French Resistance

When Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain came to power in France he immediately began negotiations with Adolf Hitler and on 22nd June signed an armistice with Germany. The terms of the agreement divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones, with a rigid demarcation line between the two. The Germans would directly control three-fifths of the country, an area that included northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining section of the country would be administered by the French government at Vichy under Petain.

Other provisions of the armistice included the surrender of all Jews living in France to the Germans. The French Army was disbanded except for a force of 100,000 men to maintain domestic order. The 1.5 million French soldiers captured by the Germans were to remain prisoners of war. The French government also agreed to stop members of its armed forces from leaving the country and instructed its citizens not to fight against the Germans. Finally, France had to pay the occupation costs of the German troops.

Some members of the French Army led by General Charles De Gaulle managed to escape to England. Soon after arriving he made a speech where he argued that "whatever happens, the flame of French Resistance must not and will not be extinguished."

At first, humiliated by Germany's easy victory, few French people sought to continue the war. There were scattered acts of sabotage but these people were unorganized and in most cases were quickly arrested by the authorities.

One of the first acts of public resistance to German occupation was a small public demonstration of secondary school students at the Arc de Triomphe on 11th November 1940, when they celebrated the Allied victory over Germany in the First World War.

A group of scientists and lawyers working in Paris led by Boris Vilde began publishing a clandestine newspaper calling on the French people to resist the German occupation. The Musée de L'Homme group was infiltrated by a supporter of the Vichy government and as a result virtually all of the men and women involved with producing the newspaper were arrested and executed. It is claimed that one member of the group, Valentin Feldman, shouted at the moment of execution: "Imbeciles, it's for you, too that I die."

In occupied France the Gestapo began hunting down members of the Communist Party and Socialist Party. Most of them went into hiding. The obvious place to go was in the forests of the unoccupied zones. Escaped soldiers from the French Army also fled to these forests. These men and women gradually formed themselves into units based on political beliefs and geographical area. Eventually these people joined together to form the Maquis. As the organization grew in strength it began to organize attacks on German forces. They also helped to get Allied airman, whose aircraft had been shot down in France, to get back to Britain.

VERY MUCH ALIVE!Philip Zec, Daily Mirror (17th July, 1941)
Philip Zec, Daily Mirror (17th July, 1941)

Radical members of the Socialist Party, including Pierre Brossolette and Daniel Mayer, formed one of the first resistance groups in France when they established the Comité d'Action Socialiste in January, 1941.

The Communist Party also became involved in the struggle against the German occupation. As they had been working in secret since 1939 they were ideally suited for clandestine activities. In its newspaper, L'Humanité, edited by Pierre Villon, the Communist Party called for a "National front for the independence of France." In May 1942, Villon established the resistance group, Front National.

Some early supporters of Henri-Philippe Petain and the Vichy government had become disillusioned and joined the resistance. Henry Frenay, who had initially worked for the Vichy administration, became active in the resistance in February 1941. He published underground newspapers such as Les Petities Ailes and Vérités, before forming Combat in November, 1941.

During this period, three important resistance leaders, Jean Moulin, Jean-Pierre Lévy and Emmanuel d'Astier, emerged in France. At first Levy and d'Astier concentrated on producing underground newspapers but eventually established the resistance groups, Francs-Tireur and Liberation-sud. However, both these groups only had a few thousand members.

In the spring of 1942, communist militants, acting independently of the leadership of the French Communist Party, organized the first Maquis units in the Limousin and the Puy-de-Dôme. Marquis groups were established in other regions of France. As the Maquis grew in strength it began to organize attacks on German forces. They also helped to get Allied airman, whose aircraft had been shot down in France, to get back to Britain.

General Charles De Gaulle was keen to unite these different resistance groups under his leadership. Jean Moulin, who had spent time in London with De Gaulle, was sent back to France and was given the task of uniting the various groups into one organization. He arranged meetings with people such as Henry Frenay (Combat), Emmanuel d'Astier (Liberation-sud), Jean-Pierre Lévy (Francs-Tireur), Pierre Villon (Front National), Daniel Mayer and Pierre Brossolette (Comité d'Action Socialiste), Charles Tillon and Pierre Fabien (Frances-Tireurs Partisans).

After much discussion Jean Moulin persuaded the eight major resistance groups to form the Conseil National de la Resistance (CNR) and the first joint meeting under Moulin's chairmanship took place in Paris on 27th May 1943.

On 7th June 1943, René Hardy, an important member of the resistance in France, was arrested and tortured by Klaus Barbie and the Gestapo. They eventually obtained enough information to arrest Jean Moulin, Pierre Brossolette and Charles Delestraint. Moulin and Brossolette both died while being tortured and Delestraint was sent to Dachau where he was killed near the end of the war.

In December, 1943, Joseph Darnard, an fanatical anti-Communist, became chief of secret police in Vichy. Called the Milice, its 35,000 members, many of them fascists, played an important role in investigating the French resistance. Like the Gestapo, the miliciens were willing to use torture to gain information.

On 15th March, 1944, the Conseil National de la Resistance published a charter that demanded a series of social and economic reforms should be implemented after the liberation of France. This included the establishment of universal suffrage and the equality of all citizens. The charter claimed that to ensure true equality it would be necessary to nationalize the large industrial and financial companies. It also called for a minimum wage, independent trade unions, comprehensive social security, worker participation in management, educational equality, and the extension of political, social and economic rights to colonial citizens.

Later that month the German Army began a campaign of repression throughout France. This included a policy of reprisals against civilians living in towns and villages close to the scene of attacks carried out by members of the French Resistance. As one official wrote on 15th April, 1944 that the authorities "wanted to strike fear into the population and change their opinion by showing them that the evils they were suffering were the direct consequence of the existence of the marquis and that they had made the mistake of tolerating them."

On 5th June, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower asked the BBC sent out coded messages to the resistance asking them to carry out acts of resistance during the D-day landings in order to help Allied forces establish a beachhead on the Normandy coast.

This included attacks on the occupied garrisons in the towns of Tulle and Gueret. In revenge for the French attack on the German garrison 120 men were hanged in Tulle on 9th June. Later that day another 67 were murdered in Argenton.

These armed resistance groups were able to slow down the attempt by the 2nd SS Panzer Division to get to the Normandy beaches. It was decided to carry out a revenge attack that would frighten the French people into submission. On 10th June a group of soldiers led by Major Otto Dickmann, entered Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in the Haute-Vienne region of France. He ordered the execution of more than 600 men, women and children before setting fire to the village.

Despite these atrocities the French Resistance continued to take up arms against the German Army. After the war General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote: "Throughout France the Resistance had been of inestimable value in the campaign. Without their great assistance the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves."

Primary Sources

(1) General Charles de Gaulle, BBC radio broadcast (18th June, 1940)

I, General de Gaulle, now in London, call on all French officers and men who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, with or without their arms; I call on all engineers and skilled workmen from the armaments factories who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, to get in touch with me. Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and shall not die.

(2) Jean Moulin, Activities, Plans and Requirements of the Groups formed in France (October, 1941)

These three movements were born spontaneously and independently of the initiative of a few French patriots who had a place in the old political groups and parties. They started to assert themselves at different dates, soon after the conclusion of the armistice, however, and as a reaction against this instrument of submission to the enemy. In the beginning, their activities consisted in spreading by underground channels and in a rather restricted sphere typewritten propaganda pamphlets on every important occasion (speech of Mr. Churchill, of President Roosevelt, speeches of General de Gaulle, outstanding military operations, etc.), or else on every occasion which called for a rebellious attitude on the part of French patriots (annexation by Hitler of Alsace and Lorraine, violation of the clauses of the Armistice, the agreements concluded at Montoire, requisitioning by the Germans, etc.).

Next, with the development of material means and the increased adherence of willing partisans, they were able to publish real roneoed papers at tolerably regular intervals. Now, for several months, each group has been publishing at a fixed date one or several printed papers in addition to pamphlets and leaflets.

(3) Combat, circular (1st December, 1941)

Now, the Country is in danger. She demands volunteers. Respond to her call. Let us organize together the Crusade of Truth against Falsehood, Good against Evil, Christianity against Paganism, or Liberty against Slavery.

(4) Albert Camus, Carnets (February, 1942)

Nothing is less excusable than war and the recourse to national hatreds. But once the war is here, it is vain and cowardly to stand aside under the pretext that one is not responsible for it. The ivory towers have fallen. Complacency is forbidden for oneself and for others.

To judge an event is impossible and immoral from the outside. It is in the midst of this absurd calamity that one retains the right to despise it.

France, beloved country, France, you bear in the conscience of all your children the tradition of respect for the human person.

(5) Archbishop of Toulouse, Jules-Gerard Saliege, published sermon (28th August 1942)

There is a Christian morality, there is a human morality which imposes duties and recognizes rights. These duties and rights are derived from the nature of men. It is in the power of no mortal to suppress them.

Christian, women, men, fathers and mothers are treated like a vile herd, members of the same family are separated from each other and shipped off to an unknown destination; it has been reserved to our times to see these sad spectacles.

Jews are men and women. Foreigners are men and women. There is a limit to what can be permitted against them; against these men, these women, against these fathers and mothers. They belong to the human race. They are our brothers like so many others.

(6) General Charles de Gaulle, letter to Jean Moulin (22nd October, 1942)

All resistance organizations of any composition or political affiliation, other than the three principal groups associated with the Coordinating Committee, must be invited to attach their members to one of these groups and to merge their action units with units of the Secret Army now being formed. It is desirable to avoid the proliferation of numerous, small organizations which could hamper one another, arouse rivalries, and create confusion.

(7) Leon Blum, letter to a friend (October, 1942)

The future government can only be built around one man, around one name, General de Gaulle. He was the first to arouse in France the will for resistance and he continues to personify this spirit. He will be therefore the indispensable man, or rather, the only possible man, at the hour when the idea of the Resistance and the fact of the liberation will form the bond between Frenchmen.

(8) General Charles de Gaulle, The Call to Honour (1955)

Jean Moulin was dropped by parachute in France during the night of January 1st. He carried credentials from me appointing him as my delegate for the non-occupied zone of Metropolitan France and instructing him to endure unity of action among the elements of the resistance there. This would mean that his authority would not, in principle, be disputed. It was therefore agreed that it was he who would be the centre of our communications in France, first with the South Zone, then, as soon as possible, with the North Zone.

(9) MUR Directing Committee, leaflet (16th April, 1943)

The courage of the communist militants in action against the enemy, the brutality of the repression of which the Communist Party is the object, finally the success - particularly in the northern zone - of the resistance organized by this Party, generally make us forget that from September, 1939 to June, 1941, the policy of the SFIC was defeatist.

We must not have such a short memory and if needs be we shall use this argument, for we ask the Communist Party to prove that its present patriotic attitude is indeed a profound transformation of its conceptions and not a momentary tactic.

(10) Report written by Jean Moulin just before his death in July, 1943.

I am now hunted at the same time by Vichy and the Gestapo who are not unaware of my identify, nor my activities. My task is becoming more and more delicate, while the difficulties increase constantly. I am determined to hold on as long as possible, but if I should disappear, I should not have had the time to familiarize my successors with the necessary information.

(11) Combat, circular (25th September, 1943)

Victory is approaching. There are still Frenchmen who have done nothing to hasten the event. Warning! There is not much more time. It is not enough to listen to the radio from London or to read Combat, one must fully involve himself. Take risks, be ready to fight. In the new France, a man will be judged by his acts. We are accepting workers of the eleventh hour. Soon it will be noon!

(12) Leaflet published by the French Resistance (5th November, 1943)

It would be singularly dangerous to have absolute confidence in foreign military chiefs of staff, in foreign political envoys, or in officers of a French army of the colonial type to institute a Republic and permit the French people to express itself. In order to succeed, the Insurrection must be a powerful popular uprising, and uprising of all French patriots against the enemy and the traitors in his service.

(13) Henry Frenay was one of those members of the resistance who was highly critical of Charles de Gaulle.

General de Gaulle decided alone, without taking the advice of any of us, without listening to our observations or criticisms, to give a single man entire responsibility for liaison with the Resistance and in fact for its direction.

(14) Major objectives of the Armée Secrete listed in order of importance (13th December 1943)

(1) Execution of traitors and agents of the Gestapo. (2) Cutting of rail lines, with the derailment of enemy trains. (3) Cutting of enemy telegraphic installations. (4) Cutting of the high tension networks in order to stop a specific factory or group of factories. (5) Industrial sabotage of priority factories.

(15) Marcel Darthout was one of the men who survived the Oradour-sur-Glane Massacre. Darthout was interviewed about his experiences in 1988.

We felt the bullets, which brought me down. Everyone was on top of me. And they were still firing. And there was shouting. And crying. I had a friend who was lying on top of me and who was moaning. And then it was over. No more shots. And they came at us, stepping on us. And with a rifle they finished us off. They finished off the buddy who was on top of me. I felt it when he died.

(16) Sarah Farmer, Martyred Village (1999)

The chest exploded, releasing clouds of suffocating smoke and blowing out some of the church windows. In the ensuing chaos, the soldiers opened the door and sprayed the group with gunfire. They piled flammable material on some of the bodies, set a bonfire with the church pews, and abandoned the building.

Only one person managed to save herself from the conflagration. Marguerite Rouffanche, a forty-seven-year-old woman, had been part of a group that pushed back into the sacristy in search of fresh air. As the church burned, she crawled behind the altar and found a stool used for lighting candles. She managed to climb up and out the window. She dropped three meters to the ground below. Looking up, Madame Rouffanche saw that she had been followed by a young woman with a baby. The young woman handed down her baby before jumping, but all three were caught in a hail of machine-gun fire. Mother and child were killed; wounded, Madame Rouffanche was able to crawl into the garden of the presbytery, where she hid among rows of peas.

(17) Ce Soir (22nd August, 1944)

For four years we have all lived in horror, we have all been used to hearing in low voices in our families, among friends, the sinister news of prisoners shot, whole buildings where inhabitants, chosen at random as hostages, have been savagely slaughtered, farms and their inhabitants burned: it was our daily news. Nonetheless, certain dreadful massacres which go beyond the Occupier's habitual savagery have sorrowfully made several French villages famous. The names of Chateaubriant, Oradour-sur-Glane, Ascq are on all lips.

(18) Jacques Delarue, Oradour (1945)

The drama of Oradour eclipsed all the other crimes of the "Das Reich" Division. The name of the martyred Limousin village became a symbol, the image of crime and of suffering, and that is understandable. But this attitude, in isolating the crime from its general context, that is to say the wave of crimes that surrounded it, the long succession of murders, assassinations, arson, and destruction, which this account has tried to reconstruct, has caused one to forget all these other crimes and made of Oradour an exceptional event, an involuntary excess due to the war, when it was only the application, more total and complete, of the daily methods of the "DAs Reich" Division.

(19) In July 1944, Roger Landis, a SOE agent, discovered that André Grandclément, the former leader of the Scientist Network, was a German spy. He was interviewed about this by Russell Miller for his book, Behind the Lines (2002)

We knew that Grandclément was a traitor - he had admitted as much to me in September the previous year when he tried to persuade me that communism was our real enemy, not Germany. I wish I had shot him then and I would have done so had there not been two women in the room at the time. He was turned by the Germans after being arrested earlier. They convinced him that France's best interests lay in siding with Germany to present a united front against communism and from that moment on he abandoned the Allied cause. We managed to capture him in July 1944 by persuading him that an aircraft was being sent to take him back to England. He really believed he would be able to talk his way out of trouble.

When I heard that he was being held by a group in Bordeaux, along with his wife and a bodyguard, I made arrangements to go straight there. We had a Citroen car, the kind the Gestapo used. We removed the permit and changed the registration number and set off for Bordeaux to the house where the group were keeping them. Some of my friends wanted to shoot the three of them at once, they had been responsible for the deaths of so many, but I insisted that we should have some semblance of a trial because I didn't want us to be accused of murdering three people out of hand

after the war ended.

I interrogated them for about six or seven hours. Grandclément admitted he had worked for the Germans, but said he had only done so to save the life of his wife, who had also been arrested earlier by the Gestapo. But he said he hadn't told them everything he knew and only gave them snippets of information, trying to put the blame on others. I didn't believe him. When we had finished the interrogation we discussed what to do with them. Everyone agreed they should be executed immediately. What could we do with them? We had no prison to keep them. Grandclément still believed they were going to be sent to London. I remember he said to me, "Can you give me your word of honour that I am going to London?" I didn't want to tell a lie, so I said "I give you my word that you are leaving this house." I told him that as the aircraft was on its way he would have to be separated from his wife and travel on different routes for their own safety.

(20) Mouvements Unis de la Résistance, circular (10th January 1944)

To terror there is no other reply than a more powerful and more implacable terror. Assassination of any French patriot which is not immediately followed by the execution of those responsible for the crime or of another of their people is a dishonor for the Resistance.

(21) Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (1948)

Throughout France the Resistance had been of inestimable value in the campaign. Without their great assistance the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves.