The Vichy Situation

19 Sep


In the summer and autumn of 1940, the French Third Republic was in a mild state of chaos, and facing strained and awkward relations with the Western Allies. On May 10th, 1940, the German Wehrmacht installed the next segment of the war in Europe, and the ending move of the so-called Phony War, known as Fall Gelb, or Case Yellow. Yellow was the planned invasion of France and its northern neighbors, the Low Countries. After the stunning success, and first use of Fallschirmjaeger, or paratroopers, during their invasion of Denmark and Norway during the April 9th, 1940 Unternehmen Weserzeit, or Operation Weser Time, the Germans utilized this airborne asset yet again during Yellow. Landing glider-borne infantry on the roof of the veritable, multifaceted fortress of Eben Emael on Belgium’s eastern frontier, the Germans overcame the defenses of what had been the thorn in their side during their implementation of the Schlieffen Plan during the First World War. In another replay of the War, the Heer assaulted south through what had been thought as the natural impregnable walls of the Ardennes Forest in southeastern Belgium. The French had thought that if the Germans should invade France again, it would come through eastern France, with a thrust directed at taking Paris. This had been the case during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, in which the killing blow had been delivered at Sedan, not at Paris. Conforming to this tactical mindset, the French Minister of War Andre Maginot funded and advocated the construction of a series of defensive works to protect France’s eastern border with Germany in case of war. Following the First World War, and Germany’s faltering en route to Paris, the French thought another assault through the Ardennes would flop just as it had twenty years before. Combined with the close quarters and the introduction of tanks in place of standard horse-mounted, dragoon-based cavalry, the Ardennes would be even more difficult to navigate. The French had only bothered to construct the eastern portion of the epynomously named Maginot Line, and had left out the northern segment which protected the Ardennes sector. This had been a horrific mistake.

The French Army broke quickly when the first German Panzers rolled out of the darkness of the treeline. In yet another replay of the First World War, the French appealed for support, and the British were quick to supply it. The British Expeditionary Force, now under the command of General Lord John Vereker, 6th Viscount of Gort, arrived in France prepared to assist in stopping the onslaught of the German Army. But there was nothing they could do. The German Army steamrolled over them, utilizing superior armor and experience gained during the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939. The majority of the men committed were veterans of the Condor Legion. On June 25th, 1940, one month and fifteen days after the invasion, France surrendered. What was left of the French Army and the BEF were just tattered remnants of what had been, and were bottled up in the town of Dunkirk in northwestern France. With their backs to the English Channel, and landlocked by the German Army, the Royal Navy, along with civilian beneficiaries, evacuated the 300,000 marooned Allied troops from the city during Operation Dynamo, saving them from complete destruction. In the meantime, France’s surrender was anything but quick.

In Paris, the Third Republic, which had existed since 1870, was gone. It was replaced by a Nazi administration run through Paris, which was now known as the Paris Quarter. Yet before full-occupation had begun, a World War I veteran and war hero approached the Nazi occupiers with a proposition. Marshal Philippe Henri Petain, the architect behind the French victory at Verdun in 1916, had turned into a collaborator. He realized that the German Army had not pushed too far south of Paris, and negotiated a settlement for the people of southern France, where they could live without being under the restrictions of the Nazi government in France. The Germans accepted his proposal, and the government was founded in the city of Vichy, where the state takes its name. Petain was established as its governor and envoy to Germany, while Admiral Francois Darlan was established as commander of the navy and General Henri Giraud as commander of its armed forces. All of France’s previously controlled overseas colonies, such as Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, and Vietnam, fell under the control of the Vichy government, as well as what was left of France’s armed forces and police force, which was renamed the Milice. The navy was also placed under Vichy jurisdiction, which caused angst among the British High Command. They believed that if the Vichy government maintained control over the French fleet, the Germans could possibly gain leverage over the French and commandeer it, bolstering their wounded surface fleet, and with Bismarck and Graf Spee at the bottom of the Atlantic, and Tirpitz damaged, the Germans were reduced to utilizing the heavy cruisers ScharnhorstGneisenau, and Admiral Hipper to perform the bulk of their commerce raiding, in conjunction with the U-boat fleet. If the battleships such as Strasbourg and Provence  fell into German hands, their surface fleet could become a mighty, unstoppable force again. In a stunning move, in June 1940, the British launched Operation Catapult. The plan was aimed at utilizing aircraft carrier-based fighter-bombers to destroy targets moored at Mers-el-Kebir, the primary anchorage of the Vichy Navy in Morocco.

With the signing of the French treaty, the French fleet splintered and fragmented out into three waves. One group headed out for Great Britain, and, upon arriving, surrendered their ships and were promptly boarded by Royal Marines. Another group detached and disembarked for French Syria, which would be invaded in 1941 by the British, and another group made its way for Mers-el-Kebir. Once docked, the Royal Navy launched its strike, crippling the Vichy navy and sinking and/or damaging the majority of its prized capital ships, some of the most state-of-the-art warships of the time. And with that, the Vichy government broke off any ties it had left with the British.

In Great Britain, another faction of the dismembered Third Republic had taken up refuge, the Free French under General, and later president of France, Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle was sponsoring acts of sabotage and intelligence gathering undertaken by the Maquis and FFI, French resistance organizations operating a guerrilla war against the German occupation. The British attempted to get de Gaulle to negotiate some sort of settlement with the Vichy government, but to no avail. Petain and de Gaulle despised one another openly. That hatred had its seeds lain long before the war had begun. British and French negotiations were in tatters, until the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the United States’ entry into the war.

With America’s entry into the war, the Americans implemented the “Germany first, Japan last” plan. This meant that the Americans would focus the majority of their energy and resources on dismantling and destroying Germany before it focused its war effort on Japan. While it fought Germany, it would mainly concern itself with a defensive war against the Japanese in the South Pacific. The first Americans began arriving shortly after the declaration of war on December 8th, and soon plans were being made for American involvement in Europe. The first two plans, Roundup and Sledgehammer, were quickly shot down by the British. The two plans advocated an invasion of France the British knew the Allies were not prepared  for. When the Americans continued to demand an invasion rather than a lengthy and tedious war fought in Egypt’s Western Desert, advocated by the British, the British launched Operation Jubilee, landing 6,000 Canadian infantrymen and British Commandos at Dieppe, in France. After the majority of those men were killed on the beaches, and only a handful of Commandos under Lord Louis Mountbatten barely managed to escape, the Americans were convinced, and turned their attention to North Africa. With the October-November 1942 defeat of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein by General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army, the Americans launched a plan of their own. With the Germans retreating westward, and the British pursuing, the Americans would land in Algeria and Morocco, locking the Germans in from behind and forcing them into a narrow pocket in Tunisia that could only be serviceable for a short period of time before the Germans would be forced to withdraw altogether, like a fox to the hunters. Just before the African landings, due to Britain’s poor relations with the Vichy government, the Americans negotiated General Giraud, informing him of their intentions to invade Morocco and Algeria as part of the upcoming Operation Gymnast, later renamed Torch. Giraud was rather inconclusive on what he had to say to General Mark Clark, who would later go on to command the 5th Army in Italy. Giraud informed Clark that his troops would not fire on the Americans if the position of Supreme Allied Commander was given to him. Clark informed Giraud that the position was already Eisenhower’s, and it was not up for sale. Giraud was naturally displeased, and only divulged enigmatic answers which amounted to little more than “maybe we’ll shoot at you, maybe we won’t.” Clark returned to the Allied headquarters in Gibraltar with little confidence in France’s commitment to support the Torch landings, and expressed his reservations to Eisenhower. The American landings forces, under the command of General George S. Patton, would continue as scheduled, landing at Oran and Algiers in Algeria, and Casablanca and Fesbala in Morocco.

On the advent of the landings, the American troops were supplied with white armbands emblazoned with the American flag, at that time only forty-eight stars. They were ordered “don’t fire unless fired upon”, and were instilled with little confidence regarding the alliance of the French. The Americans still did not know whether or not they would open fire when the men hit the beach. A small contingent of British Royal Commandos also participated in the Torch landings, disguised as Americans to prevent their being shot at by the French. When the first wave hit the shore, the instant they landed on November 8th, 1942, the French opened fire. After shootouts and breakthroughs throughout the month of November, the French were soon pushed into eastern Algeria, scraping the Tunisian strand of the Atlas Mountains. There, they decided to negotiate a surrender. Originally advocated by Admiral Darlan, he was assassinated before it could be done. Giraud stepped up to plate, and after again being denied position of Allied Supreme Commander, he sued for peace and surrendered the Vichy French military to the Allies. Shortly there after, the Germans initiated Unternehmen Lila , or Operation Purple, their invasion of Vichy France.

The remainder of the French fleet that had survived the Mers-el-Kebir bombings had fled to Marseilles, the home anchorage of the French Combined Fleet. When the Germans invaded, rather than surrender the ships, the French adhered to Article 2 of their treaty, in which they guaranteed that their fleet would not fall into German hands, and, much to the Allies’ surprise and gratification, the French scuttled their Combined Fleet where it was moored. Shortly after the war ended, Marshal Petain was executed for war crimes, and the Vichy French government, although absorbed into the German government in France, would go on to be a major factor until the D-Day landings of June 6th, 1944, and the Operation Dragoon landings in southern France on August 15th, 1944.


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