FRENCH RESISTANCE TAKES ON WEHRMACHT

Mont Mouchet, South-Central France · June 20, 1944

During the Allied invasion of France (Operation Overlord), the Maquis and other French resis­tance groups played a role in delaying the arri­val of Ger­man rein­force­ments to the Nor­mandy beach­head as well as in the even­tual Allied vic­tory in France. The FFI (Forces Fran­çaises de l’Inte­rieur for “French Forces of the Inte­rior”) and Francs-tireurs sabo­taged rail­road tracks and repeatedly attacked Ger­man Army equip­ment and garri­son trains on their way to Nor­mandy. Thanks to coded mes­sages trans­mitted over BBC radio, the ma­qui­sards (as Maquis members were known) were alerted of the im­pending D-Day inva­sion by listening for pre-arranged mes­sages read in a con­tin­uous flow over British air­waves. As Allied troops advanced from their beach­heads in June 1944, the FFI, whose ranks approached 200,000, rose against the Nazi occu­pa­tion forces and their garri­sons en masse. On this date in south-cen­tral France, one group of 7,000 ma­qui­sards (the group led by British Special Opera­tions Execu­tive [SOE] agent Nancy Wake, who was married to a French­man) began a series of pitched battles against up­wards of 22,000 Ger­man SS sol­diers. Between April and August 1944, Wake’s group accounted for 1,400 Ger­man casual­ties, while losing only 100 them­selves. On the Vercors plateau west of the French Alps, a Maquis group led resis­tants in estab­lishing a short-lived Free Repub­lic of Ver­cors in June and July 1944, which ended in defeat and civil­ian atro­cities. When engaging the enemy, some Maquis groups took no pri­soners, so enemy soldiers often prefer­red to sur­render to Allied sol­diers in­stead of facing the ma­qui­sards. Ma­qui­sards, whether cap­tured by the Ger­mans or by Vichy France’s Milice (French mili­tia), faced tor­ture, death, or con­cen­tra­tion camps, where few sur­vived. When Gen. Charles de Gaulle set up a Free French admin­is­tra­tion after liber­ating Paris in August 1944, many ma­qui­sards returned to their homes but many also joined the new French army to con­tin­ue fighting the Ger­mans. France was rewarded for its tena­city against Adolf Hitler’s tyran­ny by joining the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union in sta­tioning troops and admin­is­trating zones of occu­pa­tion in a defeated Ger­many. The French zone lay to the east of the Rhine River, the decades-long con­tested boundary between France and Germany.


Few accounts of wartime France have affected me more deeply than Caroline Moore­head’s heart­breaking yet in­spiring history of 230 women of the French Resis­tance, age 17 to 67, who were sent by Philippe Pétain’s collabo­ra­tionist Vichy regime to Nazi death camps in the east. Only forty-nine returned to a libe­rated France. Drawing from inter­views with these women and their families, and from chilling records she accessed in French, German, and Polish archives, Moore­head traces the grim 27‑month odyssey of these women in A Train in Winter. Their collec­tive voices are a remark­able testa­ment to extraor­dinary cou­rage, sur­vival, and the en­during power of friend­ship in a world scarcely imag­i­nable. Moore­head’s book is on my short list of books to read twice. —Norm Haskett



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French Resistance Forces Target Both Germans and Collaborators

French resistance fighter and U.S. soldier, Normandy, June 1944 French resistance group in Pas-de-Calais area, September 1944

Left: French resistance fighters with Francs-tireurs and Allied para­troopers share infor­ma­tion during the Battle of Nor­mandy, June 6 to mid‑July 1944.

Right: Members of the Maquis in the ham­let La Tresorerie near Bou­logne-sur-Mer along the Pas-de-Calais coast, Septem­ber 14, 1944. The female figure bears a close resem­blance to the British SOE agent Nancy Wake.

Captured French resistance fighter, July 1944 Captured French resistance fighters under guard, July 1944

Left: The German text written by a Ger­man Armed Forces corres­pon­dent named Koll in July 1944, and asso­ci­ated with this photo, reads: “A good catch by Ger­man sol­diers in France. The Com­mu­nist leader is on the list of the wanted. His escape was thwarted by ‘Streif’ com­man­dos. His papers prove his affili­ation to ter­rorist groups.” A mem­ber of the Propa­gan­da­kom­pa­nie der Wehr­macht, Koll titled his piece, “The ‘Red’ Resistance in France.”

Right: Koll’s text associated with this photo from July 1944 reads: “Arrested ter­rorists before depor­ta­tion. The leaders of the gangs are Jews, who fled com­mu­nist Spain [i.e., Franco’s Spain], and Eng­lish [SOE] agents, who are usually well dressed and equipped with large sums of money. Their hench­men are recruited almost ex­clusively from work-shy rabble.”

French Milice on parade, July 1944 Milice roundup of French resistance fighters

Left: Germany’s brutal occupation of Europe precip­i­tated the rise of home-grown resis­tance move­ments that tar­geted mem­bers of the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) as well as sup­porters of collab­o­ra­tionist regimes like Marshal Pétain’s Vichy France—creating forms of civil war inside each occupied coun­try. The Milice française, or simply Milice, was a Vichy para­military force formed in early 1943 with help from the Ger­mans to fight the growing presence and armed capa­bil­ities of the French Resis­tance. Resis­tance fighters tar­geted miliciens for assas­si­na­tion, believing them more dan­gerous to their cause than the hated Ger­man Gestapo and SS. Koll’s text reads: “Mem­bers of the French Milice parade with shouldered armor-clad machine guns.”

Right: Koll’s text reads: “Numerous prisoners taken in an opera­tion against the ter­rorists in France. Among them are many crimi­nal ele­ments who are guilty of mur­der, rob­beries, rail­road bombings, etc. They are guarded by the Milice fran­çaise, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ger­man soldiers against Bolshevism.”

1944 Account of the Liberation of France