The Franco-German Armistice of 22 June 1940 divided France into two parts. The northern and western area of the country was to be under the direct control of the German armed forces while central and southern France was unoccupied and was given a limited degree of autonomy, being known as Vichy France after the town which became its new ‘capital’.
Armed Forces of Vichy France
Article IV of the Armistice allowed for a small French army to be kept in being in the unoccupied zone (l’ Armee de l’ Armistice) and for the military provision of the French Empire overseas. The function of these forces was to keep internal order and to defend French territories from any Allied assault while remaining, in theory at least, under the overall direction of the German armed forces.
Vichy forces in Syria, Madagascar and Dakar resisted fiercely Allied attempts to take them over, but the Vichy Army in North Africa hardly resisted the landings of Operation Torch. The defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa and the American ‘Torch’ landings ensured the demise of Vichy France, and the German High Command set Operation ‘Anton’ into action. On 11 November 1942 German armored columns advanced over the demarcation line and overran the unoccupied zone. Following the German occupation, the Armee de I’ Armistice was dissolved.
Vichy French Army
The exact strength of the Vichy Metropolitan Army was set as 3,768 officers, 15,072 NCOs and 75,360 men, all of whom were to be volunteers. In addition, the size of the paramilitary Gendarmerie was fixed at 60,000 men plus an anti-aircraft force of 10,000 men. Despite the influx of trained soldiers from the colonial forces (reduced in size in accordance with the Armistice) there was a shortage of volunteers so that initially 50,000 men of the ‘class of 1939’ were retained until sufficient volunteers came forward to fulfill the quota. At the beginning of 1942 these conscripts were released, but still there was an insufficient number of men, a shortage that was to remain until the Army’s dissolution despite Vichy appeals to the Germans for a regular form of conscription.
The Army was divided into two groups each of four military divisions and comprised:
- 18 infantry regiments;
- 11 cavalry regiments;
- 8 artillery regiments;
- 15 battalions of chasseurs.
The Army was deprived of tanks and other armored vehicles and was desperately short of motorized transport especially in the cavalry units which were supposed to be motorized.
The French territories in the Mediterranean consisted of the Algerian department, the protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco and the mandates of Syria and Lebanon. The Armistice called for the demilitarization of Tunisia – in compliance with Italian wishes – and a general reduction of French colonial troops.
Vichy France was permitted 55,000 men in Morocco, 50,000 in Algeria, the Army of the Levant in Syria and Lebanon being reduced from around 100,000 to just under 40,000 men. Later, 15,000 men more were allowed in Tunisia by the Italians.
The Vichy French Army of the Levant controlled the mandates of Syria and Lebanon and, although it did not mount offensive operations against the Allies, its very presence adjacent to the strategically vulnerable British oil and supply lines posed a constant threat.
Syria was invaded by a mixed Allied force on 8 June 1941, the Vichy troops putting up a dogged resistance to the Allied advance, a resistance tinged with bitter ferocity with Frenchman fighting Frenchman.
When the fighting in Syria finally ended on 11 July 1941 the Vichy forces had lost 6,000 men, 1,000 of whom had been killed. A total of 37,736 soldiers were taken prisoner, but when given the choice of being repatriated or joining General de Gaulle only 5,668 availed themselves of this opportunity, the remainder being transported to France.
Vichy French Air Force
As a result of British aerial assaults on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir and the fear of further bombardment against the French homeland the Axis armistice commission permitted the French to retain part of their Air Force. Similarly, the French were allowed to keep Air Force detachments in their overseas colonies which were coming under attack from the Allies and, in the case of Indochina, from the Japanese.
In the unoccupied zone of France the Vichy Air Force consisted of:
- 6 fighter groups;
- 2 night-fighter escadrilles;
- 6 bomber groups;
- 2 ground-attack groups;
- 3 reconnaissance groups.
A group was usually formed from two escadrilles which normally consist of 12 aircraft. The group would consist only of planes of one type, e.g. fighter or bomber, but could be combined to form groupements which could be of various types.
Following the German occupation of Vichy France all the remaining aircraft were seized and the French air units disbanded.
In Syria many of the aircraft stationed there had been sent back to France in 1940, leaving only a number of obsolete models. Alarmed by the growing threat of a British invasion, a fighter group was dispatched from Algeria and once the fighting started three groups were flown in from France and three more from North Africa. This brought the Vichy strength up to 289 aircraft organized into:
fighter groups, 4 bomber groups + 1 bomber escadrille (squadron), 1 reconnaissance group, 6 army co-operation groups, 2 transport groups, 1 flotille of naval aircraft, 4 escadrilles (squadrons) of naval aircraft.
This gave them the edge over the Allied air units until British reinforcements arrived towards the latter part of the campaign. French losses were 179 planes, most of which had been destroyed on the ground.
While the Vichy land forces did little to resist the Anglo-American forces during the ‘Torch’ landings, the Air Force was hotly engaged. A determined resistance was carried out until 11 November 1942 when a cease-fire was called following which most of the French planes went over to the Allies to join with the Free French.
In time of Operation Torch there were around 500 planes in Northwest Africa:
In Morocco there were two fighters, two reconnaissance and four bomber groups plus two flotilles of naval aircraft and two transport groups.
In Algeria the Vichy Air Force consisted of three fighters, one reconnaissance and three bomber groups with one flotille of naval aircraft.
In Tunisia a small presence was maintained by one fighter, two bombers and one reconnaissance group with one unit of naval flying boats.
Vichy French Navy
Under the terms of the Franco-German Armistice the French Fleet was obliged to keep its ships under Axis control and be disarmed under German or Italian control. Little attempt to impose this clause of the Armistice was made, however, the Axis being content to leave the French ships in French hands so long as they were withdrawn from the British war effort.
Although the French Navy had no intention of allowing its ships to be used by the Axis, the British and Free French attacks against Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar, ensured that the Navy maintained a hostile attitude towards the Allied cause.
During Operation Torch the Vichy French naval forces in Northwest Africa were at Bizerta and Oran only with submarines and destroyers, there were a 6-inch cruiser, destroyers and an immobile battleship capable of firing its guns at Casablanca, together with a battleship and three cruisers at Dakar.
The Vichy Navy came to an abrupt end when the Germans occupied the ‘free’ zone in 1942. Initially the German Army made no attempt to gain control of the fleet in Toulon, but on 27 November the port was taken over, to which the French replied by scuttling their ships – more than 70 vessels – which included 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 32 destroyers and 16 submarines.