An Inspiring Force for Change: It’s time for a re-evaluation of Europe’s WW2 resistance movements
August 9, 2012
Having spent four bloody and bitter years inciting and encouraging armed resistance in occupied Europe, the Allies virtually ignored it as a significant factor in their plans for invasion and liberation.
OVERLORD, the operational plan for the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, was conceived by conventional military minds and designed for conventional military forces. Bombs, armour, parachutes, ships, shells and soldiers were ordered to solve the strategic and tactical problems – no part of the plan relied for its success upon the Resistance. Anything that might be achieved by local guerrilla operations was to be regarded simply as a welcome bonus.
On the other hand, after four years of humiliation and grinding occupation the French Resistance was in a determined mood and on the face of it seemed qualified to assume a leading role in the liberation of its soil. In January 1944, the various competing forces within the Resistance, including Gaullists and Communists, had patched up their differences to form the unified French Forces of the Interior (FFI). By May, it was estimated that about 100,000 armed men and women would go into action on orders from London; a further 40,000 armed Maquis were believed to be holed up in forests and mountains across the country. Secondly, Special Operations Executive (SOE), which had been set up in Britain in 1940 to co-ordinate and encourage armed resistance to the Axis powers throughout the occupied world, had by 1944 managed to establish a number of well-organised networks in France. SOE successes had included numerous sabotage attacks on power plants, armaments and components factories, railways, the canal system, supply dumps and enemy personnel. Thirdly, the Resistance had drawn up and submitted in the summer of 1943 a comprehensive plan for seven co-ordinated operations to be mounted in conjunction with the invasion. These included attacks on railways, German road movements, telecommunications, munition dumps, oil fuel installations, enemy headquarters and railway turntables. Finally, thanks to SOE’s persistence and Churchill’s direct intervention, there was a massive increase from February 1944 in the number of supply drops to resistance groups. By June 1944, thousands of brave and dedicated Frenchmen and women were only waiting for the signal to redeem their national honour.
The Allied planners, however, took a somewhat different view. There was no place for national sentiment when it came to detailing one of the most complex military operations in the history of warfare. They demanded precision and secrecy – the Resistance could guarantee neither. To begin with it was extremely difficult to calculate the strength and quality of FFI units. The co-ordination and execution of any complex plan was virtually impossible given that communications between many groups were at best tenuous, and with London non-existent. Secondly, deep and lingering political differences within the FFI made co-operation between individual units a tricky and unpredictable business. Thirdly, in spite of the increased air drops, it was clear that only a comparatively small number of units had enough ammunition for more than a day’s hard fighting. Bazookas and anti-tank rifles were the heaviest weapons available; short-range communication equipment, essential for small unit operations, was virtually unheard of. Fourthly, unlike Tito’s guerrilla army in Yugoslavia, the French Resistance had no experience of extensive field operations. Similarly, there was no guarantee that a full-scale sabotage campaign against the enemy’s strategic communications network of roads, bridges, railways, marshalling yards, telecommunications and HQs would, on its own, achieve the results necessary to ensure the success of the Allied landing. Finally, if the Resistance was to be a component of the invasion plan, then disclosure of details concerning the place and timing of the landings would be essential. The Allies were not prepared to take the risk, and even General de Gaulle remained in ignorance until the morning of the assault.
Deprived of a strategic role and kept in the dark as to what was going on the French Resistance could only sit and wait for the invasion. This, however, was to be the signal for a national uprising which everyone agreed would cause a great deal of random havoc and dislocation for the Germans both on D-Day and during the fragile build-up period in the beachhead. To co-ordinate and stiffen local uprisings, ‘Jedburghs’ – small inter-Allied, three-man teams – as well as Special Air Service troops and American ‘Operational Groups’ were dropped behind enemy lines from D-Day onwards.
The Allies certainly got their bonus and more besides. Sabotage teams supported by the railways’ trade union – one of the best organised elements within the Resistance – combined to disrupt the movement of German reinforcements towards the Normandy battlefield. Widespread attacks on road and telephone communications aggravated the disruption, and hampered enemy regrouping after the Allied break-out. Later, the Maquis harrassed the German retreat and helped in mopping-up operations. It was indicative of the extent to which the German High Command had been unhinged by the uprising that the crack 2nd SS Panzer Division, ‘Das Reich’, was diverted onto counter-guerrilla operations in the Dordogne instead of being rushed north to the real battle. Even when the division was belatedly ordered to Normandy its progress was further delayed by incessant guerrilla attacks. Tragically, the villagers of Oradoursur-Glane near Limoges paid the price of German frustration and French provocation. ‘Das Reich ‘ troops massacred all the men, women and children they could find and then razed the village.
It has been argued that the delay of the ‘Das Reich’ was a decisive contribution to Allied victory. If, the argument runs, such a powerful armoured division had been fed into the Normandy battle in mid-June, when the beachhead was at its most vulnerable, the Allies might have been thrown back into the Channel. Once again, it is interesting to speculate on another decisive ‘if’ of military history. However, the hard facts seem to indicate that OVERLORD’s success was built on traditional military virtues – thorough planning, intricate deception, the skilled handling of troops, the neutralisation of the Luftwaffe, the bombing of strategic communications and unexpected enemy blunders. The scale, aims and weapons of modern warfare not only made the contribution of a single armoured division seem insignificant, but they also severely diminished the value of guerrilla operations…