March 1, 2015

Finest Hour 157, Winter 2012-13

Page 28

By Natalie Rosseau

“One day we’ll go down the Champs Elysées together.” —WSC to de Gaulle

Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle are considered by some to be the greatest figures of the 20th century, largely for their roles in World War II. For allies facing a common foe, however, their relationship was less than ideal. They quarreled frequently, sometimes harboring deep-seated resentment toward one another for months. Referring to the symbol of the Free French, General Spears, envoy to France, remarked, in a comment often attributed to Churchill, “the heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.”1 This succinctly summarized Churchill’s feelings.

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The Prime Minister endured antagonistic remarks by de Gaulle for the course of the war. But Churchill was a highly focused and pragmatic leader who was able to overcome his personal animosity and forge a successful partnership, which helped ensure the Allied victory.

On a personal level, Churchill found de Gaulle to be chauvinistic, suspicious and petty. Annoyed by his personality, WSC found the French general’s lack of trust infuriating. Roused once to extreme irritation, the Prime Minister remarked that de Gaulle “thinks he is Clemenceau (having dropped Joan of Arc for the time being).”2

Churchill’s inner circle shared his low opinion of de Gaulle and was convinced that de Gaulle saw himself as a modern-day savior of France. Churchill’s Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, once cracked, “Remember, Winston…he thinks of himself as the reincarnation of St. Joan,” to which Churchill replied, probably not quite in jest: “Yes, but my bishops won’t burn him!” Lord Moran, Churchill’s personal physician, remarked that “de Gaulle positively goes out of his way to be difficult.”3

Moran correctly observed that his boss was “a bad hater, but in these days, when he is stretched taut, certain people seem to get on his nerves: de Gaulle is one of them. [De Gaulle] is so stuffed with principles that there is no room left for a little Christian tolerance; in his rigidity, there is no give. Besides, men of his race do not find it easy to accept any foreigner as a superior being and Winston does not like that kind of agnosticism….the General is a haughty fellow and crammed full of grievances.”4

Churchill was distressed by de Gaulle’s “ineradicable suspicions” of their allies.5 De Gaulle for his part feared that the British and the Americans were conspiring against him in order to seize French colonies at the war’s end. According to Sir John Colville, Churchill’s wartime private secretary, the Frenchman’s concern was less specific: de Gaulle “distrusted Anglo-Saxons on principle.”6 His open distrust created tension and polarized Anglo-French relations, and often made de Gaulle a man Churchill wished to avoid.

The root of their antagonism perhaps lay in de Gaulle’s controversial and counterproductive foreign policy positions, sometimes referred to as “Gaullist pettiness.”7 In June 1940, he blamed the success of Germany’s assault on France and the Low Countries on lack of British military support on land. Churchill was furious: the record showed that the English had sent 400,000 troops to France, 250,000 of which were locked in battle.8 The collapse of the French military in the face of German advances had almost caused the loss of the entire British Expeditionary Force.9

The Royal Air Force was also substantially engaged in the defense of Britain’s ally, shooting down 400 German planes over France; yet, to the consternation of the British, French authorities released captured German pilots, who went on to participate in an aerial bombing of England.10 The British saw this as a betrayal, causing “even those who had always loved France [to lose] their faith.”11

A year later in July 1941 de Gaulle, perturbed by what he saw as self-interested British fighting in Syria, said he “could not care less whether or not Britain won the war…. all that mattered was that France be saved.”12 This poisonous remark caused more British to doubt the viability of their alliance with the Free French.

In 1943, after the Anglo-Americans had launched TORCH, the invasion of North Africa, de Gaulle delivered an inflammatory speech blaming its initial problems on the Americans. Churchill responded vigorously, telegraphing his Cabinet: “I ask my colleagues to consider urgently whether we should not now eliminate de Gaulle as a political force.”13 Churchill’s fury was such that he suggested replacing de Gaulle with a “triumvirate” composed of General Giraud, a war hero of both World War I and World War II; former French Prime Minister Camille Chautemps; and Alexandre Leger, the former head of the French Foreign Office.14 Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden refused to countenance the idea, sensing rightly that replacing de Gaulle would alienate those who accepted him as the leader of the French resistance.15 Churchill laid aside his indignation for the sake of the cause, acknowledging that de Gaulle’s ouster would aid the Germans by discouraging French resistance.16

In November 1943, after grueling back-to-back Allied conferences in Teheran and Cairo, an exhausted Churchill was stricken with pneumonia and had to recover in Marrakech for three weeks.17 Several Allied diplomats traveled there to confer with him and Churchill requested a meeting with General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, a renowned war hero.18 Suspicious as always, de Gaulle refused to let the general visit, off-handedly explaining that it “would not be opportune.”19 Churchill was livid. His anger was only dispelled by repeated conciliatory efforts of the British representative at Algiers, Alfred Duff Cooper.20

De Gaulle was at his most obstinate on the eve of OVERLORD, the invasion of France in June 1944. The Allied assault on Fortress Europe had been two years in the planning; de Gaulle’s capriciousness nearly put it all at risk.

After Churchill invited de Gaulle to hear about plans for the invasion,21 the Frenchman, asking to telegraph details to his committee in Algiers, was infuriated when Churchill, rightly fearing the message might be lost or intercepted, forbade the communication.22 De Gaulle stormed out and was not easily mollified: in August, when Churchill asked to see him in Algiers, he declared himself “too busy.”23

Despite de Gaulle’s difficult personality and willful actions, Churchill respected his patriotism and recognized the strategic value of a solid relationship. Colville believed that in a way Churchill admired de Gaulle’s “defiant and frequently crude demeanor, making allowance for rudeness and constant ingratitude….[Churchill] realized that only thus could the General…convince himself…that he was maintaining the dignity of his country.”24

Churchill did have a way of rising above such frays. Surprising as it seemed to his colleagues, he was often “the only obstacle to the surge of anti-French feeling in government circles.”25 Churchill himself insisted that despite it all he “understood and admired” the Frenchman, while disliking his “arrogant demeanor.”26 And the Prime Minister was impressed by de Gaulle’s unwavering popularity and positive effect on French morale.27

In the end, the two leaders came to regard each other with respect and even affection: Churchill called de Gaulle the “savior of France”; the General viewed Churchill as “the valiant leader of freedom, and never forgot his crucial support for himself and the Free French in 1940.”28 During the war, Churchill sometimes said that “one day we’ll go down the Champs Elysées together.”29 In Paris on Armistice Day, 1944, they did just that.

The relationship, if all too often stiff and formal—far more often than the gregarious Churchill would have preferred—was nevertheless productive. Both men recognized the urgency of their cause. Both knew the most efficient and effective defense against the Nazis was in mutual cooperation. In truth the two of them were quite similar. Both were ardently patriotic and fiercely independent.

In Paris in 1958, then-President de Gaulle presented Churchill with the Ordre de la Libération (ironically sometimes referred to as the “Cross of Lorraine”). De Gaulle himself had founded the Order in 1940 to recognize “distinguished or exceptional services by French citizens or foreigners who aided in the liberation of France.”30

A year later, de Gaulle was in England where he repeated his tribute to Churchill. The historian William Roger Lewis described de Gaulle’s speech:

In Westminster Hall, in front of a huge audience of professional speakers, de Gaulle held us enraptured with a faultless delivery…and, with a grand gesture that rolled away all the disputes and animosities of the past, referred to ‘Le Grand Churchill.’ Churchill burst into tears, and the entire audience trembled with emotion, knowing that we were present at a great reconciliation between two very great, and pretty impossible, men.31

The final image of their mutual respect is best described by John Colville: “…on the first anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, his widow received just one letter: a warm, handwritten one from Charles de Gaulle, President of the French Republic.”32

The leader of a country at war must manage a dense and intricate array of issues and details. The support and counsel of allies is often crucial to bringing a conflict to a successful end. The need for trusted allies was paramount when Britain and her Empire stood alone. Churchill not only had to fight the Nazi threat, but to face the problem of an alliance with a difficult, sometimes counterproductive leader of a defeated ally which had no one else. Churchill’s pragmatism helped to navigate his stormy relationship with de Gaulle toward a successful outcome.

Ms. Rosseau, a sophomore at Cornell University, wrote this paper for her high school class on European History.


1. Celia Sandys and Jonathan Littman, We Shall Not Fail: The Inspiring Leadership of Winston Churchill (New York: Portfolio, 2003), 210.

2. Mary Soames, ed., Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 475.

3. Lord Moran, Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 87.

4. Ibid., 87.

5. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle (New York: Wyndham Books, 1981), 249.

6. Ibid., 249.

7. Ibid., 254.

8. Ibid., 250.

9. Ibid., 250.

10. Ibid., 250.

11. Ibid., 250.

12. Quoted in ibid., 254.

13. Sandys and Littman, 211.

14. Colville, 253.

15. Ibid., 253.

16. Ibid., 253.

17. Ibid., 255.

18. Ibid., 255.

19. Ibid., 255.

20. Ibid., 255.

21. Ibid., 255-56.

22. Ibid., 255-56.

23. Ibid., 255-56.

24. Ibid., 249.

25. Ibid., 249.

26. Sandys and Littman, 210.

27. Roy Jenkins, Churchill: a Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 764-65.

28. Soames, 653.

29. Jenkins, 764-65.

30. Douglas S. Russell, The Orders, Decorations and Medals of Sir Winston Churchill, 2nd edition (Washington: The Churchll Centre, 2004), 88. “The Noble Peace of Giants,” Life, 17 November 1958, 167.

31. Robert Rhodes James, “Churchill the Parliamentarian,” in Robert Blake and William Roger Louis, eds. Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 505.

32. Colville, 265.

Further Reading

Robert Blake and William Roger Louis, eds., Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) provides detailed information about de Gaulle and Churchill’s lasting relationship after the war, and testifies to Churchill’s admiration of de Gaulle.

John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle (New York: Wyndham Books, 1981; The Churchillians in UK) discusses Churchill’s feelings toward de Gaulle during the war, describing the “Gaullist pettiness” and how de Gaulle tried Churchill’s patience.

Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) offers details about Churchill’s decision to retain the de Gaulle relationship despite the Frenchman’s actions.

Celia Sandys and Jonathan Littman, We Shall Not Fail: The Inspiring Leadership of Winston Churchill (New York: Portfolio, 2003) describes Churchill’s strong leadership throughout the course of the war, including the Churchill-de Gaulle relationship.

Mary Soames, Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999) includes correspondence between Churchill  and his wife, who maintained a cordial relationship with de Gaulle. His daughter’s book offers considerable details about her father’s view of de Gaulle and his consequent decisions during the war.

Charles Wilson, Churchill, Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966) emphasizes WSC’s wartime aversion to de Gaulle.

“The Noble Peace of Giants,” in Life, 17 November 1958 describes the ceremony in which Sir Winston Churchill received the Order of Liberation from de Gaulle in Paris in 1958.

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