The Free French in Great Britain

The story of the installation of the Free French in Great Britain is one of gradual establishment under the very difficult circumstances of the summer of 1940. A terrible aerial threat hung over a nation that now stood alone in its fight against Nazi Germany, offering shelter to governments and scattered remnants of armies often destitute and sometimes demoralised, fleeing from the vanquished countries.

In summer 1940, the French soldiers and civilians reaching Britain arrived haphazardly, sometimes individually, sometimes as organised units such as the troops evacuated from Dunkirk or those who escaped from Narvik. The men from such units were given the choice of returning to France or continuing the combat in Britain, but only a minority chose to follow General de Gaulle. Accommodation needed to be found rapidly for these soldiers, their leaders and all the necessary infrastructure. This was no easy matter in the circumstances, which explains the initial succession of trials and errors.

In London, General de Gaulle was based initially on the first floor of a comfortable house at 7-8 Seamore Grove, now 7 Curzon Place, off Hyde Park, in a small flat loaned to him by Jean Laurent, his former civilian private secretary in Paris. It was here that the first volunteers began arriving, some on 18 June itself. Not long after, on 23 June, buoyed by the official recognition of the British Government, the provisional French National Committee moved to slightly larger premises – initially four rooms, later expanding to twelve – at St. Stephen's House on Victoria Embankment, where Sir Edward Spears, who had flown with De Gaulle from Bordeaux, had his own offices. Free France stayed here for only one month, till 22 July, before moving into what would be its permanent offices in Central London at 3 Carlton Gardens, a leafy square off the Mall near St. James' Park. Into this large, white, elegant house (once the 19th century home of the notoriously Francophobe Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston) it proved possible to squeeze 70 offices.  Up to 1943, Carlton Gardens housed the political nucleus of Free France and produced offshoots that gradually spread into the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods, particularly Mayfair and Victoria Station. Then it became the headquarters of the CFLN (French Committee of National Liberation) in London before the Liberation made it possible to reclaim possession of the former French embassy in Knightsbridge. The Naval administration was housed first in the Institut Français then in Stafford Mansions. Interior Affairs, in particular the propaganda services, was based at 17-19 Hill Street and the BCRA at 10 Duke Street, off Oxford Street, initially in early 1942 in an old building with dirty walls and around fifty offices, rising by the end of 1943 to seven times that number of offices scattered over some 25 buildings around London.  Although the political leadership of Fighting France moved to Algiers in June 1943, most of the administrative services continued to operate with great efficiency in London, thanks to its proximity to the continent.

General de Gaulle was unable to house his family in the 2-room flat in Seamore Grove, so he rented a small, furnished suburban villa south-east of London, in Petts Wood, at 41 Birchwood Road. Petts Wood was within commuting distance, but was soon judged to be too close to the areas being bombed.  In August 1940, his wife and children moved to Ellesmere in Shropshire, between Birmingham and Liverpool, to Gadlas Mall, a house with few modern conveniences but a beautiful garden, a four-hour train journey from London. The General, who was only able to visit at weekends at best, was now housed in relative comfort – a bedroom plus a small lounge – at the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, less than a mile from his office. Later still, from September 1942 until his departure for Algiers on 27 May 1943, the General lived with his family in a large house with a garden and turret at 65 Frognal, in Hampstead (north London).  French volunteers were recruited primarily from units arriving from Norway or Dunkirk: in June 1940 these units were quartered in camps around the ports, particularly on the Channel and North Sea coasts and around Liverpool. Infantry units were quartered in camps at Trentham Park near Stoke on Trent and at Arrowe Park near Liverpool, airmen at the Saint Athan base and sailors at the Haydock and Aintree race-courses, which soon turned into quagmires. The small number who opted not to be repatriated to France but to stay and continue the fight with De Gaulle were gathered together from the various camps. They then joined up with the volunteers arriving individually from France or the colonies and all underwent several days of preliminary investigation by the "Patriotic School",  where British police officers painstakingly but courteously checked their identity and motivation in order to minimise the risk of espionage.  The Free French reception and recruitment centre was in London, at Olympia Hall, a vast building used before the war for trade fairs and show-jumping competitions. Accommodation facilities were extremely limited at first, with volunteers camping in makeshift dormitories on the spot. As soon as possible, thanks to the material resources provided by the British government, military camps were organised and set up, mainly at Aldershot south-west of London, with Delville Camp and Morval camp, named after battlefields on the Somme in 1916. Later, the main base of the Free French forces would be the camp at Camberley, close to both Aldershot and Sandhurst. Airmen remained at the Saint Athan base, while sailors embarked on naval vessels that had rallied to  Free France, at Portsmouth and Plymouth in particular. Future officers, or Free French Cadets, were trained at the "Free French Saint-Cyr" in Malvern, then at Ribbesford (a former public school in Worcestershire). The youngest, after joining a sort of scout camp at Brynbach in Wales, went on to study at Rake Manor near Milford (Surrey), laying the groundwork for a Free French military school. The women of the Volontaires Françaises were quartered in Mayfair, first at 40 Hill Street and then at Moncorvo House.

Given the uncertainty and diversity of circumstances of all these volunteers and their leaders, it must be said that the attitude of the British towards them was very welcoming. Many accounts tell of the friendly, touching and sometimes naive compassion shown by the population to these foreign soldiers and sailors who had escaped from defeat. The man in the street did everything in his power to offer help and comfort with great kindness, whether in the form of material aid ("Frenchies don't pay", as the bus and tram conductors announced) or by inviting men on leave into their families.  People often not well-off themselves gave clothes, meals, tickets to shows, pocket money: high society rushed to put its residences and estates at the disposal of the Free French, to provide hospitals, accommodation, entertainments, restaurants. An association founded on 6 September 1940, the "4F" or "Friends of the Free French Forces", worked enthusiastically throughout the war, co-ordinating aid and donations in conjunction with "Les Français de Grande Bretagne", an association chaired by Mr. de Malglaive.

In terms of morale, it was a cordial and yet unobtrusive goodwill that was shown as much to the ordinary soldiers welcomed into British homes (and sometimes into families by marriage) as to General de Gaulle who always responded with a crisp salute to the spontaneous exclamations of "Vive la France!" addressed discreetly to him by passers-by in the street. This warm cordiality which never failed throughout the war is the source of the sentimental attachment felt by the Free French for the British, whatever the momentary disagreements between their leaders may have been.