Eighty years ago, Petain replaces one tarnished figure of the Third Republic with another and ducks a German PR stunt
The affairs of Vichy France took another sudden and mysterious turn. Prime minister Pierre Laval, who had been instrumental a few weeks before in arranging the meeting between Marshal Petain and Adolf Hitler, was dismissed and briefly imprisoned. No explanation was ever given for either move, but contemporaries even suspected Laval of having plotted a coup against Petain. Whatever the immediate chain of events might have been, it is likely that the Marshal decided that Laval was just too pro-German. He was rapidly released at the request of the German ambassador, Otto Abetz, who had a very close relationship with Laval. Laval moved to Paris but continued to be a major figure in the world off Vichy. He was replaced as prime minister by Pierre-Etienne Flandin, an otherwise unremarkable politician of the Third Republic, with one claim to fame. After the Munich agreement of 1938 he had sent a personal telegram of congratulations to Hitler, who had replied welcoming the prospect of “collaboration” between France and Germany, which was later to appear uncannily prophetic. This exchange became an emblem of the craven aspects of French appeasement. Soon afterwards Flandin was publicly slapped across the face at the ceremony of laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier by a royalist, Jacques Renouvin, who was to die as hero of the resistance. Flandin's appointment did not mark any serious change in Vichy policies. Indeed the dreary merry-go-round of undistingusihed and compromised politicians suggested that the claim that L'Etat Francais had entirely reshaped French national life fell rather wide of the mark.
Another story involved one of the more bizarre incidents of the occupation. Supposedly Laval had promised the Germans that Petain would be present at the ceremony to mark the transfer from the Reich to Les Invalides - de facto the temple to French military glory - of the ashes of the Duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon’s only legitimate son. Allegedly Laval attempted to bully Petain into attending, even offering physical violence. Petain refused but the ceremony took place, exactly one hundred years the remains of Napoleon himself were enshrined at Les Invalides in a futile attempt by King Louis-Philippe to cover himself in Bonapartist glory. This time the remains were transferred from the Gare de l’Est on a German gun carriage and was witnessed by collaborationists like the theatrical figure Sacha Guitry and Vichy’s answer to the Hitlerjugend, the Jeunesse Francaise. The gesture appealed to Hitler's admiration for Napoleon, but it was no more successful as a PR excerise than its predecessor. Parisian wits remarked that they needed coal but the Germans sent them ashes.
The British ambassador to the US, Lord Lothian, died suddenly. He was a Christian Scientist and declined conventional medical treatment for blood poisoning brought on by a uraemic infection. He had been one of the more high-minded appeasers, striving idealistically for friendship between Britain and Germany, but was entirely patriotic. He had worked hard to ensure US financial assistance for Britain and had gone out on a limb to proclaim the desperation of Britain’s financial plight. This had forced Churchill’s hand to make a direct appeal to Roosevelt.
Lothian died just before his efforts started to bear fruit. Underlining that he saw the US’s best defence lying in British strength, Roosevelt announced that he wanted to remove the dollar sign from the equation of relations with Britain and substitute a gentleman’s agreement. He decried the “nonsense” talked by traditionalists who thought in purely financial terms. Roosevelt did not commit himself to any specific way in which the US would support Britain in acquiring war material from the US, but amongst the options he mentioned was that of Britain “leasing” equipment. Here lay the germ of Lend-Lease, which was to become the keystone of Anglo-American economic collaboration.
After months of trying to restrain Lord Trenchard from embarrassing the government, the dam burst and Trenchard tabled a motion in the House of Lords. However wrong-headed he might be, Trenchard had the lustre of being the father of the RAF, then at the height of its prestige, and it was deply embarassing for the government for him to appear as an opponent. His specific and stated goal was to head off any possibility that the shore-based aircraft of the RAF Coastal Command might be put under Admiralty control. He had an underlying suspicion that aircraft might be diverted to the Battle of the Atlantic from his cherished project of bombing Germany. Most of his tenure as Chief of the Air Staff had been devoted to resisting attempts by the Navy to reverse even partially the wholesale transfer of the RNAS to the RAF in 1918; in 1937 his successor Air Marshal Ellington had failed to keep hold of ship-based aircraft for the RAF and Trenchard was violently opposed to any extension of the process.