|Frenchmen rallied to the
colors of Free France (later Fighting France) in embarrassingly small
numbers from 1940 to the end of 1942. Most of the early recruits came
from Foreign Legionnaires stranded in the UK after their evacuation from
Narvik and from native troops in the few African colonies which sided
with the Gaullists. From these early cadres came the 14th (later
redesignated 13th) Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion and several
battalions "de marche" (infantry) which provided assets for
the abortive assault on Dakar and, later, participation (by the Brigade
d'Orient) in the campaign in East Africa. Meanwhile, a French colonial
battalion formed the Free French 1st "Bataillon d'infanterie de
marine" (BIM) and campaigned in the Western Desert as a motor
battalion under British control during the first offensive into Libya.
General de Gaulle ordained formation
of the first Free French division in Palestine just in time to take part
in Operation Exporter, the Allied invasion of the Vichy-controlled
French Levant. This campaign is often referred to as a tragedy of
Frenchman against Frenchman. More exactly, the majority of Free French
battalions in the operation were composed of Senegalese troops who were
reluctant to kill their Senegalese countrymen serving with the Vichy
defenders; as a consequence, the Free French brigades earned a poor
reputation with the British.
Although the Gaullists had anticipated
a healthy influx of recruits from among the defeated Vichy army in the
Levant, the vast majority of officers and troops chose not to join Free
France. Indeed, both Free French brigades were disbanded for a time at
the end of the campaign.
When the brigades were reformed, they
were stronger and better supported with anti-aircraft and anti-tank
weapons, artillery, and tanks. Although considered brigade groups by the
British, the French liked to think of their new formations as light
divisions. Both reconstituted brigades fought in the Western Desert. The
1st fought gallantly (and with great propaganda value) at Bir Hakeim.
The inexperienced 2nd saw no action and failed to cover itself with
glory in the withdrawal to Alamein. After Second Alamein, the brigades
became components of the new 1st Free French Division.
In response to the Anglo-American
landings in French North Africa, the Vichy-controlled Army of Africa
resisted briefly before rallying not to Free France but to the Allies.
Following the Tunisian campaign came the difficult process of merging
the forces of the Free French with those forces formerly loyal to the
Vichy regime. This was a distinction never entirely forgotten in the
With the rallying of French North
Africa and the subsequent allegiance of French West Africa and most of
the remainder of the French colonial empire, a large pool of manpower
became available for rebuilding the French army. However, the army could
be rebuilt only at the pace of the Allied (largely American) rearmament
program. French desires (and demands) were consistently greater than
Allied abilities (and willingness), and the rearmament program was a
bureaucratic jungle which saw many partially formed French formations
sacrificed and cannibalized. The program eventually produced eight very
useful Allied divisions: 1st Free French and 2nd Armored (both with
Gaullist lineage), 1st and 5th Armored, 2nd Moroccan, 3rd Algerian, 4th
Moroccan Mountain, and 9th Colonial. These divisions served variously in
Italy, France, and Germany.
In addition, a variety of later,
mostly "non-program" divisions served in France and/or
Germany, usually in a static, security, or garrison role: 1st, 10th,
14th, 19th, 23rd, and 25th Infantry, and 1st and 27th Alpine. Other
divisions were being formed as the war ended. All these for the most
part comprised former FFI ("French Forces of the Interior";
i.e., partisan) bands which sprouted like weeds in the path of the
liberation. (These multitudes of irregulars, with their imprecise
organizations, shifting locales, and ever-evolving appellations, form
"the immense puzzle of FFI units" in the 1000+ pages of their
Ex-FFI troops were also used to
"whiten" the battalions of divisions formed in Africa, such
replacement "imposed by the climatic conditions." This process
of integrating FFI troops into overseas divisions was the source of
another distinction never entirely forgotten in the French army in
Many non-divisional formations also
served with French forces from 1943 to 1945, including 1st Spahi
Brigade, 9th Zouaves, the "Choc" battalion, "France"
and "Africa" commando battalions, and, especially, the four
"Groupes Tabors Marocains."
Of the Free French divisions which
served in Europe, here are some brief historical summaries:
1st Free French Infantry XX
The original 1st "Division Francaise Libre" was actually an
undersized unit of two weak brigades formed in Palestine in May 1941 and
disbanded in August of the same year.
Those two brigades were reconstituted
in December 1941 and March 1942, and they were officially formed into
the new 1st Free French Division on 1 February 1942 outside Tobruk.
French 4th Brigade, forming in Egypt in February, became the division's
third brigade but did not join the division until after the campaign in
Tunisia. Meanwhile, elements of the division (originally detached for
the pursuit from Alamein), continued to operate with the advancing 8th
Army as the "French Flying Column."
The division participated in the last
few days of the Tunisian campaign, then reorganized in French North
Africa before moving to Italy in April 1944 where it campaigned with the
CEF until June. It was transported to southern France in August 1944 and
took part in operations in Provence and Alsace. En route to the Atlantic
coast in December to help assault German-held ports, the division was
rushed back to the Rhine in response to the German counter-offensive and
threat to Strasbourg. The 1st Free French Division ended the war with
the French Army Detachment of the Alps.
As with the other French divisions
with roots in Africa, the 1st underwent "whitening." Five
organic battalions from Cameroon, French Equatorial Africa, and Djibouti
were replaced with FFI battalions in September and October 1944.
Although officially redesignated 1st
Motorized Infantry Division on 27 March 1944, and then 1st March
Infantry Division on 1 May 1944, the division was invariably known as
1st Free French Division.
2nd Armored XX
Following Axis surrender in Tunisia, General Leclerc's "L"
Force began conversion into the 2nd Free French Division. The French 2nd
Armored Division had already commenced formation from May 1943 but, when
it was decided to convert General Leclerc's command to tanks, the
original 2nd Armored was redesignated 5th Armored Division. Leclerc's
unit assumed the 2nd Armored designation on 24 May 1943 by right of
The division stands apart from other
French forces in that it was transferred from French North Africa to the
UK, missing the campaigns of the CEF and French Armee "B" in
the Med. Earmarked for the task based on political considerations, the
division landed in Normandy in August 1944 and liberated Paris. The 2nd
"Division Blindee" spent little of the war under French
command, most often being assigned to American armies. In 1945, however,
it was transferred to the Atlantic coast to assist in reducing the
German-held fortress at Royan at the mouth of the Gironde.
1st Armored XX
French 1st "Division Blindee" was raised in May 1943, based on
Colonel Vigier's "Brigade Legere Mecanique" which had served
in the Vichy French garrison of North Africa and fought against the Axis
in the Tunisian campaign. As part of French Army "B" (later
redesignated French 1st Army), the division sailed to southern France
and landed in the follow-up of Operation Anvil-Dragoon. It then took
part in the campaigns in France and Germany with French 1st Army, often
dispersed and supporting French infantry divisions.
3rd Armored XX
French 3rd Armored Division was initially assembled in Tunisia in June
1943 from elements of various formations on hand at the end of the
Tunisian campaign. Not until September was it formally activated, and in
October it transferred to Morocco to be nearer its source of newly
arriving American equipment. The incomplete division was disbanded on 1
September 1944, with elements dispatched to France shortly afterwards as
reinforcements and replacements for the 1st DB.
In May 1945 3rd Armored was reborn in
the area of Limoges in the French XII Region Militaire, but it did not
see action before the end of the war.
5th Armored XX
French 2nd Armored Division, formed 1 May 1943, was redesignated 5th
Armored Division on 16 July 1943 (thus allowing 2nd Free French Division
to convert to 2nd Armored) in North Africa. Originally comprising a tank
brigade and a support brigade, the 5th Armored was re-equipped and
reorganized to American standards with three combat commands which were
commonly detached to support French infantry divisions.
The division arrived in France in
September 1944 and took part in the battles for Belfort and reduction of
the Colmar pocket, then spent time in reserve before supporting the
French crossing of the Rhine in March and participating in the final
campaign in Germany.
2nd Moroccan Infantry XX
French 2nd Moroccan Division formed in Morocco in May 1943 from elements
of the Meknes Division of the garrison of French North Africa. It moved
to Italy in November 1943, campaigned as far north as Florence with the
French Expeditionary Corps, moved to southern France shortly after the
Operation Anvil-Dragoon landings, and fought with French 1st Army from
Provence to the Rhine and the Danube.
As with other French divisions formed
with native African troops, an FFI-raised regiment replaced one of the
original regiments during the campaign in France.
Moroccan troops were highly regarded
in the French Army, although the colorful aphorism probably originated
among the Moroccan soldiers themselves: "The Tunisians are women,
the Algerians are men, and the Moroccans are heroes."
3rd Algerian Infantry XX
French 3rd Algerian Infantry Division was created in Algeria on 1 May
1943 from elements of the Constantine Division of the garrison of French
North Africa. It moved to Italy in December 1943 and campaigned as far
north as Siena as part of the French Expeditionary Corps, then withdrew
to prepare for the landing in southern France.
As part of French Army "B"
and 1st Army, 3rd Algerian participated in the campaigns of Provence,
Alsace-Lorraine, and the Rhine to the Danube. The 49th Infantry
Regiment, raised from former FFI forces, joined the division in February
1945, and the 7th Algerian Regiment departed in the following month.
4th Moroccan Mountain XX
French 4th "Division Marocaine de Montagne" was created at
Casablanca in June 1943 from the redesignated 3rd Moroccan Infantry
Division. Originally formed with three regiments of Moroccans, 2nd RTM
was replaced by 1st RTA on 15 August 1944. The 27th Infantry Regiment
joined the division in March 1945 and 1st RTA was detached in April of
4th DMM served with the French
Expeditionary Corps in Italy in 1944, with two of its regiments
temporarily assigned to the French "Corps de Montagne."
Following its arrival in southern France in September 1944, the division
was separated into several tactical groups. Divisional HQ, 1st RTM, and
other divisional assets moved to stabilize the situation in the Alps on
the Franco-Italian border. 6th RTM was detached to the Belfort-Vosges
sector. Meanwhile, some elements of 1st RTA garrisoned Marseille while
other elements of the regiment remained in Italy. The division was not
reunited until December, after which time it continued to campaign in
France and Germany.
9th Colonial Infantry XX
Officially activated 16 July 1943 in Algeria, 9th Colonial Division's
components had already suffered casualties: approximately 500 troops of
4th RTS were lost on 20 April 1943 when, en route to French North
Africa, their transport was torpedoed by U-565; and 35 troops of 13th
RTS were killed in a Luftwaffe air raid on Algiers on the night of 4-5
The division assembled in October at
Mostaganem, with lead elements departing from Oran for Corsica in April
1944 to assist in liberating the island. By May the entire division
garrisoned the island. In June, 4th and 13th RTS made the assault
landing on Elba and then returned to Corsica; in their wake, 6th RTS
moved to Elba for garrison duty. By mid-July the division was
reassembled on Corsica. 9th Colonial also served with French Armee
"B"/1st Army in France and Germany.
After the African troops of the three
Senegalese regiments were replaced with white troops from the FFI (such
replacements "imposed by the climatic conditions" in France)
in November 1944, the units were re-titled "Colonial Infantry
1st Infantry XX
French 1st Infantry Division, not to be confused with 1st Free French
Division or 1st DCEO Division, was, despite its high-seniority
designation, not formed until late in the war. Its component regiments
were formed separately (43rd and 110th in the Lille-St Omer sector of
1st Military Region; 1st outside Royan) and assembled in the region of
Bourges before moving to Germany. The division served only in the
security, garrison, and occupation role in the waning days of the
10th Infantry XX
French 10th Infantry Division (not to be confused with 10th Colonial
Division) was forming outside Paris when it was rushed eastward as part
of the Allied response to the German Ardennes offensive. It was then
transferred to the Vosges to relieve elements of French 1st Army. The
division was incompletely formed, trained, and equipped when it
deployed, with 46th RI detached and no artillery on hand, but various
miscellaneous assets attached. In February the 10th moved to the
Atlantic coast where it spent the remainder of the war in reserve with
elements supporting sieges of the various German-held ports.
14th Infantry XX
The original 14th "Colmar and Mulhouse" Infantry Division was
commanded by General de Lattre de Tassigny in France in 1940. The
reconstituted 14th, raised from former FFI elements with incomplete
equipment from various sources, served in 1945 in the General's French
1st Army. The division was used in the garrison, security, and
19th Infantry XX
French 19th Infantry Division was a weak, incomplete division formed
from FFI battalions to contain the German-held pocket at
Lorient/Quiberon. Its battalions were gradually reorganized into
regiments. Unlike Royan and La Rochelle, no major assault was made
against the pocket, and the German garrison did not surrender until 10
23rd Infantry XX
The French 23rd Infantry Division (also known as "Division de
marche Oleron") was another weak unit activated to control existing
FFI battalions masking German-held Atlantic ports. Elements were
deployed at Royan (at the mouth of the Gironde) and at La Rochelle. 50th
and 158th Regiments attacked and captured Royan in April in conjunction
with French 2nd Armored Division and then, with 6th Regiment and a
variety of other forces, attacked the Ile d'Oleron and the La
Rochelle/La Pallice perimeter. German forces in the pocket finally
surrendered 9 May 1945.
25th Infantry XX
French 25th Infantry Division was another incomplete division formed
late in the war to control FFI units already in place besieging
German-held ports, in this case St Nazaire (which did not surrender
until 11 May 1945).
36th Infantry XX
French 36th Infantry Division began forming late in the war, with two
regiments in the Toulouse area and one originally at Bordeaux. It did
not see action.
1st Alpine XX
FFI battalions in the vicinity of the Franco-Italian border activated
the French 1st Alpine Division at the end of August 1944 to participate
in the liberation of the Alps. It was organized into demi-brigades which
were in turn comprised of miscellaneous battalions of varying strength
and equipment, plus limited artillery and engineer assets. The division
was disbanded in November, with elements transferring to the new 27th
27th Alpine XX
French 27th Alpine Division was activated in November 1944, largely from
former FFI elements of the newly disbanded 1st Alpine Division, and it
continued to be supported by various FFI bands throughout the campaign
on the Franco-Italian border. As with most former FFI units,
appellations of those in the division evolved constantly during the
process of "regularization." While German (and Fascist
Italian) forces retained control of the mountain passes, 27th Alpine
passed a quiet winter patrolling and preparing for a spring offensive.
1st DCEO Infantry XX
1st "Division Coloniale d'Extreme-Orient" was formed for
service in the Far East at the end of 1944 and was comprised of former
FFI units as well as African troops relieved from other divisions.
Elements participated in the 1945 operations against northern Italy
under control of Army Detachment of the Alps.
2nd DCEO Infantry XX
Like its sister division, French 2nd "Division Coloniale d'Extreme
Orient" was formed late in 1944 from FFI units and African troops
for service in the Far East as French Indo-China had still to be
recovered from the Japanese (and Ho Chi Minh).