On June 14th 1944, the Free French Naval Forces’ destroyer La Combattante neared the Normandy coastline. On board was General de Gaulle, accompanied by a dozen of his closest colleagues, including Generals Béthouard and Koenig, Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, Gaston Palewski and Hettier de Boislambert.
For the General, this visit to the Normandy bridgehead was of vital importance, as it would enable him to prove then and there the authority of his Provisional Government of the French Republic to the Anglo-American command, notably Roosevelt, who denied that he was in any way representative of the French people. The American President refused to entrust him with France’s future and wanted instead to set up an Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories (A.M.G.O.T.). The political imbroglio was at its height and the fate of the country would very much hang on the events of June 14th.
In the early afternoon, the general set foot on French soil for the first time in four years, at Courseulles. After a short meeting with General Montgomery at the Château de Creullet, he set off for Bayeux, entering the town at around 3.30 pm.
The population had been told of his imminent arrival by local Resistance leaders, and gave the general a hero’s welcome, with more and more people flocking to cheer de Gaulle and his companions. Preceded by a rapturous band of children, the procession moved through streets hung with Tricolours. After briefly stopping off at the sub-prefecture, de Gaulle reached the castle square, where he gave a short speech in front of a large crowd.
After a vibrant rendition of the Marseillaise, the General and his friends continued their journey through the newly-liberated Bessin region, passing through Grandcamp and Isigny, which had been virtually destroyed during the fighting.
When he returned to La Combattante, de Gaulle had every reason to feel satisfied. The ecstatic greetings he had received throughout the region dispelled any doubts there might have been as to his popularity and representativeness. He had scored a crucial point. Behind him, he had left a team headed by the Republican Commissioner François Coulet, who had the task of taking charge of the liberated territories. Over the days that followed, Coulet was to dismiss Vichy’s sub-prefect and replace him with his assistant, Raymond Triboulet. He also oversaw the publication of the first newspaper of liberated France, La Renaissance du Bessin.
A month later, Roosevelt, having learned the lesson of the Bayeux visit, effectively recognized Gaulle’s authority over the liberated regions. This was one battle, at least, that had been won!