A Part of History That France Would Rather Keep Quiet.
A Book by Colin Smith.
From The Sunday Times
August 16, 2009
England’s Last War Against France: Fighting Vichy 1940-42 by Colin Smith
The Sunday Times review by Max Hastings
Most of the second world war’s combatant nations have published official histories — even the Germans have got around to a semi-official one, and impressively scholarly it is. France, however, never has and probably never will. Resistance or no resistance, the French story is intractably complex and inescapably ugly.
How would an official history address, for instance, the episode at Dakar, French West Africa, in July 1940, when Churchill enraged the French by insisting on the award of the DSO to Commander Bobby Bristowe, who led a volunteer naval party in a launch alongside the brand-new French battleship Richelieu, laying four depth charges below its hull? Or the heroics of Pierre Le Gloan of the French air force, an ace who shot down seven British aircraft over Syria in 1941?
Marshal Philippe Pétain established his government at Vichy in July 1940, following Hitler’s triumphant blitzkrieg and occupation of much of France. He ruled the unoccupied rump of his own country and most of France’s overseas colonies in awkward collaboration with the Nazis. Until at least the winter of 1942, Vichy forces abroad fought the allies with a vigour that caused Britain’s prime minister to remark crossly that he wished they had tried as hard against the Germans in 1940.
The French had administered Syria since 1918. In June 1941, Churchill reluctantly committed forces to occupy the country when Germans arrived there, and Vichy aircraft began escorting Luftwaffe operations that threatened British control of Iraq. The Germans seemed likely to seize the Levant with French acquiescence.
The ensuing campaign was bitterly contested. Commando Geoffrey Keyes described in his journal a landing at the Litani river mouth in Lebanon: “Ex-tremely unpleasant…snipers in wired post…Very accurate fire. Padbury, Jones, Woodnutt killed. Several 3 Troop killed and wounded. George and Eric…take most of 3 Troop over about 60 yards to right flank…Four gallant Aussies…succeed in carrying up one boat…One killed.” The commando lost 45 dead including their CO, and 75 wounded. At the end of the Syrian struggle, 5,668 French troops agreed to join de Gaulle, but 32,000 insisted upon being sent home.
There was malice, too. Even as General Henri Dentz reluctantly negotiated Syria’s surrender, he shipped 63 British prisoners to Greece, en route to German POW camps. Only draconian threats got them back. Vichy handled captured allied servicemen and civilian internees with callousness, indeed brutality. “The French were rotten,” said Ena Stoneman, a survivor from the sunken liner Laconia held in Morocco. “We ended up thinking of them as our enemies, and not the Germans. They treated us like animals most of the time.”
Australian, British and Indian soldiers died under Vichy guns in Syria, even as the allies were struggling to hold off Rommel in the desert. The novelist Roald Dahl, who flew Hurricanes in the campaign, wrote later: “I for one have never forgiven the Vichy French for the unnecessary slaughter they caused.”
Colin Smith, a veteran war correspondent, has built an impressive reputation as a military historian, chronicling the fall of Singapore, the desert campaign, the life of Orde Wingate and now France’s minor-key war with Britain — England, as the French called it, usually adding the adjective “perfidious”. It is a fascinating story, which began one morning in July 1940.
Armed Royal Navy parties boarded French warships in British harbours to demand their surrender. At Devonport, officers of the submarine Surcouf resisted, starting a gun battle in the control room during which one French and three British sailors were killed. It was a source of deep bitterness to the British, defying Hitler, that 75% of French servicemen in Britain, including most of those rescued from Dunkirk, insisted on repatriation after Pétain surrendered.
Bitterness mounted after a British ultimatum at Mers-El-Kébir, Oran’s naval base, was rejected. The Royal Navy wrecked the French fleet by bombarding the Algerian port, killing 1,300 sailors. Churchill feared this might cause the Vichy regime actively to ally itself with the Nazis, though this did not dissuade him from giving the fire order.
Vichy did not become a formal belligerent. A few remote African colonies “rallied” to General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the tiny “Free French” contingent that had opted for exile in Britain. But most French forces abroad vigorously resisted the British. Smith de-scribes bloody naval actions in which French destroyers and submarines were sunk, in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. The fighting was at its roughest in Madagascar in 1942, a campaign unknown to most students of the war, including me, and here vividly described. Even after the British established themselves ashore, with the aim of forestalling possible Japanese occupation of the French colony, its governor-general signalled to Vichy: “Our available troops are preparing to resist every enemy advance”. Each stage of the island’s defence, he said, “became a page of heroism written by ‘La France’.” It took five months to secure the island.
Even in November 1942, when it was becoming plain the allies would win the war, French troops gave an unpleasant shock to Americans landing in Algeria and Morocco, treating them as invaders rather than liberators. Vichy forces inflicted 1,500 US casualties before quitting.
Why did the French fight so vigorously against us? One answer is that many of their soldiers were mercenaries, Senegalese and suchlike, happy to shoot anybody they were paid to. French colonial troops in Italy later acquired an appalling reputation for rape and murder, albeit by then enlisted in the allied cause.
Many French professional soldiers, sailors and airmen considered it their duty to serve their country as its government demanded, and accepted the legitimacy of Vichy. Finally, a good many viscerally disliked the British, partly for fighting on in 1940, partly for sinking their fleet at Oran, and partly for traditional reasons: Crécy, Agincourt, Blenheim, Trafalgar. British troops advancing into Syria found a graffito: “Wait, dirty English bastards, until the Germans come. We run away now, and so will you soon.”
Smith describes unfamiliar battles with notable fluency and skill. The French deserve some sympathy for their behaviour, amid misery and confusion after suffering humiliation in 1940. But it is impossible to make the story seem pretty. The heroics of de Gaulle’s followers and of the maquis in occupied France could not mask the reality that a lot of Frenchmen tried hard for the other side, killing thousands of allied personnel, even if they convinced themselves that by doing so they were contributing to “la gloire de la France”.