Too young to have fought in World War I, he graduated from the French Military Academy of St. Cyr in 1924 and distinguished himself in combat against rebels in Morocco. He then taught at St. Cyr.
While fighting as a captain during the campaign for France in 1940, Leclerc was wounded and captured by the Germans. They thought he was too weak to move and placed him at a chateau belonging to some of his friends, from which he managed to escape. After a perilous journey through Fascist-controlled Spain and Portugal, he arrived in London in July to join General Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces. Following Leclerc's recuperation and promotion to major, de Gaulle sent him to French Equatorial Africa, where he organized Free French forces.
Starting with only about 20 men, Leclerc defeated Vichy French forces and won control of Gabon and the Cameroons during October and November 1940. By 1942, Free French forces controlled all of French Equatorial Africa. Leclerc, now a colonel, commanded the Desert Army and conducted raids against Italian outposts in the Sahara. In December 1942, he led a march from Lake Chad to Tripoli, covering 2,000 miles in 39 days. Leclerc's actions guaranteed the safety of the Takoradi air route used to ferry supplies from the United States to the Soviet Union. In January 1943, his forces linked up with the British Eighth Army outside Tripoli.
In June 1944, Leclerc assumed command of the 2nd French Armored Division as a major general. He and his unit fought in the Normandy Campaign and in the drive across France. On 23 August, on General Dwight D. Eisenhower's approval, his unit was the first Allied formation to enter Paris. Promoted to lieutenant general, he then helped liberate both Strasbourg and Bordeaux.
After the Allied victory in Europe, de Gaulle appointed Leclerc to command the French Expeditionary Force sent to restore French control over Indochina; on the way there, he represented France in the formal Japanese surrender. Despite having only 40,000 men, Leclerc speedily restored French authority in Vietnam and Cambodia. Aware of the great difficulties of engaging in jungle warfare against nationalist guerrillas, he was not optimistic about his country's long-term prospects in the area, and he informed the government in a secret report that there would be no victory through force in Indochina. Undercut by French nationalists, Leclerc asked for and received a transfer. In July 1946, he was promoted to full general and appointed to command French forces in North Africa. He died in a plane crash in Algeria on 28 November 1947. France posthumously awarded him the rank of marshal. Michael S. Neiberg
Clayton, Anthony. Three Marshals of France: Leadership after Trauma. New York: Brassey's, 1992.; Ingold, François, and Louis Mouillessaux. Leclerc de Hauteclocque. Paris: Editions Litteraires de France, 1948.
Michael S. Neiberg