Daily Archives: 18 April 2020

Pétain’s Deal with Hitler, 1940

From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 301ff:

Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun in World War I and now a laconic, enigmatic eighty-four-year-old, had once asserted, “They call me only in catastrophes.” Even Pétain had never seen a catastrophe like this one, and he sued for terms. Berlin obliged. Rather than risk having the French fight on from their colonies in North Africa, Hitler devised a clever armistice: the southern 40 percent of France—excluding Paris—would remain under the sovereignty of the Pétain government and unoccupied by German troops. From a new capital in the resort town of Vichy, France would also continue to administer her overseas empire, including the colonies of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which together covered a million square miles and included 17 million people, mostly Arab or Berber. France could keep her substantial fleet and an army of 120,000 men in North Africa by pledging to fight all invaders, particularly the British. To enforce the agreement, Germany would keep 1½ million French prisoners-of-war as collateral.

Pétain so pledged. He was supported by most of France’s senior military officers and civil servants, who swore oaths of fidelity to him. A few refused, including a forty-nine-year-old maverick brigadier general named Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, who took refuge in London, denounced all deals with the devil, and declared, in the name of Free France: “Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.” Hitler now controlled Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic Ocean to the River Bug. In September, Germany and Italy signed a tripartite pact with Japan, which had been prosecuting its own murderous campaign in Asia. The Axis assumed a global span. “The war is won,” the Führer told Mussolini. “The rest is only a question of time.”

That seemed a fair boast. Britain battled on, alone. “We are fighting for life, and survive from day to day and hour to hour,” Churchill told the House of Commons. But German plans to invade across the English Channel were postponed, repeatedly, after the Luftwaffe failed to subdue the Royal Air Force. Instead, the bombardment known as the Blitz continued through 1940 and beyond, slaughtering thousands and then tens of thousands of British civilians, even as RAF pilots shot down nearly 2,500 German planes in three months, killing 6,000 Luftwaffe crewmen and saving the nation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Mediterranean, military, war