Number of Soldiers: 35,000
Number of Medal Holders: 700
On the eve of World War II, the French Armed Forces comprised 3 principal frameworks: the Home (the Metropolitan) Army, the African Army, and the Colonial Army. The mission of each one of them was to protect the territories under its responsibility.
The Home Army was based on compulsory enlistment, and it was responsible for the defense of France.
The African Army operated in Algeria, Tunisia and French Morocco. It included a number of exclusively White Units, such as the Foreign Legion, Units manned by members of the French Settlers in Algeria (the Zouaves), refugees of the Spanish Civil War who had immigrated to the area, and also, indigenous enlistees (the Saphis and Tirailleurs), Units of camel riders from the inhabitants of the Sahara, and Special Gendarmerie Units in Morocco (the Goums).
The Colonial Army, which based itself on Infantry and Artillery Forces, included all-White Units as well as Units of local recruits.
At the outbreak of the war, Units from the two “external” Armies were also operating on French soil, where, in September, 1939, about 38% of the French Infantry was based on persons from North Africa. Further, they constituted a considerable part of the Free French Army’s power, whose Forces fought, thereafter, in the North African and Italian Campaigns and in the invasion of southern France.
As the war erupted, the French Army mobilized its Reserve Forces and reached a magnitude of about 5 million Soldiers. In that period it was considered by many the finest Army in the world, equipped with the best weapons, and embraced by the aura of the victorious Army of World War I. Even Churchill thought that Britain would be safe behind this Army. Moreover, the French had at its disposal a Reserve of around 2 million additional Soldiers in the Colonies. This Army, early in the year 1940, appeared to be an equal foe to the German Army, one who would be capable of withstanding any German attack.
The excellent operational use the Germans made of their armor and aircraft in their May, 1940, Offensive turned the tables on this proposition.
At the time, the French Armed Forces had 94 Divisions, of which 63 were Infantry, and of those, 30 were Regular Army and the rest Reserve Divisions. The other Divisions were distributed as follows: Motorized Infantry (7); Light Mechanized (3); Cavalry (5); Fortifications (13); Heavy Armored (3, of which 2 that were raised only in early 1940, while the raising of a fourth Division began just as the German invasion was being launched).
The Military prepared for war, getting organized in Corps, Armies and Army Groups along the border with Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. At the time, it had around 3,000 Tanks in its possession, more than half of which were scattered among the Infantry Detachments. The Armored and Mechanized Divisions constituted the Reserves. The French had more Artillery gun barrels than the Germans, but some of them were obsolete, dating back to World War I, and designed to be operated primarily in a stationary warfare.
Even before the Campaign in France, a small French Force, based largely on the Foreign Legion, participated in the Operation in Narvik, in Norway.
After the fall of France, the Army, which continued to serve under the Vichy Government, was reduced to about 100,000 Soldiers, who carried light arms only, while its means of transportation were limited to only horses and bicycles.
In North Africa operated an Army numbering around 225,000 people, entirely loyal to the Regime of Marshal Petain.
At that time, many members of the Army who had been discharged and who did not accept the conditions of the occupation joined the Underground, which was beginning to rise in different parts of the Country.
About 2 million Soldiers had been captured at the time of the surrender, of whom about 1.6 million were transferred to camps in Germany. Some were returned to France, but towards the conclusion of the war around a million of them were still being kept in Germany as forced laborers in Agriculture and in German Industrial Plants, exposed to Allied bombing.
In May, 1940, the French Air-Force numbered about 2,200 aircrafts, of which about half was modern equipment.
As a result of the Air Force’s deficient organization and operation, it was virtually destroyed by the German Air-Force – the Luftwaffe – and by the effective Anti-Aircraft fire of the German Ground Forces.
The French Air-Force did not play an important role in stopping the enemy in the Battle for France.
The French Navy, under the command of Admiral Darlan, had the fourth largest Fleet in the world at the outbreak of the war. It was a modern Fleet, built for the most part in the five years prior to the war. So most of its vessels were new and, despite lacking means such as Radar and Sonar, were operated by veteran, skilled and experienced crews.
Until the fall of France, the French Fleet operated in cooperation with the British Fleet, in escorting convoys, in the Operation in Norway, and in the evacuations from Dunkirk and from other Ports in the Brittany Peninsula, where the evacuation of thousands of British Soldiers took place.
The Fleet proper was not damaged in the fall of France and the majority of its Vessels remained in full operational capacity. The new Battleship, “Richelieu”, was smuggled to Dakar, in Senegal, and its sister ship, the “Jean Bart”, sailed for Casablanca. A part of the Fleet sailed for British Ports, another part sailed for the Port of Mers-el-Kebir, in Algeria, and yet another part sailed for the Port of Bizerte, in Tunisia. The Flotilla that operated within the framework of the British Mediterranean Fleet remained in Alexandria.
According to the agreement between Germany and France, the Fleet was supposed to become idle. This was avoided, however, because of the assault executed on it by the British in Mers-el-Kebir Port in July, 1940, as well as because of the seizing of the Vessels that had reached Britain and were later used as the nucleus for the Free French Fleet, which was raised by some of the crews who resolved to join it and continue fighting.
The Battleship, “Richelieu”, also joined the rebuilt Fleet and later operated in the Pacific Ocean.
During the Vichy Government period, the Fleet participated in a number of Battles: in Dakar, in September, 1940; in the Campaign in Syria, in 1941; in the attack on Madagascar, in 1942; and at the time of the Allied invasion of North Africa. Most of the Ships that were under Vichy control were scuttled by their crews at Toulon Port so that they will not fall in German hands.
The Free French Army
Following the fall of France, General Charles de Gaulle fled to Britain. There, with British approval, he established the “Free French Army” – the name given to the French Forces who, as an organized Army under his leadership, fought against Germany and its allies outside the borders of France in World War II, between the years 1940 and 1944.
In late 1942, after the Germans completed their takeover of all of France, the Vichy Army practically ceased to exist.
In his speeches after the Battle of Bir Hakeim, de Gaulle got accustomed to calling the entire French Forces (including all the Underground Organizations) who were fighting the Nazis – Fighting France.
The beginnings of this Army’s establishment can be seen in a speech General de Gaulle made from the BBC in London, on 18 June 1940, in which he called French citizens to join Britain in its war with Nazi Germany.
By the end of July, 1940, only about 7,000 persons have volunteered to the Free French Forces.
The British Fleet’s assault on Vessels of the French Fleet in Mers-el-Kebir and in Dakar in July, 1940, created much bitterness and did not encourage members of the French Military to join the British.
The French Fleet comprised approximately 50 Vessels and 3,600 people, and operated in the framework of the British Fleet.
In the autumn of 1940, the French Colonies in Africa joined de Gaulle’s side, followed by the Colonies in the Pacific Ocean.
Indo-China and the Colonies in the West Indies remained under Vichy Authority.
In September, 1941, de Gaulle founded the French National Committee, which in essence was the French Government in Exile, and in November of that year the U.S. Government, in the framework of its “Lend-Lease” policy, began granting it aid.
French Forces began to participate, alongside the British, in the Battles that were being conducted between the British and the Axis Forces in Libya and in Egypt.
The Motorized Division commanded by Colonel Leclerc took the Oasis at Koufra, in the Western Desert, from the Italians in 1941. It then continued with its advance in southern Libya, and from the south it joined the Allied Offensive against the German Forces in North Africa.
General Koenig’s Unit fought with distinction, especially in the Battle of Bir Hakeim, in June, 1941, against the German Afrika Korps.
French Forces also fought against the Italian Army, in Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as against French Forces loyal to Vichy, in the Campaign to take control over Syria and Lebanon and in the Operation in Madagascar.
The German takeover of southern France, which was controlled by the Vichy Government, and Operation “Torch”, the Allied invasion of North Africa, both events occurring in November, 1942, constituted a turning point in the chronicles of the French Armed Forces in the period of World War II.
Many fled to North Africa and joined Units of the African Army, under the command of General Giraud, who has now crossed over and was fighting alongside the Allies against the Afrika Korps in this Theatre. By doing this, they contributed in no small measure to the Allied victory over that German Force.
Unification between the two French Armies – de Gaulle’s Army, which numbered only about 50,000 people late in the year 1942, and Giraud’s Army, which numbered about 230,000 people – was implemented at this stage.
While members of the Free French Army brought with them the fighting spirit, the other Soldiers, who until now had been loyal to the Vichy Authority, delivered an increasing quantity of fighters.
Names of new Generals soon began to become famous as heroes of the Battlefield: Koenig, in the Battle of Bir Hakeim, Leclerc, de Tassigny, Juin, and others.
These Commanders then started to rebuild the new French Army, with American assistance.
Out of 11 Divisions planned, 8 were raised, 3 of them Armored.
Under the commanded of General Juin, the French Expeditionary Corps, which numbered about 100,000 people, took part in the invasion of Italy, in 1943. This Army Corps, which operated in the framework of the U.S. Fifth Army, commanded by General Mark Clark, included many fighters who had come from Units in the various Colonies, joined by large numbers of members of de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. Its Troops participated in the fighting at Monte Cassino and they captured the Monte Majo Ridge which was dominating from the south-east. They also participated in the penetration of the German dispositions in the Campaign on Rome, and in the Garigliano River and Pico Ridge Battles.
In Italy, the French Expeditionary Corps suffered 7,000 dead, 30,000 injured, and 42,000 missing.
The French Forces took part in the Allied invasion of France.
In that period, the French Army numbered around 48,000 persons. The Fleet numbered around 50,000 persons. About 30,000 persons were serving in the Air-Force, and at its disposal were about 300 aircraft.
Also operating in the area were about 200,000 Underground fighters, now placed under the command of the Allied Forces by means of a General Headquarters that had been established in London and commanded by General Koenig.
The 2nd Armored Division, commanded by General Leclerc, was transferred to Normandy and attached to the U.S. Third Army, under the command of General Patton, and led the March to liberate Paris.
Concurrently, Army B (later turned into the French First Army), which had been raised by General de Tassigny on the basis of the Forces who had fought in Italy, was attached to the Allied Forces’ Command that conducted the landing in southern France, in August, 1944.
These Forces liberated the Ports of Marseille and Toulon in southern France, as well as the Islands of Elba and Corsica. Later, they took part in the fight to repel the Germans along the Marseille-Lyon-Villefranche-Autun axis, and north and east across the Rhine and the Danube.
Liberated on 28 August 1944, Toulon and Marseille soon began to be utilized as Ports through which supplies were transferred to the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, and in even larger scopes than those being transferred through the Ports of Normandy.
This Army’s Forces also liberated the Alsace Region and from there they continued to advance into Germany and Austria, until Victory Day.
The Troops of the Free French Army had the honor of being in the leading Force that entered and liberated Paris.
On 8 May 1945, General Jean Marie de Lattre de Tassigny represented France at the ceremony of Germany’s surrender.
The size of the French Army’s Forces grew greater and greater after the invasions into France’s territory. In September, 1944, it reached about 560,000 persons and at the end of that year about a million persons, and it stood at about 1.25 million people at the conclusion of the war, while comprising 8 Infantry and 3 Armored Divisions.
In the course of World War II, France suffered approximately 253,000 military persons dead (of whom about 92,000 who fell in the 45 days of the Campaign in the year 1940), and approximately 390,000 civilians dead (of them about 67,000 who were killed by Allied bombings).
One interesting Unit was the “Normandie-Niemen” Air Regiment, which was composed of volunteer pilots and fought in the Russian Front. It originated in August, 1942, with 12 pilots being sent to fight alongside the Soviet Union. Subsequently, two Squadrons were raised, which were subordinated to the Soviet 303rd Air Division, under the command of the 1st Air Army. The Squadrons were equipped with Russian Yak fighter-planes. The Unit began operational activity on 22 March 1943, and fought in the Battles of Smolensk, Belarus, Lithuania, and East Prussia. It was first called “Normandie”, but after it participated in the victory in the Battle of the Niemen River Stalin added the name of the River to its designation. By the end of the war it numbered 4 Squadrons and was credited with 273 certain downings and an additional 36 questionable ones.
General de Gaulle awarded the Regiment the “Order of the Liberation” as a Unit, and at least two of its Jewish pilots were awarded the Order personally. From among its pilots, 4 were awarded with the title, “Hero of the Soviet Union”.
The Unit returned to France on 20 June 1945.
France’s Jews took part in the war against the Germans, first within the framework of the French Army on all its Arms in the Campaign in France, in 1940, and later within the framework of the Free French Army Forces on the various war Fronts, fighting especially in the Ground Forces but also in Air-force Units.
According to researchers’ estimates, Jews constituted about one-tenth of the total number of fighters in the Free French Army. Moreover, from among the recipients of the “Order of the Liberation”, the highest Decoration awarded in the Free French Army and given to fighters from the entire Force that had liberated France – Army and Undergrounds – 5% were Jews. All that, while the number of French Jews in that period did not exceed 0.75% of the Country’s entire population.
Many foreign Jews also volunteered to the French Army at the outbreak of the war. Most of them enlisted in Foreign Legion Units that were stationed in France proper; among those Units, the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Infantry Regiments of Foreign Volunteers, the Legion’s 11th, 12th and 13th Regiments, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Pioneer Regiments of Foreign Volunteers of the 13th Demi-Brigade that took part in the Battle of Narvik, and small Units that were attached to the French Regular Army.
Numerous refugees from Austria, Germany and other Countries were sent to Legion Units that were stationed in North Africa.
After the occupation of France, thousands of Jews from the Legion’s Units in North Africa have become Prisoners of War and were forced to work in the construction of railroad tracks in the Sahara Desert. And even after the Allied invasion of North Africa, in late 1942, rather than be released, they continued to be fatigued within frameworks of Work Battalions that were called, B.P.I. – Battalions de Pionniers Israelites.
The Troops who were serving in the 13th Demi-Brigade returned from Narvik to France on 18 June 1940, and with the French surrender departed for Britain, where they were met by General de Gaulle who asked them to stay in Britain. Some stayed, and among them 20 Jews, and the rest, with 50 Jews among those, went back to France through North Africa.
The Jewish volunteers in the Legion’s Units in France fought courageously against the invading German Army. The 11th Regiment fought near Soissons, “struggling at every step and turn”.
Following the liberation of France, the Association of Veteran Jewish Volunteers and Fighters published a list of 700 Jewish Soldiers who had been awarded with decorations for their actions in the war.
Even before the June, 1940, French-German Armistice, many Jewish refugees who had requested to enlist were sent to Labor Camps, as “unfit” for service in the Army.
Also detained in the Camps were Jewish volunteers who had actually served in the Foreign Legion and then discharged as “unfit”.
Many of those serving who were foreign-born got discharged from the Army after the surrender but then immediately detained in Labor Camps, and even denied the status of Prisoner of War.
Jewish Soldiers who had been discharged after July, 1940, were transferred by the Vichy Government to Labor Camps and to Concentration Camps, or expelled to the Death Camps.
In the territory that was not occupied discharged Jewish Soldiers were permitted to establish an Organization of former Army volunteers, but by 8 October 1942, 782 of them have been banished to Extermination Camps.
The French Intelligence
On the eve of the war’s eruption, in 1939, the Intelligence and Counter-Espionage activity was directed by the “Second Bureau”, which operated in the framework of the General Staff. Later on, the subject of Counter-Espionage was shifted to the “Fifth Bureau”, which operated together with elements of the Police.
Following the occupation of France some members of the “Second Bureau” fled to Britain, while the rest continued to operate within the framework of the Vichy Army, under the supervision of the Germans and with their guidance.
Those who arrived in London joined the Free French Army and established within its framework a small Intelligence body, called, the “Central Bureau of Intelligence and Operations” (BCRA). This body began to conduct its activity in occupied France with the assistance of British Intelligence elements, who feared at the time that the Germans were planning to invade Britain. The gathered information was also given to British Intelligence. The Bureau grew in the course of the war years and broadened its activity.
An important milestone was the start of activity of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the European Continent, in late 1942, and the opening of its main Branch in London, which began operating opposite the French Theatre.
After the Allied takeover of North Africa, other Intelligence bodies that were operating there merged with the Bureau and the name of the Organization was changed to the General Directorate for Special Services (DGSS), which now worked directly with de Gaulle, not the Military Command.
Following the invasion of Normandy, the Organization also began to operate in territories beyond France: in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, even in North America. In August, 1944, following the liberation of Paris and with the Underground’s Intelligence elements having been joined to it, the Organization went through more changes and its name was changed to, the General Directorate for Study and Research (DGER). It began to engage in domestic issues inside France as well, including surveillance of various political groups and underground movements. This designation was maintained until 1946, a time when the new Government for the Country was beginning to get organized. In the framework of its activity, the Organization sent off between 1,500 and 2,000 Agents of different nationalities, Jews also among them, into occupied France on varied Intelligence missions. Most of these Agents were parachuted down by RAF airplanes, in cooperation with the British SOE and SIS and the American OSS, and in France proper they were assisted by local members of the Underground. Many of them were caught and numerous operations failed, especially in the years 1941 and 1942. These Agents’ main contribution was in the information they collected towards the Allied invasions to French soil in 1944, in Normandy and in southern France