Author Jean-Pierre Azema, a leading World War II historian, said de Gaulle’s now-revered appeal on June 18, 1940, went almost unnoticed at the time and came from a man not at all seen as destined to lead the country out of its darkest hour, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
All eyes on were not on de Gaulle, but Marshal Philippe Petain, the World War I hero.
“De Gaulle then was seen as an emigrant, a divisive figure who had left France,” Azema said. “‘The man of the hour was Petain, a World War I hero whom history would remember as a collaborationist. Very few people heard the appeal because millions of French refugees were fleeing in exodus. On the road, they had other things to do than listen to the BBC.”
“Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and will not be extinguished,” de Gaulle said in his speech, a day after Petain had announced plans for an armistice with the German invaders.
“A few newspapers in the provinces published the appeal but it was lumped in with other news, including that of another speech, that of Philippe Petain,” Azema said.
Petain on June 17, 1940, announced the French surrender in his appeal, saying “It is with a heavy heart that I say to you today that the fighting must stop.” That appeal was welcomed with relief by a majority of the French.
It took the Nazis just six weeks to invade and defeat France in the spring of 1940. It was a stunning victory for the Axis power and a staggering defeat for the Allies.
On the same day that Petain made his capitulation speech, de Gaulle had been sent to London to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whom Azema describes as the true visionary of the time, according to Agence France-Presse.
“The man who decided, the man of destiny, was not de Gaulle, but Churchill,” he said, recalling that on June 18, Churchill delivered a rousing speech to the House of Commons as Britain appeared to stand alone against the Nazis.
“De Gaulle became a man of history because one man chose him, gave him access to the BBC and overcame resistance from the war cabinet and that man was Churchill,” Azema said.
The British war cabinet had initially turned down de Gaulle’s request to use the BBC to broadcast to France, but Churchill convinced his ministers to reverse their decision.