Historically, an individual became Free French after he enlisted in de Gaulle's Free French organisation located in London. Free French units are units formed by these people. De Gaulle's organisation stopped accepting members in mid-1943 as Free French forces were merging with the French forces in North Africa, and the Comité français de libération nationale (CFLN) was set up in Algiers.
Postwar, to settle disputes over the Free French heritage, the French government issued an official definition of the term. Under this "ministerial instruction of July 1953" (instruction ministérielle du 29 juillet 1953), only those who served with the Allies after the Franco-German armistice in 1940 and before 1 August 1943 may correctly be called "Free French".
French forces after July 1943 are therefore correctly designated as the "forces of Liberation".
This article temporarily includes the activities of French forces after 1942, in order to maintain continuity.
In 1940, General Charles de Gaulle was a member of the French cabinet during the Battle of France. As French defence forces were increasingly overwhelmed, de Gaulle found himself part of a small group of politicians who argued against a negotiated surrender to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. As these views were shared by the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, de Gaulle was sent as an emissary to the United Kingdom, it was during this time the French government collapsed.
On 16 June, the new French President of the Council, Philippe Pétain, began negotiations with Axis officials. On 18 June, de Gaulle spoke to the French people via BBC radio. He asked French soldiers, sailors and airmen to join in the fight against the Nazis. In France, de Gaulle's "Appeal of the 18th of June" (Appel du 18 juin) was not widely heard, but subsequent discourse by de Gaulle could be heard nationwide. Some of the British Cabinet had attempted to block the speech, but were over-ruled by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. To this day, the Appeal of 18 June remains one of the most famous speeches in French history. Nevertheless, on June 28, Pétain signed the surrender and became leader of the puppet regime known as Vichy France. (Vichy is the French town where the government was based).
De Gaulle was tried in absentia in Vichy France and sentenced to death for treason; he, on the other hand, regarded himself as the last remaining member of the legitimate Reynaud government able to exercise power, seeing the rise to power of Pétain as an unconstitutional coup.
In his general order n° 2 of 3 July 1940, Vice Admiral Émile Muselier, two days after assuming the post of chief of the naval and air forces of the Free French, created the bow flag displaying the French colours with a red cross of Lorraine, and a cockade also featuring the cross of Lorraine.
Following repeated broadcasts, by the end of July that year, 7,000 people had volunteered to join the Free French forces. The Free French Navy had fifty ships and some 3,700 men operating as an auxiliary force to the British Royal Navy.
A monument on Lyle Hill in Greenock in western Scotland, in the shape of the Cross of Lorraine combined with an anchor, was raised by subscription as a memorial to the Free French naval vessels which sailed from the Firth of Clyde to take part in the Battle of the Atlantic, and is also locally associated with the memory of the loss of the Maillé Brézé which exploded at the Tail of the Bank.
The Royal Navy attempted to persuade the French Navy to agree to these terms but, when that failed, they attacked the French Navy at Mers El Kébir in Algeria. This attack on 3 July 1940 caused bitterness and division in France (over 1,000 sailors had been killed), particularly in the Navy, and discouraged many French soldiers from joining the Free French forces in Britain and elsewhere.
Some French warships did remain on the Allied side and others re-joined later after the Axis occupation of Vichy France (codenamed Case Anton) and the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon. Those ships flew a separate flag, the Free French Naval Ensign, which is still in use as a mark of honour by ships that continue to use the name of a Free French ship.
After the fall of France in 1940, the French colonies of Cameroun and French Equatorial Africa (except for Gabon) joined the Free French while the remainder sided with the Vichy Regime. With the addition of French African colonies came a large number of African colonial troops. From July to November 1940, Free French forces fought French troops loyal to Vichy France during the West African Campaign. The outcome of this campaign was mixed with the Vichy French claiming victory at the Battle of Dakar and the Free French claiming victory at the Battle of Gabon. The French West African colonies remained Vichy French and the French Equatorial African colonies remained Free French.
In Asia and the Pacific, the The French South Pacific colonies of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and the New Hebrides joined the Free French later. The South Pacific colonies would become vital Allied bases in the Pacific Ocean. French Indochina was invaded by Japan in September 1940, although the colony remained under nominal Vichy control. On 9 March 1945, the Japanese took full control of Indochina and launched the Second French Indochina Campaign.
In North America, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (near Canada) joined the Free French after an "invasion" on 24 December 1941 by Rear Admiral Emile Muselier and the forces he was able to load onto three corvettes and a submarine of the Free French Naval Forces (Forces navales françaises libres, or FNFL)
During 1941, Free French units fought with the British Commonwealth army against Italian troops in Ethiopia and Eritrea during the East African Campaign. During the Syria-Lebanon Campaign, Free French forces fighting alongside British Commonwealth forces once more faced French troops loyal to Vichy France — this time in the Levant. By July 1941, General Henri Dentz and his Vichy Army of the Levant were defeated. Free French General Georges Catroux was appointed as High Commissioner of the Levant. From this point, Free France controlled both Syria and Lebanon until they became independent.
In Africa, the Vichy colonies were gradually overthrown as Free French forces took part in the allied campaigns on the continent. Free French soldiers participated in the Allied North African campaign, in Libya and Egypt. General Marie Pierre Koenig and his unit, the 1st Free French Brigade, fought well against the Afrika Korps at the Battle of Bir Hakeim in June 1942, although eventually obliged to withdraw. To the west the Allies launched Operation Torch, an invasion of Vichy-controlled French North Africa in November 1942. Many Vichy troops surrendered and joined the Free French cause. Vichy coastal defences were captured by the French Resistance. Vichy General Henri Giraud rejoined the Allies, but he lacked the authority that was required and de Gaulle kept his leadership of the Free French, despite American objections. In late 1942, after the Battle of Madagascar, the Vichy French forces under Governor-General Armand Léon Annet were defeated and Free French General Paul Legentilhomme was appointed High Commissioner for Madagascar. On 28 December, after a prolonged blockade, the Vichy forces in French Somaliland were ousted.
The Nazi Germans lost faith in the Vichy regime after Operation Torch and, during Case Anton in November 1942, German and Italian forces occupied Vichy France. In response, the 60,000-strong Vichy forces in French North Africa — the Army of Africa — joined the Allied side as the French XIX Corps within the British 1st Army, which also included the U.S. II Corps and two British corps. They fought in Tunisia for six months until April 1943. Using antiquated equipment, the XIX Corps took heavy casualties (16,000) against modern armour and a desperate Axis enemy.
After these successes, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies, as well as French Guiana on the northern coast of South America, joined Free France in 1943. In November 1943, the French forces received enough military equipment through Lend-Lease to re-equip eight divisions and allow the return of borrowed British equipment. At this point, the Free French and ex-Vichy French Corps were merged. In 1943, Colonel (later General) Philippe Leclerc and Lieutenant-Colonel Camille d'Ornano led a column of 16,500 colonial troops from Chad to attack Italian forces in southern Libya and to occupy Kufra in the Fezzan region.
At de Gaulle's initiative, the Groupe de Chasse 3 Normandie was formed on 1 September 1942, for service on the Eastern Front. It served with distinction and was awarded the supplementary title Niemen by Stalin.
The Free French Navy, commanded by Admiral Emile Muselier, played a role in the occupation of French colonies in Africa, in supporting the French Resistance, in D-Day (Operation Neptune), and the Pacific War.
Later, the Resistance was more formally referred to as the "French Forces of the Interior" (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur, or FFI). From October 1944 to March 1945, many FFI units were amalgamated into the French Army in order to regularize the units.
During the Italian Campaign of 1943 and 1944, 100,000 Free French soldiers fought on the Allied side, notably in the fighting on the Winter Line and Gustav Line. By the time of the Normandy Invasion, the Free French forces numbered more than 400,000 strong. 900 Free French paratroopers in the British Special Air Service Brigade (S.A.S.), the Free French 2nd Armoured Division, under General Leclerc, landed at Utah Beach in Normandy on 1st August 1944, and eventually led the drive towards Paris, whilst the divisions which had been fighting in Italy became part of the French First Army, under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, and joined the U.S. 7th Army in Operation Dragoon. This operation was the Allied invasion of southern France. The Allied forces advanced up the line of the Rhône River to liberate the Vosges and southern Alsace.
Fearing the Germans would destroy Paris if attacked by a frontal assault, General Dwight Eisenhower ordered his forces to cease their advance and reconnoitre the situation. At this time, Parisians rose up in full-scale revolt. As the Allied forces waited near Paris, General Eisenhower acceded to pressure from de Gaulle and his Free French Forces. De Gaulle was furious about the delay and was unwilling to allow the people of Paris to be slaughtered as had happened in the Polish capital of Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising. De Gaulle ordered General Leclerc to attack single-handedly without the aid of allied forces. In response, General Eisenhower in an attempt to save face granted the Free French forces the honour of spearheading the Allied assault and liberating the capital city of France. Thus, on 24 August 1944, units of the Free French 2nd Armoured Division entered the city first during the Liberation of Paris.
At that time, general Alphonse Juin was the chief of staff of the French army, but it was General François Sevez who represented France at Reims on 7 May, while it was General de Lattre de Tassigny who was the leader of the French delegation at Berlin on V-E day, as he was the commander of the French First Army. France was then given an occupation zone in Germany, as well as in Austria and the city of Berlin, but they were given it slightly later than those of the "Big Three". It was not only the role that France played in the war which was recognized, but its important strategic position and significance in the Cold War as a major democratic, capitalist nation of Western Europe in holding back the influence of communism on the continent.
(More cited on French Resistance)