Five friends and the English Prime Minister

On 22 September 1941, five young Frenchmen, together with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, sat in the garden of the house at 10 Downing Street. Accompanied by a mutual friend, the two pairs of brothers had been invited by the Prime Minister for lunch after spectacularly crossing the English Channel from France in a small rowing boat.

Following the blog post about the French national celebrations in London during the Second World War, this entry sheds light on the origins of the exiled French. The five Frenchmen dressed in knickerbockers and blue shirts in the garden at Downing Street were not the first refugees from France to cross the English Channel to the North. French migration to the British Isles had a long tradition preceeding the Second World War.

After the Bartholomew nights of 1572 and 1685, many Huguenots fled to Britain because they were religiously persecuted and murdered in France. The Alien Acts of 1793 were a reaction to French immigration following the 1789 Revolution and subsequent wars. Up to 40,000 Frenchmen are said to have fled to England in the autumn of 1792 alone. At the beginning of the 20th century many French went to Great Britain for economic reasons, where from the expiry of the Alien Acts in 1826 to 1905 there were practically no restrictions on migration. This short historical cross-section shows that even before the two world wars a French community had settled in England – especially in London – whose motivations for flight and igration differed.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, about 11,000 French lived in London: they were mostly characterized by anonymity and political disinterest. The French remained private and among themselves. This changed with the evacuations from Dunkerque and Narvik: the evacuated soldiers sought shelter with supposedly distant relatives and after armistice in June 1940 the British government questioned the loyalty of all French in Great Britain. Nicholas Atkin described this new heterogeneous and ambivalent French community in exile as “a disparate community comprised the following: refugees, albeit small in number; servicemen, principally sailors, marooned in Britain after the Franco-British Armistice; Vichyite representatives and consular officials; and a long established French colony, largely settled in London and South-East.” (1)

While the French exile community was publicly glorified as a unified group of de Gaulle’s resistance fighters, the British government and its secret services feared a fifth column under the actually very heterogeneous exile community. By the end of 1940, the repatriation of most of the French, who wanted to return to their homeland in order not to abandon their families or because they felt neither committed to de Gaulle nor to the Allies, was complete. Among them was an increasing number of soldiers who had been washed ashore the British coast from Dunkirk or Narvik as well as ambassadors and diplomats who recognized Vichy as the legitimate successor to the Third Republic.

Copyright: © IWM. 

The temporarily guarded beaches of the southern British coast subsequently again became popular moorings for small fishing boats again, such as that of the five French boys. When they arrived, fear of a fifth column were no longer an issue, nor were the Frenchmen held for questioning at the Royal Victoria Patriotic School (The Royal Victoria Patriotic School in Wandsworth was used during the Second World War and especially after the Compiegne Armistice for internment of French refugees. They were held there for up to 48 hours and interrogated to screen for possible spies).

Instead of clinked classes of champagne with the Prime Minister and his wife. Churchill even got carried away to a “Vivre la France” in his mediocre French – there seemed to be no doubt that the five boys of de Gaulles would join Free French Forces.

(1) Atkin, Nicholas, France in Exile. The French Community in Britain, 1940-1944, in: Conway, Martin / Gotovitch, José: Europe in Exile. European Exile Communities in Britain 1940-1945, New York 2001, S. 213.

(2)  Featured Image:
HMS Kelvin rescues escaped prisoners of war, ending five months of thrills and adventures. December 1940, on board HMS Kelvin. Eighteen men standing on the deck of a neutral cargo boat, cheered the Kelvin as it came to rescue them, and five months of adventures for thirteen of the eighteen rescued men. The thirteen were members of the 51st highland division who were captured in June 1940 during the German advance on the Somme. one night headed by their major, they escaped, eventually reaching Vichy where they somehow managed to obtain French military uniforms. from Vichy they made their way to the south of France, where they obtained uniforms of the foreign legion, together with forged papers, and got to Morocco where they were interned. They escaped again, reaching Casablanca, where they slipped aboard the Portuguese cargo vessel. Once at sea they declared themselves to the skipper, the ship continued on its journey to Portugal despite this. Fifteen miles out HMS Kelvin arrived at the scene and decided to investigate the ship, and took the men off along with two Frenchmen on their way to join general de Gaulle’s Free French Army, two British airmen, and one Austrian refugee . (A 2424) The whaler coming alongside the KELVIN. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205136801

Literature:

Atkin, Nicholas, The Forgotten French, Exils in British Isles, Manchester 2003.

Contet, Michèle / Contet, Jean-Paul, La France à Londres. Rennaissance d’un État (1940-193), Brüssel 1990.

Tombs, Robert / Chabal, Émile, Britain and France in two World Wars. Truth Myth and Memory, London 2013.

Steinert, Johannes-Dieter / Weber-Newt, Inge, European Immigrants in Britain 1933-1950, München 2003.


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