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Unless otherwise indicated, all material researched, written, and copyrighted by Bill Stone for publication in various venues online and elsewhere. Feel free to point links at these pages, but reproduction of this material, electronic or otherwise, is prohibited without prior permission in writing from Stone & Stone.

Free French Divisions

Frenchmen rallied to the colors of Free France (later Fighting France) in embarrassingly small numbers from 1940 to the end of 1942. Most of the early recruits came from Foreign Legionnaires stranded in the UK after their evacuation from Narvik and from native troops in the few African colonies which sided with the Gaullists. From these early cadres came the 14th (later redesignated 13th) Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion and several battalions "de marche" (infantry) which provided assets for the abortive assault on Dakar and, later, participation (by the Brigade d'Orient) in the campaign in East Africa. Meanwhile, a French colonial battalion formed the Free French 1st "Bataillon d'infanterie de marine" (BIM) and campaigned in the Western Desert as a motor battalion under British control during the first offensive into Libya.

General de Gaulle ordained formation of the first Free French division in Palestine just in time to take part in Operation Exporter, the Allied invasion of the Vichy-controlled French Levant. This campaign is often referred to as a tragedy of Frenchman against Frenchman. More exactly, the majority of Free French battalions in the operation were composed of Senegalese troops who were reluctant to kill their Senegalese countrymen serving with the Vichy defenders; as a consequence, the Free French brigades earned a poor reputation with the British.

Although the Gaullists had anticipated a healthy influx of recruits from among the defeated Vichy army in the Levant, the vast majority of officers and troops chose not to join Free France. Indeed, both Free French brigades were disbanded for a time at the end of the campaign.

When the brigades were reformed, they were stronger and better supported with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, artillery, and tanks. Although considered brigade groups by the British, the French liked to think of their new formations as light divisions. Both reconstituted brigades fought in the Western Desert. The 1st fought gallantly (and with great propaganda value) at Bir Hakeim. The inexperienced 2nd saw no action and failed to cover itself with glory in the withdrawal to Alamein. After Second Alamein, the brigades became components of the new 1st Free French Division.

In response to the Anglo-American landings in French North Africa, the Vichy-controlled Army of Africa resisted briefly before rallying not to Free France but to the Allies. Following the Tunisian campaign came the difficult process of merging the forces of the Free French with those forces formerly loyal to the Vichy regime. This was a distinction never entirely forgotten in the ensuing years.

With the rallying of French North Africa and the subsequent allegiance of French West Africa and most of the remainder of the French colonial empire, a large pool of manpower became available for rebuilding the French army. However, the army could be rebuilt only at the pace of the Allied (largely American) rearmament program. French desires (and demands) were consistently greater than Allied abilities (and willingness), and the rearmament program was a bureaucratic jungle which saw many partially formed French formations sacrificed and cannibalized. The program eventually produced eight very useful Allied divisions: 1st Free French and 2nd Armored (both with Gaullist lineage), 1st and 5th Armored, 2nd Moroccan, 3rd Algerian, 4th Moroccan Mountain, and 9th Colonial. These divisions served variously in Italy, France, and Germany.

In addition, a variety of later, mostly "non-program" divisions served in France and/or Germany, usually in a static, security, or garrison role: 1st, 10th, 14th, 19th, 23rd, and 25th Infantry, and 1st and 27th Alpine. Other divisions were being formed as the war ended. All these for the most part comprised former FFI ("French Forces of the Interior"; i.e., partisan) bands which sprouted like weeds in the path of the liberation. (These multitudes of irregulars, with their imprecise organizations, shifting locales, and ever-evolving appellations, form "the immense puzzle of FFI units" in the 1000+ pages of their official history.)

Ex-FFI troops were also used to "whiten" the battalions of divisions formed in Africa, such replacement "imposed by the climatic conditions." This process of integrating FFI troops into overseas divisions was the source of another distinction never entirely forgotten in the French army in ensuing years.

Many non-divisional formations also served with French forces from 1943 to 1945, including 1st Spahi Brigade, 9th Zouaves, the "Choc" battalion, "France" and "Africa" commando battalions, and, especially, the four "Groupes Tabors Marocains."

Of the Free French divisions which served in Europe, here are some brief historical summaries:

1st Free French Infantry XX
The original 1st "Division Francaise Libre" was actually an undersized unit of two weak brigades formed in Palestine in May 1941 and disbanded in August of the same year.

Those two brigades were reconstituted in December 1941 and March 1942, and they were officially formed into the new 1st Free French Division on 1 February 1942 outside Tobruk. French 4th Brigade, forming in Egypt in February, became the division's third brigade but did not join the division until after the campaign in Tunisia. Meanwhile, elements of the division (originally detached for the pursuit from Alamein), continued to operate with the advancing 8th Army as the "French Flying Column."

The division participated in the last few days of the Tunisian campaign, then reorganized in French North Africa before moving to Italy in April 1944 where it campaigned with the CEF until June. It was transported to southern France in August 1944 and took part in operations in Provence and Alsace. En route to the Atlantic coast in December to help assault German-held ports, the division was rushed back to the Rhine in response to the German counter-offensive and threat to Strasbourg. The 1st Free French Division ended the war with the French Army Detachment of the Alps.

As with the other French divisions with roots in Africa, the 1st underwent "whitening." Five organic battalions from Cameroon, French Equatorial Africa, and Djibouti were replaced with FFI battalions in September and October 1944.

Although officially redesignated 1st Motorized Infantry Division on 27 March 1944, and then 1st March Infantry Division on 1 May 1944, the division was invariably known as 1st Free French Division.

2nd Armored XX
Following Axis surrender in Tunisia, General Leclerc's "L" Force began conversion into the 2nd Free French Division. The French 2nd Armored Division had already commenced formation from May 1943 but, when it was decided to convert General Leclerc's command to tanks, the original 2nd Armored was redesignated 5th Armored Division. Leclerc's unit assumed the 2nd Armored designation on 24 May 1943 by right of seniority.

The division stands apart from other French forces in that it was transferred from French North Africa to the UK, missing the campaigns of the CEF and French Armee "B" in the Med. Earmarked for the task based on political considerations, the division landed in Normandy in August 1944 and liberated Paris. The 2nd "Division Blindee" spent little of the war under French command, most often being assigned to American armies. In 1945, however, it was transferred to the Atlantic coast to assist in reducing the German-held fortress at Royan at the mouth of the Gironde.

1st Armored XX
French 1st "Division Blindee" was raised in May 1943, based on Colonel Vigier's "Brigade Legere Mecanique" which had served in the Vichy French garrison of North Africa and fought against the Axis in the Tunisian campaign. As part of French Army "B" (later redesignated French 1st Army), the division sailed to southern France and landed in the follow-up of Operation Anvil-Dragoon. It then took part in the campaigns in France and Germany with French 1st Army, often dispersed and supporting French infantry divisions.

3rd Armored XX
French 3rd Armored Division was initially assembled in Tunisia in June 1943 from elements of various formations on hand at the end of the Tunisian campaign. Not until September was it formally activated, and in October it transferred to Morocco to be nearer its source of newly arriving American equipment. The incomplete division was disbanded on 1 September 1944, with elements dispatched to France shortly afterwards as reinforcements and replacements for the 1st DB.

In May 1945 3rd Armored was reborn in the area of Limoges in the French XII Region Militaire, but it did not see action before the end of the war.

5th Armored XX
French 2nd Armored Division, formed 1 May 1943, was redesignated 5th Armored Division on 16 July 1943 (thus allowing 2nd Free French Division to convert to 2nd Armored) in North Africa. Originally comprising a tank brigade and a support brigade, the 5th Armored was re-equipped and reorganized to American standards with three combat commands which were commonly detached to support French infantry divisions.

The division arrived in France in September 1944 and took part in the battles for Belfort and reduction of the Colmar pocket, then spent time in reserve before supporting the French crossing of the Rhine in March and participating in the final campaign in Germany.

2nd Moroccan Infantry XX
French 2nd Moroccan Division formed in Morocco in May 1943 from elements of the Meknes Division of the garrison of French North Africa. It moved to Italy in November 1943, campaigned as far north as Florence with the French Expeditionary Corps, moved to southern France shortly after the Operation Anvil-Dragoon landings, and fought with French 1st Army from Provence to the Rhine and the Danube.

As with other French divisions formed with native African troops, an FFI-raised regiment replaced one of the original regiments during the campaign in France.

Moroccan troops were highly regarded in the French Army, although the colorful aphorism probably originated among the Moroccan soldiers themselves: "The Tunisians are women, the Algerians are men, and the Moroccans are heroes."

3rd Algerian Infantry XX
French 3rd Algerian Infantry Division was created in Algeria on 1 May 1943 from elements of the Constantine Division of the garrison of French North Africa. It moved to Italy in December 1943 and campaigned as far north as Siena as part of the French Expeditionary Corps, then withdrew to prepare for the landing in southern France.

As part of French Army "B" and 1st Army, 3rd Algerian participated in the campaigns of Provence, Alsace-Lorraine, and the Rhine to the Danube. The 49th Infantry Regiment, raised from former FFI forces, joined the division in February 1945, and the 7th Algerian Regiment departed in the following month.

4th Moroccan Mountain XX
French 4th "Division Marocaine de Montagne" was created at Casablanca in June 1943 from the redesignated 3rd Moroccan Infantry Division. Originally formed with three regiments of Moroccans, 2nd RTM was replaced by 1st RTA on 15 August 1944. The 27th Infantry Regiment joined the division in March 1945 and 1st RTA was detached in April of that year.

4th DMM served with the French Expeditionary Corps in Italy in 1944, with two of its regiments temporarily assigned to the French "Corps de Montagne." Following its arrival in southern France in September 1944, the division was separated into several tactical groups. Divisional HQ, 1st RTM, and other divisional assets moved to stabilize the situation in the Alps on the Franco-Italian border. 6th RTM was detached to the Belfort-Vosges sector. Meanwhile, some elements of 1st RTA garrisoned Marseille while other elements of the regiment remained in Italy. The division was not reunited until December, after which time it continued to campaign in France and Germany.

9th Colonial Infantry XX
Officially activated 16 July 1943 in Algeria, 9th Colonial Division's components had already suffered casualties: approximately 500 troops of 4th RTS were lost on 20 April 1943 when, en route to French North Africa, their transport was torpedoed by U-565; and 35 troops of 13th RTS were killed in a Luftwaffe air raid on Algiers on the night of 4-5 June 1943.

The division assembled in October at Mostaganem, with lead elements departing from Oran for Corsica in April 1944 to assist in liberating the island. By May the entire division garrisoned the island. In June, 4th and 13th RTS made the assault landing on Elba and then returned to Corsica; in their wake, 6th RTS moved to Elba for garrison duty. By mid-July the division was reassembled on Corsica. 9th Colonial also served with French Armee "B"/1st Army in France and Germany.

After the African troops of the three Senegalese regiments were replaced with white troops from the FFI (such replacements "imposed by the climatic conditions" in France) in November 1944, the units were re-titled "Colonial Infantry Regiments."

1st Infantry XX
French 1st Infantry Division, not to be confused with 1st Free French Division or 1st DCEO Division, was, despite its high-seniority designation, not formed until late in the war. Its component regiments were formed separately (43rd and 110th in the Lille-St Omer sector of 1st Military Region; 1st outside Royan) and assembled in the region of Bourges before moving to Germany. The division served only in the security, garrison, and occupation role in the waning days of the campaign.

10th Infantry XX
French 10th Infantry Division (not to be confused with 10th Colonial Division) was forming outside Paris when it was rushed eastward as part of the Allied response to the German Ardennes offensive. It was then transferred to the Vosges to relieve elements of French 1st Army. The division was incompletely formed, trained, and equipped when it deployed, with 46th RI detached and no artillery on hand, but various miscellaneous assets attached. In February the 10th moved to the Atlantic coast where it spent the remainder of the war in reserve with elements supporting sieges of the various German-held ports.

14th Infantry XX
The original 14th "Colmar and Mulhouse" Infantry Division was commanded by General de Lattre de Tassigny in France in 1940. The reconstituted 14th, raised from former FFI elements with incomplete equipment from various sources, served in 1945 in the General's French 1st Army. The division was used in the garrison, security, and occupation role.

19th Infantry XX
French 19th Infantry Division was a weak, incomplete division formed from FFI battalions to contain the German-held pocket at Lorient/Quiberon. Its battalions were gradually reorganized into regiments. Unlike Royan and La Rochelle, no major assault was made against the pocket, and the German garrison did not surrender until 10 May 1945.

23rd Infantry XX
The French 23rd Infantry Division (also known as "Division de marche Oleron") was another weak unit activated to control existing FFI battalions masking German-held Atlantic ports. Elements were deployed at Royan (at the mouth of the Gironde) and at La Rochelle. 50th and 158th Regiments attacked and captured Royan in April in conjunction with French 2nd Armored Division and then, with 6th Regiment and a variety of other forces, attacked the Ile d'Oleron and the La Rochelle/La Pallice perimeter. German forces in the pocket finally surrendered 9 May 1945.

25th Infantry XX
French 25th Infantry Division was another incomplete division formed late in the war to control FFI units already in place besieging German-held ports, in this case St Nazaire (which did not surrender until 11 May 1945).

36th Infantry XX
French 36th Infantry Division began forming late in the war, with two regiments in the Toulouse area and one originally at Bordeaux. It did not see action.

1st Alpine XX
FFI battalions in the vicinity of the Franco-Italian border activated the French 1st Alpine Division at the end of August 1944 to participate in the liberation of the Alps. It was organized into demi-brigades which were in turn comprised of miscellaneous battalions of varying strength and equipment, plus limited artillery and engineer assets. The division was disbanded in November, with elements transferring to the new 27th Alpine Division.

27th Alpine XX
French 27th Alpine Division was activated in November 1944, largely from former FFI elements of the newly disbanded 1st Alpine Division, and it continued to be supported by various FFI bands throughout the campaign on the Franco-Italian border. As with most former FFI units, appellations of those in the division evolved constantly during the process of "regularization." While German (and Fascist Italian) forces retained control of the mountain passes, 27th Alpine passed a quiet winter patrolling and preparing for a spring offensive.

1st DCEO Infantry XX
1st "Division Coloniale d'Extreme-Orient" was formed for service in the Far East at the end of 1944 and was comprised of former FFI units as well as African troops relieved from other divisions. Elements participated in the 1945 operations against northern Italy under control of Army Detachment of the Alps.

2nd DCEO Infantry XX
Like its sister division, French 2nd "Division Coloniale d'Extreme Orient" was formed late in 1944 from FFI units and African troops for service in the Far East as French Indo-China had still to be recovered from the Japanese (and Ho Chi Minh).

Sources

Boulle, Lt Col Georges. Guerre 1939-1945: Le Corps Expeditionnaire Francais en Italie, 1943-44: vol 1. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1971

Boulle, Lt Col Georges. Guerre 1939-1945: Le Corps Expeditionnaire Francais en Italie, 1943-44: vol 2. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1971

De Gaulle, Charles. Complete War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964

De Lattre de Tassigny. French First Army. London: Allen and Unwin, 1952

Gaujac, Paul. L'Armee de la Victoire: De la Provence a l'Alsace. Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle, 1985

Gaujac, Paul. L'Armee de la Victoire: de Naples a L'Ile d'Elbe. Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle, 1985

Gaujac, Paul. L'Armee de la Victoire: Du Rhin au Danube. Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle, 1986

Gaujac, Paul. L'Armee de la Victoire: Le Rearmement, 1942-1943. Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle, 1984

Goutard, Colonel Adolphe. Le Corps Expeditionnaire Francais dans la Campagne d'Italie. Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle & Co, 1947

Le Goyet, Colonel Pierre. Guerre 1939-1945: La Participation Francaise a la Campagne d'Italie. Paris: French Army Historical Service, 1969

Ministere d'Etat. Guerre 1939-1945: Les Grandes Unites Francaises. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1970 (multiple volumes)

Spivak, Marcel. Guerre 1939-1945: Les Forces Francaises dans la lutte contre l'axe en Afrique: La campagne de Tunisie, 1942-1943. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1985

Vernet, Jacques. Guerre 1939-1945: Le Rearmement et la reorganisation de l'armee de terre francaise. Vincennes: Nationale Imprimerie, 1980

Vigneras, Marcel. United States Army in World War II: Special Studies: Rearming the French. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1957

Vincent, Jean-Noel. Guerre 1939-1945: Les Forces Francaises dans la lutte contre l'axe en Afrique: Les Forces Francaises Libres en Afrique, 1940-1943. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1983

Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone

 

 

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