In the early evening of Tuesday, 11 June 1940, Marshal Philippe Pétain and General Charles de Gaulle caught sight of each other as they were about to enter the Château du Muguet. It was a month and a day since the German invasion of France had begun. They had not seen each other for over two years, and this was to be one of their last encounters. Each would soon proclaim himself the leader of France, and their respective versions of the state would condemn the other as a traitor.
Pétain and de Gaulle had travelled separately along roads encumbered with refugees and dispirited troops. That morning the château, near Briare on the River Loire, due south of Paris, had become the temporary residence of General Weygand, the commander-in-chief, who had just decided to abandon the capital to the Germans. A conference of the Supreme Inter-Allied Command was assembling to discuss the disaster. The British side, led by Winston Churchill, was expected at any moment. Escorted by a squadron of Hurricanes, the Prime Minister and his colleagues had flown on a circuitous route from England to land at Briare’s deserted airfield.
Marshal Pétain, born in the final year of the Crimean War, was now eighty-four. He was proud of his appearance, especially his flowing white moustache. When he removed his scarlet and gold képi, revealing a bald dome, he had the air of a Gallic elder. The only colour left in his marmoreal face came from the eyes, which, although watery, remained a startling blue. The ‘bons yeux bleus du Maréchal’ were to provide a favourite refrain in the personality cult of his Vichy regime.
Charles de Gaulle was then forty-nine. He was unusually tall and the impression he gave of towering over Pétain was enhanced by his bearing. His body appeared stiffly controlled, except when he gestured for emphasis, not just with his hands, like most Latins, but with the whole length of his seemingly endless arms. His face was pale and long. The far-seeing eyes were dug in closely on either side of his blunted beak of a nose.
The relationship between Pétain, the defender of the Verdun fortresses in 1916, and de Gaulle, the advocate of armoured warfare and now one of the youngest brigadier-generals in the army, went back a long way. Lieutenant de Gaulle, on passing out from Saint-Cyr two years before the First World War, had asked to be gazetted to Pétain’s regiment. But the admiration he had once held had dwindled between the wars. In his view Pétain, the commander idealized by veterans and politicians alike, had succumbed to the corrupting influence of acclaim and honours. It was not, therefore, surprising that this meeting lacked warmth.
‘You are a general,’ remarked Pétain, no doubt eyeing the two new stars on his sleeve. As a Marshal of France, he had seven. ‘But I don’t congratulate you. What’s the use of rank during a defeat?’
‘But, Marshal,’ de Gaulle pointed out, ‘it was during the retreat of 1914 that you yourself received your first stars.’
‘No comparison,’ was his retort.
The Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, although determined to resist the enemy, had come under increasing pressure from his louche pro-German mistress, Comtesse Hélène de Portes. She shamelessly interfered in matters of state – on one occasion the draft of a top-secret telegram to President Roosevelt had to be retrieved from her bed. But worst of all, she had managed to persuade her lover to appoint several defeatists as ministers. They were to bring him down.
Impressed by de Gaulle’s certainty and vigour, as well as by his predictions about the course of events, Reynaud had just made him Under-Secretary of State for War against much opposition. Yet in mid-May, Reynaud had already felt obliged to recall Pétain from his post as ambassador to General Franco in Madrid and offer him the vice-presidency of the Council of Ministers.
Philippe Pétain in old age was still wrapped in the reputation he had made at Verdun. The memory of his rallying cry – ‘They shall not pass!’ – was enough to moisten the eyes of veterans. But he had no stomach for this fight and was openly advocating an armistice with the Germans before the French army fell to pieces completely. Already there had been reports of troops refusing to obey orders. Weygand shared his fears. ‘Ah!’ he is supposed to have sighed. ‘If only I could be sure the Germans would leave me enough men to maintain order.’
Neither of them had forgotten the mutinies of 1917 which followed the disastrous offensive on the Aisne. French commanders, alarmed by the disintegration of the tsarist army and the recent revolution in Petro-grad, had repressed the disturbances mercilessly. Pétain had then been given the task of reforming the army and bringing it back to discipline. His admirers saw him as the man who had saved France from Bolshevism.
The conference was to take place in the dark dining roomof the château, where a long table had been prepared. Reynaud, a short man whose intelligent face was a little too well nourished to be described as foxy, called his colleagues together in the hall to greet their allies. The pressure he was under made him nervous and irritable. De Gaulle, one of the most junior members present, stood in the background. He would take his place at the far end of the table when they sat down.
Churchill had left England in a very bad temper and was dressed in one of his old-fashioned black suits despite the summer heat, yet he entered the room looking rubicund and genial. He was followed by Anthony Eden; General Sir John Dill; Major-General Hastings Ismay, the Secretary of the War Cabinet; and Major-General Edward Spears, his personal representative to the French government. Spears felt that, despite Reynaud’s polite welcome, their presence was like that of ‘poor relations at a funeral reception’.
Weygand, at Reynaud’s request, gave a description of the current military situation: it was relentlessly pessimistic. He ended with the words: ‘C’est la dislocation!’
Churchill, in a long, passionate speech full of historical allusions and expressed in his inimitable mixture of French and English, recalled the disasters of the First World War from which the Allies had recovered and won: ‘We would fight on and on – toujours, all the time – everywhere, partout – pas de grâce, no mercy.Puis la victoire!’ Unaware of Weygand’s decision to abandon Paris, he urged the defence of the capital with house-to-house fighting. Churchill’s further suggestion of continuing the struggle by guerrilla warfare – one of his pet subjects – horrified Pétain even more. His face briefly came to life. It would mean ‘the destruction of the country’, he muttered angrily. He was convinced that this loosening of the chain of command would lead to the anarchy that he and Weygand feared so much.
General Weygand, in his baffled anger, was attempting to shift the responsibility for France’s humiliation away from the French army. He and his kind bitterly blamed everything they loathed – the Popular Front government of 1936, liberals, Communists, anti-clericalism, freemasonry and now, it seemed, their allies for having started the war. No criticism of the French general staff could be considered.
The commander-in-chief evaded the issue of continuing the struggle by other means. He repeated that they were ‘at the last quarter of an hour’ of the battle and persisted in demanding every available British fighter squadron. The British were not prepared to transfer any more Hurricanes or Spitfires from home defence, especially when they doubted the will of the French military leaders. Soon it became clear that this refusal would provide the defeatists with an excuse to seek a separate peace with the Germans.
But by no means all the men opposite were capitulards. At least eight were firmly opposed to an armistice. The British delegation was particularly impressed by Georges Mandel and de Gaulle. Mandel, the courageous Minister of the Interior – a Jew who was to be murdered in 1944 by members of Vichy’s paramilitary Milice – had ensured that no politician keen on a deal with Germany, in particular the arch-opportunist Pierre Laval, stayed behind in Paris. He also believed in continuing the fight from France’s North African colonies should metropolitan France fall. De Gaulle, meanwhile, supported the plan for a last stand in Brittany and left after the meeting to prepare the defence of the north-west peninsula. But against the resolution of such men weighed the scale of the disaster and the shameless manoeuvres of their opponents. When the British Prime Minister and his party flew back to London the following morning, they feared the worst.
The French government moved to Bordeaux two days later, on the last stage of its retreat. Ministers found the city in a state of chaos resulting from both panic and apathy. Those with influence had commandeered rooms in the Hotel Splendide, the Hotel Normandie or the Hotel Montré. They also secured tables at the Chapon Fin restaurant, which maintained its superb cooking despite the acute shortages. Spears and the British minister, Oliver Harvey, looked round at the deputies and senators at other tables. Spears reflected, ‘with some annoyance as a Conservative’, that the only politicians prepared to continue the fight against Germany were ‘in the main Socialists’. But the chief object of his loathing was the turncoat Pierre Laval. The very appearance of the squat Laval, with his toad-like features, decaying teeth and greasy hair, made hatred easy.
Any officials who stepped outside their hotels were mobbed by refugees anxious for news of the German advance or of relatives in the army. Accusations of incompetence, cowardice and even treason rang out, for that mood of ‘Nous sommes trahis!’ had started to gain hold. The British consulate was besieged with refugees, including many Jews, desperate to get away. One rumour was not false: German aircraft had dropped magnetic mines in the Gironde estuary, virtually sealing off the port of Bordeaux.
By Sunday, 16 June, Reynaud found resistance to the capitulards almost impossible to maintain. It was already hard for a civilian politician to challenge the opinion of military leaders, and he did not have de Gaulle’s support at this stage, having sent him on a mission to London. Marshal Pétain had a huge following in the country, and he knew the strength of his position.
Every hope rapidly proved false. An appeal for help to President Roosevelt turned out to have been ridiculously optimistic. Reynaud thought that Churchill’s last-minute proposal of an Anglo-French Union, which was backed by de Gaulle, might save the situation. The Pétain faction saw it as a plot by Britain to make France one of her dominions.* One Pétainist minister, Jean Ybarnegaray, exploded: ‘Better to be a Nazi province. At least we know what that means.’ To which Reynaud replied: ‘I prefer to collaborate with my allies than with my enemies.’ Pétain himself dismissed the whole idea angrily, describing it as ‘a marriage with a corpse’!
Reynaud’s opponents then went on to support the proposal of another minister, Camille Chautemps, that Hitler’s terms should be requested and considered. Chautemps, the Prime Minister in 1933, tainted by the corruption exposed in the Stavisky scandal, was one of the most notorious of those Third Republic politicians who treated their country ‘as if it were a commercial company going into liquidation’. Reynaud promptly offered his resignation to President Albert Lebrun. Afterwards, Pétain went up to Reynaud, offering his hand, and said that he hoped that they would remain friends. Reynaud was entirely taken in by his manner. He decided to stay in France in case President Lebrun called on him to form another government. The idea that Marshal Pétain would agree to his arrest within a matter of weeks, put him on trial, imprison him and later allow him to be handed over to the Germans was inconceivable.
At ten o’clock that night de Gaulle, who had flown straight back to Bordeaux from London in an aeroplane provided by Churchill, touched down at Mérignac airport still full of hope for the Anglo-French Union. He had not yet heard how things had gone at the Cabinet meeting. An officer waiting for him on the tarmac warned him of Reynaud’s resignation. The news that President Lebrun had appointed Marshal Pétain as the next Prime Minister followed half an hour later. The shock can be imagined. De Gaulle was no longer a minister. He reverted, at least in theory, to the rank of temporary brigadier-general. But Pétain’s appointment, signalling the victory of the defeatists, removed any doubt from his mind. Whatever the consequences, he must return to England to continue the fight.
To make sure that he left France safely, he had to be careful. Weygand loathed him, both personally and politically. Any attempt by an officer to continue the struggle which the commander-in-chief had been so keen to abandon would be treated as mutinous. Weygand would call for his court martial with the satisfaction which only moral outrage can bring.
Reynaud, in many ways relieved to be free of an appalling burden, encouraged de Gaulle in the idea when they met shortly before midnight. Ignoring the fact that he was no longer Prime Minister, he obtained passports and secret funds to provide the knight-errant General with his immediate expenses.
Early the next morning, Monday, 17 June, de Gaulle, accompanied by his young aide, Geoffroy de Courcel, met General Spears in the lobby of the Hotel Normandie. A short time before, a call had been put through to Spears’s room. It was the Duke of Windsor, asking for a Royal Navy warship to pick him up from Nice. The former king was told firmly but politely that no warship was available. Surely the road to Spain was open to motor cars if he did not wish to use the only other ship in the harbour – a collier.
The small party – Spears, de Gaulle and Courcel – drove to Mérignac and boarded the four-seater aeroplane provided by Churchill. It was standing in the midst of what looked like a military junkyard. After an agonizing delay manoeuvring the aeroplane on to the runway, they took off. Soon they were flying over depressing reminders of the military reality below. Ever-widening columns of smoke arose from depots set ablaze and, worst of all, they passed over a sinking troopship, the Champlain, which had been evacuating 2,000 British soldiers.
This very junior general’s decision to resurrect the French battle flag in defiance of his own government had set him on a path of mutiny. Crossing his Rubicon, the English Channel, constituted both political and military rebellion. Years later, André Malraux asked him about his feelings during that journey on 17 June. ‘Oh, Malraux,’ he said, taking both of the writer’s hands in his, ‘it was appalling.’