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 lInte­rieur 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 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 (see photo essay below).

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.

Two recent publications recount the wartime experi­ences of the deni­zens of the Plateau Vira­rais-Lignon who lived first in Philippe Pétain’s Vichy France and then, after that puppet state was annexed in late 1942, in German-occupied France. Caroline Moore­head’s 2014 book, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France, and Peter Grose’s 2015 book (a favorite of mine), A Good Place to Hide: How One French Com­mun­ity Saved Thou­sands of Lives in World War II, focus on the same French Prot­es­tant and Catholic resi­dents living in remote moun­tain villages and ham­lets and on out­lying and iso­lated farm­houses south of Lyons. Banding together with their pastor leaders, these cour­ageous people saved 3,000–4,000 refugees who were wanted by Vichy police and the German Gestapo and intel­li­gence service by hiding them, or providing them forged iden­tity papers, or arranging their escape to Switzer­land: resistants, réfrac­taires (refusers) evading compul­sory forced labor and forc­i­ble mili­tary con­scrip­tion, Free­masons, com­munists, state­less Germans and Austrians, and, above all, Jews—French- and foreign-born—many of whom were orphaned young­sters and teen­agers when their parents were deported in railway cars to death camps in Germany’s occupied east. Propor­tion­ately, more people were saved on the Plateau Vira­rais-Lignon than any­where else in France; a few were caught and arrested, deported, never to return. Recounting the sanc­tu­ary, kind­ness, soli­darity, food, and hos­pi­tal­ity offered to strangers in des­per­ate need, the two authors offer riveting por­traits of what bearing wit­ness against tyranny and injus­tice looked like during the dark years of World War II France. —Norm Haskett

French Resistance Forces Target Both Germans and Collaborators

French resistance fighter and U.S. soldier, Normandy, June 1944French 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 1944Captured 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., Republican 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 1944Milice 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 Newsreel Account of the Liberation of France