"Vive la France libre dans l'honneur et dans l'indépendance!"

The Free French Force (Forces françaises libres) were set up in London as a government in exile and fighting force following the German conquest of northern France and the fall of Paris. Groups and individuals that joined them between 1940-06-16 and 1943-07-31 were known as the "Free French" and the nominal state they held allegiance to was called Free France.

No surrender

To say that 1940 was not a good year for France would be a horrible understatement. The Germans had, to put it plainly, made mincemeat of the three-million strong French army and the British expeditionary force helping it. Masses of equipment were left behind at Dunkirk and hundreds of thousands of men were miraculously evacuated as the Germans almost literally threw the defenders into the sea.

Paris fell on 1940-06-14. Marshal Pétain seized power in France and became head of state, thus ending the Third Republic. A tall, opinionated, 50-year-old brigadier-general who had distinguished himself as one of a few French commanders to push the Germans back at any point during the rout, was in London at the time for talks with the British government under the identity of newly-appointed Undersecretary of War. This brigadier, Charles de Gaulle, refused to accept the surrender of France. Churchill was impressed with de Gaulle's willingness to fight, as opposed to the majority of France's High Command whose defeatist attitude annoyed him and helped extend the popularity of French surrender jokes in the English-speaking world into the 21st century. He therefore had no problem proclaiming the convenient and all too willing de Gaulle "leader of all Free Frenchmen, wherever they may be, who rally to him in support of the allied cause" on 1940-06-28.

I, General de Gaulle, now in London, call on all French officers and men who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, with or without their arms; I call on all engineers and skilled workmen from the armaments factories who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, to get in touch with me. Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and shall not die.

--Charles de Gaulle's radio address, 1940-06-18

Rocky beginning

The French weren't all happy about this, nor were they pleased with British operations against the French in North Africa and the Mediterranean--after all, French was French, Vichy or not and shooting at Frenchmen was not appreciated, so de Gaulle had his work cut out for him if he wanted to assemble anything resembling a respectable fighting force. Pétain, hero of World War I, and the Vichy government commanded significant loyalty despite defeat. The French were still sore over the British preference for their own soldiers during the evacuation of Dunkirk, though much of that was due to miscommunication and the fact that the French pushed the British out of the defensive role they had promised to hold in order to allow the French to retreat and evacuate. And of course the centuries-old mistrust and prejudice between the two allies helped little.

So, by the end of the summer of 1940, de Gaulle's Free Frenchmen in England numbered no more than 2800 men, a large part of whom were Legionnaires evacuated from Norway. He fared better in the French possessions of sub-saharan Africa, India and the South Pacific, although French North Africa remained disappointingly loyal to Pétain. Still, even if was no more than deepest Africa and Tahiti, the fact that de Gaulle's movement had French territory under its control helped legitimise the Free French and allowed him to offer territorial support to the allied war effort.

On the other hand, British and French expectations suffered a major setback when the French forces in Dakar refused to join the Free French as was the goal of Operation Menace, a military expedition meant to strong-arm them into supporting Free France. De Gaulle decided to retreat rather than fight his own people and sailed south to rally support in Cameroon and the Congo. The Vichy government succeeded in replacing the French leadership in the east African territory of French Somaliland and in French Indochina with figures loyal to it. Still, by the end of 1940 and with or without a fight, the Free French controlled every French possession south of the equator, with the exception of the Indian Ocean colonies, as well as Chad and French Central Africa.

While de Gaulle was gone the weakness of the grouping of dissimilar elements that comprised the Free French became apparent. Rightists and socialists fought for control. Plots were hatched, opponents forced out and documents trying to discredit leading figures were made up. In the midst of the turmoil stood Vice Admiral Emile Henri Muselier, the only one of the Navy's fifty flag officers to answer de Gaulle's call and join the Free French Navy after the destruction of the French Atlantic fleet at the hands of the British. Muselier eventually emerged with his own reputation unscathed after a week in Scotland Yard's custody but any semblance of unity had been wrecked.

Churchill's initial admiration for de Gaulle did not last long either. In fact, they fell out and patched things up several times before the British prime minister was left with a permanent and healthy loathing of de Gaulle's person. De Gaulle, on the other hand, was an independent-minded French patriot who frequently disagreed with his allies if it meant preserving what he perceived as French dignity. In the meantime the United States, not yet a combatant in the war, only complicated things by recognising Pétain's government. Even Churchill briefly considered establishing relations with Vichy France but soon realised that he would be getting no assistance from those quarters and preferred to deal with the obstinate but fighting de Gaulle instead.

Charles de Gaulle was treated as a traitor in Vichy, and was tried and sentenced in absentia first to prison, then to death.

The Free French in action

The first major campaign conducted jointly by the Free French and the British was against the Italians in Libya and Egypt, followed by the defeat of the Vichy army in Syria. De Gaulle, though, was left with the idea that the British had ambitions on French middle-eastern territories, which was not helped by the fact that the British allowed the Vichy forces free passage to Turkey and forbade the Free French to try to win them over, and got into a row with Churchill. In the end the British relented and handed control over to the Free French. More disagreements would follow. In April 1941 the Free French scored a surprise victory in Eritrea, forcing the Italian Red Sea fleet to surrender.

In September 1941 the Comité National Français (French National Committee) was formed as a government in exile that would be recognised by the Allies. This was precipitated by the near mutiny of Admiral Muselier who considered de Gaulle an autocratic megalomaniac and demanded to be given more operational authority. Anthony Eden and the prime minister talked them into this compromise. De Gaulle became president of the Committee and other prominent figures, Muselier included, assumed posts within it.

Two weeks after the Unites States entered the war Franklin D. Roosevelt was pursuing the schizophrenic "two Frances" policy of having the Free French as de facto allies and declaring that "the defense of territories rallied to Free France is vital to the defense of the United States," while maintaining full diplomatic relations with Vichy. A Free French expedition force was in Halifax in Nova Scotia under orders to take Saint Pierre and Miquelon from the control of the Vichy government. In the meantime the Canadians planned to take the islands themselves.

The United States, whom Admiral Muselier thought proper to inform, objected loudly since they had just agreed upon the neutralisation of all French western hemisphere territories with Vichy. De Gaulle overrode the American objections and the islands were taken on 1941-12-24. Free French administration was accepted by the population in an impromptu referendum the next day. De Gaulle had just managed to beat the Canadians to it and royally piss off Roosevelt, who didn't like him in the first place. More interested in harmony among the Allies than their reputation in Vichy, the Americans finally decided "that further negotiations or discussions of the matter be postponed for the period of the war" and gave in.

As the domestic resistance in France gathered momentum, the Free French established contact with resistance groups and gained legitimacy and recognition amongst the many groups that made it up while the Legionnaires who fought at Bir Hakeim and El Alamein attached to the British 8th Army added to their credibility as a fighting force. The increasing demands that the Germans made on the reources of Vichy France were swelling the ranks of the domestic resistance as the government's easy compliance and collaboration alienated many French citizens, as did the willy-nilly deportation and imprisonment of Jews, Communists and Spanish Republican exiles.

On the overseas front, British forces, faced with a growing Japanese submarine menace in the Indian Ocean, took Reunion, the Comoros and Madagascar from Vichy between September and November 1942 and handed them over to the Free French in December along with all other French Indian Ocean possessions. Also in December, French Somaliland (Djibouti) surrendered to Free French forces arriving from Ethiopia.

North Africa

The turning point that transformed the Free French from minor force to full army was the allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942. The Allies had absolutely no desire to shed French blood but French North Africa was defended by Vichy forces. As leader of the invasion force, General Eisenhower negotiated an armistice with Pétain's deputy and High Commissioner for North Africa, Admiral Darlan.

De Gaulle was beside himself when the Allies failed to tell him about Operation Torch and promised his old friend Darlan the highest rank in government in exchange for his services. Darlan was everything that Churchill and Roosevelt professed to despise, and stood for what de Gaulle genuinely and openly hated. His ire was felt throughout the Free French and, before the year was over, Darlan would fall victim to a Gaullist assassin. It's unlikely that de Gaulle or the Committee had any knowledge of this affair; the assassin is generally accepted to have acted alone.

After Darlan ordered his troops to stand down, Pétain tried in vain to rescind the order. Darlan's chosen successor was General Henri Honoré Giraud, a man freed from German capitivity by the underground and smuggled to Gibraltar by the British. The misunderstandings didn't end there. Giraud was under the strange impression that, since they were operating on French territory, he could command all allied forces in North Africa. It took a lot of talking to convince him that there wasn't a cat in hell's chance of that happening. De Gaulle was still doing what he was best at--fuming over once again being ignored by his allies. While Darlan, de Gaulle and Giraud were engaged in the ritual dance of politics with the Americans, General Alphonse Juin dealt the first French blows to the Axis forces in Tunisia on 1942-11-19.

When Roosevelt and Churchill met in Casablanca in January 1943, Giraud was in attendance but the British prime minister had to twist de Gaulle's arm to make him show up. Had he not put in a presence and accepted Giraud, the Free French as they were known until then would have ceased to exist. The end of the Casablanca Conference found the two free French armies talking to each other but also refusing to join forces. The problem was clearly demonstrated when popular protests forced the Vichy governor of French Guiana to resign. Cayenne's mayor sent one telegram to de Gaulle requesting that a governor be appointed and as an afterthought, on the recommendation of the US consul, the same request was sent to Giraud. Needless to say, two governors were appointed and it was just as well that one of them couldn't find a means of getting there.

The road to victory

More unrest stirred on the small Caribbean possessions of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Starting in May 1943, demonstrations in support of Free France had grown and by July the governor had had enough of it, put in his retirement, and asked the United States to arrange a change of administration. Vichy France, in the meantime, had been overrun by the Germans and was essentually occupied territory after balking at some of the Germans' more outrageous demands.

In Algiers de Gaulle and Giraud accepted a power-sharing agreement and united to form a new government in June 1943. Not quite in exile this time since Algeria was technically part of France at the time rather than a mere colony but still not on French home soil. The number of troops under their command had grown to 300,000. De Gaulle and Giraud were co-presidents but the French Committee of National Liberation, as it was called, was made up of a 3-2 Gaullist majority.

De Gaulle's authority would prevail within the FCNL. His political skills on one side and sheer bloody-mindedness on the other proved to be more effective on that front than Giraud's. Giraud was thinking military, in terms of armaments and supplies, and was dependent on the Americans for providing both. De Gaulle was aware of the need for political leadership too and was preparing the future government of a liberated country. While Giraud was still thinking Africa, de Gaulle was thinking ahead, thinking France.

The Free French, re-equipped and supplied by the US went on to play a major role in the clean-up of Africa. Four divisions under General Juin took part in the invasion of Italy and Free French troops played a large part in the legendary assault on Monte Cassino. The Free French army was part of D-Day with paratroopers and assault troops landing on Sword Beach. De Gaulle, by then the undisputed leader of the French, proclaimed that "the supreme battle has begun." The 1st Army under Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, another French general who escaped German captivity, was instrumental in the liberation of southern France and provided the bulk of men in the second allied landing in the Riviera. Supported by three US divisions, they took Toulon and Marseille which fell on the 27th and 28th respectively of August 1944. Operation Dragoon was one of the most successful allied campaigns of the war.

The Free French suffered 120,000 casualties in the last 18 months of the war, 23,500 of whom were killed. Only those who joined before 1943-07-31 may call themselves "Free French," to distinguish them from those who only joined when the tide turned. Their leader, Charles de Gaulle, led the victory parade after the liberation of Paris and became president of the provisional government. In 1958 he would become the first president of the Fifth Republic. It is to his credit and that of his generals that France was afforded great power status and that of a victor in World War II, and was a key player in political developments durign the end of and after the war.

The Forces françaises libres fought under their own flag and several variants of it, the design being basically the French tricolor with a red Lorraine cross in the centre. De Gaulle realised that he was proclaiming what was de jure a rebel state and refrained from using the standard tricolor as its flag. The Lorraine cross was used to distingush France libre from the official État français which, in defeat or occupation, had not ceased to be France.

Winston Churchill, it is said, had one thing to say about the leader of the Free French and their flag... he complained that, of all the crosses he had to bear during World War II, the Lorraine cross--putting up with de Gaulle--was the heaviest.

Sources:
BBC
Fondation et Institut Charles de Gaulle
Musée de la Résistance Nationale
Flags of the World
L'Encyclopédie de Saint-Pierre et Miquelon
French Foreign Legion
Anarchist Propaganda Archives
Truman Library
Worldatwar.net
Martin Thomas, University of Leicester
6th Fallschirmjaeger Regiment of Washington

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