legion. There were also escaped Spanish Republicans, veterans of the Spanish Civil War. In August 1944, they numbered 350 men.[34]

The ethnic composition of divisions varied. The main common difference, before the period of August to November 1944, was armoured divisions and armour and support elements within infantry divisions were constituted of mainly white French soldiers and infantry elements of infantry divisions were mainly made up of colonial soldiers. Nearly all NCOs and officers were white French. Both the 2e Division Blindée and 1er Division Blindée were made up of around 75% Europeans and 25% Mahgrebians which is why the 2e Division Blindée was selected for the Liberation of Paris.[35] The 5e Division Blindée was almost entirely made up of white Frenchmen.

Records for the Italian campaign show that both the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division and 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division were made up of 60% Mahgrebians and 40% Europeans while the 4th Moroccan Infantry Division was made up of 65% Mahgrebians and 35% Europeans.[36] The three North African divisions had one brigade of North African soldiers in each division replaced with a brigade of French Forces of the Interior in January 1945.[37] Both the 1st Free French Division and 9th Colonial Infantry Division contained a strong contingent of Tirailleurs Sénégalais brigades. The 1st Free French Division also contained a mixed brigade of French Troupes de marine and the Pacific island volunteers.[33] It also included the Foreign Legion Brigades. In late September and early October 1944, both the Tirailleurs Sénégalais brigades and Pacific Islanders were replaced by brigades of troops recruited from mainland France.[38] This was also when many new Infantry divisions (12 overall) began to be recruited from mainland France, including the 10th Infantry Division and many Alpine Infantry Divisions. The 3rd Armoured Division was also created in May 1945 but saw no combat in the war.

The Free French units in the Royal Air Force, Soviet Air Force, and British SAS were mainly composed of men from metropolitan France.

Additionally, according to French historian Jean-François Muracciole, between the creation of the Free French forces in the Summer 1940 and the merger with the Army of Africa in summer 1943, 73,100 men fought for Free France. This included 39,300 French (from metropolitan France and colonial settlers), 30,000 Colonial soldiers (mostly from Black Africa) and 3,800 foreigners.[39]

Cross of Lorraine

The Free French naval jack and French naval honour jack.The argent rhomboid field is defaced with a gules Lorraine cross, the emblem of the Free French.
The Free French naval jack and French naval honour jack.
The argent rhomboid field is defaced with a gules Lorraine cross, the emblem of the Free French.

Capitaine de corvette Thierry d'Argenlieu[40] suggested the adoption of the Cross of Lorraine as a symbol of the Free French. This was chosen to recall the perseverance of Joan of Arc, patron saint of France, whose symbol it had been, the province where she was born, and now partially annexed into Alsace-Lorraine by the Third Reich, and as a response to the symbol of national-socialism, the Nazi swastika.[41]

In his general order No. 2 of 3 July 1940, Vice admiral Émile Muselier, two days after assuming the post of chief of the naval and air forces of the Free French, created the naval jack displaying the French colours with a red cross of Lorraine, and a cockade, which also featured the cross of Lorraine. Modern ships that share the same name as ships of the FNFL—such as Rubis and Triomphant—are entitled to fly the Free French naval jack as a mark of honour.[citation needed]

The Free French Memorial, looking out over the Firth of Clyde.
The Free French Memorial, looking out over the Firth of Clyde.

A monument on Lyle Hill in Greenock, in the shape of the Cross of Lorraine combined with an anchor, was raised by subscription as a memorial to the Free French naval vessels which sailed from the Firth of Clyde to take part in the Battle of the Atlantic. It has plaques commemorating the loss of the Flower-class corvettes Alyssa and Mimosa, and of the submarine Surcouf.[42] Locally, it is also associated with the memory of the loss of the destroyer Maillé Brézé which blew up at the Tail of the Bank.

Mers El Kébir and the fate of the French Navy

After the fall of France, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared that, in German or Italian hands, the ships of the French Navy would pose a grave threat to the Allies. He therefore insisted that French warships either join the Allies or else adopt neutrality in a British, French, or neutral port. Churchill was determined that French warships would not be in a position to support a German invasion of Britain, though he feared that a direct attack on the French Navy might cause the Vichy regime to actively ally itself with the Nazis.[21]

A very modern Dunkerque-class battleship battleship commissioned in 1937, Strasbourg was potentially a quite substantial threat to British control of the sealanes were she to fall into Axis hands.
A very modern Dunkerque-class battleship battleship commissioned in 1937, Strasbourg was potentially a quite substantial threat to British control of the sealanes were she to fall into Axis hands.
Submarine Rubis. With 22 ships sunk (12 of them German men-of-war) on 22 operational patrols, she achieved the highest kill number of the FNFL.
Submarine Rubis. With 22 ships sunk (12 of them German men-of-war) on 22 operational patrols, she achieved the highest kill number of the FNFL.

On 3 July 1940, Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul was provided an ultimatum by the British:

It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German enemy. We are determined to fight on until the end, and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer we solemnly declare that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe. In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government have instructed me to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers el Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives;

(a) Sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans.

(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated at the earliest moment.

If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.

(c) Alternatively if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans lest they break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West IndiesMartinique for instance—where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.

If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6 hours.

Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty's Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German hands.[43]

Gensoul's orders allowed him to accept internment in the West Indies,[44] but after a discussion lasting ten hours, he rejected all offers, and British warships commanded by Admiral James Somerville attacked French ships during the attack on Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria, sinking or crippling three battleships.[21] Because the Vichy government only said that there had been no alternatives offered, the attack caused great bitterness in France, particularly in the Navy (over 1,000 French sailors were killed), and helped to reinforce the ancient stereotype of perfide Albion. Such actions discouraged many French soldiers from joining the Free French forces.[22]

Despite this, some French warships and sailors did remain on the Allied side or join the FNFL later, such as the mine-laying submarine Rubis, whose crew voted almost unanimously to fight alongside Britain,[45] the destroyer Le Triomphant, and the then-largest submarine in the world, Surcouf. The first loss of the FNFL occurred on 7 November 1940, when the patrol boat Poulmic struck a mine in the English Channel.[46]

Most ships that had remained on the Vichy side and were not scuttled with the main French fleet in Toulon, mostly those in the colonies that had remained loyal to Vichy until the end of the regime through the Case Anton Axis invasion and occupation of the zone libre and Tunisia, changed sides then.

In November 1940, around 1,700 officers and men of the French Navy took advantage of the British offer of repatriation to France, and were transported home on a hospital ship traveling under the international Red Cross. This did not stop the Germans from torpedoing the ship, and 400 men were drowned.[47]

The FNFL, commanded first by Admiral Emile Muselier and then by Philippe Auboyneau and Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu, played a role in the liberation of French colonies throughout the world including Operation Torch in French north Africa, escorting convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic, in supporting the French Resistance in non-Free French territories, in Operation Neptune in Normandy and Operation Dragoon in Provence for the liberation of mainland France, and in the Pacific War.

In total[citation needed] during the war, around 50 major ships and a few dozen minor and auxiliary ships were part of the Free French navy. It also included half a dozen battalions of naval infantry and commandos, as well as naval aviation squadrons, one aboard HMS Indomitable and one squadron of anti-submarine Catalinas. The French merchant marine siding with the Allies counted over 170 ships.

Struggle for control of the French colonies

The gradual loss of all Vichy territory to Free France and the Axis by 1943. Legend.
The gradual loss of all Vichy territory to Free France and the Axis by 1943. Legend.

With metropolitan France firmly under Germany's thumb and the Allies too weak to challenge this, de Gaulle turned his attention to France's vast overseas empire.

African campaign and the Empire Defence Council

De Gaulle was optimistic that France's colonies in western and central Africa, which had strong trading links with British territories, might be sympathetic to the Free French.[48] Pierre Boisson, the governor-general of French Equatorial Africa, was a staunch supporter of the Vichy regime, unlike Félix Éboué, the governor of French Chad, a subsection of the overall colony. Boisson was soon promoted to "High Commissioner of Colonies" and transferred to Dakar, leaving Éboué with more direct authority over Chad. On 26 August, with the help of his top military official, Éboué pledged his colony's allegiance to Free France.[49] By the end of August, all of French Equatorial Africa (including the League of Nations mandate French Cameroun) had joined Free France, with the exception of French Gabon.[50]

A Chadian soldier fighting for Free France
A Chadian soldier fighting for Free France

With these colonies came vital manpower – a large number of African colonial troops, who would form the nucleus of de Gaulle's army. From July to November 1940, the FFF would engage in fighting with troops loyal to Vichy France in Africa, with success and failure on both sides.

In September 1940 an Anglo French naval force fought the Battle of Dakar, also known as Operation Menace, an unsuccessful attempt to capture the strategic port of Dakar in French West Africa. The local authorities were not impressed by the Allied show of strength, and had the better of the naval bombardment which followed, leading to a humiliating withdrawal by the Allied ships. So strong was de Gaulle's sense of failure that he even considered suicide.[51]

There was better news in November 1940 when the FFF achieved victory at the Battle of Gabon (or Battle of Libreville) under the very skilled General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque (General Leclerc).[52] De Gaulle personally surveyed the situation in Chad, the first African colony to join Free France, located on the southern border of Libya, and the battle resulted in free French forces taking Libreville, Gabon.[53]

De Gaulle meeting Félix Éboué in Chad
De Gaulle meeting Félix Éboué in Chad

By the end of November 1940 French Equatorial Africa was wholly under the control of Free France, but the failures at Dakar had led French West Africa to declare allegiance to Vichy, to which they would remain loyal until the fall of the regime in November 1942.

On 27 October 1940 the Empire Defence Council was established to organise and administrate the imperial possessions under Free French rule, and as an alternative provisional French government. It was constituted of high-ranking officers and the governors of the free colonies, notably governor Félix Éboué of Chad. Its creation was announced by the Brazzaville Manifesto that day. La France libre was what de Gaulle claimed to represent, or rather, as he put it simply, "La France"; Vichy France was a "pseudo government", an illegal entity.[54]

In 1941–1942, the African FFF slowly grew in strength and even expanded operations north into Italian Libya. In February 1941, Free French Forces invaded Cyrenaica, again led by Leclerc, capturing the Italian fort at the oasis of Kufra.[52] In 1942, Leclerc's forces and soldiers from the British Long Range Desert Group captured parts of the province of Fezzan.[52] At the end of 1942, Leclerc moved his forces into Tripolitania to join British Commonwealth and other FFF forces in the Run for Tunis.[52]

Asia and the Pacific

Insigna of the Free French Forces in the Far East (French Indochina), Langlade Mission
Insigna of the Free French Forces in the Far East (French Indochina), Langlade Mission

France also had possessions in Asia and the Pacific, and these far-flung colonies would experience similar problems of divided loyalties. French India and the French South Pacific colonies of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and the New Hebrides joined Free France in the summer 1940, drawing official American interest.[50] These South Pacific colonies would later provide vital Allied bases in the Pacific Ocean during the war with Japan.

French Indochina was invaded by Japan in September 1940, although for most of the war the colony remained under nominal Vichy control. On 9 March 1945, the Japanese launched a coup and took full control of Indochina.

From June 1940 until February 1943, the concession of Guangzhouwan (Kouang-Tchéou-Wan or Fort-Boyard), in South China, remained under the administration of Free France. The Republic of China, after the fall of Paris in 1940, recognised the London-exiled Free French government as Guangzhouwan's legitimate authority and established diplomatic relations with them, something facilitated by the fact that the colony was surrounded by the Republic of China's territory and was not in physical contact with French Indochina. In February 1943 the Imperial Japanese Army invaded and occupied the leased territory.[55]

North America

In North America, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (near Newfoundland) joined the Free French after an "invasion" on 24 December 1941 by Rear Admiral Emile Muselier and the forces he was able to load onto three corvettes and a submarine of the FNFL. The action at Saint-Pierre and Miquelon created a serious diplomatic incident with the United States, despite this being the first French possession in the Americas to join the Allies,[56] which doctrinally objected to the use of military means by colonial powers in the western hemisphere and recognised Vichy as the official French government.

Mainly because of this and of the often very frosty relations between Free France and the USA (with President Roosevelt's profound distrust of de Gaulle playing a key part in that, with him being firmly convinced that the general's aim was to create a South-American style junta and become the dictator of France[57]), other French possessions in the new world were among the very last to defect from Vichy to the Allies (with Martinique holding out until July 1943).

Syria and East Africa

The fall of Damascus to the Allies, late June 1941. A car carrying Free French commanders General Georges Catroux and General Paul Louis Le Gentilhomme enters the city, escorted by French Circassian cavalry (Gardes Tcherkess).
The fall of Damascus to the Allies, late June 1941. A car carrying Free French commanders General Georges Catroux and General Paul Louis Le Gentilhomme enters the city, escorted by French Circassian cavalry (Gardes Tcherkess).

In 1941, the FFF fought alongside British Empire troops against the Italians in Italian East Africa during the East African Campaign.

In June 1941, during the Syria-Lebanon campaign (Operation Exporter), Free French Forces fighting alongside British Commonwealth forces faced substantial numbers of troops loyal to Vichy France – this time in the Levant. De Gaulle had assured Churchill that the French units in Syria would rise to the call of Free France, but this was not the case.[58] After bitter fighting, with around 1,000 dead on each side (including Vichy and Free French Foreign Legionnaires fratricide when the 13th Demi-Brigade (D.B.L.E.) clashed with the 6th Foreign Infantry Regiment near Damascus). General Henri Dentz and his Vichy Army of the Levant were eventually defeated by the largely British allied forces in July 1941.[58]

The British did not themselves occupy Syria; rather, the Free French General Georges Catroux was appointed High Commissioner of the Levant, and from this point, Free France would control both Syria and Lebanon until they became independent in 1946 and 1943 respectively. However, despite this success, the numbers of the FFF did not grow as much as has been wished for. Of nearly 38,000 Vichy French prisoners of war, just 5,668 men volunteered to join the forces of General de Gaulle; the remainder chose to be repatriated to France.[59]

Despite this bleak picture, by the end of 1941, the United States had entered the war, and the Soviet Union had also joined the Allied side, stopping the Germans outside Moscow in the first major reverse for the Nazis. Gradually the tide of war began to shift, and with it the perception that Hitler could at last be beaten. Support for Free France began to grow, though the Vichy French forces would continue to resist Allied armies—and the Free French—when attacked by them until the end of 1942.[60]

Creation of the French National Committee (CNF)

Reflecting the growing strength of Free France was the foundation of the French National Committee (Comité national français, CNF) in September 1941 and the official name change from France Libre to France combattante in July 1942.

The United States granted Lend-Lease support to the CNF on 24 November.[citation needed]


In June 1942, the British attacked the strategically important colony of French Madagascar, hoping to prevent its falling into Japanese hands and especially the use of Diego-Suarez's harbour as a base for the Imperial Japanese Navy. Once again the Allied landings faced resistance from Vichy forces, led by Governor-General Armand Léon Annet. On 5 November 1942, Annet, at last, surrendered. As in Syria, only a minority of the captured Vichy soldiers chose to join the Free French.[61] After the battle, Free French general Paul Legentilhomme was appointed High Commissioner for Madagascar.[citation needed]

Battle of Bir Hakeim

The FFF's tenacious defense at Bir Hakeim prevented Rommel's attempted outflank at El Alamein from succeeding.
The FFF's tenacious defense at Bir Hakeim prevented Rommel's attempted outflank at El Alamein from succeeding.

Throughout 1942 in North Africa, British Empire forces fought a desperate land campaign against the Germans and Italians to prevent the loss of Egypt and the vital Suez canal. Here, fighting in the harsh Libyan desert, Free French soldiers distinguished themselves. General Marie Pierre Koenig and his unit—the 1st Free French Infantry Brigade—resisted the Afrika Korps at the Battle of Bir Hakeim in June 1942, although they were eventually obliged to withdraw, as Allied forces retreated to El Alamein, their lowest ebb in the North African campaign.[62] Kœnig defended Bir Hakeim from 26 May to 11 June against superior German and Italian forces led by Generaloberst Erwin Rommel, proving that the FFF could be taken seriously by the Allies as a fighting force. British General Claude Auchinleck said on 12 June 1942, of the battle: "The United Nations need to be filled with admiration and gratitude, in respect of these French troops and their brave General Koenig".[63] Even Hitler was impressed, announcing to the journalist Lutz Koch, recently returned from Bir Hakeim:

"You hear, Gentlemen? It is a new evidence that I have always been right! The French are, after us, the best soldiers! Even with its current birthrate, France will always be able to mobilise a hundred divisions! After this war, we will have to find allies able to contain a country which is capable of military exploits that astonish the world like they are doing right now in Bir-Hakeim!".[64]

First successes

From 23 October to 4 November 1942, Allied forces under general Bernard Montgomery, including the FFF, won the Second battle of El Alamein, driving Rommel's Afrika Korps out of Egypt and back into Libya. This was the first major success of an Allied army against the Axis powers, and marked a key turning point in the war.

Operation Torch

Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria
Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria

Soon afterwards in November 1942, the Allies launched Operation Torch in the west, an invasion of Vichy-controlled French North Africa. An Anglo-American force of 63,000 men landed in French Morocco and Algeria.[65] The long-term goal was to clear German and Italian troops from North Africa, enhance naval control of the Mediterranean, and prepare an invasion of Italy in 1943. The Allies had hoped that Vichy forces would offer only token resistance to the Allies, but instead they fought hard, incurring heavy casualties.[66] As a French foreign legionnaire put it after seeing his comrades die in an American bombing raid: "Ever since the fall of France, we had dreamed of deliverance, but we did not want it that way".[66]

After the 8 November 1942 putsch by the French resistance that prevented the 19th Corps to respond effectively to the allied landings around Algiers the same day, most Vichy figures were arrested (including General Alphonse Juin, chief commander in North Africa, and Vichy admiral François Darlan). However, Darlan was released and U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower finally accepted his self-nomination as high commissioner of North Africa and French West Africa, a move that enraged de Gaulle, who refused to recognise his status.

Henri Giraud, a general who had escaped from military captivity in Germany in April 1942, had negotiated with the Americans for leadership in the invasion. He arrived in Algiers on 10 November, and agreed to subordinate himself to Admiral Darlan as the commander of the French African army.[67]

Later that day Darlan ordered a ceasefire and Vichy French forces began, en masse, to join the Free French cause. Initially at least the effectiveness of these new recruits was hampered by a scarcity of weaponry and, among some of the officer class, a lack of conviction in their new cause.[66]

After the signing of the cease-fire, the Germans lost faith in the Vichy regime, and on 11 November 1942 German and Italian forces occupied Vichy France (Case Anton), violating the 1940 armistice, and triggering the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon on 27 November 1942. In response, the Vichy Army of Africa joined the Allied side. They fought in Tunisia for six months until April 1943, when they joined the campaign in Italy as part of the French Expeditionary Corps in Italy (FEC).

Admiral Darlan was assassinated on 24 December 1942 in Algiers by the young monarchist Bonnier de La Chapelle. Although de la Chapelle had been a member of the resistance group led by Henri d'Astier de La Vigerie, it is believed he was acting as an individual.

On 28 December, after a prolonged blockade, the Vichy forces in French Somaliland were ousted.

After these successes, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies—as well as French Guiana on the northern coast of South America – finally joined Free France in the first months of 1943. In November 1943, the French forces received enough military equipment through Lend-Lease to re-equip eight divisions and allow the return of borrowed British equipment.

Creation of the French Committee of National Liberation (CFNL)

Henri Giraud and de Gaulle during the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. Churchill and Roosevelt in the background.
Henri Giraud and de Gaulle during the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. Churchill and Roosevelt in the background.

The Vichy forces in North Africa had been under Darlan's command and had surrendered on his orders. The Allies recognised his self-nomination as High Commissioner of France (French military and civilian commander-in-chief, Commandement en chef français civil et militaire) for North and West Africa. He ordered them to cease resisting and cooperate with the Allies, which they did. By the time the Tunisia Campaign was fought, the ex-Vichy French forces in North Africa had been merged with the FFF.[68][69]

After Admiral Darlan's assassination, Giraud became his de facto successor in French Africa with Allied support. This occurred through a series of consultations between Giraud and de Gaulle. The latter wanted to pursue a political position in France and agreed to have Giraud as commander in chief, as the more qualified military person of the two. It is questionable that he ordered that many French resistance leaders who had helped Eisenhower's troops be arrested, without any protest by Roosevelt's representative, Robert Murphy.

Later, the Americans sent Jean Monnet to counsel Giraud and to press him into repeal the Vichy laws. The Cremieux decree, which granted French citizenship to Jews in Algeria and which had been repealed by Vichy, was immediately restored by General de Gaulle. Democratic rule was restored in French Algeria, and the Communists and Jews liberated from the concentration camps.[70]

Giraud took part in the Casablanca conference in January 1943 with Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle. The Allies discussed their general strategy for the war, and recognised joint leadership of North Africa by Giraud and de Gaulle. Henri Giraud and Charles de Gaulle then became co-presidents of the French Committee of National Liberation (Comité Français de Libération Nationale, CFLN), which unified the territories controlled by them and was officially founded on 3 June 1943.

The CFLN set up a temporary French government in Algiers, raised more troops and re-organised, re-trained and re-equipped the Free French military, in cooperation with Allied forces in preparation of future operations against Italy and the German Atlantic wall.

Eastern Front

FAFL Normandie-Niemen Yak-3 preserved at the Paris Le Bourget museum
FAFL Normandie-Niemen Yak-3 preserved at the Paris Le Bourget museum

The Normandie-Niemen Regiment, founded at the suggestion of Charles de Gaulle, was a fighter regiment of the Free French Air Force that served on the Eastern Front of the European Theatre of World War II with the 1st Air Army. The regiment is notable for being the only air combat unit from an Allied western country to participate on the Eastern Front during World War II (except brief interventions from RAF and USAAF units) and the only one to fight together with the Soviets until the end of the war in Europe.[citation needed]

The unit was the GC3 (Groupe de Chasse 3 or 3rd Fighter Group) in the Free French Air Force, first commanded by Jean Tulasne. The unit originated in mid-1943 during World War II. Initially the groupe comprised a group of French fighter pilots sent to aid Soviet forces at the suggestion of Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, who felt it important that French servicemen serve on all fronts in the war. The regiment fought in three campaigns on behalf of the Soviet Union between 22 March 1943, and 9 May 1945, during which time it destroyed 273 enemy aircraft and received numerous orders, citations and decorations from both France and the Soviet Union, including the French Légion d'Honneur and the Soviet Order of the Red Banner. Joseph Stalin awarded the unit the name Niemen for its participation in the Battle of the Niemen River.[citation needed]

Tunisia, Italy and Corsica

The Free French forces participated in the Tunisian Campaign. Together with British and Commonwealth forces, the FFF advanced from the south while the formerly Vichy-loyal Army of Africa advanced from the west together with the Americans. The fighting in Tunisia ended in July 1943 with an Allied victory.[citation needed]

During the campaign in Italy during 1943–1944, a total of between 70,000[19] and 130,000[citation needed] Free French soldiers fought on the Allied side. The French Expeditionary Corps consisted of 60% colonial soldiers, mostly Moroccans and 40% Europeans, mostly Pied-Noirs.[36] They took part in the fighting on the Winter Line and Gustav Line, distinguishing themselves at Monte Cassino in Operation Diadem. Some elements of these colonial troops, the Moroccan Goumiers, were responsible for mass rape and killings of civilians in an incident during those operations (see Marocchinate) and were subsequently withdrawn from the Italian front.[citation needed]

In September 1943, the liberation of Corsica from Italian occupation began, after the Italian armistice, with the landing of elements of the reconstituted French I Corps (Operation Vésuve).[citation needed]

Forces Françaises Combattantes and National Council of the Resistance

Picture of Jean Moulin and his iconic scarf. He was probably tortured to death by Klaus Barbie personally.
Picture of Jean Moulin and his iconic scarf. He was probably tortured to death by Klaus Barbie personally.

The French Resistance gradually grew in strength. General de Gaulle set a plan to bring together the fragmented groups under his leadership. He changed the name of his movement to "Fighting French Forces" (Forces Françaises Combattantes) and sent Jean Moulin back to France as his formal link to the irregulars throughout the occupied country to coordinate the eight major Résistance groups into one organisation. Moulin got their agreement to form the "National Council of the Resistance" (Conseil National de la Résistance). Moulin was eventually captured, and died under brutal torture by the Gestapo.

De Gaulle's influence had also grown in France, and in 1942 one resistance leader called him "the only possible leader for the France that fights".[71] Other Gaullists, those who could not leave France (that is, the overwhelming majority of them), remained in the territories ruled by Vichy and the Axis occupation forces, building networks of propagandists, spies and saboteurs to harass and discomfit the enemy.

Later, the Resistance was more formally referred to as the "French Forces of the Interior" (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur, or FFI). From October 1944 – March 1945, many FFI units were amalgamated into the French Army to regularise the units.

Liberation of France

The liberation of continental France began on D-Day, 6 June 1944, with the invasion of Normandy, the amphibious assault aimed at establishing a bridgehead for the forces of Operation Overlord. At first hampered by very stiff German resistance and the bocage terrain of Normandy, the Allies broke out of Normandy at Avranches on 25–31 July 1944. Combined with the landings in Provence of Operation Dragoon on 14 August 1944, the threat of being caught in a pincer movement led to a very rapid German retreat, and by September 1944 most of France had been liberated.

Normandy and Provence landings

Charles de Gaulle speaks as president of interim government to the population of Cherbourg from the city hall's balcony on 20 August 1944
Charles de Gaulle speaks as president of interim government to the population of Cherbourg from the city hall's balcony on 20 August 1944

Opening a "Second Front" was a top priority of the Allies, and especially of the Soviets to relieve their burden on the Eastern Front. While Italy had been knocked out of the war in the Italian campaign in September 1943, the easily defensible terrain of the narrow peninsula required only a relatively limited number of German troops to protect and occupy their new puppet state in northern Italy. However, as the Dieppe raid had shown, assaulting the Atlantic Wall was not an endeavour to be taken lightly. It required extensive preparations such as the construction of artificial ports (Operation Mulberry) and an underwater pipeline across the English Channel (Operation Pluto), intensive bombardment of railways and German logistics in France (the Transportation Plan), and the wide-ranging military deception such as creating entire dummy armies like FUSAG (Operation Bodyguard) to make the Germans believe the invasion would take place where the Channel was at its narrowest.

By the time of the Normandy Invasion, the Free French forces numbered more than 400,000 strong.[72] 900 Free French paratroopers landed as part of the British Special Air Service (SAS) Brigade; the 2e Division Blindée (2nd Armoured Division or 2e DB)—under General Leclerc—landed at Utah Beach in Normandy on 1 August 1944 together with other follow-on Free French forces, and eventually led the drive toward Paris.

In the battle for Caen, bitter fighting led to the almost total destruction of the city, and stalemated the Allies. They had more success in the western American sector of the front, where after the Operation Cobra breakthrough in late July they caught 50,000 Germans in the Falaise pocket.

The invasion was preceded by weeks of intense resistance activity. Coordinated with the massive bombardments of the Transportation Plan and supported by the SOE and the OSS, partisans systematically sabotaged railway lines, destroyed bridges, cut German supply lines, and provided general intelligence to the allied forces. The constant harassment took its toll on the German troops. Large remote areas were no-go zones for them and free zones for the [[maquis (World War II)|maquisards]], so-called after the maquis shrubland that provided ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. For instance, a large number of German units were required to clear the maquis du Vercors, which they eventually succeeded with, but this and numerous other actions behind German lines contributed to a much faster advance following the Provence landings than the Allied leadership had anticipated.

The main part of French Expeditionary Corps in Italy which had been fighting there was withdrawn from the Italian front, and added to the French First Army—under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny—and joined the US 7th Army to form the US 6th Army Group. That was the force that conducted Operation Dragoon (also known as Operation Anvil), the Allied invasion of southern France. The objective of the French 2nd Corps was to capture ports at Toulon (France's largest naval port) and Marseilles (France's largest commercial port) in order to secure a vital supply line for the incoming troops. Most of the German troops there were second-line, consisting mainly of static and occupation units with a large number of Osttruppen volunteers, and with a single armoured division, the 11. Panzer-Division. The Allies sustained only relatively light casualties during the amphibious assault, and were soon in an all-out pursuit of a German army in full retreat along the Rhône valley and the Route Napoleon. Within 12 days the French forces were able to secure both ports, destroying two German Divisions in the process. Then on September 12, French forces were able to connect to General George Patton's Third Army. Toulon and Marseille were soon providing supplies not only to the 6th Army Group but also to General Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group, which included Patton's Army. For its part, troops from de Lattre's French First Army were the first Allied troops to reach the Rhine.

While on the right flank the French liberation army was covering Alsace-Lorraine (and the Alpine front against German-occupied Italy), the centre was made up of US forces in the south (12th Army Group) and British and Commonwealth forces in the north (21st Army Group). On the left flank, Canadian forces cleared the Channel coast, taking Antwerp on 4 September 1944.

Liberation of Paris

After the failed 20 July plot against him, Hitler had given orders to have Paris destroyed should it fall to the Allies, similarly to the planned destruction of Warsaw.

Mindful of this and other strategic considerations, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was planning to by-pass the city. At this time, Parisians started a general strike on 15 August 1944 that escalated into a full-scale uprising of the FFI a few days later. As the Allied forces waited near Paris, de Gaulle and his Free French government put General Eisenhower under pressure. De Gaulle was furious about the delay and was unwilling to allow the people of Paris to be slaughtered as had happened in the Polish capital of Warsaw during the Warsaw uprising. De Gaulle ordered General Leclerc to attack single-handedly without the aid of Allied forces. Eventually, Eisenhower agreed to detach the 4th US Infantry Division in support of the French attack.

Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division (2e DB) parading down the Champs Elysées on 26 August 1944, the day after the Liberation of Paris
Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division (2e DB) parading down the Champs Elysées on 26 August 1944, the day after the Liberation of Paris

The Allied High Command (SHAEF) requested the Free French force in question to be all-white, if possible, but this was very difficult because of the large numbers of black West Africans in their ranks.[35] General Leclerc sent a small advance party to enter Paris, with the message that the 2e DB (composed of 10,500 French, 3,600 Maghrebis[73][74] and about 350 Spaniards[34] in the 9th company of the 3rd Battalion of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad made up mainly of Spanish Republican exiles[75]) would be there the following day. This party was commanded by Captain Raymond Dronne, and was given the honour to be the first Allied unit to enter Paris ahead of the 2e Division Blindée. The 1er Bataillon de Fusiliers-Marins Commandos formed from the Free French Navy Fusiliers-Marins that had landed on Sword Beach were also amongst the first of the Free French forces to enter Paris.

The military governor of the city, Dietrich von Choltitz, surrendered on 25 August, ignoring Hitler's orders to destroy the city and fight to the last man.[76] Jubilant crowds greeted the Liberation of Paris. French forces and de Gaulle conducted a now iconic parade through the city.

Provisional republic and the war against Germany and Japan

Re-establishment of a provisional French Republic and its government (GPRF)

The Provisional Government of the French Republic (gouvernement provisoire de la République Française or GPRF) was officially created by the CNFL and succeeded it on 3 June 1944, the day before de Gaulle arrived in London from Algiers on Churchill's invitation, and three days before D-Day. Its creation marked the re-establishment of France as a republic, and the official end of Free France. Among its most immediate concerns were to ensure that France did not come under allied military administration, preserving the sovereignty of France and freeing Allied troops for fighting on the front.

After the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944, it moved back to the capital, establishing a new "national unanimity" government on 9 September 1944, including Gaullists, nationalists, socialists, communists and anarchists, and uniting the politically divided Resistance. Among its foreign policy goals was to secure a French occupation zone in Germany and a permanent UNSC seat. This was assured through a large military contribution on the western front.

Several alleged Vichy loyalists involved in the Milice (a paramilitary militia)—which was established by Sturmbannführer Joseph Darnand who hunted the Resistance with the Gestapo—were made prisoners in a post-liberation purge known as the épuration légale (legal purge or cleansing). Some were executed without trial, in "wild cleansings" (épuration sauvage). Women accused of "horizontal collaboration" because of alleged sexual relationships with Germans during the occupation were arrested and had their heads shaved, were publicly exhibited and some were allowed to be mauled by mobs.

On 17 August, Pierre Laval was taken to Belfort by the Germans. On 20 August, under German military escort, Pétain was forcibly moved to Belfort, and on 7 September to the Sigmaringen enclave in southern Germany, where 1,000 of his followers (including Louis-Ferdinand Céline) joined him. There they established a government in exile, challenging the legitimacy of de Gaulle's GPRF. As a sign of protest over his forced move, Pétain refused to take office, and was eventually replaced by Fernand de Brinon. The Vichy regime's exile ended when Free French forces reached the town and captured its members on 22 April 1945, the same day that the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division took Stuttgart. Laval, Vichy's prime minister in 1942–1944, was executed for treason. Pétain, "Chief of the French State" and Verdun hero, was also condemned to death but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

As the wartime government of France in 1944–1945, its main purposes were to handle the aftermath of the occupation of France and continue to wage war against Germany as a major Ally. It also made several important reforms and political decisions, such as granting women the right to vote, founding the École nationale d'administration, and laying the grounds of social security in France, and lasted until the establishment of the IVth Republic on 14 October 1946, preparing its new constitution.

Campaigns in France and Germany 1944–1945

By September 1944, the Free French forces stood at 560,000 (including 176,500 White French from North Africa, 63,000 metropolitan French, 233,000 Maghrebis and 80,000 from Black Africa).[30][31] The GPRF set about raising new troops to participate in the advance to the Rhine and the invasion of Germany, using the FFI as military cadres and manpower pools of experienced fighters to allow a very large and rapid expansion of the Armée française de la Libération. It was well equipped and well supplied despite the economic disruption brought by the occupation thanks to Lend-Lease, and their number rose to 1 million by the end of the year. French forces were fighting in Alsace-Lorraine, the Alps, and besieging the heavily fortified French Atlantic coast submarine bases that remained Hitler-mandated stay-behind "fortresses" in ports along the Atlantic coast like La Rochelle and Saint-Nazaire until the German capitulation in May 1945.

Also in September 1944, the Allies having outrun their logistic tail (the "Red Ball Express"), the front stabilised along Belgium's northern and eastern borders and in Lorraine. From then on it moved at a slower pace, first to the Siegfried Line and then in the early months of 1945 to the Rhine in increments. For instance, the Ist Corps seized the Belfort Gap in a coup de main offensive in November 1944, their German opponents believing they had entrenched for the winter.

A plaque commemorating the Oath of Kufra in near the cathedral of Strasbourg
A plaque commemorating the Oath of Kufra in near the cathedral of Strasbourg

The French 2nd Armoured Division, tip of the spear of the Free French forces that had participated in the Normandy Campaign and liberated Paris, went on to liberate Strasbourg on 23 November 1944, thus fulfilling the Oath of Kufra made by its commanding officer General Leclerc almost four years earlier. The unit under his command, barely above company size when it had captured the Italian fort, had grown into a full-strength armoured division.

The spearhead of the Free French First Army that had landed in Provence was the Ist Corps. Its leading unit, the French 1st Armoured Division, was the first Western Allied unit to reach the Rhône (25 August 1944), the Rhine (19 November 1944) and the Danube (21 April 1945). On 22 April 1945, it captured Sigmaringen in Baden-Württemberg, where the last Vichy regime exiles, including Marshal Pétain, were hosted by the Germans in one of the ancestral castles of the Hohenzollern dynasty.

They participated in stopping Operation Nordwind, the very last German major offensive on the western front in January 1945, and in collapsing the Colmar Pocket in January–February 1945, capturing and destroying most of the German XIXth Army. Operations by the First Army in April 1945 encircled and captured the German XVIII SS Corps in the Black Forest, and cleared and occupied south-western Germany. At the end of the war, the motto of the French First Army was Rhin et Danube, referring to the two great German rivers that it had reached and crossed during its combat operations.

In May 1945, by the end of the war in Europe, the Free French forces comprised 1,300,000 personnel, and included around forty divisions making it the fourth largest Allied army in Europe behind the Soviet Union, the US and Britain.[77] The GPRF sent an expeditionary force to the Pacific to retake French Indochina from the Japanese, but Japan surrendered before they could arrive in theatre.

At that time, General Alphonse Juin was the chief of staff of the French army, but it was General François Sevez who represented France at Reims on 7 May, while General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny led the French delegation at Berlin on V-E day, as he was the commander of the French First Army. At the Yalta Conference, Germany had been divided into Soviet, American and British occupation zones, but France was then given an occupation zone in Germany, as well as in Austria and in the city of Berlin. It was not only the role that France played in the war which was recognised, but its important strategic position and significance in the Cold War as a major democratic, capitalist nation of Western Europe in holding back the influence of communism on the continent.

Approximately 58,000 men were killed fighting in the Free French forces between 1940 and 1945.[78]

World War II victory

Allied Occupation Zones in Germany in 1946 after territorial annexations in the East
Allied Occupation Zones in Germany in 1946 after territorial annexations in the East

A point of strong disagreement between de Gaulle and the Big Three (Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill), was that the President of the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF), established on 3 June 1944, was not recognized as the legitimate representative of France. Even though de Gaulle had been recognized as the leader of Free France by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill back on 28 June 1940, his GPRF presidency had not resulted from democratic elections. However, two months after the liberation of Paris and one month after the new "unanimity government", the Big Three recognized the GPRF on 23 October 1944.[79][80]

In his liberation of Paris speech, de Gaulle argued "It will not be enough that, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, we have got rid of him [the Germans] from our home for us to be satisfied after what happened. We want to enter his territory as it should be, as victors", clearly showing his ambition that France be considered one of the World War II victors just like the Big Three. This perspective was not shared by the western Allies, as was demonstrated in the German Instrument of Surrender's First Act.[81] The French occupation zones in Germany and in West Berlin cemented this ambition.


The Free French memorial on Lyle Hill, Greenock, overlooks Gourock, Scotland.
The Free French memorial on Lyle Hill, Greenock, overlooks Gourock, Scotland.

The Free French Memorial on Lyle Hill in Greenock, in western Scotland, in the shape of the Cross of Lorraine combined with an anchor, was raised by subscription as a memorial to sailors on the Free French Naval Forces vessels that sailed from the Firth of Clyde to take part in the Battle of the Atlantic.

The memorial is also associated, locally, with the memory of the French destroyer Maillé Brézé (1931) which sank at the Tail of the Bank.[82]

To this day, General de Gaulle's Appeal of 18 June 1940 remains one of the most famous speeches in French history.[83][84]

See also


  1. ^ London was the seat of the government-in-exile in 1940–1942, but Brazzaville was considered the symbolic capital of Free France due to the declaration of the Brazzaville Manifesto there. The government of Free France was based in Algiers in French Algeria in 1942–1944, then part of metropolitan France, from 1942 until the liberation of France in 1944, when it briefly moved back to London for a few weeks from the start of the Normandy and Provence landings before ending the exile by moving to Paris on 25 August 1944.



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