After Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain signed the armistice in 1940 the Gestapo began hunting down communists and socialists. Most of them went into hiding. The obvious place to go was in the forests of the unoccupied zones. Escaped soldiers from the French Army also fled to these forests. These men and women gradually formed themselves into units based on political beliefs and geographical area. These groups became known as the Maquis (the name comes from the small scrub bushes in that part of the world which they frequently used for cover against the Germans).

In the spring of 1942, communist militants, acting independently of the leadership of the French Communist Party, organized the first Maquis units in the Limousin and the Puy-de-Dôme. Maquis groups were established in other regions of France. As the Maquis grew in strength it began to organize attacks on German forces.

In the Limousin, the Maquis were led by the Communist militant, Georges Guingouin. At this time Guingouin was not supplied with any weapons. Therefore their main method of resisting the German Army was sabotage. This included attacks on bridges, telephone lines and railway tracks.

The Maquis also provided aid and protection to refugees, immigrants, Jews, and others threatened by the Vichy and the German authorities. They also helped to get Allied airman, whose aircraft had been shot down in France, to get back to Britain.

Members of the Maquis in La Trésorerie (September, 1944)
Members of the Maquis in La Trésorerie (1944)

In March 1944, the German Army began a campaign of repression throughout France. This included a policy of reprisals against civilians living in towns and villages close to the scene of attacks carried out by members of the French Resistance. As one official wrote on 15th April, 1944 that the authorities "wanted to strike fear into the population and change their opinion by showing them that the evils they were suffering were the direct consequence of the existence of the Maquis and that they had made the mistake of tolerating them."

On 5th June, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower asked the BBC sent out coded messages to the resistance asking them to carry out acts of resistance during the D-day landings in order to help Allied forces establish a beachhead on the Normandy coast.

After the war General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote: "Throughout France the Resistance had been of inestimable value in the campaign. Without their great assistance the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves."

Primary Sources

(1) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)

It has been customary, since the war, to blame the Maquis for every misfortune and hardship that France has now to undergo. It is almost an unpopular thing in France in 1952 to have fought for France's liberation in 1940-45. And if one fought and perhaps died in company with British officers, it is now considered almost unpardonable. None of the 'best people' did it. Of course, they were not collaborationists - nor supporters of Petain - just the best type that waited to see what would happen. I wonder what, in fact, would have happened if all these brave men and women who continually risked life and property to save our liaison officers had waited on the fence?

A rather similar and equally unfounded prejudice also exists in France today. It is that the members of the French resistance groups were nearly all Communists or, at any rate, that the Communist groups - the FTP (Franc-tireurs et Partisans) and the Front National - were the only groups to do any effective work. This theory is strongly advanced by Communist propaganda, but I can say with authority that, so far as the groups were concerned who worked with British liaison officers, we were only interested in their patriotism and their ability to carry out such tasks, and not at all in their political opinions.

(2) Captain George Leinster of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry took part in the D-Day invasion. He wrote about his experiences in a letter to his mother on 29th September 1944.

My failure to write earlier has not been due to being always on the move. Between our periods of movement and excitement we have been able to have short but very pleasant rests. These 'rests' are often my busiest times, and somehow I always just failed to write the fuller type of letter. Often too, experiences crowded on one another so fast that there was too much to say in anything less than a small book. Now that another phase seems to have ended, it is possible to look back and see things in truer perspective.

On that and on many other occasions we have felt that if the Germans were not such swines we could feel some pity for them. We feel not a shred of pity. I have talked with many German prisoners; do not do so now as they make me feel furious. They have a sort of mental leprosy which render parts of their minds and emotions entirely insensitive. I know that when they are destroying and burning in their heyday they felt no pang or qualm for the suffering they caused. That they lack a sense of persona conscience is understandable, but it is baffling to find all their kinder emotions equally atrophied.

How you who have not come into close contact with the Germans can hope to understand them I do not know. It is difficult enough for us who meet them constantly. I hope that those who control our post-war relations with Germany shall be men who know the German as the Soldier does.

The Germans were very frightened of the Maquis, the armed civilians, in France and Belgium. It was the fear of a guilty conscience. They were delighted to surrender to us and so be protected against the vengeance of the partisans. Never was protection given less willingly. There were many cases in which natural justice was speedily meted out by the civilians. We could not countenance this when we were present, but did not regret it when we could not prevent it.

The joy of the people is equalled only by their hatred of the Germans. This can almost be felt. Their great fear is that the mass of the English, so far away in detached England, will again be too lenient towards the Germans owing to a mistaken sense of fair play. Most of them wish to see the Germans literally exterminated, and all say we must go right to Berlin and impose our will from there. We realise how fortunate we are that England is an island; it is hard for Englishmen to appreciate the feelings of these smaller countries who are on Germany's doorstep and who cannot stand up to Germany without strong support. I think our prestige has been very high since Autumn 1940, when we stood alone, but never in all our history has it been so high, at least in Europe, as it is today.

It was strange to see the huge cemeteries of the last war, stretching away over the plains with their limitless rows of small white crosses, the imagination boggling over so much slaughter. None of this war's cemeteries, not even that at Al Alamein, compare in size with these we saw, and still think that this is an easy war for the

soldier in every way in comparison with that of 1914-1918.

Mail is arriving faster than ever from home just now. We have been receiving English papers the day after they are published, and have plenty to read though not much time to do it in. The cigarettes and tobacco were very welcome. If you are sending any more, please make it cigarettes only, as my tobacco stock is high just now. We left the Normandy area with piles of cigarettes, chocolate and sweets, but over some hundreds of miles these have been given away until now we can only give away some of up our issue cigarettes and chocolate. I wish we could have given away a hundred times as much. All these people had only a few rationed, foul cigarettes and had not seen chocolate for more than 4 years. How pleased they are when we give them a bar! They give us all they can, we give them all we can, there is no mention of money at all, and it is all quite a Christian affair. For four months now, money has just not meant a thing to me; rather like it.

(3) Martha Gellhorn, The Undefeated (1945)

The generally accepted figure is 300,000 executions in the six years since Franco won power. The total present American casualties, killed and wounded in all theaters of war, are about 475,000. It is obvious that the only way to defeat these people is to shoot them. As early as 1941, Spanish Republicans were running away from their French employers and disappearing into the Maquis. From 1943 onward, there was the closest liaison between the French Maquis and the Spanish bands throughout France.

That the work of the Spanish Maquis was valuable can be seen from some briefly noted figures. During the German occupation of France, the Spanish Maquis engineered more than four hundred railway sabotages, destroyed fifty-eight locomotives, dynamited thirty-five railway bridges, cut one hundred and fifty telephone lines, attacked twenty factories, destroying some factories totally, and sabotaged fifteen coal mines. They took several thousand German prisoners and - most miraculous considering their arms - they captured three tanks.

In the south-west part of France where no Allied armies have ever fought, they liberated more than seventeen towns. The French Forces of the Interior, who have scarcely enough to help themselves, try to help their wounded Spanish comrades in arms. But now that the guerrilla fighting is over, the Spaniards are again men without a country or families or homes or work, though everyone appreciates very much what they did.

After the desperate years of their own war, after six years of repression inside Spain and six years of horror in exile, these people remain intact in spirit. They are armed with a transcendent faith; they have never won, and yet they have never accepted defeat. Theirs is the great faith that makes miracles and changes history. You can sit in a basement restaurant in Toulouse and listen to men who have uncomplainingly lost every safety and comfort in life, talking of their republic; and you can believe quite simply that, since they are what they are, there will be a republic across the mountains and that they will live to return to it.