This week marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and just like in the movies, the commemoration will try to re-create some of the most famous scenes of that fateful day in June 1944. There will be a mass parachute drop of personnel in vintage uniforms, parades of World War II military vehicles, screenings of film from that time and exhibitions of genuine artifacts such as helmets, guns and other military equipment. As ever, the focus will be on the hundreds of thousands of valiant young men from the United States, Britain and Canada who waded off the landing craft onto the Normandy beaches into a hail of German bullets.
But the heroism displayed on that day, and in the weeks that followed, was not exclusive to the regular forces crossing the English Channel to invade France. Often just as gallant were those already on French soil, who had endured years of a crushing occupation, but who also played their part in securing the Allied victory. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander who planned the D-Day invasion, estimated that the French Resistance, often directed and armed by Allied secret agents, helped to shorten the war by about nine months, not least by blocking German troops from reinforcing their defenses on the Normandy coast.
These French men and women — booksellers, farmers, schoolboys, housewives — show that courage can come from unexpected places. They show us that we can take a stand against oppression or extremism by playing our part, whether large or small, but also that most of us wait to take our lead from others.
Sometimes, the wait is a long one.
Often those who think of the French Resistance imagine some magical force that arose organically and instantly after the country capitulated to the Germans in May 1940. In truth, it took nearly four years — and considerable outside help — for a committed, organized and large-scale force of freedom fighters to emerge. The years of preparation to assist the eventual return of Allied forces proved well worth it, but success was never guaranteed. In the long years of Nazi assault and occupation, resistance was often a lonely and certainly unrewarded vocation.
The humiliation of a first-world power becoming a subject nation to the Nazis within just six weeks left most French people unable to resist. Some were too frightened or apathetic or focused on simply surviving. Others, a relatively high number of them, embraced German occupation with the intent of personally benefiting from it. (The collaborator-controlled part of the country was known as Vichy France.)
Fake news, or propaganda as it was then known, filled newspapers and radio programs with false reports that Britain was on the verge of defeat. The Germans and their Vichy puppets portrayed Dunkirk, where British forces helped evacuate over 300,000 people, not as the miracle spun by Winston Churchill that allowed Allied forces to regroup, but as a betrayal by the perfidious Brits. For virtually all of 1941, the French heard about one British military bungle after another.
Nor was there any hope that the Yanks were coming. Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States was more focused on its conflict in the Pacific with Japan, and what American troops there were in the European Theater were bogged down in North Africa. So what was the point of resisting when it could surely not succeed? Small-scale resistance would serve no real purpose, inviting only torture and death.
Despite such forbidding conditions, a few brave souls, aided by a handful of secret agents dispatched from London, helped kick-start the French Resistance. Virginia Hall, a desk clerk from a well-heeled Baltimore family who had lost her leg in a hunting accident, entered Vichy France in September 1941 with little training and no backup. Her chances of survival were at best 50-50, but she managed to persuade hundreds, if not thousands, of French people to resist. She had to persuade people cowed by defeat, and suspicious of any outsiders, that the Allies would really come to fight one day and would provide help, training and equipment in the meantime.
She — and they — knew that to fight was to risk their lives and possibly their families’ lives, too. Yet some were prepared to answer her call from the beginning. They came from all walks of life: nuns and prostitutes, doctors and nurses, railway workers and government officials, business executives and police chiefs. All performed invaluable services in rescuing and sheltering British pilots and Resistance members on the run, gathering military and political intelligence, acting as couriers for weapons and secret messages, and organizing small-scale sabotage.
All too many paid with their lives. But their sacrifices mattered: The Resistance grew steadily as the war began to turn in the Allies’ favor. The introduction in 1943 of a system compelling French men and some women to work in German factories — the much hated STO or Service du Travail Obligatoire — resulted in tens of thousands joining the Maquis, bands of semi-starved outlaws hiding in the mountains, some of whom started rudimentary training in guerrilla warfare.
Many had little more to fight with than broom handles and knives until Allied agents sent vast parachute-drops of guns, bullets and explosives, training these ragtag armies of volunteers (sometimes referred to as peasant squads) into effective guerrilla units. As D-Day approached, the handful of Resistance pioneers from 1941 were joined by thousands more, determined to fight as an army of the people. They cut enemy telephone wires, packed explosives on roads and railways, blew up bridges and removed signposts to confuse German convoys.
Across France, the sabotage efforts of the Resistance were more successful than anyone had thought possible. As the Germans struggled to beef up their defensive forces in Normandy, they found that soon they could no longer reliably control any part of France or any line of communication. All the Germans’ ammunition and reinforcements, and most of their food, had to come to the fighting fronts across hundreds of miles now infested by resisters, most of whom had been trained and armed by Allied agents.
The German commander in chief in France, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, viewed the Resistance as a major military threat, rather than the mere subversive one it had been in its earlier days. He considered his troops to be “seriously menaced” by these guerrillas, who would appear out of nowhere and disappear as quickly. Official historians have concluded that the part of the Resistance led by the British secret service had the military impact of around half a dozen army divisions and, in Eisenhower’s calculation, “played a very considerable part in our complete and final victory.”
Despite their lack of training or equipment, Resistance forces liberated whole swaths of France, without the presence of a single professional soldier. While Eisenhower’s troops were still bogged down in fierce fighting in the north, assorted bands of vets, winemakers and Jewish students took an entire German garrison prisoner. Under direction from Hall, who was executing orders directly from Allied command, they had fooled the enemy into thinking they were far greater in number and far better armed than they really were. The victory further hampered German troop movements to the front, and later, their retreat.
Without Hall, Allied agents and the bands of French men and women they fought alongside, it might well have taken far longer to achieve the success of the D-Day landings that turned the war toward Allied victory. Hall received a clutch of honors for her heroism, including the Distinguished Service Cross, but only in secret. Like so many others, she has largely been sidelined by history. Yet without the valor and sacrifice of those who had been fighting for France in the years leading up to D-Day, of whom we hear so little, we might not be celebrating victory today at all.