CHURCHILL-DE GAULLE MISSTEP ON D-DAY EVE

London, England · June 2, 1944

In June 1943 in Algeria, North Africa, the Free French founded the French Com­mit­tee of National Libera­tion. Much poli­tical maneu­vering was needed to merge the Free French, whose nu­cleus con­sisted of French­men who had escaped German capture at Dunkirk, the Channel port in North­eastern France (May 26 to June 4, 1940), with politicians and armed forces from the French terri­tories freed by the Allies. Rival leaders Gen. Charles de Gaulle and Gen. Henri Giraud agreed to share the presi­dency of the FCNL.

Two weeks before the Nor­mandy landings, the FCNL announced that it was to be known as the French Pro­vi­sional Govern­ment-in-Exile, with de Gaulle as its head. Pre­si­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt refused to recog­nize any provi­sional authority in France until free elec­tions had been held in lib­er­ated France. The year before, he and British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill had pri­vately mused about creating a tem­porary mili­tary govern­ment for France under a British or Amer­i­can gen­eral. (The military model would be used in 1945 in Germany.)

On this date in 1944 Chur­chill, whose rela­tion­ship with de Gaulle was only slightly warmer than FDR’s, sent two air­craft and a per­sonal emis­sary to Algiers to fly de Gaulle back to Britain. Churchill’s in­ten­tion was to hand the gen­eral a script to read over the radio on D-Day, but de Gaulle declined because it made no men­tion of his being the legit­i­mate in­ter­im ruler of France and it in­structed French peo­ple to obey Allied mili­tary author­i­ties pending elec­tions. Rejecting the role of stooge, de Gaulle ex­changed hurt­ful words with Chur­chill. Only on August 1, 1944, did the Allies permit the Free French 2nd Armored Division under Gen. Philippe Leclerc to set foot on French soil in liberated Normandy. Fifteen days later the French First Army (then called French Army B) under Gen. Jean de Lattre de Tassigny parti­ci­pated in the Allied invasion of Southern France (Operation Dragoon).

In the mean­time de Gaulle made a whirl­wind visit to the city of Bayeux in Nor­mandy, pro­claiming Bayeux to be the capi­tal of Free France and leaving his aide-de-camp to head the civil admin­is­tra­tion. It was only in October, after most of France had been lib­er­ated, that Chur­chill and Roose­velt recog­nized de Gaulle’s “govern­ment” as the pro­vi­sional govern­ment of France. The wily Frenchman had out­smarted les Anglo-Saxons.





Free French Return to France

French French 2nd Armored Division parade down Champs Élysées, August 25, 1944

Left: Christened Ile-de-France, a French Army M4 Sherman tank lands on Utah Beach in Nor­mandy, August 2, 1944, just under two months since the ini­tial D‑Day landings. Some 14,454 per­son­nel and equip­ment from Gen. Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Divi­sion landed over the next few days. Leclerc juggled three roles: He was a sub­or­di­nate divisi­onal com­mander in an Amer­i­can army, he was the com­man­der of a sepa­rate national (French) force, and he was Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s man on the scene.

Right: Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division even­tually led the drive toward Paris. A small advance party arrived at the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) late on August 24, 1944. The next day Gen. Leclerc with the rest of his French Armored Divi­sion, along with the U.S. 4th Divi­sion, entered the French capi­tal, and the Ger­man mili­tary gover­nor of Paris with his garri­son of 5,000 mostly unen­thu­si­astic men capit­u­lated. (Some spora­dic fighting con­tin­ued for sev­eral days.) On August 26 a large vic­tory parade took place along Paris’ main boule­vard, the Champs Élysées, lined with jubi­lant crowds acclaiming Gen. de Gaulle and the 2nd Armored Divi­sion the libera­tors of Paris. A sign in the crowd reads, “Viva de Gaulle.”

De Gaulle and entourage walk down the Champs Élysées, August 25, 1944 U.S. troops march down the Champs Élysées, August 29, 1944

Left: Stubborn French patriot Gen. de Gaulle and his en­tourage set off on August 25, 1944, from the Arc de Triumphe down the Champs Élysées to Notre Dame Cathe­dral for a ser­vice of thanks­giving following the city’s liberation.

Right: A combined Franco-American military parade was hastily organized on August 29, 1944, which featured the U.S. Army’s 28th Infantry Division marching down the Champs Élysées a little over a month after it stepped ashore on Nor­mandy’s beaches. After enjoying a respite, the division headed east to the German defensive Siegfried Line (Westwall), where it was the first of the Allied armies to reach German soil.

Contemporary American Newsreel of Liberation of Paris, August 1944