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The forgotten French

Exiles in the British Isles 1940–44

Nicholas Atkin

It is widely assumed that the French in the British Isles during the Second World War were fully fledged supporters of General de Gaulle, and that, across the channel at least, the French were a ‘nation of resisters’. This study reveals that most exiles were on British soil by chance rather than by design, and that many were not sure whether to stay. Overlooked by historians, who have concentrated on the ‘Free French’ of de Gaulle, these were the ‘Forgotten French’: refugees swept off the beaches of Dunkirk; servicemen held in camps after the Franco-German armistice; Vichy consular officials left to cater for their compatriots; and a sizeable colonist community based mainly in London. Drawing on little-known archival sources, this study examines the hopes and fears of those communities who were bitterly divided among themselves, some being attracted to Pétain as much as to de Gaulle.

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Nicholas Atkin

Of all the groups making up the French community in exile, the lot of the refugees was the most uncomfortable. In the first place, their arrival had not been foreseen. In the strategic planning for the war, both France and Britain looked on refugees of any nationality as an irritant that might upset carefully laid military plans. During the ensuing discussions, Paris largely triumphed. Keen not to upset its chief ally, and recognising the logic of the French position, Britain reluctantly agreed to accept the majority numbers of Belgian and Dutch civilians, and drew up contingency plans accordingly. Disorientated, distressed and desolate, the principal concerns of the refugees were, above all, practical ones: housing; clothes; food and employment. Accordingly, they kept themselves to themselves and made little attempt to mix with the British public. Undoubtedly, their ‘foreignness’ and their impoverishment set them apart, yet the overriding impression is that, after the fifth-column scare of May–June 1940, they elicited sympathy and support at least among the public, unlike their compatriots in the French army and navy who decided on early repatriation rather than serve with de Gaulle.

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Nicholas Atkin

This concluding chapter ties together the loose threads of the preceding discussions. The study has demonstrated that we can no longer speak of the French community in Britain in the singular. Aside from the Gaullist forces, there were several other communities—the ‘forgotten French’. Exile in Britain was not a particularly happy episode for either the ‘forgotten French’ or the British. As Ministry of Information officials had forecast in 1939, while the two nationalities maybe shared the same fundamental values, the differences in temperament and outlook were profound, and these were vividly exposed by the peculiar circumstances of wartime, especially the anomalous position of the Vichy government, which was alone in Hitler's Europe in that it retained a sizeable measure of autonomy. Throughout history, the French have generally made unhappy exiles, and the events of 1940–44 only highlighted their inability to adapt.

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Nicholas Atkin

The many histories of the French armed forces during the Second World War reveal 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. Charles de Gaulle conveniently blamed their unwillingness to join him on Mers-el-Kébir, and suggests that the British were not as supportive as they could have been in his recruitment drive. There is a measure of truth in these claims, in particular the accusations against London. The British government had serious doubts about the reliability of French servicemen and their worth in battle. Yet the reasons behind the failure to rally were far more complicated; and it is significant that the attitudes of many exiled servicemen reflected those of their comrades-in-arms in metropolitan France.

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The context of exile

Communities, circumstances and choices

Nicholas Atkin

This chapter begins with a discussion of why French exiles, who sheltered in Britain during the ‘dark years’ of 1940–44, have largely been forgotten by historians. It then sets out the purpose of the book, which is to lift out of obscurity and to dissect the existence of these ‘forgotten French’. The book serves as a corrective in that it displays the majority of French men and women were not enamoured of the General de Gaulle; in many ways, the lure of Pétain was stronger. It shows that the history of the ‘forgotten French’ is a tale of several communities: communities that struggled to acclimatise to life abroad; communities that kept their distance from one another; communities that were often internally divided; and communities that frequently exasperated, irritated and bemused the British government and public.

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The surveillance of exile

The Vichy consulates

Nicholas Atkin

As with so many of the groups making up the ‘forgotten French’, the Vichy consuls did not have a particularly happy time in Britain. They were under suspicion from the outset, and were always personae non gratae in the eyes of the Free French, the Spears Mission, and MI5 who worked tirelessly for their expulsion. Whether they truly constituted a threat to national security remains doubtful, otherwise they would surely have been expelled sooner. The greatest danger was posed in the summer of 1940 when there were numerous mission staff who had the financial wherewithal and propaganda facilities to undermine the morale of Gaullist volunteers. Such activities were abruptly halted, however, and only a limited number of individuals were involved. Thereafter, some consuls, especially in Liverpool, Newcastle, Cardiff, and London, clearly assisted with the repatriation of soldiers, forging papers and circumventing immigration procedures. They may also have collated intelligence, but it must have been difficult to have communicated this to their government.

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The tradition of exile

La colonie Française

Nicholas Atkin

In 1931, the French comprised 9.2 per cent of all foreign nationals living in England and Wales. After the Polish and Russian communities, the French constituted the third largest European group of émigrés. For the first half of the twentieth century, the French continued to number around 30,000 inhabitants, yet the outbreak of war in 1939 reduced this figure to just over 10,000. The irony was that, at this moment of contraction, it became increasingly difficult for them to retain their anonymity. Not only did the new arrivals from France seek out their countrymen and women as a point of reference in a foreign land, but Gaullists and others were eager to recruit among their ranks while, in the background, the British government kept a close watch on their activities, ensuring that any pro-Vichy sympathies did not get out of hand. Wartime was thus an uncomfortable experience for those who had long settled in Britain for whatever reason: economic, political, religious or otherwise. No longer would they be able to play out their quarrels in private.