Operation Torch : De Gaulle & Churchill

With Operation Torch finally here, I think it would be interesting to see the political side of those events.

Here is what François Kersaudy roughly wrote in “De Gaulle and Churchill - The Cordial Disagreement”
Sorry if any translation error occurred.

At the end of October, Winston Churchill is fully satisfied with the state of preparations for Torch. He said to General Clark: “Remember we will support you whatever you do.” Despite everything, he would have liked de Gaulle to be informed at least the day before the landing; but Roosevelt categorically refuses and it is his opinion that prevails. “To mitigate somewhat the affront thus made to his person and his movement, I made sure that the administration of Madagascar was handed over to him.” he wrote in his Memoirs.

The point is, Downing Street is very afraid of the general’s reactions when he will hears the news of the landing, and think that during the public quarrel which is sure to result from it, it would be good to show public opinion that the government has always respected its commitments to Free France. On November 6, Anthony Eden transmits the news to de Gaulle as well as an invitation to lunch with the Prime Minister on the 8…

This day, at 6 a.m, the general is awakened by his chief of staff who announces to him that the landing has just taken place. Thus, after Mers el-Kébir and Madagascar, Free France is once again faced with a fait accompli. De Gaulle, in his pajamas, shout: “Well, I hope that the people of Vichy will throw them back into the sea. No one enters France by breaking and entering!” But by 11 a.m. he has already recovered, and Charles Peake, scouting to assess the strength of the storm that is sure to erupt when the General arrives at Downing Street, makes an encouraging report.

At noon, discussion immediately get to the heart of the matter. De Gaulle will note: “The Prime Minister announces that if the English fleet and air force play an essential role in the operation engaged, the British troops act only as a backup. Great Britain had to leave the entire responsibility to the US. Yet the Americans demand that the Free French be excluded. […] “You were with us in the worst moments of the war. We will not abandon you as soon as the horizon clears.” will add Mr. Churchill. […] I then express to Messrs. Churchill and Eden my astonishment to note that the Allied plan is not aimed at Bizerte. This is obviously where the Germans and Italians will arrive in Tunisia. If the Americans didn’t want to run the risk of approaching there directly, we could have landed there, if I had been asked to do so, the Koenig division. The English ministers admit it, while reiterating that the operation is under the responsibility of the Americans.”

When the Prime Minister asks the General how he sees the future reports of the France Combattante and the North African authorities, he replies that the regime and the prominent figures of Vichy are to be dismissed because “the Resistance would not admit that they were maintained. If Darlan were to reign, there would be no possible agreement. Anyway, nothing matters today more than to stop the battle. For the rest, we’ll see later.”

When the interview comes to an end, Churchill, who had expected a proper confrontation, is immensely relieved and overflows with gratitude towards the General de Gaulle. The next day, he telegraphed to General Spears that support for the France Combattante and collaboration with it remained the basis of the government’s policy towards France. And yet, less than six weeks earlier, he was considering a definitive break off with de Gaulle…

The latter is delighted. The Prime Minister assured him of his support for the Free French. Moreover, it seems that the American project consisting in dividing the French camp by inducing Giraud in North Africa is doomed to failure. Giraud is a good general and we can undoubtedly get him to collaborate. Thus, French North Africa will soon be able to resume the war under the flag with the Croix de Lorraine. That evening, at the BBC, General de Gaulle addresses the French:

"The allies of France have undertaken to drag French North Africa into the war of liberation. They are starting to land enormous forces there. It is a matter of ensuring that our Algeria, our Morocco, our Tunisia, constitute the starting point for the liberation of France. Our American allies are at the head of this enterprise. […] French leaders, soldiers, sailors, airmen, civil servants, French colonists from North Africa, raise up! Help our allies! Join them wholeheartedly. France which fights adjures you. Do not worry about names or formulas. Only one thing matters: the salvation of the motherland! "

But then the Americans realize that no one among the French is willing to obey Giraud and turn to Darlan to negotiate a ceasefire.

For Roosevelt, Darlan, Giraud and de Gaulle are only “three prime donne”, and the best way to settle the whole affair is “to leave them all alone in a room, and to entrust the government of the occupied territories to the one who comes out of it”. But failing that, the solution proposed by Generals Clark and Eisenhower seemed entirely acceptable to him. It is true that Admiral Darlan collaborated with Hitler for over a year; that he publicly declared that the Germans were “much more generous than the British”; that he abandoned French Indochina to the Japanese; that he allowed the Germans to use French airports in Syria; that it allowed Rommel’s Afrika Korps to be supplied by Tunisia; that he said six months earlier “A day will come when England will pay.” And then, isn’t he the most hated man in France after Laval? Didn’t he order his troops to open fire on the Americans just two days ago? In short, isn’t he a collaborator, a declared enemy, a traitor?

Seen from Washington, things are arguably not so clear cut. Darlan becomes “high commissioner for North Africa”, with the support of the Americans and always “in the name of the Maréchal”*. He was immediately recognized as such by Generals Noguès, Châtel and Bergeret, by Governor Boisson and even by General Giraud, who received the command-in-chief of the army as a consolation prize.

*This is pure fiction. In the meantime, Pétain publicly disowned him, Vichy denounced him as a traitor, and the Germans invaded the free zone.

The news of Darlan’s seizure of power is greeted in London with disbelief and dismay. The Free French remain dumbfounded, de Gaulle is enraged, Churchill is disgusted: “Darlan should be shot!” But before the outbreak of Operation Torch, he promised the president to support it in all circumstances.

On November 16, de Gaulle had lunch in Downing Street where the Prime Minister assured him that he understood and shared his feelings, that the Allied military authority had had to take practical measures in order to drive out the enemy and ensure the support of French troops. The position of the British government remain what it was and all the commitments made to the Free French remain valid. The arrangements made by Eisenhower are essentially temporary and do not commit the future.

De Gaulle takes note of the British position but wishes to make his own known: “Think of the incalculable consequences that could have if France were to conclude that liberation, as the Allies see it, is Darlan. Perhaps this would win the war militarily, but you would lose it morally, and there would be only one winner: Stalin.” The general also reports that American radio precedes Admiral Darlan’s calls with the Vichy motto “Honneur et Patrie” and that the BBC is endorsing this scam by retransmitting the program. Following the meal, Churchill leads the general into his cabinet where he declares: “Darlan has no future. Giraud is politically dead. You are the honor. You are the right way. You will remain the only one. Do not clash head-on with the Americans. It is useless and you will gain nothing. Wait and they will come to you, because there is no alternative.”

De Gaulle, for his part, expressed his surprise at seeing the English government follow the Americans in this way: “I do not understand you. You have been waging war since day one. We can even say that, personally, you are “This war”. Your armies are victorious in Libya. And you are trailing behind the United States when no American soldier has seen a German soldier yet. It is up to you to take moral leadership in this war. European public opinion will be behind you.”

The interview ended in the best possible way: “Mr. Churchill asks the General to keep in close contact with him and to come and see him as often as he wants, every day if he so wishes.” And the next day, he wrote to President Roosevelt the turmoil of public opinion following the agreement with Darlan.

The White House has already received a deluge of protest and the president, as consummate politician, is working to disarm these criticisms. But privately he declares that he will use Darlan for as long as he needs. He intends to continue to collaborate with Vichy’s men as long as it does not prove too costly for his political image in the United States. A formal agreement will so be signed on November 22 between General Clark and Admiral Darlan; the provisional expedient therefore threatens to drag on…


It’s all a bit hazy. Without the benefit of hindsight, De Gaulle had very few supporters in the beginning. The question the Americans has was ‘who would follow him?’ It was never clear cut who spoke for France. Though I have never entirely understood FDR’s antipathy for De Gaulle nor whence it sprang.

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