LIBERATION FRANCE 1944

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D-Day plunged relations between de Gaulle and the Allies into a fresh crisis as the general was excluded from planning and informed about it only during a visit to Churchill on the eve of the landings. No French forces were to be involved in the first wave. At a stormy lunch, he was further irritated by a US plan to issue special bank notes in France and by the prime minister’s suggestion that he go to Washington to seek Roosevelt’s benediction. The president had never wanted to see him in the past, he shot back, so why should he now ‘lodge my candidacy for power in France with Roosevelt. The French government exists.’ Still the two men ended by toasting one another, Churchill raising his glass ‘to de Gaulle who never accepted defeat’ while his guest drank ‘to England, to victory, to Europe.’

But the White House decreed that the Supreme Commander, Eisenhower, was free to deal with any groups he chose in France rather than having to talk to a provisional government Washington did not recognise. A text to be read out on the radio and distributed in leaflets named the American as ultimate authority for the country and omitted any mention of Fighting France, the Resistance or de Gaulle. Shown this, the Frenchman exploded. His anger increased when he learned that he was expected to follow Eisenhower in a post-invasion broadcast, giving the impression of endorsing what had just been said. He refused to speak at all, and withdrew the cooperation of French liaison agents.

That provoked a harangue from Churchill to the cabinet about de Gaulle’s misdeeds while the General described the prime minister as a gangster. Summoning a representative of the French leader, Churchill accused him of ‘treason at the height of battle’. As usual, de Gaulle calmed down and agreed to speak on the BBC on the landings so long as this was some hours after Eisenhower. He would also supply liaison agents. Churchill was not appeased. From his bed late at night, he dictated an instruction that de Gaulle was to be flown to Algiers ‘in chains if necessary’. Eden had the memo burned.

Showing continuing bad temper, the prime minister did not ask de Gaulle to accompany him when he visited Normandy on 12 June. Nor did he attend a dinner the foreign secretary gave for de Gaulle. He also raised objections about de Gaulle’s intention to visit France, but the General went ahead, crossing the Channel on 14 June aboard the destroyer, La Combattante. Driving inland in a jeep, he stopped to talk to local people who ‘cried out with joy’, one of his companions recalled.

In Bayeux, the first town liberated, the mayor and municipal council put on a hero’s welcome. ‘At the sight of General de Gaulle, a kind of stupor took hold of the inhabitants who broke out into cheers or dissolved into tears,’ the Constable recorded in his memoirs. Everywhere, he was acclaimed, the public reaction contradicting Roosevelt’s insistence that he was not a representative figure, though FDR maintained his reservations when de Gaulle finally visited Washington the following month, describing the visitor to his wife as the ‘president of some French committee or other’ and an ‘egotist’. For his part, de Gaulle was convinced that America was ‘already trying to rule the world’ and, since Britain would always accede to the US, France had to count on itself, a belief he would nurture till the end of his life.

The brink of civil war

The Allied advance through Normandy took a heavy toll on French people caught up in the fighting or killed by bombing. The retreating Germans massacred hundreds of civilians, shooting eighty detained partisans in Caen prison on the day of the landings. There were also killings of civilians, rapes and pillage by the Allied forces, increasing the disproportion between civilian and military losses in France during the conflict.

The French second armoured division (la 2éme DB) under Leclerc crossed the Channel at the end of July to join the advance on Paris once the Allies had broken out of the Normandy pocket. In mid-August, Allied forces, including a division under de Lattre de Tassigny, landed on the Riviera. Resistance fighters proclaimed new ‘republics’; 140,000 partisans were estimated to have received weapons through Allied parachute drops on top of arms captured from the Germans and the Milice.

Seven thousand partisans mustered in the Morbihan département of Brittany. In the Resistance stronghold of the Limousin, the maverick Communist Georges Guingouin led 20,000 men to take over Limoges after the Germans capitulated. Other partisans set up a base in the rugged south-eastern uplands of the Dauphiné region, which brought together farmers and former soldiers, priests, Communists and Jews, mechanics, café owners and local officials in the Free Republic of the Vercors. But they were cut off and did not receive arms drops or bombing support to enable them to ward off a German attack that killed 600 maquisards and 200 local inhabitants.

There was lawlessness, vengeance killings and summary trials as France appeared to teeter on the brink of civil war. In Toulouse, Limoges and Montpellier, Jacques Baumel, a Resistance fighter and future Gaullist minister, witnessed ‘atrocities comparable to the killings in the Spanish Civil War’. The numbers of those slain in the process and earlier in the war are subject to different estimations. The total of Resistance fighters who died in action, were executed or perished after deportation has been estimated at between 12,000 and 20,000. The interior ministry provided a figure of 9,673 for all summary executions by the Resistance during the war, 4,439 of them during or after the Liberation. A later official committee put the number at 12,000. The revisionist historian Robert Aron arrived at 20,000 for 1944 and 30–40,000 for the war as a whole, a figure contested by other experts.

The Milice and the retreating occupation forces became ever more violent. The SS Panzer Reich tank division picked up men in the Corrèze provincial capital of Tulle and killed ninety-nine by hanging them from balconies. It then slaughtered 642 people in the Limousin village of Oradour-sur-Glane, 240 of them women and children burned in the church. At one town in the Loire Valley, the Germans shot dead 124 people, including 44 children; in another massacre, 305 were executed and 732 deported, 405 to their deaths. A Milice leader had eighty Jews rounded up and the men buried alive under bags of cement in a well.

Partisans disguised in blue paramilitary uniforms got into the building where the Vichy propaganda minister, Philippe Henriot, was sleeping and murdered him in his bed – big crowds filed past his coffin outside the Hôtel de Ville in Paris before the funeral at Notre-Dame. In retaliation, militiamen took Georges Mandel, who had been handed over to them by the Germans, into the forest of Fontainebleau and killed him. Others led the Popular Front education minister, Jean Zay, from prison, shot him, stripped the body, tore off his wedding ring and flung the corpse into a quarry.

Pétain, who was reported to have reacted to news of D-Day by singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, criticised the Milice for imposing ‘an atmosphere of police terror unknown in this country until now’, but he was now an impotent prisoner of the Germans who moved him to what amounted to house arrest in a château in the northern Auvergne. Laval sought an escape with a plan to revive the Third Republic; he got backing from eighty-seven mayors but failed to win the support of the pre-war premier Édouard Herriot who was brought to meet him from a lunatic asylum where he was being held.

The Germans moved the Vichy leaders to Belfort in eastern France where a phantom administration was set up under Fernand de Brinon, the former Vichy representative to the German High Command in Paris who had used his position to get a pass protecting his Jewish wife. Darnand and Déat were among the ministers. In the autumn of 1944, the Allied advance forced them to flee to a grandiose, gloomy castle on a rocky outcrop on the Danube in the small town of Sigmaringen together with some other leading collaborationists, including the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

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Freeing the capital

As the Vichy leadership moved in ignominious retreat, de Gaulle made a triumphant progress through Normandy and Brittany. Church bells rang and the streets were garlanded with flowers. But his relations with the Allies were still tense. There was yet another row with Britain over Syria and Lebanon, and an argument about who should be responsible for distributing arms to police in France. De Gaulle objected at not being consulted over the Allied destruction of ships at Toulon, Sète and Marseilles. Churchill visited Corsica without telling the French in advance.

In Paris, the Wehrmacht laid explosives in strategic points to destroy the city in keeping with Hitler’s order. Eisenhower wanted to avoid a big urban battle, which could delay his advance on Germany, but his hand was forced by a Resistance rising in the capital that began on 15 August, the day that a final convoy of more than 2,000 prisoners left for Buchenwald. Railway workers, led by the Communists, went on strike. Police and staff on the bus and underground transport systems followed. De Gaulle saw the danger of a ‘populist government which would encircle my head with laurels, ask me to take a position which it would designate for me and pull all the strings . . . until the day when the dictatorship of proletariat was established’.

On 18 August, a general strike was declared in the city. The unified Resistance command, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) headed by the Communist Henri Rol-Tanguy, told Parisians to mobilise. There were echoes of the popular risings of the nineteenth century as the City Hall, public buildings, railway stations, telephone exchanges and electricity stations were occupied. Barricades went up in the streets and trees were cut down to block boulevards. The Germans blew up a big flourmill, threatening bread supplies. De Gaulle insisted to Eisenhower that there could be ‘serious trouble’ unless the city was liberated as soon as possible with French troops under Leclerc leading the way.

On the evening of 24 August, French vanguard tanks crossed the Seine south-west of the capital, but the main column was still 5 miles from the main southern gateway into the city, the Porte d’Orléans. Growing increasingly frustrated, the overall field commander, General Omar Bradley, ordered the US 4th Division to join the attack, raising the prospect that French troops would not be alone in liberating the city. That was enough to spur on Leclerc. Cane in hand as he walked through the streets of a southern suburb, he took aside a captain, Raymond Dronne, who had been with him in Chad in 1940–1, and told him ‘Head immediately for Paris . . . Go fast. Arrive this evening.’

Dronne’s tanks crossed the Seine, rolling along the quays on the Right Bank to the Hôtel de Ville. Church bells rang in celebration. The German commander, von Choltitz, decided to surrender. In all, 1,500 resistance fighters died in the freeing of the capital. De Gaulle was driven to Paris where, after calling at the Police Prefecture, he walked through dense crowds to the Hôtel de Ville. There, he made one of his most evocative speeches to proclaim ‘Paris! Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris! But liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!’ Then he went to the window looking down at the crowd below and raised both his arms in a gesture that would become familiar, his height turning him into a monument.

As he staged a triumphal walk down the Champs-Élysées, the throng lining the wide avenue erupted in joy. The tanks of Leclerc’s division rolled down from the Arc de Triomphe, but snipers, mainly from the Milice, fired from the rooftops on the Place de la Concorde and along the rue de Rivoli when the General boarded an open car to drive to Notre-Dame, where he marched through the church, his shoulders thrown back while bullets ricocheted off the pillars behind which people sheltered, women cuddling children in their arms. When the service ended, the shooting continued, but the General took no notice as he walked out into the sunlight. The bullets may have been from over-excited partisans. In a letter to his wife, de Gaulle suggested that ‘certain elements’ – he meant Communists – had seized on the occasion to flex their muscles.

The Wehrmacht launched a bombardment that killed 50 people, injured 400 and turned the night red with the flames from burning houses. Electricity was cut off – in the war ministry, de Gaulle’s aide-decamp took the only oil lamp available. In the north and west of the country, 75,000 German soldiers held out; the last Nazi troops were not driven from French territory until early 1945, with the First French Army under de Lattre de Tassigny taking Strasbourg and joining the Allied advance across the Rhine. More than 2 million French people were prisoners of war or labourers in Germany.

The Pétain regime evaporated as if it had never been. But collaborators had to pay, with the exercise of summary popular justice reminiscent of the Revolution and the insurrections and repressions of the previous century. Women who had fraternised with Germans had their hair cropped and were paraded through the streets, daubed with tar, stripped to the waist and painted with swastikas; at least 20,000 were punished in this way. In Paris, some prostitutes who had entertained Germans were kicked to death. In half-a-dozen cities, there were riots to force tribunals to condemn collaborators to death, encouraged by the Communist Party, which claimed the impossibly high number of 75,000 members killed during the war. Elsewhere, mobs simply grabbed those regarded as guilty, torturing and executing some out of hand.

France had emerged from the war on the winning side, thanks largely to de Gaulle’s perspicuity and perseverance. But now it had to confront the problems of peace under an unelected leader whose mindset was at odds with the nation’s modern history and inclinations. The threat of civil war with the Communists using their muscle to try to usher in a new regime was evident. So was de Gaulle’s determination to thwart them in the name of the Republic as he pursued his vision of national unity which would transcend the country’s old divisions.

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