Charles de Gaulle
Though forced to flee to Great Britain with the fall of France in 1940, Charles de Gaulle was not about to give up on his beloved country. Over the objections of Winston Churchill, he established a Free French movement that helped to liberate the nation.
Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was born in Lille, France, on November 22, 1890. The son of a teacher, he attended the Saint-Cyr Military Academy, graduating in 1912. An infantry officer during World War I, de Gaulle was wounded three times and eventually captured by the Germans. After the war, he was appointed aide-de-camp to Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain. During this period, de Gaulle became a true student of war, conceiving doctrines and plans that conflicted with established military articles of faith. In his book The Army of the Future, de Gaulle recommended lightning-swift movements and use of armored forces that very closely mirrored Hitler's blitzkrieg strategy.
When the war in Europe began in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, de Gaulle was commander of tanks in the French Fifth Army. However, under the French army command structure, it was outside de Gaulle's authority to actually place the tanks into action. After Germany raced through Poland, de Gaulle requested — and was granted — command of an armored division. His division engaged the Germans in one of France's few offensives in Germany's campaign against France and the Low Countries.
Charles de Gaulle had a strong sense of self-purpose. While he was attending military school, a fellow student commented, “I have a curious feeling that you are intended for a very great destiny.” To which de Gaulle replied, “Yes. So have I.”
On June 6, 1940, de Gaulle was named undersecretary of state to the minister of national defense and war. Three days later he flew to London to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill about coordinating the strategy of the two nations' armies. But when de Gaulle returned home, he found the government on the verge of fleeing. He pleaded with Prime Minister Pétain to stay and fight or at least to evacuate troops to French North Africa and take a stand there.
But de Gaulle's pleas fell on deaf ears. By that point, France was on the verge of surrender, its army no match for the German juggernaut. De Gaulle returned to Great Britain, and in an address to his countrymen broadcast across the channel by the BBC he stated, “France is not alone!” The collaborationist Vichy government charged de Gaulle with treason and condemned him to death. Unbowed, de Gaulle formed a government-in-exile force known as the Free French movement, which later became the Free French National Council.
Later, de Gaulle aligned himself with General Henri Giraud in French North Africa, where another freedom movement had developed, becoming copresident with Giraud of the French Committee of National Liberation. After the crafty de Gaulle was able to facilitate Giraud's departure, he became the leader of both the French Resistance movement in German-occupied France and the Free French in North Africa.
Shortly before the start of the Normandy invasion, de Gaulle demanded that his provisional government be declared the rightful government of all liberated areas in France. General Dwight Eisenhower was able to placate de Gaulle by promising not to accept any ruling government except de Gaulle's and by making de Gaulle supreme commander of the French armed forces. On August 26, 1944, a triumphant de Gaulle rode into newly liberated Paris behind French and American troops.
At the war's end, de Gaulle was elected interim president of the provisional government by a newly elected constitutional assembly. He tried desperately to make France a part of the postwar planning but was rebuffed by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin.
De Gaulle resigned as provisional president on January 20, 1946. He returned to politics in 1958 and was elected president of the newly created Fifth Republic under a revised constitution. He held the position until 1969, when he resigned after defeat in a national referendum. He retired to his estate in Colombey-les-deux-églises, where he worked on his memoirs until his death in 1970.