Skyfall or Guerrilla III

Artist’s impression of a meeting of the PCF (Parti communiste français) central committee at Longjumeau, 1943. Left to right: Benoît Frachon, Auguste Lecoeur, Jacques Duclos and Charles Tillon.

Although the travails of the communists were obvious, other elements of the internal resistance were also frustrated by London. Pierre Dalloz, architect of the original plan to use the Vercors as a natural fortress to pin down the Axis, who arrived in Algiers in November 1943, wrote a report on the Vercors project which, he claimed, had been endorsed by both Jean Moulin and Delestraint. Like the communists he could garner no interest from Colonel Passy. He found the BCRA ‘strongly infiltrated by fascists and Cagoulard elements’ who thought that ‘French people arriving from France were hotheads’ and were convinced that the only viable resistance was that organised by themselves.

Some difference was made by the appointment of Emmanuel d’Astier as commissar for the interior. For him, the interior meant a metropolitan France that was destined to be a major force in the liberation. The ‘French army of the interior’ would enable the French to ‘acquire a strong, patriotic and popularly based government headed by the man who at first was only a symbol but is now the leader of the Fatherland in toil’. He realised that arms drops were only going to circuits under the direct control of British officers, greatly demoralising most maquisards. The conclusion might legitimately be drawn that ‘the British government does not wish to arm the French Resistance.’

D’Astier embarked on a mission to persuade the British to arm that resistance. At a press conference in Algiers on 15 November 1943 he announced that only 4,000–5,000 out of 30,000 maquisards in the former Free Zone were armed. In December 1943 he was in London and met Waldeck Rochet, who extracted a promise that if d’Astier managed to persuade the British to make more arms drops, some of them would go to the FTP. Flying back to North Africa d’Astier managed to arrange an interview on 14 January 1944 with Churchill in Marrakech. Churchill was surrounded by the likes of Harold Macmillan, the diplomat Duff Cooper (biographer of the devious Talleyrand), and the beautiful Lady Diana Cooper in ‘a straw hat with a veil, as seen in Egypt’. Churchill received him in his bedroom, and appeared to d’Astier less like a bulldog than like ‘a newborn child that has aged’. After Churchill had complained how difficult de Gaulle was – ‘how can we get on with each other? He hates England’ – he told d’Astier that ‘We must make war. We will help you,’ and invited him to a meeting of the War Cabinet in London. D’Astier was privileged enough to attend this meeting on 27 January 1944. In the teeth of objections from Lord Selborne, Minister of Economic Warfare, and Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, that the British simply did not have enough planes to drop arms to the French, and to d’Astier’s argument that ‘If air support is not stepped up rapidly, it will be too late,’ Churchill ruled that as he was supplying Tito he would now supply weapons to enable south-east France to become a second Yugoslavia.

Arms drops did increase but they did not in themselves lead to greater military success. On 14 February 1944 a first supply of fifty-four containers of weapons was parachuted onto the Glières plateau. This had a practical aim, to pin down the Germans away from the landing beaches, but also a symbolic one, as a demonstration that the French Army, humiliated in June 1940 and November 1942, was now rising from the ashes. On 6 February 1944 Maurice Schumann on the BBC ordered members of the Armée Secrète in waiting to join the maquis while at the same time workers went on strike and resisters sabotaged railways. To counter this Philippe Henriot, the new strident voice of Radio Paris, attacked ‘terrorists’ who were fomenting civil war. Vichy and German forces closed in during the night of 9/10 March. The raw recruits were soon rounded up. Jacques Beges, the réfractaire from Lyon, admitted to the police having taken part in an attack by about 150 maquisards in a hotel in Entremont, where Vichy police were holed up – an attack in which their leader Tom Morel was killed. A final Vichy-German offensive was launched on 23 March as calls went out in vain for more parachuted weapons and a bombing of German positions. On 25 March the order came to disperse. Captured maquisards, such as Pierre Pelletier from Vanves and Yves Jeudy from the Var, denied they had fired a shot, and claimed that as soon as Vichy and the Germans launched their offensive the maquis leaders disappeared. These stories were to save their own skins but the real significance of the Glières was hotly debated. Vichy propaganda mocked it as a military disaster but the BBC fought back early in April, creating a legend that 500 men had held off 12,000 Germans and had ‘brought Bir Hakeim to France’.

These events gave grist to intense debates that went on among French resisters and the Free French about the best strategy for the French to adopt. For the Free French who worked closely with the Allies, arms drops were payments on account while awaiting D-Day. Weapons were to be squirreled away until the moment came to attack the enemy rear; to move too soon was simply to invite brutal repression and reprisals. For others in the internal resistance, especially communists, such thinking was a manifestation of attentisme, of wait-and-see, which would do nothing to energise or galvanise the people of France, who had suffered occupation for nearly four years and wanted nothing more than to be up and at ’em. Their strategy was one of immediate action, on however small a scale, gearing up to what was imagined as national insurrection and guerrilla warfare after the Allied landings.

One platform for the communists to develop their strategy was the National Council of Resistance (CNR) and above all of its military committee, the COMIDAC (or COMAC as it became on 15 May 1944). The driving force on the National Council was the leader of the Front National, Pierre Villon. One resister reported back to Interior commissar Emmanuel d’Astier, that Villon’s fanaticism in the cause of popular insurrection gave him a charismatic authority. He was ‘the real mouthpiece of the Party and the communist wing of the CGT […] a proponent of direct action, he emphasised the need for national insurrection, which attracted a great many supporters and gave him a very strong position’. Against Colonel Touny of the OCM, who argued that the FFI should simply execute Allied orders, Villon had a plan of immediate action and secured a formal condemnation of attentisme by the National Council on 15 March 1944. Villon was also the driving force of COMAC, whose other permanent members were Maurice Kriegel for the Southern Zone and Jean de Vogüé for the Northern Zone. That gave a balance of two communists to one non-communist, who seemed increasingly to side with them. Lecompte-Boinet, who returned to Paris from Algiers in February 1944, was shocked to hear from General Revers, who sat on COMAC as a technical advisor without voting powers, that Jean de Vogüé, Lecompte’s former colleague in Ceux de la Résistance, ‘is finding it difficult to stand up to the communists, who are gaining the upper hand’. Villon, on the other hand, took the view that the non-communists had only themselves to blame. Revers, he said, ‘never expressed any opinion or offered any advice. More than once he simply fell asleep in his armchair.’

A second platform of the communists, which became increasingly more important, was the Paris Liberation Committee (CPL). Its OCM representative, Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux, warned that the ‘ferocious reprisals’ inflicted by the Waffen SS and Vichy’s police and Milice after risings like the Glières setback forced a reconsideration of immediate action. The communist lobby took the opposite line, demanding that guerrilla war should continue and if necessary move from the Alps to Paris. Georges Marrane for the PCF ‘demanded that the provisional government in Algiers support the maquis and réfractaires effectively so that from now on war could waged against the Hun as in Yugoslavia’. For the Front National Villon ‘intervened to underline the need to arm patriots and mobilise the masses in the Paris region’. A few weeks later André Tollet, chair of the Paris Liberation Committee and leader of the organised workers in the capital, proclaimed that ‘in the armed struggle we must rely on unionised and non-unionised workers and on réfractaires, both for immediate action and for D-Day.’

To counterbalance this communist surge in resistance organisations the provisional government in Algiers tried to reinforce the effectiveness of its own agents both military and civil. It was still trying to catch up and realise the union between internal resisters and Free French that had snapped when Jean Moulin was arrested almost a year earlier. The presence of the internal resistance was necessary to demonstrate to the Allies how much support de Gaulle had, but at the same time it was necessary to clip the wings of a national insurrection that might be exploited by the communists for their own ends.

The first piece of this jigsaw puzzle was the new delegate-general of the provisional government from March 1944. Alexandre Parodi was a key member of the Comité Général d’Études of experts who were choosing the new rulers of France. Since the arrest of Jean Moulin the provisional government had struggled to find a single, effective and dutiful delegate-general to do its work but in Parodi it had a solution. This was not a complete remedy to the situation. On 6 May 1944 Jacques Bingen, who was sent to the former Free Zone to represent Parodi, wrote a long letter in which he accused London and Algiers of not supporting delegates in the field like himself. For six months, he said, he had received no personal letter and no official or unofficial encouragement. He complained of ‘scandalous and inhuman shortcomings’ in London and Algiers and of ‘castration in the field’ that was provoking the arrest of too many agents. Without wishing to criticise Parodi he regretted the recall of Serreulles, who ‘alone knew something about something’, and warned de Gaulle about the quality of ‘establishment’ advisers with whom he was surrounding himself: ‘Beware of docile loyalists who are only ambitious, crafty devils of no value. They could easily topple him.’ Less than a week later, on 12 May, Bingen was himself arrested by the Gestapo on Clermont-Ferrand railway station and swallowed his cyanide capsule rather than talk under torture. Another key intermediary between the internal and external resistance had been lost.

A second piece of the puzzle took the form of military delegates sent to work with local and regional resistance chiefs, in order to keep them on side. When they had first arrived in September 1943 they had too little backing, too few weapons to distribute, and encountered major catastrophes. Between March and May 1944, however, nine new military delegates arrived in France. The increased tempo and volume of Allied arms drops, over which the military delegates had some control, gave them much greater authority vis-à-vis resistance chiefs in desperate need of weapons. To cap the hierarchy a national military delegate was sent in. This was Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a young Inspecteur des Finances who had been working as a mole in Vichy’s Ministry of Industrial Production and had been proposed by Jacques Bingen. Although only twenty-nine years old and a sub-lieutenant in 1940 he was given the rank of general in order to have the necessary military authority. This team was given the full support of General Koenig, the hero of Bir Hakeim, who, on 4 April 1944, was appointed delegate of the provisional government to the Supreme Allied Command in London and chief of the internal resistance forces, which in theory established a direct line of command from the Allies to the maquis.

The effectiveness of this command depended on the degree to which resistance forces on French soil were brought into some kind of unified army of the shadows. In the lead up to D-Day, the internal resistance suffered not only from a lack of weapons, training and leadership but from deep divisions that were political and generated by different views of what resistance might be. At one extreme were the communist-led Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, which had undertaken armed struggle since June 1941 and were committed to national insurrection, and yet who felt marginalised, even ostracised, by the other forces of resistance and by the Allies. At the other extreme was the Organisation de Résistance de l’Armée (ORA), which was Giraudist if not Pétainist except in its refusal to accept Germany’s violation of the armistice in November 1942. In the middle were the Mouvements Unis de la Résistance, composed of Combat, Libération and Franc-Tireur, which in February 1944 broadened out into the Mouvement de Libération Nationale (MLN) to include a wider non-communist front, including Défense de la France, which had long nurtured the idea that Pétain would turn patriotic, together with Combat’s branch in the Occupied Zone, Ceux de la Résistance.

The first task of the MLN was to bring together all the military forces under its control – the Armée Secrète, the Free Corps and the various maquis units – in something called the Liberation Free Corps (CFL). It was easier to undertake this kind of unification in theory than on the ground. Serge Ravanel was only twenty-four years old and, though a Polytechnician, had not actually fought in 1940. He was nevertheless sent by night train to Toulouse on 7 April 1944 with orders from Alfred Malleret, chief of the Liberation Free Corps’ general staff, to unify the rival resistance military units there. There was a standoff between Aubier, the Armée Secrète leader, who was not a local man, and the maquis leader, a petty Tarn nobleman called Albert Sarda de Caumont, who lacked the common touch. Neither Aubier nor Sarda commanded a majority and the MLN was powerless to decide between them. To break the deadlock, Ravanel eventually suggested himself as the provisional leader. He took the train back to Paris, fully expecting to be dressed down by Malleret. Instead, Malleret said with ‘a naughty look, “What you have done is very smart.”’ Ravanel’s provisional leadership of the CFL in Toulouse was accepted and soon became permanent.

The second stage was to bring together the Liberation Free Corps, the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans and the ORA in the French Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur or French Forces of the Interior (FFI) that were set up in February 1944 in order to complete this work of unification from extreme left to extreme right. This involved dealing with both communists and former soldiers of the Armistice Army. In the Toulouse area a Free Corps had been put together after November 1942 by a former officer in the Armistice Army, Major André Pommiès. He had not been able to assemble all former soldiers in the Armistice Army, since many preferred to join the Army of Africa, which was more conventional and less risky, or ‘wanted to ignore everything that was happening beyond the narrow horizon of family life’. By May 1944 the Free Corps nevertheless boasted about 9,000 men who were well supplied with weapons and vehicles belonging to the former Armistice Army and by parachute drops from the Allies. Pommiès stuck to what he called the ‘hard line’ of purely military activity, sabotage and harassment of the Germans, refused to have anything to do with what he called politics and rejected any orders that did not come from a hierarchical superior. He would thus take no orders from Ravanel, whom he saw as his hierarchical inferior and a political animal to boot, and was surprised to find himself criticised as a Giraudist, Vichyist, royalist or even fascist. Despite his military efficiency, Ravanel thought that Pommiès ‘never understood that because the Resistance had to fight against Vichy it had to use political arguments and get involved in politics’. Equally difficult to contact and manage were the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, with their ‘iron Bolshevik discipline’. Ravanel tried to use Jean-Pierre Vernant, who commanded the CFL in the Haute-Garonne, and was a communist but with the MLN, as a bridge to the FTP. He and Vernant were both graduates of grandes écoles and Ravanel was moving to the left politically, but was unable to persuade the FTP leader who came from a different class and culture. Ravanel reflected that the FTP leader had ‘a terrible inferiority complex’ based on a sense of being excluded by the Allies and Free French. Moreover, he said patronisingly, ‘I had an education that he lacked. He was always a prole. He was not at ease with me, he thought that he was going to get screwed over.’

What was going on in a region like Toulouse was one thing, but what really mattered was the national command of the FFI and the extent to which it shared a vision with and obeyed orders from London and Algiers. The first national commander of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, Pierre Dejussieu (‘Pontcarrel’), a professional soldier, was arrested in May 1944 and deported to Buchenwald. It would have been ideal for the provisional government if this command had been in Koenig’s gift, but in this instance the Conseil National’s military committee, COMAC, held the reins of power. It decided to appoint Alfred Malleret (‘Joinville’), a communist and head of the Liberation Free Corps general staff. This gave communists the power to appoint men they favoured to regional FFI commands. Political considerations would triumph over conventional military concerns, youth would triumph over age and communists would defeat non-communists. The FFI regional chief of the Paris region, Pierre Lefaucheux, who had come from Renault and OCM, was not to the taste of the communists. He was questioned by COMAC on 17 May for hostile comments he was alleged to have made about the Paris Liberation Committee, on which his wife struggled to defend a non-communist viewpoint. In June Lefaucheux was fortuitously arrested by the Germans, which laid the way open to his replacement by a communist, Henri Tanguy, now known as ‘Rol-Tanguy’. He would play a critical role in the liberation of Paris two months later.

As D-Day approached, the tension between two models of liberation had yet to be decided. The model favoured by the Allies and the provisional government was for the internal resistance to be entirely subordinated to the Allied landings and strategic priorities, in order to avoid the sudden release of pressure that might generate a national insurrection and possible communist seizure of power. The model favoured by the communists was that the landings must indeed provoke a national insurrection and that this must be supported by the provisional government and the Allies. It was not clear whether the plan involved a communist seizure of power but it certainly envisaged an embrace of power by the people and the sweeping away of old élites and institutions in some kind of brave new world. Which model would triumph would be shaped by the storm of forces at work in the weeks after D-Day.

1 thought on “Skyfall or Guerrilla III

  1. Pingback: Skyfall or Guerrilla III – faujibratsden

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