The Most Important Army from World War II You’ve Never Heard of

Chadian soldier in the First Free French Army from World War II. Image colorized by Cassowary Colorations.

Recently, I was reading over some of my old blog posts, and a very unfortunate and startling realization hit me. I have never actually talked about African history on Cat Flag before! Yikes! That is changing today, as I return to a topic that I covered last year and promised more of: What were the less-famous countries of the world doing during World War II? Today, I will be looking at how the war affected Africa, specifically those countries that were under the colonial rule of France at the time.

First some background…

In the 19th century, the major European powers engaged in the “Scramble for Africa”, claiming and conquering as much of the continent as they possibly could and incorporating it into their empires. Portugal, Germany, and even Belgium colonized parts of Africa, but most of it got swallowed up by the British and French.

France’s attitude toward its own imperialism was colored by the ideals of the French Revolution and the national motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Conquering and subjugating peoples and lands across the globe to gain resources for one’s industrialization kind of clashes with the ideals of freedom, democracy, human rights, and equality for all. The way the French resolved this contradiction was to assimilate the natives of the lands they colonized. To the French, their ideal was for all the people living under the tricolor to be one, big, happy empire where all were equal French citizens regardless of skin color, and everyone had equal rights, including the right to vote. Or, at least, that was the theory. In practice, French citizenship was not given automatically, it was instead reserved for the small handful of natives who had “evolved” (yes, that was the term they used) into proper Frenchmen by completely abandoning their native culture and ways and fully assimilating into French culture.

This was the world into which Félix Éboué was born. A black man from French Guiana, he rose through the ranks to be a key colonial administrator in French Equatorial Africa, named governor of Chad in 1938.

In 1940, Nazi Germany’s blitzkrieg overran northern France and captured Paris. An emergency government meeting in the town of Vichy granted Marshal Philippe Pétain emergency dictatorial powers, as he negotiated a surrender and armistice with Adolf Hitler. In the aftermath, northern France would be under German military occupation, with Pétain in Vichy leading a Nazi collaborationist puppet regime. French general Charles de Gaulle, who had escaped to London, refused to accept this turn of events and called on the French people to resist their occupiers and fight for their liberty.

This turn of events was quite sudden, and France’s global colonial empire wasn’t entirely sure how to react. They were now colonies of a country that was under foreign occupation. Should they keep taking orders from France as if nothing had happened? Declare their loyalty to Pétain?

They weren’t the only colonies in this predicament. Germany had occupied the Netherlands and Belgium as well. However, both of those countries still had semi-intact governments in place that just happened to be operating from exile in London. The colonial administrations in both the Dutch East Indes and the Belgian Congo pledged their loyalty to these governments-in-exile and supported the British. France, however, did have a government that was still based in France. At first, basically all colonial administrations in France’s overseas empire recognized the Vichy regime as the legitimate government of France. When the British went to force the issue by attacking the port of Dakar in French-ruled Senegal, the result was a humiliating defeat.

The foundation of the Free French Army

However, all of this started to change when Éboué declared that Chad would side with de Gaulle. After all, as oppressive as French colonial rule could be, at least the French opened avenues, however limited, for their subjects to advance themselves. Compared to the racist and genocidal Nazis, a free France was clearly the less-bad option for non-white French subjects.

Félix Éboué and Charles de Gaulle

Before long, French Cameroon joined Chad, and the two invaded Gabon, a colony that had declared for Vichy. Éboué’s forces, organized as part of the Free French Army, won. Before long, the Free French Army had captured Madagascar as well. These “Free French” forces included many of the French soldiers who had escaped to England with de Gaulle, but it also included many thousands of African soldiers who were recruited from these French colonies.

However, some colonies still professed their loyalty to Pétain, most notably those in northern and western Africa that were vital to the Vichy regime as a breadbasket. Located just across the Mediterranean from France, Spain, and Italy, the agricultural sector in these colonies supplied Axis-occupied Europe with food and had numerous ports that were useful as naval bases. This made it imperative that the Axis powers maintained control of them, and also made them one of the first major targets of the Allied plans to liberate Europe.

American and British forces invaded North Africa in a campaign dubbed “Operation Torch”. While this invasion was happening in northwestern Africa, British forces operating in Egypt in the northeastern corner of the continent were joined by the Free French Army invading Libya, an Italian colony, forcing the Axis armies to divide their attention and their forces across multiple fronts. By the end of 1942, the Allies had squeezed the Axis powers’ forces off the African continent entirely.

While the Free French Army was fighting on the battlefields of Africa, some important political maneuvers were happening behind the scenes in the conference rooms of the Allied commanders. In a stunning turn of events, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (yes, that one) convinced the Vichy French forces they were fighting in North Africa to switch sides, merging with the Free French Army. As a result, de Gaulle’s forces expanded immensely, with about 60% of the new Free French soldiers being native North Africans and West Africans. This multiracial, pan-African army participated in the Allied invasion of Italy, with about 130,000 fighting in the Italian countryside, of whom 6,331 were wounded in battle and 1,726 gave their lives.

When the D-Day landings took place in Normandy on June 6, 1944, one of the units participating in the landings at Utah Beach was the 2nd Armored Division, a Free French unit formed from the African and French veterans of the aforementioned invasion of Libya. For the rest of 1944, the Free French Army played a major role in the Allied liberation of France.

So, why haven’t I heard of this army before?

While the Free French Army was chasing the Axis forces out of Africa and fighting in Italy, there were people back home in France who were actively resisting the Nazi occupation of their homeland with a campaign of sabotage and hit-and-run guerrilla ambushes. Many were former soldiers who refused to accept their nation’s surrender. However, there were also Communists fighting to establish a Marxist state, Jews trying to escape the Holocaust, and ordinary citizens trying to escape forced labor in Germany. Those who were caught by the Germans would be killed, and in some cases their families and villages would suffer retribution as a result. The sacrifices made by these brave fighters and their importance in the war shouldn’t be downplayed. Their fight for liberty is nothing short of heroic.

However, there was a consensus among the Allied leaders that the French people should feel that they liberated their own country, and the fact that so many of those that had fought to defeat Vichy and its Nazi puppet-masters were Africans from places like Chad, Cameroon, or Morocco didn’t fit that narrative. In fact, as the Allied forces grew closer to Paris, it was agreed by the top generals that the first unit to enter the city on the day of its liberation would be the 2nd Armored Division – but only those among its ranks who were “100% white“. Ironically, de Gaulle was never consulted about this, it was a decision made by the American and British top brass.

In the months that followed, the French Resistance was officially merged with the Free French, forming a provisional government and a new French Army, both of which tended to put figures from the Resistance in their uppermost ranks. Once the war was over, many overseas French colonies began to advocate for their independence, and France initially repressed these movements with brutal force. It was only after de Gaulle took over as President of France in 1958 that the French colonial empire was finally broken up and its colonies were allowed to become independent nations.

Today, when we look at the history of World War II, we generally tend to ignore how it affected Africa and the many battles and struggles that were fought there. When we think of the role France had in World War II, we mostly think of the country’s quick surrender early in the war, with the more generous also mentioning the French Resistance as a side-note. Yet in many ways the war could have gone quite differently if it weren’t for the brave men of Africa who recognized that they would be better off fighting for the freedom of the France they knew, racist and flawed as it was, than potentially living under the thumb of the Nazis. I think it is truly a shame that this sacrifice has gone forgotten and ignored because they don’t fit neatly into the story we tell about World War II. Personally, I think that it may be time for that story to change.