The French Resistance played a vital part in aiding the Allies to success in Western Europe – especially leading up to D-Day in June 1944. The French Resistance supplied the Allies with vital intelligence reports as well as doing a huge amount of work to disrupt the German supply and communication lines within France.
The surrender of France in June 1940, was a major blow to many French people in terms of their pride. Many believed that the government had let the people down. The creation of a Nazi-approved Vichy government, primarily in the centreand south of the country, was, in the minds of many, further proof that politicians had let down France. The resistance movement developed to provide the Allies with intelligence, attack the Germans when possible and to assist the escape of Allied airmen.
In the immediate aftermath of the June 1940 surrender, France went into a period of shock. The public had been assured that the French army, along with the Maginot Line, was more than strong enough to resist a German attack. The speed and severity of Blitzkrieg had shocked the French people. The non-occupied region of France, known as Vichy France, was set up by the Germans and governed by Marshall Pétain. His reputation was still high and in the early days of Vichy, his leadership gave it some stability and kudos. Also in the days after the British attack on Mers el Kébir, there was a degree of anti-British sentiment in France. Therefore, there was no immediate drive to create a resistance movement en masse in central and southern France.
On June 18th, 1940, Charles de Gaulle addressed the people of France from London. He called on the French people to continue the fight against the Germans. This message hit hard in occupied France but initially it was less well received in Vichy France. Regardless of what many thought of the Vichy government, the area they controlled was run by French people. However, when the Vichy government began to openly collaborate with the Germans, attitudes hardened.
The French Resistance movement is an umbrella term which covered numerous anti-German resistance movements that were based within France. There were resistance movements that took direct orders from the Special Operations Executive, there was the communist resistance, groups loyal to de Gaulle, regional resistance movements that wanted independence etc. In the north, the target was simply the Germans while in the south, the Vichy government was a target as well as the Germans. The first resistance movements were in the north, such as the OCM (Organisation Civile et Militaire) and by the end of 1940, six underground newspapers were being regularly printed in the north. In May 1941, the first SOE agent was dropped into northern France to assist the work of the resistance.
Because of the peculiar political complexities of France, the resistance movement got off to a difficult start. However, by June 1941, the resistance movement had become more organised and its work against the Germans increased accordingly. Two dates are important in explaining the work of the resistance movement in France.
On June 22nd 1941, all the communist groups within France joined forces to create one group. This simple act greatly increased its potency. On November 11th 1942, German forces occupied the whole of France. This meant that the whole country was occupied and the attitude of the north quickly transferred itself to the south.
The German attack on Russia – Operation Barbarossa – led to many French communists joining the resistance movement. Politics took a back step and the French communists gained a reputation for being aggressive and successful resistance fighters. Many French people joined as the support for Vichy quickly waned. Many in the south were angered by the compulsory labour service that had been brought in. But the treatment of the Jews was a major cause of resentment towards the Vichy government and many joined the resistance as a means of fighting against a policy that the vast majority found abhorrent.
The relationship between Britain and the French Resistance movement was vital. Britain, via the SOE, supplied the French with equipment and trained agents. The French Resistance, in turn, supplied vital intelligence reports. As an example, the British attack on the radio base at Bruneval in 1942 could have been a lot more costly in terms of lives lost, if the British had not received intelligence reports from the resistance with regards to the building of new blockhouses there. With such information, the British paratroopers could plan accordingly.
Though the British government and de Gaulle could have a difficult relationship at times, in October 1941, both reached a compromise with regards to resistance operations in France. de Gaulle set up a Central Intelligence and Operations Agency with the support of the British. This acted independently but planning was carried out in co-operation with the SOE which supplied equipment. Agents sent into France started a general re-grouping of all resistance movements and a Conseil National de la Résistance movement was established which was subordinated to de Gaulle. By the end of 1942, de Gaulle became head of the Comité Français de Libération Nationale which headed all resistance movements in France. As a result of this greater organisational security, the resistance became more effective in 1943. Attacks on the French rail system increased greatly. Between January and June 1943, there were 130 acts of sabotage against rail lines each month. By September 1943, this had increased to 530. The disruption to the Germans ability to move equipment was massive.
By 1944, it is estimated that there were 100,000 members of the various resistance movements that existed in France. Just one year earlier, there were just 40,000 members.. By the spring of 1944, there were 60 intelligence cells whose task was solely to collect intelligence as opposed to carrying out acts of sabotage. In the build up to D-Day, the intelligence they gathered was vital. In May 1944 alone, they sent 3,000 written reports to the Allies and 700 wireless reports. Between April and May, the resistance destroyed 1,800 railway engines. When this figure is added to the 2,400 destroyed by Allied bombers, it is easy to understand why the Germans had such difficulty transporting equipment across France.
Post-war analysis of the success of the resistance shows that the 150 most successful acts of sabotage against factories in France between 1943 and 1944, used just 3,000 lbs of explosives – the equivalent of the bomb load of one single Mosquito plane.