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The Free French Forces ( , FFL) were Frenchmarker fighters in World War II who decided to continue fighting against Axis forces after the surrender of France and subsequent German occupation.


In many sources, Free French describes any French individual or unit that fought against Axis forces after the June 1940 armistice. The reality is more complex as some French forces did take part in the fight against the Axis, for example in Tunisiamarker in early 1943, without any relationship with Charles de Gaulle's organization.

Historically, an individual became Free French after he enlisted in de Gaulle's Free French organisation located in Londonmarker. Free French units are units formed by these people. De Gaulle's organization stopped accepting members in mid-1943 as Free French forces were merging with the French forces in North Africa, and the Comité français de libération nationale (CFLN) was set up in Algiersmarker.

Postwar, to settle disputes over the Free French heritage, the French government issued an official definition of the term. Under this "ministerial instruction of July 1953" (instruction ministérielle du 29 juillet 1953), only those who served with the Allies after the Franco-German armistice in 1940 and before 1 August 1943 may correctly be called "Free French".

French forces after July 1943 are therefore correctly designated as the "forces of Liberation".

This article temporarily includes the activities of French forces after 1942, in order to maintain continuity.



General De Gaulle
In 1940, General Charles de Gaulle was a member of the French cabinet during the Battle of France. As French defence forces were increasingly overwhelmed, de Gaulle found himself part of a small group of politicians who argued against a negotiated surrender to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. As these views were shared by the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, de Gaulle was sent as an emissary to the United Kingdommarker; it was during this time that the French government collapsed.

On 16 June, the new French President of the Council, Philippe Pétain, began negotiations with Axis officials. On 18 June, de Gaulle spoke to the French people via BBC radio. He asked French soldiers, sailors and airmen to join in the fight against the Nazis. In France, de Gaulle's "Appeal of the 18th of June" (Appel du 18 juin) was not widely heard that day but, together with de Gaulle's BBC broadcasts in subsequent days and his later communications, they echoed throughout France and Her Empire as the voice of national honour and freedom. Some of the British Cabinet had attempted to block the speech, but were overruled by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. To this day, the Appeal of 18 June remains one of the most famous speeches in French history. Nevertheless, on June 22, Pétain signed the armistice followed by a similar one with Italy on June 24; both of these came into force on 25 June. Pétain became leader of the puppet regime known as Vichy France, the town of Vichy being the seat of government.

De Gaulle was tried in absentia in Vichy France and sentenced to death for treason; he, on the other hand, regarded himself as the last remaining member of the legitimate Reynaud government able to exercise power, seeing the rise to power of Pétain as an unconstitutional coup.


Many of the Free French forces were initially not French nationals. Overall 65% were West African conscripts - largely from Senegalmarker . The Foreign Legion included many non-French soldiers. Other contingents were Moroccan, Algerian and Tahitian (the latter serving with particular distinction in the Western Desert). 17,000 Senegalese died defending France in 1940, many being shot by the Germans after being taken prisoner.

Finding an all-white division that was available proved to be impossible due to the enormous contribution made to the French Army by West African conscripts. The 2nd Armoured Division was chosen to lead the Liberation of Paris as it had only 25% black troops.

Cross of Lorraine

Capitaine de corvette Thierry d'Argenlieu suggested the adoption of the Cross of Lorraine as symbol of the Free French, both to recall the perseverance of Joan of Arc, whose symbol it had been, and as an answer to the Nazi swastika.In his general order № 2 of 3 July 1940, Vice Admiral Émile Muselier, two days after assuming the post of chief of the naval and air forces of the Free French, created the bow flag displaying the French colours with a red cross of Lorraine, and a cockade also featuring the cross of Lorraine.

Following repeated broadcasts, by the end of July that year, 7,000 people had volunteered to join the Free French forces. The Free French Navy had fifty ships and some 3,700 men operating as an auxiliary force to the British Royal Navy.

A monument on Lyle Hill in Greenock in western Scotlandmarker, in the shape of the Cross of Lorraine combined with an anchor, was raised by subscription as a memorial to the Free French naval vessels which sailed from the Firth of Clydemarker to take part in the Battle of the Atlantic, and is also locally associated with the memory of the loss of the Maillé Brézé which exploded at the Tail of the Bank.

Image:Flag of Free France 1940-1944.svg|The French flag with the Cross of Lorraine, emblem of the Free French.Image:Free French Memorial Greenock.jpg|The Free French memorial on Lyle Hill, Greenock, overlooks Gourockmarker, Scotlandmarker.Image:Naval Ensign of Free France.svg|Free French Naval ensign and French Naval Honour Jack.Image:Attributs-FFL-IMG 0933.jpg|Free French Forces Adrian helmet with the Cross of Lorraine replacing the 1939-1940 French Republic "RF" emblem.

Mers El Kébir

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill deemed that, in German or Italian hands, the French fleet would have been a grave threat to the Allies. He ordered the French ships to rejoin the Allies and agree to be put out of use in a British, French, or neutral port. As a last resort, Churchill indicated that the French fleet would be destroyed by British attack.

The Royal Navy attempted to persuade the French Navy to agree to these terms but, when that failed, they attacked the French Navy at Mers El Kébirmarker in Algeriamarker. This attack on 3 July 1940 caused bitterness and division in France (over 1,000 sailors had been killed), particularly in the Navy, and discouraged many French soldiers from joining the Free French forces in Britain and elsewhere.

Some French warships did remain on the Allied side and others re-joined later after the Axis occupation of Vichy France (codenamed Case Anton) and the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon. Those ships flew a separate flag, the Free French Naval Ensign, which is still in use as a mark of honour by ships that continue to use the name of a Free French ship.

The struggle for control of French colonies

After the fall of France in 1940, the French colonies of Cameroun and French Equatorial Africa (except for Gabonmarker) joined the Free French while the remainder sided with the Vichy Regime. With the addition of French African colonies came a large number of African colonial troops. From July to November 1940, Free French forces fought French troops loyal to Vichy France during the West African Campaign. The outcome of this campaign was mixed with the Vichy French claiming victory at the Battle of Dakar and the Free French claiming victory at the Battle of Gabon. The French West African colonies remained Vichy French and the French Equatorial African colonies remained Free French.

In Asia and the Pacific, the French South Pacific colonies of New Caledoniamarker, French Polynesiamarker and the New Hebridesmarker joined the Free French later. The South Pacific colonies would become vital Allied bases in the Pacific Oceanmarker. French Indochina was invaded by Japan in September 1940, although the colony remained under nominal Vichy control. On 9 March 1945, the Japanese took full control of Indochina and launched the Second French Indochina Campaign.

In North America, Saint-Pierre and Miquelonmarker (near Canadamarker) joined the Free French after an "invasion" on 24 December 1941 by Rear Admiral Emile Muselier and the forces he was able to load onto three corvettes and a submarine of the Free French Naval Forces (Forces navales françaises libres, or FNFL).

During 1941, Free French units fought with the British Commonwealth army against Italian troops in Ethiopiamarker and Eritreamarker during the East African Campaign. During the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, Free French forces fighting alongside British Commonwealth forces once more faced French troops loyal to Vichy France — this time in the Levant. By July 1941, General Henri Dentz and his Vichy Army of the Levant were defeated. Free French General Georges Catroux was appointed as High Commissioner of the Levant. From this point, Free France controlled both Syriamarker and Lebanonmarker until they became independent.
15,000 Chadian soldiers fought for Free France during WWII.
In Africa, the Vichy colonies were gradually overthrown as Free French forces took part in the allied campaigns on the continent. Free French soldiers participated in the Allied North African campaign, in Libyamarker and Egyptmarker. General Marie Pierre Koenig and his unit, the 1st Free French Brigade, fought well against the Afrika Korps at the Battle of Bir Hakeimmarker in June 1942, although eventually obliged to withdraw. To the west the Allies launched Operation Torchmarker, an invasion of Vichy-controlled French North Africa in November 1942. Many Vichy troops surrendered and joined the Free French cause. Vichy coastal defences were captured by the French Resistance. Vichy General Henri Giraud rejoined the Allies, but he lacked the authority that was required and de Gaulle kept his leadership of the Free French, despite American objections. In late 1942, after the Battle of Madagascar, the Vichy French forces under Governor-General Armand Léon Annet were defeated and Free French General Paul Legentilhomme was appointed High Commissioner for Madagascarmarker. On 28 December, after a prolonged blockade, the Vichy forces in French Somalilandmarker were ousted.

The Nazi Germans lost faith in the Vichy regime after Operation Torch and, during Case Anton in November 1942, German and Italian forces occupied Vichy France. In response, the 60,000-strong Vichy forces in French North Africa — the Army of Africa — joined the Allied side as the French XIX Corps within the British 1st Army, which also included the U.S. II Corps and two British corps. They fought in Tunisia for six months until April 1943. Using antiquated equipment, the XIX Corps took heavy casualties (16,000) against modern armour and a desperate Axis enemy.

After these successes, Guadeloupemarker and Martiniquemarker in the West Indiesmarker, as well as French Guianamarker on the northern coast of South America, joined Free France in 1943. In November 1943, the French forces received enough military equipment through Lend-Lease to re-equip eight divisions and allow the return of borrowed British equipment. At this point, the Free French and ex-Vichy French Corps were merged. In 1943, Colonel (later General) Philippe Leclerc and Lieutenant-Colonel Camille d'Ornano led a column of 16,500 colonial troops from Chadmarker to attack Italian forces in southern Libyamarker and to occupy Kuframarker in the Fezzanmarker region.

The Air War

There were sufficient Free French pilots to man several squadrons based in Britain and North Africa, mainly from African colonial bases but also volunteers from South American countries such as Uruguaymarker, Argentinamarker and Chilemarker. They were initially equipped with a mixture of British, French and American aircraft. They had mixed success at first, and French army-air cooperation was often poor.

At de Gaulle's initiative, the Groupe de Chasse 3 Normandie was formed on 1 September 1942, for service on the Eastern Front. It served with distinction and was awarded the supplementary title Niemen by Stalin.

The War at Sea

The Free French Navy, commanded by Admiral Emile Muselier, played a role in the occupation of French colonies in Africa, in supporting the French Resistance, in D-Day (Operation Neptune), and the Pacific War.

The Forces Françaises Combattantes and National Council of the Resistance

The French Resistance gradually grew in strength. Charles de Gaulle set a plan to bring together the different groups under his leadership. He changed the name of his movement to "Fighting French Forces" (Forces Françaises Combattantes) and sent Jean Moulin back to France to unite the eight major French Resistance groups into one organisation. Moulin got their agreement to form the "National Council of the Resistance" (Conseil National de la Résistance). Moulin was eventually captured, and died under brutal torture by the Gestapomarker.

Later, the Resistance was more formally referred to as the "French Forces of the Interior" (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur, or FFI). From October 1944 to March 1945, many FFI units were amalgamated into the French Army in order to regularize the units.

Liberation of France

During the Italian Campaign of 1943 and 1944, 100,000 Free French soldiers fought on the Allied side, notably in the fighting on the Winter Line and Gustav Linemarker. By the time of the Normandy Invasionmarker, the Free French forces numbered more than 400,000 strong. 900 Free French paratroopers landed as part of the in the British Special Air Servicemarker Brigade (S.A.S.); the Free French 2nd Armoured Division, under General Leclerc, landed at Utah Beachmarker in Normandy on 1 August 1944, and eventually led the drive towards Parismarker, while the divisions which had been fighting in Italy became part of the French First Army, under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, and joined the U.S. 7th Army in Operation Dragoon. This operation was the Allied invasion of southern France. The Allied forces advanced up the line of the Rhône River to liberate the Vosgesmarker and southern Alsacemarker.

Fearing the Germans would destroy Parismarker if attacked by a frontal assault, General Dwight Eisenhower ordered his forces to cease their advance and reconnoitre the situation. At this time, Parisians rose up in full-scale revolt. As the Allied forces waited near Paris, General Eisenhower acceded to pressure from de Gaulle and his Free French Forces. De Gaulle was furious about the delay and was unwilling to allow the people of Paris to be slaughtered as had happened in the Polishmarker capital of Warsawmarker during the Warsaw Uprising. De Gaulle ordered General Leclerc to attack single-handedly without the aid of Allied forces. In response, General Eisenhower, in an attempt to spare De Gaulle's forces heavy casualties during his initiative, granted the Free French forces the honour of spearheading the Allied assault and liberating the capital city of France.

General Leclerc sent a small advance party to enter Paris, with the message that the 2e Division Blindée (composed of 10,000 French, 3,600 North Africans and 3,000 Spaniards) would be there the following day. This party was commanded by Captain Raymond Dronne, and was given the honor to be the first Allied unit to enter Paris ahead of the 2e Division Blindée. The 9th company of the 3rd Battalion of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad was made up mainly of Spanish Republican exiles. After hard fighting that cost the 2nd Division 35 tanks, 6 self-propelled guns, and 111 vehicles, von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, surrendered the city at the Hôtel Meurice. Jubilant crowds greeted the Liberation of Paris. French forces, and de Gaulle conducted a now iconic parade through the city.

End of the war

By September 1944, the Free French forces stood at 560,000. This number rose to 1 million by the end of the year. French forces were fighting in Alsacemarker, the Alps, and Brittany. In May 1945, by the end of the war in Europe, the Free French forces comprised 1,300,000 personnel, and included seven infantry divisions and three armoured divisions fighting in Germanymarker making it the fourth allied army in Europe behind the Soviet Union, the USA and the United Kingdom. The French offered to send a division to the Pacific to help fight the Japanese towards the end of the war, but it ended before they could be sent.

At that time, general Alphonse Juin was the chief of staff of the French army, but it was General François Sevez who represented France at Reims on 7 May, while it was General de Lattre de Tassigny who was the leader of the French delegation at Berlin on V-E day, as he was the commander of the French First Army. France was then given an occupation zone in Germany, as well as in Austria and the city of Berlinmarker, but they were given it slightly later than those of the "Big Three". It was not only the role that France played in the war which was recognized, but its important strategic position and significance in the Cold War as a major democratic, capitalist nation of Western Europe in holding back the influence of communism on the continent.

Units and commands on 8 May 1945




Notable Free French

(More cited on French Resistance)

Notable French who joined after 1942


  1. Pharand (2001), p. 169
  2. La France Libre et les Français Libres : éléments de définition
  3. P. M. H. Bell, France and Britain 1900-1940: Entente & Estrangement,London, New York, 1996, p 249
  5., Le site de la France-Libre, "Les origines des FNFL, par l’amiral Thierry d’Argenlieu"
  6. S. Decalo, 53
  7. Did not see combat during the Second World War
  8. Free French origin
  9. Formed with FFI personnel.

See also

External links

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