Posted by: secondeguerremondialeclairegrube | April 16, 2017

1940-1944: French repatriation

1940-1944 : French repatriation

Grüß Gott !

French refugees, stranded in Great-Britain, after the big deroute, preferred to return home.

The forgotten French / Exiles in the British Isles / 1940-1944 / Nicholas Atkin / MUP / 2003:

« To the general’s disgust and frustration, several prominent intellectuals who had arrived in London at the same time as himself were soon repacking their bags, destined for the safer shores of North America. It was with some justification that Elizabeth de Miribel acerbically observed, ‘In June 1940 London was not a town where you arrived, but one from which you left. Likewise, Ronald Tree, one of Churchill’s close associates, recalls how, in the wake of the fall of Sedan, London University’s Senate House, the wartime home of the Ministry of Information, was deluged with prominent French figures, all desirous to secure passage to New York. » (…)

„ Apart from General de Gaulle and his supporters, who have generated what one historian has described as an ‘intimidating’ literature, those French exiles who sheltered in Britain during the ‘dark years’ of 1940-44 have largely been forgotten by historians. Why this neglect ? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the French in wartime Britain constituted a small, self-contained community, or rather communities, who left few traces of their existence, and who were all too eager to return to France, some seeking repatriation while the Germans still occupied their lands. » (…)

« Some 30,000 French expatriates were located in Washington and New York alone ; London could boast no more than 7,000 colons. Given these numbers, it was inevitable that the American French communities took a keen interest in what was happening to their compatriots over the Atlantic. As de Miribel remarked, the safety of American shores ensured that their numbers were further swelled by many prominent politicians and artists. While George Bernanos, the Catholic author, and Charles Corbin, the former ambassador to Britain, headed for South America, such luminaries as Henri Bernstein, Camille Chautemps, Jules Romains, André Maurois, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean Monnet and Henry Torrès, father of Tereska, all took up residence in New York. » (…)

« It is, though, de Gaulle himself, the supreme myth-maker, who ensured that all French expatriates in Britain were identified with his cause. » (…)

« Refugees could never escape the fact that they had been forced to flee their homes, and had been pushed towards the Channel. Most had come to Britain not out of design – out of a wish to fight on, whether with de Gaulle or the British – but by chance, without money, friends and English contacts. So it is that an initial chapter examines the ‘misfortune’ of exile, the pitiful story of the 3,500 French refugees whose lives were dominated by hardship, sorrow and alienation. The ensuing chapter investigates ‘the conflict of exile’: the experiences of those soldiers and sailors who were marooned in Britain at the time of the Armistice and Mers-el-Kébir. These comprised some 2,500 wounded soldiers, convalescing at Crystal Palace and White City, approximately 100 merchant seamen, also at Crystal Palace, and some 6,500 sailors billeted in makeshift barracks-cum-detention centres, located well away from London, generally in the Midlands and north of the country : Aintree, Haydock, Arrowe Park, Trentham Park, Doddington, Oulton Park and Barmouth. The ‘conflict’ of their exile was whether to fight on, either alongside de Gaulle or the British, or to opt for repatriation.“

„ Most of the French in Britain, with the exception of the colons, were there by chance, not by design, and were not wholly convinced that they should stay. While some were undeniably courageous in their opposition to Vichy and Hitlerism, the majority adopted a variety of positions ; few initially were Gaullist. Only when the war looked truly won did they begin to rally around the general, and even then doubts remained. » (…)

„ How many refugees, especially French, did Britain receive ? This is no easy question to answer. Refugees of all nationalities arrived at different times, at different places in the country ; and were processed in different ways, some being quickly repatriated. In her report of 1947, de l’Hôpital records that on 17 May 1940 alone, WVS canteens fed some 8,500 French refugees at a cost of £100,93, a figure repeated in older histories, although the forgotten French as we shall see detailed breakdowns, collated from a variety of sources, suggest for July-August a total French refugee population of about half this size, an indication that many civilians were immediately returned to their homeland, alongside the majority of French troops rescued at Dunkirk. » (…)

„ There were those who wished to travel in the other direction, and be repatriated to France. Such a sentiment was, in many senses, perfectly understandable. It will also be recalled that this was an extremely delicate subject, especially with the Free French. When Chartier of the Consulate-General asked that information about repatriation be broadcast on the BBC, his request was flatly turned down ; the news was instead to be relayed through French charitable agencies, no doubt pinned on an obscure part of their noticeboards. Moreover, repatriation involved making complicated shipping arrangements, always a hazardous business since the Germans refused to grant a safe passage even to boats flying a neutral ensign. Nonetheless, this prospect of the forgotten French being torpedoed by a U-boat did not prevent some 500 refugees from returning to their homeland in the immediate six months after the Battle of France. Quite who volunteered for repatriation is unclear. While it is likely that this number included troublemakers identified by the British, it also comprised those who simply could not adapt to a new way of life. As we have seen, Britain was a strange land with strange customs, the welcome of officialdom had not exactly been overflowing with charity, few refugees appear to have known the English language, the Blitz was a stark reminder that the war was not over, and there remained the prospect of a German invasion. Yet maybe the greatest attraction of repatriation was the prospect of being reunited with families. Such was the case of a handful of male refugees from Brest and Dunkirk, in the words of Chartier ‘travailleurs sérieux’, who had taken work in British factories and who were contemptuous of their fellow refugees who preferred to live ‘dans l’oisiveté aux frais de la charité publique’. More than anything, he continued, these men were worried about their families. (…)

„ In late January 1941, French Welfare concluded that the most urgent problem it had confronted during the first six months of its existence was not the handling of refugees, but what to do ‘with the considerable number of French soldiers, sailors and merchant seaman in this country who had not immediately expressed their willingness to join General de Gaulle’. These men were, of course, the majority. When, on 18 June 1940, de Gaulle emitted his ‘call to honour’, the response was feeble, a fact acknowledged by even the most unreconstructed of the general’s hagiographers. It has been calculated that, in mid-August 1940, the numbers of Free French, ‘volunteers of the first hour’, in both Britain and across the world, numbered approximately 8,000. “ (…)

„ To read the many histories of the French armed forces during the Second World War is, then, all too often to read the history of the Free French. Little mention is ever made of the sizeable numbers of French sailors and soldiers, over 10,000 in total, stranded in camps in Britain at the time of the defeat, and who largely chose repatriation over enlistment in the Free French or action with the British services.“ (…)

„ The soldiers remaining in Britain were soon to be joined by sailors and merchant seamen. At the time of the Armistice, several French ships had taken refuge in British harbours. As with the Dunkirk evacuees, the mood among these men was not good. In a telephone call with his son David, who was serving with the marines in Portsmouth, Lord Astor learned that ‘discord’ and ‘fighting’ on the ships was commonplace. The younger sailors, worried about their families and economic prospects, were already keen to go back to France.“ (…)

„ Counting the heads of the servicemen who discovered themselves in Britain during the summer of 1940 is fraught with the same kinds of difficulties as assessing the numbers of refugees. Official figures often contradict one another, and are frequently at variance with those cited in such authoritative works as Crémieux-Brilhac’s La France Libre. There are several reasons for this. As we have seen, the majority of men rescued at Dunkirk were quickly returned to France. Of the 141,000 rescued at the start of June, 45,000 remained towards the end of that month. Despite the efficiency with which the evacuations had been conducted, it was difficult keeping tabs on soldiers as they were transported across the country to rejoin the battle. Some degree of repatriation also appears to have been conducted immediately after the Armistice, although this proved increasingly difficult especially when, on 24 July, an E-boat sank the Meknès, transferring some 1,200 men to France, at the cost of 400 lives. It is further apparent that those who rallied to de Gaulle did not do so in one mad rush ; they came in dribs and drabs.“ (…)

„ In August 1940, between 2,000 to 3,000 men were believed to belong to de Gaulle’s army at Aldershot ; and another 300 were thought to be under the command of Admiral Muselier in the Free French Air Force, although several of the officers were flying with the RAF. Figures for the navy were unobtainable as many men were still deciding whether to sail with the British or with Muselier, described as a ‘cad and a blister’ by Rear-Admiral Watkins following a cocktail party in which the Frenchman accused the Royal Navy of stealing his officers. Crémieux-Brilhac suggests that, at this point, the marine counted 3,200 men. In November 1941, we know that the Free French Navy comprised 287 officers and 3,839 ratings ; 20 officers were sailing with the Royal Navy, along with 408 men. By any reckoning, it was a pitiful number. When, on 14 July 1940, de Gaulle marched his troops past the Cenotaph and the statue of General Foch in Grosvenor Gardens, provoking such headlines as ‘France Celebrates Liberty. In London Only’, the British public had witnessed almost the entire strength of the general’s fighting men. As Crémieux-Brilhac reminds us, the Czechs, Polish and Norwegian exiled forces were almost as impressive in numbers as the French. As Mollie Panter-Downes observed, the fact that de Gaulle’s men were housed at Olympia, a building associated in most Londoners’ minds with Christmas circuses and the Ideal Home Exhibition, did not help the cause. “

„ Charles Ingold, a fighter pilot and a early recruit for the Free French, noted in his diary how, at Arrowe Park, all the men were in a hurry to return home as they considered the war lost. Even de Gaulle himself could not hide his frustration. In his memoirs, he recalls how, on 29 June 1940, he visited Trentham Park where he rallied : The forgotten French a large part of the two battalions of the 13th Half Brigade of the Foreign Legion, with their leader, Lieut-Col. Magrin-Veneret, known as Monclar, and his number two, Captain Koenig, two hundred Chausseurs Alpins, two-thirds of a tank company, some elements of gunners, engineers and signals, and several staff and administrative officers, including Commandant de Conchard and Captains Dewarin and Tissier. The next day at Aintree and Haydock Park, he had less luck, being turned away by the British authorities in Liverpool, lest he provoked disorder. Arrowe Park, visited a few days later, proved more rewarding, yet indifference and hostility were still the overwhelming responses. White City proved a particular disappointment, given the proximity of de Gaulle’s recruiting bureau at nearby Olympia. Of the 1,600 or so troops that passed through there in the first two months of the camp’s existence, only 152 signed up with de Gaulle, a further 34 with the British army, and another 35 with the Royal Navy. Within the sailors’ camps recruiting moved at a snail’s pace. Although men at Haydock were relatively enthusiastic, by mid-September a mere 100 men a week were volunteering to serve with either de Gaulle or the British, the latter option being the more popular, largely because the pay was better, although those who did choose thus soon became objects of derision on the part of their comrades. It is also worth noting that in the case of those few eager to enlist, enrolment with the British Army offered a much quicker return to action than would be had by joining the Free French. Whatever the reasons, recruitment soon tailed off. When it was learned that a majority of the soldiers at White City, and men in other camps, had plumped for repatriation, and that some vessels had already sailed for France, ‘recruiting dropped badly, as the predominant desire of all these men is to return to their families in France’. “ (…)

„ It is known that from November onwards the steamers Canada, Djenne, Winnipeg and Massilia, the famous vessel that had carried a small number of parliamentarians from Bordeaux to North Africa, were kept busy ferrying men back to France. By Christmas 1940, 6,574 officers and men had been repatriated, and the French camps were closed down. “

„ The overwhelming majority of French servicemen stranded in Britain at the time of the Armistice and Mers-el-Kébir always wanted to return home, regardless of the discomforts that awaited them on their arrival, and it is not difficult to ascertain why. “


„ and who largely chose repatriation over enlistment. “

Claire GRUBE


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