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Poisonous relations

‘The Axis powers and France,’ declared Marshall Pétain and Hitler at Montoire in October 1940, ‘have a common interest in the defeat of England as soon as possible.’ Why this should have been so is one of the many interesting questions to which this book offers no satisfactory answer.

30 December 2009

12:00 AM

30 December 2009

12:00 AM

England’s Last War Against France: Fighting Vichy, 1940-1942 Colin Smith

Weidenfeld, pp.490, 25

‘The Axis powers and France,’ declared Marshall Pétain and Hitler at Montoire in October 1940, ‘have a common interest in the defeat of England as soon as possible.’ Why this should have been so is one of the many interesting questions to which this book offers no satisfactory answer.

‘The Axis powers and France,’ declared Marshall Pétain and Hitler at Montoire in October 1940, ‘have a common interest in the defeat of England as soon as possible.’ Why this should have been so is one of the many interesting questions to which this book offers no satisfactory answer.

France capitulated in June 1940 on terms which assumed that Britain would follow her example and that the war would shortly end. The terms made no sense on any other basis. She agreed to leave more than 1.5 million of her soldiers holed up in German prisoner-of-war camps until hostilities were over. She immobilised her fleet. She ceded control, for the duration of the war, of her capital and her northern and western provinces to the German army. All of this was tolerable because it was seen as an interim solution, the immediate prelude to a treaty of peace. The calculation was knocked sideways by Britain’s inconvenient refusal to make peace.


However, in the minds of Pétain and those around him, France’s interest in the defeat of Britain was always as much emotional as political. It was important for what remained of the country’s self-esteem that she should seem to have failed before a tidal wave which no one else could have withstood. Before the armistice, there had been strenuous efforts to make Britain commit the whole of Fighter Command to the battle of France, on the footing that without France the war could not continue. These continued well after General Weygand had acknowledged that the battle was lost. Pétain, newly appointed to the cabinet of Paul Reynaud, dismissed Churchill’s offer of an Anglo-French union as an invitation to be ‘fused with a corpse’. Laval famously looked forward to Britain being ‘squashed like an insect.’

Against this background, Britain’s survival served to underline France’s humiliation, a standing reminder that events might have taken a different course. The Dutch, Belgians and Norwegians had all set up governments in exile, with as much of their armed forces as they could salve. France, with her gold reserves intact in the United States, a powerful navy, a substantial overseas army, and control of much of the southern and eastern shore of the Mediterranean, was in a better position to do this than any of Hitler’s other victims. More than half of the 1.5 million prisoners of war had been captured in the last few days, after Pétain had announced that he would seek an armistice and the army finally fell to pieces. But for that announcement, many of them could have been moved to North Africa. Reynaud urged this course at the time. From London, De Gaulle agreed. So did Daladier and Mandel, as well as the President of the Republic and the speakers of both chambers of Parliament. But Reynaud could not carry his cabinet. Not that it would have made any difference if he had. Weygand told him to his face that if he were given the deployment orders he would disobey them.

All of this reflected the dominant instincts of the French political class: an obstinately Francocentric view of the world which ignored global strategy, coupled with an abiding fear of civil disintegration and a powerful belief in the continuity and healing grace of the state. If the territory of France was lost, all was lost. The rational course was for France to turn in on itself, rather than submit to the occupation of all its metropolitan territory. A government at Vichy was better than none at all. Better even than a government installed in North Africa, while the inhabitants of the hexagon fended for themselves with nothing to stand between them and the German army.

It is sometimes forgotten that De Gaulle’s activities in London were widely regarded in France as treasonable, not just by Weygand and Pétain. None of the French colonial garrisons was prepared to throw in its lot with the British or the Free French. British moves into Dakar, Syria and Madagascar were all fiercely resisted, while the Japanese walked into French Indo-China with no opposition at all. When the French army surrendered to the British in Syria in September 1941 its commanding officer, General Dentz, refused to sit down at the same table as De Gaulle’s representative and barely a sixth of his men were willing to join the Free French. The Anglo-American invasion of Morocco in November 1942 marked a turning point, but only because Darlan and Guiraud were persuaded that it was an all-American show and because the Germans finally put an end to the pretence that Vichy was an autonomous state.

The story of Vichy’s poisonous relations with Britain is well worth a book but not this one. Colin Smith’s account of ‘England’s last war against France’ concentrates on its military encounters with Britain. Yet in strategic terms, these were side-shows, and in military terms they are of little real interest. Politically, they mattered, but politics is not this author’s strong suit. He dwells on anti-British feeling in France before 1939, whose strength and importance he greatly exaggerates. But he has hardly anything to say about the last days of the Reynaud government in June 1940, when Vichy’s bitterness against Britain was born. The complex internal politics of Pétain’s governments and their dealings with Germany are critical to the story, but Smith glides over them.

His research is extraordinarily superficial. There are only three French works in the bibliography and no German ones. The outstanding books of Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac or Julian Jackson appear to have been ignored. The campaign narratives are heavily dependent on English military and naval memoirs, which makes them episodic, incoherent and one-sided. No use seems to have been made of either the British or the American official war histories, which remain the fundamental accounts of events on the ground. Instead we have a string of disconnected anecdotes, told in the breathless, Boy’s Own Paper style that the author favours, but are left none the wiser about why things happened as they did or why it matters.


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