To those who served in the hour of their nation's greatest trial     

The debacle of 1940 made France, once Europe's leading power, into an abject vassal of the Third Reich. But not all Frenchmen accepted defeat, and their spirit of resistance was symbolized by Charles de Gaulle. He was a little-known Army officer and junior government minister at the time of the French surrender, but his radio broadcast to the French people from London on 18 June 1940 (see below) struck a spark that rekindled the spirit of the nation under the flag of Free France.

Free France grew slowly at first as scattered groups of French soldiers, solitary ships and remote colonies rallied to General de Gaulle. By 1942, however, a small but effective military force had been organized. Its first notable action was the heroic defense of Bir Hakeim (North Africa, May-June 1942), by the 1st Light Division under General Koenig. Free French troops also fought in Italy, Free French warships served all over the world, and the 2nd Free French Armored Division participated with distinction in the Battle of Normandy.

In parallel with this conventional military effort, a resistance movement within France was created under the name of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). In the summer of 1944, this resistance movement played an important role in the battle to liberate France. On the eve of D-Day, the FFI launched a coordinated campaign of sabotage that paralyzed German communications throughout the country and helped to isolate the field of battle in Normandy. Thus de Gaulle could claim with considerable truth that France had redeemed her honor.

De Gaulle also developed a political organization that became the government of France when the Germans were driven out in 1944. With liberation it became possible to raise much larger forces (equipped by the United States) and in 1945 the French First Army, some eight divisions strong, took part in the final offensive into Germany.

FDR and Churchill found de Gaulle a difficult ally; the latter famously quipped that the heaviest cross he had to bear during the war was the Cross of Lorraine. This was a reference to the two-barred cross that de Gaulle adopted as the symbol of Free France. It appeared on numerous Free French flags, official and unofficial, in a number of different forms, some of which are illustrated below. The plain French Tricolor was not abandoned, however; both Free France and the puppet government in Vichy continued to claim it as their own.

Credits: My drawings of most of these flags are based on images and historical background information posted to the FOTW Mailing List by Ivan Sache of France. His source was an article on the flags of Free France, by the distinguished vexillologist Lucien Philippe, in the June 1999 issue of Franciae Vexilla.


This naval ensign was often flown at sea instead of the plain Tricolor by ships of the Free French Navy (FNFL)


This FNFL ensign had 1:2 proportions and was probably of British manufacture. It was flown at an FNFL training establishment in the UK.


Personal Flag of Admiral Muselier


Personal Flag of Captain Mezan

Admiral Muselier was one of the first high-ranking French officers to rally to Free France. Captain Hemier Mezan was one of many foreigners who served in the Free French ranks. (Several units of the French Foreign Legion rallied to de Gaulle in 1940-41.) He was killed in action in Italy.

Ensign of the Submarine Surcouf


Jack of the Torpedo Boat La Combattante

The Surcouf ensign, hoisted when General de Gaulle visited the submarine in a British harbor in 1942, was a standard French naval ensign with de Gaulle's initials on the white stripe. Note the unequal width (30:33:37) of the stripes; this was supposed make them look equal in width when the ensign was viewed from a distance at sea. La Combattante, a British Hunt-class destroyer escort, was transferred to the FNFL on completion in 1942. She used a nearly square version of the FNFL ensign as a jack. Surcouf was accidentally rammed and sunk by a US merchant ship in 1942. La Combattante, which had an active career under the FNFL ensign, brought General de Gaulle across the English Channel to France on 14 June 1944. She was sunk by a German Seehund midget submarine early in 1945.


This flag was hoisted at Darfour in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan on the occasion of a visit by General de Gaulle in 1941. It was hastily manufactured by the British, which perhaps explains the 1:2 proportions and the fact that the arms of the cross are inverted. The crescent may have had some connection with the French colonial infantry, whose badge it was.

Appeal by General de Gaulle to the French

18 June 1940

From The Call to Honour, the first volume of his memoirs

The leaders who, for many years past, have been at the head of the French armed forces, have set up a government.

Alleging the defeat of our armies, this government has entered into negotiations with the enemy with a view to bringing about a cessation of hostilities. It is quite true that we were, and still are, overwhelmed by enemy mechanized forces, both on the ground and in the air. It was the tanks, the planes and the tactics of the Germans, far more than the fact that we were outnumbered, that forced our armies to retreat. It was the German tanks, planes and tactics that provided the element of surprise which brought our leaders to their present plight.

But has the last word been said? Must we abandon all hope? Is our defeat final and irremediable? To these questions I answer—No!

Speaking in full knowledge of the facts, I ask you to believe me when I say that the cause of France is not lost. The very factors that brought about our defeat may one day lead us to victory.

For, remember this, France does not stand alone. She is not isolated. Behind her is a vast Empire, and she can make common cause with the British Empire, which commands the seas and is continuing the struggle. Like England, she can draw unreservedly on the immense industrial resources of the United States.

This war is not limited to our unfortunate country. The outcome of the struggle has not been decided by the Battle of France. This is a world war. Mistakes have been made, there have been delays and untold suffering, but the fact remains that there still exists in the world everything we need to crush our enemies some day. Today we are crushed by the sheer weight of mechanized force hurled against us, but we can still look to a future in which even greater mechanized force will bring us victory. The destiny of the world is at stake.

I, General de Gaulle, now in London, call on all French officers and men who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, with or without their arms; I call on all engineers and skilled workmen from the armaments factories who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, to get in touch with me.

Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.

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