General Charles de Gaulle
London Portrait Magazine 06-1984
This month sees Londoners pay tribute to General de Gaulle and the Free French Movement with the unveiling of a blue plaque on their wartime headquarters in Carlton Gardens. CHRISTOPHER LONG appraises the achievements of the Man and his Movement.
By Christopher Long
xactly 44 years ago in June 1940 the tall and solitary figure of General Charles de Gaulle stepped down from a small plane at London's Heston aerodrome.
Behind him was a devastated and humiliated France whose Vichy government had capitulated almost without a fight, only hours before, to German forces occupying Paris.
Right: The original article by Christopher Long, published in London Portrait Magazine.
Ahead of him was a clearly defined mission to restore honour and glory to France and her empire. He was, he believed, a man of destiny who along with whatever followers he could muster, was all that stood between France and oblivion.
The only assets he had were barely one hundred pounds in French francs (thrust into his hand by a colleague just before his plane whisked him away from almost certain death in France) and the knowledge that Churchill would probably give him an audience at least. Apart from those was his greatest asset of all a cold, ruthless and single-minded determination which ruled his long and lonely life.
As he stood on the runway at Heston aerodrome, de Gaulle was quite aware of the drama of the moment that he alone represented the destiny of France. If there was a tinge of romance in this situation it was certainly not in his character to recognise it. The pursuit of power and his joint destiny with a glorious France were the only matters which appear to have raised any semblance of emotion or passion in his entire life.
Four years after this inauspicious beginning, the once obscure army officer and junior cabinet minister again set foot on French soil. Following in the wake of the massive allied D-Day invasion forces, he landed on the coast of Normandy in June 1944 as the only credible leader France had and almost the only French statesman unsullied by compromise or collaboration. He was already a towering figure in the eyes of France and, with considerable reservations, in the eyes of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.
Between his arrival at Heston on 17 June 1940 and that historic return to France on 14 June 1944, de Gaulle spent four of the most important and most frustrating years of his life entirely based in London at 3/4 Carlton Gardens, overlooking St James's Park.
Right: Charles de Gaulle in his office at the Free French Headquarters in Carlton Gardens, London. The building today carries commemorative plaques, one in memory of his famous 1940 BBC radio 'appeal' to the French, another recording the FFL's presence there.
He certainly wasted no time in getting things organised when he arrived in London. De Gaulle already knew Churchill slightly from meeting him during a hectic round of talks in Britain and France while the French dithered over whether to capitulate to Germany following the British retreat from Dunkirk a few weeks before. Thus he was able to call on Churchill the night he arrived and to explain his plan to carry on resistance from London. Churchill was immediately receptive to the idea and was undoubtedly impressed that during Britain's 'darkest hour' he had found another ally with the indomitable spirit to fight on regardless.
Accordingly, de Gaulle was offered an opportunity to broadcast to France the next day, 18 June 1940, a broadcast that made history over the airwaves of the BBC. How effective this broadcast was in real terms is hard to judge, but certainly de Gaulle was an orator in the same mould as Churchill and his subsequent broadcasts may have done as much as anything else to win him the reputation he so astutely used after the war was over.
Left: General Charles de Gaulle inspecting members of the 'Corps Feminin' of the Forces Françaises Libres, London c. 1942 Courtesy of the Institut Charles de Gaulle
In the meantime, however, temporary offices were arranged for the Free French near Westminster Bridge where de Gaulle found a pathetic handful of volunteer helpers with about 14 shillings in the kitty and no organisation to speak of at all.
Within days he had begun to mobilise his Free French supporters and, despite the fact that he had no official authority whatever, was able to command immediate power and authority as the sole leader and representative of the Free French abroad. This authority was enhanced when he was then given the Carlton Gardens headquarters and demanded money, uniforms, equipment and facilities from Britain, just as if he were the leader of a major allied power!
In fact his support was at that stage minimal. The response to his first 'Call to Honour' speech inviting Frenchmen everywhere 'to get in touch' with him was not spectacular. Only one in six of the 30,000 French civilians in Britain mostly in London chose to follow de Gaulle. The rest probably felt sympathy for the Vichy government or could not see themselves following an obscure political refugee who had by now been condemned to death in his absence by his own countrymen. The French embassy was full of Vichy supporters.
In addition to the civilians there were 20,000 Frenchmen in uniform in Britain. Of these 2,000 were wounded soldiers evacuated with the British from Dunkirk. Only 200 volunteered to join the Free French. Most of the rest went back to sit it out in France.
The nucleus of the Free French came from a unit of Alpine Chasseurs which had been evacuated from Narvik and had been kicking its heels in the north of England for several months. Two battalions, a tank company, some gunners, engineers and some headquarters staff joined de Gaulle and took up residence at the Olympia exhibition centre in west London which had been set aside for the Free French.
Despite the fact that Britain was facing the lowest point of the war, quite alone and in great fear of a German invasion from across the channel Churchill devoted a lot of time, resources and emergency finance to help de Gaulle's movement. Nevertheless, as London was reeling from one heavy bombing blitz to another during the late summer of 1940, de Gaulle was already bitter and resentful that Britain wasn't helping him enough.
In addition, recruitment to the Free French wasn't made easier by the activities of the Royal Navy. In July 1940, more than 200 French naval ships were lying in Portsmouth and Plymouth harbours. They had refused to capitulate to Germany and had escaped to England. However, they equally refused to serve the Royal Navy or hand over their ships to British crews. They included two battleships, four cruisers, several submarines and eight destroyers: a considerable force.
In the end, Royal Marines were ordered to board them by force and the French crews resisted with violence. They were interned and later repatriated to France. Only 50 officers and 200 men, out of a total of 18,000 sailors, stayed in England to serve the Free French. On the same day, 3 July 1940, Admiral Sir James Somerville was given the appalling task of sinking French ships in Mers el-Kebir harbour, Algeria, to prevent them falling into German hands. The French officers had refused to capitulate to Germany and equally refused to serve the Royal Navy, or to scuttle them themselves. Somerville opened fire, much against all his instincts, and 1,200 sailors died because they wouldn't serve Germany or their collaborating Vichy government, or the British a tragedy resulting from insane nationalistic chauvinism.
Right: Article by Christopher Long for the Evening Standard Diary on the Blue Plaque accorded to de Gaulle's war time headquarters at Carlton Gardens, London.
Worse still was to happen at the French naval port of Toulon when the French fleet scuppered itself. De Gaulle reluctantly admitted in his broadcasts to France that Britain's actions were inevitable, but none of this did anything to boost naval recruitment to the Free French. As a result the Free French navy under Vice Admiral Muselier never amounted to anything like the considerable force it might have been if all those hundreds of ships had served Britain and her Allies.
More successful was the recruitment of 300 French pilots stranded in Britain who were assembled by de Gaulle at RAF Odiham in July 1940. It was while inspecting them and their two Dewoitine fighters, a twin-engined Potez and one Caudron Simouns that de Gaulle first saw the Cross of Lorraine emblazoned on the French Tricoleur. Although angered by it at first, he soon saw its value as a symbol of resistance owing to its association with Joan of Ark. The Cross then became the official trade-mark of the Free French. Later the pilots were trained to fly British fighters and bombers in Squadrons attached to the RAF.
Nevertheless, while de Gaulle rallied his forces and railed against all those whom he believed were not doing enough to help him, the Free French movement gained momentum just as surely as Vichy France turned itself into a Fascist state under the direction of Pierre Laval. This, to de Gaulle, was mortifying. Nothing mattered to him more than his vision of France as a great and glorious nation whose empire, power and prestige would make her a jewel among the world powers.
Right: The original article by Christopher Long, published in London Portrait Magazine.
His love-hate relationship with Churchill, his antagonism to Britain to his dying day, and his hatred of Roosevelt and American domination, all date from those hectic days of June, July and August 1940 when the Free French was born gloriously out of what he regarded as the ignominious rape and prostitution of France.
He and Churchill were of the same mould, though very different in character. Churchill was facing great odds in his 'darkest hour' with stubborn fortitude, armed with natural leadership, great oratory, nationalistic pride and with the whole-hearted support of a united population and with a few airmen to fight 'The Battle of Britain'.
For de Gaulle, the 'Battle of France' had fizzled out in 1940 and his own stubborn fortitude, natural leadership, great oratory and nationalistic pride meant nothing without the 'magnanimity' of Britain and later the United States.
Furthermore, the liberation of France was now merely an incidental though necessary, stage in a world-wide war a small element in a large strategy that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin would sort out to suit themselves. De Gaulle saw himself being relegated to the rôle of a minor 'resistance leader' while the great powers decided the fate of France over his head. Little wonder, therefore, that he spent so much of the years until 1945 needling, irritating and fighting every inch of the way to establish his credentials and the right to determine France's future himself.
By this stage Madame de Gaulle and her three children had managed to get out of France with hastily arranged passports aboard the last ferry out of Brest. The previous ferry, which she had aimed for, was sunk on its way to England. The family eventually settled in Hampstead, north London.
De Gaulle's days were largely spent at the Carlton Gardens headquarters organising Free French training and operations. He was also busy with his own intelligence officers, extracting as much information as he could about the activities of Britain's [secret intelligence-gathering organisations] MI5, MI6 and MI9 while trading information with them on his own account.
Irritatingly he found that most secret operations in France and behind German lines were jealously handled by such organisations as SOE (Special Operations Executive) or under the control of MI9 and this only fuelled his suspicions of the War Cabinet's intentions for France. Nevertheless, the Free French were clearly a useful source of vital information about day-to-day conditions across the Channel.
Although there is much evidence that the British had their doubts about Free French security (were there as many Vichy agents within the organisation as some believed?) there was a continual trickle of ex-patriot French escaping from France in fishing boats or courtesy of the Royal Marines activities in Brittany and Normandy (forerunner of Britain's Special Boat Service).
They could give up-to-the-minute accounts, with good local knowledge, to assist espionage, counter-espionage, sabotage and pro-Resistance operations. Even so, it must be some measure of the British attitude to the Free French network that so many of Britain's agents were British and not French despite the fact that they didn't necessarily speak perfect French or have the natural 'cover' that a Free French national might have had.
The distinguished French ambassador François Charles-Roux has clear memories of his time at Carlton Gardens as aide-de-camp to de Gaulle. Speaking in Paris recently  he described life in the stucco-fronted former home of Lord Palmerston as highly organised and with spartan simplicity that had 'great allure':
"I remember accompanying him to a ceremony at the Albert Hall. I saw people running to greet Winston Churchill who was in the car in front of us. Churchill received a small ovation when he got out, but it was clearly not as loud and not as warm as that which greeted the appearance of de Gaulle."
He had other occasions to spot this popularity with the British:
"When it struck me most was on a visit to Barrow-in-Furness in December 1942 when de Gaulle went there to commission a submarine built for the Free French by Vickers Armstrong. It poured with rain and we were very late but despite that the whole population lined the streets for hours to greet de Gaulle. This was one of the most socialist towns in England but the workers kept coming up to me in my uniform to shake my hand saying Vive de Gaulle and Vive la France."
This apparent popularity with the British by 1942 certainly took a long time to be shared by the French in Britain.
In July 1940 only about 7,000 rallied to de Gaulle. These loyalists might have represented a threat [to Allied interests] if the British had equipped them only to see them go off and fight their own war and ruin allied objectives. In fact this didn't occur because de Gaulle was shrewd enough to get agreement that the Free French were wholly answerable to him alone but that he was placing them at the disposal of the Allies!
Forty years on from D-Day, what makes de Gaulle and the Free French so remarkable is not what they achieved but that they were able to achieve anything at all. Military expeditions such as the disastrous Dakar 'invasion' were off-set by some brilliant coups in winning the French colonies from German/Vichy control and in support of the Free French [see the Darlan episode]. Excellent work in North Africa helped pave the way for Allied success following Alamein. Most importantly of all, morale and resolve among the small and isolated resistance groups operating in France were kept high by the mere voice and 'presence' of de Gaulle, quite apart from the material aid they received [from Britain].
What is conveniently forgotten now is that de Gaulle had such little support himself.
One of the most remarkable propaganda campaigns this century was achieved by de Gaulle after the war. He had to unite France in order to secure his own position of power, and he did so by papering over the ugly cracks of wartime collaboration.
The world and France itself were allowed to 'forget' that the strongest army in Europe had capitulated almost without a fight in 1940.
They 'forgot' that the Vichy government and almost the entire French nation co-operated with German forces in the Occupied Zone even to the extent of paying 400,000,000 francs a day towards the cost of the occupying German troops. Forgotten too was the widespread anti-British feeling throughout France until the tide of the war changed and the French could see which side their bread was likely to be buttered on.
And it was forgotten that Pétain himself attracted adulation amounting almost to religious hysteria. The number of real resistants was almost certainly tiny though millions have climbed on the bandwagon in hindsight.
The irony is that the man who pretended to wave goodbye to a small British plane in 1940 and scrambled aboard at the last second to carry on the valiant fight from Carlton Gardens was all too aware of the fact that the real enemy of the Free French was France itself.
That being the case, it is no wonder that de Gaulle spent the post-war years in an apparently obsessive campaign of snubbing and slighting his old friends, Britain and the United States. It is, perhaps, easier to understand when we consider that he had to preside over a country that had effectively been his enemy. His appalling ingratitude to Britain and the United States is only a measure of the deep distress he felt during the war years as France publicly tore herself apart in a catastrophic civil war under occupation.
About 39,000 prison sentences were meted out to the worst collaborators after the war. Perhaps another 39,000 were cold-bloodedly butchered in an orgy of private vendettas and reprisals all over France between 1945 and 1949. From then on, de Gaulle's post-war mission was to forgive and forget (not one of his most renowned qualities) and to inspire national unity and prosperity for born-again France under the Fifth Republic.
All of which makes this month's unveiling of a commemorative Blue Plaque at 3/4 Carlton Gardens a good reminder that France owes the Free French a far greater debt of gratitude than many care to remember. It will also be a salutary reminder that majority 'popular' opinion is not always proved right: that Britain ignored Churchill's pre-war 'voice in the wilderness' until it was almost too late. And that if a few Free French had not backed the austere figure of de Gaulle in his 'wilderness' there would probably be no France, free or otherwise, to commemorate D-Day and the Normandy invasions today.
Captions to the illustrations in the original version of this article published in London Portrait Magazine in June 1984:
"This young French girl, greeting British troops at Tinchebray soon after the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944, has an air of stoic pride that would have appealed to de Gaulle's Free French troops who were among the first to set foot on French soil during the liberation of France."
The Free French 'Call to Honour' recruitment poster says more about de Gaulle than it does about the realities of his 'Fighting French' resources.
Churchill inspects Free French sailors in Portsmouth dockyard. In 1940, out of 18,000 French sailors on British soil, only 250 stayed here to join the Free French.
De Gaulle meets senior French cavalry officers in June 1944 during the hectic three weeks spent rallying the first 7,000 uniformed and civilian Free French supporters. The response was, however, pathetically small.
3/4 Carlton Gardens, SW1, former London home of the Free French.
Immediately after publication of the above article, François Charles-Roux [aide-de-camp to de Gaulle from 1941] wrote to the author with his reactions. The appearance of the article also happily prompted Charles-Roux to record his memories of life in London with the Free French and de Gaulle in the early 1940s.
4 rue de Noisiel
Tél: 704 57 38
June 8th 84
As soon as we were back in Paris I read with the greatest interest your article on General de Gaulle and agree entirely with its contents. It is true that de Gaulle led his battle with very few followers. He used to say it himself: "Quand on saura avec quels morceaux d'allumettes j'ai fait la France dèlie!"
Most people with influence in France did not follow him. If I joined him only in 1941 it is because one of the most brilliant French diplomats that I saw in the States in June '40 told me: "Don't make the mistake of joining de Gaulle. He will never succeed in garnering anybody behind him, and the British don't really trust him." It took the Montaire pact between Pétain and Hitler in December '40 to make me resign and join de Gaulle in spite of the warnings that had been given to me. And even then my mother, my uncle (I had lost my father in the 1st World War) telegraphed me in the most pressing way to go back on my resignation. There is one point I would like to stress. There was no feeling against the Americans in de Gaulle. But the hostility of Roosevelt towards him was such, and lasted so long, that it could not help bringing a reaction from the General.
The main source of disagreement between Churchill and him was that Churchill for evident reasons had to put up with Roosevelt policies in many circumstances. And it is very unfortunate that Roosevelt had the last word, especially at Yalta.
Dear Christopher, it was lovely to see you, not as much as I would have liked, our Ambassador having insisted to such a point that I had to give way.
I hope we will see you soon and thank you a thousand times for your kindness.
Fanny joins me to send you our warmest regards.
An excellent recent study [in 1984] of France's greatest statesman, Charles de Gaulle - A Biography by Don Cook (Secker & Warburg £15) gives a definitive and lively account of his life and political career. For a fascinating comparison see also Piers Brendon's Winston Churchill - A Brief Life (Secker & Warburg £9.95).
© (1984) Christopher A. Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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