de Gaulle – the ‘most difficult of allies’


The leader of the Fighting French, as they were now known, had cause for shock when 700 Allied ships landed 100,000 troops in Vichy-held North Africa on 8 November 1942, in Operation Torch, without informing him in advance. Roosevelt had vetoed a suggestion from Churchill that de Gaulle should be told of the American-led operation. This was partly because the Americans thought Gaullist participation would stiffen the resistance of Vichy commanders on the spot, but the exclusion stemmed mainly from the president’s distaste for the General who flew into a rage when told by an aide. ‘I hope the Vichy folk throw them into the sea,’ he cried. ‘One does not break into France.’ Still, as over Mers-el-Kébir, he calmed down to make a BBC broadcast in which he said the Allies did not have territorial designs on North Africa and called on Vichy troops there to ally with them.

The landing provoked Hitler’s order to move the German army to move into the unoccupied zone, further reducing Vichy to puppet status. Occupation costs were raised from 300 to 500 million francs a day. Seizure of assets ranging from farm machinery to works of art increased. The Germans sent troops towards Toulon to seize the French fleet anchored there. Laval instructed the port commanders not to resist. But an order drawn up by Darlan in 1940 for the ships to be scuttled if they came under threat was implemented and the vessels were blown up.

The big unresolved political issue was Washington’s choice of a French partner in North Africa. They went for General Henri Giraud, a handsome, straight-backed 63-year-old who had escaped from captivity in a German castle by sliding down a rope strengthened with wire which his wife sent him hidden in food tins. Travelling with false papers, he went to see Pétain in Vichy where the Americans established contact with him, and then made his way to Gibraltar where he accepted the American commission. But Giraud, nicknamed King Pin by his new patrons, lacked non-military skills, was contemptuous of politics and poor at administration and organisation. Dwight Eisenhower, the US commander, said he was somebody who ‘wants to be a big shot, a bright and shining light, and the acclaimed saviour of France’ but who turned out to be ‘a terrible blow to our expectations’.

As they encountered stiff resistance from troops loyal to the Marshal, the Americans turned to the more powerful if dubious figure of Admiral Darlan, who was susceptible to their approaches after being elbowed aside by Laval and was visiting Algiers to see his son, who was gravely ill with polio. The readiness of the Allies to collaborate with such a prominent member of the Vichy hierarchy caused dismay among the Resistance. De Gaulle protested to the White House, but got no reply. The British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, was critical, but Churchill went along in the name of Allied solidarity.

Eisenhower reached an agreement with Darlan to get Vichy forces to stop fighting after suffering 3,000 dead or wounded (about the same as Allied losses). The Admiral became high commissioner of a French ‘Imperial Federation’ and resumed the repressive methods he had pursued at Vichy, harassing Free French supporters and Jews in an atmosphere which Eisenhower characterised as rife with ‘petty intrigue with little, selfish, conceited worms that call themselves men’. The State Department warned Roosevelt of a storm of protest at the installation of a ‘semi-Fascist’ government in the first major territory liberated by US forces.

This episode was brought to an abrupt end when a young French royalist, Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle, shot the Admiral in the stomach in his office – he died two hours later. The assassin was swiftly tried and shot. There was no direct link between the killing and the Fighting French, but some of the dollars taken to Algiers by an emissary of de Gaulle were found on the assassin and the General mentioned Darlan’s disappearance favourably in a conversation with Eden; he called the death an execution.

Giraud was left in charge on the French side, but he and the Americans made a hash of things. Maurice Peyrouton, a former Vichy interior minister who had signed the death sentence for de Gaulle, was put in charge of civil administration. The food situation deteriorated and bad weather bogged down the advance east along the coast. De Gaulle judged that Giraud showed ‘extreme political clumsiness’.

The Fighting French leader did not have to wait long for his chance to insert himself into North African affairs and carve out a new operational base there. In mid-January 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill met in the Anfa suburb of Casablanca in Morocco to review the progress of the war, plan the invasion of Italy and bring the two French generals together. Emboldened by further success for Leclerc’s column in Libya and the extension of his movement’s authority to the East African territory of Djibouti and the islands of Madagascar and la Réunion, de Gaulle played hard to get until Churchill threatened that, if he did not fly to Casablanca, Britain would have to ‘review’ its attitude and ‘endeavour to get on as well as we can without you’.

There was trouble from the moment the Constable arrived. When he saw that the windows of his car were covered with mud, he assumed that his hosts wanted to conceal him from the local people, not knowing that this had been done for security reasons to Roosevelt as well. The intrusive presence of armed US guards on French soil grated. At lunch with Giraud, he refused to sit at the table until French soldiers replaced the American sentries.

Such was American distrust of de Gaulle that when he had his first meeting with Roosevelt, armed secret service men were posted behind the curtains. Speaking French, the president observed that none of the various French groups could claim sole legitimacy; de Gaulle, for instance, had never been elected. To that, the General responded that Joan of Arc had drawn her legitimacy from taking action and refusing to lose hope. FDR did not improve matters by comparing France to ‘a little child unable to look out and fend for itself’. De Gaulle told an aide that he had met ‘a great statesman. I think we understood one another well.’ But Roosevelt’s son, Elliott, noted that his father thought the Frenchman determined to establish a dictatorship in France and remarked that ‘there is no man in whom I have less confidence’ – he also spread a tale that de Gaulle had compared himself to Joan of Arc, Clemenceau and other great historical figures.

The Frenchman had another stormy session with Churchill. However, the prime minister showed his admiration as the Fighting French chief walked away down the path from his villa, telling his doctor: ‘His country has given up fighting, he himself is a refugee, and if we turn him down he’s finished. But look at him! Look at him! He might be Stalin, with 200 divisions behind his words. Perhaps the last survivor of a warrior race.’

Anxious to present a façade of understanding between the two generals to the press, Roosevelt talked de Gaulle into shaking hands with Giraud for photographers on the lawn outside his villa. But, in the following months, the Constable comprehensively outwitted his rival, setting up a new headquarters in Algiers and gaining control of the French struggle against Vichy and the Germans. When he left London for North Africa in May 1943, he had a meeting with Eden – Churchill was in Washington. The foreign secretary told him in a friendly tone that he was the most difficult of allies. ‘I don’t doubt that,’ de Gaulle replied with a smile. ‘France is a great power.’

Preparing for peace

With the post-war era in view, de Gaulle set about shifting the emphasis of his movement from an anti-Vichy, anti-German operation to the nucleus of a government after liberation by creating a national committee in Algiers. This was joined by leading Fighting French figures including René Pleven, with responsibility for economic and financial matters and colonial policy, André Diethelm, Mandel’s former chief of staff, and the early Gaullist Jacques Soustelle along with Henri Frenay, Emmanuel d’Astier and Pierre Mendès France, the Popular Front deputy finance minister who had escaped from detention under Vichy. Another former minister, the Radical Socialist Henri Queuille, chaired inter-ministerial commissions, using political skills learned under the old regime to smooth over differences.

Though still keeping his distance from the General, Jean Monnet rallied, and sought to get supplies from the Americans. De Gaulle also gained the support of a prominent military man, Jean-Marie de Lattre de Tassigny, who had been jailed for his opposition to the German occupation of the Vichy zone in 1942 but escaped by using a saw smuggled into his cell to cut the window bars and scale two walls. General Koenig, the victor of the battle at Bir-Hakeim, took command of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI) while military affairs in France were delegated to 29-year-old Jacques Delmas, who subsequently added his Resistance pseudonym of Chaban to his name. De Gaulle’s family came, too, the General and his wife continually worrying about the condition of their daughter, Anne.

Giraud’s defeat was assured when his rival became the sole chairman of the national committee. ‘I let myself be beaten without a fight,’ he admitted. ‘On the political level, I was unbelievably incompetent, clumsy and weak.’ The British delegate to North Africa, Harold Macmillan, judged that ‘never in the whole history of politics has any man frittered away so large a capital in so short a time.’

A Provisional Consultative Assembly was appointed, including fifty-two representatives of the Resistance, twenty of the old parliament and twelve of the general councils of the Empire. De Gaulle reshuffled the administration to take in six representatives of non-Communist political parties, five Resistance figures plus five officials and generals, including Monnet and General Catroux. Seventeen ‘general secretaries’ were to run the administration, regional commissioners and prefects below them.

Though de Gaulle refused to let the Communists choose which posts they should hold and banned Thorez from visiting North Africa, the increasingly radical tilt of this ‘virtual republic’ was evident. The charter drawn up by its National Committee stipulated ‘the eviction from management of France’s economy of the great economic and financial feudal forces’. After the Liberation, there was to be a minimum wage, full social security, nationalisation of big companies, worker participation in management, and enhanced rights for inhabitants of colonies. De Gaulle said he looked to ‘the end of an economic regime in which the great source of riches escape from the nation, where the main production and distribution activities are beyond its control and where the management of firms excludes the participation of workers’ organisations on which, however, they depend.’

An official statement in Algiers said civil servants who followed Vichy orders were guilty of ‘punishable servility’. An example was made of a former Vichy interior minister, Pierre Pucheu, who had gone to North Africa with what he thought was a safe conduct from Giraud, intending to enlist in the forces fighting the Axis. The Communists were after him for his alleged involvement in handing over hostages, mainly from their party, to the Germans for a mass execution in 1941. After a show trial, he was shot.

Across the Mediterranean, growing expectations of an Allied victory and the unpopularity of forced labour service in Germany bolstered the Resistance. According to a British estimate, the partisans now numbered 150,000, though only 35,000 were properly armed. Partisan groups stepped up their ‘immediate action’ with increased sabotage of railway lines and strongholds in the Massif Central, Limousin, Brittany, the Lot, the Ain and Savoie.

The Gestapo caught General Delestraint – he was imprisoned in camps in Germany and executed – and then arrested Moulin who died under torture; whether he was betrayed or caught by German detective work remains a matter of controversy. The Socialist Resistance leader, Pierre Brossolette, was also detained, and died jumping from a high window of the Gestapo building in Paris. One of Moulin’s close associates, Georges Bidault, a Christian Democrat journalist, held the movement together despite these reverses.

As the Wehrmacht retreated from Italy, the Allies took Corsica and the Germans prepared for a cross-Channel landing, the struggle in the Hexagon sharpened. A Resistance leader, Philippe Viannay, published an article saying there was ‘a clear duty to kill’ all Germans, French people who helped the occupation forces, and police who were involved in the arrest of patriots. Pétain’s mind was unravelling: visiting Lyons, he asked as he walked in front of a welcoming parade, ‘Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?’ He sent an emissary to Algiers to propose a rendezvous with de Gaulle at the Arc de Triomphe to transfer his authority. He also offered to put himself in British hands. He received no response to either message.

At the end of September 1944, an anti-Laval group at Vichy unveiled a plan under which a regency council would take over if the Marshal died or stepped down. A month later, Pétain tried unsuccessfully to get rid of the Auvergnat and, as a result, was put under tighter German supervision. Joseph Darnand, head of the Milice collaborationist paramilitary, was appointed secretary-general for order. Members of the Resistance were subject to summary courts or were simply shot out of hand. Special German units carried out mass shootings of hostages. An important Alpine base on the Plateau des Glières in Savoy was assaulted by collaborationist forces and German troops and planes; 150 maquisards were killed, some after being captured and tortured.

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