Of nearly 100,000 French troops in England at that time—most of whom had been evacuated from the area around Dunkerque—only 1,300 volunteered to stay in England and join de Gaulle; the remainder returned to France. Of the volunteers, 900 were Foreign Legionnaires of the 13th Demi-Brigade who had recently been evacuated from Norway. Undeterred by the limited response, de Gaulle recruited forces and established the "Fighting French" (Free French Forces). On 2 August, a court-martial initiated by Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain's Vichy French government sentenced de Gaulle to death in absentia for treason. On 7 August, de Gaulle signed an agreement with the British government regulating the French forces and placing them under the "general directives of the British High Command."
Over the next year, de Gaulle's small force steadily increased in number. In August 1940, sufficient troops to form four battalions joined from Equatorial Africa (Chad, Cameroon, Middle Congo, and Gabon). Hoping to enlist units in West Africa, de Gaulle mounted a 1,445-man expedition with British naval support against Dakar in West Africa, but the city remained loyal to Vichy France and the operation failed.
Other Free French Forces served abroad. Volunteers from Syria were formed into the 1st Marine (Naval) Infantry, which was attached to the British 7th Armoured Division. These troops assisted in the capture of Tobruk, Libya, in January 1941. In December 1940, Colonel Raoul-Charles Magrin-Vernerey (a.k.a. Monclar) formed the Brigade d'Orient of 1,200 men from several units of infantry (including the 13th Demi-Brigade) and a horse cavalry squadron. The brigade fought in Eritrea from January to May 1941, the cavalry unit making the last French cavalry charge in history (against Italian cavalry).
On 25 May 1941, Major General Paul Louis Legentilhomme formed the 5,400-man 1st Free French Light Division from several units of French Legionnaires, Africans, and Arabs. On 8 June, operating with British Commonwealth forces, the division invaded Syria, meeting bitter resistance from Vichy forces there. The campaign ended on 11 July. Of the 38,000 Vichy troops in Syria, 5,331 (including 1,000 Legionnaires) joined the Free French; the remainder were allowed to return to France. On 20 August 1941, the Light Division was disbanded; with additional reinforcements, it became several independent brigade groups, some of which remained in Syria for garrison duties.
The 1st French Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Marie Pierre Koenig, was formed in December 1941. It consisted of the 13th Demi-Brigade and several naval infantry battalions. These Fusiliers-Marins provided a bit of color, as the sailors retained their red pom-pom naval caps and the chief petty officers wore their peaked caps. Assigned to the British XIII Corps, the 1st Brigade was posted to the "box" at Bir Hacheim at the left end of the Gazala Line in Libya.
Attacked by the Italian Ariete Division and elements of the German 90th Light Division on 27 May 1941, the 1st Brigade held, despite continuous combat and constant Luftwaffe attack. On 11 June it was ordered to withdraw, breaking through to British lines. Bir Hacheim was the defining battle for the Free French. Prior to it, British support had been lukewarm. However, after the brigade withstood German Afrika Korps assaults longer than any of the Commonwealth "boxes" on the Gazala Line, there were no longer any doubts that the Free French would fight and fight well.
By the time of the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, Free French units were fighting with the British 7th Armoured Division, 50th Infantry Division, and the Long-Range Desert Group. The 1st Free French Division was formed 1 February 1943 for the campaign in Tunisia under Koenig, who was now a major general. After a brief resistance to the Allied landings on 8 November 1942, eight divisions of the French North and West African Armies went over to the Allied side. The XIX Algerian Corps under Major General Alphonse Pierre Juin fought alongside the British First Army in Tunisia, although Juin refused to take orders from the British commander. Additional political problems arose when some elements of the Free French forces refused to associate with the North African ex-Vichy troops.
On 4 August 1943, a new French army came into being, consisting of eight infantry divisions, four armored divisions, four regiment-sized groups of French North African troops, six commando battalions, and one parachute regiment. Under the terms of an inter-Allied agreement, the United States assumed responsibility for rearming, reequipping, training, and supplying the French forces. Language problems and the emphasis on fielding the greatest number of combat units possible at the expense of support units were the most prominent obstacles encountered. Other problems arose over weapons (the French never received the excellent U.S. M1 Garand rifle) and supplies (the French never received tanker jackets and, more seriously, initially received a smaller ration scale than American troops). Eventually most problems were resolved.
A French Expeditionary Corps of five divisions was formed on 18 May 1943. Commanded by Major General Juin and sent to Italy in late 1943 and early 1944, it was instrumental in winning the Fourth Battle of Cassino, outflanking the German position by moving through the mountains as Juin suggested. A reinforced Free French division liberated the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Elba in September 1943 and June 1944, respectively.
On 15 August 1944, what became the French First Army under Major General Jean Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny landed in southern France as part of the U.S. Sixth Army in Operation dragoon. Its eight divisions and 200,000 men fought their way up the Rhône Valley, arriving on the right flank of U.S. Lieutenant General George S. Patton's Third Army. The French First Army advanced into southwest Germany, and by the end of the war it had reached the Tyrol in western Austria. In addition, Major General Philippe Leclerc's Free French 2nd Armored Division served with the U.S. First Army, liberated Paris, and joined the French First Army in February 1945. By the end of the war, the rebuilt French air force consisted of 25 fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons equipped with American and British aircraft. The Free French navy, which initially consisted of only three ships, had grown by war's end to a total of 240 warships.
At a cost of 23,500 killed and 95,500 wounded, the Free French Forces demonstrated a will to fight that impressed their Allied counterparts. Although it was significant, the Free French contribution to the Allied victory in Europe is not generally recognized. Dana Lombardy and T. P. Schweider
de Gaulle, Charles. The Complete War Memoirs of Charles DeGaulle. Trans. Jonathan Griffin and Richard Howard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.; Lattre de Tassigny, Jean Marie Gabriel de. The History of the French First Army. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952.; Rossignoli, Guido. The Allied Forces in Italy, 1943–45. New York: Random House, 2000.; Vigneras, Marcel. The United States Army in World War II: Special Studies: Rearming the French. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1957.
Dana Lombardy and T. P. Schweider