American soldiers and members of the French Resistance in Var. France, 1944.Jean-Gabriel Castel
French women with shorn heads as punishment for having relationships with German soldiers. Nice, August 1944.Jean-Gabriel Castel
Member of the French Resistance hanged by French Militia forces in Nice on Avenue de la Victoire (now Avenue Jean-Médecin). 1943.Jean-Gabriel Castel
French General Charles de Gaulle giving a speech on a balcony in Nice, August 1944.Jean-Gabriel Castel
Members of the French Resistance executed by the Gestapo (German Secret Police). Nice, 1945.Jean-Gabriel Castel
"We had to be very careful with everything we said, since you could be exposed by your parents or parents could be exposed by their children, or by your neighbours, or your best friends;"
The (French) Resistance was organized in such a way that you could only recognize one person above you, that’s all. I spoke German fluently and I had access to the German command, since my room was right next door. They didn’t know that I spoke German. So I eavesdropped on what they said and gave the information to my superior who in turn gave it to his superior and eventually it made its way all the way to England. All the Germans had to do was capture one member of the Resistance and torture that person, and they did. Some people were tortured to the extent that they caved in. So they gave us cyanide pills in case we were captured, so that we could kill ourselves rather than talking.
We received coded messages, you see, from people in London who came to the mountains. We had places where we received weapons. There were flights and the British came to give us weapons and munitions. I worked on a farm in Savoie where the Resistance started and then in Vercors. I was at the bottom of the ladder considering my age. The Resistance leaders received orders by radio with coded messages since people had come from London in Lysanders (Westland Lysander, a small British liaison aircraft) and that’s how we got messages to London and to General de Gaulle (Charles de Gaulle, Leader of the Free French Forces, as opposed to the Vichy regime which collaborated with the German occupation in France) and to the British who sent us messages back.
It is how at the time of the famous message “the carrots are cooked” (poetic messages used by the Allies and the French Resistance to communicate specific instructions), it meant that you had to do such-and-such a thing during the Normandy landing (June 6, 1944). The messages are how the Resistance knew when to prepare the field and sabotage bridges, railroads, etc. So that’s how we communicated with the Resistance and with the General de Gaulle. The leaders of the Resistance were former French army officers (who had gone underground following the defeat of France in 1940) or others who organized people like us. So there was an entire echelon; a secret army, you could say. The important thing was that we couldn’t know too much so that if we were captured, before being killed by the Germans, we couldn’t be tortured to give up any information.
So it wasn’t easy to know what was going on. We listened to radio broadcast out of London (Radio London, a radio station created for the French people in occupied France which was broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation). There was one program, I remember called Les Français parlent aux Français (a radio program broadcast daily in France from July 14, 1940 to August 31, 1944).
We had to be very careful when listening to this program or British radio because we could be caught and exposed by a neighbour. You never knew whether your neighbours were collaborating with the Germans since the Militia were ever-present (the French Militia, a paramilitary and political force created in 1942 by the Vichy government to fight the Resistance). I remember that in class there were the pétainistes (supporters of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s Vichy regime) and gaullistes (supporters of General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces). We were always getting into fights and we could have been exposed by informers and arrested. It becomes very dangerous when you live under a system where you are constantly suspected of belonging to one group or another. We had to be very careful with everything we said, since you could be exposed by your parents or parents could be exposed by their children, or by your neighbours, or your best friends; anyone could be an informant. You couldn’t just say whatever you wanted to about the Germans out of fear of… You really had to learn who to trust. There were also traitors that claimed to be against the Germans in order to infiltrate the Resistance and expose people. That’s why I only knew the person to whom I provided information and weapons, and things like that. Sometimes, when we blew up bridges or things like that or railroads, there were only two or three of us, that’s all. We received our orders and we carried them out, but we never knew who the leaders were, or even who the superiors were.
There were a lot of sincere pétainistes who thought that Germany was going to win the war and that we had to collaborate with them, otherwise the Germans would take vengeance against France and annex a part of the country. I am not saying that all collaborators were traitors, but you had to be wary, since some of them were. The Militia, a paramilitary group, particularly supported the Germans and were pro-Laval and pro-Pétain. Laval was the Prime minister (head of the government) during the Vichy regime (April 1942 to August 1944).
The hard thing in France was that the Marshal Pétain was appointed head of the government at the time of defeat (in 1940). When the French parliament withdrew in Bordeaux, he was given full power. So, he had rightful power in France. During those days, France was a country where people were very strict on issues dealing with order and legitimacy and things like that. So the army pledged an oath of loyalty to Marshal Pétain. So they were… And when de Gaulle pronounced his Appeal of 18 June (Appeal of 18 June, 1940, a speech given by General de Gaulle in London, inciting the French to continue the fight against Nazi Germany), it caused a lot of problems for the French administration, the French army, for those who had pledged an oath of loyalty to Pétain. Before the Germans occupied France, he was the legitimate head of state. So that was the major problem; disobeying the Head of State, committing perjury because you had sworn allegiance to the Head of State. If you did so, you were considered a traitor in the eyes of the French authorities, you see.
So France was divided in two in terms of how to act during the German occupation. That was the problem. What Pétain should have done, when the Germans crossed the free zone border, he should have resigned then. But he did as he had said: “Je fais à la France don de ma personne” (translation: “I give myself to France” (a quotation attributed to Marshal Pétain during a speech given on June 17, 1940). Yet, he prevented the Germans from occupying the southern zone until 1942 (in reference to the free zone in southern France, which was free from German military occupation until November 1942).