It’s hard to overstate the shock felt by French citizens and onlookers alike when France fell to Germany in 1940 as World War II began to consume Europe. After Hitler consolidated power in the 1930s, Winston Churchill was known to vocalize his gratitude for the French army. But even France’s highly trained forces couldn’t overcome a surprise attack through the Ardennes. As Allied forces evacuated Dunkirk, residents of France’s cities and towns came together—first in shock, then as the French Resistance.
As the center of government moved from Paris and became Vichy France, many French citizens resigned themselves to their fate. But others fought back. As swastika-emblazoned flags went up on public buildings, books were banned, and art was stolen, the Resistance was building.
Within a month of France’s fall, two key resistance points had metastasized. The first—underground newspapers—began publication quietly and secretively. Relying on word of mouth and hand-to-hand distribution, papers like Musée de l’Homme became a vital method of communication. The second—multiple groups that vowed to spy on Germans and defy their rules—sprang up in cities like Paris and Lyon.
These groups weren’t left to fend for themselves. As France adjusted to its new regime, Churchill gave orders to create a new office that would “set Europe ablaze”. The Special Operations Executive was created in July 1940 to undermine Germany across the continent. Section F was a network of agents and contacts specifically to aid the French.
Key figures like Noor Inayat Khan and Maurice Buckmaster corralled the efforts of ordinary citizens and experienced spies alike. Women like Violette Szabo were trained as field agents and given jobs in the field and as wireless operators. Men with previous experience became field organizers and intelligence gatherers.
As Germans increased their activity in France—beginning to deport Jewish people, require all citizens to carry a large variety of identification papers, and heavily ration food and goods—the importance of Resistance became clearer. From a few scattered groups rose an immense network of spies, fighters, and smugglers.
By August 1940, the Resistance had suffered its first casualty. A Polish Jewish immigrant was executed for behaving disrespectfully during a military parade. In December, another man was executed after seeing an argument between Paris residents and German soldiers. Jacques Bonsergent’s death sparked a feeling of revolt, fueling more average citizens’ desire to join the movement.
Despite the eventual figurehead of Charles de Gaulle as the movement’s leader, the French Resistance was largely populated by immigrants, students, women, and Catholics and Jews alike. As the Vichy regime continued into 1941, members of this growing coalition escalated from passive to active resistance.
Although, by some counts, as little as two percent of the French population actively participated in resistance, the ongoing demonization, imprisonment, and mistreatment of the local Jewish population, along with anyone else who got in the way, galvanized many. Others were ired by the number of French women who began relationships with German soldiers.
Hardly the most gallant reason to join a revolution, but the Resistance needed all the fighters they could get. As Germans launched deeper into Europe with Operation Barbarossa, members went from focusing on intelligence-gathering to a physical, and fatal, operation.
With the help of a Communist resistance group, the FTP, the Resistance moved into these more dangerous operations. Bombs were set off, trains were meddled with, and other acts of sabotage, large and small, were undertaken.
Despite the fact that few Resistance members had military experience and weapons were hard to come by in Vichy France, individuals did their best to undermine the Germans at every turn. In the summer of 1941, the Resistance became more visible, marking V for victory on public walls, and using the calls of the French Revolution to invigorate their members.
As time went on, individual cells of resistance became interlinked, thanks in great part to the British SOE agents sent overseas. Some agents became intermediaries, while some headed up their own cells. By 1943, many of the groups merged to create the Conseil National de la Resistance, headed by Jean Moulin.
The newly collaborative groups were able to join resources and increase their output of explosives, weapons, and intelligence. By the middle of 1943, with the Resistance invigorated by the Battle of Stalingrad, carefully orchestrated bombings and acts of resistance were cropping up across the country.
City and rural resisters came together, recognizing that the terrain of the French countryside was an ideal location to hide away from German investigators. As many as 40,000 people fled from city to country, joining the Maquis rebels. There, they utilized guerilla warfare, taking advantage of the bush that the rural groups were named for.
Some groups of Maquis rebels were overseen by SOE officers, like Nancy Wake, while others operated independently. Regardless, each group’s main goal was to harry and harass German encampments. Although the Maquis rarely achieved meaningful victories, their existence kept up the hopes of French citizens and Allies across Europe, while successfully irritating Axis forces.
In response to the Maquis’ work, German and Vichy groups stepped up their attempts to curtail the groups. SOE operatives like Odette Sansom were arrested and tortured; Resistance leader Jean Moulin was captured, tortured, beaten into a coma, and killed.
With the death of Jean Moulin, Charles de Gaulle maneuvered himself into the position of power. Despite the blow dealt to morale by Moulin’s death, the Resistance now counted nearly 300,000 men and women among its ranks.
De Gaulle negotiated to bring disparate groups of the Resistance under one overarching banner and standardized reporting to Allied forces. With the increased value of the Resistance, Churchill was persuaded to increase Britain’s weapon and supply drops for the French fighters.
In the lead up to Operation Overlord and D-Day, the Resistance became a vital part of preparation. Over 1,000 trains were damaged within six months. The issues were so pervasive that the Germans began to import their own train workers, believing that the French trains and processes were the problem.
Violence became increasingly common between the Maquis and the Milice, a paramilitary unit created by the Vichy government in the spring of 1944. As the Milice and the Germans felt their control slipping away, their retributions grew in scale and fatality.
A village outside of Lille watched as 86 of their residents were killed by the Hitler Youth after ongoing railroad sabotage. Another 70 peasants were executed on suspicion of aiding the Maquis. But this couldn’t curtail the Resistance’s efforts.
The Resistance was expected not only to harry the Germans on the days leading up to Operation Overlord—they were also to be a key part of warfare after the D-Day landings.
Allied forces asked their contacts to not only sabotage railroads, but to also destroy phone and power lines, make roads impassable, destroy Germany’s munition dumps and fuel depots, and to attack all possible German command posts.
After the D-Day landings, Allied troops joined forces with the Maquis in their destructive goals. The “Kilted Killer”, Tommy Macpherson, joined a band of French and Spanish communists and showed them how to make their low-quality guns sound like machine guns.
All the while, the guerilla fighters continued to bomb bridges, trains, and make roads impassable by chopping down trees. The Germans’ retreat from the beaches of Normandy was much harder and slower than it should have been—some estimates claiming they were moving at only 25% of their potential speed.
Angered by their lack of speed and the ability of a smaller and weaker group to affect their strategy, German forces grew all the more vindictive, massacring civilians by the hundreds, most famously at Oradour-sur-Glane. Despite this, the Resistance grew ever more certain that they would win the day.
By August 1944, the Resistance was so confident in the end of the Vichy regime that they began attacking German soldiers in the heart of Paris. On the 25th of the month, Charles de Gaulle, who had been leading the Resistance despite his quasi-exile, returned to Paris for the first time in over four years.
Completely removing the Vichy and German forces who had stifled France took time—and led to a widespread outbreak of executions, assaults, and harassment of collaborators, both real and imagined.
By December, France was considered completely liberated. Some army units and submarine bases remained in place until Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945.
Tumult would continue after the freedom of France, with a new constitution and republic created in 1946, only to be toppled in 1958. But the relief of the country’s liberation would remain a dear memory for those who saw its day come.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons