1944 Paris liberation artificially ‘whites only’

Paris victory parade, 1944

From the BBC:

Paris liberation made ‘whites only’

By Mike Thomson
Presenter, Document, BBC Radio 4

Many of the “French” division which led the liberation of Paris were Spanish

Papers unearthed by the BBC reveal that British and American commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944 was seen as a “whites only” victory.

Many who fought Nazi Germany during World War II did so to defeat the vicious racism that left millions of Jews dead.

Yet the BBC’s Document programme has seen evidence that black colonial soldiers – who made up around two-thirds of Free French forces – were deliberately removed from the unit that led the Allied advance into the French capital.

By the time France fell in June 1940, 17,000 of its black, mainly West African colonial troops, known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais, lay dead.

Many of them were simply shot where they stood soon after surrendering to German troops who often regarded them as sub-human savages.

Their chance for revenge came in August 1944 as Allied troops prepared to retake Paris. But despite their overwhelming numbers, they were not to get it.

‘More desirable’

The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted his Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.

Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle’s division must not contain any black soldiers.

In January 1944 Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, “confidential”: “It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.

“This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.”

At the time America segregated its own troops along racial lines and did not allow black GIs to fight alongside their white comrades until the late stages of the war.

Morocco division

Given the fact that Britain did not segregate its forces and had a large and valued Indian army, one might have expected London to object to such a racist policy.

Yet this does not appear to have been the case.

Charles de Gaulle wanted Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris

A document written by the British General, Frederick Morgan, to Allied Supreme Command stated: “It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco.

“Every other French division is only about 40% white. I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division.”

Finding an all-white division that was available proved to be impossible due to the enormous contribution made to the French Army by West African conscripts.

So, Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.

When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.

Pensions cut

In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish.

The British and Americans got their “Whites Only” Liberation even though many of the troops involved were North African or Syrian.

For France’s West African Tirailleurs Senegalais, however, there was little to celebrate.

Despite forming 65% of Free French Forces and dying in large numbers for France, they were to have no heroes’ welcome in Paris.

After the liberation of the French capital many were simply stripped of their uniforms and sent home. To make matters even worse, in 1959 their pensions were cut.

Former French colonial soldier, Issa Cisse from Senegal, who is now 87 years-old, looks back on it all with sadness and evident resentment.

“We, the Senegalese, were commanded by the white French chiefs,” he said.

“We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war. Forced to follow the orders that said, do this, do that, and we did. France has not been grateful. Not at all.”

Mike Thomson presents Radio 4’s Document at 2000BST on Monday 6 April.

See also here. And here. And here.

Race and the US military: here.

Anti-Semitism in World War II US armed forces: here.

Striking workers and the French Resistance rose up to free Paris from Nazi occupation in 1944—before allied troops arrived, author Matthew Cobb tells Sarah Ensor: here.

And the Show Went On. Robert Wilbur, Truthout: These two historical books on artistic life in Nazi-occupied Paris are relevant in their own right, but writings on cultural collaboration and collusion in that era of immense political upheaval are also timely today. After a failed Senate candidate entertained an invitation to appear on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and reports emerged that tax breaks funded one-third of the production costs of Sarah Palin’s reality television show, what better time to revisit the landscape of wartime Paris and the muddying effect the Armistice had on artistic life in a city known for its creative scene? Here.

Bill O’Reilly came out with a book about General George Patton without once mentioning that Patton was not only anti-Semitic, but very anti-Semitic: here.

13 thoughts on “1944 Paris liberation artificially ‘whites only’

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  8. 75 years ago: Protests against Jim Crow in the US military

    Segregated military police, Georgia, 1942

    On October 12, 1940, black leaders denounced US President Franklin Roosevelt for falsely claiming they had approved his policy of maintaining racial segregation in the armed forces.

    Roosevelt claimed that segregation in the military had “proven satisfactory” and asserted that a committee of black leaders had endorsed his policy, The committee of three, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and T. Arnold Hill and Walter White of the NAACP, called the White House statement a “trick.”

    They denounced the War Department policy that barred blacks from becoming officers, from learning skilled trades, from becoming pilots or serving in the marines, air corps, tank corps, signal corps, coast guard or chemical warfare service, and forcing blacks to serve in different units than whites. Despite their passing the same mental and physical tests as whites, blacks enlisting in the armed services were refused equal rights in choosing their branch of service.

    After three months of basic training, whites would automatically be given a raise in pay to $36 a month. Blacks were maintained for a full year at $21 a month, and even then there was no guarantee of a raise. The regimen of a black man in the military consisted of serving officers’ meals, cleaning their rooms, shining their shoes, cleaning their laundry and running errands. The duty of the black labor battalions was to dig trenches and latrines and build fortifications.

    One week before the denunciation of Roosevelt, 25 black naval mess attendants aboard the USS Philadelphia issued an open letter. It read in part, “With the treading on and kicking around we receive here, every last one of us becomes bitter … We sincerely hope to discourage any other colored boys from joining the Navy and making the same mistake we did. All they would become is sea-going bell hops, chamber maids and dish washers.”



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