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Fight & Flight

On September 3, 1939, just two days after the German invasion of Poland, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. There wasn't much fighting during the winter months in a period known as the "Phony War." But, by April of 1940, fighting ensued.

The French had spent the better part of the 1930s building the Maginot Line, a fortified line of defense that ran along the German-French border. Germany had invaded France during WWI by going through Belgium. The French made two critical strategical errors. First, they ended Maginot Line at the Belgian border as the French believed the Ardennes and Argonne Forests that stood between Belgium and France would serve as a natural impediment. The French also believed that the fire power of their fixed artillery would be more important  in fighting the Germans than rapid movement. The Germans, on the other hand, used a strategy of rapid movement known as blitzkrieg, and  also had superior tanks that made mulch of the trees in the forest.

By May 1940, the Germans had the combined British and French forces trapped between them and the English Channel at the French coastal town of Dunkirk. The French and British needed a miracle, and that is exactly what they got. The Germans stopped to refuel their tanks because they were ahead of schedule. This allowed time for the evacuation of British and French to Britain.

Although the evacuation saved many lives, it did not stop the Germans. French citizens began to flee. Long lines of refugees lined the roads, and despite the fact that they were unarmed citizens, the Luftwaffe flying overhead strafed them down. The French suffered a significant loss of life. 


In early June, the Germans were at Paris' doorstep. On June 10, 1940, the French government took what important documents they could, and abandoned Paris. They realized it was the only way they might be able to save France.  The Germans entered Paris on June 14, 1940, and when France capitulated on June 22, 1940, many were confused as to how France fell so rapidly. Even though troop numbers were nearly even on both sides, the Germans dominated in terms of technological superiority (especially their Panzer tanks and their Luftwaffe). However, not everyone was finished fighting.




When the French government abandoned Paris, they did so only in the physical sense. They were no longer present in Paris, but they had not given up. They set up in London, and from there (and eventually from some of their African colonies) they operated their exiled government, Free France. The Free French were led by General Charles De Gaulle and were  supported by the Allies. They were ultimately responsible for organizing the random groups of  resistance  fighters into a more cohesive, efficient unit with one shared goal: to liberate France. These groups collectively are known as La Résistance Française (the French Resistance).




The French Resistance was comprised of groups of people who wanted to liberate France from the Nazis. The Résistance did anything it could to weaken the Nazis. They printed and distributed anti-Nazi publications, performed  assassinations and acts of sabotage, and helped downed Allied pilots.

It was a tremendous risk to be involved in the Résistance because if caught, it meant certain torture, imprisonment and death. For this reason, many resistance fighters assumed false identities. This way, they not only protected their families from the wrath of the Nazis, but also protected the true identity of other Résistance members. Unfortunately, since the Nazis often times could not find the actual perpetrators, they would take out their anger on innocent townspeople, even slaughtering entire villages.

The below documentary was created by students who participated in the 2008 National History Day competition. That year's theme was "Conflict and Compromise." They do a very nice job both giving general information on the Résistance as well as analyzing some of the conflict and compromise within the organization. I do not know these students, but who ever they are, my thanks to them for this educational video!



Charles De Gaulle

General Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French. He was a respected WWI veteran, who, upon escaping to London during WWII gave a speech (De Gaulle's Appeal of 18 June 1940) over the BBC radio that encouraged the people of France to continue resisting the Nazis. He would remain a controversial figure with the American and British forces for the remainder of the war. He always acted in what he believed were the best interests of France. After the war, he would go on to help found the Fifth Republic of France and become President of that Fifth Republic.


Jean Moulin

Jean Moulin was a leader in the French Résistance. Moulin was responsible for executing De Gaulle's plan to unite the various factions of the Résistance. He was considered to be the second in command next to De Gaulle. Moulin was captured on June 21, 1943. It is believed that he was betrayed by a member of the Résistance (who, though, remains a point of contention). He was taken to a prison in Lyon, then in Paris where he was tortured by the Gestapo and the infamous Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie. Jean Moulin died on July 8, 1943. Barbie said that Moulin committed suicide, but most people believe that he died from being tortured to death. His acts of bravery secured his place in history as he became the symbol of the Résistance.



Lucie & Raymond Aubrac

Lucie and Raymond Aubrac were a married couple and both were members of the Résistance. Both were Communists, and Raymond was also a Jew. In fact, his birth name was Raymond Samuel, so to hide his Jewish identity, he changed his last name to the more French sounding Aubrac. After the Nazi invasion, the couple left Paris and settled in Lyon where they became active and important members of the south Résistance. Raymond was arrested along side Jean Moulin, and Lucie, who was very pregnant at the time, devised a scheme to help her husband out of jail.

Lucie pretended that she and Raymond were not married but that she was pregnant with his child (they were using false identities, so it made sense). She pleaded with the Gestapo to allow them to get married so the child would not have to live with the shame of illegitimacy. They finally agreed, and on the day of the wedding, Lucie and other members of the Résistance were able to help Raymond escape. Lucie and Raymond, along with their children, were able to escape to London where they stayed until France was liberated.

Some believe that it was Raymond who betrayed Jean Moulin.  During his trial for crimes against humanity, Klaus Barbie specifically named Raymond Aubrac as an informer. Raymond Aubrac, now 98, denies any such thing.

Lucie became involved in politics after the war and became the first woman to sit on a parliamentary assembly. She lived to be 95 years old. In 1984, Lucie  published her memoirs, Outwitting the Gestapo, that tell the tale of her life in the Résistance.


Agnès Humbert

Agnès Humbert was an art historian at the Musée de l'Homme. She heard De Gaulle's plea over the BBC for the French to resist and immediately knew she needed to do something. She formed a group with some of her colleagues, which ended up being the first organized resistance group in Paris. The group quickly grew and they began to create and distribute an anti-Nazi, anti-Vichy newspaper, Résistance.

In April 1941, she and seven other members of her cell were betrayed and arrested. As she awaited her trial, she was imprisoned  in Paris in deplorable conditions. All members were found guilty, the men sentenced to death, and the women to slave labor in Germany. Humbert spent the remaining years of the war working in a rayon factory where the chemicals left her fingers raw and severely damaged her eyesight.

After the war, Agnès Humbert went back to work for the museum. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her service in the Résistance and bravery as a POW. Her experience is chronicled in her book Résistance.