History / Second World War

Britain and France: The (Almost) Impossible Allies

Peter Mangold.

Cameron and Sarkozy Libya VisitDuring last year’s Libyan campaign, when the British and French military were working closely together, a British official was quoted as saying that the two were best of friends – until they fall out again next time. The next time was not slow in coming. At an EU summit in December there was a serious clash between David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy over Britain’s refusal to sign up to the proposed EU fiscal treaty, with the French President calling the British Prime Minister ‘an obstinate kid.’ Such rapid changes in the Anglo-French political weather are nothing new. A deeply ambivalent relationship in which nobody has quite forgotten the events of the Hundred Years War , let alone Trafalgar or the Anglo-French confrontation in 1898 at Fashoda, an obscure mud fort on the Nile, has witnessed  many examples of this sudden shift from friendship to anger.  None more so than the dramatic years following the French surrender in June 1940. Both sides felt the other had let them down – the British by their evacuation at Dunkirk and failure to send more fighter aircraft to France, the French by their unilateral decision to seek an armistice, and refusal to fight on in North Africa.

Within less than two weeks of the French armistice in 1940, the British had shelled the French fleet which they feared might fall into German hands – the attack on Mers-el-Kébir left 1,297 French sailors dead and about 350 wounded. Over the next two years, there were four more British attacks on Vichy  French colonies, in which the French suffered some ten thousand killed and injured, the British under half that figure. Small wonder perhaps that the Vichy Prime Minister, Admiral Darlan, had been willing to sign an agreement, in the event never ratified, which would have given the Germans base facilities in the Middle East, Tunisia and West Africa. Yet in November 1942, when the British and Americans invaded North Africa, it was Darlan, by now a hate figure in Britain  brought the sizeable French army there over to the Allies. Six weeks late in what remains a peculiarly opaque plot, he was assassinated; local SOE (Special Operations Executive) officers appear to have been at least complicit. A British honour-guard attended his funeral.

If the formal Anglo-Entente had collapsed in June 1940, an unofficial new Entente quickly formed. In France it began with individuals willing to help SIS (secret Intelligence Service) and later SOE. Frenchmen and women risked their lives to help British agents, as well as aircrew who had been shot down over France. The BBC French Service quickly established a virtual presence, reaching into parts of the country never previously open to British influence. For many French, the BBC was a lifeline – a way of keeping in touch with what was happening in the rest of the war, and of keeping hope alive. For the British it offered a highly cost effective propaganda tool. The staff of the French Service was smaller than a  company of infantry.  It allowed Britain to subvert Vichy, and  encourage the  development of  Resistance movements. By 1942 the BBC was able to mobilise large-scale strikes and demonstrations.

And then there were the Free French and de Gaulle, the standard-bearer of the New Entente. In his War Memoirs de Gaulle paid generous tribute both to the British people and to Churchill, a man for whom he had a profound admiration. But from the summer of 1941 de Gaulle’s  relationship with  his hosts became stormy. The French General who had defied orders to surrender and found himself virtually alone in a country he regarded as France’s hereditary enemy, was raw and deeply suspicious. He hated being dependent on anybody. But the British provided for money, arms, and access to the BBC microphone which made his name in France. He did not even have his own plane  to travel abroad. Faced with British bureaucratic or political obstruction, he overreacted in ways which infuriated his hard-pressed hosts.

It is fair to say that if de Gaulle quarrelled with the British, Churchill then quarrelled with de Gaulle. The Prime Minister, who had been his early champion when most of Whitehall was hostile, felt  his friendship had been betrayed. He did not accept de Gaulle’s explanation that the leaders of the Free French movement were of necessity ‘somewhat difficult people’, an accurate, if masterly piece of understatement. Egged on by Roosevelt, Churchill pursued what became a vendetta, a rear-guard action to stop de Gaulle emerging as the post-war French leader. It was great political theatre, and an immense waste of energy. By the time the quarrel became really serious in early 1943, de Gaulle was past breaking. That he became Prime Minister after the Liberation, returning to power at another great moment of French crisis in 1958 – the Algerian War – was ultimately due to Britain. Yet when in the wake of his 1963 EEC veto – where de Gaulle famously uttered the single word ‘non’ into the television cameras – Paul Reynaud, de Gaulle’s political mentor, wrote to remonstrate, he received an empty envelope addressed in de Gaulle’s hand. On the back were the words, ‘In case of absence please forward to Agincourt (Somme) or to Waterloo (Belgium.)’ No wonder officials are always ready for the storm clouds to return. ■

Peter Mangold is the author of our new book Britain and the Defeated French. A journalist and a Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford, Peter also worked for the BBC World Service and is a former member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Research Department.

Image courtesy of The Prime Minister’s Office shows PM David Cameron (right), NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil (centre) and French President Nicholas Sarkozy (left) in Benghazi, Libya. The three had just addressed a crowd in Liberty Square in the city. PA copyright.

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