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World War Two : How The French Resistance Fought Against The Germans?

Updated on June 20, 2015

French Resistance Fighters

French Resistance Fighters
French Resistance Fighters | Source

Erwin Rommel with Surrendered British General V M Fortune

Erwin Rommel with Surrendered Major General Sir V M Fortune, Commander of the British 51st Highland Division at St Valery, June 1940
Erwin Rommel with Surrendered Major General Sir V M Fortune, Commander of the British 51st Highland Division at St Valery, June 1940 | Source

German Occupation Of France

The Battle of France in 1940 led to an astounding German victory. The Germans had invaded France on 10 May, 1940 and within a month, the French Army was catastrophically destroyed. Though numerically superior than the Wehrmacht, the French Army lost pathetically due to their military indecision, poor maneuvering skills and a weak Air-Force. Further, the German Army was led by able field Commanders such as Keitel, Bock, Rundstedt, Guderian and Erwin Rommel who acted on their discretion and smashed through the French defenses.

French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned 16th June 1940. The next Prime Minister, Philippe Petain requested the Germans to sign an armistice. An armistice was signed on 22th June and thereafter, France was under total control of Berlin! France was divided into a German occupied 'North and Western France' and a 'Southern Free France'. The French Government headed by Petain was a puppet and was referred to as 'Vichy France'.

A Joke Showing The Existence Of French Resistance

A Joke Showing The Existence Of French Resistance
A Joke Showing The Existence Of French Resistance | Source

The French Resistance Begins...

The French people were stunned as the French Army had been destructed by the Germans in a few weeks! The new French President's collaboration with the Germans was viewed by some French as an intelligent thing to do at that time. However, for the patriotic citizens, it was time for a long guerrilla warfare!

In the first few months after the German occupation, there were incidents of French individuals getting involved in acts of sabotage, killing German soldiers when caught alone, etc. Slowly, small groups started to develop all throughout France.

  • The French Railway workers formed a resistance group called the Fer Réseau (The Iron Network). They used to divert shipments of goods to the wrong location by changing signals. They used to help other resistance soldiers to blow up trains and they frequently caused derailments by changing the track-switches in the wrong way.
  • Telephone and Postal workers formed a small resistance group and used to crack German codes, intercept important messages and send them to British spies or French underground soldiers.
  • Small resistance groups emerged throughout occupied France. They were politically diverse and had different ideology but they fought against the Germans. These various groups were later united by Jean Moulin with de Gaulle's support to form a single strong Resistance network.

The Cross of Lorraine was adopted by the Free French as their symbol in the struggle against the Germans.

Know More About French Resistance Against The Nazis

Charles de Gaulle Speaking To Frenchmen Over Radio From Britain

Charles de Gaulle Speaking To Frenchmen Over Radio From Britain
Charles de Gaulle Speaking To Frenchmen Over Radio From Britain | Source

Charles de Gaulle : Leader Of The Free French

The unorganized scattered Resistance movement in German-occupied France was slowly brought together into an organized form by Charles de Gaulle. He was a tank officer in the French Army and fought against the invading Germans.After France's official surrender to Germany, many French soldiers and officers fled to Britain, not supporting the surrender.

Charles de Gaulle also went to Britain and continued his fight from exile with the support of Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. On June 18th 1940, he made a historic speech via the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) -

"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........

.......Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not die and will not die."
Slowly with the help of the British and resistance organizations, de Gaulle successfully built up a massive network of a strong French Resistance. This network of gallant fighters weakened the German machinery from within. Thousands of French men and women helped the Allied invasion in Normandy to success. They signaled Allied planes for safe landing or to drop weapons/ammunition's to be handed over to Resistance fighters. The resistance network disrupted train lines, destroyed food, sabotaged phone lines and sent valuable information to Allied spies, etc.

The organized resistance network under the control of de Gaulle and acknowledged by America and Britain, the FFI (French Forces of the Interior) became a full fledged French Army after the Normandy invasion. An Armored division under this Army headed by General Leclerc was to liberate Paris from the remaining Germans.

Paris was finally liberated (on 25th August, 1944). Charles de Gaulle rode into Paris victoriously, with his hands making the "V" for Victory sign.

A Guerrilla Resistance Fighter

A Guerrilla Resistance Fighter
A Guerrilla Resistance Fighter | Source

A Team Of Resistance Fighters

A Team Of Resistance Fighters
A Team Of Resistance Fighters | Source

Defense de la France

Defense de la France
Defense de la France | Source

Modus Operandi Of The Resistance

Guerrilla warfare- The communists engaged in a number of guerrilla attacks against the Germans after the German invasion of the USSR (The French communists owed their allegiance to Stalin and not to de Gaulle or the Allies). Their killing of Germans caused hundreds of French executions and the communists soon stopped such assassinations.

Intelligence- Intelligence networks gathered military/strategic information such as Coastal Fortifications, Army deployments and their strength. The various Resistance movements in France sent regular intelligence reports to the British to be recognized. By 1944, the British headquarter was receiving thousands of telegrams and enemy plans. Many radio operators died after they were located by Germans.

Sabotage- It was a form of resistance adopted by French nationalist groups who wanted to seek revenge.

  • Explosives- The Chemist Bloch Sérazin created a small laboratory in her apartment. Her work was to manufacture explosives (to be sent to Resistance fighters) and cyanide capsules (for the fighters to suicide if arrested).She was captured in 1942 and murdered by beheading with an ax! The British dropped bombs and explosives from planes to the members of the Resistance to be used to disrupt German administration.
  • Train Derailments- Sabotage of train derailment was effective. The Resistance organizations developed new tactics to derail German trains, carrying soldiers or food supplies. Railway workers also did their part by switching lines and giving valuable inputs to the Resistance fighters or to the British spies.

Role of the Media- One of the pillars of the French Resistance movement was the publication and distribution of newspapers. It was a hard thing to do because materials like paper, ink, etc were hard to collect. After the successful formation of an elaborate Resistance network, the underground newspapers became rapid, it aimed at spreading hope and positiveness among the citizens, that the Allies would come and defeat the Germans.

About 3,00,000 prints of pro-Allies-newspapers reached around two million readers by 1942! Some of them are-

  • Pantagruel (10,000 circulation by June 1941),
  • Libération-Nord (circulation of 50,000 by January 1944),
  • Défense de la France (circulation of 4,50,000),
  • Combat (circulation of 2,00,000 by 1944).

Books were published and distributed to raise up the social morale. One such book was the Les Éditions de Minuit. A novel known as Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea) written by Jean Bruller became a symbol of French resistance. The story was about an old man and his niece who refused to speak with the German officer who occupied their house.

Some publications advised specific things to specific people. Some of them are-

  • Le Médecin Français - It advised doctors to send collaborators (who helped the Germans) for working in Germany (Service du travail obligatoire) while medically disqualifying people (who were with the Resistance).
  • La Terre - It provided tips to farmers how to send food and supplies to the resistance members.
  • Bulletin des Chemins de Fer - It educated railroad workers to sabotage German trains.
  • Unter Uns, published in German for the occupiers, printed stories of German defeats on the eastern front.[136]

The Free French Flag With Cross Of Lorraine And Jean Moulin

The Free French Flag With Cross Of Lorraine And Jean Moulin
The Free French Flag With Cross Of Lorraine And Jean Moulin | Source

Some Stalwarts Of The French Resistance

  • Jean Moulin was one of the greatest Resistance fighter in occupied France. He convinced de Gaulle that it was possible to unite all the scattered resistance organizations and to develop a large network. The Secret Army (remnants of the French Army) could also be joined with the fighters and a massive spy network could help the Allies win easily against the Germans. He was given the responsibility by de Gaulle to talk to all the resistance groups. He successfully persuaded them. Thus, an elaborate network developed.
  • Andre Scheinmann was a German Jew who got a job as a German-French translator for the French National Railroad. He pretended to be a collaborator (French who were willing to help the Germans were known as collaborators). He provided intelligence to the British which was of invaluable importance. He also sabotaged and blew up German trains. He was arrested at last and freed by Americans from the Dachau concentration camp, thus, surviving the War.
  • Lieutenant Rene Guiraud was an American spy (member of the OSS, the precursor of CIA). Lt. Guiraud's mission was to collect intelligence and sabotage the Germans. He was posed as a French national in Germany occupied France and had organized 1500 guerrilla fighters, developing an extensive intelligence network. He was captured and interrogated for two months by the Gestapo but he told them nothing!
  • Madame Lauro, a French woman used to sabotage German food supplies. She used to pour hydrochloric and nitric acid on food supplies for the German soldiers when the train carrying the supplies stopped at railway stations. As a consequence, hundreds of the rail workers got shot but Madame Lauro was never captured all throughout the War. She continued her acts of sabotage and poisoning food alone, secretly at night.
  • Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, another French woman, became the head of the Alliance Reseau which was one of the notable espionage network in France. Madame Fourcade was captured at last by the Gestapo but she escaped by breaking the window bars of her prison cell. She survived the War but lost all her fellow resistance fighters.
  • Charlotte Delbo or Madam Delbo, yet another brave French lady was active in the French Resistance. The Gestapo began to search for Communist members and most of them went into hiding and so did Madam Delbo. Pierre Brossolette and Daniel Mayer formed a Rapid Action Force within the Communist Party in 1941 which worked against the German occupation by combat, sabotage and propaganda. They published newspapers and pamphlets (Les Petities Ailes for example). Madam Delbo worked heavily in the distribution of many of these communist pamphlets, which called for a “National front for French Independence" and tried to boost up morale of citizens.

Women Were Active Fighters In The Resistance

Women Resistance Fighters
Women Resistance Fighters | Source


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    • SouradipSinha profile imageAUTHOR

      Souradip Sinha 

      5 years ago from Calcutta

      Thanks Sir.

    • emge profile image

      MG Singh 

      5 years ago from Singapore

      Good and interesting post about WW II.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      It is amazing how many people have the courage to do what they could. I am really proud of the women.

    • SouradipSinha profile imageAUTHOR

      Souradip Sinha 

      5 years ago from Calcutta

      Yes. Jean Moulin did a mammoth task. If we properly consider the Resistance's role behind the successful Allied invasion, it makes them damn important for Germany's eventual defeat.

      So much of WWII to write! So many amazing stories!

      Anyways, thanks for the share. :)

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      5 years ago from PNW

      Important article. The French have not gotten enough credit for resisting as much as they did. Granted there were a lot of collaborators. But many Franch fought and died not only in France, but in Africa, Russia and in the Atlantic. Jean Moulin's story is even more incredible. Voted up and shared.


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