Free French forces rally in Africa; young patriots swarm to De Gaulle (5-6-41)

The Pittsburgh Press (May 6, 1941)

Jungle capital of rebels teems with activity and Nazi hate

Soldiers, sworn to regain homeland, defy orders of Vichy

The first direct news out of “de Gaulle land” is contained in the following dispatch – a journalistic beat of first importance – radioed to the United States by Ben Lucien Burman, famous American novelist. Burman is now in French Equatorial Africa.

By Ben Lucien Burman

Brazzaville, French Equatorial Africa, May 6 (by radio) –
There have been many mysteries in this war – many riddles to which even the most astute diplomat does not possess the solution. But perhaps the one question which, more than any other, has occupied the minds of Americans is this.

Is defeated France beyond hope of resurrection?

To find the answer to that question, I have traveled deep into the tangled jungle which Stanley and Livingstone opened to the white man in the last century. And I think I can give the answer.

Truly, the heart of France is no longer in Paris along the gentle Seine. It is here in de Gaulle Africa, along the banks of the fever-ridden Congo.

A few kilometers from where I am writing this dispatch, the towering equatorial forests begin – with their elephants and gorillas and great, green pythons.

The dreaded tsetse flu is everywhere beyond the clearings, for this is the heart of the sleeping sickness area. Of this small settlement’s population, 220 contracted this awful malady last year.

The great armies of African ants – black, and red, and a ghostly gray – are constantly toiling night and day.

But there is another army ceaselessly toiling. It is an army sworn to drive the Germans from France. Every day, new recruits to this army are arriving – sometimes by boat, sometimes by canoe, sometimes by tramping for weeks and months through the swamps and forests.

From France, from Tibet, from Indochina, from Dakar, they make their way to this sweltering outpost… scientists and students, generals and priests, peasants and simple soldiers… Catholics, Protestants, Jews.

Guided by an ideal

They are guided only by an ideal and devotion to the cause of their leader, General Charles de Gaulle.

Vichy sent three American bombers to annihilate them. They brought down the planes and, by sheer ingenuity, made two fly again. Yesterday, I flew in one of them for hours over the great forests.

A short distance beyond my window, in the newly-erected Camp d’Ornano, helmeted young Frenchmen from all over the world are drilling in the fiery sun to give defiance to Marshal Pétain, who said that it was the youth of France who have failed their country.

They tell me:

It was not the youth of France. It was Pétain and the other weak old men who failed us and betrayed us.

It was an ironic trick of fate that the first to rally to de Gaulle’s appeal to disobey the armistice should have been a few French patriots in this remote, fever-ridden region that has, for so long, been known as the white man’s graveyard. But it was lucky fate, for the area which they control is immense – reaching from the Atlantic almost 2,000 miles across the heart of Africa to the Anglo-Egyptian frontier.

It possesses strategic value which cannot be overestimated. Chad is the key link which joins the British colonies of the east coast with their colonies on the west. Without the aid of the Free French, almost every British colony on Africa would today be in peril. And a huge part of the continent, with its immense war resources, might be in the possession of the Germans.

Wide scale operations

From the beginning, the activities of the Free French have become worldwide, with this sleepy little village their center. All of French Oceania has rallied to de Gaulle’s banner: Tahiti, the Society Islands, the Marquesas, New Caledonia and the Hebrides. They are bases of vast strategic importance if war comes in the Far East. And nearer America are the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, tiny neighbors off the coast of Newfoundland.

Moreover, wherever Frenchmen are gathered throughout the world, they are planning and organizing. Military operations are on a wide scale and are constantly increasing. Troops have been active in the wastes of Eritrea, in Ethiopia and over vast stretches of sand in Chad and Libya.

There is scarcely a white man there who is not in uniform. Military camps are in every quarter: a camp where young Frenchmen study to be infantry officers; another where they train for the artillery; camps where the Negro soldiers – all volunteers – live with their wives and children in rows of the curious cone-shaped dwellings that are characteristic of the region. They resemble cities of gigantic ant hills.

Fleet is active

At Yaoundé in the Cameroons, there is a depot of the Foreign Legion where untutored recruits under many flags are mustered into service with the veterans of Narvik and Dunkirk. Other camps and posts are dotted here and there in clearings of the dark forests or on the green savannas.

The fleet, too, is active. A number of warships, manned by French officers and sailors who refused to accept the armistice, are constantly at sea on duty with the home fleet out of England. Only yesterday, news arrived here that the submarine Minerva of the de Gaulle navy had sunk a German transport off the Norwegian coast.

Every phase of military activity is progressing here with a rapidity which keeps the black inhabitants gazing in wonder. Where previously there was only a feeble radio station, equipped merely for sending telegraph signals in Morse code, there is now the powerful Radio Brazzaville. Its broadcasts can be heard in America. There is also a smaller radio club which reaches all of Africa.

Drama in the Sahara

Night and day, governors and administrations, airmen and artillerymen, generals and privates plead eloquently with their countrymen to throw off the yoke of the men of Vichy, who have dishonored France. And each day as the radio sends out its plea, new men set forth to heed it.

As I write, word has just come of a grim drama that is being acted at this moment far to the north in the wastes of the Sahara. Four French officers, fleeing from a city in North Africa which I cannot mention, have set out across the trackless desert to reach this land of the jungle where Frenchmen are still free.

The Vichy government has learned of their flight and the radio is now buzzing with its orders to halt the flight at any cost.

Whether the fugitives will reach their goal, only the white Sahara can decide. But if they die, other heroic soldiers will get out to take their places.

’Cream of finance’

I have known many fine Frenchmen but never Frenchmen like these. They are the cream of France – unselfish, devoted. Their only goal is the saving of their country and the preservation of their cherished “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” They are rebels, every one of them, against the government in Vichy. Many are under sentence of death. But they are rebels to whom I can only compare the rebels who established the United States at Valley Forge and Ticonderoga.

Completely cut off from the world, working from nothing, they have accomplished miracles. They have made airplanes out of broken parts and military radios out of tomato cans and a few scraps of wire.

Every day, troops are leaving here bound for the front. But there are many others waiting for arms. They ask me a little wistfully – these men who want to make France live again – if America will not send them a few arms to equip these troops, who are so eager to fight.

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