Rebuilding the French Army (1943-1945)
The military capability, the political instrument and operational control
By Tristan Lecoq
Inspector-General of National Education
Associate lecturer in contemporary history
at Paris-Sorbonne University
Rebuilding the French army, from the beginning of 1943 to victory in 1945, meant addressing three questions. To rebuild an army to liberate the country: this was the inter-Allied, military dimension of Liberation; to rebuild the Army of the Republic: this was the issue of a military “capability”, under the command of the political authorities; to rebuild the Army of France meant rebuilding an instrument of a power which itself needed reconstructing.
The army is above all a political instrument, which reports to a political authority and is at the service of State policy. It is at the heart of sovereignty and therefore the means of exercising that sovereignty. “Defence! It is the State’s primary raison d’être. It cannot neglect it without destroying itself,” General de Gaulle would say, on 14 June 1952, in Bayeux1.
From this standpoint, what was the situation in November 1942, following the Allied landings in North Africa? A French State entirely occupied from 11 to 27 November, without the Empire, without the Navy, then a militia government in the pay of the occupier. A Free France, combatant from July 1942, but which received mixed acceptance and recognition from the Allies and the USSR. An Empire rallied to Free France, then to the French Committee for National Liberation, from July 1940 to spring 1943, in the midst of conflict and disputes among the French.
A divided political authority that was insecure overseas. Several armies in very different states. Contenders in Algeria who, from November 1942 to June 1943, all sought the support of a military force: Darlan, Giraud, de Gaulle.
So the crux of the matter was the relationship between political and military power, which was only reconciled, with difficulty, in June 1943. It was also a question of the relationship between a French army and a military coalition, which was only resolved - with difficulty, belatedly and incompletely - after the liberation of Paris, when the Provisional Government of the French Republic was recognised by the United States, on 23 October 1944. From then on, the place and role of the French Army, which needed rebuilding, and was rebuilt between 1943 and 1945, were the subject of bitter discussions among the French, between the French and the Allies, and amongst the Allies themselves2. De Gaulle and Giraud. De Gaulle and the Allies. Paris, Strasbourg, the Rhine and Germany.
Beyond the political question: what role should the French Army have in the liberation of France? Military: what role should the French Army play in the Allied operations? The equation to be solved had to do with the autonomy or dependence of a French army vis-à-vis the Allies, to whom it owed, to a large extent, its revival and operational capabilities.
To rebuild the army, therefore, meant casting a new military capability. To liberate France and march on the Rhine was to use the army as a political instrument, even if it was part of a coalition.
The issue of the operational control of the French troops by the Allied command bridged these two sides of the same complex political, military and warring relationship: it was a question of the military dependence, interdependence and independence of the French Army in the fighting, between 1943 and 1945.
1. Rebuilding the French Army: the issue of military capability
The land army which was reborn was the Army of Combatant France, the Army of Africa and a brand-new new army, all at once.
2. The campaigns of the Liberation: the Army as a political instrument
Paris and Strasbourg were liberated by Leclerc and a remarkable unit of the Allied armies: the 2nd Armoured Division; the Rhine and the Danube, by de Lattre and the Army of Africa, as part of the overall operation by the Allied forces; the forgotten campaigns, on the margins of the victory, were the Atlantic pockets, the fighting in the Alps and the paddy fields of Indochina.
Formed in Temara, Morocco, and trained in Aintree, England, the 2nd Armoured Division landed in France in August 1944. Heir of the “Leclerc Column” and “Force L”, equipped, trained and led by the Americans, its history, composition and spirit made it both the most Gaullist and the most political of the major French units of the Second World War.
In it, the soldiers of Free France fought alongside cuirassiers, chasseurs d’Afrique, spahis16 and naval fusiliers - and it was Spanish Republicans of the 9th Company 1st Battalion of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad (Chad Infantry Regiment) who would ensure the security of General de Gaulle on the parade of 26 August. It fought under the flags of the Spanish and French Republics, therefore, and was commanded by a Picardian aristocrat who was an officer by education, a Frenchman by tradition and a rebel by vocation17.
What was at stake was the liberation of French territory, the seizing of political power and the military victory.
Organised into three heavy and one light combat commands, perfectly integrated into General Patton’s army and American operational methods, the 2nd Armoured Division fought in Normandy and very quickly showed itself to be an exceptional unit, formed of exceptional soldiers and with an exceptional leader. It was perhaps mainly on the basis of this military recognition that the US commanders, Generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton - not without some hesitation - allowed the 2nd Armoured Division to reorientate the Allied objectives to the liberation of Paris - even though the city was no longer of any strategic interest, the Battle of Normandy was over, and the German Army was retreating eastwards.
On close analysis, General de Gaulle’s reasons for using a French unit were more political than military, in the eyes of the Allies at least. Fully integrated into the US forces in material, logistical and operational terms, Leclerc freed himself from the American yoke on a political level. On 24 August 1944, he was outside the hierarchy. Fully dependent, fully interdependent, fully independent18.
The battle for the liberation of Paris was not a costly one, fought as it was against an irresolute enemy who sought an honourable way out. It was the backdrop to what were, for the most part, strained relations between the French Government and its Army, the remnants of Vichy, the Americans and the various resistance organisations (Front National, communists, internal Resistance, and National Council of the Resistance). Thus it was very much the result of a political enterprise, spearheaded by the 2nd Armoured Division and supported by the US 4th Infantry Division. Nevertheless, if it was wanted by de Gaulle and accomplished by Leclerc, it was the Allied commanders, not least General Eisenhower, who made it possible19.
Continuing towards eastern France, still among the ranks of the American forces and under their operational control, the 2nd Armoured Division reached Dompaire on 13 September, the Col du Dabo pass on 19 November, and Strasbourg on 23 November, thus honouring the “Oath of Kufra” (not to lay down their arms until the French flag flew over Strasbourg Cathedral).
The final allegro vivace took Leclerc’s soldiers as far as Berchtesgaden, in May 194520.
How different from this remarkable unit was General de Lattre’s First Army! The direct heir of the Army of Africa and its regiments and traditions, France’s 1st Army had at its head a leader who had rejoined combatant France following the occupation of the Free Zone, on 11 November 1942. It was similarly equipped, organised and trained by the Americans, and its objectives and operations were fully integrated into the overall planning for the Allied theatres of operations.
General de Gaulle recognised as much in his memoirs, writing: “The British and Americans never consented to treating us as true Allies. They never consulted us, government to government, on any of their arrangements. [...] [T]hey sought to use the French forces for goals which they themselves had set, as if those forces belonged to them, claiming that they contributed to arming them.”21
While it was true that General de Gaulle had pushed for French landings in Provence, whereas the British, and Winston Churchill in particular, preferred the Balkans, it was very much an Allied - i.e. American - decision. Even so, French military involvement in the landings of August 1944 made them the most French of all Allied operations in the war - an operation planned by the command of the US Seventh Army, in which Army B was the spearhead.
In view of the stretched formation of the German 19th Army, without air support, which on 18 August had been ordered by Adolf Hitler to retreat, the Allied operations in Provence went not only according to plan, but appreciably ahead of schedule: Marseille fell 16 days earlier than planned, and Toulon seven days earlier, thanks to a superb manoeuvre by de Lattre’s troops22.
Army B, renamed the First Army on 19 September 1944, then headed up the Rhône Valley into eastern France. Here it would gain a degree of tactical autonomy, like the major British, Canadian and American units, while remaining under the tight operational control of the Allied command.
To cross the Rhine and invade Germany: these were the otherwise difficult objectives that General de Gaulle assigned to de Lattre, summarising them in his inimitable fashion, with the words: “All that remained was the crucial bit: to cross the Rhine.”23
The last six months of the war were, for both sides, the bloodiest, as exemplified by the bitter fighting of winter 1944-4524. Operations like the attack on the Colmar Pocket, from 23 January to 10 February 1945, ordered by de Lattre, resembled suicide missions. In the course of these operations, the 2nd Armoured Division, detached to the First Army, also suffered heavy losses by being sent into action in inappropriate conditions. It is understandable why General Leclerc preferred to fight alongside the Americans25.
It should also be emphasised that the French Army faced two simultaneous issues: the integration of troops from the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) and the “whitening” of the French units of the First Army with the return home of soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa. Those from French North Africa remained.
The disarmament of all non-military groups had been decided by General de Gaulle on 28 August 1944, for political and military reasons. It would not be a people’s army, but an Army of the Republic.
Of a total of nearly 300 000 members of the FFI, 190 000 were enlisted, 137 000 of them in the First Army, in autumn and winter of 1944. The Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) found themselves in the 151st Infantry Regiment (previously commanded by de Lattre!), while Colonel Berger (alias André Malraux) was put in command of the Independent Alsace-Lorraine Brigade. They joined the 250 000 troops of this major unit, making up for the loss of the sub-Saharan African soldiers, whose departure had left a feeling of abandonment, as well as physical and psychological anguish.
On the orders of General Devers, of the US Sixth Army Group, which also comprised General Patch’s Seventh Army, de Lattre fought in eastern France. There, in January 1945, he received the order from General de Gaulle to maintain some French troops in Strasbourg, liberated by the 2nd Armoured Division in November 1944, at a difficult point in the Battle of the Bulge.
This was the second time the head of the French government had intervened in the course of Allied operations, and once again the French arguments were accepted by the Allied command, and the First Army remained in the same subordinate position, as part of an Allied strategy that was fully integrated at all levels - material, logistical and operational. De Gaulle recognised this in a matter-of-fact way: “[F]or the operations, our field forces were placed within the Western strategic system.”26
The general’s third intervention, in April-May 1945, concerned the First Army’s role in the final offensive.
As de Gaulle himself put it: “Our troops, too, had to cross the Rhine. We would do so as part of the Allied strategy, if possible. If not, we would do so off our own bat. Either way, they must seize a French zone of occupation on the eastern bank.”27
The military realities of operations that were necessarily inter-Allied, the fierce fighting of the Wehrmacht, the operational capacities of the French, and relations that were a mixture of impatience, exasperation and admiration between General de Lattre and his American superiors, would determine otherwise. Despite friction and clashes, the First Army would remain under US operational control until the end of the Allied invasion of Germany28.
Which leaves the forgotten campaigns.
In the Alps, passes were by turns liberated, lost and re-won by French troops from the FFI with inadequate equipment, training and leadership. De Gaulle pushed them towards the Col de Tende, La Brigue and Val d’Aoste: objectives linked as much to the military ridge line as to territorial claims and the post-war situation. US operational control may have been less overbearing than elsewhere, but the United States government and its generals made it clear to the French government that it had limited room for manoeuvre, even bringing up the possibility of the supply chain being broken and rearmament being interrupted.
That was not the case on the “Atlantic Front”. General de Larminat, commander of the French forces there, dealt directly with the Allied command on the planning and execution of the operations, calling on the Allied forces wherever necessary for support. It was a French affair, and therefore secondary. Most of the fighting, up until May 1945, involved French units of the land forces, many of them originally from the FFI, air force and navy. The 1st Free French Division and combat commands of the 2nd Armoured Division, under French operational control, also intervened on this front to help wipe out the German “pockets”, once and for all!
In Indochina, the Japanese occupation of this crucial staging-post between Malaysia and Japan, the weak operational capability of the French military forces that had rallied to the Provisional Government of the French Republic, the unlikelihood that Allied aid would be forthcoming and, above all, the coup of 9 March 1945 led, after a brief but bloody campaign in March and April, to a French military vacuum. The inter-Allied question of what would become of the colonial military might was to be dealt with by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command.
A French Army rebuilt at the instance and on the terms of the Allies - the British and, above all, the Americans. A French Army subject to the material and logistical availability, operational constraints and usage concepts of the Allies. A French Army under the operational control of the Allies, from the beginning to the end of Liberation.
On three occasions - Paris, Strasbourg and the Rhine - Charles de Gaulle succeeded in making his government’s political authority prevail over the Allies, by employing arguments that they wanted to hear. However, from 1945, France began to reap the consequences of a military capability which allowed it neither national independence, nor strategic autonomy, nor even a role in planning the operations.
At bottom, in Paris, Strasbourg and the Rhine, Germany, Italy and Indochina, the operational control of a French Army that had regained the military respect of the Allies was subject, on a tactical level, to the national demands made by General de Gaulle. On condition that they did not undermine Allied operational planning or, above all, as the war reached an end, set a precedent for after the victory.
Liberation was a military victory of the Allied armies, with the participation of a French Army integrated in the overall operation and the internal order ensure the General de Gaulle and his government. The French Army was the Army of Liberation.
But the shadow of June 1940, of Vichy and military collaboration, of four years of Franco-French fighting, resulted in a political and military purge. The court cases of Liberation affected the Army. Not only the Pétain case, but those of admirals and generals who served Vichy and Germany. Civil war may have been avoided, but dissension among the French might nevertheless carry the day over a victory which was in many respects ambiguous and whose military dimension seems to have been quickly erased.
What a difference between how the two world wars ended! In 1918, a US Army equipped, trained and led by the French, integrated into the Allied strategy, but, at the suggestion of General Foch, allowed considerable room for manoeuvre by the Allied command in the course of operations. Having arrived in France in 1917 with the world’s third largest navy but no real army or air force, the Americans left in 1918 with a complete military capability29. The French Army of 1945 was entirely dependent on the Americans, materially, logistically and operationally.
This was the backdrop to the question of the future of the French Army after victory. The construction of a military capability, the experience of its effectiveness in combat and its dependence on the Allies from 1943 to 1945, are linked. What did France need an army for? What would be its materials, its leadership, its concepts of use? What alliances would it belong to?
The war confirmed the role of armoured units organised American-style, with air cover on the Western Front. The naval air-force dimension of control of the seas was also an important consideration, as was the need to have intervention forces stationed overseas. Should the French Army be rebuilt on these bases, or should the existing armed forces be kept as they are, i.e. integrated and dependent?
The military capability, power and position of France are all directly interrelated. France was not present at Dumbarton Oaks, Yalta or Potsdam. The issue of the French zone of occupation was not resolved until July 1945, even though de Lattre returned to Stuttgart and Karlsruhe in April and countersigned for France, in Berlin, on 8 May 1945. At the same time, as the war continued in the Pacific, riots broke out in Sétif, Algeria, and crisis erupted in the Levant.
There were so many questions facing France in 1945, all of them with an obvious military dimension. So many political questions which, from the way they were - or were not - responded to, shed light on the military choices of post-war France.
The absence of a response that was up to his expectations was behind Charles de Gaulle’s resignation, in January 194630. It was also behind the thorough reforms of the military which he undertook upon his return to power. Finally, it was one of the aspects of the decisions which he took, towards national independence, between 1958 and 1966.
1 Charles de Gaulle, Discours et messages Tome II Dans l'attente 1946-1958 Paris, Plon, 1970, p.527
2 Fondation Charles de Gaulle, De Gaulle chef de guerre. De l'appel de Londres à la Libération de Paris 1940-1944 Actes du colloque des 8, 19 et 20 octobre 2006 Paris, Fondations Charles de Gaulle, Plon, 2008
3 Général Henri Giraud, Un seul but, la victoire ! Alger 1942-1944 Paris, Julliard, 1949
4 André Martel (dir.), Histoire militaire de la France, Tome 4, De 1940 à nos jours, Paris, PUF, 1994, en particulier le chapitre IV La Libération et la Victoire : "Quoi ? Les Français aussi ?" pp. 175-237
5 Marcel Vigneras, "Rearming the French" in US Army in World War II Special Studies, Washington DC, Center of Military History United States Army 1956/1989
6 Vingt-sept classes d'âges, de 1919 à 1945, sont appelées sous les drapeaux.
7 Christine Levisse-Touzé, L'Afrique du Nord dans la guerre, 1939-1945, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998.
8 Kent Roberts Greenfield, Robert R. Palmer and Bell I. Wiley, "The Organization of Ground Combat Troops" in US Army in World War II, Center of Military History United States Army Washington DC, 1987
9 Jacques Vernet, Le réarmement et la réorganisation de l'Armée de terre française (1943-1946), Vincennes, SHAT, 1980
10 Patrick Facon, L'Armée de l'air de la victoire, 1942-1945, Paris, Economica, 2006
11 Etudes marines n°4, "L'histoire d'une révolution. La Marine depuis 1870", Paris, Centre d'études supérieures de la marine, mars 2013
12 Richard Hough, Former Naval Person : Churchill and The Wars at Sea, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1985
13 Philippe Masson, La Marine française et la guerre, 1939-1945, Paris Tallandier, 2000
14 Julie Le Gac, Vaincre sans gloire. Le corps expéditionnaire français en Italie (novembre 1942-juillet 1944), Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2013
15 Colonel (ER) Pierre Le Goyet, La campagne d'Italie. Une victoire quasi inutile, Paris Nouvelles Editions latines, 1985
16 Le quart de la 2ème DB est composé de troupes d'origine maghrébine.
17 Christine Levisse-Touzé, Du capitaine de Hauteclocque au général Leclerc, Actes du colloque des 19-21 novembre 1997, Paris, éditions Complexe, 2000 ; Olivier Forcade, "Du capitaine de Hauteclocque au général Leclerc" in Vingtième siècle. Revue d'histoire, n° 58, Paris, 1998, pp. 144-146
18 André Martel, Leclerc. Le soldat et le politique, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998
19 Jean-François Muracciole, La libération de Paris, 19-26 août 1944, Paris, Tallandier, 2013
20 Le général Leclerc vu par ses compagnons de combat, Paris, éditions Alsatia, 1948
21 Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de guerre. L'unité 1942-1944, Paris, Plon, 1956 p.260
22 La libération de la Provence. Les armées de la liberté, Actes du colloque international de Fréjus des 15 et 16 septembre 1994, Paris, Institut d'histoire de la défense/SIRPA, 1994
23 Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de guerre. Le salut 1944-1946, Paris, Plon, 1959, p.155
24 Du débarquement d'août 1944 à mai 1945, les armées françaises auront fait quelque 570 000 tués et blessés ainsi que 300 000 prisonniers à l'ennemi.
26 Général Jean Compagnon, Leclerc maréchal de France, Paris, Flammarion, 1994
26 Charles de Gaulle, op. cit. p.131
27 Charles de Gaulle, op. cit. p. 158-159
28 Jean-Christophe Notin, Les vaincus seront les vainqueurs. La France en Allemagne, 1945, Paris, Perrin, 2004
29 Claude Franc, Le Haut commandement français sur le front occidental, 1914-1918, Paris, Soteca, 2012 ; François Cochet, La Grande Guerre : fin d'un monde, début d'un siècle, Paris, Perrin, 2014
30 De Gaulle et la Nation face aux problèmes de défense, Actes du colloque des 21 et 22 octobre 1982, Paris, Institut Charles de Gaulle et Plon, 1983
Inspector-General of National Education
Associate lecturer in contemporary history
at Paris-Sorbonne University