In the midst of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, the famous war reporter Ernie Pyle arrived in the Algerian city of Oran and came across a bizarre situation.
Pyle found one French unit ‘firing with a machine-gun at wounded Americans, while other Frenchmen in row boats were facing bullets trying to rescue Americans.’ It was ‘perhaps the strangest battlefield of the war,’ says Michael S Neiberg, who in this book attempts to understand why it all came about.
As the title suggests, the story begins with the Fall of France two and a half years earlier. Neiberg argues convincingly that it was this moment, and not Pearl Harbor, that forced America to realise the war in Europe was very much their business, whether they liked it or not.
Almost overnight, France had gone from being a keystone of American defence policy to a major liability. The world-class French navy was potentially in German hands, allowing the Nazis to make all sorts of trouble in America’s ‘backyard’.
In fact, this fear was unjustified. Deploying troops to the French Caribbean, or stirring up a revolution in Mexico, would have proved challenging for Germany, to say the least. All they wanted from France was ‘docility, loot, and perhaps bases’.
They certainly got docility in the shape of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Although elderly and exhausted by 1940 (he frequently fell asleep in meetings), a strong cult of personality developed around this French hero of the Great War.
Pétain was seen as a steady hand who would prevent the defeated nation collapsing into civil war. Albeit split in two, France just about held together under Pétain’s leadership, based in the now notorious spa town in the unoccupied ‘free zone’. Pétain could not resist the metaphor, promising that the Vichy regime would ‘cleanse’ the country of the ills that had supposedly led to its defeat.
Neiberg’s aim is to chart the fairly disastrous American policy towards Vichy. Initially, they were drawn to Pétain, partly out of a naive belief that the two countries shared small-‘c’ conservative values, and partly because it was felt (also incorrectly) that there was no alternative.
There was, of course – in the shape of the Free French movement of Charles de Gaulle, exiled in London. But the Americans loathed him. Unlike the British, who at least shared with de Gaulle a mutual desire to see various African colonies protected, the Americans saw no reason to deal with him. Not that Pétain was much better, with his chaotic leadership and pessimism about the war’s outcome.
Vichy also misjudged Operation Torch, which in Franco-American relations was a turning point. Pétain never envisaged the Allies putting so much effort into North Africa, which is partly what led to the confused fighting witnessed by Pyle. A great deal of diplomatic pressure was required to call off the pointless slaughter.
It was the moment, too, when America largely gave up on Pétain and began the long, slow road to backing de Gaulle. Although there were still agonising detours involving Admiral François Darlan and General Henri Giraud, both of whom were sounded out as potential leaders but proved unsuitable for different reasons. It took a long old time for the Americans to see ‘the ass behind the lion’s skin’, as Harold Macmillan put it. And even once they did, the Americans were never happy with him. He infuriated just about everyone with his seemingly unearned victory parades through Bayeux and later Paris in the summer of 1944.
Neiberg ends the narrative here, although it would have been interesting to know more of what followed, especially considering how key figures in this book – de Gaulle, Macmillan, and Eisenhower – would all help to shape the events of the early Cold War. But that information is available elsewhere.
This is an extremely well researched and readable book. And it is a reminder that in wartime, fighting the enemy can often be less complicated than dealing with your allies.
Review by Calum Henderson.
When France Fell: the Vichy crisis and the fate of the Anglo-American alliance, Michael S Neiberg, Harvard University Press, hbk (£23.95), ISBN 978-0674258563.