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 Vichy France (client state of Nazi Germany formally known as État français) 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 from 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. After the islets’ Christ­mas Day pleb­i­scite and ensuing weeks of diplo­matic back-and-forth by U.S., British, and Cana­dian diplo­mats and Free French repre­sen­ta­tives, the coup remained a fait accom­pli. De Gaulle’s oppor­tun­istic land grab 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 GaulleChurchill 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 French govern­ment, 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.”

Short Biography of Charles de Gaulle by Author Simon Whistler (Skip first 40 seconds)