Military history of France during World War II
The military history of France during World War II covers three periods. From 1939 until 1940, which witnessed a war against Germany by the French Third Republic. The period from 1940 until 1945, which saw competition between Vichy France and the Free French Forces under General Charles de Gaulle for control of the overseas empire. In 1944 the Allies (United States, Britain and others) invaded and took control of France, expelling the Germans (except for a few ports the Germans kept).
In August 1943, the de Gaulle and Giraud forces merged in a single chain of command subordinated to Anglo-American leadership, meanwhile opposing French forces on the Eastern Front were subordinated to Soviet or German leaderships. This in-exile French force together with the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) played a variable-scale role in the eventual liberation of France by the Western Allies and the defeat of Vichy France, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Japanese empire. Vichy France fought for control over the French overseas empire with the Free French forces, which were aided by Britain and the U.S. By 1943, all of the colonies, except for Indochina, had joined the Free French cause.
France and Britain declared war on Germany when it invaded Poland in September 1939. After the Phoney War from 1939 to 1940, with very little fighting, the Germans invaded and defeated France and forced the British off the continent. France formally surrendered to Germany.
The number of Free French troops grew with Allied success in North Africa and subsequent rallying of the Army of Africa which pursued the fight against the Axis fighting in many campaigns and eventually invading Italy, occupied France and Germany from 1944 to 1945 by demanding unconditional surrender to the Axis Power in Casablanca Conference. On 23 October 1944, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union officially recognized de Gaulle's regime as the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) which replaced the in-exile Vichy French State (its government having fled to Sigmaringen in western Germany) and preceded the Fourth Republic (1946).
Recruitment in liberated France led to enlargements of the French armies. By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, France had 1,250,000 troops, 10 divisions of which were fighting in Germany. An expeditionary corps was created to liberate French Indochina then occupied by the Japanese. During the course of the war, French military losses totaled 212,000 dead, of which 92,000 were killed through the end of the campaign of 1940, 58,000 from 1940 to 1945 in other campaigns, 24,000 lost while serving in the French resistance, and a further 38,000 lost while serving with the German Army (including 32,000 "malgré-nous").
Military forces of France during World War II
France had several regular and irregular army forces during World War II; this was partially due to a major geopolitical change. Following the lost Battle of France in 1940, the country switched from a democratic republican regime fighting with the Allies to an authoritarian regime collaborating with Germany and opposing the Allies in several campaigns. These complex opposing forces were called, in a simplistic manner, Vichy French forces and Free French forces. They fought battles all over the world from 1940 to 1945, and sometimes fighting against each other. These forces were composite, made of rebel factions and colonial troops; France controlled a large colonial empire, only second to the British empire.
The military participation of the French ground armies, navies and air forces on the Allied side in each theater of World War II (1939–1945) before, during and after the Battle of France, even though it was on various degrees, secured France's acknowledgment as a World War II victor and allowed its evasion from the US-planned AMGOT; even though after World War II USAF bases were maintained in France until their evacuation in 1967, due to de Gaulle's rejection of NATO. As a result, Free French General François Sevez signed the first German Instrument of Surrender, as witness, on 7 May 1945 (Rheims, France), French 1st Army General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny signed the second declaration on 8 May 1945 (Berlin, Germany), also as witness, and French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Provisional Government of the French Republic on 15 August 1945 (Tokyo bay, Japan).
The complex and ambiguous situation of France from 1939 to 1945, since its military forces fought on both sides under French, British, German, Soviet, US or without uniform – often subordinated to Allied or Axis command – raised some critics vis-à-vis its actual role and allegiance, much like with Sweden during World War II.
French Army (1939–40)
The French Army on the eve of the German attack in 1940 was commanded by General Maurice Gamelin with its headquarters in Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris. It consisted of 117 divisions with 94 committed to the North-Eastern front of operations. The North-Eastern Front Command was held by its Commander-in-Chief, General Alphonse Georges, at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. The French air force was commanded by General Joseph Vuillemin, whose headquarters was located in Coulommiers.
Prisoners of war
After the French armies surrendered, Germany seized 2 million French prisoners of war and sent them to camps in Germany. About one third were released on various terms. Of the remainder, the officers and noncommissioned officers were kept in separate camps and did not work. The privates were sent out to work. About half of them worked in German agriculture, where food supplies were adequate and controls were lenient. The others work in factories or mines, where conditions were much harsher.
Free French Forces (1940–45)
Free French Forces were created in 1940 as a rebel faction of the French Army, refusing both the armistice (they were called « the fighting French ») and Vichy's authority. Its allegiance was toward General de Gaulle and its HQ was in London; later moving to Algiers. Starting as a limited force made of volunteers from metropolitan France and French colonies but also from other countries (such as Belgium and Spain). It evolved to a full army after its merger with Giraud's Army of Africa, then with new recruits from the French Resistance (also called « soldiers without uniform »).
De Gaulle's appeals on the BBC (June 1940)
General Charles de Gaulle was a member of the French cabinet during the Battle of France, in 1940. As French defence forces were increasingly overwhelmed, de Gaulle found himself part of a group of politicians who argued against a negotiated surrender to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. These views being shared by the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, de Gaulle was sent as an emissary to the United Kingdom, where he was when the French government collapsed.
On the 18 of June, de Gaulle spoke to the French people via BBC radio. He asked French soldiers, sailors and airmen to join in the fight against the Nazis. In France, De Gaulle's "Appeal of June 18" (Appel du 18 juin) was not widely heard, but subsequent discourse by de Gaulle could be heard nationwide. Some of the British Cabinet had attempted to block the speech, but were overruled by Winston Churchill. To this day, the Appeal of June 18 remains one of the most famous speeches in French history. Nevertheless, on 22 June, Pétain signed the surrender and became leader of the new regime known as Vichy France. (Vichy is the French town where the government was based.)
De Gaulle was tried in absentia in Vichy France and sentenced to death for treason and desertion; he, on the other hand, regarded himself as the last remaining member of the legitimate Reynaud government able to exercise power, seeing the rise to power of Pétain as an unconstitutional coup.
French SAS (1942–45)
On 15 September 1940, Free French Captain Georges Bergé created the airborne unit called 1re compagnie de l'air, 1re CIA (1st Air Company) in Great Britain. This unit later known as 1re compagnie de chasseurs parachutistes, 1re CCP (1st Parachute Light Infantry Company) joined the July 1941-created British Special Air Service airborne unit at David Stirling's demand to Charles de Gaulle in 1942 to become the SAS Brigade's French Squadron.
The 3rd SAS (French) and 4th SAS (French) are also known as 1st Airborne Marine Infantry Regiment (1er RPIMa) and 2e régiment de chasseurs parachutistes (2e RCP) respectively.
Free French Forces (Forces Françaises Libres, FFL) comprised 1st Free French Division (1re Division Française Libre, 1re DFL), Free French Air Force (Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres, FAFL), Free French Naval Forces (Forces Navales Françaises Libres, FNFL), Free French Naval Air Service (Aéronavale française libre, AFL), Naval Commandos (Commandos Marine), the French Resistance branch called French Forces of the Interior (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur, FFI), and the intelligence service Central Bureau of Intelligence and Operations (Bureau Central de Renseignements et d'Action, BCRA), all giving allegiance to General Charles de Gaulle, creator of the Free France (France libre).
French Expeditionary Corps (1943–1944)
Free French Forces and Army of Africa merger (August 1, 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. At this point, the Free French forces and Army of Africa were merged to form the French Expeditionary Corps (Corps Expéditionnaire Français, CEF), under General Alphonse Juin, that would take part in the 1943 Italian Campaign and the August 1944 invasion in Southern France called Operation Dragoon.
By September 1944, the Free French forces stood at 560,000 (and the FFI at 300,000), which rose to 1 million by the end of 1944, and were fighting in Alsace, the Alps and Bretagne. By the end of the war in Europe (May 1945), the Free French forces comprised 1,250,000, including seven infantry and three armoured divisions fighting in Germany.
Other Free French units were directly attached to Allied forces including the British SAS, RAF and the Soviet air force.
Far East French Expeditionary Forces (1943–1945)
The Forces Expéditionnaires Françaises d'Extrême-Orient (FEFEO) was a French expeditionary corps created on 4 October 1943 to fight in the Asian theatre of World War II and liberate French Indochina which was still occupied by the Japanese since 1940. Recruiting posters of the FEFEO depicted a US-built M4 Sherman tank of general Leclerc's Free French 2nd Armoured Division, famous for its role in the 1944 liberation of Paris and Strasbourg, with the caption "Yesterday Strasbourg, tomorrow Saigon: Join the Far East French Expeditionary Forces".
In 1945 after Japan surrendered and China was in charge in Indochina, the Provisional French Republic sent the French Far East Expeditionary Corps to Indochina to pacify the Vietnamese liberation movement and to restore French colonial rule.
Gaurs & C.L.I. commandos (1943–1945)
Free French commando groups called Corps Léger d'Intervention (C.L.I.) were created by de Gaulle in November 1943 as part of the FEFEO and trained in French Algeria then in British India, after the British Chindits, to fight the Japanese forces in occupied French Indochina.
They served in French Indochina, under General Roger Blaizot, since 1944 and were dropped by the British Force 136's B-24 Liberator. The first C.L.I. commandos were rather known as "Gaurs", the gaur is an Indian bison.
Allied munitions (1942–1945)
Free French aircrew formed squadrons under the operational control of the Royal Air Force with British or Lend-Lease equipment. British warships were lent to the Free French navy. Besides materiel, the British formed and trained some Free French pilots and airborne commandos such as the 3rd SAS (French) and 4th SAS (French) and the CLI: the latter were trained in Ceylon and created after the British Chindits.
In 1941, while still neutral, the United States began providing Lend Lease munitions to Britain and China. Some went to the Free French in North Africa, starting in 1942. Among the large inventories of American equipment passed to Free French Forces were several versions of the M4 Sherman medium tank. French armored divisions were organized and equipped the same as U.S. Army armored divisions and were sizable offensive commands. In 1943, the French decided to raise a new army in North Africa, and had an agreement with the Americans to be equipped it with US modern weapons. The French 2nd Armored Division (French: Division Blindée, DB) entered the Battle of Normandy fully equipped with M4A2s. The 1st and 5th DB, which entered S. France as part of the First French Army were equipped with a mixture of M4A2 and M4A4 medium tanks. The 3rd DB, which served as a training and reserve organization for the three operational armored divisions was equipped with roughly 200 medium and light tanks. Of these, 120 were later turned in to the U.S. Army's Delta Base Section for reissue. Subsequent combat losses for the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Armored Divisions were replaced with standard-issue tanks from U.S. Army stocks.
Beside tanks, the US Army supplied the Free Free forces and Army of Africa with hundreds of US-built aircraft and materiel such as vehicles, artillery, helmets, uniforms and firearms, as well as fuel and rations, for many thousands of troops.
Units and commands on 8 May 1945
- French First Army
- Atlantic Army Detachment
- Alpine Army Detachment
- 1st Free French Division
- 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division
- 3rd Algerian Infantry Division
- 4th Moroccan Mountain Division
- 9th Colonial Infantry Division
- 27th Alpine Infantry Division
- 1st Armoured Division
- 2nd Armoured Division
- 3rd Armoured Division
- 5th Armoured Division
- 1st Infantry Division
- 10th Infantry Division
- 14th Infantry Division
- 19th Infantry Division
- 23rd Infantry Division
- 25th Infantry Division
- 36th Infantry Division
- 1st Far East Colonial Division
- 2nd Far East Colonial Division
- 3rd and 4th Free French S.A.S. (Special Air Service) Battalions
French State Army (1940–44)
The armistice army, which is the official name for the Vichy army, was headed by Marshal Pétain and had its headquarters in Vichy, capital of the French State with bases disseminated around the world as part of the French Colonial Empire. It was a limited force created in July 1940 following the occupation of metropolitan France by Germany. Northern part of the metropolitan territory was occupied from June 1940 to November 1942 as a consequence of the officially signed armistice, then, full metropolitan territory as a consequence of the Allied invasion of French North Africa (Operation Torch) and Allied allegiance of the colonial French Army of Africa. Beside its regular limited armistice army, the French State created irregular forces in order to fight the French Resistance and inner/outer communists; both considered enemies by Vichy and the German authorities.
French State Air Force (1940–44)
Legion of French Volunteers
French Legion of Fighters
The Légion Française des Combattants ("French Legion of Fighters") was the French State's first paramilitary force, created on 29 August 1940 by Xavier Vallat.
French Legion of Fighters and Volunteers of the National Revolution
On 19 November 1941, the force changed its name to Légion française des combattants et des volontaires de la Révolution nationale ("French Legion of Fighters and Volunteers of the National Revolution"). The National Revolution was the French State's official ideology.
Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism
Tricolore Legion (1941–1942)
French Milice (1943–44)
The French Milice, ("militia") was a Vichy French paramilitary force created on 30 January 1943 by the French State for service as auxiliary of the German occupation army; hunting down the French Resistance maquisards. Its commander was Joseph Darnand a battle of France veteran and volunteer; he took an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler in October 1943 and received a rank of Sturmbannführer (Major) in the Waffen SS. By 1944, the French Milice had over 35,000 members.
Legionnaire Order Service (1940–43)
The French Milice originated as French Legion Volunteer's shock unit called Service d'Ordre Légionnaire (SOL).
Paramilitary forces (1940–44)
Just like the Vichy police agents, the national police forces collaborated with the German authorities, the French Youth Workings alumni had to claim allegiance to Marshal Pétain with a serment. The gesture was the Nazi salute while saying «Je le jure !» ("I swear it !") instead of cheering Hitler.
French Youth Workings (1940–44)
The Chantiers de la jeunesse française ("French youth workings") were a paramilitary youth organization created on 30 July 1940 by ex-Scout Movement-Chief General Joseph de La Porte du Theil (42nd Infantry Division) as a substitute to the French army conscription (draft). Its members were under Vichy army officers and dressed with military uniforms similar to those of the French Milice (béret included) and had to claim allegiance to Marshal Pétain with an arm salute.
The French Youth Workings were available in all French departments which it means they were also in those of French Algeria and apply to European settlers and Muslim locals. However, Lieutenant-Colonel van Hecke advised La Porte du Theil to reject the young Jews, and so they were not anymore in the French Youth Workings by decree on 15 July 1942; twenty-four hours before the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup.
In November 1942, La Porte du Theil and van Hecke were both in French Algeria when the Allied invasion of Algiers and Oran took place. The first, loyal to Pétain, flew to metropolitan France, while the second sided on the Free French side and joined Henri Giraud's Army of Africa. Local French Youth Workings became units of this military force, the most famous being the 7e régiment de chasseurs d'Afrique, 7e RCA (7th Africa Chasers Regiment) created in 1943 and fighting the Italian, French and German Allied campaigns from 1944 to 1945 as hinted by its battle flag; e.g. the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino (Garigliano), Operation Dragoon (Toulon) and the 1945 invasion of Germany (Württemberg). The famous battle song Le Chant des Africains version 1943 is dedicated to Lt.Col. van Hecke and his 7e RCA.
Reserve Mobile Group (1941–44)
The Reserve Mobile Group (Groupe mobile de réserve, GMR) was a paramilitary force of the French State created by Vichy French René Bousquet. It was a police version of the Mobile Gendarmerie that served as French Milice and German army auxiliary during battles against the French Resistance's maquisards. In December 1944, the GMRs were disbanded, with selected members joining the FFI, and replaced with the CRS Riot Police.
French Gestapo (1941–44)
Carlingue was the name of the French Gestapo, it was headed by Henri Lafont, Pierre Loutrel and Pierre Bonny. A famous Vichy French agent of the Gestapo was Scharführer-SS Pierre Paoli who served in central France, Cher department. Mould says, "It was staffed by the dregs of the French underworld."
French SS (1942–45)
8th Sturmbrigade SS Frankreich (1943–44)
The 8th Sturmbrigade SS Frankreich ("French assault brigade") was created in 1943. Surviving troops were incorporated to the 286th Security Division in 1944.
33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1943–45)
The French State's distinct forces L.V.F. and French Milice merged to become a full division of the German army. The division's name is a reference to the Frankish emperor Charlemagne who has common French and German roots.
The African Phalange (1942–43)
La Phalange africaine was created in November 1942 in French Tunisia to fight against the Allied, Free French and Army of Africa after Operation Torch. This unit was under Lieutenant-colonel Christian du Jonchay, Lieutenant-colonel Pierre Simon Cristofini and Captain André Dupuis, its nicknames alternative designations were Französische Freiwilligen Legion ("Legion of French Volunteers") or Compagnie Frankonia ("Frankonia company).
North-African Legion (1944)
The Légion nord-africaine, LNA, or Brigade nord-africaine, BNA was a paramilitary force created by French Gestapo agent Henri Lafont and Muslim Algerian nationalist Mohamed el-Maadi. This unit was made of Parisians of Arab and Kabyle ancestry.
French Resistance (1940–1945)
Resistance groups (1940–1945)
The earlier French Resistance groups were created in June 1940 following Marshal Pétain's appeal to cease the fight on 17 June, and its subsequent signing of the French-German-Italian armistices in July 1940. There were a myriad of paramalitary groups from various size and political ideology which made difficult its latter unification under a single chain of command. Famous groups included communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, FTP ("Partisan irregular riflemen") and rebel police Honneur de la police ("Honour of the Police").
Unification of the Resistance
The French Resistance gradually grew in strength. Charles de Gaulle set a plan to bring together the different groups under his leadership. He changed the name of his movement to Forces Françaises Combattantes (Fighting French Forces) and sent Jean Moulin back to France to unite the eight major French Resistance groups into one organisation. Moulin got their agreement to form the Conseil National de la Résistance (National Council of the Resistance). He was eventually captured, and died under torture.
French Colonial Empire (1940–1945)
Franco-French struggle for the colonies
During World War II (1939–1945), the French colonies were administered by the Minister of the Navy and Colonies. On 16 June 1940 Minister César Campinchi resigned and was replaced by Admiral François Darlan who became the colonies' authority.
On 21 June, Campinchi left metropolitan France, on board the Massilia ocean liner at Bordeaux, with other government members such as Interior Minister Georges Mandel and arrived in Casablanca, French Morocco, on 24 June. Mandel's idea was to leave Bordeaux to establish a government-in-exile in French North Africa, and from there continue the fight using the power of the colonies. However, when the boat arrived in Casablanca, the politicians were arrested by French Morocco administrator, General Charles Noguès, under orders from General Maxime Weygand and Marshal Philippe Pétain; the latter had signed a French-German-Italian armistice on 22 June, and became the de facto chief of state. As a consequence of the Armistice, the French colonial world empire became Vichy French.
However, inspired by Mandel, General Charles de Gaulle eventually created a French government-in-exile in London and tried to rally the several colonies to his cause. He hoped to gain strategic bases and gather troops for forces sufficient to liberate metropolitan France. During 1940 a few colonies joined the Free French side, but others remained under Vichy control. General de Gaulle's reputation was then as a military man with no political experience or following. His charisma wasn't sufficient to gather the allegiance of senior colonial administrators or Generals. As a result, a battle was engaged between Free French colonies and Vichy French colonies, each one siding with the Axis or the Allies.
Army of Africa (1942–1943)
The Army of Africa is a historical colonial force created in 1830 as an expeditionary corps set to conquer the Regency of Algiers (proto-Algeria); mission fulfilled in 1847. It fought 1939–1940 as a force of the French Republic, then following the surrender of metropolitan France it became a Vichy force fighting the Allies (1940–1942) at the battle of Mers-el-Kebir and Operation Torch, then it evolved as a rebel faction of the Vichy forces in 1942. It eventually merged with the Free French Forces prior to the 1944 operations in mainland Europe.
It was headed by General Henri Giraud and made of mixed European settlers and indigenous colonial forces from the French North Africa, French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. Unlike de Gaulle's Free French Forces, Giraud's Army of Africa was massively supplied by the United States through a lend-lease plan. This newly equipped force enjoying modern US-built material was nicknamed the « Nouvelle armée française » ("New French Army").
Giraud was the Commander of the French Forces in North Africa since he received this civil and military charge on 26 December 1942 as (Commandement civil et militaire d'Alger) replacing murdered Vichy French admiral François Darlan.
During Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of Vichy-controlled French North Africa in November 1942, many Vichy troops surrendered and joined the Free French cause. Vichy coastal defences were captured by the French Resistance.
Following Operation Torch, Henri Giraud took the head of Army of Africa a third French force distinct from de Gaulle's Free French Forces and the Vichy French forces. The Army of Africa – (created in 1830) joined the Allied side as the French XIX Corps based in French Algeria.
Axis retaliations (1942–1943)
The Nazis suspected Vichy determination after Torch and they occupied the southern "free" part of metropolitan France known as Vichy France in November 1942, (Case Anton). Also, the Libya-based Luftwaffe performed several bombing attacks on Algiers's harbour and Eastern French Algeria cities (including Annaba and Jijel).
Free French colonies
In the autumn of 1940, the French colonies of Cameroon, French India and French Equatorial Africa joined the Free French side. French colonies in New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and the New Hebrides joined later.
Vichy French colonies
French Indochina was under Vichy control and Japanese oversight 1940-44 and then under total Japanese rule. The colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies remained under Vichy government control until 1942.
Allied Angary (1940)
From Operation Catapult to Lend-Lease
Starting with Operation Catapult on 3 July 1940, the British took pre-emptive actions to seize French vessels. Both combatants and merchant ships docked in British harbours of the English Channel (Plymouth), Mediterranean (Gibraltar) and Canada were suddenly taken captive by armed sailors and soldiers. The crews were interned and the ships were taken over and distributed to the British or Polish fleets.
Later, with the recognition of Charles de Gaulle as leader of the Free French government-in-exile, the interned personnel were set free and organized with new ships by the British. American aid supplied under Lend-Lease allowed expansion and reconstitution of a French navy as part of the Western allies.
French Navy ships in British ports were boarded by armed sailors, these included the Surcouf submarine under repair in Plymouth in July 1940 which resulted on four deaths (3 British, 1 French) and the capture of the merchant MV Charles Plumier at Gibraltar in November 1940, which became HMS Largs which was later used as a command ship in several amphibious landings.
Surcoufs repairs were completed and it was turned over to Free French forces by August 1940 and in 1941 was acting as escort to trans-Atlantic convoys.
Axis requisition (1940–1945)
As part of Case Anton, in operation Lila the Germans tried to seize the remaining French navy. In Toulon, the French ships were scuttled rather than let them be handed over. Seventy-seven vessels including three battleships, seven cruisers, and fifteen destroyers were deliberately sunk. Some submarines ignored their orders to scuttle and escaped to fight on the allied cause.
European Theatre of World War II
Phoney War (1939)
The invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 was a resounding success for German forces. France declared war to Germany on 3 September 1939 and invaded its western territory, Saarland, with the Saar Offensive led by general Louis Faury. This attempt was led by France's military obligation to help Poland per the Franco-Polish Military Alliance, and was the following of the French Military Mission to Poland headed by the same commanding officer.
Although tactically successful, as the advance in German territory reached 8 km, the Saar operation was abandoned on 12 September when the Anglo French Supreme War Council decided that all offensive actions were to be halted immediately. This SWC was composed of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Lord Chatfield as the British delegation while Prime Minister Édouard Daladier and General Maurice Gamelin formed the French delegation. As a result of the deliberations, General Gamelin ordered the French troops to withdraw to the Maginot Line in France, leaving Poland to its own fate facing the Germans and Soviets all alone; the latter entering Poland on 17 September. On 16 October, German general Erwin von Witzleben started a counter-offensive against France entering its territory a few kilometers and the last covering French forces left Germany the following day to defend their country.
Battle of Belgium (May 10–28, 1940)
The 1st, 7th and 9th armies moved into Belgium to counter a German attack similar to the Schlieffen Plan in the last world war, leaving them and the BEF open to later be out-flanked by the Ardennes thrust.
Battle of the Netherlands (May 10–14, 1940)
Battle of France (May 10 – June 25, 1940)
Neither the French nor the British anticipated such a rapid defeat of Poland, and the quick German victory, relying on a new form of mobile warfare, disturbed some generals in London and Paris. However, the Allies still expected they would be able to contain the Germans, anticipating a war reasonably like the First World War, so they believed that even without an Eastern Front the Germans could be defeated by blockade, as in the previous conflict. This feeling was more widely shared in London than in Paris, which had suffered more severely during the First World War. The Prime Minister of France Édouard Daladier, also respected the large gap between France's human and economic resources as compared to those of Germany.
The commander of France's army, Maurice Gamelin, like the rest of the French government, was expecting a repeat of World War 1. The Schlieffen Plan, Gamelin believed, would be repeated with a reasonably close degree of accuracy. Even though important parts of the French army in the 1930s had been designed to wage offensive warfare, the French only had the stomach for a defensive war, as the French military staff believed its country was not, for the moment, equipped militarily or economically to launch a decisive offensive. It would be better to wait until 1941 when the combined allied economic superiority over Germany could be fully exploited. To confront the expected German plan – which rested on a move into the Low Countries, outflanking the fortified Maginot Line – Gamelin intended to send the best units of the French army along with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) north to halt the Germans in the area of the river Dyle, east of Brussels, until a decisive victory could be achieved with the support of the united British, Belgian, French and Dutch armies. The original German plan closely resembled Gamelin's expectations.
The crash in Belgium of a light plane carrying two German officers with a copy of the then-current invasion plan forced Hitler to scrap the plan and search for an alternative. The final plan for Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) had been suggested by General Erich von Manstein, then serving as Chief of Staff to Gerd von Rundstedt, but had been initially rejected by the German General Staff. It proposed a deep penetration further south of the original route which would take advantage of the speed of the unified Panzer divisions to separate and encircle the opposing forces. It had the virtue of being unlikely (from a defensive point of view), as the Ardennes was heavily wooded and implausible as a route for a mechanized invasion. It also had the considerable virtue of not having been intercepted by the Allies (for no copies were being carried about), and of being dramatic, which seems to have appealed to Hitler.
Manstein's aggressive plan was to break through the weak Allied centre with overwhelming force, trap the forces to the north in a pocket, and drive on to Paris. The plan would benefit from an Allied response close to how they would have responded in the original case; namely, that a large part of French and British strength would be drawn north to defend Belgium and Picardy. To help ensure this result, German Army Group B would still attack Belgium and the Netherlands in order to draw Allied forces eastward into the developing encirclement. The attack would also enable the Germans to secure bases for a later attack on Britain.
The Allied general staff and key statesmen, after capturing the original invasion plans, were initially jubilant that they had potentially won a key victory in the war before the campaign was even fought. Contrarily, General Gamelin and Lord Gort, the commander of the BEF, were shaken into realizing that whatever the Germans came up with instead would not be what they had initially expected. More and more Gamelin became convinced that the Germans would try to attempt a breakthrough by concentrating their mechanized forces. They could hardly hope to break the Maginot Line on his right flank or to overcome the allied concentration of forces on the left flank. That only left the centre. But most of the centre was covered by the river Meuse. Tanks were useless in defeating fortified river positions. However at Namur the river made a sharp turn to the east, creating a gap between itself and the river Dyle. This Gembloux Gap, ideal for mechanized warfare, was a very dangerous weak spot. Gamelin decided to concentrate half of his armoured reserves there. Of course the Germans might try to overcome the Meuse position by using infantry. But that could only be achieved by massive artillery support, the build-up of which would give Gamelin ample warning.
Campaign in the Low Countries and northern France
Germany launched its offensive, Fall Gelb, on the night prior to and principally on the morning of 10 May. During the night, German forces occupied Luxembourg and, in the morning, German Army Group B (Bock) launched a feint offensive into the Netherlands and Belgium. German Fallschirmjäger from the 7th Flieger and 22nd Air Landing divisions under Kurt Student executed surprise landings at The Hague, on the road to Rotterdam and against the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael on its opening day with the goal of facilitating Army Group B's advance.
The Allied command reacted immediately, sending forces north to combat a plan that, for all the Allies could expect, resembled the earlier Schlieffen plan. This move north committed their best forces, diminished their fighting power through loss of readiness and their mobility through loss of fuel. That evening French troops crossed the Dutch border.
The French and British air command was less effective than their generals had anticipated, and the Luftwaffe quickly obtained air superiority, depriving the Allies of key reconnaissance abilities and disrupting Allied communication and coordination.
While the German invaders secured all the strategically vital bridges in and toward Rotterdam, which penetrated "Fortress Holland" and bypassed the Water Line, an attempt to seize the Dutch seat of government, The Hague, ended in complete failure, which later led the Germans to skip paratrooper attacks. The airfields surrounding the city (Ypenburg, Ockenburg, and Valkenburg) were taken with heavy casualties on 10 May, only to be lost on the very same day to furious counterattacks launched by the two Dutch reserve infantry divisions.
The French marched north to establish a connection with the Dutch army, which came under attack from German paratroopers, but simply not understanding German intentions they failed to block German armoured reinforcements of the 9th Panzer Division from reaching Rotterdam on May 13. The Dutch, their poorly equipped army largely intact, surrendered on 14 May after the Germans bombed Rotterdam. However the Dutch troops in Zeeland and the colonies continued the fight while Queen Wilhelmina established a government-in-exile in Britain.
The centre of the Belgian defensive line, Fort Eben-Emael, had been seized by German paratroopers using gliders on May 10, allowing their forces to cross the bridges over the Albert Canal, although the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force managed to save the Belgians for a time. Gamelin's plan in the north was achieved when the British army reached the Dyle; then the expected major tank battle took place in the Gembloux Gap between the French 2nd and 3rd Divisions Légères mécaniques, (Mechanized Light Divisions), and the German 3rd and 4th Panzer divisions of Erich Hoepner's XVI Panzer Corps, costing both sides about 100 vehicles; the German offensive in Belgium seemed stalled for a moment. But this was a feint.
In the centre German Army Group A smashed through the Belgian infantry regiments and French Light Divisions of the Cavalry (Divisions Légères de cavalerie) advancing into the Ardennes, and arrived at the Meuse River near Sedan the night of May 12/13. On May 13, the Germans forced three crossing near Sedan. Instead of slowly massing artillery as the French expected, the Germans replaced the need for traditional artillery by using the full might of their bomber force to punch a hole in a narrow sector of the French lines by carpet bombing (punctuated by dive bombing). Sedan was held by the 55th French Infantry Division (55e DI), a grade "B" reserve division. The forward elements of the 55e DI held their positions through most of the 13th, initially repulsing three of the six German crossing attempts; however, the German air attacks had disrupted the French supporting artillery batteries and created an impression among the troops of the 55e DI that they were isolated and abandoned. The combination of the psychological impact of the bombing, the generally slowly expanding German lodgements, deep penetrations by some small German infantry units and the lack of air or artillery support eventually broke down the 55e DI's resistance and much of the unit went into rout by the evening of May 13/14. The German aerial attack of May 13, with 1215 bomber sorties, the heaviest air bombardment the world had yet witnessed, is considered to have been very effective and key to the successful German river crossing. It was the most effective use of tactical air power yet demonstrated in warfare. The disorder begun at Sedan was spread down the French line by groups of haggard and retreating soldiers. During the night, some units in the last prepared defence line at Bulson panicked by the false rumour German tanks were already behind their positions. On May 14, two French tank battalions and supporting infantry from the 71st North African Infantry Division (71e NADI) counter-attacked the German bridgehead without success. The attack was partially repulsed by the first German armour and anti-tank units which had been rushed across the river as quickly as possible at 7:20 A.M. on pontoon bridges. On May 14, every available Allied light bomber was employed in an attempt to destroy the German pontoon bridges; but, despite incurring the highest single day action losses in the entire history of the British and French air forces, failed to destroy these targets. Despite the failure of numerous quickly planned counterattacks to collapse the German bridgehead, the French Army was successful in re-establishing a continuous defensive position further south; on the west flank of the bridgehead, however, French resistance began to crumble.
The commander of the French Second Army, General Huntzinger, immediately took effective measures to prevent a further weakening of his position. An armoured division (3rd Division Cuirassée de réserve) and a motorized division blocked further German advances around his flank. However the commander of XIX Panzer Corps, Heinz Guderian, wasn't interested in Huntzinger's flank. Leaving for the moment 10th Panzer Division at the bridgehead to protect it from attacks by 3rd DCR, he moved his 1st and 2nd Panzer divisions sharply to the west on the 15th, undercutting the flank of the French Ninth Army by 40 km and forcing the 102nd Fortress Division to leave its positions that had blocked XVI Panzer Corps at Monthermé. While the French Second Army had been seriously mauled and had rendered itself impotent, now Ninth Army began to disintegrate completely, for in Belgium also its divisions, not having had the time to fortify, had been pushed back from the river by the unrelenting pressure of German infantry, allowing the impetuous Erwin Rommel to break free with his 7th Panzer Division. A French armoured division (1st DCR) was sent to block him but advancing unexpectedly fast he surprised it while refuelling on the 15th and dispersed it, despite some losses caused by the heavy French tanks.
On the 16th, both Guderian and Rommel disobeyed their explicit direct orders to halt in an act of open insubordination against their superiors and moved their divisions many kilometres to the west, as fast as they could push them. Guderian reached Marle, 80 kilometres from Sedan, Rommel crossed the river Sambre at Le Cateau, a hundred kilometres from his bridgehead, Dinant. While nobody knew the whereabouts of Rommel (he had advanced so quickly that he was out of range for radio contact, earning his 7th Panzer Division the nickname Gespenster-Division, "Ghost Division"), an enraged von Kleist flew to Guderian on the morning of the 17 and after a heated argument relieved him of all duties. However, von Rundstedt would have none of it and refused to confirm the order.
The Panzer Corps now slowed their advance considerably but had put themselves in a very vulnerable position. They were stretched out, exhausted and low on fuel; many tanks had broken down. There now was a dangerous gap between them and the infantry. A determined attack by a fresh large mechanized force could have cut them off and wiped them out.
The French high command, however, was reeling from the shock of the sudden offensive and was stung by a sense of defeatism. On the morning of May 15, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned newly minted Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill and said "We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle." Churchill, attempting to console Reynaud reminded the Prime Minister of the times the Germans had broken through allied lines in World War I only to be stopped. However, Reynaud was inconsolable.
Churchill flew to Paris on May 16. He immediately recognized the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a sombre meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, "Where is the strategic reserve?" which had saved Paris in the First World War. "There is none", Gamelin replied. Later, Churchill described hearing this as the single most shocking moment in his life. Churchill asked Gamelin when and where the general proposed to launch a counterattack against the flanks of the German bulge. Gamelin simply replied "inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of methods".
Gamelin was right; most reserve divisions had by now been committed. The only armoured division still in reserve, 2nd DCR, attacked on the 16th. However the French armoured divisions of the Infantry, the Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve, were despite their name very specialized breakthrough units, optimized for attacking fortified positions. They could be quite useful for defence, if dug in, but had very limited utility for an encounter fight: they could not execute combined infantry-tank tactics as they simply had no important motorized infantry component; they had poor tactical mobility as the heavy Char B1 bis, their main tank in which half of the French tank budget had been invested, had to refuel twice a day. So 2nd DCR divided itself in a covering screen, the small subunits of which fought bravely – but without having any strategic effect.
Of course, some of the best units in the north had yet seen little fighting. Had they been kept in reserve they could have been used for a decisive counter strike. But now they had lost much fighting power simply by moving to the north; hurrying south again would cost them even more. The most powerful allied division, the 1st DLM (Division Légère Mécanique, "light" in this case meaning "mobile"), deployed near Dunkirk on the 10th, had moved its forward units 220 kilometres to the northeast, beyond the Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch, in 32 hours. Finding that the Dutch had already retreated to the north, it had withdrawn and was now moving to the south. When it would reach the Germans again, of its original 80 SOMUA S35 tanks only three would be operational, mostly as a result of break down.
Nevertheless, a radical decision to retreat to the south, avoiding contact, could probably have saved most of the mechanized and motorized divisions, including the BEF. However, that would have meant leaving about thirty infantry divisions to their fate. The loss of Belgium alone would be an enormous political blow. Besides, the Allies were uncertain about German intentions. They threatened in four directions: to the north, to attack the allied main force directly; to the west, to cut it off; to the south, to occupy Paris and even to the east, to move behind the Maginot Line. The French decided to create a new reserve, among which a reconstituted 7th Army, under General Touchon, using every unit they could safely pull out of the Maginot Line to block the way to Paris.
Colonel Charles de Gaulle, in command of France's hastily formed 4th Armoured Division, attempted to launch an attack from the south and achieved a measure of success that would later accord him considerable fame and a promotion to Brigadier General. However, de Gaulle's attacks on the 17th and 19th did not significantly alter the overall situation.
Channel attacks, battle of Dunkirk and the Weygand Plan (May 17–28)
While the Allies did little either to threaten them or escape from the danger they posed, the Panzer Corps used 17 and 18 May to refuel, eat, sleep and get some more tanks in working order. On 18 May, Rommel made the French give up Cambrai by merely feinting an armoured attack.
On 19 May, German High Command grew very confident. The Allies seemed incapable of coping with events. There appeared to be no serious threat from the south – indeed General Franz Halder, Chief of Army General Staff, toyed with the idea of attacking Paris immediately to knock France out of the war in one blow. The Allied troops in the north were retreating to the river Scheldt, their right flank giving way to the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions. It would be foolish to remain inactive any longer, allowing them to reorganize their defence or escape. Now it was time to bring them into even more serious trouble by cutting them off. The next day the Panzer Corps started moving again, smashed through the weak British 12th and 23rd Territorial divisions, occupied Amiens and secured the westernmost bridge over the river Somme at Abbeville isolating the British, French, Dutch and Belgian forces in the north. In the evening of 20 May, a reconnaissance unit from 2nd Panzer Division reached Noyelles, 100 kilometres (62 mi) to the west, where they could see the estuary of the Somme flowing into The Channel.
On May 20, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud dismissed Maurice Gamelin for his failure to contain the German offensive and replaced him with Maxime Weygand, who immediately attempted to devise new tactics to contain the Germans. More pressing, however, was his strategic task: he formed the Weygand Plan, ordering to pinch off the German armoured spearhead by combined attacks from the north and the south. On the map, this seemed a feasible mission: the corridor through which von Kleist's two Panzer Corps had moved to the coast was a mere 40 kilometres (25 mi) wide. On paper, Weygand had sufficient forces to execute it: in the north, the three DLM and the BEF; in the south, de Gaulle's 4th DCR. These units had an organic strength of about 1,200 tanks and the Panzer divisions were very vulnerable again, the mechanical condition of their tanks rapidly deteriorating but the condition of the Allied divisions was far worse. Both in the south and the north they could in reality muster but a handful of tanks. Nevertheless, Weygand flew to Ypres on the 21st trying to convince the Belgians and the BEF of the soundness of his plan.
That same day, May 21, a detachment of the British Expeditionary Force under Major-General Harold Edward Franklyn had already attempted to at least delay the German offensive and, perhaps, to cut the leading edge of the German army off. The resulting Battle of Arras demonstrated the ability of the heavily armoured British Matilda tanks (the German 37 mm anti-tank guns proved ineffective against them) and the limited raid overran two German regiments. The panic that resulted (the German commander at Arras, Erwin Rommel, reported being attacked by 'hundreds' of tanks, though there were only 58 at the battle) temporarily delayed the German offensive. German reinforcements pressed the British back to Vimy Ridge the following day.
Although this attack wasn't part of any coordinated attempt to destroy the Panzer Corps, the German High Command panicked a lot more than Rommel. For a moment they feared to have been ambushed, that a thousand Allied tanks were about to smash their elite forces. But the next day they had regained confidence and ordered Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps to press north and push on to the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais, in the back of the British and Allied forces to the north.
That same day, the 22nd, the French tried to attack south to the east of Arras, with some infantry and tanks, but by now the German infantry had begun to catch up and the attack was, with some difficulty, stopped by the 32nd Infantry Division.
Only on the 24th the first attack from the south could be launched when 7th DIC, supported by a handful of tanks, failed to retake Amiens. This was a rather weak effort; however, on May 27, part of the British 1st Armoured Division, hastily brought over from England, attacked Abbeville in force but was beaten back with crippling losses. The next day de Gaulle tried again with the same result. But by now even complete success couldn't have saved the forces in the north.
In the early hours of 23 May, Gort ordered a retreat from Arras. He had no faith in the Weygand plan nor in the proposal of the latter to at least try to hold a pocket on the Flemish coast, a Réduit de Flandres. The ports needed to supply such a foothold were already threatened. That day, the 2nd Panzer Division assaulted Boulogne and 10th Panzer assaulted Calais. The British garrison in Boulogne surrendered on 25 May although 4,368 troops were evacuated. Calais, though strengthened by the arrival of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment equipped with cruiser tanks and 30th Motor Brigade, fell to the Germans on 27 May.
While the 1st Panzer Division was ready to attack Dunkirk on the 25th, Hitler ordered it to halt on 24 May. This remains one of the most controversial decisions of the entire war. Hermann Göring had convinced Hitler the Luftwaffe could prevent an evacuation; Rundstedt had warned him that any further effort by the armoured divisions would lead to a much prolonged refitting period. Attacking cities wasn't part of the normal task for armoured units under any operational doctrine.
Allied evacuations (May 26 – June 25)
Encircled, the British, Belgian and French launched Operation Dynamo (May 26 – June 4) and later Operation Ariel (June 14–25), evacuating Allied forces from the northern pocket in Belgium and Pas-de-Calais, beginning on May 26. (see Battle of Dunkirk) The Allied position was complicated by King Léopold III of Belgium's surrender the following day, which was postponed until May 28.
Confusion still reigned however, as after the evacuation at Dunkirk and while Paris was enduring its short-lived siege, the First Canadian Division and a Scottish division were sent to Normandy and penetrated 200 miles inland toward Paris before they heard that Paris had fallen and France had capitulated. They retreated and re-embarked for England.
At the same time as the Canadian 1st division landed in Brest, the Canadian 242 Squadron of the RAF flew their Hawker Hurricanes to Nantes (100 miles south-east) and set up there to provide air cover.
British retreat, French defeat (June 5–10, 1940)
The best and most modern French armies had been sent north and lost in the resulting encirclement; the French had lost their best heavy weaponry and their best armoured formations. Weygand was faced with a haemorrhage in the front stretching from Sedan to the English Channel, and the French government had begun to lose heart that the Germans could still be defeated, particularly as the remaining British forces were retreating from the battlefield returning to Great Britain, a particularly symbolic event for French morale, intensified by the German anti-British propaganda slogan "The British will fight to the last Frenchman".
The Germans renewed their offensive on June 5 on the Somme. A panzer-led attack on Paris broke the scarce reserves that Weygand had put between the Germans and the capital, and on June 10 the French government fled to Bordeaux, declaring Paris an open city.
Italy's declaration of war, French-Italian air battles, UK ends French support (June 10–11, 1940)
On June 10, Italy declared war on France and Britain; Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) started its bomb raids over France. On June 13, French ace pilot Pierre Le Gloan shot down two Fiat BR.20 bombers with his Dewoitine D.520 fighter. On June 15, Le Gloan, along with another pilot, attacked a group of twelve Italian Fiat CR.42 fighters, and shot down three of them, while Cpt. Assolent shot down another. While returning to the airfield, Le Gloan shot down another CR.42 and another BR.20 bomber. For this achievement of destroying five aircraft in one flight, he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant.
The following week, an Italian army crossed the Alps and fought with the French Chasseurs Alpins (Alpine Hunters), the Regia Aeronautica carried out 716 bombing missions in support of the invasion of France by the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito). Italian aircraft dropped a total of 276 tons of bombs.
Churchill returned to France on June 11, meeting the French War Council in Briare. The French, clearly in a panic, wanted Churchill to give every available fighter to the air battle over France; with only 25 squadrons remaining, Churchill refused to further help his ally, believing that the decisive battle would be fought over Britain (the Battle of Britain started on July 10). British support ended and France was left to its own fate facing the Germans and Italians all alone. Concerned about an upcoming German invasion of his own country, Churchill, at the meeting, obtained promises from French admiral François Darlan that the French Navy's fleet would not fall into German hands.
French-German negotiations, Pétain's appeal (June 16–17)
Paul Reynaud resigned because he believed a majority of his government favoured an armistice. He was succeeded by a patriarcal figure, 84-year-old World War I veteran Maréchal Philippe Pétain. On June 16, the new French President of the Council, Philippe Pétain (the President of the Republic office was vacant from July 11, 1940 until 16 January 1947), began negotiations with Axis officials. On June 17, 1940, Marshal Pétain delivered an infamous appeal to the French people via radio ordering them « it is necessary to cease to fight » (« il faut cesser le combat »).
Italian invasion of France (June 20–22)
French-German and French-Italian armistices (June 22, 1940)
On June 21, Italian troops crossed the border in three places. Roughly thirty-two Italian divisions faced just four French divisions. Fighting continued in the east until General Pretelat, commanding the French Second Army group, was forced to surrender on June 22 by the armistice. France formally surrendered to the German armed forces on June 22 in the same railroad car at Compiègne in which Germany had been forced to surrender in 1918. This railway car was lost in allied air raids on the German capital of Berlin later in the war.
German occupation, formation of Vichy France and Armistice army
Metropolitan France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west and an unoccupied zone in the south. Pétain set up a collaborationist government in the spa town of Vichy and the authoritarian regime French State, replacing the abolished French Republic, came to be known as Vichy France.
The formation of Free France and French Resistance
Charles de Gaulle, who had been made an Undersecretary of National Defense by Paul Reynaud, was in London at the time of the surrender: having made his Appeal of 18 June as an answer to Pétain's appeal of 17 June, he refused to recognize the Vichy government as legitimate – the President of France function was vacant – and began the task of organizing the Free French Forces. A number of French colonies like French Equatorial Africa joined de Gaulle's fight, while others like French Indochina were soon attacked by the Japanese or remained loyal to the Vichy government. Italy occupied a small area, essentially the Alpes-Maritimes, and Corsica.
Free French airmen in RAF (June 1940–1945)
The first Free French pilots flew from Bordeaux to rally de Gaulle in England on June 17, 1940. These individuals served in British squadrons until there were sufficient pilots to create All-Free French RAF flights.
Free French pilots in the battle of Britain (July 10 – October 31, 1940)
At least thirteen Free French pilots (from France) fought the battle of Britain against the German Luftwaffe. Among these men were Adjutant Émile Fayolle, son of an Admiral and grandson of French Marshal Marie Émile Fayolle. When the Armistice was signed on June 22, 1940 Fayolle was at the Fighter School at Oran, French Algeria. On June 30, he and a comrade flew to the British base at Gibraltar and from there sailed to Liverpool where they arrived on July 13 and joined the RAF. In November 1941 Fayolle went to Turnhouse to join 340 Squadron, the first all-French fighter unit. Another pilot with a similar course was Adjutant René Mouchotte, eleven Free French pilots were posted to No.1 School of Army Co-operation, Old Sarum on July 29. Mouchotte was posted to Turnhouse as Deputy 'A' Flight Commander with 340 Squadron on November 10. On January 18, 1943, Captain Mouchotte returned to Turnhouse to form and command the 341 Free French Squadron.
All-Free French RAF Squadrons (1941–1945)
In summer of 1941, the British commander of fhe Fighter Command accepted the creation of the No.340 Free French (Fighter) Squadron (also known as Groupe de chasse 2 "Île-de-France", a Free French unit attached to the No. 13 Group RAF, equipped with Spitfire aircraft and formed at Turnhouse, Scotland. Other notable All-Free French RAF flights were the No. 327 Squadron RAF and No. 341 Squadron RAF.
Battle of Dieppe (August 19, 1942)
French on the Eastern front (1941–1945)
Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (1941–1943)
The French State sent an expeditionary force, called Légion des Volontaires Français Contre le Bolchevisme (LVF), to fight the Red army along the German Wehrmacht on the Russian front. This volunteers unit, including old men and 15-year children as evidenced by Nazi propaganda archives, took part in the German invasion of Soviet Union called Operation Barbarossa.
The L.V.F.'s German designation was 638.Infanterie-Regiment 638 ("638th Infantry Regiment") and it served under Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, commander of the Fourth Army.
Battle of Diut'kovo (1941–1942)
Battle of Berezina (1942–1943)
Vichy French Sturmbataillon Charlemagne last defenders of Berlin (April–May 1945)
The Vichy French SS battalion Charlemagne (remains of the French SS Division Charlemagne) under Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Henri Fenet was among the last defenders of the Nazi German capital, fighting against Soviet forces during the Battle of Berlin in April–May 1945.
Free French Normandie-Niemen (1942–1945)
At de Gaulle's initiative, the Free French Air Force Groupe de Chasse 3 "Normandie" was formed on September 1, 1942, for service on the Eastern Front along the Soviet 1st Air Army. It served with distinction with Soviet aircraft and was awarded the supplementary title Niemen (from the Belaruss river) by Stalin. Its first commander was Jean Tulasne who was KIA
Their battle honors were Oryol 1943, Smolensk 1943, Orche 1944, Berezina 1944, Niemen 1944, Chernyakhovsk 1945 and Baltiysk 1945. By the end of World War II, the Free French unit counted 273 certified victories, 37 non-certified victories and 45 damaged aircraft with 869 fights and 42 dead.
On May 31, 1945, Normandie-Niemen squadrons were directed to Moscow by the Soviet authorities who decided to allow them to return in France with their aircraft as a reward. The 40 French pilots still active with the regiment flew back to France in Yak-3 fighter planes. They arrived at Elbląg, Poland on June 15, 1945, and in Paris Le Bourget, through Posen, Prague and Stuttgart, on June 21 (their arrival at Stuttgart and parade at Le Bourget were taped).
Maquis du Limousin (June 1942 – August 1944)
Italian campaign (1943–1944)
Ist Army renamed French Expeditionary Force
During the Italian campaign of 1943, 130,000 Free French soldiers fought on the Allied side.
The 1st group, Ist Landing Corps (1er groupement du Ier corps de débarquement), later redesignated by as the French Expeditionary Corps (Corps Expéditionnaire Français, CEF) participated in the Italian Campaign with two divisions and two separate brigades from late 1943 to July 23, 1944.
Bernhardt Line (December 1, 1943 – January 15, 1944)
Battle of Monte Cassino (17 January–18 May 1944)
In 1944, this corps was reinforced by two additional divisions and played an essential role in the Battle of Monte Cassino. After the Allied capture of Rome the Corps was gradually withdrawn from Italy and incorporated into the B Army (Armée B) for the invasion of Southern France.
Operation Diadem (May 1944)
Operation Diadem was a successful Allied assault, including the Free French Corps, on German Gustav Line defences in the Liri valley in Italy. Breaking through the German defensive lines, it relieved pressure on the Anzio beachhead.
Operation Brassard (June 17–18, 1944)
This success was followed in June 1944 by the invasion of Elba in which the 9th Colonial Infantry Division (9 DIC) and Choc (special forces) battalions of I Corps assaulted and seized the heavily fortified island, defended by German fortress infantry and coastal artillery troops. Combat on the island was characterized by close-in fighting, use of flamethrowers, well-ranged German artillery, and the liberal use of mines.
France maquis warfare (January–July, 1944)
Battle of Vercors (January–July)
A force of 4,000 French Resistance (FFI) fighters proclaimed the Free Republic of Vercors opposing the German army and French Milice.
Battle of Glières (January 30 – March 26)
Battle of Mont Mouchet (May 20 – June 22)
Battle of Saint-Marcel (June 18)
Battle of Mont Gargan (July 18–24)
Campaign of France (1944–1945)
By the time of the Normandy Invasion, the Free French forces numbered 500,000 regulars and more than 100,000 FFI. The Free French 2nd Armoured Division, under General Philippe Leclerc, landed at Utah Beach in Normandy on August 2 and eventually led the drive towards Paris later that month. The FFI (French Resistance) began to seriously harass the German forces, cutting roads, railways, making ambushes as well as fighting battles alongside their allies.
French SAS Brittany airborne landings (June 5–18, 1944)
Operation Samwest (June 5–9)
Operation Dingson (June 5–18)
Free French airborne under Colonel Pierre-Louis Bourgoin dropped behind German lines in Brittany.
Operation Cooney (June 7)
Free French contribution to the Normandy naval landings (June 1944)
French contribution on D-Day
Only a few French infantry were involved in the Allied landing operations on June 6, 1944. There were 209- 177 commandos and 32 airborne troopers. Additional personnel include a hundred French air force fighter and bomber pilots and hundreds of sailors from the French navy.
The first to touch the ground of France
The Free French Navy's 1er BFMC comprised 177 commandos and had been created at Achnacarry, Scotland after the British Commandos. This All-French unit, including many Bretons as Brittany was close to England, was attached to the British No. 4 Commando under Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson. It was the very first infantry unit to touch the sand of Ouistreham, (Normandy) in the landing full-scale operation Operation Overlord; preceding the 3rd British Infantry Division. This honor was a courtesy of 1st Special Service Brigade (S.S.B.) commander Scottish Brigadier Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat who slowed down the British commandos landing crafts to let pass the French LCI 527 (Troop 1) and LCI 528 (Troop 8). The 1er BFMC's Normandy campaign lasted 83 days, casualty rate was high, from the 117 Kieffer commandos of June 6, only 24 survived.
Free French naval operations (June 3–16)
The Free French Navy under Admiral Ramsay took part in Operation Neptune which was the naval part of Operation Overlord, a series of missions were fulfilled on June 6:
- Juno Beach, French destroyer La Combattante under Commander André Patou shelled the German fortifications of Courseulles-sur-Mer while frigate La Découverte and corvette Commandant-d'Estienne-d'Orves escorted the Canadian infantry landing crafts.
- Gold Beach, the frigate La Surprise protected the British landing operation.
- Utah Beach, the corvettes L'Aconit and La Renoncule were in charge of patrolling against U-boats.
- Omaha Beach, in Vierville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Mer sectors, the frigates Escarmouche, Aventure and the corvette Roselys escorted the US V Corps's landing crafts
- English Channel, eight fast patrol boats of the 23rd Flotilla patrolled for incoming German navy forces or seamines.
Another French mission from June 3 to 16, consisted in the shelling of Omaha Beach's defense by a fleet under Admiral Jaujard which comprised the 7,500 tons cruisers Georges-Leygues and Montcalm, with their 10,000 tons tanker, and the cruiser Duquesne. The three cruisers fired thousands of shells in four days.
Defense operations were also performed by the corvettes and frigates establishing a shuttle between English harbours and the French coast. They escorted the logistics maneuvers involving infantry landing crafts, medical evacuations from the battlefield and sought for any Kriegsmarine menace.
All-Free French air force operations
Light bomber Boston equipped bomb group No. 342 Squadron RAF (GB 1/20 Lorraine), commanded by Michel Fouquet, supported the Omaha Beach invasion with a smoke screen campaign blinding and isolating the German defenders.
Heavy bombers of bomb groups GB 1/15 Touraine and No. 347 Squadron RAF (GB 1/25 Tunisie) and fighters of No. 329 Squadron RAF (GC 1/2 Cigognes), No. 345 Squadron RAF (GC 2/2 Berry), No. 341 Squadron RAF (GC 3/2 Alsace) and No. 340 Squadron RAF (GC 4/2 Île de France) serviced under Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory.
The Free French airmen were part of the first casualties of Day-D. These include the flying crew Boissieux-Canut-Henson from bomb group No. 342 Squadron RAF (GB 1/20 Lorraine) which left its base at dawn and was KIA when its Boston was shot down.
Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division (August 1944 – January 1945)
Battle for Normandy (July 1944)
The 2nd division played a critical role in Operation Cobra, the Allied breakthrough from Normandy, when it served as a link between American and Canadian armies and made rapid progress against German forces. They all but destroyed the 9th Panzer Division and defeated several other German units. During the Battle for Normandy, the 2nd Division lost 133 men killed, 648 wounded, and 85 missing. Division material losses included 76 armored vehicles, 7 cannons, 27 halftracks, and 133 other vehicles. In the same period, the 2nd Division inflicted losses on the Germans of 4,500 killed and 8,800 taken prisoner, while the Germans' material losses in combat against the 2nd Division during the same period were 117 tanks, 79 cannons, and 750 wheeled vehicles.
Liberation of Paris (August 24–25, 1944)
The most celebrated moment in the 2nd's history involved the Liberation of Paris. Allied strategy emphasized destroying German forces retreating towards the Rhine, but when the French Resistance under Colonel Rol-Tanguy staged an uprising in the city, Charles de Gaulle pleaded with Eisenhower to send help. Eisenhower agreed and Leclerc's forces headed for Paris. After hard fighting that cost the 2nd Division 35 tanks, 6 self-propelled guns, and 111 vehicles, von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, surrendered the city at the Hôtel Meurice. Jubilant crowds greeted French forces, and de Gaulle conducted a famous parade through the city.
Lorraine Campaign, Liberation of Strasbourg (1944 – January 1945)
Subsequently, the 2nd Division campaigned with American forces in Lorraine, spearheading the U.S. Seventh Army drive through the northern Vosges Mountains and forcing the Saverne Gap. Eventually, after liberating Strasbourg in November 1944, defending against the German Nordwind counter-offensive in Alsace in January 1945, and conducting operations against the Royan Pocket on the Atlantic coast of France.
Liberation of southern France (June–August, 1944)
Operation Jedburgh (June)
Free French airborne commandos, called "Jedburgh", were dropped behind Nazi lines in Provence in order to support the upcoming Allied landing (Operation Dragoon) and prepare the French Resistance. This Allied operation was in conjunction with the Free French intelligence service Bureau Central de Renseignements et d'Action (BCRA); famous French Jedburghs are Jean Sassi and Paul Aussaresses.
Battle for Provence (August)
Operation Dragoon was the Allied invasion of southern France, on August 15, 1944, as part of World War II. The invasion took place between Toulon and Cannes. During the planning stages, the operation was known as Anvil, to complement Operation Hammer, which was at that time the codename for the invasion of Normandy. Subsequently, both plans were renamed, the latter becoming Operation Overlord, the former becoming Operation Dragoon; a name supposedly picked by Winston Churchill, who was opposed to the plan, and claimed to having been "dragooned" into accepting it.
The plan originally envisaged a mixture of Free French and American troops taking Toulon and later Marseille, with subsequent revisions encompassing Saint Tropez. The plan was revised throughout 1944, however, with conflict developing between British military staff — who were opposed to the landings, arguing that the troops and equipment should be either retained in Italy or sent there — and American military staff, who were in favour of the assault. This was part of a larger Anglo-American strategic disagreement.
The balance was tipped in favour of Dragoon by two events: the eventual fall of Rome in early June, plus the success of Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Normandy pocket, at the end of the month. Operation Dragoon's D-Day was set for August 15, 1944. The final go-ahead was given at short notice.
The U.S. 6th Army Group, also known as the Southern Group of Armies, commanded by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers was created in Corsica and activated on August 1, 1944, to consolidate the combined French and American forces that were planning to invade southern France in Operation Dragoon. At first it was subordinate to AFHQ (Allied Forces Headquarters) under the command of Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson who was the supreme commander of the Mediterranean Theater. One month after the invasion, command was handed over to SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces) under U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces on the Western Front.
The assault troops were formed of three American divisions of the VI Corps, reinforced by a French armoured division. The 3rd Infantry Division landed on the left at Alpha Beach (Cavalaire-sur-Mer), the 45th Infantry Division landed in the centre at Delta Beach (Saint-Tropez), and the 36th Infantry Division landed on the right at Camel Beach (Saint-Raphaël). These were supported by French commando groups landing on both flanks, and by Rugby Force, a parachute assault in the Le Muy-Le Luc area by the 1st Airborne Task Force: British 2nd Parachute Brigade, the U.S. 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, and a composite U.S. airborne glider regimental combat team formed from the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the 550th Glider Infantry Battalion, and the 1st Battalion, 551st Parachute Infantry regiment. The 1st Special Service Force took two offshore islands to protect the beachhead.
Naval gunfire from Allied ships, including battleships Lorraine, HMS Ramillies, USS Texas, USS Nevada and USS Arkansas and a fleet of over 50 cruisers and destroyers supported the landings. Seven Allied escort carriers provided air cover.
Over ninety-four thousand troops and eleven thousand vehicles were landed on the first day. A number of German troops had been diverted to fight the Allied forces in Northern France after Operation Overlord and a major attack by French resistance fighters, coordinated by Captain Aaron Bank of the OSS, helped drive the remaining German forces back from the beachhead in advance of the landing. As a result, the Allied forces met little resistance as they moved inland. The quick success of this invasion, with a twenty-mile penetration in twenty-four hours, sparked a major uprising by resistance fighters in Paris.
The rapid retreat of the German Nineteenth Army resulted in swift gains for the Allied forces. The plans had envisaged greater resistance near the landing areas and underestimated transport needs. The consequent need for vehicle fuel outstripped supply, and this shortage proved to be a greater impediment to the advance than German resistance. As a result, several German formations escaped into the Vosges and Germany.
The Dragoon force met up with southern thrusts from Overlord in mid-September, near Dijon.
A planned benefit of Dragoon was the usefulness of the port of Marseille. The rapid Allied advance after Operation Cobra and Dragoon slowed almost to a halt in September 1944 due to a critical lack of supplies, as thousands of tons of supplies were shunted to NW France to compensate for the inadequacies of port facilities and land transport in northern Europe. Marseille and the southern French railways were brought back into service despite heavy damage to the Port of Marseille and its railroad trunk lines. They became a significant supply route for the Allied advance into Germany, providing about a third of the Allied needs.
Operation Romeo (August 15, 1944)
French commandos assaulted German artillery position at Cap Nègre. 300 German soldiers were killed and 700 were taken prisoner. The French commandos suffered 11 men killed and 50 wounded.
Liberation of Toulon and Marseilles
The French First Army under Jean de Lattre de Tassigny performed spectacularly in the capture of Toulon and Marseilles. "The original plan intended to attack the two ports in succession. The accelerated landings of de Lattre's French forces, however, and the general situation allowed concurrent operations against both. De Lattre ordered Lt. Gen. Edgard de Larminat to move west against Toulon along the coast, with two infantry divisions supported by tanks and commandos. Simultaneously, a second force, under Maj. Gen. Goislard de Monsabert and consisting of one infantry division and similar supporting forces, would advance in a more northwesterly direction, encircling the naval port from the north and west and probing toward Marseille. De Lattre knew that the German garrisons at the ports were substantial: some 18,000 troops of all types at Toulon and another 13,000, mostly army, at Marseille. However, Resistance sources also told him that the defenders had not yet put much effort into protecting the landward approaches to the ports, and he was convinced that a quick strike by experienced combat troops might well crack their defenses before they had a chance to coalesce. Speed was essential.
On the morning of August 20, with the German command in Toulon still in a state of confusion and the Nineteenth Army more concerned with Truscott's westward progress well north of the port, de Larminat attacked from the east while Monsabert circled around to the north, quickly outflanking Toulon's hasty defenses along the coast. By the 21st Monsabert had cut the Toulon-Marseille road, and several of his units had entered Toulon from the west, penetrating to within two miles of the main waterfront. Between 21 and 23 August, the French slowly squeezed the Germans back into the inner city in a series of almost continuous street fights. As the German defense lost coherence, isolated groups began to surrender, with the last organized resistance ending on the 26th and the formal German surrender occurring on 28 August. The battle cost de Lattre about 2,700 casualties, but the French claimed 17,000 prisoners, indicating that few Germans had followed the Fuehrer's "stand and die" order.
Even as French forces occupied Toulon, Monsabert began the attack on Marseille, generally screening German defenses along the coast and striking from the northeastern and northern approaches. Early gains on the 22d put French troops within five to eight miles of the city's center, while a major Resistance uprising within the port encouraged French soldiers to strike deeper.
Although de Lattre urged caution, concerned over the dispersion of his forces and the shortage of fuel for his tanks and trucks, Monsabert's infantry plunged into the heart of Marseille in the early hours of 23 August. Their initiative decided the issue, and the fighting soon became a matter of battling from street to street and from house to house, as in Toulon. On the evening of the 27th, the German commander parleyed with Monsabert to arrange terms and a formal surrender became effective on the 28th, the same day as the capitulation of Toulon. At Marseille, the French took over 1,800 casualties and acquired roughly 11,000 more prisoners. Equally important, both ports, although badly damaged by German demolitions, were in Allied hands many weeks ahead of schedule."
Liberation of north-eastern France (September 1944 – March 1945)
Moving north, the French First Army liberated Lyon on 2 September 1944 and moved into the southern Vosges Mountains, capturing Belfort and forcing the Belfort Gap at the close of November 1944. Following the capture of the Belfort Gap, French operations in the area of Burnhaupt destroyed the German IV Luftwaffe Korps. In February 1945, with the assistance of the U.S. XXI Corps, the First Army collapsed the Colmar Pocket and cleared the west bank of the Rhine River of Germans in the area south of Strasbourg.
Western Allied invasion of Germany (1945)
First French Army in west Germany (March–April 1945)
In March 1945, the First Army fought through the Siegfried Line fortifications in the Bienwald Forest near Lauterbourg. Subsequently, the First Army crossed the Rhine near Speyer and captured Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. Operations by the First Army in April 1945 encircled and captured the German XVIII. S.S.-Armeekorps in the Black Forest and cleared southwestern Germany.
Normandie-Niemen air raids over Königsberg (April 1945)
Free French Division Leclerc at Berchtesgaden (May 4, 1945)
General Leclerc's 2nd Division finished its campaigning at the Nazi resort town of Berchtesgaden, in southeastern Germany, where Hitler's mountain residence, the Berghof, was located. Leclerc's armoured unit was along the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.
French Army of Africa's 7e RCA at Württemberg (1945)
The (7th Africa Chasers Regiment's) battleflag hints this Army of Africa Free French unit fought at Württemberg during the Allied invasion of Germany in 1945.
Campaign of the Netherlands (1945)
French SAS Operation Amherst (April 7–8, 1945)
The operation began with the drop of 700 Special Air Service troopers of 3rd and 4th French SAS on the night of 7 April 1945. The teams spread out to capture and protect key facilities from the Germans. Advancing Canadian troops of the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment relieved the isolated French SAS.
Liberation of Belgium
Battle of the Bulge (1944–1945)
Two French Light Infantry Battalions (J. Lawton Collins's VII Corps (United States)) and six French Light Infantry Battalions from Metz region (Troy H. Middleton's VIII Corps (United States)) fought the Battle of the Bulge. The 3rd SAS French 1st Airborne Marine Infantry Regiment battle honor bears the Battle of Bulge ("Ardennes Belges 1945").
English Channel and North Sea theatre of World War II
"British treachery" over Free French navy (July 3 – August 31, 1940)
On 3 July 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the capture of French ships by the British as Operation Catapult. This included not only the enemy Vichy French ships in the Mediterranean (see Battle of Mers-el-Kebir) but also the allied Free French ships docked in Britain after the Dunkirk evacuation. The capture by force of docked ships led to fighting between Free French sailors and outnumbering British Marines, sailors and soldiers in the English harbours. A similar operation was executed in Canada. The British assault on the then World's largest submarine Surcouf resulted in three dead British (2 Royal Navy officers and 1 British seaman) and one dead Free French (warrant officer mechanic Yves Daniel).
Commandeered Free French vessels included Fantasque-class destroyer Triomphant which was captured by the British at Plymouth. Because of the complexity of her handling and of the need to support the Free France, Triomphant was handed to the FNFL, on 28 August 1940, and put under the command of captain Pierre Gilly. Her aft gun was replaced by a British model. Chacal-class destroyer Léopard was under repair at Portsmouth after the Dunkirk evacuation when she was captured by the British. She was handed over to the Free French Naval Forces on 31 August. Courbet-class battleship Paris also under repair at Plymouth, along with her sister ship Courbet, eight torpedo boats, five submarines and a number of other ships of lesser importance. Britain planned to transfer her to the Polish Navy. The ceremony was to be held on 15 July 1940 and it was planned to rename the ship to OF Paris (OF – Okręt Francuski – "French ship") but due to lack of personnel the ship was never handed over to the Polish Navy and was used by the British as an accommodation ship in Devonport.
The commandeered Bourrasque-class destroyer Ouragan was not returned to the Free French but instead was transferred to the Free Polish Navy on 17 July 1940. Until 30 April 1941 she sailed under the Polish ensign with pennant number H16, but as OF Ouragan (OF – Okręt Francuski – "French ship"), instead of the usual ORP prefix. It was only after 287 days that Ouragan was returned to her owner, on 30 April 1941.
After the capture of Allied French ships, Britain tried to repatriate the captured Free French sailors. The British hospital ship that was carrying them back to metropolitan France was sunk by the Germans, and many of the French blamed the British for their deaths.
Operation Catapult was called «treachery» by both the Vichy and Free French. The French State exploited this series of events in its anti-British propaganda which has a long-running history back to the Perfidious Albion myth.
Battle of the Atlantic
The French Navy took part in the naval Battle of the Atlantic from 1939 to 1940. After the armistice of June 1940, Free French Naval Forces, headed by admiral Émile Muselier, were created and pursued the war on the Allies side.
Last battle of the battleship Bismarck (May 26–27, 1941)
Free French rescue of British Convoy HG-75 (October 24, 1941)
On 24 October 1941 the German submarine U-564 attacked Allied Convoy HG-75, which was sailing from Almería, Spain, to Barrow-in-Furness, England. U-564 fired five torpedoes, hitting and sinking three cargo ships: Alhama, Ariosto and Carsbreck. There were 18 survivors from Carsbreck, and all were rescued by the Free French Elan-class minesweeping aviso Commandant Duboc (F743).
Laconia incident (12 September 1942)
Vichy French ships were involved with the Laconia incident.
Naval battle of the Mediterranean (1940–1945)
Both the Vichy French Navy and Free French Navy fought the Battle of the Mediterranean sea. A notable action took place in the Adriatic sea on 29 February 1944 known as the Battle off Ist when a German naval force of two corvettes and two torpedo boats escorting a freighter supported by three minesweepers were intercepted by the Free French Navy operated under British command as the 24th Destroyer flotilla. Under Captain Pierre Lancelot the Super or heavy Le Fantasque-class destroyers Le Terrible and Le Malin managed to destroy the German freighter and a corvette in return for no loss before withdrawing.
Naval battle of Mers El Kébir (July 3, 1940)
The British began to doubt Admiral Darlan's promise to Churchill to not allow the French fleet at Toulon to fall into German hands by the wording of the armistice conditions. In the end, the British attacked French naval forces in Africa and Europe killing 1000 French soldiers at Mers El Kebir alone. This action led to feelings of animosity and mistrust between the Vichy French and their former British allies. During the course of the war, Vichy France forces lost 2,653 soldiers and Free France lost 20,000.
In German and Italian hands, the French fleet would have been a grave threat to Britain and the British Government was unable to take this risk. In order to neutralise the threat, Winston Churchill ordered that the French ships should rejoin the Allies, agree to be put out of use in a British, French or neutral port or, as a last resort, be destroyed by British attack (Operation Catapult). The Royal Navy attempted to persuade the French Navy to agree to these terms, but when that failed they attacked the French Navy at Mers El Kébir and Dakar (see), on July 3, 1940. This caused bitterness and division in France, particularly in the Navy, and discouraged many French soldiers from joining the Free French forces in Britain and elsewhere. Also, the attempt to persuade Vichy French forces in Dakar to join De Gaulle failed. (See West African campaign and Operation Menace).
Sabotage operation in Greece (June 12–13, 1942)
In June 1942, British SAS C.O. David Stirling gave British captains George Jellicoe and Free French Georges Bergé a mission in the Greek island of Crete called Operation Heraklion. Bergé chose three Free French commandos Jacques Mouhot, Pierre Léostic and Jack Sibard, while Lieutenant Kostis Petrakis a local from Crete's special service joined them as civilian.
They managed to destroy 22 Junkers Ju 88 German bombers at the Candia-Heraklion airfield. However their retreat was betrayed and 17-year-old Pierre Léostic refused to surrender and was killed while the other three Free French were caught and transferred in Germany; the British and Cretian commandos escaped and were evacuated to Egypt.
Scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon (November 27, 1942)
The Vichy French navy did sabotage on its docked fleet at Toulon in southern France. This act's purpose was to prevent the German Kriegsmarine to seize the Vichy French ships and to be able to use its firepower against the Allies and Free French.
Allied invasion of Sicily (July 9 – August 17, 1943)
Operation Husky involved infantry, air force and armored cavalry forces from the Army of Africa including 4th Moroccan Tabor (66th, 67th & 68th Goums landed on July 13 at Licata) from U.S. 7th Army, No. II/5 "LaFayette" French Squadron with Curtiss P-40s and No. II/7 "Nice" French Squadron with Spitfires (both from No. 242 Group RAF), II/33 Groupe "Savoie" with P-38 Lightning from the Northwest African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing and 131st RCC with Renault R35 tanks.
Liberation of Corsica (September–October 1943)
In September–October 1943, an ad hoc force (ca. 6,000 troops) of the French Ist Corps liberated Corsica, defended by the German 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the Sturmbrigade Reichsführer-SS (ca. 30,000 troops) (45,000 Italians were also present, but at least part of that force joined the Allies). Thereby Corsica became the first French metropolitan department liberated in World War II; the first liberated département was Algiers in November 1942.
West African campaign
Battle of Dakar (September 23–25, 1940)
The Battle of Dakar, also known as Operation Menace, was an unsuccessful attempt by the Allies to capture the strategic port of Dakar in French West Africa (modern-day Senegal), which was under Vichy French control, and to install the Free French under General Charles de Gaulle there.
De Gaulle believed that he could persuade the Vichy French forces in Dakar to join the Allied cause. There were several advantages to this; not only the political consequences if another Vichy French colonies changed sides, but also more practical advantages, such as the fact that the gold reserves of the Banque de France and the Polish government in exile were stored in Dakar and, militarily, the better location of the port of Dakar for protecting the convoys sailing around Africa than Freetown, the base the Allies were using.
It was decided to send a naval force of an aircraft carrier, two battleships (of World War I vintage), four cruisers and ten destroyers to Dakar. Several transports, would transport the 8,000 troops. Their orders were first to try and negotiate with the Vichy French governor, but if this was unsuccessful, to take the city by force.
The Vichy French forces present at Dakar were led by a battleship, the Richelieu, one of the most advanced in the French fleet. It had left Brest on the June 18 before the Germans reached it. Richelieu was then only about 95% complete. Before the establishment of the Vichy government, HMS Hermes, an aircraft carrier, had been operating with the French forces in Dakar. Once the Vichy regime was in power, Hermes left port but remained on watch, and was joined by the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Australia. Planes from Hermes had attacked the Richelieu, and had struck it once with a torpedo. The French ship was immobilised but was able to function as a floating gun battery. Three Vichy submarines and several lighter ships were also at Dakar. A force of three cruisers (Gloire, Georges Leygues, and Montcalm) and three destroyers had left Toulon for Dakar just a few days earlier. The Gloire was slowed by mechanical troubles, and was intercepted by Australia and ordered to sail for Casablanca. The other two cruisers and the destroyers outran the pursuing Allied cruisers and had reached Dakar safely.
On September 23, the Fleet Air Arm dropped propaganda leaflets on the city. Free French aircraft flew off from Ark Royal and landed at the airport, but the crews were taken prisoner. A boat with representatives of de Gaulle entered the port but were fired upon. At 10:00, Vichy French ships trying to leave the port were given warning shots from Australia. The ships returned to port but the coastal forts opened fire on Australia. This led to an engagement between the battleships and cruisers and the forts. In the afternoon, Australia intercepted and fired on the Vichy destroyer Audacieux, setting it on fire and causing it to be beached.
In the afternoon, an attempt was made to set Free French troops ashore on a beach at Rufisque, to the north east of Dakar, but they came under heavy fire from strong points defending the beach. De Gaulle declared he did not want to "shed the blood of Frenchmen for Frenchmen" and the attack was called off.
During the next two days, the Allied fleet attacked the coastal defences, as the Vichy French tried to prevent them. Two Vichy French submarines were sunk, and a destroyer damaged. After the Allied fleet also took heavy damage (both battleships and two cruisers were damaged), they withdrew, leaving Dakar and French West Africa in Vichy French hands.
The effects of the Allied failure were mostly political. De Gaulle had believed that he would be able to persuade the Vichy French at Dakar to change sides, but this turned out not to be the case, which damaged his standing with the Allies.
Battle of Gabon (November 8–10, 1940)
The Battle of Gabon, in November 1940, was a successful attempt to rally the French African colony.
East African Campaign
Eithrea-Ethiopia campaign (1941)
Free French colonial forces from the Brigade of the East (Brigade d'Orient) under Colonel Monclar, including the 14th Battalion Légion Etrangère (13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade) and the 3rd Battalion de Marche (from Chad), fought Italian troops in their colonies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Vichy French Forces of French Somaliland.
Battle of Keren (February 3 – April 1, 1941)
The battle was fought from 5 February to 1 April 1941 between a mixed Italian army of regular and colonial troops and the attacking British, Commonwealth, and Free French forces.
A large-scale Allied invasion of the French protectorate in Morocco and French departements of Algeria was set in November 1942, it is called Operation Torch. Naval and airbornes landings opposed American and British troops to Vichy French forces. The French Resistance interfered in the Allied side by setting a coup d'état against both Vichy French governors, one failed the other succeeded.
Operation Torch had an important aftermath on the French military rallying the Army of Africa to the Free French cause and in the same time infuriated Hitler who ordered the occupation of metropolitan France's southern, said free, zone as well as air raids against French Algeria cities by the Libya-based Luftwaffe.
North African Free French Air Force (July 1940–1945)
In July 1940, there were sufficient Free French pilots in African colonial bases to man several squadrons based in French North Africa. On July 8, 1940 were created the Free French Flight (FAFL) units based in Middle-Eastern French colonies. They were initially equipped with a mixture of British, French and American aircraft. From a strength of 500 in July 1940, the ranks of the Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres (FAFL) grew to 900 by 1941, including 200 fliers.
Besides the FAFL air force existed the Free French Naval Air Service. On August 3, 1943, de Gaulle's Free French forces merged with Giraud's Army of Africa.
French Morocco-Algeria campaign (1942)
Coup of Casablanca (November 7)
On the night of 7 November − the eve of Operation Torch − pro-Allied French General Antoine Béthouart attempted a coup d'état against the Vichy French command in Morocco, so that he could surrender to the Allies the next day. His forces surrounded the villa of General Charles Noguès, the Vichy-loyal high commissioner. However, Noguès telephoned loyal forces, who stopped the coup. In addition, the coup attempt alerted Noguès to the impending Allied invasion, and he immediately bolstered French coastal defenses.
Allied invasion of French Morocco
Naval battle of Casablanca (November 8–16)
Battle of Port Lyautey (November 8–12)
Allied invasion of Algiers
Coup of Algiers
As agreed at Cherchell, starting at midnight and continuing through the early hours of 8 November, as the invasion troops were approaching the shore, a group of 400 French resistance under the command of Henri d'Astier de la Vigerie and José Aboulker staged a coup in the city of Algiers. They seized key targets, including the telephone exchange, radio station, governor's house and the headquarters of 19th Corps.
Robert Murphy then drove to the residence of General Alphonse Juin, the senior French Army officer in North Africa, with some resistance fighters. While the resistance surrounded the house, making Juin effectively a prisoner, Murphy attempted to persuade him to side with the Allies. However, he was treated to a surprise: Admiral François Darlan, the commander of all French forces, was in Algiers on a private visit. Juin insisted on contacting Darlan, and Murphy was unable to persuade either to side with the Allies. In the early morning, the Gendarmerie arrived and released Juin and Darlan.
Allied invasion of Oran
French Tunisia campaign (1942–1943)
Giraud's Army of Africa fought in Tunisia (late North African Campaign) alongside de Gaulle's Free French Forces, the British 1st Army and the US II Corps for six months until April, 1943. Using antiquated equipment, they took heavy casualties – 16,000 – against modern armour of the German enemy.
Run for Tunis (November 10 – December 25, 1942)
Battle of the Kasserine Pass (February 19–25, 1943)
Battle of Medenine (March 6, 1943)
Operation Pugilist (March 16–27, 1943)
Battle of Kufra (January 31 – March 1, 1941)
France had fallen, her empire in tatters, but her flag still flew from the isolated but strategically important ex-Italian fort of El Tag which dominated the Kufra oasis in Southern Libya. Free France had struck a blow, a beginning in the campaign to recapture France and defeat the Axis.
Colonel Leclerc and the intrepid Lt Col d'Ornano (commander of French Forces in Chad), on the orders of de Gaulle in London, were tasked with attacking Italian positions in Libya with the motley forces at their disposal in Chad which had declared for Free France. Kufra was the obvious target. The task of striking at the heavily defended oasis at Kufra was made all the more difficult by the use of inadequate transport to cross sand dunes and the rocky Fech Fech, considered to be impassable to vehicles.
Fortunately for the French, assistance was received from Major Clayton of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), who was keen to join with the Free French to test the Italians. Clayton had under his command G (Guards) and T (New Zealand) patrols, a total of seventy-six men in twenty-six vehicles.
In order to assist in the attack against Kufra, a raid was mounted against the airfield at the oasis of Murzuk, capital of the Fezzan region of Libya. Ten Free French (three officers, two sergeants and five native soldiers) under d'Ornano met with Clayton's LRDG patrols on January 6, 1941, at Kayouge. The combined force reached Murzuk on January 11. In a daring daylight raid, they surprised the sentries and swept through the oasis, devastating the base. The majority of the force attacked the main fort, while a troop from T patrol under Lieutenant Ballantyne engaged the airfield defences, destroying three Caproni aircraft and capturing a number of prisoners.
The success of the raid was tempered by the loss of a T patrol member and the intrepid d'Ornano. Another wounded French officer cauterised his leg wound with his own cigarette, much to the admiration of the LRDG. A diversionary raid by mounted Meharistes Colonial Cavalry failed after it was betrayed by local guides, prompting Leclerc to relegate these troops to recon duties only.
After the success of the Murzuk raid, Leclerc, who had assumed overall command, marshalled his forces to take on Kufra itself. Intelligence indicated that the Oasis was defended by two defensive lines based around the El Tag fort which included barbed wire, trenches, machine guns and light AA defences. The garrison was thought to comprise a battalion of Askaris (Colonial Infantry) under Colonel Leo, plus supporting troops.
In addition to the static defences, the oasis was defended by La Compania Sahariana de Cufra, a specialist mobile force and the forerunner of the famous "Sahariana" companies of the mid war period. The company was composed of desert veterans crewing various Fiat and Lancia trucks equipped with HMGs and 20 mm AA weapons, together with some armoured cars. The company also had the support of its own air arm to assist in long range reconnaissance and ground attack.
Leclerc could not pinpoint the Saharianas, so he tasked the LRDG with the job of hunting them down and robbing the defenders of their mobile reserve.
Unfortunately for the LRDG, a radio intercept unit at Kufra picked up their radio traffic and they were spotted from the air. The defenders had been on their guard since Murzuk.
G patrol had been kept in reserve and Major Clayton was leading T patrol, 30 men in 11 trucks.
The patrol was at Bishara on the morning of January 31 when an Italian aircraft appeared overhead.
The trucks scattered and made for some hills, and the plane flew away without attacking them. The patrol took cover among some rocks in a small wadi at Gebel Sherif and camouflaged the trucks, before preparing to have lunch. The plane returned and circled over the wadi, where it directed a patrol of the Auto-Saharan Company to intercept the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
During fierce fighting, the LRDG patrol came off second best to superior Italian firepower and constant air attack. After severe losses, the surviving seven trucks of the patrol were forced to withdraw, leaving behind their commanding officer, who was captured along with several others. Other survivors embarked on epic journeys to seek safety. After this reverse, the LRDG force was forced to withdraw and refit, leaving Leclerc the services of one LRDG vehicle from T patrol crucially equipped for desert navigation.
Leclerc pressed on with his attack, in spite of losing a copy of his plan to the enemy with the capture of Major Clayton. After conducting further reconnaissance, Leclerc reorganized his forces on February 16. He abandoned his two armoured cars and took with him the remaining serviceable artillery piece, a crucial decision.
On the 17th, Leclerc's forces brushed with the Saharianas and despite a disparity in firepower were able to drive them off, as the Kufra garrison failed to intervene.
Following this, El Tag was surrounded, despite a further attack from the Saharan's and harassment from the air, the French laid siege to the fort. The lone 75 mm gun was placed 3000 m from the fort, beyond range of the defences and accurately delivered 20 shells per day at regular intervals.
Despite having superior numbers, Italian resolve faltered. Negotiations to surrender began on February 28 and finally on March 1, 1941, the Free French captured El Tag and with it, the oasis at Kufra.
Battle of Gazala (May 26 – June 21, 1942)
Battle of Bir Hakeim (May 26 – June 11, 1942)
The Battle of Bir Hakeim was fought between the Afrika Korps and the Free French Brigade, with support from the British 7th Armoured Division. The German commander was Generaloberst Erwin Rommel and the French commander was General Marie Pierre Koenig. The outnumbered Free French Brigade heroically resisted for sixteen days. It allowed the Allied Forces to regroup and prepare for the battle of El Alamein.
The Germans attacked Bir Hakeim on May 26, 1942. Over the next two weeks, the Luftwaffe flew 1,400 sorties against the defences, whilst 4 German/Italian divisions attacked. On June 2, 3, and 5, the German forces requested that Koenig surrender, he refused and launched counterattacks with his Bren gun carriers. Despite the explosion of the defences ammunition dump, the French continued to fight using ammunition brought in by British armoured cars during the night. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force dropped water and other supplies.
On June 9, the British Eighth Army authorized a retreat and during the night of June 10/June 11 the defenders of Bir Hakeim escaped.
Subordinate units of the defending 1st Free French Brigade were:
- 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 13th half-brigade of the Foreign Legion
- 1st battalion of naval fusiliers
- 1st battalion of marine infantry
- the Pacific battalion
- 2nd march battalion of Oubangui-Chari
- 1st Artillery Regiment
- 22nd North African company (6 sections)
- 1st company (engineers)
- signals company
- 101st transport company (trains/automobiles)
- a light medical ambulance
Italian invasion of British Egypt (September 9–16, 1940)
Operation Compass (December 8, 1940 – February 9, 1941)
Second Battle of El Alamein (October 23,–November 5, 1942)
French Syria–Lebanon Campaign (1941)
Battle of the Litani River (June 9)
Battle of Jezzine (June 13)
Battle of Kissoué (June 15–17)
Battle of Damascus (June 18–21)
Battle of Merdjayoun (19–24 June)
Battle of Palmyra (July 1)
Battle of Deir ez-Zor (July 3)
Battle of Damour (July 5–9)
Allied invasion of French Madagascar (May 5 – November 8, 1942)
Vichy French and Japanese miniature submarines defended the French colony of Madagascar during Allied Operation Ironclad. The Madagascar governor surrendered in November 1942.
Free-Vichy French battle for La Réunion (November 22, 1942)
Réunion was under the authority of the Vichy Regime until 30 November 1942, when the island was liberated by the destroyer Léopard.
Japanese invasion of French Indochina (September 1940)
Limited Allied support to French Indochina (1943–1945)
The FEFEO was created on paper by General de Gaulle in October 1943, however the actual composition of a full scale expeditionary force -the C.L.I./Gaur were small specialized units- dedicated to liberate French Indohina from the outnumbering Japanese forces was delayed as the European theatre of operations, and the liberation of metropolitan France, became a top priority for deployment of the limited French forces.
The United States Chief of Staff also formally restricted the Allied support to French Indochina, 14th USAAF Commander Claire Lee Chennault (a French-American) wrote in his memoirs the now famous statement: "I carried out my orders to the letter but I did not relish the idea of leaving Frenchmen to be slaughtered in the jungle while I was forced officially to ignore their plight."
In contrast, the British, who trained the first C.L.I./Gaurs supported French Indochina through its Force 136, flew aerial supply missions for the airborne commandos, delivering tommy guns, mortars and grenades from their Calcutta base.
SOE's French Indo-China Section (1943–1945)
The FEFEO French expeditionary corps's C.L.I.s (or "gaurs") were dropped by the British Force 136 and fought the Japanese troops occupying the French colonies of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). The Gaur Polaire ("polar") codename of Captain Ayrolles's commando unit dropped in the Traninh in order to prepare the arrival of the C.L.I., however they were taken by surprise by the Japanese coup de force of March 9, 1945, and Cpt. Ayrolles changed the original plan to a sabotage operation. The Gaur Polaire blew eight bridges on the RC 7 (route coloniale 7), assaulted Japanese detachments and convoys, blew airstrip holds and storages of the Khan Kai camp and also destroyed a fuel and vehicles storage. A Japanese battalion was sent after them, without success. The results of this operation was the Japanese entry in Luang Prabang was delayed for around three weeks.
On March 17, 1945, Captain Cortadellas's Gaur K is dropped at Dien Bien Phu (area of the famous siege in the Indochina War (1946–1954)). At French Commander Marcel Alessandri's request, Gaur K, supported by 80 remaining legionnaires from the 3/5th REI (Régiment Étranger d'Infanterie), was sent to the arrière-garde of the Alessandri column retreating to China for hundreds kilometers of tracks in the high region. Battles ensued on April 11 at Houei Houn, April 15 at Muong Koua, April 21 at Boun Tai and April 22 at Muong Yo.
Gaurs roles were guerrilla warfare and the creation and training of Mèo and Thai local commandos. Following World War II, the GCMA French airborne commandos, servicing in the Indochina War, were created after the gaurs (C.L.I.) which were themselves created after the British Chindits special forces.
Another French special operations force secretly fought the Japanese in French Indochina. These were forty former French Jedburgh volunteers who embarked at Glasgow with layover at Port Said, Bombay and Colombo, and gathered in a camp at Ceylon in November 1944. Notable Force 136 members dropped in Laos during 1945 are French Colonels Jean Deuve (January 22), Jean Le Morillon (February 28) and Jean Sassi (June 4).
Japanese coup d'état in French Indochina (March 9 – August 26, 1945)
Thai invasion of French Indochina (October 1940 – May 9, 1941)
Naval battle of Koh Chang (January 16–17, 1941)
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This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Army Center of Military History document "The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II: Southern France".
- Chronology 1941–1945, U.S. Army in World War II, Mary H. Williams (compiler), Washington: Government Printing Office, 1994.
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