‘If money be the sinews of war, it may be said to be the framework of Resistance and the punctual despatch of the very large sums needed to keep an Underground Movement, or Secret Army, in being was one of the greatest and, in every sense of the word, heaviest, preoccupations of the Sub-Section.’[i]
When thinking about French resistance during the Second World War, sabotage missions, intelligence gathering and the creation of escape lines for downed Allied pilots are likely to be at the forefront of any reflections. However, according to the 1944 official history of Section ‘RF’ of the British Special Operations Executive, the transportation of money was one of the most pressing concerns for those engaged in the underground war against German occupation. Operating under the aegis of the Ministry of Economic Warfare, ‘RF’ were one of the groups tasked with setting France ablaze. Working alongside the Gaullist Bureau Centrale de Renseignement et d’Action, they organised some of the most audacious special operations undertaken during the conflict. However, these missions risked being impossible to undertake were it not for the increasingly regular injections of cash it provided. Yet, historians have largely ignored the financial aspect of this irregular warfare. The importance of international fundraising, the logistical difficulties experienced when transporting money and the successful use of banditry in a martial context should be highlighted.
Importance of International Fundraising
The internationalised nature of French resistance funding is important to underline. Acquiring funds from within France was an exercise fraught with danger.[ii] In the context of the French economy under occupation, it was difficult for the heads of networks to procure the large amounts of cash needed to support those who were eking out their wartime existence on the black market.
Funds came primarily from the British government, but it was not the only source. From the earliest days of General de Gaulle’s Free French movement, private donations found their way to his London headquarters in Carlton Gardens. However, these gifts were sporadic and often in small amounts. Supporters of the Free French would send precious objects to be sold, including diamonds, with the proceeds being put towards the financing of the external resistance movement.[iii]
As the conflict progressed, financial support increased from further afield. Delegations were founded by French émigrés and Francophiles in Allied and non-belligerent nations. The largest of these groups were established in South America, notably in Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay and Chile. They organised dances and conferences designed to foster the movement’s soft power and fundraise on their behalf[iv].
At the end of 1943, a funding drive in the rallied French colonies sought to raise money for the Gaullist movement. This led to the greatest increase in money available to French resistance groups since the beginning of the conflict. Of the 4.3 million francs sent from New Caledonia, in the Pacific, 1.8 million francs were donated by the French expatriate community, companies gifted 1.2 million, fêtes and dances raised nearly 750,000 francs and 325,000 francs came from the indigenous Kanaks and the Asian community.[v] The islands’ inhabitants donated 61 francs per capita to the ‘Subscription to Help the French Resistance’. To put this into context, the New Caledonian contribution was a mere two percent of the total subscription received. The largest donation, of 141 million francs, came from French West Africa, which was raised over only three months.
However, the problems that arose when delivering the funding into occupied France continued to trouble mission planners outside of France. One of the main obstacles to providing funds was the weather. Inclement forecasts in December 1943 led directly to a halving in sorties attempted by the R.A.F.’s 161 Squadron. As the squadron’s pilots were involved in flying special operations missions, including money deliveries into occupied France, any meteorological impediments inevitably caused funding shortages in France.[vi]
The difficulties were not over when funds finally arrived in the country, whether transported by an incoming agent or within an airdropped container. The risks of holding money were greatly multiplied due to the unavoidable centralisation that clandestine operations required. Daniel Cordier, the secretary of Jean Moulin, who was de Gaulle’s representative in occupied France, nearly lost the entirety of his monthly delivery, as a thief stole his bicycle from outside a black-market café.[vii] To put this loss into perspective, bicycles cost around 7,500 francs or nearly double the monthly expenditure of an average Parisian family[viii]. Fortunately, Cordier had the presence of mind to take the contents of his side-bags with him into the meeting, but the episode highlights the inherent risks involved when keeping large quantities of illicit funding in the hands of one person.
With the chaos wrought by the Normandy landings of June 1944, aerial sorties to supply and fund French resistance groups became a vital lifeline for the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people living in clandestine conditions.[ix] Moreover, banditry also became more common. In southern France, branches of the Banque de France were robbed of 4.4 billion francs by members of resistance groups. The largest of these raids occurred at Neuvic, in Dordogne. On 26th July, a group of resistance members hijacked a train heading towards Bordeaux and made away with 2.28 billion francs.[x] Unsurprisingly, news of the robbery was withheld from the press, and by June 1945, there were no attempts made to locate the lost money. Elsewhere, in Annonay (Ardèche), the local branch of the Banque de France was robbed on six separate occasions, from July to September 1944, losing a total of 44 million francs.[xi] Armed men forced their way into the branch and, after a ‘lively’ discussion and upon receiving the money, handed a receipt over to the manager in return[xii]. When it is considered that the financial cost of supporting a member of the resistance was estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500 francs[xiii], these Annonay hauls could have funded around 30,000 to 40,000 resistance members for a month.
To conclude, French resistance funding was international and reliant upon the efforts of those outside of France. Both foreseen and unforeseen problems were experienced with the transportation of money and equipment into areas under enemy occupation. Finally, following the chaos generated by the Allied invasion, banditry became a means by which these groups acquired funding for themselves. While financial constraints may not immediately be associated with global conflict, they certainly proved a driving force behind significant French resistance activity during the Second World War.
[i] The National Archives, Kew, HS7 124, Appendix A, p.9
[ii] Henri Frenay, La nuit finira, (Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, 1973), p.35-36
[iii] Pierre Denis, Souvenirs de la France Libre, (Paris, Éditions Berger-Levraut, 1947), p.35
[iv] Archives nationales (AN), Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, 3 AG 1 305, France Libre de Gaulle – 1 – Comptes 1940-1943
[v] Archives nationales d’Outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence, 1AFF-POL 879, Résultat complet et détaillé de la souscription du 20 septembre 1943 au 11 novembre 1943 pour venir en aide aux Combattants et Patriotes de France, 22/12/1943
[vi] David Foulk, ‘Homeward Bound: Mapping Clandestine Transportation into France during the Second World War’, War in History, November 2021
[vii] Daniel Cordier, Alias Caracalla, (Paris, Gallimard, 2009), p.531
[viii] Jean-Marc Binot, Bernard Boyer, L’Argent de la Résistance, (Paris, Larousse, 2010), p.17-18
[ix] Olivier Wieviorka, L’histoire de la Résistance, (Paris, Perrin, 2013), (Ebook) Chap. 15, Para. 58
[x] Banque de France (BdF), Paris, 1069199410 1 Prélèvements – Généralités
[xi] BdF, 1069199410 2 Prélèvements irréguliers, Prélèvements effectués à nos Caisses par les FFI, 16/10/1944
[xii] BdF, 1069199410 2 Prélèvements irréguliers, Compte rendu annexe à ma lettre du 2 août 1944 relative aux réquisitions à main armée du 1er août 1944, 09/08/1944
[xiii] AN, AG 3 (2) 276 – 171 MI 108 BCRA, Letter from Colonel ‘Vernon’ to Commandant Lejeune, 04/07/1944