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François Darlan

François Darlan
François Darlan 1942 USA-MTO-NWA-p266.jpg
Darlan in Algiers, 13th November 1942.
81st Prime Minister of France
(as Vice-President of the Council)
Head of State and nominal Head of Government : Philippe Pétain
In office
9 February 1941 – 18 April 1942
Preceded by Pierre Étienne Flandin
Succeeded by Pierre Laval
Personal details
Born Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan
7 August 1881
Nérac, France
Died 24 December 1942(1942-12-24) (aged 61)
Algiers, French Algeria
Military service
Allegiance  French Third Republic
 Vichy France
Service/branch  French Navy
Years of service 1902–1942
Rank Admiral of the Fleet

Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan (7 August 1881 – 24 December 1942) was a French Admiral and political figure. He was Admiral of the Fleet and commander in chief of the French Navy in 1939 at the beginning of World War II. After France capitulated to Nazi Germany in 1940, Darlan served in the pro-German Vichy regime, becoming its deputy leader for a time. When the Allies invaded French North Africa in 1942, Darlan was the highest-ranking officer there, and a deal was made, giving him control of North African French forces in exchange for joining their side. Less than two months later he was assassinated.


Darlan was born in Nérac, Lot-et-Garonne, to a family with a long connection with the French Navy. His great-grandfather was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.[1] He graduated from the École Navale in 1902. During World War I he commanded an artillery battery that took part in the Battle of Verdun.[2] He remained in the French Navy after the war, and was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1929 and Vice Admiral in 1932. Darlan was made an Admiral in 1936 and Chief of Staff from 1 January 1937. In 1939 he was promoted to Amiral de la flotte, a rank created specifically for him, and given command of the French Navy.[1]

Vichy government

After Axis forces defeated France (May-June 1940), Philippe Pétain formed a new government (16 June 1940), which surrendered to Germany (22 June 1940) but retained control of the territories of "Vichy France" - a German satellite state. Darlan adhered to the Pétain administration which moved to Vichy; he served as the Minister of Marine from 16 June. The terms of the armistice called for the demobilisation and disarmament of the ships of the French Navy under German supervision in their home ports (mostly in the German-occupied zone). As the British prime minister Winston Churchill pointed out, this meant that French warships would be fully armed when they came under German control. But Darlan (who before he joined the Petain government had promised Churchill that no French ship would ever come into the hands of the Germans)[3]:62 ordered all ships then in the Atlantic ports (which Germany would soon occupy) to steam to French overseas possessions, out of the Germans' reach.[3]:139-40

Despite Darlan's assurance to Churchill, Churchill had remained concerned that Darlan might be overruled by the politicians, and this concern was not allayed by Darlan becoming a government minister himself. Darlan repeatedly refused British requests to place the whole fleet in British custody (or in the French West Indies), and in attempts to get the British to release French warships gave a version of the armistice terms inconsistent with what the British knew from other sources to be the case. British lack of confidence that Darlan was being straight with them (one government adviser minuted that he had 'turned crook like the rest')[3]:149 and that even if honest he could deliver on his promise led to Operation Catapult, when British forces attacked and destroyed part of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in North Africa (3 July 1940). Thereafter, French forces loyal to Vichy (most of them under Darlan's command) fiercely resisted British moves into French territory, and sometimes cooperated with German forces. However, as Darlan had promised, no capital ships fell into German hands, and only three destroyers and a few dozen submarines and smaller vessels passed into German control.[3] :141-2

Darlan expected Germany to win the war and saw it as to France's advantage to collaborate with Germany. He distrusted the British, and after the armistice of June 1940 he seriously considered waging a naval war against Britain. As a top official in the Vichy government, Darlan repeatedly offered Hitler active military cooperation against Britain. Hitler, however, distrusted France and wanted it to remain neutral during his planned attack on the Soviet Union. By 1941 Darlan had become Pétain's most trusted associate. In February 1941 Darlan replaced Pierre-Étienne Flandin as "Vice President of the Council" (prime minister). He also became Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of the Interior, and Minister of National Defence, making him the de facto head of the Vichy government. On 11 February he was named Pétain's eventual successor, in accordance with Act Number Four of the constitution. After the British victory in the Syria–Lebanon Campaign of June-July 1941 and Hitler's failure to defeat the Soviets quickly, Darlan moved away from his policy of collaboration.[4]

In January 1942 Darlan assumed a number of other government posts. Because he reported only to Pétain, Darlan exercised broad powers, although Pétain's own entourage, including Darlan's rival, General Maxime Weygand, continued to wield considerable influence. In running the French colonial empire, Darlan relied heavily upon the personal loyalties of key army and naval officers throughout the colonies to head off Free French-affiliated secessionism.[5]

Darlan came from a republican background and never believed in the National Revolution; for example, he had reservations about Pétain's clericalism.[5] But Darlan was as much a collaborator as Pierre Laval, and promoted a political alliance between Vichy French forces and Germany through the Paris Protocols of May 1941. However, despite Darlan's efforts to achieve workable relations with the Reich, the Germans soon became suspicious of his opportunism and malleable loyalties. These suspicions were gradually confirmed as Darlan's obstructionism mounted; not only did he refuse to provide French conscript labour, but he also insisted on protecting Jewish war veterans and only with reluctance assisted the enforcement of anti-Semitic laws.[5]

In April 1942 Laval, whom the Germans considered more trustworthy, forced Darlan to resign his ministries. Darlan retained several lesser posts, including that of commander-in-chief of the French armed forces.[citation needed]

Darlan's deal in North Africa

On 7 November 1942, Darlan went to Algiers to visit his son, who was hospitalised after a severe attack of polio. What he did not know at the time of his journey was that the Western Allies would invade French North Africa the next day, 8 November. During the night of 7–8 November, forces of a pro-Allied group in Algeria (not connected with Free France) seized control of Algiers in anticipation of the invasion. In the process, they captured Darlan.

The Allies had anticipated little resistance from French forces in North Africa, instead expecting them to accept the authority of General Henri Giraud, who was extracted from France to take charge. But resistance continued, and no one heeded Giraud, who had no official status. To bring a quick end to the resistance and secure French co-operation, the Allies came to an agreement with Darlan, who as commander-in-chief could give the necessary orders. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander on the spot recognized Darlan as commander of all French forces in the area and recognized his self-nomination as High Commissioner of France (head of civil government) for North and West Africa on 14 November. In return, on 10 November, Darlan ordered all French forces to join the Allies. His order was obeyed;[5] not only in French North Africa, but also by the Vichy forces in French West Africa with its potentially useful facilities at Dakar.[6] :274

The "Darlan deal" proved highly controversial, as Darlan had been a notorious collaborator with Germany. General de Gaulle and his Free France organization were outraged; so were the pro-Allied conspirators who had seized Algiers. Some high American and British officials objected, and there was furious criticism by newspapers and politicians. Roosevelt defended it (using wording suggested by Churchill) as 'a temporary expedient, justified only by the stress of battle'.[6]:261 Churchill won round a secret session of the House of Commons, saying that Eisenhower's recognition of Darlan was right, and even it was not quite right, it had meant French rifles being pointed not at the Allies, but at the Axis: "I am sorry to have to mention a point like this, but it makes a lot of difference to a soldier whether a man fires his gun at him, or at an enemy..."[6] :275 Later, American historian Arthur Funk maintained that the "deal with Darlan" was misunderstood by the critics at the time as an opportunistic improvisation. Funk claimed Darlan had been in talks with American diplomats for months about switching sides, and when the opportunity came he did so promptly. The "deal" thus was the result of a long and carefully considered Allied plan for reaching a political and military accord with Vichy. It followed a model drawn up in London and already approved at the highest levels.[5]

The "deal" was even more upsetting to Berlin and to the Vichy government. Pétain stripped Darlan of his offices and ordered resistance to the end in North Africa, but was ignored. The Germans were more direct: German troops occupied the remaining 40% of France. However, the Germans paused outside Toulon, the base where most of the remaining French ships were moored. Only on 27 November did the Germans try to seize the ships, but all capital ships were scuttled, and only 3 destroyers and a few dozen smaller ships were captured, mostly fulfilling Darlan's promise in 1940 to Churchill.


On the afternoon of 24 December 1942, Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle shot Darlan in his headquarters; Darlan died a few hours later. Bonnier de La Chapelle was a youth of 20, the son of a French journalist. He was a monarchist, and opposed to Vichy. He was involved with a royalist group that wanted to restore the pretender to the French throne, the Count of Paris.[7]

Bonnier de La Chapelle was arrested immediately, tried and convicted the next day, and executed by firing squad on 26 December.[8][9][10]


Darlan was unpopular with the Allies – he was considered pompous, having asked Eisenhower to provide 200 Coldstream Guards and Grenadier Guards as an honor company for the commemoration of Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz. It was said that "no tears were shed" by the British over his death.[11] Harold Macmillan, who was Churchill's adviser to Eisenhower at the time of the assassination, wryly described Darlan's service and death by saying, "Once bought, he stayed bought."[1]


  1. ^ a b c Korda, Michael (2007). Ike: An American Hero. New York: HarperCollins. p. 325. ISBN 978-0-06-075665-9. Retrieved 10 May 2013. 
  2. ^ Horne, Alistair (1993). The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. New York: Penguin. p. 248. ISBN 978-0-14-017041-2. 
  3. ^ a b c d Bell, P M H (1974). A Certain Eventuality. Farnborough: Saxon House. pp. 140–142. ISBN 0 347 000 10 X. 
  4. ^ Robert L. Melka, "Darlan between Britain and Germany 1940-41", Journal of Contemporary History (1973) 8#2 pp. 57-80 in JSTOR.(subscription required)
  5. ^ a b c d e Melton, George (1998). Darlan: Admiral and Statesman of France 1881–1942. Westport, CT: Praeger. pp. 81–117, 152. ISBN 0-275-95973-2.  (subscription required)
  6. ^ a b c Gilbert, Martin (1986). Road to Victory: Winston S. Churchill 1941-1945. London: Guild Publishing. 
  7. ^ Atkinson, Rick. An Army at Dawn (2003), pp. 251-52
  8. ^ "Darlan Shot Dead; Assassin Is Seized". New York Times. 25 December 1942. p. 1. Retrieved 4 November 2010. 
  9. ^ Havens, Murray Clark; Leiden, Carl; Schmitt, Karl Michael (1970). The Politics of Assassination. Prentice-Hall. p. 123. ISBN 9780136862796. 
  10. ^ Chalou, George C. (1995). The Secret War: The Office of Strategic Services in World War II. DIANE Publ. p. 167. ISBN 9780788125980. Retrieved 10 May 2013. 
  11. ^ Root, Waverley Lewis. The Secret History of the War, Volume 2 C. Scribner's Sons, 1945.

Further reading

in French

Political offices
Preceded by
César Campinchi
Minister of Marine
16 June 1940 – 18 April 1942
Succeeded by
Gabriel Auphan
Preceded by
Vice President of the Council
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Pierre Étienne Flandin
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Pierre Laval
Preceded by
Marcel Peyrouton
Minister of the Interior
Succeeded by
Pierre Pucheu
Preceded by
Charles Huntziger
Minister of National Defence
Succeeded by
Eugène Bridoux