One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter…The French Resistance during the Second World War

Members of the maquis
Members of the maquis

How would you feel if your country was invaded, your homeland occupied and your government capitulated? Would you give in or would you fight to free your country? Citizens of France, like people in many other countries, had to face this dilema during the Second World War. For many people the thought of living under German rule was intolerable and so they chose to fight.

There was not just one resistance movement in France, different groups of like-minded people – from communists to Catholics, anarchists to aristocrats – came together to do what they could to oppose the Nazis. The German Blitzkrieg had overwhelmed France in 1940 and left a country divided with the north occupied by the Germans and the south run by the puppet Vichy government. Desperately unhappy and determined to drive out the conquerors many French joined the resistance; their initial aim was to attack the Germans wherever possible but over time they also developed intelligence networks which gathered information for the Allies, and also helped downed airman to escape. At first these resistance fighters worked in individual groups and had no contact with like-minded people but, over time, networks were set up which enabled better co-ordination and greater success. Soon postal workers were intercepting messages and telephone workers destroying lines, the railway workers blew up bridges and rails as well as diverting and derailing trains. There were other groups (notably the PAT line and Comet line) which helped downed American and British airmen get back to England, travelling through France and over the Pyrenees to neutral Spain before being sent back to England.

Escaping over the Pyrenees
Escaping over the Pyrenees

A tank corps officer who had escaped from France just before the surrender set up an official resistance in England with the help of the British Government. His name was Charles de Gaulle. On 18th June 1940 the BBC broadcast his call to the French people to start a resistance movement. His words were a call to arms: ‘Is the last word said? Has all hope gone? Is the defeat definitive? No. Believe me, I tell you that nothing is lost for France. This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is a world war. I invite all French officers and soldiers who are in Britain or who may find themselves there, with their arms or without, to get in touch with me. Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not die and will not die.’ Churchill publicly recognised de Gaulle as the leader of the ‘Free French’ and denounced the Vichy government which held a court-martial and sentenced de Gaulle to death in his absence.

Charles de Gaulle calls the French to arms via the BBC
Charles de Gaulle calls the French to arms via the BBC

To make the resistance more effective Jean Moulin convinced de Gaulle to unite all of the disparate resistance groups into one great army of resistance to give the Allies a better chance of defeating Nazi Germany. de Gaulle asked Moulin to set up a National Resistance Council which promised resistance fighters that they would get arms and money from the British if they agreed to fight together, which they eventually did in early 1943. Moulin was later betrayed and arrested.

Jean Moulin
Jean Moulin

Many people think that de Gaulle and the Free French were the only resistance in France, but that is incorrect. Some resistance movements took their orders directly from de Gaulle, others from the SOE (Special Operations Executive set up by the British to train and operate agents in occupied countries), there were regional groups, and groups which consisted of specific racial or political members such as communists or Jews. Over time people began to realise that this disorganised resistance was not as effective as it could be and, in June 1941, all communist groups joined together to improve their ability to fight the enemy. The Communist resistance fighters were not fighting for France to return to the way it had been before the war, their loyalty lay with international Communism and to Russia which was fighting with the British against Germany, their objective – to set up a communist government in France which would owe allegiance to the Soviet Union. These communist resistance fighters were renowned for capturing and killing German army officers; not unexpectedly this led to swift and brutal reprisals, sometimes as many as 50 hostages were shot in retaliation for the death of one German officer.

The SOE in France
The SOE in France

One of the best know resistance groups is the Maquis which was a group of guerrilla fighters who operated independently and fought in the rural areas of France, especially the high mountain regions. These ruthless fighters were experts at hiding out in the bushes which lined the roads then ambushing Germans, so they took their name from the maquis bushes that grow alongside country roads. In preparation for D Day the British dropped arms and money to the Maquis who were able to use the resources to prevent German reinforcements reaching the beaches of Normandy. German reprisals became evermore extreme, including the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane in June 1944.

Oradour-sur-Glane
Oradour-sur-Glane

Jewish resistance fighters often felt that they had more reason than anyone to fight the Germans. One example was Andre Scheinmann who was a German Jew who fled to France with his parents after the infamous Kristallnacht. Andre joined the French army at the outbreak of war, was captured and then escaped before pretending to be a collaborator and getting the job of running the railways in Brittany. In reality Andre was a member of the French resistance and was second in command of a complex network of almost 300 spies which reported German troop movements to the British. With this excellent information the British were able to bomb troop transports from the air whilst the group also blew up trains on the ground. Andre Scheinmann’s luck eventually ran out. Captured by the Gestapo he spent almost a year in a French prison before being sent to a concentration camp, finally ending up in Dachau where he survived to be released by the Americans. Andre was one of the lucky ones, it is estimated that there around 56,000 French resistance fighters were captured by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps during the occupation, half of them paid the ultimate price and never returned to their homes.

Jewish resistance
Jewish resistance

The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by the Germans and so de Gaulle chose the Cross of Lorraine as the symbol for the Free French and encouraged people to fight under this banner, particularly after D Day when the Allies asked that all resistance fighters wore armbands showing the cross to make them easily identifiable. These brave French fighters played a vital role in the early days of the invasion.

Cross of Lorraine
Cross of Lorraine

Of course, there were more ways to resist the Germans than by sabotage or guerrilla warfare. The coal miners of France bravely went on strike and so slowed the delivery of coal which was much needed for the war effort in Germany. Some groups produced clandestine newspapers which encouraged all kinds of resistance, from asking doctors to only approve known collaborators as fit to be sent to Germany on forced labour to letting farmers know how they could get food to resistance fighters. By far the greatest contribution, however, came from those who worked to gather intelligence for the Allies which was vital in the planning stages for the invasion of Europe. By early 1944, sixty intelligence cells were working flat out, in the month of May alone they sent almost four thousand reports to the Allies.

It was not only men who played their part. During the early years of resistance, when supplies were limited, many laboratories were set up to make explosives. France Bloch-Serazin was a scientist who made explosives in her apartment for the communist resistance; she also made cyanide capsules for the fighters so that they could avoid torture if they were ever captured. Bloch-Serazin was arrested and tortured in February 1942 before being sent to Hamburg where she was eventually executed by guillotine a year later. Then there was Madame Lauro who destroyed food supplies intended for the Germans by pouring nitric acid and hydrochloric acid onto the food in freight trains. The most famous resistance network, the Alliance Réseau, was led by another woman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. The Alliance worked with the SOE gathering information on German plans and military strength. Madame Fourcade gave animal code names to her network (she herself was called Hedgehog) and so the Alliance became known as Noah’s Ark. Madame Fourcade was captured but escaped and joined the Maquis; she fought with them until the end of the war when she was able to return home.

Marie-Madeleine Foucarde
Marie-Madeleine Foucarde

It is difficult to estimate the value of the work carried out by the resistance in France, but Eisenhower said that the resistance had made a contribution equal to ten to fifteen divisions (one division would have around ten thousand soldiers). It is also hard to gauge how effective these resistance fighters were, but it is known that 10,000 German troops were held back to deal with the Maquis du Vercors and so could not be moved to the front line immediately after D Day. It is impossible to say how many were involved in the resistance although the post-war government put the figure at around 220,000 men and women. And the casualties amongst the resistance? No-one really knows although estimates have been put at 8,000 killed in action, 25,000 wounded and around 56,000 sent to concentration camps, 27,000 are believed to have died there. As many as 5,000 aircraft men and possibly 1,500 POW’s escaped via the ‘lines’ thanks to the resistance; casualties amongst the French were high with possibly as many as one death for each escapee who reached safety.

Georges Blind smiles as he faces a German firing squad
Georges Blind smiles as he faces a German firing squad

It took a special kind of bravery to live in occupied territory for years, hiding your true feelings, acting in the dark to fight the oppressor, living in fear for yourself and your families. My novel, Heronfield, pays tribute to the French men and women who fought so hard for their freedom during those dark days of the Second World War.

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