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 vital role in delaying the arri­val of German rein­force­ments to the Normandy beach­head as well as in the even­tual Allied vic­tory in France. The FFI, or Fifis (Forces Fran­çaises de l’Inte­rieur for “French Forces of the Inte­rior”), and Francs-Tireurs (roughly “French Gun­men”) sabo­taged rail­road tracks and repeatedly attacked German Army equip­ment and garri­son trains on their way to Normandy, helping to iso­late the inva­sion site from the rest of occu­pied France. Thanks to coded “personal mes­sages” broad­cast on the eve of D‑Day by the BBC during its segment “French speaking to French” (les français parlent aux français), the maqui­sards (as Maquis mem­bers were known) were alerted to the im­pending inva­sion and their assigned roles in it by listening for these pre-arranged mes­sages, meaning­less to most eaves­dropping Germans, read in a contin­u­ous flow over the air­waves. At last, at 9:15 p.m. on June 5, 1944, a BBC French-speaking announcer began reading, over and over again, the vital mes­sages, among them: “The dice are on the table . . . The tomatoes are ripe and ready for plucking at Perpignan. . . .” and the second and triggering part of a French poem by Paul Verlaine.

As Allied troops advanced from their beach­heads in June 1944, the FFI, whose ranks approached 200,000 (at its peak there would be 300,000), rose against the Nazi occu­pa­tion forces and their garri­sons en masse. On this date, June 20, 1944, in South Central (formerly Vichy) France, a group of 7,000 ma­qui­sards 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 1944, when Wake para­chuted into France, and August, her 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 the liber­a­tion of 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: The French Resistance was never a homo­geneous organi­za­tion. Its factions often acted like warring tribes, riven by polit­i­cal alle­giances and person­al­ity clashes and some­times putting bounties on each other’s heads. Until 1944 non­vio­lent mem­bers and rural and urban guer­rillas of the French under­ground were lumped under the collec­tive term une armée secrète. By the spring of 1944 membership in the various under­ground groups may have approached 350,000 (out of a total French popu­la­tion of 35 million), of which 100,000 may have had service­able wea­pons. At most a half-million people, or less than 2 per­cent of the popu­la­tion, were involved one way or another in the Resis­tance. Four-fifths of the resis­tants were less than 30 years old. They were an impu­dent annoy­ance that grew in inten­sity, but they posed no serious threat to Germany’s occu­pa­tion of France or to Vichy French author­i­ties, which acted as a second occu­pa­tion force. Their main contri­bu­tions lay in gathering intel­li­gence and con­ducting sabo­tage opera­tions; e.g., against rail, elec­tri­city, and phone lines, loco­motives, bridges, and tunnels, the latter more diffi­cult to repair. This photo depicts Allied para­troopers and beret-wearing French resis­tance fighters with Francs-Tireurs sharing infor­ma­tion during the Battle of Normandy, June 6 to mid-July 1944. According to Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower the resis­tants shortened the French campaign by two months.

Right: Members of the Maquis in the hamlet La Trésorerie near Bou­logne-sur-Mer along the Pas-de-Calais coast in the Hauts-de-France region, Septem­ber 14, 1944. Although it is not her in this photo, the female figure bears an uncanny resem­blance to the British SOE agent Nancy Wake (1912–2011). The Gestapo nick­named Wake the “White Mouse” due to her abil­ity to evade arrest and escape when she was in cus­tody. The Gestapo offered a 5-million-franc reward for her capture. In one raid on a Gestapo head­quarters no less, Wake delivered a single karate chop that killed a German sentry to prevent him from raising an alarm.

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

Left: Associated with this photo, the German text written by a German Armed Forces corres­pon­dent named Koll in July 1944 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.” Communists were a signi­fic­ant seg­ment in the French Resis­tance. Having supported the Nazi inva­sion of their coun­try owing to the German-Soviet Non­aggression Pact of August 1939, French com­munists switched their alle­giance after Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa).

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.” As good as they were in ferreting out mem­bers of the Resis­tance, the German and Vichy French intel­li­gence ser­vices relied heavily on ordi­nary French men and women to betray their fellow citizens to the authorities.

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

Left: Germany’s brutal occupation of Europe precip­i­tated the rise of all sorts 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 pred­a­tory Vichy para­military force formed in early 1943 with help from the Germans to fight the growing presence and armed capa­bil­ities of the French Resis­tance. A good per­cent­age of the Milice were the dregs of French society—petty crimi­nals, fana­tical anti-terrorists, and ex-prisoners bran­dishing their newly acquired wea­pons. Incred­i­bly, one in six miliciens was female. Resis­tance fighters tar­geted the thuggish miliciens for assas­si­na­tion, believing them more dan­gerous to their cause than the hated German Gestapo and SS. “Kill the miliciens,” a widely circulated clan­des­tine flyer read, “exter­mi­nate them like rabid dogs.” German corres­pon­dent Koll’s text for this photo 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.” Roughly 100,000 men and women whom the Germans and Vichyists labeled “terrorists” may have been killed in battle or, after capture, in prison following death sen­tences handed down by miliciens acting as judges, against which there was no appeal.

1944 Newsreel Account of the Liberation of France