The Man Who Said 'Non': Exiled in London in June 1940, with France on the Brink of Defeat, Charles De Gaulle Broadcast a Speech That Was to Create an Enduring Bond between Him and His Country

By Fenby, Jonathan | History Today, June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Said 'Non': Exiled in London in June 1940, with France on the Brink of Defeat, Charles De Gaulle Broadcast a Speech That Was to Create an Enduring Bond between Him and His Country


Fenby, Jonathan, History Today


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The morning of June 18th, 1940 was a moment of intense concentration for both Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. In Whitehall, the prime minister was putting the final touches to his great 'Blood, Sweat and Tears' speech given to the Commons later that day. Across central London, in a small flat off Park Lane lent to him by a French officer, the two-star general, who had flown out of France the previous day as its government sought an armistice with the advancing German troops, scrawled the text of a broadcast address calling on the French people not to abandon the struggle against the Nazi invaders.

De Gaulle's speech was the result of an offer made by Churchill for him to speak to France on the BBC. It would go down as perhaps de Gaulle's most celebrated statement--l'Appel du 18 juin--and the date would become an iconic anniversary for him and his country. The broadcast that evening by the 49-year-old general would form the foundation of what grew into Gaullism and propelled him to the leadership of his nation. It marked him out as 'the man who said no' and fulfilled his sense of historic destiny at a moment when the political establishment caved in to defeat and completed the collapse of the Third Republic that had ruled France for six and a half decades. But the historic broadcast, to be commemorated this month by President Sarkozy during a state visit to Britain, nearly did not take place.

The British Cabinet met that morning without Churchill who was busy with his speech. The Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, mentioned that de Gaulle was planning to talk on the BBC that evening and gave an outline of what the Frenchman planned to say. The Cabinet decided that the broadcast would be 'undesirable'. Britain was still hoping to maintain a relationship with the new government set up in Bordeaux under the First World War hero, Marshal Petain, to avoid it siding with the Germans. Churchill was particularly anxious to ensure that the powerful French fleet did not fall into Nazi hands.

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Unaware of this, de Gaulle worked on his text with a pen dipped into an inkwell. He then went to lunch with Duff Cooper, who did not tell him of the Cabinet decision. But Cooper did tip off Edward Spears, a general who had been Churchill's personal envoy to the previous French government and had brought de Gaulle to England in his plane the day before. Spears went to see Churchill in the afternoon to argue that the general should go ahead with his broadcast because it would give French resistance a focus and might induce the remnants of France's air force to fly to Britain. The prime minister replied that he would authorise the broadcast if members of the Cabinet would change their minds. Looking 'miserable and hot; according to an eyewitness, Spears set off to speak to the ministers individually.

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As he did so, de Gaulle returned to Mayfair to complete the final draft of his speech. When he had finished he gave it to Elisabeth de Meribel, a member of the French economic mission in London, who typed it up on a portable typewriter and assisted in deciphering the general's angular handwriting and the many changes made by Geoffroy Chodron de Courcel, de Gaulle's aide-de-camp.

'Consulted one by one, Cabinet members agreed that de Gaulle should be authorised to speak,' according to a note added to the record of the earlier decision. In the early evening, wearing a uniform with leggings and polished boots, the Frenchman took a taxi to BBC Broadcasting House near Oxford Circus.

France in meltdown

It was only 13 days since de Gaulle, the career soldier, had come to general public notice after being appointed as deputy minister of defence in the government headed by the conservative politician Paul Reynaud, who himself held the defence portfolio. …

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