What did you do in the war, Papa

Talk to the French, especially of the older generation, about the Second World War and you’re likely to feel in quite a lot of cases that they’re not comfortable with the subject. The reason’s simple: since 1945 perception of the war years has involved an ongoing conflict between satisfying myths (energetically sustained by de Gaulle) and troubling truths (increasingly exposed by modern historians). Take the myth of the Resistance. Large numbers of the French were involved in active subversion of the occupying Nazi power and did much to ensure eventual German defeat. And the truth? Most ordinary French were attentistes, concerned with getting eggs and butter and keeping out of trouble; a minority readily collaborated with the occupier and an even smaller group were involved in serious resistance. But we shouldn’t sneer at the myth: it was necessary for a humiliated people.

And another myth: that after the fall of France in June 1940 French forces outside the country stood firmly by the allies (effectively that was us) and did their best to weaken German power. And the truth? Well, some of the military did rally to de Gaulle but many more didn’t and chose to show loyalty to the puppet regime of Marshal Pétain. That was true – to Churchill’s disgust – of the majority of the French troops evacuated at Dunkirk who chose to go back home. But there was much worse. The military in Syria, a French protectorate since 1920, made it clear they were not on the allies’ side. Ace pilot Pierre Le Gloan became a national hero for shooting down seven British fighters; captured Brits were handed over to the Nazis. Roald Dahl – later to be author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – flew Hurricanes over Syria and later wrote, “I can never forgive the French for what they did.”

And the conflict was carried on to British soil. When the submarine Surcouf moored in Devonport harbour refused to surrender to the Royal Navy fighting broke out and three British sailors died in the control room. Elsewhere British civilians who came under French control fared badly. As one woman, interned in Morocco, recalled, “The French were rotten ... they treated us like animals.” There’s a rare full account of these events in Colin Smith’s England’s Last War Against France: Fighting Vichy 1940-42 (UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

From Riviera Reporter Issue 138