Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan achieved fame in both the French Navy and in French politics during World War Two. Darlan was seen by many to be pro-Nazi Germany and he has been portrayed as a collaborator.
Darlan was born on August 7th, 1881. In 1902, he graduated from the French Naval Academy and during World War One he commanded a battery of naval guns. Once the war ended, Darlan remained in the French Navy and by 1929, he had attained the rank of Rear Admiral. Shortly after this promotion, Darlan was tasked with rebuilding the French Navy.
Darlan was anti-British and the success of the German attack on Western Europe in the spring of 1940 convinced Darlan that Nazi Germany would win World War Two. He held the personal belief that it would be better for France to come to terms with Hitler rather than court any development with Churchill.
Darlan supported the appointment of Pétain in June 1940 as head of the Vichy government. In return, Darlan was made Minister of the Navy. During the surrender negotiations with Germany, the French fleet had gathered in various naval bases in French Africa. The British sort to destroy these warships in ‘Operation Catapult’. The deaths of nearly 1000 French sailors during the attacks of ‘Catapult’ did nothing to improve relations between Britain and France and reinforced Darlan’s deep dislike of Britain. Ironically, Darlan had sent instructions to Admiral Gensoul, commander of the French fleet based in Toulon after sailing from its base near Oran, that all warships should be scuttled if the Germans attempted to seize them. The evidence does seem to suggest that Darlan had no intention of allowing French warships to be taken by the Germans – had Britain known this, ‘Operation Catapult’ would not have been necessary.
In February 1941, Darlan replaced Pierre Laval as vice president and was formally designated Pétain’s successor. Darlan also became Minister of Foreign Affairs, Defence and of the Interior. In January 1942, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of French armed forces and High Commissioner in North Africa. On April 17th, 1942, Darlan, under pressure from Hitler, gave up all his cabinet positions but he did remain as Pétain’s deputy.
On November 8th, 1942, the Allies landed in North Africa – ‘Operation Torch’. The French forces only put up token resistance and Darlan was forced to surrender on November 11th. However, to bring on board all loyalty amongst French troops in North Africa, Eisenhower, who commanded ‘Operation Torch’, appointed Darlan as civil and military chief of French North Africa. Both Charles de Gaulle and leaders within the French Resistance were angered by this decision as they saw Darlan as little more than a collaborator. However, the decision was supported by both Churchill and Roosevelt who agreed with Eisenhower’s logic – that it would bring on board most if not all of the French military still in North Africa – especially as they faced an awesome enemy in the Afrika Korps.