When Britain meets Free France: Coalition Warfare in French Equatorial Africa, January to August 194
Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting short blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.
As the centre of Free French activities in Africa, French Equatorial Africa (FEA) constituted an important piece of the British military jigsaw in the first years of the war when Britain felt isolated against Italian and German forces. The Free French had to reconcile their military raison d’être (to defeat the Germans by cooperating with the British and Americans) with a conflicting political mission (to defend French interests against the Allies). This paradoxical role led to many tensions between the Free French and the British. However, in FEA, General Leclerc, arguably De Gaulle’s best commanding officer, developed a relationship with British officers and political leaders that runs counter to traditional, often nationalistic, historiography, both in France and in the UK. My paper focused on the first six months of 1941 to examine the singularity of the relationship between the British and the Free French in FEA. More precisely, it discussed how Leclerc became the cornerstone of Franco-British relations in Africa after the capture of Kufra in the Libyan Desert.
In late 1940, Leclerc, who commanded and administered Chad, was crucial to the overland supply of the Sudan and Egypt from Nigeria while the Mediterranean remained largely closed to Allied shipping. However, the Free French needed a military victory to strengthen De Gaulle’s position. The secluded oasis of Kufra provided them with the opportunity to restore national prestige. Before the war, Ralph Bagnold, founder and first commander of the LRDG, had considered it an almost unreachable geographic area at the best of times. However, if Kufra were seized, it would give the Allies with a safe route as it secured the Nigeria-Sudan-Egypt line for the aircraft leaving Takoradi in the Gulf of Guinea for Abyssinia and Libya. It would also dry up the stream of military air transport coming from Italy and flying to Ethiopia. Symbolically, it would deal a blow to the morale of the Axis troops as Mussolini had proudly declared that Kufra was ‘the symbol of Italy’s African power’.
Leclerc took Kufra on 1 March 1941, a welcomed victory at a time when Germany was earning a string of victories, and London was becoming disillusioned due to Vichy’s attitude towards Germany. The main question became the administration of the area. In January, Leclerc had told Bagnold that, from a political perspective, Britain should have the last word. The Free French were not interested in Kufra because they did not possess enough troops or adequate resources to guard it. However, De Gaulle feared British colonial interests and Leclerc found himself under pressure to keep Kufra for prestige reasons. Similarly, his British colleagues, despite their lack of resources, were pressured into controlling the area by the War Office, who feared an attack on Sudan and the Nile valley. Leclerc and the British officers hoped that their respective hierarchies would let them find a solution on the ground. On 29 June, in an atmosphere devoid of any tension, Leclerc, and Major Prendergast (LRDG), representing the Middle East forces, signed agreements on the relief of Kufra. This settled the matter of liaison and communications, air defence, transfer of command, as well as the training, rationing, clothing, and disciplining of the French detachment. The two tasks of this detachment would be to provide a guard for the French colours and realise the close liaison between the French and British troops and to carry out any combatant duty as ordered by the British command.
The singularity of Franco-British relations in FEA cannot be understood if we consider the British as a single whole. Leclerc had made a strong impression on them since his arrival in 1940, and an incident in late April 1941 reveals the inner divisions of the British military. Shortly after Kufra, Captain Mercer-Nairne, the Spears Mission liaison officer to Leclerc, was taken ill. As it would soon be the rainy season and no military action would take place, both parties agreed to let him rest in Egypt. As a result, General Giffard, Commander-in-Chief of West Africa Command, felt he was insufficiently informed about happenings in Chad and sent his liaison officer to Leclerc. Spears disagreed with this decision and telegraphed both Mercer-Nairne and Giffard on the matter. He gave pragmatic reasons for rejecting Giffard’s liaison officer, like scarce resources and long distances, but there was a rivalry between the different services. He used Leclerc’s infamous dislike of any hierarchy breathing down his neck as an excuse to keep Giffard out of the loop. In a private letter, he even asked Mercer-Nairne to make it clear to Leclerc that what was passed on to the Spears Mission did not go to West Africa. This dissonance of views between the Spears Mission and West Africa Command is a good example of Leclerc’s relations with the British, which can be best described with two examples.
First, until the capture of Kufra, there are two concentric circles with Leclerc as their centre. The smaller circle contains Leclerc’s closest allies: their strong bonds were either due to political convictions and comradeship shared during those dark early days (e.g. General Spears), or they stemmed from what I call the ‘desert brotherhood’ (e.g. Ralph Bagnold). This circle coincides with geographic proximity and is also the first one chronologically. The other circle corresponds to remote military and senior political echelons which, in a leap of faith, decided to rely on him in Africa. The two defining aspects are that both circles were favourable to Leclerc, on a scale of mutual political benefit to a personal friendship forged in fire; and that, like wave propagation, the smaller circle, which strongly supported Leclerc, influenced the larger one with reports and private correspondence.
Second, from 1941 onwards, Leclerc became the cornerstone of Franco-British relations in Africa. His thriving cooperation led to the development of his circles: new individuals, like General Hawkins, integrated his inner circle, while a middle circle was added. It included Middle East Command – in other words, those who had less personal interaction but still worked closely enough with him to develop cordial bonds. They usually supported his actions when they could and influenced the outer circle with positive reports.
Leclerc’s personality won the British officers and administrators he worked with. Their relations went, to varying degrees, beyond conventional cooperation. Kufra made this model of relations viable. The capture was carried out without air support and next to no artillery, and despite Bagnold’s prediction of a massacre. Leclerc received congratulations from his British colleagues, and these accolades strengthened his position within the Free French hierarchy, from a young, unknown officer to De Gaulle’s unswervingly loyal armed wing. Incidentally, it was Spears who, noticing that Leclerc sometimes limped from an old leg injury, gave him the iconic Malacca stick that the French associate with him. Leclerc was popular with the British because he was one of the most exceptional commanders of the war, but also because he conformed to the British ideal of a French officer, as many accounts from his British colleagues’ attest.
The relief of Kufra shows that, when left to their own devices, Leclerc and his British allies could conciliate military cooperation and national interest despite the political and colonial claims of both countries. The political choice of the British government to cooperate with Free France took concrete form thanks in great part to Leclerc’s actions in Africa. French historiography traditionally presents Leclerc as a solitary hero who conquered all these territories single-handedly, highlighting the destitution of his troops and the lack of Allied help. While it is undeniable that most of his successes were achieved thanks to his zeal, most French historians do not acknowledge that Leclerc’s singular figure could emerge so impressively only because he found British colleagues equally ready to work outside the conventional diplomatic and military framework. Conversely, Anglophone historiography tends either to ignore Leclerc’s early successes or to attribute them solely to British good will. Ironically, the desperate circumstances of summer 1940 were the perfect fertile ground for the unorthodox methods of Leclerc and his British allies: it is precisely because the institutional structure of the French African Empire was in complete disarray, and its leaders numb and lethargic, that they could act quickly. Moreover, the geographic seclusion allowed them to make their own decisions on the ground. Leclerc’s relations with the British would be tested during his campaigns in Libya, especially when the political tensions between De Gaulle and the British government affected the military liaison between Leclerc’s force and the Eighth Army. However, the campaigns confirmed Leclerc’s reputation as an outstanding offensive commander and offered welcome success for both de Gaulle and the British in what was otherwise a bleak period. The popularity of Leclerc with his British colleagues and the British press and public would be essential later when the arrival of American troops in Africa marginalised Leclerc’s operations.
Dr Julie Valade is an Associate Lecturer at the University of Nantes. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and her research interests are coalition warfare, national war narratives, and representations of war in popular culture. She is currently working on how nations, particularly France and the United Kingdom, commemorate the two World Wars in the 21st century.
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