The French secret services during World War II

The French secret services during World War II

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Quickly defeated in June 1940, France played, on a strictly military level, a relatively secondary role in the war of 1939-1945. But in the little-known field of intelligence, the important role of resistance networks, Gaullist services but also Vichy, is gradually starting to be reassessed. The recent publication of Yves Bonnet's book is therefore an opportunity to take stock of this question.

World War II: An Intelligence War

We must first of all recall the primordial influence of the Second World War in the evolution of the structures of intelligence services and in the strategic use of intelligence. The role of what the Anglo-Saxons call intelligence in wars is not however new: the war of 1914-1918, as Yves Bonnet rightly points out, is already a war in which we understand that intelligence, interception of communications, clandestine actions and intoxication can have an impact on the course of the conflict. The interwar period was marked in particular by a very intense secret war between France and Germany: the French services took care in particular to be informed of the state of the German army, and closely monitored its progressive rearmament. On the other hand, France had to face the activities of the great totalitarian states of the interwar period: Italy, Nazi Germany, and the USSR. The war, during which the acquisition of information became more and more urgent, thus saw the confrontation of better and better structured services, and in the process of professionalization: the Intelligence Service of the British, the Abwehr, the SD and the Gestapo on the German side, the OSS of the Americans. And France in all of this?

The break-up of the French secret services

For the French intelligence world, the Second World War was a period of bursting of intelligence services, because of the deep divisions that fractured France, torn between the Vichy regime and the Free France of General de Gaulle. However, in 1939, France had a solid intelligence structure, the organization of which was gradually established during the Third Republic, and crystallized on the eve of the First World War. It is based on a division of tasks between the army and the police, even if it is the military institution that retains the primacy over the general orientation of research and therefore dominates this structure.

Within the army, the intelligence mission is carried out by the Second Bureau, with, within it, the SR-SCR, headed by Colonel Louis Rivet. The SR, Intelligence Section, is responsible for the organization of espionage abroad, a service which proved to be very effective in this capacity during the secret struggles against Germany in the 1930s.

As for the counter-espionage missions, this is based on a division of tasks between the SCR - Central Intelligence Section, an organ created during the Great War and attached to the 2nd office of the army - and Territorial Surveillance, an organ policeman dependent on the National Security.

As soon as war is declared, the entire intelligence system is headed by a 5th office, responsible for centralizing all intelligence. It is, clearly, the military who control the secret services which are very active and effective during the first months of the war: they foresee in particular the imminence of a German invasion by the Ardennes. Alas! The General Staff ignored this information, which turned out to be very accurate, when in May 1940, the trees of the Ardennes forest were crushed by the caterpillars of General Guderian's tanks. On June 22, 1940, the armistice was signed: by virtue of the agreements with Hitler, the secret services will have to be dissolved; in reality, they will go underground.

The BCRA, the secret services of Free France and the Resistance

From London, General de Gaulle called on the French, on June 18, 1940, not to give up and to continue the fight. Intelligence will quickly become a crucial issue for General de Gaulle, both to keep close contact with networks and resistance movements, and on the other hand, in order to maintain his autonomy vis-à-vis the Allies, by keeping its own sources of information. For this purpose, the Second Bureau attached to the man of June 18, was transformed, in January 1942, into a Central Bureau of Intelligence and Military Action. André Dewavrin, known as “Colonel Passy”, takes the head of this heterogeneous service, made up of both soldiers and civilians who, for the most part, are real amateurs in the field of intelligence.

Became BCRA in September 1942, its mission is twofold: it must gather information on the evolution of the situation in France, and on the other hand, provide support to the resistance fighters from within, in order to make them accept the supervision of the General de Gaulle. The BCRA is therefore designed as a real instrument, aimed at ensuring the political legitimacy of the leader of Free France. The example of the Jade-Fitzroy network is a good illustration of the Gaullists' progressive stranglehold on the Resistance. Created by a young Mauritian, Claude Lamirault, this network covering the whole of France provided the Intelligence Service with a lot of information on the organization of the defense of the French coasts by the Wehrmacht, as well as on the V1 and V2 rockets. Three types of agents were affiliated with this network: the post-war classification identifies P0 agents, who provided occasional help; P1 agents providing regular assistance; P2 agents had signed a commitment and were paid for their actions. Attracted by the prestige of the Intelligence Service, these agents received radio equipment by air or sea, and were sometimes assisted by British agents. Finally, the network came under the control of the BCRA during the landing in June 1944, reflecting the place acquired by the Gaullist services in the coordination of networks: out of 255 Resistance networks, the BCRA controlled 101 in 1944.

Putting Resistance movements under tutelage is more complex, due to the political ambition nurtured by several movement leaders. However, after the passage of Jean Moulin in 1942, then the formation of the United Resistance Movements at the beginning of 1943, cooperation between the movements and the BCRA seems assured. On the strength of its networks, the BCRA thus constituted an important link in the collection of information for the preparation of the Allied landing in Normandy, as illustrated by the “Bibendum” plan, orchestrated by the BCRA in June 1944, which by acts of sabotage of the lines of communication, contributed to slow down the march of the German reinforcements towards Normandy.

The ambivalent role of Vichy services

From the free zone, and with the consent of the Vichy regime, new intelligence apparatuses were discreetly put in place, composed largely by the same personnel as the SR-SCR. The Bureau des Menées Antinationales - which will last until March 1942 - is the new counter-espionage service; he is assisted by an underground service, “Travaux Ruraux”, directed by Commander Paul Paillole and located in Marseilles. Within the police, the tracking of opponents and the monitoring of opinions is entrusted to a new direction of the RG.

While the Vichy regime was increasingly engaging in a collaborationist policy, the Vichy services did not however maintain such cordial relations with their German counterparts. The latter did not stop spying on the Vichy regime: the Abwehr and the Gestapo, maintaining an unbounded rivalry, ensure that the Vichy regime did not take advantage of the armistice in order to reconstitute a military force. Trying to infiltrate the Vichy administration, the German services also hope to deal a blow to the Allies' reconnaissance on French territory and to facilitate the economic plunder of France. For money, out of sympathy for Nazism or by interpretation of Vichy propaganda, the motivations which pushed some French people to work for the German services were diverse.

For Colonel Louis Rivet and Commander Paul Paillole, who take care to preserve the national honor and the integrity of the territory, it is out of the question to let the German agents act so easily in the Free Zone. Simon Kiston's work has clearly shown the efforts made by these new Vichy services in order to stem German espionage: infiltration of German organizations, eavesdropping and interception, surveillance of collaborationist circles clearly reflect the motivation of the men of Vichy intelligence. Sign of this intense activity, 2000 German agents were arrested from June 1940 to November 1942; several were executed.

However, the young services that are the “Rural Works” and the BMAs find themselves in a situation of overhang, having at the same time the mission to fight against the German spies but also the allied agents, the resistance fighters, the communists. and the Gaullists, and had to act, in secret, against the official position of the Vichy regime vis-à-vis Germany. If Yves Bonnet explains - probably relying a lot on the memories of former TR and BMA - this secret fight against the German agents by a spirit of resistance which animated Paillole, Rivet and their men, Kitson considers that he For Vichy, it was a question of maintaining administrative and territorial sovereignty vis-à-vis Germany and keeping a state monopoly in collaboration with the Nazis. The invasion of the free zone at the end of 1942, however, put an end to this original experience, during which Vichy tried, through its special services, to maintain the illusion of territorial sovereignty.

Towards the merger of services

The invasion of the free zone causes a withdrawal of the men of the former TR and BMA towards North Africa, animated by the desire to continue the fight. They had also played a non-negligible role in promoting Allied operations in Tunisia.

For the former men of Vichy intelligence, it is now a question of showing the legitimacy of their actions, in order to find favor in the eyes of General de Gaulle, who is gradually winning, but not without difficulty, against General Giraud. All the more so as Paillole still has a network of agents within France. Not without friction, the giraudist services, made up of officers and intelligence professionals, merged with the services of Free France, the BCRA, and formed a new service: the DGSS (General Directorate of Special Services). If France only played a secondary role in the fighting, it ensured, thanks to this new, more efficient service, a central role in the transmission of information with a view to the Allied landing in June 1944.

The French intelligence landscape is therefore very rich and complex during the Second World War. A means for Vichy to secure the illusion of territorial sovereignty, and an instrument for General de Gaulle in order to obtain legitimacy both in France and vis-à-vis the Allies, it is undeniable that intelligence took on new significance during World War II.

Should we read Yves Bonnet's book?

For several years, historians - Olivier Forcade, Sébastien Laurent for the French case - have been increasingly interested in the question of intelligence, making it possible to focus on intelligence structures, the role of secret services in international politics. and their relations with the political world.

Yves Bonnet's book, "The Secret Services During World War II", is a work of synthesis, largely dependent - even if it does not mention it, due to the absence of bibliography - on the memoirs of former members of the Vichy services. This helps to give a somewhat outdated vision, not really in tune with Kitson's work on the Vichy services, which, of course, fought against the German spies, but also against the Communists and the Gaullists. However, the memories of former members of the Vichy services - such as Paul Paillole - have sometimes been able to amplify the efforts made against the Germans, and mitigate the repression against Gaullists and Communists. This work is nonetheless interesting. First of all, because Yves Bonnet knows the environment very well: he is very comfortable with the subject, which makes reading very simple and pleasant. His committed, sometimes lyrical writing, punctuated by numerous crisp stories, sometimes lends a literary tone to his work. It therefore constitutes a passionate and fascinating introduction to the history of the secret services.

The French Secret Service in World War II, by Yves Bonnet. West France Editions, 2013.

For a more scientific approach to the question, you can refer to the following bibliography.


- ALBERTELLI Sébastien, The secret services of General de Gaulle, the BCRA 1940-1944, Perrin, 2009
- FORCADE Olivier, La République Secrète: History of the French Special Services from 1918 to 1939, Editions Nouveau Monde, 2008
- FORCADE Olivier, LAURENT Sébastien, Secrets of State. Powers and intelligence in the contemporary world, Armand Colin, 2005
- KITSON Simon, Vichy et la Chasse aux Spies Nazis, 1940-1942, Complexités de la politique de Collaboration, Editions Autrement, 2005RIVET Louis, Carnet du chef des services secrets, annotated and presented by S. Laurent and O. Forcade, Paris, New World Editions, 2010

Video: Secret Secretaries WW2 Documentary. Timeline


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  2. Goran


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