On November 10, 1942, German troops roll out Operation Case Anton, occupying Vichy France, which had previously been free of an Axis military presence.
Since July 1940, upon being invaded and defeated by Nazi German forces, the autonomous French state had been split into two regions. One was occupied by German troops, and the other was unoccupied, governed by a more or less puppet regime centered in Vichy, a spa region about 200 miles southeast of Paris, and led by Gen. Philippe Pétain, a World War I hero. Publicly, Pétain declared that Germany and France had a common goal, “the defeat of England.” Privately, the French general hoped that by playing mediator between the Axis power and his fellow countrymen, he could keep German troops out of Vichy France while surreptitiously aiding the antifascist Resistance movement.
Within two years, Pétain’s compromises became irrelevant. After Allied troops arrived in North Africa on November 8 to help the Free French Forces beat back the Axis occupiers, Hitler moved German troops into southeastern Vichy, violating the 1940 armistice agreement. In a dramatic act of defiance, French naval crews on November 28 sank their own fleet (more than 70 vessels) off the coast of Toulon, in southeastern France, to keep the Germans from seizing it. From that point forward, Pétain became virtually useless, and France merely a future gateway for the Allied counteroffensive in Western Europe—namely, D-Day.