The French Resistance

Charles de Gaulle

Le Struthof or Camp du Struthof in Alsace has a particular significance for the French because it was the main Nazi concentration camp where French resistance fighters were sent after they were captured by the Germans during World War II. The camp, also known as Natzwiller-Struthof, has become a symbol of the French resistance against the evils of Fascism during the German occupation of France. Although there were around 40,000 French citizens who were convicted of collaborating with the Nazis, there were also thousands of brave men and women who did not accept the capitulation of France and continued to fight Fascism as civilian soldiers or partisans in defiance of both the Geneva Convention of 1929 and the Armistice signed by France and Germany after France surrendered.

The leader of the French resistance was Charles de Gaulle, shown in the photo above, as he broadcasts over the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). De Gaulle made his headquarters in Great Britain and the French resistance was aided and financed by the British.

In 2005, a new museum at the Natzweiler Memorial Site was dedicated to the heroes of the French resistance whose efforts to defeat the Nazis and liberate Europe were significant. By the time that the Allies were ready to invade Europe in June 1944, there were as many as 9 major resistance networks which were fighting as guerrillas against the German occupation of France. There were an estimated 56,000 French resistance fighters who were captured and sent to concentration camps; half of them never returned.

The French resistance fighters blew up bridges, derailed trains, directed the British in the bombing of German troop trains, kidnapped and killed German army officers, and ambushed German troops. They took no prisoners, but rather killed any German soldiers who surrendered to them, sometimes mutilating their bodies for good measure. The Nazis referred to them as "terrorists."

The photo below shows a Nazi poster which depicts the heroes of the French resistance as members of an Army of Crime.

World War II had started when France and Great Britain both declared war on Germany after Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Poland was conquered by September 28, 1939 with the help of the Soviet Union which invaded Poland from the other side on September 17, 1939. France and Great Britain had made a pact with Poland that they would provide support in case of an attack, but only if the attack was made by the Germany Army; they were under no obligation to declare war on the Soviet Union. The British also made a pact with France that neither country would sign a separate peace with the Germans.

After the conquest of Poland, there was a period called the "phony war," or the "Sitzkrieg" when there were no further attacks by the Germans. Months later, when the war started up again, Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940, going around the Maginot Line, which the French had thought would protect them from Nazi aggression. On June 17, 1940, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the new prime minister of France, asked the Germans for surrender terms and an Armistice was signed on June 22, 1940. The French agreed to an immediate "cessation of fighting."

According to the terms of the Armistice, the French were allowed to set up a puppet government at Vichy in the southern part of the country which the Germans did not occupy. The Vichy government openly collaborated with the Germans, even agreeing to cooperate in the sending of French Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

There were no German soldiers stationed in Vichy France, and many refugees, including some Jews, flocked there. In occupied France, the German soldiers were ordered by Hitler to behave like gentlemen. They were not to rape and plunder. They were to take only photographs. Hitler himself visited Paris and had his photo taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, as shown below.

On Hitler's orders, the German conquerors went out of their way to be friendly. They set up food depots and soup kitchens to feed the French people until the economy could be brought back to normal. The French soon decided that collaboration with the Germans was to their advantage. The French people had been stunned by the collapse of the French Army in only a few weeks. To many, this meant the end of France as a world power. The collaborationists felt that the German war machine was invincible and the only sensible thing to do was to become allies with the Nazis who would soon unite Europe under their domination. But for some, centuries of hatred of the Germans prevented them from accepting their defeat.

Charles de Gaulle, a tank corps officer in the French Army, refused to take part in the surrender; he fled to England where, on the eve of the French capitulation, he broadcast a message to the French people over the BBC on June 18, 1940. This historic speech rallied the French people and helped to start the resistance movement. Part of his speech is quoted below:

Is the last word said? Has all hope gone? Is the defeat definitive? No. Believe me, I tell you that nothing is lost for France. This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is a world war. I invite all French officers and soldiers who are in Britain or who may find themselves there, with their arms or without, to get in touch with me. Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not die and will not die.

Although Charles de Gaulle was not well known in France, and few people had heard his broadcast, this was the beginning of the French resistance which slowly gained momentum. At the time of the French surrender, America was not yet involved in World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had no choice but to recognize Vichy France as the legitimate government. Winston Churchill refused to acknowledge Pétain's government and recognized de Gaulle as the leader of the "Free French." On July 4, 1940, a court-martial in Toulouse sentenced de Gaulle in absentia to four years in prison. On August 2, 1940, a second court-martial sentenced him to death.

Aided by the British, de Gaulle set up the Free French movement, based in London. It was particularly galling to the French that Germany had annexed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the Greater German Reich after the Armistice. The Cross of Lorraine was later adopted by Charles de Gaulle as the symbol of his Free French movement.

The French resistance was in direct violation of the Armistice signed by the French, which stipulated the following:

The French Government will forbid French citizens to fight against Germany in the service of States with which the German Reich is still at war. French citizens who violate this provision are to be treated by German troops as insurgents.

Since Great Britain was the only country still at war with the German Reich, the collaboration of the French resistance with the British was a violation of the Armistice, as was the later collaboration of the partisans with American troops after the Normandy invasion. According to the Geneva Convention of 1929, the French resistance fighters were non-combatants who did not have the rights of Prisoners of War if they were captured.

In the summer of 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill established an intelligence organization called the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its purpose was to wage secret war on the continent, but with the defeat of France this intelligence network was all but destroyed. The SOE was revived and by November 1940, it was giving aid to the French resistance.

At least one American participated in the French Resistance: Lt. Rene Guiraud was a spy in the American Military Intelligence organization, called the OSS. After being given intensive specialized training, Lt. Guiraud was parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, along with a radio operator. His mission was to collect intelligence, harass German military units and occupation forces, sabotage critical war material facilities, and carry on other resistance activities. Lt. Guiraud organized 1500 guerrilla fighters and developed intelligence networks. During all this, Guiraud posed as a French citizen, wearing civilian clothing. He was captured and interrogated for two months by the German Gestapo, but revealed nothing about his mission. He was then sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he participated in the camp resistance movement along with several captured British SOE spies. Because he was an illegal combatant, wearing civilian clothing, Lt. Guiraud did not have the rights of a POW under the Geneva Convention.

At first, the French resistance was not organized; it consisted of individual acts of sabotage. Ordinary French citizens cut telephone lines so that communications were interrupted, resulting in German soldiers being killed because they had not received warning of bombing raids by the British Royal Air Force. The Germans fought back by announcing that hostages would be shot if more acts of resistance were carried out.

Slowly, resistance organizations began to form. Telephone workers united in a secret organization to sabotage telephone lines and intercept military messages which they would give to British spies operating in France. Postal workers organized in order to intercept important military communications. The French railroad workers formed a resistance group called the Fer Réseau or Iron Network. They diverted freight shipments to the wrong location; they caused derailments by not operating the switches properly; they destroyed stretches of railroad tracks and blew up railroad bridges.

Women also participated as lone fighters in the resistance, as for example, Madame Lauro who poured hydrochloric acid and nitric acid on German food supplies in freight cars on the French railroads. Hundreds of the railroad workers were shot after they were caught, but Madame Lauro continued her acts of sabotage, working alone and at night; she was never captured.

Another French woman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, became the head of the most famous resistance network of all, the Alliance Réseau; its headquarters was at Vichy, the capital of unoccupied France. This espionage network was one of the first to be organized with the help of the British. They began by supplying the Alliance Network with short wave radios, dropped by parachute into Vichy France. Millions of francs to support the Alliance Network were dropped from the air by the British or sent by couriers. The British SOE and the French resistance worked together throughout the remainder of the war to obtain vital information about the German military and their plans. The SOE would send questions for the French resistance network to find the answers to and report back the information.

The Alliance Network was originally started by Georges Loustanau-Laucau and a group of his friends. The nickname of the Alliance was Noah's Ark because Madame Fourcade gave the members of her underground network the names of animals as their code names. She took the name Hedgehog as her own code name.

Madame Fourcade was eventually captured, but she escaped by squeezing through the bars on the window of her prison cell. She then joined the Maquis and worked with the British SOE spy organization in the last days before France was liberated. Sir Claude Dansey, the head of the S.I.S, requested the Alliance Réseau to go to Alsace to give General George Patton information about the German Order of Battle in that region. The Alliance was able to help Patton with some very valuable intelligence that had been obtained by the British. Madame Fourcade survived the war, but members of her Alliance Network were captured in Alsace and executed at Natzweiler-Struthof.

As the war progressed, anti-Fascists and Communists from other countries joined the British SOE as secret agents. One of the most famous was Albert Guérisse, who headed the PAT line which helped downed British and American flyers to escape from France, going through Spain and then back to England. Guérisse was captured in 1943 and subsequently sent to Natzweiler-Struthof. Another escape line, called Comet, was also infiltrated by German agents in 1943 and Dédée de Jongh was arrested by the Gestapo. She was sent to the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück where she survived. Guérisse was taken to Dachau when the Natzweiler camp was evacuated and he also survived. After the arrests of Guérisse and de Jongh, the escape lines were rebuilt and they became more effective than ever in saving British and American downed fliers.

Eight women SOE agents were executed, four at Dachau and four at Natzweiler, for their part in the French resistance. Three other women SOE agents were shot at Ravensbrück. But for some strange reason, Guérisse and de Jongh were not executed, despite the important part they had played in rescuing fliers so that they could live to bomb German cities again in what the Nazis called "terror bombing." Nor was Madame Fourcade, a very high-ranking resistance fighter, executed by the Gestapo. Instead, they tried to convince her to become a double agent, but she refused.

Don Lawson, the author of a book entitled "The French Resistance," wrote the following with regard to the downed fliers who were saved by the resistance fighters:

How many Allied military escapees and evaders were actually smuggled out of France and into Spain will never really be known. Records during the war were poorly kept and reconstruction of them has been unsatisfactory. Combined official American and British sources indicate there were roughly 3,000 evading American fliers and several hundred escaping POWs who were processed through Spain. These same sources indicate there were roughly 2,500 evading British fliers and about 1,000 escaping POWs. (American and British escapees and evaders in all of the theaters of war totaled some 35,000, which amounts to several military divisions.)

Operating these escape and evasion lines was not, of course, without cost in human lives. Here, too, records are incomplete and unsatisfactory, since many of the resistants simply disappeared without a trace. Estimates of losses vary from the official five hundred to as many as several thousand. Historians Foot and Langley estimate that for every escapee who was safely returned to England a line operator lost his or her life.

According to the terms of the Armistice signed on June 22, 1940, the 1.5 million captured French soldiers, who were prisoners of war, were to held in captivity until the end of the war. The French agreed to this because they thought that the British would surrender in a few weeks; instead, the British rejected all peace offers by the Germans and the French POWs remained in prison for five long years. Many of them escaped and joined the Maquis, one of the most notorious resistance groups, which distinguished itself by committing atrocities against German soldiers.

In 1943, the Germans started conscripting Frenchmen as workers in German factories. Many refused to go and escaped into the forests where they joined the Maquis. In the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which were annexed into the Greater German Reich, former French citizens were conscripted into the German Army. Many Alsatians went into hiding and escaped into Vichy France where they too became part of the French resistance, fighting with the Maquis.

The Maquis was independent from the other resistance groups; they operated as guerrilla fighters in rural areas and especially in mountainous regions. The name Maquis comes from a word that means bushes that grow along country roads. The Maquis literally hid in the bushes, darting out to kidnap German Army officers and execute them in a barbarous fashion. One of the most well-known victims of the Maquis was Major Helmut Kämpfe, the commander of Der Führer Battalion 3, who was kidnapped on 9 June 1944 and killed the next day.

The Maquisards, as the fighters in the Maquis were called, were politically diverse. Some of them, like the "Red Spaniards" who were former soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, were Communists, but in general, the Communists had their own resistance organizations, such as the FTP. This was a resistance group, formed by the Communist party, called the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans. The Communist party also formed the Front National which fought in the resistance.

After the Allied invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Maquis became particularly active. In preparation for the invasion, the British had dropped a large number of weapons and millions of francs by parachute into rural areas. The weapons were stored in farm houses and villages, ready for the resistance fighters who would play an important part in the liberation of Europe. As a result, the Maquis was very effective in preventing German troops from reaching the Normandy area to fight the invaders.

The reprisals against the Maquis by German troops became more and more vicious. Innocent French civilians suffered, as for example in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane which was destroyed by Waffen-SS soldiers on June 10, 1944.

Henri Rosencher was a Jewish medical student and a Communist member of the Maquis. He survived the war and wrote a book entitled Le Sel, la cendre, la flamme (Salt, Ash, Fire) in which he described his work as an explosives expert with the French resistance. He was captured and sent to Natzweiler-Struthof, then later to Dachau where he was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945.

The following is a quote from Rosencher's book, which describes a typical Maquis resistance action which resulted in the death by suffocation of 500 German Wehrmacht soldiers (feldgraus):

On the morning of the 17th of June, I arrived in the area of Lus-la-Croix-Haute, the "maquis" [zone of resistance] under the command of Commander Terrasson. They were waiting for me and took me off by car. The job at hand was mining a tunnel through which the Germans were expected to pass by train. The Rail resistance network had provided all the details. My only role was as advisor on explosives. TNT (Trinitrotoluene - a very powerful explosive) and plastic charges were going to collapse the mountain, sealing off the tunnel at both ends and its air shaft. When I got there, all the ground work was done. I only had to specify how much of the explosive was necessary, and where to put it. I checked the bickfords, primers, detonators, and crayons de mise à feu. We stationed our three teams and made sure that they could communicate with each other. I settled into the bushes with the team for the tunnel's entrance. And we waited. Toward three p.m., we could hear the train coming. At the front came a platform car, with nothing on it, to be sacrificed to any mines that might be on the tracks, then a car with tools for repairs, and then an armored fortress car. Then came the cars over-stuffed with men in verdi-gris uniforms, and another armored car. The train entered the tunnel and after it had fully disappeared into it, we waited another minute before setting off the charge. Boulders collapsed and cascaded in a thunderous burst; a huge mass completely covered the entrance. Right after that, we heard one, then two huge explosions. The train has been taken prisoner. The 500 "feldgraus" inside weren't about to leave, and the railway was blocked for a long, long time.

Another Jewish hero of the French resistance is Andre Scheinmann, who emigrated to the United States in 1953. Together with Diana Mara Henry, he has written a book entitled "I Am Andre: World War II Memoirs of a Spy in France."

Andre is a German Jew whose family escaped to France in 1938 after the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht. His parents were murdered at Auschwitz during the German occupation of France. Andre had been a soldier in the French Army and was a Prisoner of War when France surrendered, but he escaped and joined the French underground resistance movement. Pretending to be a collaborator, he became an interpreter for the Germans for the French national railroad. The Nazis never suspected that he was Jewish; he was given the job of overseeing the rail system in the Brittany region of France.

As a member of the French underground, second in command of a network of 300 spies, Scheinmann's job was intelligence, but he also engaged in sabotage. His resistance network gathered information on German troop movements and reported weekly to the British. The information that they supplied was invaluable to the British Air Force in bombing German troop trains. Scheinmann and his compatriots also blew up trains, killing contingents of German soldiers.

Scheinmann was eventually arrested by the German Gestapo; he endured 11 months in a Paris prison until he was sent in July 1943 to Natzweiler-Struthof as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner. He disappeared into the Night and Fog of the Nazi concentration camp system, where he was not allowed to communicate with anyone on the outside. At Natzweiler, he was given a cushy job working in the weaving workshop, and because of his ability to speak German, he was made a Kapo with the authority to supervise other prisoners.

Along with many other well-known French resistance fighters, he was evacuated from Natzweiler to Dachau and released by the American liberators. He joined the FFI and remained a soldier in the French military even after the war ended. As a hero of the resistance, he was awarded the Legion of Honor, the Medal of Resistance and the Medal of the Camps by the French government.

The FFI, or the Force Française d'Interior, also known as the "Fee Fee," was also very active after the invasion at Normandy. The British increased their arms drops after the invasion and a vast arsenal of weapons was stored on farms and in villages, ready to be handed out to the resistance fighters.

Before Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, signed in August 1939, the Communists in France had refused to join the resistance movement. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the French Communists then began to organize. The Communist resistance fighters were not loyal to de Gaulle or to France; their loyalty was to international Communism and the Soviet Union, which was fighting on the side of the Allies, against Fascism.

The objective of the Communist guerrilla fighters was the defeat of Fascism and the establishment of a Communist government in France, which would have direct allegiance to the Soviet Union. Because of this, they preferred to fight independently of the other resistance groups. Their specialty was capturing German army officers and executing them, which brought swift reprisals from the Germans. In October 1941, the Germans shot 50 hostages in reprisal for the assassination of a German field commander at Nantes. This did not stop the assassinations; in 1943, the Communists claimed that they were killing 500 to 600 German soldiers per month.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, a right-wing collaborationist military group, called the Service d'Ordre Legionnaire, was organized by Joseph Darnand in July 1941 in support of Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain and his Vichy government. Darmand volunteered to help the Germans and the Vichy officials in rounding up the Jews in France and in fighting against the French resistance.

In January 1943, the Service d'Ordre Legionnaire was reorganized into the Milice Française, which became the secret police of the Vichy government, working in close association with the German Gestapo in France. Darmand was accepted into the Waffen-SS army and given the rank of Sturmbannführer. Like all members of the SS, Darmand took an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. Another famous Milice leader was Paul Touvier.

By 1944, the Milice had expanded, from an initial 5,000 members, to a special police force of 35,000, which greatly assisted the Gestapo in fighting against the resistance. Without the help of the French collaborationists, the job of the Gestapo would have been much more difficult.

Sometimes, the Milice made mistakes, giving misleading information, as when two Milice policemen told the Germans that a Germany army officer, who had been kidnapped by the Maquis, was being held in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane and was going to be ceremoniously burned alive; this wrong information led to the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane and the murder of 642 innocent people, one of the worst atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS in World War II.

Jean Moulin

The greatest hero of the French Resistance was a man named Jean Moulin, shown in the photo above. His great contribution was in convincing Charles de Gaulle that all the independent resistance groups and the Secret Army should be united into one central organization. De Gaulle had not planned to use the French resistance to liberate France, but Moulin advised him that the Allies would have a much better chance of defeating the Germans with the help of a united resistance movement.

Moulin was authorized by de Gaulle to establish the National Resistance Council (CNR). He contacted the leaders of the various resistance networks and got them to agree with his plan by promising them money and supplies from the British. Then he suggested that the resistance should form a military organization that would fight the Germans in open combat. He was preparing for the day when the Allies would invade Europe and a French Army would be ready to join them. De Gaulle hoped to use this army to take control of France and become its President after the country was liberated. Most of the resistance networks were against this idea because they had been successfully operating as guerrilla fighters and did not want to become part of an Army. The Communists liked the idea of a resistance Army but they would not swear loyalty to de Gaulle, since they had their own plans to set up a Communist government in France.

In the Spring of 1943, the first meeting of the National Resistance Council took place in Paris, attended by the leaders of 16 different resistance organizations. The meeting lasted for several days, during which time Moulin was finally able to persuade the rival factions to unite and to swear an oath of loyalty to Charles de Gaulle as their leader. Several weeks later, on June 21, 1943, Moulin was arrested by the German Gestapo.

According to Don Lawson, author of a book called "The French Resistance," Moulin had been betrayed by Jean Moulton, an agent with "Combat," one of the oldest of the resistance groups. Moulton had been captured by the Gestapo and to avoid being shot or tortured, he agreed to give names and locations of resistance members. Hundreds of the resistance fighters were then arrested by the infamous Gestapo Chief, Klaus Barbie. Many of them wound up at the Natzweiler-Struthof camp.

Two of the biggest problems for the resistance fighters were transportation and food, which was also was a problem for the French people in general. Food was rationed and the Germans had confiscated most of the cars. The British supplied weapons and money, but there were no food drops into France. The places where food was available, mainly in rural areas, became thriving black market centers. The Maquis traveled mostly by bicycle, although some had managed to hide a few old cars. Gasoline was not available for most French civilians; only doctors and others who needed to use a car were allowed gasoline.

When the Allied invasion came, the resistance fighters were cautioned to wear armbands with the Cross of Lorraine, so that they could be easily identified by the Allied soldiers. French women who were not part of the resistance were asked to volunteer to help sew the armbands.

After the successful Normandy invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision not to take Paris immediately. De Gaulle knew that Paris was a Communist stronghold and he knew that if Paris were liberated from within by the Communists, they would probably take control of the French government. To prevent the Communists from taking control of the capital city of Paris, De Gaulle decided that Paris must be liberated by the Allies.

According to Don Lawson in his book "The French Resistance," de Gaulle had taken steps, before the Normandy invasion, to strengthen his plan to become the new President of France after the liberation. He insisted that the SOE increase its weapons drops, but stipulated that these weapons should be mainly parachuted to the Maquis in the outlying areas, with only a few going to the 25,000 Communist resistance fighters holed up in Paris.

Don Lawson wrote the following, regarding the decision to drop weapons to outlying areas:

That this procedure was justified by motivations other than de Gaulle's personal ones was clearly indicated by the fact that in the peninsula of Brittany alone fewer than 100,000 FFI kept several German divisions pinned down during the Normandy campaign. In the whole of France, it was estimated by General Eisenhower, the FFI's efforts in preventing German troops from attacking the Allied invasion forces were the equivalent of some fifteen Allied divisions. As always, these resistance efforts were not without cost. The Germans were now desperate, and their reprisals were even more savage than before. In March of 1944 an entire Maquis band numbering more than a thousand resistants were wiped out in the Haute Savoie region. In July 1944 another Maquis force of similar size was destroyed at Vercors.

In the days immediately following the Normandy invasion, the FFI, or the French Forces of the Interior, became a French Army under the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) commanded by General Eisenhower, who unilaterally informed the Germans that the French resistance fighters were to be regarded as legal combatants. Eisenhower authorized a French combat division to be commanded by General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc. This division was called the 2nd Armored Division, but it was more commonly known as Division Leclerc. De Gaulle contacted the Communist resistance in Paris and unilaterally informed them that Division Leclerc would be the liberators of Paris.

Meanwhile, Hitler was holed up in his Berlin bunker and he had seemingly gone mad; he ordered the destruction of Paris rather than surrender it to the Allies. His generals ignored this order and Paris was saved.

Eisenhower had finally agreed that the 2nd Armored Division should lead the liberation of Paris with the US Fourth Infantry Division providing backup. Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944; Charles de Gaulle rode into Paris in triumph, holding up his arms, spread wide in a V for victory sign.

Nacht und Nebel prisoners

Albert-Marie Guérisse

General Charles Delestraint

Alliance Réseau

SOE agents execution