French Resistance

The French Resistance is the name used for resistance movements that fought military occupation of France by Nazi Germany and the Vichy France undemocratic regime during World War II after the government and the high command of France surrendered in 1940. Resistance groups included groups of armed men (usually referred to as the maquis), publishers of underground newspapers or even cinematography and escape networks that helped allied soldiers. French Resistance cooperated with Allied secret services (see Special Operations Executive), especially in providing intelligence on the Atlantic Wall and coordinating sabotages and other actions to contribute to the success of Operation Overlord.



French resistance could claim its origin in Charles de Gaulle's Appeal of 18 June (1940) on the BBC where he proclaimed that the war was not over. Marshal Philippe Pétain had already signed the armistice treaty and the formation of Vichy France government had begun. De Gaulle also became a de facto leader of Free France. First acts of resistance were organized by secondary school students on 14 July and 11 November 1940. Also, sabotage actions started, as well as occupation strikes by workers - for instance, miners in Nord and Pas-de-Calais went on strike from 27 May 1941 to 8 June 1941. Students protested during meetings with followers of Pétain. In the opinion of some French historians, armed resistance begun on 21 August 1941 when members of youthful battalions Pierre Georges and Gilbert Brustlein killed aspirant of kriegsmarine Alfons Moser.

In addition, there were Belgian, Polish and Dutch resistance networks who cooperated to defeat the Germans. Various groups organized in both occupied France and unoccupied Vichy France. Many of them were former soldiers that had escaped from the Germans or joined the resistance when they were released from prison camps. They hid weapons in preparation to fight again.

Others were former socialists and communists who had fled the Gestapo. Many of them hid in the forested regions, especially in the unoccupied zone. They joined together to form maquis bands and began to plan attacks against the occupation forces. Some groups also had Spanish members who had fought in the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War.

Resistance groups such as the PAT Line established by George Rodocanachi and his wife Fanny Vlasto-Rodocanachi helped Allied pilots who had been shot down to get back to Britain. They minimized the threat of discovery by adopting a cell structure.

Risks involved

The risks were high for those involved in resistance and for those surrounding them.

  • The German military authorities would execute caught resistants.
  • They would take hostages in the general population to be executed should some act of sabotage or other act of resistance occur, executing several French people for a single German death. Sometimes, the hostages were taken within the same group as the presumed resistants or saboteurs (e.g. railroad workers for railroad sabotage); otherwise, they were just random people who had the bad luck of being caught.
  • German services such as the Gestapo and the SS tortured resistants and sent them to concentration camps. Threats would also be made on the relatives of caught resistants; for instance, the Gestapo may threaten parents of torturing their children or sending off their daughters as sex slaves in a military brothel.
  • Occasionally, German troops would engage in massacres, such as the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane where an entire village was razed and the population killed for resistance activities in the vicinity.

List of groups

Groups include:

  • Chantiers de la Jeunesse or "youth camps" - 1940 General de La Porte du Theil gathered young military servicemen who lived on the road after the defeat. General used it as an excuse to maintain semblance of some military standards. Gestapo arrested him in January 4 1944.
  • Défense de la France - Group of students of Sorbonne University that begun to produce an underground newspaper of the same name. First printing at August 1941 was 15.000. Paper survived through the occupation. Group also had espionage and escape network and produced false ID papers for resistance members. In the end it had close contacts with the maquis.
  • Musée de L'Homme Another Parisian clandestine newspaper group. It also transmitted political and military information to Britain and helped to hide escaped Allied POWs. Vichy agent infiltrated the group and most members were arrested and many executed.

There were other resistance groups like Liberté and Verité (that merged with Combat) and Gloria SMH (that was betrayed). Later Combat, Franc-Tireur and Libération formed Mouvements Unis de la Résistance (MUR) which also had armed bands of its own.


The Special Operations Executive (SOE) began to help and supply the resistance from November 1940. Head of the French section was Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. They sent weapons, radios, radiomen and advisors. One of their agents was reputedly flamboyant Peter Churchill (no relation to Winston).

Both the Secret Intelligence Service and Special Air Service also sent agents to France.

Because the US and British governments did not always agree with him, Charles De Gaulle organized his own intelligence organization Bureau Central de Renseignements et d'Action (BCRA). There was also the Direction Général des Services Spéciaux (DGSS or Special Services Executive), headed by Jacques Soustelle.

The Resistance was opposed by the German Abwehr, Gestapo, Sicherheitspolizei and Wehrmacht, as well as the Milice, the Vichy France police force led by Joseph Darnand. Its methods were as brutal as those of the Gestapo. One particularly zealous—and successful—adversary was Abwehr sergeant Hugo Bleicher. He dismantled Interallie intelligence network and personally arrested its leader, Major Roman Sziarnowski. His most famous coup was the capture of Peter Churchill and Odette Sansom.

On January 1 1942 Jean Moulin parachuted to Arles with two other men and radio equipment and continued to Marseilles. De Gaulle had sent him to coordinate activities of different resistance groups. Many groups were not enthusiastic at first.

When the Germans initiated a forced labor draft in France in the beginning of 1943, thousands of young men fled and joined the maquis. SOE helped with more supplies. The American organization Office of Strategic Services (OSS) also began to sends it own agents to France in cooperation with SOE.

In June 1943 SOE sent Edward Yeo-Thomas for the first time to liaise between Gaullist BCRA and SOE activities in Paris. In February 1944 he was betrayed and Gestapo arrested him.

Eventually Jean Moulin convinced Armée Secrète, Comité d'Action Socialiste, Francs-Tireur, Front National, and Libération to unify their efforts to the Conseil National de la Resistance (CNR or National Council of the Resistance) under De Gaulle's direction. Their first common meeting was in Paris on May 27 1943. Moulin became a chairman.

Initially the American government supported Henri Giraud. However, at the Casablanca conference in June 1943, De Gaulle and Giraud were forced to reconcile and became joint presidents of the CNR. Giraud was outmaneuvered by De Gaulle and left in October 1943.

On June 7 1943 the Gestapo captured resistance member René Hardy. Klaus Barbie tortured Moulin's whereabouts out of him and Moulin was arrested (alongside others) in Caluire on June 21. Moulin died after heavy torture on July 8 1943. After that, Georges Bidault became president of CNR.

The Gestapo apparently let Hardy go. He was accused of collaboration after the war but was acquitted.

Operation Overlord was approaching. In the fall of 1943 COSSAC begun to direct SOE and OSS activities that were connected to the invasion plans. Eventually it took orders from Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Resistance members concentrated on information collection and sabotage against transportation and communication lines. They destroyed tracks, bridges and trains.

De Gaulle also organized a new London HQ for the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (FFI or French Forces for the Interior) under command of general Marie Pierre Koenig. It also became a part of the Allied armed forces. Allies sent three-men teams (codename Jedburgh)—one French, one US or British and one radioman—to organize sabotage before the D-day. There were about 87 Jedburgh teams.

SOE also had its own F-section that was composed of non-Gaullist agents.

On June 5 1944, the BBC broadcasted a group of unusual sentences. Abwehr and Wehrmacht knew they were code words—possibly for the invasion of Normandy. All over France resistance groups had been coordinated. Various groups throughout the country increased their sabotage. They derailed trains, blew up ammunition depots and attacked German garrisons. Some relayed info about German defensive positions on the beaches of Normandy to American and British commanders by radio, just prior to 6 June.

Victory did not come easily. In June and July, in the Vercors plateau a newly reinforced maquis group fought 15,000 Waffen SS soldiers under General Karl Pflaum and was defeated with 600 casualties. On June 10 Major Otto Dickmann's troops wiped out the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in retaliation.

German intelligence did not give up either. Hugo Bleicher arrested Resistance organizer Major Henri Frager in 1944.

The resistance also assisted later Allied invasions in south of France called Operations Dragoon and Anvil.

When Allied forces began to approach Paris on August 19, its resistance cells also activated. They fought with grenades and sniper rifles and arrested and executed collaborators. Most of the Paris police force joined them. Roosevelt sent troops to help—the first Allied troops arrived on August 24. The last Germans surrendered on August 25.

On August 28 De Gaulle gave an order to dismantle Free French Forces and the resistance organizations. Many of those who still wanted to fight joined the new French army.

Notable Persons

Other people involved with French Resistance include:

After the war many Frenchmen falsely claimed to have had connections to resistance. Some—like Maurice Papon—even manufactured a false resistance past for themselves. Estimates range from 5% of French population to about 200,000 active armed members and possibly ten times that of supporters.

See also

de:Résistance fr:Résistance

External links

Further Reading

  • Ian Ousby, Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940-44, London: Pimlico, 1999. ISBN 0712665137

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