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Free French Forces (1940-1944)

Forces françaises libres (FFL)

Last modified: 2009-10-03 by ivan sache
Keywords: free french forces | forces francaises libres | cross: lorraine (red) | de gaulle (charles) | leclerc (philippe) | kufra | strasbourg | crescent (blue) | mezan (hemir) | cross: lorraine (blue) |
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The Oath of Kufrah

The Oath of Kufra is considered as a main event in the French history of the Second World War, from both historic and symbolic points of view. The seizure of the fort of Kufra was considered as the first significant military victory of the Free French Forces, while the hosting of the national flag over the cathedral of Strasbourg, as sworn in the Oath of Kufra, was the symbol of the liberation of the French territory from the German occupation.

Leclerc and the rallying of AEF to the Free France

Captain Philippe de la Hauteclocque (1902-1947, better known as Marshal Leclerc) was captured by the Germans in Champagne on 15 June 1940; after having managed to escape on 17 June, he crossed France on a bicycle and traveled to Britain via Spain and Portugal. On 25 July, he met in London General de Gaulle, still a very isolated soldier attempting to carry on the fight against Germany. Convinced by de Gaulle to abandon the Action Française, a then powerful party of monarchist, Catholic and ultra-conservative orientation, that would later support Pétain's regime without being involved in active collaboration with the Germans, Leclerc was sent to Cameroon to obtain the rallying of the colonies forming the Afrique Équatoriale Française (AEF) to the Free France. At that time, the rallying of big territories, then part of France, was required to convince Britain of the legitimity of Free France.
On 28 August 1940, after having convinced the French authorities of Cameroon, Chad and Congo to withdraw, Leclerc was appointed General Commissionner of Cameroon. The rallying of Gabon on 10 November completed the rallying of AEF to the Free France. Confirmed Colonel by de Gaulle, Leclerc decided to use Chad as a strategic base for military operations. He set up a column of some 350 volunteers, not really trained and poorly armed; the column had only one cannon.

The seizure of the fort of Kufra and the taking of the Oath of Kufra

The Leclerc Column (aka Chad Column) marched northwards through the desert to the Italian outposts. The Kufrah oasis was defended by the well-trained and well-armed Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra division. After a ten-day siege and violent fighting, the Italian garrison of the fort of El Tag surrendered on 1 March 1941. The French Tricolore flag was hoisted over the fort of El Tag, above the flag of the Free France; Italians colours were captured and Leclerc received the flag of the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra. While the victory was hardly aired in France, the BBC presented the operation as "the first offensive action set up against the enemy by French forces based in a French territory and under only French command".
On 2 March 1941, Leclerc gathered the troops and said what would be later known as the "Oath of Kufra". According to General Compagnon, a former Leclerc's soldier and his biographer, there are at least eight renditions of the Oath, the most probable being as reported by Lieutenant Ceccaldi, commander of an artillery section:
Nous sommes en marche. Nous ne nous arrêterons que lorsque le drapeau français flottera sur la cathédrale de Strasbourg ("We are on the move. We will not stop until the French flah flies over the cathedral of Strasbourg").
The capital of Alsace and the easternmost town of France, on the border with Germany, Strasbourg was the symbol of the ultimate reconquest of the national territory.
The monuments celebrating the Oath of Kufrah (see below) give a more solemn rendition of the Oath:
Jurez de ne déposer les armes que lorsque nos couleurs, nos belles couleurs flotteront sur la cathédrale de Strasbourg ! ("Swear to lay the arms only when our colours, our beautiful colours, will fly over the cathedral of Strasbourg!"). Jurez is sometimes replaced by Jurons ("Let us swear").

The Kufrah operation is described in detail in Koufra, le début d'une épopée, 26 janvier - 1er mars 1941, Collection Mémoire et Citoyenneté, No 11, Ministère de la Défense, 12 p. (undated), available online.

The fulfillment of the Oath of Kufra

Leclerc went back to Britain and his column was the core of the famous 2e Division Blindée (2e DB, 2nd Armour Division), that landed in Normandy on 1 August 1944, fought as part of Patton's 3rd Army ("Division Croix de Lorraine") and liberated Paris on 25 August 1944. The 2e DB then rushed eastwards and liberated Strasbourg on 23 November 1944.
At 14:30, the Oath of Kufra was fulfilled. Maurice Lebrun, a 23-year old tank driver from the 1st Regiment of Moroccan Spahis (1er Régiment de Marche de Spahis Marocains, RMSM) climbed onto the spire of the cathedral and hoisted there, 142 m above the ground level, the flag of the Free France. A kind of daredevil, Lebrun asked permission of fulfilling the Oath to his lieutenant. A bit reluctant because German snijpers might have been still present in the neighborhood, the lieutenant eventually authorized Lebrun to attempt the act. Four men headed to the cathedral with a Jeep and entered the building by a side door. Lebrun climbed into the tower with a brother-in-arms, found the spire ladder and climbed alone to the top of the spire, where he hoisted the flag.
The flag, made by Emilienne Lorentz, a pork butcher from the St. Etienne Square, is a big Tricolore flag, with three equal blue, white and red squares (therefore of overall proportions 1:3), A black Cross of Lorraine is placed in the white square, surmonted by the writing "1er RMSM 1er peloton" and surmonting the writing "5e escadron". Lebrun said: "I was prepared to be shot, but it was not easy for them, 200 m away and against the wind."
The story was reported by Lebrun himself to the newspaper Les Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace, 19 November 2004 (Article entitled Maurice Lebrun, tout là-haut, by Denis Tricard). The article has a colour photograph of the flag, which was shown in the town hall of Strasbourg in an exhibition dedicated to Marshal Leclerc.

On 24 November 1944, Leclerc released Order of the Day #73:

Ordre du Jour No 73.
Officiers, sous-officiers et soldats de la 2e Division Blindée
En cinq jours vous avez traversé les Vosges malgré les défenses ennemies et libéré Strasbourg.
Le serment de Koufra est tenu !
Vous avez infligé à l'ennemi des pertes très sévères, fait plus de neuf mille prisonniers, détruit un matériel innombrable et désorganisé le dispositif allemand.
Enfin et surtout, vous avez chassé l'envahisseur de la Capitale de notre Alsace, rendant ainsi à la France et à son Armée son prestige d'hier.
Au nom du Général de Gaulle et de la France, je vous en remercie.
Nos camarades tombés sont morts en héros,
Honorons leur mémoire !

Officers, NCOs and soldiers of the 2e DB
You have crossed the Vosges in five days in spite of the enemy defenses and liberated Strasbourg.
The Oath of Kufra has been fulfilled!
You have inflicted severe loss to the enemy, captured more than 9,000 prisoners, destroyed a lot of stuff and desorganized the German system.
Finally, and mostly, you have expelled the invader from the Capital of our Alsace, giving therefore back to France and its Army its lost prestige.
In the name of General de Gaulle and of France, I thank you.
Our fallen brother-in-arms died as heroes,
Let us honour their memory!

On 25 November 1944, Leclerc released a proclamation for the people of Strasbourg:

[...]Pendant la lutte gigantesque de quatre années menée derrière le général de Gaulle, la flèche de votre cathédrale est demeurée notre obsession. Nous avions juré d'y arborer de nouveau les couleurs nationales. C'est chose faite.[...]
During the huge four-years fight accomplished behind General de Gaulle, the spire of your cathedral remained our obsession. We swore to hoist again the national colours there. It is done.

On 29 November 1944, the first issue of the newspaper L'Alsace Libérée published the proclamation and wrote:
Le drapeau tricolore flotte joyeusement sur la flèche de notre cathédrale (The Tricolore flag cheerfully flies over the spire of our cathedral) and published the text of Leclerc's proclamation.

A postcard designed by Jean Schwartz shows the flag hoisted over the cathedral.

The commemoration and legacy of the Oath of Kufra

The 2e DB then crossed the Rhine and entered Germany. The First Company of the 501th Armoured Division seized Hitler's eagle nest at Berchtesgaden and obtained its reddition on 5 May 1945. General Leclerc died in a plane crash in Algeria on 28 November 1947, which created a huge, national mourning, and was awarded the State honour of Marshal of France, posthumuously, on 23 August 1952.

On 21 November 2004, the French flag was hoisted over the cathedral of Strasbourg to commemorate the events that had taken place there 60 years ago. After official speeches, Maurice Lebrun, wearing the traditional red spahi's cap, transferred the national flag to a young soldier of the 1st Spahi Regiment and the flag was hoisted over the spire.
The ceremony was reported in the Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace, 22 November 2004 (Article Les gars de Leclerc salués chapeau bas, by J.J. Blaesius).
A plaque commemorating the Oath of Kufra can be seen in Saint-Martin- de-Varreville, Normandy, where Leclerc landed in 1944. The place is the start of the commemorative "Saint-Martin-de-Varreville - Strasbourg" route, marked with milestones. There is a similar plaque in Strasbourg, with a slight different wording of the Kufrah Oath.

The Oath of Kufra is commemorated by three postage stamps released by the French postal administration:
- 6 F, 3 July 1948 - 4 December 1948, YT 815, M 48-20. Drawn and engraved by Raoul Serres, the stamp shows Leclerc, on its left a tank under palm trees, on his right another tank, in the background, the cathedral of Strasbourg. The stamps is labelled KOUFRA-STRASBOURG (top right) and GENERAL LECLERC (bottom right). Very popular (8.1 million copies), the stamp was to be used on ordinary letters.
- 8 F, 15 June 1953 - 25 October 1953, YT 942, M 53-05. Raoul Serres slightly modified the stamp, whose colour was changed from black to dark red. MARECHAL DE FRANCE was added under GENERAL LECLERC, and, most important, the French flag was added to the spire of the cathedral. The stamp was to be used on post cards with no more than five words.
- 12 F, 14 June 1954 - 6 November 1954, YT 984, M 54-21. This was a reprint of the 8 F stamp, in green instead of marroon. The stamp (3.08 million copies) was to be used on post cards.
(After Jean-François Brun [Ed.], Le patrimoine du timbre-poste français, Flohic, Charenton-le-Pont, 1998)

On 29 May 2009, Le Midi Libre announced that Colonel Maurice Leblanc, the soldier who had hoisted the flag over the cathedral, had passed away at Saint-Martin-de-Londres (Languedoc), at the age of 88, on 25 May 2009.

Ivan Sache, 31 May 2009

Flag hoisted over the training center of the Free French Forces in England

[FFL in England]

Flag of the FFL in England - Image by Ivan Sache, 4 June 1999

According to L. Philippe (Franciae Vexilla [frv] #14/60, 1999), the flag hoisted over the training center of the FFL in England is similar to the ensign of the FNFL, but with proportions 1:2 (1.30 m x 2.60 m). Manufactured in England, this flag is now preserved in the Célestins barracks of the Republican Guard, Paris.

Ivan Sache, 4 June 1999

Personal flag of Captain Hemir Mezan

[Mezan's flag]

Flag of Hemir Mezan - Image by Ivan Sache, 4 June 1999

Captain Mezan was one of the several foreigners who fought and died for the Free France. According to L. Philippe (Franciae Vexilla [frv] #14/60, 1999), Mezan used a triangular red flag with a white vertical stripe along the hoist, and a blue emblem made of a blue crescent superimposed to a blue cross of Lorraine.
After Mezan's death in Italy, his flag was offerred by his widow to the Museum of the Order of the Liberation, Paris.

Ivan Sache, 4 June 1999