Acts of resistance achieved little for as long as the German occupation and the Vichy regime appeared unshakeable. But perceptions began to change dramatically around the end of 1942, when the battle of El Alamein was followed by Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, and then by the psychologically decisive battle of Stalingrad. The myth of Axis invincibility was broken.
The landings in Algeria and Morocco proved a double blow to Pétain’s regime. Vichy lost the North African colonies, while the German invasion of the southern zone destroyed the basis of the Montoire agreement with Hitler. The Marshal’s justification for having taken the ‘path of collaboration’ lay in ruins. Even most of his supporters expected the old man to escape his deceiver by fleeing to North Africa, but he swallowed the humiliation. This lost him the trust and respect of many who had followed him faithfully until then. The only senior officer who attempted to oppose the German takeover was General de Lattre de Tassigny. He had to go into hiding and was later picked up by a Hudson aircraft and flown out to England. Vichy’s ‘army of the armistice’, as it had been known, was disbanded. Many of its officers and men joined the Resistance.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Operation Torch was that it managed to achieve a measure of surprise. For several months the whole project had been the subject of numerous overtures to Vichy loyalists within the unoccupied zone and in North Africa. Yet, to his fury, de Gaulle and his followers were allowed no part in it.
De Gaulle’s relations with Churchill had started to deteriorate rapidly after the ill-fated expedition to seize Dakar from Vichy in September 1940. The British were said to have accused the French in London of loose talk, but in fact they knew that the real problem came from the refusal of de Gaulle’s headquarters to adopt a modern code system for their signal traffic. French officers refused to believe that the Germans were breaking their codes with ease. Not until 1944, when a British officer broke their code in front of their eyes, did they finally switch to one-time pads. The result was that the British and Americans avoided warning de Gaulle’s headquarters of any operations, including those involving French territory. The American government feared that the French colonial army in North Africa might resist the Torch landings, and was keen to prevent this happening. Robert Murphy, Roosevelt’s personal representative, had therefore been seeking a leader who would be acceptable to the mainly pro-Vichy officers stationed there. Various figures, including General Weygand, were considered and approaches made, but with little success. Then an apparently ideal candidate appeared in the form of General Henri Giraud.
Giraud had become a hero in France after escaping from the prison fortress of Königstein in Germany. A good soldier, he proceeded to Vichy to report to Marshal Pétain, but this represented an embarrassment for Vichy’s relations with the Germans. The Americans recruited him and he was brought out by submarine.
Admiral Darlan, the commander-in-chief of all Vichy forces, then entered the scene. After being ousted from the premiership by Laval on 17 April 1942, he had made cautious approaches to the Resistance and the American authorities. (The veteran politician Édouard Herriot had said of Darlan just after the armistice: ‘This Admiral knows how to swim.’) Darlan flew to Algiers from Vichy on 5 November, two days before the American invasion, to see his son in hospital. His arrival caused great confusion in the American camp. They did not know whether he would serve their purposes or oppose the landings. Meanwhile their chosen leader Giraud, then in Gibraltar, started to change his mind at the last moment, causing even greater confusion.
The landings which took place two days later succeeded largely because Admiral Darlan and General Juin in Algiers secured the ceasefire. The deal which the Americans then made with Darlan, who claimed he was still loyal to Marshal Pétain, was satisfactory from a purely military point of view, but it set off a political storm in the United States and in Britain. The greatest anger, not surprisingly, was among the Free French in London and the Resistance of the interior.
De Gaulle had not been told of the landings on 7 November. He was furious when he heard the news the following morning. ‘I hope the Vichy people will fling them into the sea!’ he yelled. ‘You don’t get France by burglary!’ When the implications of the American deal with Darlan later became clear – that Roosevelt had no scruples about using unrepentant Pétainists – it looked as if de Gaulle faced political oblivion. The new regime in North Africa was nicknamed ‘Vichy à l’envers’ – Vichy back-to-front – because Darlan had hardly changed his coat, let alone his views. He still acknowledged Pétain as leader, the Gaullist cross of Lorraine was still outlawed and Jews had to continue wearing the yellow star. But on Christmas Eve 1942 the balance of power in French affairs was fated to change when a young monarchist, Second Lieutenant Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle, assassinated Admiral Darlan with a .38 Colt automatic issued to him by Colonel Douglas Dodds-Parker of the SOE (the Special Operations Executive).
The overall organizer of the operation was Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie, brother of Emmanuel, the leader of the Libération Resistance movement. Henri d’Astier, an officer in military intelligence, was part of a royalist group in close touch with the Comte de Paris, the pretender to the throne of France. In fact he was a monarcho-Gaullist, a combination which was less paradoxical then than it might appear. De Gaulle was seen as a regent who might bring about a restoration of the French royal family.
The knowledge and involvement of de Gaulle’s officers, and presumably therefore of the General himself, are hard to doubt. A third Astier brother, General François d’Astier, who had recently rallied to de Gaulle, was found to have left Bonnier’s group with $2,000 during a brief mission to Algiers. The notes were traced to a British transfer of secret funds to de Gaulle’s Comité National in London. De Gaulle’s rather Delphic disclaimer of involvement was most unconvincing, especially when everyone knew that Darlan’s death had revived his political hopes.
General Eisenhower was deeply shaken when woken with the news.He summoned a meeting at Allied Forces Headquarters in Algiers on Christmas morning. The fact that Bonnier had used an SOE pistol prompted Eisenhower to threaten to resign if any British involvement in the assassination was discovered. Dodds-Parker submitted a report exonerating SOE and this was accepted. Curiously, the French autopsy, perhaps for complicated political reasons, later described the bullet as of 7.65mm calibre and of French manufacture.
The Shakespearian drama of Darlan’s death, with all the elements of treachery and rival ambitions, has long exerted a strong fascination. Conspiracy theories abound, with minutiae disputed. But present evidence strongly suggests, as another SOE officer then in North Africa put it, that it was ‘a Gaullist and royalist plot with a measure of British collusion’. It is the size of that ‘measure’ which cannot yet be defined. According to the same officer, Dodds-Parker – entirely on his own initiative – had approached the chief of SOE’s naval section just before the assassination to see whether he could shelter a certain individual on board his ship, the Mutin.
Suggestions that Churchill back in London had received the message that ‘we’ve got somebody here who’s going to have a crack at Darlan’ are almost certainly wrong. But whispers of the forthcoming attempt had clearly reached London, even if SOE’s headquarters in Baker Street was taken by surprise. (That apparently did not stop several people from calling for champagne when the news arrived.) The American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) office in London, however, knew in advance and applauded the project. Most OSS officers were exasperated by their own president’s tolerance of Vichy. Yet Roosevelt himself now shrugged off the death of his erstwhile protégé in a most unattractive way. He referred to Darlan as a ‘skunk’, and at a New Year’s Eve dinner at the White House, he dismissed him as a ‘sonofabitch’, shocking a number of his guests.
The only replacement for Darlan acceptable to Roosevelt was the honourable, but infinitely less clever, General Giraud. De Gaulle said little on the subject. He must have sensed that ‘the tin soldier’, if handled properly, could soon be pushed to the sidelines. De Gaulle never acknowledged that, whatever its motives, Roosevelt’s policy may have worked in his own best interests. American support for Darlan and then Giraud had provided two stepping stones from Vichy to Free France, thus averting the danger of civil war in French North Africa.
The German invasion of the unoccupied zone had changed things in other ways. When Vichy’s ‘army of the armistice’ was disbanded, large quantities of weapons suddenly became available to the Resistance. Many of its officers joined or set up groups belonging to the ORA (Organisation de Résistance de l’Armée) led by General Revers. Reluctant to support de Gaulle, they were prepared to acknowledge General Giraud.
The most important effect, however, was moral. Laval’s open support of Nazi Germany, with the dispatch of French volunteers in Wehrmacht uniform to the Russian front, stood out even more as an act of treason. Yet the worst form of vassalage was the STO (Service de Travail Obligatoire). This destroyed the last shreds of the argument that Pétain’s ‘path of collaboration’ had saved France from the same fate as other occupied countries. Those due for military conscription were sent to Germany to work as forced labour in terrible conditions. Thousands evaded this draft by going into hiding or swelling the ranks of the Resistance.
The Resistance already contained a remarkable political and social mixture – in some groups regular officers, socialists, students both left-wing and Catholic, and Spanish Republicans all fought alongside each other – but as the prospect of liberation approached, and with it the political implications of a post-war order, the thinking of the main movements became more defined. De Gaulle strongly disliked the idea of political consciousness and party activity. Power struggles at the time of liberation might well lead to disturbances or even civil war, giving the Americans and British an excuse to impose their military government on France.
Such a danger could be averted only by uniting the different Resistance movements and bringing them under his own apolitical command; this unity was achieved largely through the efforts and personality of Jean Moulin.
Between April and September 1941, Moulin learned as much as he could about the various Resistance movements in France, which were divided into three main groups. With this information, he decided to go to England and see General de Gaulle.
After a long journey via Spain and Portugal, Moulin landed in Bournemouth. He was swept off by Maurice Buckmaster, the head of SOE’s Section F, who wanted to recruit him as a potential coordinator for his groups in France; but Moulin insisted on reporting to de Gaulle. Unlike many early members of the Resistance, Moulin did not fear the General as a future military dictator. He saw that without the unifying figure of de Gaulle, the Resistance would become ‘émiettée’ – would break into crumbs.
Passy saw him first, and realized that Moulin was the ideal man to bring the Resistance together under Free French control. Passy was already planning his organization, the BCRA, a Free French version of Britain’s SOE. Reports from Gaullist networks such as Rémy’s had convinced him that the Resistance groups of the interior could be just as important in the struggle as the conventional Free French forces outside. They would also play an important role in the political struggle which was bound to follow the Liberation.
On New Year’s Day 1942, Moulin, accompanied by his conducting officer, Dodds-Parker (who was later involved in Darlan’s assassination), was taken to an RAF Whitley bomber. Moulin, with a small liaison team, and armed with de Gaulle’s authority and a radio set, was parachuted into Provence that night. He made his way to Marseilles to meet Henri Frenay, leader of the Combat Resistance movement. Frenay’s initial enthusiasmat the idea of a coalition cooled once he studied the instructions from London more closely. De Gaulle and Passy seemed to be expecting the Resistance groups to fall into neat ranks and snap to attention. On balance, Frenay acknowledged that it must be right for the main movements of the centre and centre-left – Combat, Libération and Franc-Tireur – to unite where possible. What he resented was the way that the men of London expected obedience and loyalty from a resistance which had sprung up in France quite independent of de Gaulle, and how London had so little appreciation of the problems and perils that local Resistance movements faced every day. But perhaps the greatest resentment felt towards the London Gaullists was provoked by their implication that to have remained in France in 1940, rather than joining the General in London, somehow represented a lapse of duty.
As part of his attempt to create an effective umbrella organization, Moulin recruited Georges Bidault, a Catholic of the centre-left, to be the head of the Resistance’s public information branch, the Bureau d’Information et de Presse.
Another of Moulin’s initiatives was to set up a sort of constitutional think-tank, the Comité Général d’Études, to prepare the governmental structure of post-war France and its relationship with the Allies. Members of this body, almost all lawyers, included several future ministers: François de Menthon and Pierre-Henri Teitgen, the first two Ministers of Justice of liberated France, Alexandre Parodi, and Michel Debré, a future Prime Minister.
The most important of these developments came in September 1942, when the military wings of Combat, Libération and Franc-Tireur joined to become the Armée Secrète. De Gaulle immediately gave it his blessing. In his eyes the Secret Army was a vital step towards bringing the Resistance within the framework of a reconstituted regular armed service. That many French Resistance groups had worked with the British from early on was, in his eyes, akin to treachery.
The British, on the other hand, were relieved that the Resistance had grown up in three different ways: the groups backed by SOE and the Secret Intelligence Service, the Gaullist groups and the Communists. This, they felt, reduced the chance of a civil war between Gaullists and Communists. The British were able to provide radio sets as well as transport, whether by Lysander landings on moonlit nights or by parachute drops. Passy claimed that the British always reserved the larger share of whatever planes, weapons and funds were available for their own operations, while Free French operations were kept on short rations. And yet the fact that London could provide support, however meagre, meant that the misunderstandings, suspicions and exasperations that were bound to develop between ‘les gens de Londres’ and ‘les gens de l’intérieur’ never resulted in a permanent rupture.
In November 1942, the possibility of Communists and Gaullists working together was greatly improved by their common anger at the Americans’ deal with Darlan. Neither Bogomolov, Stalin’s ambassador to the exiled governments in London, nor the old Comintern controller, Georgi Dimitrov, considered the decision of the French Communists to sign an agreement with the Gaullists ‘a good idea’. But since Stalin expressed little interest in France, and since communications to and from enemy-occupied territory were far from easy, Dimitrov left things as they were.
Soon afterwards the Communist Party’s military organization, Franc-Tireurs et Partisans Français (FTP), decided to associate itself with the Secret Army, thus acknowledging, at least in theory, General de Gaulle’s military authority. For the Communists it was also the only way to receive British arms drops, and their insistence on this point led to many wrangles. But this was purely for form. The French Communists within France saw the future Liberation in a totally different fashion from the Gaullists. They saw the retreat of the Germans from France as the signal for an uprising and complete social revolution. Far from accepting de Gaulle’s orders, they wanted their FTP to become the basis for a ‘democratized’ French army after the Liberation. To further this policy, they agreed to unite with other Resistance groups, while infiltrating ‘sub-marines’, or covert Communists, into key positions. Nowhere were they more successful in this than in Paris, where they soon controlled the capital’s Comité de Libération, a form of local provisional administration which they hoped would take over everything before Gaullist officials arrived from London.
At the Casablanca conference of January 1943 the Americans, supported by Churchill, promoted a ‘shotgun wedding’ between de Gaulle, ‘the bride’, and Giraud, ‘the bridegroom’. Roosevelt, however, was only interested in acknowledging a symbolic military leadership. As far as he was concerned, France did not exist as a political entity until elections were finally held in the whole territory. He still suspected de Gaulle of harbouring dictatorial ambitions.
Roosevelt, and also Churchill, had failed to realize how far things were changing within occupied France. The dramatic shift in de Gaulle’s favour was confirmed on 10 May 1943, the anniversary of the German invasion, when the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) was established, acknowledging de Gaulle’s leadership.
General Giraud, proud of his cavalry moustache and well-cut uniform, was devoid of personal ambition. His basic political education was supervised by Jean Monnet, sent by Roosevelt to strengthen his hand against de Gaulle. But Monnet, one of the few Frenchmen Roosevelt trusted completely, was much more of a realist than the President. He did all he could to prepare an orderly transition of power to de Gaulle.
De Gaulle arrived in Algiers on 30 May. Giraud, with a band playing the Marseillaise, was waiting to receive him on the runway. The American and British representatives remained in the background. The next few days would be marked by furious manoeuvres: there were even rumours of coups and kidnap plots. The scheming prompted General de Bénouville to remark that ‘nothing was more like Vichy than Algiers’.
Once again de Gaulle’s inflexibility, rooted in his implacable sense of mission, proved indomitable against anyone with a lesser will. On 3 June, the Comité Français de Libération Nationale was set up. Its constitution was almost entirely dictated by de Gaulle. Giraud found himself having to concede on almost every decision. One of the most significant was the legalization of the Communist Party. This dramatic change acknowledged their importance in the Resistance and led to their recognition of de Gaulle as leader of the government-in-waiting.
When the newly legalized Communist Party in Algiers heard that their arch-enemy, Pierre Pucheu, had turned up in Morocco, they could hardly believe his foolhardiness and their luck.
Pucheu had retired from Vichy politics after Admiral Darlan was replaced by Pierre Laval on 17 April 1942. A year later, he decided to join the ‘repentant Vichyists’ in North Africa – what one Resistance leader described as ‘Vichy à la sauce américaine’. Giraud gave him a safe-conduct on condition that he stayed out of politics. Pucheu accepted, utterly failing to understand the hatred he had generated as Minister of the Interior, and how dramatically the balance of power in North Africa had changed since Darlan’s assassination.
On 14 August, he was arrested. In the following months new legislation was passed to deal with members of the Vichy government. Giraud, who had signed Pucheu’s laissez-passer, found himself attacked from two directions. The right-wing colonists, who had supported Vichy, asked what the value of Giraud’s signature on a safe-conduct was if it did not save you; while the Communists called for Giraud’s head for having been Pucheu’s protector.
Pucheu had a further value for de Gaulle: his condemnation would also serve as the condemnation of the Vichy government. In March 1944, Pucheu was put on trial for his life and the Marshal’s reputation. Proving a regime’s criminality, as this trial sought to do, did not necessarily prove its illegality, but it was a useful act of psychological warfare. In Paris, Simone de Beauvoir overheard two collaborators in a café talking of the trial. ‘It’s our trial,’ said one. His companion agreed. It brought home to many others, notably the writer Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, that the side they had backed was now liable to lose.
Pucheu, the first collaborator to face the official justice of the victors, died in defiance. He insisted on giving the orders to the firing squad himself. But documents discovered after the Liberation proved without doubt that, as the Communists suspected, he had been guilty of picking out hostages to be executed by the Germans.
Operation Torch, coming after Alamein and followed by Stalingrad, gave a tremendous encouragement to the early Resistance groups, both ‘les gens de Londres’ and ‘les gens de l’intérieur’, who endured the whole Occupation. But during 1943, severe setbacks soon followed inside France, where the fight between the Gestapo and the Milice on one side and the Resistance on the other became increasingly violent.
Jean Moulin, having achieved his aim of unifying the Resistance in May, sensed that the Gestapo was closing in. He had already warned the BCRA in London that somebody should be ready to replace him. In answer to his request for a deputy, General de Gaulle’s military assistant, Claude Bouchinet-Serreulles, volunteered and parachuted in. Serreulles made contact with Moulin in Lyons on 19 June. But two days later, Moulin was trapped by the Germans in the hillside suburb of Caliure. He died after severe torture supervised by Klaus Barbie.
Serreulles, although finding himself in an almost impossible position, quickly re-established contact with the leaders of the different movements making up the Secret Army.
De Gaulle’s most pressing concern was not the Resistance but his relationship with the two Anglo-Saxon leaders. Roosevelt, still advised by Admiral Leahy, his former ambassador to Vichy, that Pétain was the only man to unite the country, went ahead with preparations for the administration of French territory as if neither de Gaulle’s government-in-waiting nor the Resistance existed. Already officials were being trained in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the acronym which Gaullists feared and loathed most: AMGOT – Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories.
De Gaulle, in spite of his anger, did not lose his ability to calculate the odds. He threatened to withdraw all cooperation if AMGOT was imposed on liberated France. Americans in the European theatre, including Eisenhower, knew that any attempt to introduce military government against the mass of the people would be disastrous.
Three days before D-Day, on 3 June 1944, the French National Liberation Committee in Algiers proclaimed itself to be the provisional government of the French Republic. De Gaulle and his staff then flew to England, arriving the next morning to hear that the Allies had entered Rome and that the invasion of France was imminent.
Churchill, although determined to be magnanimous towards de Gaulle, was in a state of subdued frenzy waiting for the invasion. With a disastrous lack of tact, he told de Gaulle that he had sent for him to broadcast to France. Even the more diplomatic Eisenhower, under renewed pressure from Roosevelt, reverted to the American position that de Gaulle and his colleagues counted for nothing until elections were held. On the morning of the invasion, Churchill heard that de Gaulle had refused to broadcast to the French people or to provide liaison officers to accompany the Allied forces. All his resentment and frustration burst forth. He accused de Gaulle of treason to the cause and raged about sending him back to Algiers in chains. American and British officials were horrified that the volatile chemistry between national leaders should have exploded at such a moment. ‘It’s pandemonium,’ a senior French diplomat noted in his diary. Finally Eden calmed Churchill, while Viennot, de Gaulle’s ambassador, and Duff Cooper persuaded de Gaulle to send liaison officers.
On 14 June 1944 de Gaulle crossed the Channel in the French destroyer Combattante. His party included Gaston Palewski, the ambassador Pierre Viennot, and Generals Koenig and Béthouart. One of them, hoping to lighten their leader’s mood, said to him: ‘Has it occurred to you, General, that four years ago to the day the Germans marched into Paris?’
‘Well! They made a mistake!’ came the inimitable reply.
De Gaulle relaxed only after the party had landed on a beach near Courseulles in Normandy and visited General Montgomery in his caravan. He then went on to meet civilians on French soil for the first time since 1940. These rather dazed citizens all knew his voice from the nocturnal radio broadcasts, but nobody recognized his face: Vichy had never allowed the publication of his photograph. News spread rapidly. The local curé, Father Paris, came cantering up on his horse to reprove the General for not having shaken his hand. De Gaulle climbed out of the jeep he was in. ‘Monsieur le curé,’ he said, opening his arms, ‘I do not shake your hand, I embrace you.’ Two gendarmes then appeared on bicycles, which wobbled as they tried to salute. They were sent on ahead to Bayeux, heralds of the General’s coming.
Here the emotional reaction to de Gaulle’s appearance was muted by the usual Norman reserve. One old woman, however, became confused in the enthusiasm of the moment, and cried out, ‘Vive le Maréchal!’De Gaulle, on hearing this discordant note, is said to have murmured, ‘Another person who does not read the newspapers.’ Gaston Palewski, when told of the approach of the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux ‘to greet the Liberator’, was certain they had finally won: ‘the clergy does not take risks’.
The sub-prefect appointed by Vichy, wearing his red, white and blue sash of office, welcomed de Gaulle’s party. But the change of regime had been too abrupt for him. He suddenly remembered the portrait of Marshal Pétain in the salle d’honneur and dashed off to take it down. It was four years and three days since the General and the Marshal had met on the steps of the Château du Muguet.