Vichy France: Islands and Raids II

Personal flag of Philippe Pétain, Chief of State of Vichy France (Chef de l’État Français)

Progressive end of the Vichy regime

La France d’outre merFrench Colonies

The relations of the United States with the Free French were curiously unpleasant. This was despite the gradual souring of US relations with Vichy, which should have brought the United States to appreciate the existence of Free France. The United States had deliberately maintained a diplomatic presence in Vichy, sending President Roosevelt’s friend Admiral William Leahy there as ambassador in December 1940 with the explicit purpose of restraining Vichy from too ready an accommodation with Germany. The United States had also attempted to maintain its influence in Vichy by deliveries of food, which went to Morocco in Vichy ships direct from the United States. The British generally allowed these ships to pass their blockade.

In late 1941 German pressure was exerted on Admiral Darlan’s government to remove General Weygand from his position as Delegate-General in North Africa. The Germans recognized that Weygand was a major obstacle in the way of their penetration of the region. Already, they had had to struggle to get the use of Tunisian space, and to get German ‘inspection teams’ into Morocco – they had to wear civilian clothes, and, as the French had expected they would, they stirred up trouble amongst the Moroccans. Darlan certainly resisted these demands, but in the end had no choice but to do what the Germans wanted. In the end Weygand was removed and brought back to mainland France in November 1941. This was clearly yet another concession by Vichy to Germany, and was seen by the United States as a decisive change in German-Vichy relations, one which opened the Vichy empire to German exploitation. The immediate result was that the British were told of the sailing of two Vichy food ships from New York for Casablanca, an item of information which indicated that they were to be seen as blockade runners rather than charitable donations by the United States.

And yet the gradual US estrangement from Vichy did not produce a warming towards the Free French. This was in part because of de Gaulle’s apparent arrogance, but also of President Roosevelt’s instant dislike of him. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive of two more inevitably antagonistic personalities than Franklin Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle’s prickliness and arrogance was, of course, the product of his lack of power. In no other way could he make himself heard, but by demanding, and at times obtaining, the respect due to France as a Great Power and himself as France’s representative and embodiment. Yet that powerlessness also led to him, paradoxically, being regarded in the US as a British puppet.

Behind it all was the long-standing US aversion to the European empires, including Britain’s, an aversion now extended to Japan’s, and reconfirmed by the hideousness of the new German Empire. And de Gaulle was determined, as the British knew all too well, to maintain the French Empire – just as determined as Churchill was to maintain the British. (Just as determined as Roosevelt was to extend the US Empire.) Further, de Gaulle was also seen as being allied to unsavoury elements in France, such as the communists. (The French Communists had, of course, suddenly sprung into opposition to Germany on 22 June 1941.) This distancing of themselves from both French factions led to two results in the US administration: the eventual search for a third French alternative, for some Frenchman who was not Pétain or Darlan and was not de Gaulle, and it led the United States government to lay itself open to British strategic thinking.

There was one particular incident which decisively soured the United States’ attitudes towards the Free French, and led to several years of almost overt hostility. The islands of St Pierre and Miquelon in the Gulf of St Lawrence had remained under their Vichy administrator Gilbert de Bournat since before 1940. He had considerable local support, though it was not unanimous, and the presence of the sloop Ville d’Ys gave him the decisive edge. He also had a short wave radio station with which he could contact Vichy, and through which weather reports (a crucial matter for the Atlantic war) were sent. It was also assumed that details of convoys, insofar as they could be known in these islands, would also be radioed, and that such information would go to the Germans, whose U-boat headquarters were, of course, at Lorient. Whether all these assumptions were correct or not, it was becoming necessary, just to be sure, to shut down that radio station. In December 1941 the Canadian government began careful negotiations with de Bournat to do so.

De Bournat in fact was a subordinate, technically at least, of Admiral Georges Robert, the Vichy ruler of the French Caribbean islands. Robert’s situation had been frozen by US intervention since 1940, and this was reinforced by a new agreement concluded between Robert and Admiral Horne of the United States Navy on 17 December 1941. (The United States now being in the war with both Germany and Japan, the exclusion of any German influence from the Caribbean was now not just preferable, but also necessary.) So by December both the United States and Canada were carefully moving towards a relatively gentle form of the suppression of Vichy influence anywhere in the Americas. There was also the Inter-American agreement of 1940 in which all the American states agreed not to permit any of the European colonial territories in the Americas to change hands. This was actually directed at Germany after the defeat of France, just in case a peace treaty included German acquisitions of French territories, but it was also used to block internal changes from Vichy to Free France within the French colonies as well. It was, of course, an item in the continuing US domination of both American continents, the old imperialist Monroe Doctrine being wheeled out in supposed justification.

Into this web of treaties and understandings and nods and winks, General de Gaulle drove a trio of warships. The Free French had been allocated three corvettes by the Canadian Navy, which they named Aconit, Alysse and Mimose, to be employed as escorts on the Atlantic convoy routes. It had been proposed that they be used by the Free French to seize St Pierre and Miquelon, one of the alternative policies which were being considered for dealing with the islands. The British had liked the idea, but, this being America, had raised it with the United States government. Roosevelt personally expressed opposition, so Churchill told the Free French, who agreed not to proceed.

Despite this the Free French naval commander, Vice-Admiral Emile Muselier, used the ships to take control of the two islands from de Bournat. It was done quietly, without casualties on Christmas Eve 1941. (It may also have been done on Muselier’s own initiative, for he was an ambitious man, and did not at all agree with de Gaulle.) The coup was confirmed by a hastily organized referendum two days later, though many of the ballots were spoiled, presumably in protest at the Free French coup, and the questions were loaded.

In their reactions to the coup the publics and the governments of the Allies diverged. The public in Britain and the United States generally saw Muselier’s deed as a stroke of liberation, for Vichy was by now popularly presumed to be aligned firmly with Germany and Japan and to be similarly oppressive to its subjects; the governments, however, were annoyed that their own schemes had been derailed. They claimed that there would be unpleasant consequences, pointing particularly to North Africa, which is just about the only place any new direct German reaction could happen. Actually nothing happened other than some annoyed rhetoric from Vichy. This soon died away, but the United States was confirmed in its dislike of both de Gaulle and the Free French.

The British, on the other hand, remained broadly supportive of Free France, despite de Gaulle’s difficult temperament. At the same time, it was clear that no more armed expeditions would be conducted with Free French involvement. This St Pierre episode was minor, but its repercussions were unpleasant. The reason the Americans were annoyed more than anything else was that de Gaulle was perceived as having broken his word. For the British, who were more indulgent towards him, and more understanding of his difficult situation, and had invested much more in building him up, even all this was not enough to cancel out the uselessness of Free French at Dakar, the embarrassment and awkwardness of the Free French in Syria, and the lack of security awareness at both places. The clumsiness of Admiral Muselier at St Pierre imperilled British relations with the United States, which was always the overriding concern of Churchill, and if the United States was antagonistic to Free France, then Free France must be sidelined. On the other hand, it was evident, from information coming out of France by a variety of means, that de Gaulle and his Free French now did have a substantial body of popular support in the country. It was not organized, and it might well be utterly superficial and ephemeral. It might also be the result of the fact that there was no one else who was so active in his opposition to Nazi control of France and so he automatically attracted the support of Vichy’s opponents. But it did mean that the vaunted support for Vichy – which the Americans still accepted well into 1943 – was actually hollow, and was based above all on nothing more than that the Pétainist regime was a government, and thereby exercised control over both the country and the sources of information.

The fact remained, however, that no matter what the attitudes of the French population, the people were very largely working to support the Vichy regime, and the Vichy regime was being exploited by the Germans to extract considerable resources for the use of the German forces. These included manufactures, food and labour. The factories which had produced armaments for the French Army and Air Force were now producing the same for the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. The installations at the Atlantic ports, where the U-boats were serviced and provisioned and prepared and sheltered, were built by French companies, who employed French workers under contract from the German state. These companies, and what they made, were therefore quite legitimate military targets. The bombing of the Atlantic ports continued.

In March 1942 British programme of bombing industrial targets was extended to mainland France. The German military and naval targets had long been intermittently bombed – Brest, Cherbourg, and so on – but it was now clear that the industries of France were fully harnessed to German war production. On 3/4 March the giant Renault car and truck works at Boulogne-Billancourt in the suburbs of Paris was bombed by 236 aircraft. The factory was badly damaged, though by no means obliterated, and considerable numbers of French workers died. Production was disrupted, but not by any means stopped. The reaction amongst the Parisians was not the anger which the Germans and Vichy expected and hoped for; perhaps they had a right to expect it, after the reaction to Mers el-Kebir. Instead there was a general atmosphere of resignation and acceptance, which disconcerted Vichy thoroughly. It implied a deep dislike of the Vichy regime by the Parisian population – and, of course, it pushed the Vichy leaders even more into the embrace of Nazi Germany. A number of other French targets in the military area were also attacked in March, though these raids were much smaller in scale, involving a couple of dozen bombers escorted by a large number of fighters, the aim being as much to try and defeat German fighter attacks as to bomb specific targets.

There was one particular installation which concerned the British above all others in early 1942. This was the great dock built at St Nazaire into which the grand French liner Normandie could go. It was the only dock of its size in Western Europe accessible to a German ship from the Atlantic, and it was there or Brest, that the Bismarck had been heading for when it was sunk. And now Bismarck had a sister, just as large, powerful, and threatening – Tirpitz.

The ship was employed in the Baltic for a time, but then came out to Norway in January 1942. Positioned at Trondheim Tirpitz was a standing threat to the convoys which were being organized to carry war materials supplied by Britain and the United States to Russia, and beyond these it was a threat to the Atlantic convoy routes as well, which were already under serious pressure from German submarines. If Tirpitz carried out the same sort of cruise as Bismarck had attempted, the obvious docking and repairing port for the end of the cruise was, again, either Brest or St Nazaire – and only St Nazaire had a dock big enough for the ship to be dry-docked for inspection and repair.

This was a construction of which the French were very proud – as was the ship it had served, even if Normandie was a burned-out wreck in New York by then. It also lay six miles inland on the north shore of the Loire, and was surrounded by the town of St Nazaire. The destruction of the dock was clearly a task for Combined Operations and the Commandos, and the task was made the more urgent by the first sortie by Tirpitz on 5 March against an Arctic convoy. The ship was clearly fully capable and operational, and attempts by bombers and submarines to damage or sink it had all failed.

The attack on the dock at St Nazaire went in on the night of 27 March. The old destroyer Campbeltown (the former USS Buchanan) had been converted into a giant ram, its bow heavily reinforced with a great concrete plug. Escorted by nineteen motor torpedo boats and motor launches, the ship reached and rammed the dock gates. Commandos landed, stormed the docks and set about destroying the gates and the winding houses. A German counter-attack, together with heavy fire from the coastal defences, killed or captured all the commandos and most of the sailors. Only four of the nineteen boats got away. A quarter of the assaulting forces were killed. Next day the ship exploded as it was being gloated over by many of the Germans, when a delayed action fuse operated. The dock was wrecked, as intended.

The Germans were considerably shocked by the surprise and the violence of the assault. They suspected that many of the commandos and sailors had survived and were hidden in the town (though in fact the attacking forces were fewer than they imagined, and many of those not accounted for were in the river, either dead or trying to escape). They began to search the town. The great explosion shocked and unnerved them further, and two later explosions (delayed action torpedoes in the winding houses) made them even more nervous and angry. What else might happen if the missing British were not found?

In the meantime the reaction of the French inhabitants was similarly nervous, if somewhat less angry. Some thought that the liberating invasion had started and got out their hidden guns to join in. Some of the British really had got into the town and were hidden – several escaped from the town and five of them reached Spain. The Germans began firing at anyone and anything – including each other – and the more the firing went on the more frightened they became. In the morning they arrested over 1,200 French people in the old town of St Nazaire and put them into a camp as prisoners, threatening mass murders. (They had already begun the practice of shooting batches of hostages in revenge for the murder of German officers – one case had happened a few months earlier at Nantes nearby.)

St Nazaire was one of the places where forced labour contracted to French construction firms had been used to build U-boat pens. There were also important factories in the town, producing, for example, aircraft, which had been the scenes of strikes already against bad food, low pay, inflation – in short a series of complaints against the effects of the occupation. The reaction of the population had shown clearly enough that the people, in this town at least, were wholly unreconciled to the situation they were in. The Vichy regime was as unpopular by its association with the oppressive Germans in St Nazaire as the Renault raid had demonstrated was the case in Paris.

It was perhaps only coincidence, or perhaps not, that it was just at this time that pressure was being exerted by the Germans on Marshal Pétain to replace Darlan as his Vice-Premier. This eventually succeeded, and he was replaced by Pierre Laval, who pursued the policy of collaboration with ever greater keenness. Darlan, however, remained as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Laval’s policy was really only an intensification of that which Darlan had pursued. The new government had been opposed by the United States, who did not like the appointment of Laval in particular. His appointment led directly to the recall of Admiral Leahy from the United States embassy, leaving Vichy wholly entwined in Germany’s grip.

The reactions in France to the increasing pressure which came from both Germans and Allies were, as one would expect, various. Those convinced of the probability of victory for either side felt that either collaboration or resistance was the best attitude to adopt. These convictions applied to only a small part of the population, however. Most people simply endured. There were demonstrations against German demands, as in the strikes at St Nazaire, and there were demonstrations against Allied raids, as in a large one in Toulouse in early April. What was clear was that the pressure from both sides would certainly continue, and increase. For the French there was no end in sight.

This was confirmed later in the year by more raids by the British. In August a major part of the Canadian Division which had been in Britain since 1939, plus 1,000 commandos, attacked Dieppe. But their general purpose had become known, their approach was revealed by a preliminary encounter with a German convoy, and the landing went in against very strong opposition. On the continent many in Germany and France chose to believe that the defeat at Dieppe was the defeat of the campaign of liberation. In Dieppe itself the heavy German presence had inhibited any possible rising to assist the invaders – Hitler released the prisoners of war he still held from the town as a gesture of thanks, a double-edged compliment if ever there was one. At Vichy the reaction was one of relief that the apparent invasion had failed, and the Marshal tried to use it as a means of extracting concessions from the Germans. There was no reply to his letter, but the Vichy reaction demonstrated very clearly that the regime fully aligned itself, almost fawningly, with their Nazi conquerors.

Of course, it soon became clear that this had not been the great invasion. A more ominous harbinger was the air raid two months later on the Schneider-Creuzot armaments plant at Le Creuzot, which was attacked by a large force of Lancaster bombers. As usual the aircrews believed that they had hit the target; as usual photographic reconnaissance showed that they had not. But if a plant in eastern France could be attacked, no part of France was immune.

These two raids made it clear that in all likelihood France would be the land through which the Allies would attack Germany, and that this would be done by means of a landing somewhere along the English Channel coast. It was also clear that this would be very difficult. Meanwhile any major industrial plant was a target for the RAF, and the Vichy Empire was steadily being removed from Vichy’s control.

By this time, a year after the loss of Syria to the British and the Free French, that empire had diminished still further. It could no longer be said that Vichy had any control over French Indo-China, the Caribbean islands were under even greater US control, and the two Canadian islands had gone to the Free French. Negotiations had also been going on between the Vichy authorities in Djibouti and the British commands in Egypt and East Africa, with a view to surrendering the colony, though the British saw no urgency, and let the colony linger on. And now Vichy could no longer defend its home territory, even under the protection of the German garrison. If the armistice had been intended to secure metropolitan France from further damage from warfare, the raids on St Nazaire and Dieppe and the air raids on Paris and Le Creuzot showed that it no longer did so. And by this time also, the last of the major overseas territories except North Africa, Madagascar, had also gone.

The Second World War in the French Overseas Empire

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