“Note Pour L’Admiral Stark.”

A document recently surfaced in the course of yet another NDC special project called PAIR–a note that speaks to a little-noticed aspect of World War II that involved one of the war’s higher-profiled participants, Général de brigade Charles de Gaulle.

PAIR (Pre-ADRRES Indexing Review)

This NDC special project has been in operation since around 2015 and came about from the realization that declassification projects completed prior to the automation of NARA’s College Park declassification project (about 2002) had no visibility within the NDC’s current declassification system–the Archival Declassification Review and Redaction System (ADRRES).  The decision was made to embark on the difficult task of re-examining documents that had been reviewed prior to 2002 and subsequently withdrawn from the original series under the applicable Presidential Executive Order of the day.  The intent behind initiating PAIR is to put fresh eyes on older classified information with the hope that there was no longer the need to withhold the documents from the public.

We are now beginning to see some of the fruits of this renewed labor.  The PAIR team has focused on getting the oldest documents out first, so the bulk of “new finds” are from the World War II era, hence the origin of the document of today’s post.

“Unnecessary Losses”

Jennifer Halpern, an NDC archives specialist whose team is working the PAIR project (and who helped me with the writing of this blog entry–thank you), brought an unusual document to my attention whose addressee requires a little explanation, but whose author does not.  Addressed to Admiral Harold R. Stark, United States Naval Forces in Europe, 20 Grosvenor Square W.I., the three-page letter accompanied by a three-page note is covered by a short transmittal memo dated 11 December 1942.  The letterhead on the memo  reads: “Etat-Major Particulier du Général de Gaulle, Le Chef d’Etat-Major, 4, Carlton Gardens, S.W.I., Whitehall 5444”.

The letter touches on a subject that was close to the heart of the inhabitants of wartime metropolitan France–the British and American bombing of French industrial, railway, and maritime targets during America’s first full year of the war.  General de Gaulle stated the fact that the French population understood the need for the air offensive and recognized the efforts of both the Royal Air Force (RAF) and U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) to keep French civilian casualties at a minimum; however, de Gaulle also pointed out that the losses both in lives, in injuries and in homes was taking a heavy toll on the French people.

La majorité de la population française, avec un esprit de sacrifice exemplaire reconnait la nécessite de raids aériens. Néanmoins je vous demande de bien vouloir attirer l’attention du Commandement Américain sur le fait que trop souvent un nombre important Français sont tués ou blessés et nombre considérable d’immeubles d’habitation détruits au cours des raids. ( The majority of the French population, with its spirit of remarkable sacrifice, recognizes the necessity of air raids. Nevertheless, I ask that you would draw American Command’s attention to the fact that too often a rather large number of French are killed or injured, and a considerable number of residential buildings are destroyed in the course of these raids.)

De Gaulle’s proposed solution was to have the Fighting French (interestingly, he uses the term “la FRANCE COMBATTANTE”) assist with the British and American bombing campaigns as those forces had the latest information on targets best selected to hurt the German war effort.  In addition, de Gaulle wanted a means by which the French population could be warned in time to take shelter from these attacks in order to spare lives.  From the letter:

  1. Un examen préalable des programmes de bombardement et des points à bombardier, en tenant compte des renseignements très complets de constamment à jour que possède la France Combattante sur l’industrie française et les secteurs dans lesquels son activité est particulièrement utile à l’Allemagne. (A preliminary assessment of the bombing schedules and locations, that the Fighting French have complete and up-to-date intelligence on French industry and sectors in which its activity is particularly useful to Germany.)

  2. Une mise au point en commun des moyens susceptibles de permettre à la population française de se mettre à l’abri en temps utile et dans la mesure du possible, ce qui permettrait enfin de limiter au minimum les pertes de vies humaines françaises résultant de ces bombardements. (A common means of permitting the French population to shelter in enough time, and to the extent possible, would ultimately minimize the loss of human French lives resulting from these bombings.)

De Gaulle also points out that the French workers of the cities under attack, however strong their resistance to German occupation and acceptance of the necessity of destruction in war, would be convinced that the air attacks met with de Gaulle’s approval.  Any collateral damage caused by the RAF and USAAF in the course of these raids shook both the morale and trust of  people of France

Ce contact apparait d’ailleurs indispensible du point de vue psychologique, car les ouvriers français qui résistent, avec une vigeur particulière, sont évidemment persuadés que de tels bombardements sont exécutés en plein accord avec le Général de Gaulle. (Moreover, this contact would be essential from a psychological standpoint, because the French workers who resist, with a particular force, are clearly convinced that such bombings are executed in full agreement with General de Gaulle.)

The actual three page note, for which de Gaulle’s letter is the introduction, bears the classification “TRES SECRET” and is dated London, 29 November 1942.  The first part of the note lists five recent targets of air attacks: Fives-Lille, Creusot, Brest, Lorient, and Rouen.  Both Fives-Lille and Creusot were home to heavy manufacturing industries, Brest and Lorient were homeports to German U-boat flotillas attacking Allied shipping in the North Atlantic, and Rouen had a large railroad yard that was key to transportation in northwest France.  All of these cities were within easy flying distance of airfields in Great Britain, so all were frequent targets of Britain’s Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942.

Bombs’ eye view of 8th Air Force Mission 15, German sub pens at Lorient on 10/21/1942.  Only 15 B-17s of the 107 bombers dispatched bombed the target due to clouds, 3 B-17s were lost on this mission


The second part of the note contains direct observations of damage to French cities that had been recently couriered to London.  For example, information dated 15 September 1942 has this to say about a bombing raid on the Potez aircraft factory in the city of Meaulte:

Le bombardement de l’usine POTEZ de MEAULTE à la fin d’août a complètement manqué son but…..Des maisons d’habitation on été touchées tandis que l’usine Potez de Meaulte est intacte. (The bombardment of the Potez factory in Meaulte at the end of August completely missed its target….Residential houses were hit while the Potez  plant in Meaulte is intact.)

This report is reference to U.S. Eighth Air Force Mission 7, actually flown on 28 August 1942.  11 B-17s of the VIII Bomber Command’s 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy) bombed the Potez aircraft plant located in the town of Meaulte in northwest France. No aircraft are lost, but one U.S. airman was killed, the first combat death in the Eighth Air Force.  When contrasted with the missions flown later in the war that saw hundreds and thousands of B-17s and B-24’s participate over the coming three years, these early bombing missions easily show the inexperience of the courageous aircrews.  The number of bombers on Mission 7 was far too low to have a significant effect on the Potez factory, which would indeed be the target for a number of future attacks–two more in 1942 and one in 1943.

B-17E 41-2578 “Butcher Shop” assigned to 340th Bombardment Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy), RAF Polebrook, August 1942

The attached note also points out that German forces would exploit the France’s depleting morale over the Allied bombings of schools, homes and hospitals for propaganda, a common tactic, and de Gaulle saw the threats to metropolitan French support and resistance adding up.   De Gaulle wanted something that the Allies could not provide at the time: specific information on targets to avoid unnecessary losses. The general had every right to be concerned about the results of an ever-intensifying bombing campaign conducted by two nominally Allied powers and this was an impossible order given the current capabilities of Allied aircraft bombers seeking German targets in France.

At the time of this correspondence, the Allies had just pushed their way onto the African continent during Operation TORCH earlier in November 1942.  De Gaulle realized that TORCH was only one step in the direction of liberating continental Europe, and that there would be more widespread and destructive bombing as Allied air power gained strength.  However, the idea that the RAF and USAAF would consult with the French prior to planning their raids was simply not practical, as was the noble, if not naive idea of providing the French populace with enough warning of the raids to allow them to take shelter.  The risks of providing such operational information to a country under enemy occupation were simply too high, especially as both British and American bomber losses were beginning to rise.

It is easy to see that the loss of civilian lives and property to Allied bombing struck a harsh chord with de Gaulle.  However, why did his letter go to a senior American naval officer who did not command the American bombing effort?  To answer that question, one needs to examine the complicated political situation of France in 1942.

The Politics of France June 1940 – November 1942

The surrender of France to Germany, embodied in the armistice between the two nations on 22 June 1940, shocked Great Britain and the United States.  The armistice ended the armed conflict between German and French military forces, set up a German-occupied zone in northern France, and also established what was known as the État Français, or French state.  The rest of the world knew surrendered France as Vichy France, named after the wartime French capital located in the unoccupied zone of France.  All of the traditional trappings of state still existed in Vichy France, despite the fact that Vichy’s appointed leader, Field Marshal Phillipe Pétain, assumed dictatorial powers on 10 July 1940 when the French National Assembly voted to dissolve itself.  Despite questions about the legitimacy of that vote, many nations, including Great Britain and the United States, nontheless maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy France.

Although General de Gaulle broadcast an appeal to his countrymen to continue the fight against Germany as early as 18 June 1940, de Gaulle did not quickly rally French forces to his colors.  Few French who managed to escape to England after the armistice actually joined de Gaulle’s Free French Forces.  Free French military strength grew after the garrisons of some French colonies in Africa, enough strength to conduct small military operations (Battle of Gabon, French Equatorial Africa, November 1940; capture of Kufra, Italian Libya, February 1941; occupation of St. Pierre and Miquelon, Cabot Strait, Canada, December 1941, and others).  The growing Free French military strength, along with this string of military success, enabled the establishment of Comité national français (CNF), the French National Committee, in London in September 1941.  This step was important, as there was suddenly another French political body claiming to represent France besides Vichy.  The United States seemingly granted some recognition of the CNF by granting it eligibility to receive Lend-Lease support in November 1941.

General de brigade Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Fighting French

However, de Gaulle’s relationship with the United States struggled.  Even the declaration of war by Germany on the United States in December 1941 did not bring U.S. recognition of Vichy France to an end.  It took the invasion of North Africa in early November 1942 (Operation TORCH) to terminate U.S. recognition.  Meanwhile the U.S. struggled to identify the French leader with whom the Roosevelt Administration wished to engage.  Charles de Gaulle was not the first choice, being seen as representing only a small fraction of the French people.  French leaders located in North Africa were seen as possibilities; however, all were tainted by their association with the Vichy regime.  So during November 1942, General de Gaulle’s status was up in the air.  He could not be ignored, but neither could he be fully acknowledged as the liberator of France as the time for that liberation approached.

Why Stark?

So the question to be answered is why General de Gaulle address a letter concerning a very sensitive subject to Admiral Harold R. Stark?  Normally a French Army general would have little business with a U.S. Navy admiral.  However the story of this piece of correspondence uncovers a little-known aspect of World War II intra-Allied politics.

Admiral Harold R. Stark, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, on board USS South Dakota (BB-57), Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland,  May-July 1943

Harold Stark occupied a unusual military position in the American chain of command in Europe, partially due to his interesting background.  Stark had been promoted as the most senior officer in the U.S. Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), in August 1939, just as World War II was beginning.  Still in office two years later, it was Stark who had charge of the Navy during the run up to Pearl Harbor.  Relieved as CNO by Admiral Ernest J. King in March 1942, Stark moved to London during the next month to take charge of the U.S. naval forces being mustered for the campaigns against Germany and Italy.  Unlike his CNO predecessors who continued to serve in the Navy as more junior admirals after leaving the CNO job, Stark retained his four stars as a full admiral.  Headquartered in London, Stark was by far the most senior American military officer in Europe at that time–his U.S. Army counterpart commanded the European Theater of Operations–U.S. Army (ETOUSA) and was only a major general.  At the time, there was no overall U.S. commander of the European Theater.

To answer this question about Stark’s relationship with de Gaulle, I am grateful to have found a 1968 doctoral thesis by LCDR Benjamin Mitchell Simpson III, written for the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California entitled “Political Consultations Between the United States and the French National Committee, 1942-1943–The Embassy of Admiral Harold R. Stark”  (https://archive.org/details/politicalconsult00simp).  In his work, Simpson explains that the U.S. State Department took great pains not to deal with General de Gaulle directly, given the Roosevelt Administration’s difficulties in recognizing a viable French leader outside the Vichy regime along with their intense dislike of de Gaulle personally.  However, the presence of the CNF in London required that some sort of U.S.- CNF coordination exist, especially as the U.S. was planning to operate on French colonial soil during Operation Torch.  De Gaulle could not be kept at arms’ length any more.

Simpson found that the State Department established an elaborate means to deal with the de Gaulle problem.  The Army and the Navy appointed representatives to act as points of contact for the CNF.  For the Army, Brigadier General Charles L. Bolte, the chief of staff for ETOUSA, became that representative.  Bolte’s Navy counterpart would be Admiral Stark.  The unusual aspect of these appointments was that their portfolios covered not only military issues with the CNF.  The State Department, through its London embassy, made it clear that the two would deal with de Gaulle for all matters,  not just military ones.  If the CNF raised political issues with the two military officers, then Stark and Bolte would have to seek counsel from the U.S. Embassy.

Simpson’s research also determined that, although Army and Navy representatives were supposed to share this coordination responsibility together, the reality of the situation was that Stark assumed the primary role for dealing with de Gaulle.  In fact, the Army appointed two different successors to General Bolte, with one as junior as a colonel.  Thus almost all U.S. coordination with the CNF passed through Admiral Stark.  The subject of this post, the 2 December 1942 letter from de Gaulle to Stark falls strictly into the military coordination role, and it was appropriately addressed to the admiral.

According to Simpson, de Gaulle and Stark got along quite well until de Gaulle left for his new headquarters in Algiers during May 1943.  Stark seems to be one of the few Americans that de Gaulle would deal with.  Until de Gaulle’s departure, Stark served to keep the Free French-American relationship in as best a shape as he could.

And as for the purpose of de Gaulle’s letter, the general’s suggestions fell on fallow ground.  The Eighth Air Force’s raids of 1942 gave no hint of the extent to which the Allied bombing effort in Europe would go.  The Allied strategic bombing campaign developed in distinct phases from 1942 to 1945 with steady changes in tactics and target types.  By 1944, the bombers were going after French transportation targets, airfields, and V-weapon launch sites in raids that numbered hundreds of bombers.  The impending invasion of Europe also brought in the activities of tactical air forces whose medium bombers and fighter-bombers scoured the French countryside in search of targets.  The French civilian casualties of all these attacks numbered in the tens of thousands, a far cry from the relatively small numbers of casualties mentioned in de Gaulle’s note.

De Gaulle’s offer of Allied coordination with “la FRANCE COMBATTANTE” was also a bit of a reach in December 1942.  The general actually held under his military control Free French Forces that consisted of the few soldiers, sailors, and airmen who rallied to him in England in the wake of France’s surrender in June 1940 along with isolated garrisons in Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific.  His relationship with the Vichy forces in North Africa had not been established by early December 1942.  De Gaulle did not formally unite his Free French Forces with the Vichy French units in North Africa until May 1943.  And it was certain that de Gaulle controlled none of the various Resistance groups located in metropolitan France–that measure of control would elude him even after he stepped back into his homeland in the wake of the Normandy invasion.

So we can put General de Gaulle’s letter in the context of the times.  He used the letter to show to the highest American authority he could reach at the time–Admiral Stark–that he spoke for all France.  Only through him would the RAF and USAAF get the information needed to cripple German use of French industry and infrastructure.  And de Gaulle, in speaking to the highest American authority, was looking to protect the French people from the harm of Allied bombing raids, whether those citizens took him to be their leader or not.  Unfortunately liberation would come for France after two more years of air attacks, and only with a very steep price in lives and property.

To see the entire 7-page document, please go here:



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