FREE FRENCH SEIZE ISLANDS OFF CANADA

Washington, D.C. · December 24, 1941

On this grim date, Christmas Eve 1941, a tiny piece of Vichy France—the Atlan­tic islets of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, whose gra­nite out­crop­pings lay just 12 miles off the New­found­land coast adja­cent to Canada—fell to the forces of Free France. It was the first French territ­ory to be lib­er­ated in World War II. A force of three cor­vettes and a sub­marine under the com­mand of Vice Admiral Emile Henry Muse­lier, whose tiny flo­tilla had departed from Hali­fax, Canada, seized the islets at the direc­tion of Charles de Gaulle’s London-based Free French over the ob­jec­tions of the U.S. State Depart­ment, struggling at the mo­ment to pre­serve fragile rela­tions with Marshal Philippe Pétain’s col­lab­o­ra­tionist French regime based at Vichy and its siz­able fleet at the French naval base at Tou­lon on the Medi­ter­ra­nean coast. (Under terms of the Franco-Ger­man armi­stice of June 1940, the French fleet remained outside German command and control.)

A Christ­mas Day pleb­i­scite by the citi­zens of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, whose supply of food and other provi­sions from the Cana­dian pro­vinces had been cut off, voted 98 per­cent in favor of ad­hering to Free France and sacking their Vichy admin­i­strator. The one‑star Gen. de Gaulle had assumed for him­self the mantle of France-in-exile, and his auda­cious feat of arms off the North Amer­ican coast over Christ­mas 1941 was done, in the words of Brit­ish Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill (he was in the States at the time), “in bad faith” because it was an unauthorized action launched from a “British dominion” (i.e., the Canadian province of Nova Scotia).

De Gaulle’s blood­less coup de main was also done to pre­empt a pos­si­ble joint occu­pa­tion of the islets by U.S. and Cana­dian forces (Canada had an­nounced its inten­tion to land troops on the is­lands to pre­vent Ger­man use of the islands’ radio trans­mitter), as well as to pre­vent the islands’ forced “neu­trali­za­tion.” Indeed, ear­lier in Decem­ber an envoy of Presi­dent Franklin D. Roosevelt had met with the Vichy High Com­mis­sioner for French pos­ses­sions in the West­ern Hemi­sphere to dis­cuss terms for the neu­trali­za­tion of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, as well as Vichy’s Carib­bean colo­nies. De Gaulle’s coup off the North Amer­i­can coast under­scores why the French­man’s relation­ship with Roosevelt was never better than sour.





Le Grand Charles Infuriated U.S. and British Governments by Seizing Saint Pierre and Miquelon Islands

Saint Pierre and Miquelon Islands

Above: Vichy France’s Saint Pierre and Miquelon Islands lay 12 miles off the Newfoundland coast of Canada and 2,373 miles from metropolitan France.

Charles de Gaulle Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca, January 18, 1943

Left: Appearing first on the world stage in June 1940 as a recently pro­moted French briga­dier gene­ral now in Lon­don exile, Charles de Gaulle quickly angered his Eng­lish host, Prime Minis­ter (since May 1940) Winston Chur­chill, and the Presi­dent of the United States, Franklin D. Roose­velt. Chur­chill, who described de Gaulle in mid-1940 as “the man of destiny at the hour of reckoning,” came to view de Gaulle as selfish, vain, an oppor­tunist, unscru­pulous, “ambi­tious to the last decree,” a man he sus­pected of having “fas­cist ten­den­cies.” Roose­velt viewed de Gaulle as suffering from delu­sions of grandeur, labeling him “well-nigh intolerable” and doubting for much of the war period that de Gaulle enjoyed the sup­port of the French people that he claimed. Chur­chill and Roosevelt are alleged to have plotted to remove de Gaulle as leader of the French Resis­tance at a critical moment in World War II. In May 1943 de Gaulle decamped from Lon­don to set up his Free French base in Algiers in North Africa, now finally freed of Pétain loyalists and the Axis military menace. Chur­chill and Roose­velt side­lined him in the planning for France’s libera­tion (Opera­tion Over­lord), but de Gaulle out­foxed his two West­ern oppo­nents when he entered Paris on August 25, 1944, set up a provi­sional govern­ment (gouverne­ment provisoire de la République Française), and forced the Allied coalition to recognize him as France’s legitimate leader.

Right: De Gaulle fought a number of wars as the most pro­mi­nent leader of the Free French move­ment: a public war against Ger­many and its Vichy collabo­rators and a private war against both Chur­chill and his British ministers and the Roose­velt adminis­tration, which pro­moted French Gen. Henri Giraud as a rival leader to himself. One of de Gaulle’s advisers remarked that “the General must con­stantly be reminded that our main enemy is Ger­many. If he would follow his own incli­na­tion, it would be Eng­land.” Before departing London for Algiers in 1943, de Gaulle said good­bye to Chur­chill’s for­eign secre­tary, Anthony Eden, who asked him, “Do you know you have given us more dif­fi­culty than all our European allies?” De Gaulle responded, “I have no doubt of it.”

Dramatization of an Exchange Between Churchill and de Gaulle in London on the Eve of the Fall of France, June 1940