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Combat was one of the eight great resistance movements which constituted the Conseil national de la Résistance.
Combat, also known under its former name Mouvement de libération nationale (MLN), was active both in the unoccupied zone in southern France and in the occupied north.
Little by little, the MLN (subsequently renamed the Mouvement de Libération Française), merged with other smaller networks in the regions where it took root. On merging with the Liberté network at the end of 1941, the movement took on the name of Combat. At this point, however, Combat took a Gaullist approach, causing a split with other networks which tended towards Philippe Pétain. The break caused Combat's sources of information to be diminished somewhat. A satellite organization by the name of Combat-zone nord, was also created in the occupied zone, specifically in Paris. The organiser was Robert Guédon, called Robert. Combat-zone nord proved to be quite active, quickly growing its network into several regions of the occupied zone such as the Nord-Pas-de-Calais .
Among the initial Combat members planted in the occupied zone, there was an agent of the Abwehr, Henri Devillers, involved in linking and communications between the parts of the movement in the free and occupied zones. Jean-Paul Lien, another member of combat, learned about Devilliers' treachery by accident from two German agents. Lien alerted Henri Frenay, who had no power to stop Devilliers. 47 members of Combat were arrested, 31 by the Gestapo and 16 by the French police, of whom only two would be released. They were tried by the Volkgerichthof (people's tribunal) and 23 were sentenced to death; this was referred to as the affaire Continent. The movement was completely disbanded in the occupied zone between the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942. Frenay decided not to rebuild there but to concentrate all his efforts in the free zone. A new movement was born from the ashes of Combat-zone nord, Ceux de la Résistance, founded by Jacques Lecompte-Boinet.
Frenay also declined repeated offers to put himself at the service of the Deuxième Bureau of the Vichy Regime or of the Intelligence service of London, preferring to keep his independence and continue to fight for France alone rather than a foreign power.
In the beginning of summer 1942, another network called Carte, which was directly linked to the British Special Operations Executive and therefore better armed at that time than the other French networks in the free zone, took over two of Combat's groups on the Côte d'Azur. Frenay sent a message to the SOE asking them to stop taking his teams away from him. It did not happen again. This may have been due to the displeasure expressed by Frenay in his message, or alternatively to the invasion of the free zone by the Germans a few months later.
After the Allies landed in North Africa, the Germans invaded the free zone. This plunged Combat undercover, since they now had to deal with the well-organised Gestapo. Secrecy and security measures were reinforced. Messages were encrypted, rendezvous locations were specified by letters and generally were moved to outside Lyon, which became by degrees the capital of the French resistance. Arrests took place from February onwards, followed by escapes. Combat was infiltrated by Gestapo and Abwehr agents.
In January, the idea of amalgamating the three big resistance movements of the south (Combat, Libération et Franc-Tireur) gradually gained ground, culminating between February and March in Mouvements unis de la Résistance (MUR). The steering committee of each movement lost much of its importance. Combat was represented on the steering committee of the MUR by Frenay, who was also the commissioner on military affairs of the three networks. The press of the three movements remained independent, and Combat's newspaper continued to exist in its own right. Combat's structure was unchanged by its affiliation to the MUR; it retained a steering committee, and branches for political and military affairs among others.
Combat was led by a steering committee, over which Frenay permanently presided. In March 1943, the other five members were Georges Bidault, Claude Bourdet, Maurice Chevance, Alfred Coste-Floret, François de Menthon (former head of Liberté), et Pierre-Henri Teitgen. In January 1943, Combat contained a total of 14 specialised services and more than 100 permanent agents, paid by the network.
The network was split into four branches:
Initially Combat was mainly financed through gifts coming from all over France, solicited by Frenay from high-ranking members of society. This situation changed quickly, however, and soon most resources were provided from London, through the agency of Jean Moulin. At the beginning of 1943, the money received by Combat from London went up to five million Francs, of which Libération received 1.5 million, and Franc-Tireur, just under a million.
Moulin tried to separate the different activities of the network, particularly the information and the Choc (shock, heavy military operations), following directions given to him in London. He finally won his case when the MUR was created.
The activities of Combat originally revolved around the dispersal of information using secret newspapers. These pieces of information were provided to Frenay initially from army offices, then, after the disbandment of the French army, from the deuxième bureau of the Vichy regime. Combat quickly distanced itself from Vichy, after which information was gathered through various resistance groups with which Combat had links. These pieces of information fed into newspapers which were published from time to time. In the beginning Frenay mainly distributed bulletins in army offices; these bulletins stopped after the army broke up.
In the occupied zone, the newspaper Les Petites Ailes du Nord et du Pas-de-Calais (little wings of the North and Pas-de-Calais) appeared. In time it became Les Petites Ailes de France, then Résistance. In the free zone, an underground newspaper was established, modelled on Petites Ailes de France. Its name was Vérités (Truths). Vérité (Truth) had been considered for the name, but was judged too philosophical; according to Frenay, the truth was difficult, if not impossible to express. After the merger of Combat with Liberté, Vérités was scuttled and its place taken by a new newspaper bearing the name of the network, Combat.
Other small journals also saw the light of day, but gradually separated from the Combat movement. Examples are Veritas and the Catholic-oriented Cahiers du Témoignage Chrétien (Christian witness notebooks). These journals, particularly the important ones, contained propaganda articles against the Vichy regime, which revealed and criticised the actions of the government and state apparatus, as well as substantive pieces dealing with e.g. Nazism or collaboration. Frenay generally constructed the editorial of the Combat newspaper in person, until he joined de Gaulle in Algeria. The subtitle of the Combat newspaper was Organe du Mouvement de la Libération Française, accompanied by a quote from Georges Clemenceau: "Dans la guerre comme dans la paix, le dernier mot est à ceux qui ne se rendent jamais." (In war as in peace, the last word is theirs that never surrender). In 1943, a section Attentats (attacks) was added to the paper; it contained a list of the paramilitary operations of Combat.
The first issue of the Combat newspaper appeared in late 1941 in Lyon, with a press run of 10,000. André Bollier replaced Martinet, the initial printer for the movement. He distributed the printing across 14 presses in the free zone, thus reducing the need for transporting papers from Lyon, and allowing the run to be increased. In May 1944, the newspaper had a run of 250,000. Bollier was also responsible for printing Défense de la France (the future France-Soir), Action (a paper with communist sympathy), the first issues of Témoignage chrétien, and certain issues of the Franc-Tireur paper and La Voix du Nord.
Alongside the underground press activities, information was sent to London by circuitous routes. These operations were directed by Jean Gemahling, from Alsace. The Noyautage des administrations publiques (infiltration of public services) was also established, with the original aim of recruiting public figures who would be able to assure the return of the republic after the Vichy regime fell. However, the NAP gradually changed direction and allowing itself necessary cooperation with public services and the ability to obtain basic information about German army movements. The NAP-police were created, whose members would warn their comrades about forthcoming arrests. Another branch, the NAP-fer led by René Hardy, provided the Groupes Francs with schedules of German supply trains from 1943. The NAP also operated within the customs service.
The Groupes de Choc were set up, generally specializing in attacks against collaborators and shopkeepers who sold collaborationist papers like the Nazi magazine Signal (the shops of the latter were generally blown up). From 1942 onwards the GC gradually merged into the Armée secrète which was assimilating by degrees the various paramilitary groups of Combat, Libération and Franc-Tireur. This merging was encouraged by Frenay and Moulin, who wanted the operations of the GC remained separate from any intelligence and propaganda activities. For this reason, the leadership of the Armée Secrète was not conferred upon Frenay as he had initially wanted (his movement being more significant than the other two members of the MUR) but rather upon the division general Charles Delestraint, who was recruited by the chef de Combat.
The Sabotage and Maquis sections were added to the network in 1943.
Frenay put Jacques Renouvin in charge of mounting Groupes Francs, mobile armed squads, in each of the six regions covered by the network. They were organised in the Choc branch of the network. They worked independently of the Armée Secrète but in contact with it to organise their operations and provide intelligence.
The Groupes Frances organised their operations on their own initiative, following the general framework which was given them. They communicated the results of their operations to the steering committee.
Before November 1942, the operations of the Groupes Francs were similar to those of the Groups de Choc. They were responsible for obtaining their own arms from supply dumps or police posts, and making their own explosives or stealing them from mines.
After the German invasion of the free zone in November 1942, the Groups Francs changed their operations style. They were ordered to attack trains containing German soldiers or going to Germany, to sabotage railway lines, to destroy arms factories and dumps and to assassinate Gestapo agents. The GF were supplied and armed by Britain through parachute dumps which provided them with Sten guns, pistols, ammunition, explosives, grenades and other equipment.
The GF also organised escapes for captured resistance fighters such as that of Paul Reynaud (planned and prepared but never executed) and the successful escape of Berty Albrecht who was being held at the Lyon-Bron psychiatric hospital.
In January 1943, Jacques Renouvin, was arrested by the Gestapo getting off a train. He was held in Fresnes prison. A commando raid was mounted to free him but all its members were arrested. Renouvin was deported to Mauthausen concentration camp where he died. He was replaced as head of the GF by a member of Libération.
In 1943 the steering committee of Combat learned that refugees from the Service du travail obligatoire forced labour had fled to Haute-Savoie and the Maquis had been created in the mountainous massifs. The service Maquis was established in Combat's Military affairs branch with the aim of helping all those who had "taken the maquis" to survive and to fight, and of providing them lives and armaments, and of integrating them into Combat's network. While the objective for Combat was to develop, oversee and organise these armed groups, there were some divisions relating to this at the heart of the MUR; some, like Charles Delestraint, saw the Maquis as actual pockets of resistance within French territory, whereas others like Frenay saw them as armed bands operating by ambush and disappearing once their mission was accomplished.