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Charles de Gaulle and the Free French

The power of won't

Of the many great and compelling sub-plots in World War II few can match and none can surpass the struggles of Brig. Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the French Forces of the Interior resistance movement, better known as the Free French and later the Fighting French.

“Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”

 – Gen. Charles de Gaulle, June 18, 1940

Unlike the other nations occupied by Germany who had established governments-in-exile recognized by the Allies, a legitimate French government in Vichy existed and was recognized by the United States and other nations. As far as Vichy was concerned, de Gaulle was a traitor, having been court martialed and sentenced to death.

Charles de Gaulle in 1942

Charles de Gaulle shown in 1942. Library of Congress photo

De Gaulle’s journey from literally being a lone voice in the wilderness to the leader of the French Resistance movement and head of a provisional French government began the day after Marshal Philippe Pétain, the leader of the new French government, announced on June 17, 1940, that France had lost the war against Germany and would surrender.

The next day in London Charles de Gaulle, a junior brigadier general and minor official in the previous French government, stepped before a microphone in BBC Radio’s London studio. At six p.m., he began speaking. After summarizing France’s military failure, he defiantly rejected the French government’s surrender stating, “Is defeat final? No! … This war has not been decided by the Battle of France. This war is a world war.” And he called on French people everywhere to rally to him. Called the Appeal of 18 June, de Gaulle’s speech marked the start of the French Resistance movement.

“I appeared to myself alone and deprived of everything, like a man on the shore of an ocean which he pretended he could cross by swimming.”

No one was more aware of his dire situation than de Gaulle. Of that period, he later recorded in his memoirs, “I appeared to myself alone and deprived of everything, like a man on the shore of an ocean which he pretended he could cross by swimming.” And at first it appeared he would remain alone.

Relatively few French people heard the broadcast, and at first even fewer joined him – none of them important and influential military leaders or politicians. As far as most French people were concerned, their war was over, Britain’s surrender was only a matter of time, and the sooner they made their accommodation with Nazi Germany, the sooner they could get on with their lives.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle and Gen. Charles Mast salute as a band plays Marseillaise outside the summer palace of the bey of Tunis, Tunesia, ca. June 1943. Library of Congress photo

De Gaulle had other strikes against him. Other resistance movements in both occupied and unoccupied France had spontaneously formed in the wake of Marshal Pétain’s announcement. They regarded de Gaulle, living outside France and beholden to the British for support, as an illegitimate representative of the French.

But, de Gaulle’s supreme ego was up to the challenge and, one by one, he overcame every obstacle, from power struggles with the French Resistance movements, coup attempts by other French military leaders supported by American and British governments, attempts by the United States to completely ignore him, to the threat of civil war after he and his organization arrived in liberated France. In order to get his way de Gaulle adopted tactics of intransigence, stubbornness, and relentless independence that forced Allies and recalcitrant French to deal with him.

De Gaulle’s attitude also prompted Churchill to remark that, in reference to de Gaulle during the war, “The heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.” The Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of French patriot Joan of Arc, was adopted as the symbol of the Free French.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ruefully note that “[De Gaulle] had to be rude to the British to prove to French eyes that he was not a British puppet.” De Gaulle’s attitude also prompted Churchill to remark that, in reference to de Gaulle during the war, “The heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.” The Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of French patriot Joan of Arc, was adopted as the symbol of the Free French.

On Sept. 24, 1941, Free France formally created the French National Committee, an organization that became the basis of de Gaulle’s provisional government when the Allies returned to France in 1944. Once de Gaulle became the provisional president, his relationship with the British and Americans actually worsened. On at least two occasions Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, commander of all Allied forces in northern Europe, had to beat down what amounted to a de Gaulle-ordered rebellion by the French First Army. Only by the narrowest of margins was a shooting exchange between American and French troops avoided.

Charles de Gaulle

Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the commander of the Free French, seated at his in London during World War II. De Gaulle struggled to fight the perception that he wasn’t a British puppet. Imperial War Museum photo

In 1942, in a private conversation with Churchill, parliamentary secretary Harold Nicolson observed that de Gaulle was a great man. This caused Churchill to explode, saying, “Great man? Why, he’s selfish, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s the center of the universe. . . .” Then Churchill paused and nodded. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “He’s a great man.”

Great man? Why, he’s selfish, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s the center of the universe. . . .” Then Churchill paused and nodded. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “He’s a great man.”

Journalist Don Cook, who as a post-war foreign correspondent for the Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times came to know de Gaulle and witness first-hand his actions, went further, writing, “[De Gaulle] was not merely a great Frenchman – he was an era of French history.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-14056">

    Have you ever noticed how many national heroes are SOBs? Apparently egotism is a job requirement, because anyone with less gall would slink home with his tail between his legs.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-14471">

    I definitely think there’s something to that. You see the same thing across the board, though, in athletics, art, science, everywhere. On the other hand, there are some notable examples of “nice guys” finishing first, too.