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Exiles in the British Isles 1940–44

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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Servicemen

Franco-German Armistice was signed) and Mers-el-Kébir, hardly the most illustrious episodes in French military history. In Norway, on 8–9 April 1940, a joint Franco-British naval force battled with a German expeditionary mission in an attempt to disrupt the flow of Swedish iron ore that passed through the port of Narvik on its way to Hitler’s factories. Although this episode prompted the Norwegians to abandon their 2499 Chap3 7/4/03 94 2:43 pm Page 94 The forgotten French neutrality in favour of the Allies, the operation was a disaster for the French and British

in The forgotten French
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Communities, circumstances and choices

from one another, and retained separate identities. The distinct nature of these communities was reinforced by the manner in which they were catered for. Within a few weeks of the Franco-German Armistice, there existed a wide range of different organisations, British and French, dealing with specific groups. This often resulted in the replication of effort and endless quarrels over responsibility, necessitating the creation of Lord Bessborough’s French Welfare, a sub-committee of the Foreign Office, whose remit was, in large measure, to keep the peace among competing

in The forgotten French
The Vichy consulates

families in France, and the passing on of military and political intelligence – remains a moot point. The diplomatic community in London: adieu On 26 June 1940, a day after the terms of the Franco-German Armistice had been broadcast, a po-faced Charles Corbin, French ambassador to Britain and a veteran advocate of Anglo-French friendship, made his way to the Foreign Office. There he was received by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, to whom he made known both his resignation, a ‘sad decision’, and the urgent need for ‘new representation in London’.9 The embassy, he

in The forgotten French
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Refugees

-lived. With places in reception centres becoming scarce, and with the declaration of the Franco-German Armistice and the creation of the Vichy regime, from July 1940 new arrivals – whether refugees, volunteers for de Gaulle or even British citizens fleeing the Continent – were likely to discover themselves incarcerated in prisons until their bona fides could be vouched for. Such was the case of the writer Arthur Koestler who arrived in Britain from France at the close of the Blitz after a difficult journey via Marseille, Casablanca and Lisbon. ‘The last stage of this long

in The forgotten French