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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
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
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
3rd Armored XX
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
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
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
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
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
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
10th Infantry XX
14th Infantry XX
19th Infantry XX
23rd Infantry XX
25th Infantry XX
36th Infantry XX
1st Alpine XX
27th Alpine XX
1st DCEO Infantry XX
2nd DCEO Infantry XX
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
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