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A time for battles: fighting on all fronts

This is the second episode in our "Esprit 44" series in partnership with the Charles-de-Gaulle Foundation. This time we explore the involvement of Free French troops in various theatres of operation. This was a crucial stage in the legitimisation of Free France in the eyes of the French and the Allies.


If we look at the long campaigns conducted on several fronts from the spring of 1944, we can understand how the leader of Free France, Charles de Gaulle, and the men and women who followed him, were able to restore the country. Internally, on the one hand, by liberating towns and villages by forced march. But also externally, by showing the Allied nations that the French Committee for National Liberation (CFLN) was solid and credible.

It became the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) on 3 June 1944, leading France to victory and enabling it to regain its place on the world stage. Eight decades later, these battles fought on all fronts are part of the defence culture that the IHEDN aims to promote.


Even before the spring of 1944, with the liberation of mainland France on the horizon, Charles de Gaulle had a plan: to commit his troops, albeit limited in number and dependent in terms of capabilities, to all the theatres of the Second World War. He felt this was essential to ensure that Free France was on the winning side, and also to strengthen the CFLN's legitimacy in the eyes of the Allies.

The Liberation of mainland France was, of course, the central objective, since it involved re-establishing the State and republican legality, by creating a link between Free France and the Resistance. But the diversification of engagements (Normandy, Provence, the Eastern Front, Indochina) had a strategic leverage effect: through their commitments and their decisive advances, including in distant theatres, the French troops gave weight to the General's words and legitimised the installation of the GPRF.

bataille de Monte Cassino, mai 1944
Battle of Monte Cassino, May 1944

"As De Gaulle lamented, "As the battle begins, how short is the sword of France! However, the spring of 1944 saw a military renaissance for the French armies. Equipped and organised by the Americans, and fed by a massive influx of troops from the Empire (particularly North Africa), the French troops, between the campaigns of Juin in Italy, Monsabert and Larminat in Marseille and Toulon, and the 2e Leclerc's Armoured Division (DB) from Alençon to Strasbourg, earned the respect of the Allies by playing an often decisive spearhead role.

The failure of the defensive strategy of 1940 was thus met by a renewed offensive impetus, a form of furia francese whose contribution to the final victory against Nazism should not be overlooked. The breakthrough by the Moroccan goumiers and spahis at Monte Cassino (May 1944), which broke the Gustav Line and opened the road to Rome, was a military exploit that was hailed by the German Marshal Kesselring, and facilitated the landing of German troops.   


Landing in Provence, August 1944

The amphibious operation is undoubtedly one of the most complex operations in military history. It requires sophisticated technical and logistical coordination, mastery of the sea and air, and the ability to quickly gain a foothold in the territory.

The two operations carried out in Normandy on 6 June and in Provence on 15 August are not always considered to be of equal importance, as if at Omaha Beach an inevitable liberation had been initiated, and that in Provence an already weakened enemy had quickly given up. Yet military progress was slow, and the two operations proved complementary.

The Normandy landings were a complex operation, and De Gaulle was kept out of it for a long time. The involvement of French forces remained limited: the Kieffer commando (177 men) landed near Ouistreham, while the Free French Naval Forces (FNFL) and around a hundred airmen from the French Air Force (FAFL) helped to secure the theatre. The 2nde DB under General Leclerc, chosen at the end of 1943 to take part in the operation, was still stationed in Yorkshire (England), in the preparation and training phase: it would not land in Normandy until the August 1944.

But by then, the Allied advance was still slow: Caen had been liberated on 20 July, and the breakthrough did not come until Avranches (Manche) at the end of July. Leclerc had the opportunity to distinguish himself at the head of his troops in the fighting at Alençon and then around Argentan (two towns in the Orne department), by practising an all-out offensive, well ahead of American General Patton's Third Army. At De Gaulle's insistence, this daring tactic was rewarded with the launch of the Guillebon detachment towards Versailles and the liberation of Paris. American General Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces, was pursuing German troops but did not consider the capital to be a priority strategic objective (he feared violent and deadly fighting in an urban environment).


The breakthrough towards Paris accelerated decisively after 15 and 16 August, the date of Operation Anvil, the Provence landings. It involved 350,000 men, including around 230,000 French soldiers, mostly from the B army (the future First French Army), under the orders of General de Lattre de Tassigny and the FNFL, who controlled the theatre.

While the operational command was American (General Patch), French troops were used as spearheads, and sent to attack Toulon (General de Larminat) and Marseilles (General de Monsabert, at the head of the 3e Algerian Infantry Division). In both cases, the urban fighting was fierce, with Toulon in particular being fiercely defended by German troops. The rapid capture of these two towns (between one and two weeks ahead of schedule), concomitant with the liberation of Paris, opened the way for a major breakthrough in the Rhone valley.

The ascent of the Rhône and then the Saône was rapid, guided by the insurrections of the maquis: from 12 September, the armies of Provence and the 2e DB met up at Montbard (Côte-d'Or). On 23 September, the Forces françaises de l'Intérieur were attached to the 1st Army, partly replacing the African troops. The link-up proved tricky, with De Lattre having difficulty accepting the operational freedom that Leclerc was demanding.

Thereafter, after a period of shared fighting, tasks were divided between Leclerc and the 2e DB the liberation of Metz and Strasbourg (where the General honoured his Koufra oath) and the breakthrough towards Adolf Hitler's eagle's nest at Berchtesgaden (Bavaria); De Lattre and the 1st Army were given the task of rapidly crossing the Rhine and rapidly ensuring a French presence in the German theatre, marked in particular by the capture of Karlsruhe at the beginning of April 1945.


The convergence that enabled General de Lattre de Tassigny to be one of those who received the German surrender on 8 May 1945, and Leclerc to receive that of Japan on 2 September 1945, would not be complete if we forgot the commitment of French troops in Asia and on the Eastern Front.

Of course, this commitment was much more modest in numerical terms. At the end of 1942, a squadron of around sixty French fighters, christened "Normandie", headed for the Russian front. Based near Moscow, it entered combat at the end of March 1943, in the wake of the German failure at Stalingrad. From reconnaissance missions to bombing protection, the summer of 1943 was full of victories, but also losses: the emblematic leader, Major Jean Tulasne, was shot down on 17 July 1943, during the battle of Kursk.

Battle of Monte Cassino, May 1944

In preparation for the massive Red Army effort in Belarus and Lithuania, known as "Operation Bagration", launched at the end of June 1944, the reorganised and regenerated squadron, flying Yak 3s, played a protective role during the crossing of the River Niemen, which gave it its definitive name: in November, the airmen were the first French soldiers to penetrate German territory, playing a spearhead role in the campaign. The entire squadron was present in Moscow on 6 December 1944: during his visit, General de Gaulle decorated its pennant with the Liberation Cross.

All in all, these battles, which involved all of France's capabilities (the role of the FNFL in securing the landing theatres and then in controlling the Mediterranean cannot be underestimated), validated Gaull's strategy. They also made a decisive contribution to the recognition of the GPRF by the Allies, and to France's place at the table of the victors.

But this massive effort, this "unforgettable encounter between France and her soldiers", in the words ofÉlisabeth de MiribelIn January 1946, the "Juin Plan" envisaged new missions and a capability adapted to the resources of a country in need of rebuilding.