31 Rousing Photos Of The French Resistance In Action

Published October 31, 2016
Updated March 22, 2019

These vivid images reveal how the French Resistance fought back against the Nazis and helped make France free once more.

French Forces Of The Interior
French Resistance Encampment
Female Fighter Walking
French Resistance Poster
31 Rousing Photos Of The French Resistance In Action
View Gallery

In the spring of 1940, Germany conquered France in just six weeks. From there, the Nazis continued their toxic march across Europe -- and left Allied forces in need of a plan to liberate France and much of the rest of the continent from Hitler's clutches.

Enter the French Resistance, an all-volunteer group of French guerrilla fighters and saboteurs who refused to accept Nazi occupation.

They had operated in France since June 1940, when exiled French general Charles de Gaulle addressed his people from London, urging them to unite in resistance of the Vichy government -- the puppet government set up by the Nazis to lead France.

The French Resistance only had about about 220,000 officially recognized members during its five-year existence -- less than a single percent of the French population -- although historians now claim that a total of 400,000 people may have been involved in some capacity.

Some took direct orders from Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive, which mobilized resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries to undermine the German army's operations. Other French Resistance groups targeted the railways to prevent the German army from regrouping and receiving supplies, while others gathered military intelligence and passed it on the British army, helping them plan and execute their own operations against the Germans.

In order to plan successful operations in Europe, the Allies enlisted the help of their own interior "allies," sending secret messages to the French Resistance and encouraging them to carry out as many acts of sabotage as possible.

And that the Resistance did. They disabled railroads, power lines, and communications, making it difficult for the Germans to coordinate and gather reinforcements during the invasion and in the ensuing weeks.

Two months later, with D-Day largely a success, French Resistance forces in Paris geared up for American troops to liberate the city. They then staged a final uprising against their occupier, capturing German soldiers in sporadic bouts of fighting and building barricades to defend against German soldiers as they waited for American forces to arrive.

On August 24, soldiers led by French general Philippe Leclerc, alongside American troops, took Paris back. Celebrations ensued as the rest of the German army was arrested and France could once again call itself free.

While some historians argue that the French Resistance was of little importance in the liberation of France, their involvement nevertheless boosted French morale and became a point of national pride that remains in place to this day.

However, the French Resistance wasn't all heroics: Following Paris' liberation, many resistance fighters punished women they suspected of collaborating with Germans (especially those accused of sleeping with German soldiers) by shaving their heads in public and parading them around the city for public shaming. Liberation apparently included demonization, offering a reminder that the moral difference between winners and losers is not as clear as we may like to believe.

After seeing these photos of the French Resistance, discover 31 surprising World War II facts even most history buffs don't know. Then, read about the most bad-ass women of World War II.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey. She holds a Master's in writing from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Food & Wine, The Guardian, Yahoo, BBC, HuffPost, VICE, MSN, and Vulture.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.