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Army Data: Free France

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 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 (but is not tracked in this OB).

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 ensuing years, especially by men who had joined General de Gaulle in the early days.

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 official history.)

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 ensuing years.

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." (See the "Corps de Montagne," a temporary HQ for three of the GTMs, for more information on these Goumiers.) For the most part, these non-div units are not tracked in this OB.

In the early years of the war, Free French units were usually smaller than their nominal designation would suggest, and their theoretical structures were not always realized. With the exception of 1st Free French Division, all evolved into formations with standard American TO&Es. The 1st Free French, when formed into a full division in 1943, retained the British-style structure of three brigades as opposed to the US organization of three regiments.

Note, however, that in French military terminology a "regiment" may not be what it seems. When referring to an infantry type unit, a regiment generally means a US-equivalent regiment. When referring to armored fighting vehicles, a regiment generally means a US-equivalent battalion. The French Army even at the end of the war also occasionally fielded "demi-brigades," usually of two battalions but sometimes more.

The OB entries and commentaries in this volume generally use French (rather than translated) terminology for unit identification. Those terms, and their abbreviations, should be clear enough from the organizational tables. The main abbreviations are listed here.

DA         Division Alpine
DB         Division Blindee
DCEO      Division Coloniale d'Extreme Orient
DFL         Division Francaise Libre
DI         Division d'Infanterie
DIA         Division d'Infanterie Algerienne
DIC         Division d'Infanterie Coloniale
DIM         Division d'Infanterie Marocaine
DMA         Division de marche d'Alger
DMC         Division de marche de Constantine
DMM         Division de marche du Maroc, Division Marocaine de Montagne
DMO         Division de marche d'Oran

BLM         Brigade Legere Mecanique
CFA         Corps franc d'Afrique
DBLE      Demi-brigade de legion etrangere
GMT         Groupe Tabors Marocains
REI         Regiment etranger d'infanterie
REIM      Regiment etranger d'infanterie marche
RI         Regiment d'infanterie
RIC         Regiment d'infanterie coloniale
RMZT      Regiment mixte de zouaves et tirailleurs
RTA         Regiment de tirailleurs algeriens
RTM         Regiment de tirailleurs marocains
RTS         Regiment de tirailleurs senegalais
RTT         Regiment de tirailleurs tunisiens

BFM         Bataillon de fusiliers marins
BIM         Bataillon d'infanterie de marine
BIMP      Bataillon d'infanterie de marine et du Pacifique
BLE         Bataillon de legion etrangere
BM         Bataillon de marche

More resources

Books about Free French armies and and ground forces

Free French units on file

1st Armored XX
2nd Armored XX
3rd Armored XX
5th Armored XX
Algiers Infantry XX
Casablanca Infantry XX
Constantine Infantry XX
Fes Infantry XX
Marrakech Infantry XX
Meknes Infantry XX
Morocco Infantry XX
Oran Infantry XX
Tunisia Infantry XX
1st Infantry XX
1st DCEO Infantry XX
1st Free Fr Infantry XX
2nd Colonial Infantry XX
2nd DCEO Infantry XX
2nd Moroccan Infantry XX
3rd Algerian Infantry XX
3rd Moroccan Infantry XX
6th Moroccan Infantry XX
7th Algerian Infantry XX
8th Algerian Infantry XX
9th Colonial Infantry XX
10th Infantry XX
10th Col Infantry XX
14th Infantry XX
19th Infantry XX
23rd Infantry XX
25th Infantry XX
36th Infantry XX
1st Alpine XX
27th Alpine XX
Corps de Mon Mountain XX
4th Moroccan Mountain XX
BLM Lt Armored X
L Motor X
Orient Infantry X
1st Infantry X
1st Legion Infantry X
2nd Infantry X
C. F. A. Infantry III


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