July 2, 2013



Mr. Reardon is a director of the International Churchill Society of Canada and a Finest Hour contributor. His last article was “Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King,” FH 130


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Baron Gilbert de Bournat, Vichy Administrator
M. Poisson, Roman Catholic Apostolic Prefect
Gen. Charles de Gaulle, Free French Leader
Vice Admiral Emil Henri Muselier, C-in-C, Free French Navy
Winston S. Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain
Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary
Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States
Cordell Hull, U.S. Secretary of State
Maurice Pasquet, U.S. Consul in St. Pierre
W.L. Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada
Hume Wrong, Canadian Minister-Counselor in Washington
Lester Pearson, Canadian Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs


Lying southwest of Newfoundland, the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, 93 square miles with 6500 people, are the oldest French overseas possessions. They receive some C$25 million annually, the highest per capita aid in the world. Ownership from 1530 bounced between France and Britain until 1815, when the Treaty of Paris finally established French sovereignty.

The islands became a major fishing center but the early years of the 20th century saw economic crisis. Fortunately for the islanders, the United States enacted Prohibition in 1920, and until its repeal in 1933 the French outpost became a major alcohol exporter, with rum runners operating a fleet of trawlers in St. Pierre. Taxpayer Number One during this period was Al Capone, who visited his St. Pierre operation in 1927. When World War II broke out the colony mobilized, 550 citizens joining the armed forces. After the fall of France the islands came under Vichy control.1


After the fall of France, Canada and the United States, but not Britain, recognized the Vichy French government under Marshal Petain. The USA was a non-belligerent, but Canada maintained diplomatic relations in an attempt to keep Vichy from declaring war on the Allies and transferring the French fleet to the Axis.

Although most inhabitants supported the Free French, Vichy’s administrator, Baron Gilbert de Bournat, was intensely loyal to Petain, resisting, along with the Catholic hierarchy, demands for a plebiscite to decide the colony’s loyalties.

The Canadian Government, concerned with mounting ship sinkings in the western Atlantic, believed that the powerful St. Pierre radio transmitter may have been sending coded messages to the Germans about British-bound convoys. Churchill commented that the station was spewing out “Vichy lies and poison throughout the world. “2

A message from the U.S. Ambassador to Canada to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on 3 November 1941 advised that Canada was considering sending wireless specialists to St. Pierre to control outgoing messages and, if Administrator de Bournat did not agree, was prepared to take unilateral action.3


12 December 1941: The United States and Vichy conclude an agreement for the “neutralization” of the French Caribbean fleet. De Gaulle fears that neutrality might be extended to St. Pierre and Miquelon and orders the Free French Admiral Muselier to prepare to liberate the islands, but Muselier asks the Canadian and American governments for their assent. “The secret was thus out,” de Gaulle wrote. “I found myself obliged to warn the British in order to avoid the appearance of concealment.”4

18 December 1941: The British are in favour of de Gaulle’s plan but Washington is not. “A few hours after replying to me,” de Gaulle recorded,

the Foreign Office let us know—was that intentional?— that the Canadian government, in agreement with the United States, if not at their instigation, had decided to land at St. Pierre, with consent or by force, the staff necessary to take over the radio station. We at once protested in London and Washington. But as soon as foreign intervention on French territory was in question no hesitation seemed to me permissible. I gave Admiral Muselier the order to win St Pierre and Miquelon over at once.”5

22 December 1941: Unbeknown to de Gaulle, Hume Wrong, Counselor of the Canadian Legation in Washington, advises the U.S. State Department that Canada is cancelling the attempt to take over the radio

23 December 1941: Muselier has advised the Canadian Naval officials in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that he was undertaking naval exercises, but his conscience begins to trouble him. He signals a change of course to London in order, as he later writes, to give the British an opportunity to intercede with de Gaulle to cancel the operation if they so desired. This is an unnecessary precaution as the British have already cracked the Free French codes; however, the Admiralty and the Foreign Office do nothing about it.

24 December 1941: A gendarme on lookout duty at the harbour in St. Pierre runs out of coal for his stove, goes into town to procure more, and decides not to return that night. From three corvettes and a submarine, 360 Free French sailors storm ashore and take over the town’s administrative center. They meet no resistance and the island’s eleven gendarmes offer to round up “the usual suspects.” Not a gun is fired, not a drop of blood is spilt.6

The operation takes just thirty minutes. De Bournat is taken into custody and detained in Muselier’s flagship. A telegram from Consul Pasquet to Cordell Hull advises of the landings and that “no difficulties are anticipated.”7

Muselier reads a proclamation from the Town Hall advising that a plebiscite will be held “between the Free French and collaboration with the Axis powers, who starve, humiliate and martyr our country.” Mackenzie King records in his diary that he is shocked to learn the news, “…it may prove to be a very critical business and I am terribly annoyed as well as distressed about it.”

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Churchill arrives in Washington, where he is meeting with Roosevelt. Secretary of State Cordell Hull interrupts them with news of the seizure. The two leaders chuckle and attempt to brush off the matter, but Hull, livid, protests that this action is a threat to his policy of propping up Vichy in the hope that it will stand firm. Roosevelt agrees to pursue the matter.

Churchill later discounted Hull’s fury: “He did not seem to me to have full access at the moment to the President. I was struck by the fact that, amid gigantic events, one small incident seemed to dominate his mind.”9 Historian David Reynolds wrote that Churchill in his draft claims that the Secretary cut a “rather pathetic figure.”10

De Gaulle wrote later: “One might have thought that this small operation, carried out so happily, would have been ratified by the American government without any shock…But no, it was a real storm that broke out in the United States. Mr. Cordell Hull himself began it with a communique that he was interrupting his Christmas holidays and returning in haste to Washington.”11

25 December 1941: Vichy issues a statement: “The preliminary reports show that the action taken by socalled Free French ships at St. Pierre and Miquelon was an arbitrary action contrary to the agreement of all parties concerned….This government has enquired of the Canadian Government as to the steps that government is prepared to take to restore the status quo of these islands.” Canada’s Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, future Prime Minister Lester Pearson, records in his autobiography:

The Americans thought, wrongly, that this seizure had been made with the knowledge and approval of the Canadian Government. Cordell Hull, a courtly but explosive southern gentleman, was particularly angry and tried to browbeat us forcing the “so-called Free French” (a phrase which makes us angry) from the islands and restoring them to Vichy. Mr. Hull was informed that the Canadian government would do no such thing….We made it clear that we were no banana republic to be pushed around by Washington. 12

The American press is soon full of scornful remarks about the “so-called State Department” and letters of protest are sent to the “so-called Secretary of State.” A plebiscite is conducted in St. Pierre and Miquelon which results in 98 percent support for the Free French.

26 December 1941: Axis shortwave stations broadcast fictitious claims of a bloodbath on St. Pierre, with 1000 refugees escaping to safety in Canada and the United States and later that Muselier had ordered that de Bournat and Monsignor Poisson be shot.13

Mackenzie King’s diary records that he has met in the State Department with Cordell Hull: “I told him that it would not do to have the Governor restored as he was pro-Axis, and his wife a German. I also mentioned that while we had nothing to do with the matter, Canadian feeling was relieved and pleased with the de Gaulle accomplishment.”14

King and Hull meet with Churchill and Roosevelt. King records: “Churchill said he was prepared to take de Gaulle by the back of his neck and tell him he had gone too far and bring him to his senses.”15 In the American press The New York Times praises Muselier’s expedition, which, it says, was “accomplished with a display of style and manners in the best tradition of Alexandre Dumas.” The New York Post accuses Hull of treason by trying to “prop up Vichy against Hitler.”

27 December 1941: King and Hull agree the best course is for de Gaulle to withdraw and put the radio station under American and Canadian supervision. Vichy sends a note to the U.S. government expressing satisfaction with American disapproval of the action against the islands and demanding a return to the status quo, including evacuation of the “Gaullist mercenaries and the reinstallation of the governor.” M. Poisson bluntly tells Muselier that he has concluded that “I cannot in all conscience recognize you as the legitimate government of St Pierre,” and nails this declaration on the door of the cathedral!

28 December 1941: Hull asks Churchill to induce de Gaulle to withdraw from the islands. Churchill responds that if he should make such a request his relations with the Free French will be impaired. Roosevelt acts as moderator in a contentious discussion.

29 December 1941: De Gaulle telegraphs Churchill: “It does not seem right to me that in war the prize should go to the apostles of dishonesty. I am saying this to you because I know you feel it and that you are the only one who can explain it in the right way.”16

30 December 1941: Churchill speaks to the Canadian Parliament: “…some Frenchmen there were who would not bow their knees and who under General de Gaulle have continued to fight on the side of the Allies.”17 WSC’s words cause Hull’s anger to reach “hurricane proportions.”18

31 December 1941: De Gaulle broadcasts to France: “We entirely concur with the statement made yesterday by the great Churchill,” and cables WSC “What you said yesterday about France at the Canadian Parliament has touched the whole French nation.”19 Churchill replies that his words also raised a storm that “might have been serious had I not been on the spot to speak to the President.”20

Churchill is asked about the invasion at a press conference in Ottawa. He responds: “I would not say anything about this now. No doubt things will be settled in a satisfactory way. I regard it as a very minor matter in comparison with the other things which are going on.”21

2 January 1942: Fifty prominent American citizens including Carl Sandburg and Helen Keller send a telegram to Roosevelt, asking him to reverse the State Department’s plan to return the islands to Vichy control. The Press continues to batter Hull and the State Department, The Washington Post sympathizing with those who are “bewildered by the psychology of men who wage war with their right hand and appease with their left.” With Churchill back in Washington, Hull admonishes him in front of Roosevelt that his comments in Ottawa were “highly incendiary.” He pleads with Churchill to issue a statement supporting the United States policy towards Vichy but Churchill “was not cordial to the suggestion.”22

6 January 1942: Vichy rejects Hull’s modified proposals and reiterates its previous demands. Eden cables Churchill, “I am not surprised at Vichy’s reaction….It was surely a mistake for the State Department to make an approach to Vichy….Mr. Hull’s delineating public statement has of course made it difficult for him.”23

8 January 1942: Presidential special assistant Harry Hopkins records: “The President suggested to Hull that he, with the President, should talk it over with Churchill but Hull demurred at this. Obviously Hull is so mad at Churchill because of his anti-Vichy speech in Canada, which he thinks made the settlement of this issue in the Islands so much more difficult for him He is obviously very sensitive of the criticism he is receiving and blames it on the British, and particularly on Churchill.”24

12 January 1942: After further pressure, including Hull’s threat to resign, Churchill in Washington telegraphs to Eden in London a proposal to de Gaulle for a joint communique declaring that “The islands are French and will remain French….the wireless station will be subject to the supervision and control by observers appointed by the American and Canadian Governments….all armed forces will be withdrawn.” Churchill adds: “However you dish it up he has got to take it. I cannot believe he will refuse If he were to, they are in a mood here to use force….I hope to hear from you that it is all fixed we shall soon be flitting and I must settle this before I go.”25

Deputy British Prime Minister Clement Attlee responds: “Cabinet felt public opinion here would not understand why after Dakar, Syria etc. de Gaulle was not allowed to occupy French territory which welcomed him. People will not appreciate going easy with Vichy. In our view State Department overestimated Vichy reaction. I do not think Cabinet will acquiesce to our compelling de Gaulle though they have agreed to Eden trying persuasion. “26

14 January 1942: Eden tells de Gaulle that the islands must be “neutralized” under Allied control, hinting that the U.S. may send a destroyer to St. Pierre. De Gaulle recounts the conversation in his memoirs:

“What will you do then?” he asks me. “The Allied ships,” I answered, “will stop at the limit of territorial waters, and the American admiral will come to lunch with Muselier, who will be delighted.” Eden: “But if the cruiser crosses the limit?” De Gaulle: “Our people will summon her to stop in the usual way.” Eden: “If she holds on her course?” De Gaulle: “That would be most unfortunate, for then our people would have to open fire.” Mr. Eden threw up his arms. “I can understand your alarm” I concluded with a smile, “but I have confidence in the democracies.”

Later in the day, Eden notes Churchill’s reaction: “The PM was very angry. He thought his original proposal eminently fair….He thought that I had failed lamentably with General de Gaulle.”27

22 January 1942: Now back in London, Churchill sends for De Gaulle, who recalls:

The Prime Minister, with Eden beside him, proposed to us on behalf of Washington, London and Ottawa an arrangement according to which everything at St. Pierre and Miquelon would remain as we had ordered it. In exchange we were to let the three governments publish a communique which would to some extent save the face of the State Department. “After which,” the British Ministers told us, “no one will meddle in the business.” We accepted the arrangement. In the end nothing was published. We kept St. Pierre and Miquelon, and none of the Allies bothered about it any more.28

24 January 1942: Cordell Hull’s blood pressure eventually returns to normal.


“If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended.” —Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The thirty minute invasion and subsequent machinations have been called a “tempest in a teacup” and “trivial to the point of ridiculous.” At the time, however, it was a major, albeit short-lived, political and diplomatic incident. Historically its greatest value may be that it throws light on the subsequent attitude of Roosevelt, who never warmed to de Gaulle, who himself constantly taxed Churchill’s attempts to bear “The Cross of Lorraine” with equanimity.

“Remember, Winston,” said Churchill’s friend and crony Brendan Bracken at a low point in the de Gaulle relationship, “he thinks of himself as the reincarnation of St. Joan.” “Yes,” Churchill replied, “but my bishops won’t burn him!”29



1. Doody, Richard, “Over by Christmas.” World at War website.

2. Churchill, Winston S., The Second World War, vol. 3, The Grand Alliance (London: Cassell, 1950), 591.

3. Encyclopedie des lies Saint-Pierre & Miquelon.

4. De Gaulle, Charles, The Call To Honour (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 215.

5. Ibid.

6. Doody, op. cit.

7. Encyclopedie, op. cit.

8. Pickersgill, J.W., The Mackenzie King Record (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960), 318.

9. Churchill, op. cit., 591.

10. Reynolds, David, In Command of History (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 270.

11. De Gaulle, op. cit., 215.

12. Pearson, Lester B., Mike: The Memoirs of the Rt Hon. Lester B. Pearson, vol. 1 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1972), 200.

13. Doody, op. cit.

14. Pickersgill, op. cit., 321.

15. Berthon, Simon, Allies At War (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001), 152-53.

16. Dilks, David, The Great Dominion: Winston Churchill in Canada 1900-1954 (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2005), 185.

17. Kersaudy Francois, Churchill and de Gaulle (New York: Athenaeum, 1983), 174-75.

18. Sherwood, Robert, The White House Papers of Harry Hopkins, vol. 1 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948), 460.

19. Kersaudy, op. cit., 177.

20. Berthon, op. cit., 153.

21. Dilks, op. cit., 220-21.

22. Hull, Cordell, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, vol.2 (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 1134.

23. Roosevelt & Hopkins Papers, University of Wisconsin digital collection, 392.

24. Ibid., 399.

25. Ibid., 400.

26. Ibid.

27. Kersaudy, op. cit., 177.

28. De Gaulle, op. cit., 215.

29. Halle, Kay, Irrepressible Churchill (New York and Cleveland: World, 1966), 213. 


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