Year
1940

De Gaulle sets up the Empire Defense Council

On this day in 1940, French Gen. Charles de Gaulle, speaking for the Free French Forces from his temporary headquarter in equatorial Africa, calls all French men and women everywhere to join the struggle to preserve and defend free French territory and “to attack the enemy wherever it is possible, to mobilize all our military, economic, and moral resources… to make justice reign.”

De Gaulle had a long history fighting Germans. He sustained multiple injuries fighting at Verdun in World War I. He escaped German POW camps five times, only to be recaptured each time. (At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, it was hard for de Gaulle to remain inconspicuous.)

At the beginning of World War II, de Gaulle was commander of a tank brigade. He was admired as a courageous leader and made a brigadier general in May 1940. After the German invasion of France, he became undersecretary of state for defense and war in the Reynaud government, but when Reynaud resigned, and Field Marshal Philippe Petain stepped in, a virtual puppet of the German occupiers, de Gaulle left for England. On June 18, de Gaulle took to the radio airwaves to make an appeal to his fellow French not to accept the armistice being sought by Petain, but to continue fighting under his command. “I am France!” he declared. Ten days later, Britain formally acknowledged de Gaulle as the leader of the “Free French Forces,” which was at first little more than those French troops stationed in England, volunteers from Frenchmen already living in England, and units of the French navy.

Another Free French movement had begun in Africa, under the direction of Gen. Henri Giraud. De Gaulle eventually relocated to Africa after tension began to build between himself and the British. Initially, de Gaulle agreed to share power with Giraud in the organization and control of the exiled French forces—until Giraud resigned in 1943, unwilling to stand in de Gaulle’s shadow or struggle against his deft political maneuvering.

Whatever disagreements the British had had with de Gaulle, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was pleased with the French general’s appeal to his countrymen’s patriotism and the creation of the Empire Defense Council, which would organize necessary resources for military operations. Churchill believed it would “have a great effect on the minds of Frenchmen on account of its scope and logic. It shows de Gaulle in a light very different from that of an ordinary man.”

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