May 25, 2010


by Terry Reardon

Finest Hour 138, Spring 2008

In honor of our first Churchill Symposium in France (“Churchill and France,” 6-7 June 2008), Finest Hour is pleased to offer two articles on the topic, the first being an overview by FH contributor Terry Reardon of ICS Canada.

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Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was born on 22 November 1890 in Lille, France. He graduated from the French military academy in 1912, was wounded three times in World War I, and spent thirty months as a prisoner of war, making repeated but unsuccessful escape attempts.

The interwar years saw de Gaulle make rapid strides in the army thanks to a mentor, Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of the French army. Pétain brought de Gaulle into his inner circle in 1925 and after two years as a battalion commander de Gaulle was promoted to the secretariat of the Council Superior of National Defence, where he was involved in a planning capacity from 1932 to 1937. His criticisms of the Army’s lack of new ideas, such as tank brigades, were frostily received by the High Command, which was committed to the illusory and incomplete Maginot Line.1

One high-profile member of the French Parliament, Paul Reynaud, agreed with de Gaulle’s concerns, and de Gaulle bombarded him with sixty-two letters over the next four years. Reynaud became Prime Minister in March 1940, and in May promoted Major de Gaulle to temporary General, commanding a tank division. Summoned back to Paris, he was given the position of Under Secretary of State, over the objections of Pétain and French Army head General Maxime Weygand.2

On 9 June 1940, with France reeling under the German assault, Reynaud sent de Gaulle to London to request more assistance from the British Air Force. Of his first meeting with Churchill at Downing Street de Gaulle later wrote: “Mr. Churchill seemed to me to be equal to the rudest task, provided it also had grandeur….The humour, too, with which he seasoned his acts and words, and the way in which he made use, now of graciousness, now of anger, contributed to make one feel what mastery he had of the terrible game in which he was engaged.”3

On 16 June, accompanied by de Gaulle, France’s war production liaison in London, Jean Monnet, implored Churchill to expend all his remaining air squadrons in the battle of France. Churchill wrote later: “I told him there was no possibility of this being done….My two French visitors then got up and moved towards the door, Monnet leading. As they reached it, de Gaulle, who had hitherto scarcely uttered a single word, turned back, and, taking two or three paces towards me, said in English: ‘I think you are quite right.’”4

Churchill flew to France four times in May and June, trying to bolster the French leadership. De Gaulle supported the British War Cabinet’s offer of “indissoluble union” between the two nations, transmitted to Reynaud on 16 June, together with Churchill’s proposal to meet Reynaud in Brittany the next day. But the French Council, led by Weygand and Pétain, was hostile to the proposal, saying that “in three weeks England will have her neck rung like a chicken.” A union with Britain, Pétain added, would be “fusion with a corpse.”5

With the collapse of France, and the formation of a quiescent if not collaborationist government at Vichy, the only member of the Government who decided to carry on the fight from England, who thus became the spokesman for free France, was Charles de Gaulle.

In mid-June de Gaulle obtained Churchill’s permission to use the BBC to broadcast an appeal of resistance to his countrymen. “France does not stand alone,” he said. “Behind her is a vast empire and she can make common cause with the British Empire which commands the seas and is continuing the struggle….The flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.”6

Reynaud had now resigned and his successor Pétain sought an armistice with Hitler, whose terms prescribed that the French Fleet “shall be collected in ports to be specified and there demobilised and disarmed under German or Italian control.” Although the German government had solemnly declared that it had no intention of using the French fleet, this was not believed by the British War Cabinet. Thus the Cabinet took in Churchill’s words “a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned….But no act was ever more necessary for the life of Britain and for all that depended upon it.”7 The British action on 3 July focused on the French fleet in Mers-el-Kebir and Oran in North Africa.

The French fleet was given several options: joining the British fleet in the war, sailing to a French port such as Martinique for demilitarization, or scuttling. With no satisfactory response, the Royal Navy commenced hostilities and the bulk of the fleet was sunk or disabled.

De Gaulle was not informed of the action until it had commenced and his initial reaction was anger, but when General Spears, British Liaison Officer to the former French government, met with him two days later, he found de Gaulle “astonishingly objective.” On 8 July de Gaulle broadcast to France: “…the government at Bordeaux had agreed to place our ships at the enemy’s discretion….one day the enemy would have used them against England or against our own empire. Well, I say without hesitation that it is better they should have been destroyed….Our two ancient nations, our two great nations, remain bound to one another. They will either go down both together or both together they will win.”8

On 24 August 1940 Churchill spoke in the House of Commons “Our old comradeship with France is not at an end. In General de Gaulle and his gallant band that comradeship takes an effective form. These Free Frenchmen have been condemned to death by Vichy, but the day will come, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, when their names will be held in honour, and their names will be graven in stones in the streets and villages of a France restored in a liberated Europe, to its full freedom and its ancient fame.”9

Dakar, the capital of the French colony of Senegal, was controlled by Vichy, and Churchill pressured the British Chiefs of Staff to mount an operation with the Free French to take the port, which would be useful as a base in the battle of the Atlantic. The attack, between 23 and 25 September 1940, was a disaster, with Vichy forces mounting a strong defence. Vichy and German propaganda took advantage of their victory, and the British and American press were also highly critical.10

While Dakar did not diminish Churchill’s confidence in de Gaulle, their relationship rapidly deteriorated. Although in late 1940 de Gaulle’s forces consisted of an army of 140 officers and 2109 men, and a navy of 120 officers and 1746 ratings, his attitude and deportment were those of a major player in the war.11

In November 1940, without advising Churchill or the British Government, de Gaulle announced an Empire Defence Council, with the wording of the manifesto reading like a declaration of war on Vichy. He included an unrealistic and arrogant offer to the United States of air and naval bases in the French possessions of the Western hemisphere, which were administered by Vichy.12

The next few months saw many incidents of anti-British actions and comments by de Gaulle, but in June 1941 came a serious disruption. Two countries in the Levant, Syria and Lebanon, had been mandated to France after World War I, and after the armistice were governed by Vichy. In June 1941 an allied force of mainly Free French troops commenced an offensive, and in July Vichy asked for a cease-fire and an armistice. De Gaulle laid down his conditions, but these were ignored by the British, and the Free French were not permitted to have any contact with the Vichy forces, which were granted “full honours of war.”13

Beside himself with rage, de Gaulle vented his anger on General Spears and the British Minister of State in the Middle East, Oliver Lyttelton, who in his memoirs admitted that the Free French should have been consulted. Lyttelton wired Churchill that “de Gaulle worked himself into a state of bitter hostility to everything English” and “was rude and offensive.”14

Churchill replied: “I am sorry you are having all this trouble with de Gaulle….It might be well if you could let him see the gulf on the edge of which he is disporting himself.” Churchill also telegraphed de Gaulle suggesting he return to England “in order that I may discuss with you personally the difficulties which have arisen.”

De Gaulle ignored the suggestion. When on 27 August 1941 a reporter for the Chicago Daily News asked him why Britain had not formally recognized the Free French as a government-in-exile, he replied: “England is carrying on a wartime deal with Hitler in which Vichy serves as a go-between. Vichy serves Hitler by keeping the French people in subjection and selling the French Empire piecemeal to Germany….Britain is exploiting Vichy in the same way as Germany; the only difference is in her purposes. What happens in effect is an exchange of advantages between hostile powers which keeps the Vichy Government alive as long as both Britain and Germany agree it should exist.”15

Realizing he had gone too far, de Gaulle tried to stop the publication, and after this failed, claimed he had been misinterpreted. He finally returned to London on 1 September; but the day before, Churchill had issued a directive that no person in authority was to see him, and that “he is to stew in his own juice.”

On 12 September de Gaulle met with Churchill, who was determined to put him in his place. Churchill informed his private secretary, John Colville, that he would speak only through an interpreter (see James Lancaster’s following article).

“An hour slipped away and I began to fear violence,” Colville wrote. “I had decided it was my duty to burst in, perhaps with a bogus message….I went in to find the two of them sitting side by side with amiable expressions on their faces. De Gaulle, no doubt for tactical purposes, was smoking one of the Prime Minister’s cigars….The Entente was Cordiale again, at least temporarily.”16

On 7 December 1941 the United States entered the war. Roosevelt had been supportive of Vichy and Marshal Pétain, and negative toward the Free French, especially its erratic and explosive leader. The invasion of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon on 24 December 1941 (FH 136: 18-22) reinforced the U.S. government’s disdain for de Gaulle, which continued throughout the war.

In 1942 things didn’t get any better. In May, British forces landed on the Vichy-controlled island of Madagascar without Free French participation or any warning to de Gaulle. The general, again furious, cabled his commanders in Africa and the Levant, stating that they must have no relations with the invaders.17 De Gaulle backed off after another meeting with Churchill, but he was soon again to be out of step with “Les Anglo-Saxons.”

“Torch,” the invasion of North Africa, was set to commence in November 1942. Churchill had written to Roosevelt stating his intention to advise de Gaulle the day before the landing; but Roosevelt demanded that he not be told until after a successful landing. When eventually informed, de Gaulle roared: “I hope the Vichy people will fling them into the sea! You don’t get France by burglary!”18

Again, however, de Gaulle calmed down, and at lunch at Chequers that same day he politely listened while Churchill explained the reasons for the secrecy. But de Gaulle interpreted this as stemming from the pro-Vichy American stance.

De Gaulle further entrenched the American negative opinion when he refused to fly to Casablanca in January 1943 to discuss power sharing with French General Henri Giraud, who had recently escaped from a German prison. His attitude was that this was purely a French affair.

The Americans, of course, were certain that Giraud was a better bet than de Gaulle, but with Churchill expressing the opposite opinion, they agreed to a sharing of power. Roosevelt cabled WSC: “We’ll call Giraud the bridegroom, and I’ll produce him from Algiers, and you have the bride, de Gaulle, down from London, and we’ll have a shotgun wedding.”19

The President, somewhat perversely enjoying Churchill’s discomfort, cabled to Secretary of State Cordell Hull: “We delivered our bridegroom, General Giraud, who was most cooperative on the impending marriage, and I am sure was ready to go through with it on our terms. However our friends could not produce the bride, the temperamental Lady de Gaulle.”20

Ultimately, under pressure from his Free French National Committee, de Gaulle relented and arrived in Casablanca on 22 January; he and Giraud could not agree, but they did issue a statement on their mutual objective: the liberation of France.21 De Gaulle’s stubbornness left Churchill “in a white fury” according to Robert Murphy, American representative in Algiers. However, at the request of Roosevelt, de Gaulle did agree to shake hands with Giraud for the benefit of the cameramen, and the photographs received a wide circulation.22

When Churchill and de Gaulle arrived back in England, Churchill gave orders that “the monster of Hampstead” (where de Gaulle lived) was not to be allowed to leave the country and stir up trouble abroad. The two did not meet again until 2 April 1943. De Gaulle began by saying that he was a prisoner and would be sent to the enemy alien prison on the Isle of Man (which he pronounced “eel-o-mon”). Churchill responded, “No, you are very distinguished, and so would go to the Tower of London!” But WSC did agree to allow de Gaulle to travel back to Algiers.23

Agreement could still not be reached with Giraud, and Churchill laid the blame on de Gaulle. When meeting with the U.S. Senate on 19 May 1943, Churchill said that he had “raised de Gaulle as a pup…now he bit the hand that fed him.”24

With further pressure from Washington Churchill was close to a split with de Gaulle, but Anthony Eden and most of the British Cabinet interceded. Of an Algiers meeting with Eden on 25 May, de Gaulle recounted: “Mr. Eden good-humouredly said ‘Do you know that you have caused us more difficulties than all our other European allies put together?’ ‘I don’t doubt it,’ I replied, smiling also. ‘France is a great power.’”25

On 3 June 1943 an agreement of sorts was reached between de Gaulle and Giraud, although soon after de Gaulle was able to manoeuvre his rival out of the joint leadership. Harold Macmillan, Allied Minister in North Africa and a future prime minister, recalled a 3 1/2 hours drive with de Gaulle to the Algerian seaside on 14 June 1943, and bathing naked with de Gaulle sitting “in a dignified manner on a rock, with his military cap, his uniform and his belt…It is very difficult to know how to handle him….I’m afraid he will always be difficult to work with. He is by nature an autocrat. Just like Louis X1V or Napoleon. He thinks in his heart that he should command and all others should obey him. It is not exactly ‘Fascist’ (an overworked word), it is authoritarian.”26

The anglophobic actions of de Gaulle continued, although these did not reflect his respect and admiration for Churchill, and some light moments were recorded. On 13 January 1944 Churchill and de Gaulle lunched in Marrakesh, with British Ambassador to the French Committee of Liberation Alfred Duff Cooper, and after lunch Churchill decided that if he spoke French it would add a lighter touch to the occasion. He remarked to Duff Cooper, “I’m doing rather well, aren’t I? Now that the General speaks English so well, he understands my French perfectly.” Everyone including de Gaulle burst out laughing.27

A clash occurred over D-Day, where the details were again withheld from de Gaulle beforehand. Invited to London from Algiers, de Gaulle took his time and eventually arrived on 4 June. Churchill met with him and after discussing the invasion passed him on to General Eisenhower, who gave specific information on the operation and asked him to broadcast after the landing. When Eisenhower said he too would be broadcasting, de Gaulle responded that he would not take second place in the broadcast and that Eisenhower had no right to instruct the French people on civil administration matters, which was part of his speech. Churchill, already in an agitated state over the impending landing, flew into a rage, only slightly lessened when informed that de Gaulle would speak, but not immediately after Eisenhower.

Then the question was broached as to vetting the draft of the speech beforehand. In the end it was not done and de Gaulle gave a magnificent speech exhorting “the sons of France, whoever they may be, wherever they may be, the simple and sacred duty is to fight the enemy with every means in its power.” De Gaulle went on to give heartfelt thanks to the British for their effort in the liberation of France. On hearing him, tears welled up in Churchill’s eyes. Noticing a certain skepticism in his Chief of Personal Staff, General Ismay, he said: “You great tub of lard! Have you no sentiment?”28

With the Normandy bridgehead established, de Gaulle left England on 16 June and wrote to Churchill, “Upon leaving Great Britain, to which you kindly invited me at a moment of decisive importance to the successful conclusion of this war, I would like to extend my sincerest thanks for the welcome extended to me by His Majesty’s Government….I have been able to see and feel that the courage and power of the people of Great Britain were of the highest order and that their feelings of friendship for France were stronger than ever. I can assure you, in return, of the deep confidence and unbreakable attachment which France feels towards Great Britain.”29

While the balance of the war still saw skirmishes between the two men, there were now more occasions of warmth and mutual admiration. On 10 November 1944 Churchill flew to Paris. He was met at the airport by de Gaulle and driven to the Quai d’Orsay, where he was to stay. The accoutrements were of the highest class. Churchill’s included a golden bath, prepared by Goering for his own use; Churchill was still more delighted to find that Anthony Eden’s bath was only of silver.30

The following day, Armistice Day, de Gaulle conducted Churchill in an open car across the Seine and the two men walked the Champs Elysees, teeming with thousands of cheering Parisians. The diarist and MP Harold Nicolson stated that Eden told him that “not for one moment did Winston stop crying, and that he could have filled buckets by the time he received the Freedom of Paris.” He said, “they yelled for Churchill in a way that he has never heard any crowd yell before.”31

At an official luncheon de Gaulle said, “It is true that we would not have seen [the liberation] if our old and gallant ally England, and all the British dominions under precisely the impulsion and inspiration of those we are honouring today, had not deployed the extraordinary determination to win, and that magnificent courage which saved the freedom of the world. There is no French man or woman who is not touched to the depths of their hearts and souls by this.”

It was General Spears, not Churchill, who remarked, “the hardest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine,” though WSC certainly shared those sentiments. So why did he not abandon de Gaulle after so many provocations? The answer is in Churchill’s own words. In France’s darkest hour Churchill had whispered to him, “L’homme du destin.”32

At Casablanca in 1943, he said of de Gaulle: “His country has given up fighting, he himself is a refugee, and if we turn him down he’s finished. Well just look at him! He might be Stalin, with 200 divisions behind his words….France without an army is not France. De Gaulle is the spirit of that Army. Perhaps the last survivor of a warrior race.” 33

Churchill added in August 1944, “ I have never forgotten, and can never forget, that he stood forth as the first eminent Frenchman to face the common foe in what seemed to be the hour of ruin of his country and possibly, of ours….”34

Of Churchill’s dismissal following the 1945 British general election, de Gaulle wrote: “To minds inclined towards sentimentality this disgrace suddenly inflicted by the British Nation upon the great man who had so gloriously led her to salvation and victory might seem surprising. Yet there was nothing in it that was not in accordance with the order of human affairs….[Churchill’s] nature, identified with a magnificent undertaking, his countenance chiselled by the fires and frosts of great events, had become inadequate in this era of mediocrity.”35

On 6 November 1958 in Paris, Churchill was presented with the Croix de la Libération by de Gaulle, now French President, who remarked: “I want Sir Winston to know this. Today’s ceremony means that France remembers what she owes him. I want him to know this: the man who has just had the honour of bestowing this distinction upon him values and admires him more than ever.”36

Upon Churchill’s death on 24 January 1965 de Gaulle wrote to Queen Elizabeth, “In the great drama he was the greatest of all.”37  


1. Kersaudy, François, Churchill and De Gaulle (New York: Atheneum, 1983), 22.

2. Lacoutre, Jean, De Gaulle The Rebel 1890-1944 (London: Collins Harvill, 1990), 190.

3. De Gaulle, Charles, The Call to Honour (New York: Viking, 1955), 57-58.

4. Churchill, Winston S. The Second World War, vol. 3, Their Finest Hour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 215.

5. Ibid., 213.

6. De Gaulle, op. cit., 84.

7. Churchill, op. cit., 232.

8. Lacoutre, op. cit., 249-50.

9. Kersaudy, op. cit., 87

10.Ibid., 100-02.

11. Berthon, Simon, Allies At War (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001), 46.

12. Kersaudy, op. cit., 115-16.

13. Ibid., 139.

14. Berthon, op. cit., 125.

15. Ibid., 136.

16. Colville, John, Footprints in Time (London: Collins, 1976), 113-15.

17. Berthon, op. cit., 169.

18. Lacoutre, op. cit., 397.

19. Berthon, op. cit., 234.

20. Kersaudy, op. cit., 243.

21. Berthon, op. cit., 246.

22. Kersaudy, op. cit, 255.

23. Ibid, 267.

24. Ibid, 273.

25. Ibid, 280-81.

26. Macmillan, Harold, The Blast of War 1939-45 (London: Macmillan, 1967), 345-46.

27. Kersaudy, op. cit., 310.

28. Berthon, op. cit., 311.

29. Kersaudy, op. cit., 358.

30. Ibid., 374.

31. Nicolson, Harold, Diaries and Letters 1939-1945 (London: Collins, 1967), 412.

32. Churchill, op. cit., 182.

33. Moran, Lord, Churchill Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 88.

34. Churchill, Winston S., The Dawn of Liberation (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1945), 206.

35. Kersaudy, op. cit., 413.

36. Ibid., 424.

37. Ibid., 428.

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