Vive Le France!
Had he not taken part in the Vichy Government, Marshal Petain would doubtless have gone down in history as one of the greatest Frenchmen of the 20th Century. He had served with great distinction in WW1 and played a vital role in reforming the French Army after the disasters of 1914-17. His appointment to the French Government in 1940, however, fell upon a man who was losing his facilities and, despite his vast personnel prestige, he was unable to do more for France than watch it slowly turned into a German satellite. Let’s play around with him a little.
Petain might have maintained some of his intellectual facilities long enough to realise beforehand that France was royally screwed in 1940. The German Army had kicked the French so hard that it would take years to recover, the British were retreating at Dunkirk and couldn’t help the French anyway. The choices are between surrender or carrying on the fight in North Africa and the Middle East. Petain chose the former. What if he’d gone with the latter?
So…as soon as Petain assumes power – effectively, a dictatorship in this TL – he starts issuing orders at once. Pro-nazis within the French Government are removed from power and shipped over to Britain, where they are ruthlessly interned. Peace talks proceed with the Germans – he can hardly refuse to talk with the Germans in such a strong position – but Petain stalls as much as possible. Hitler may provide him with unwitting aid – he loathed the French and would have wanted to make them crawl as much as possible. The time isn’t wasted.
Petain, under pretence of removing the French Army to allow the Germans to occupy Northern France – as they did in OTL – moves much of the Army to a National Redoubt in the south. They’re rapidly transferred to North Africa, officially to keep them from threatening the peace or being shipped into German POW camps. As much of the French equipment as possible is shipped over as well. Churchill was desperate to keep the French fighting and would definitely throw the full might of the UK merchant fleet behind the French evacuation. As much of the Government as possible is shipped over to Algeria, along with thousands of soldiers and refugees. We can have DeGaule (one of Petain’s young men) in charge of reforming the army at the far end. Other soldiers, unable to board the ships, are given weapons and told to hide them to serve as an underground army. Factories are stripped of vital components and moved to North Africa or Britain. Skilled workmen and their families are given priority for evacuation.
Italy’s attack on France is defeated as quickly as OTL and the French use this as an excuse to go after the Italian Navy alongside the UK. Mussolini had too many problems in OTL with the British alone – add in the French and no Italian ship will dare leave harbour. Taranto might not be necessary in this timeline.
Eventually, the Germans run out of patience and demand that France surrenders – or else. Petain takes that as the signal to complete the evacuation and most of the remainder of France’s army – and thousands of refugees, including Jews and the families of the refugee soldiers – are taken onboard for their fight. The reformed French air force fights with great bravery to hold back the Germans, while French forces struggle to delay the Germans as long as possible. The result is inevitable – the Germans are still overwhelmingly strong – but the French manage to pull most of their men out. The remainder of the French Navy ships for North Africa and joins the Allies.
The War against Italy is almost won in the next month. British forces attack Libya from the east while French forces attack from the west. Italian attempts to break the blockade fail. The war stalemates with Italy’s empire destroyed, along with most of its navy. Hitler blows a fuse and seriously considers invading Italy and placing it under firm control. Mussolini has been weakened so badly that there is no thought of an attempt to invade Greece, or anywhere else.
Hitler is furious and doesn’t hesitate to show it. Operation Sealion is clearly a pipedream from the start in ATL. The French bear the burden of much of Germany’s anger as the entire country is occupied. Resistance starts at once, fuelled by young men fearful of being deported to Germany and armed by weapons supplies left behind by the retreating government. The entire conflict is faintly odd – the Germans have to do almost everything themselves, although they do manage to patch together a puppet government eventually. French Communists find themselves smoked out and forced to either defy Stalin’s instructions or be exposed as toadies to Moscow. The French Government in exile doesn’t hesitate to show the Communists up as much as possible.
Now, here’s where things start getting a little odd. Italy being suppressed sooner means that there will be no Balkan adventure for Germany and hence less delay in the preparations for Barbarossa. On the other hand, they don’t give the Germans enough time to fix everything else that’s wrong with Barbarossa. They still sweep into Russia, still fall back at Moscow, and still embark on a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to capture Stalingrad. The Japanese still go south – it won’t matter if they take Indochina or not – and the US still enters the war. On the other hand, Britain can deploy more forces to the Far East and stop the Japanese in Burma. We can give them one of the Desert Commanders in Singapore and stop the Japanese there. It doesn’t actually matter.
There’s still a formal French Government in existence, so the French get a greater share of lend-lease to rebuild their army. They also have a manpower base from Algeria to draw on, as well as thousands of French refugees. Morale is higher than expected because of the victories in Africa. Finally, they have a powerful intelligence network in France itself and ties to the resistance. Absent an Operation Torch – unnecessary in this timeline – the big invasion of Europe, D-Day – takes place in 1943, with the French as a full member and enthusiastic participant. The invasion also takes place on a bigger scale. They don’t only land in Normandy, but in the South of France as well. More on this below.
There have been considerable changes in French Algeria. The need to build up a weapons industry – hell, any kind of industry – has led to sweeping sociological changes. The French have basically made a deal with Algerian Independence Activists that says that they will quit Algeria as soon as the war is over, while providing a vast level of technical and industrial support. The deal is very attractive to Algerians – Algeria would become an instant African power and a formidable force in its own right. The US offers additional incentives to encourage a peaceful post-war transfer of power and urges the French to move ahead with granting democratic rights to Algerians. The settlers in Algeria aren’t happy with this at all, but are massively outgunned by the government and fearful of Algerian reaction to any attempt to slow down the independence movement. They eventually come to terms with the Algerians – after all, they’ll still going to be needed.
The Germans aren’t fools and have been preparing for an invasion, but there are massive drains on their resources. Hitler doesn’t help by insisting that resources be diverted to the Channel Islands and other such decisions. The increasingly powerful Allied air campaign is biting into German resources and the sabotage attacks are costing the Germans men and resources. Just after the landings, a group of dissident generals attempt to assassinate Hitler. They fail and the resulting purge removes some of Hitler’s best commanding officers. The Russians take advantage of the confusion to launch a series of crippling blows intended to drive the Germans back. They work to some extent and force Hitler to make a series of poor choices.
Major changes here – the Soviets are still deep within their own territory, nowhere near threatening Poland yet, let alone the core of the Reich. The Poles have been making much of the danger to Poland and the threat of Russian occupation after the end of the war. Roosevelt is feeling the heat from Polish nationalists keen that he guarantees Poland's independence from everyone, yet that would mean the Russians taking what they could get and leaving the war. The Allied push on France from two directions forces the Germans to make hard choices, often without Hitler’s consent, and they fall back on the German border, tearing up the land as they go to slow down the allies. Petain (assuming he survives that far) makes a triumphant return to Paris. New recruits flock to his banner where they are rapidly rearmed and prepared for the march on Berlin. The French are a full member of the Grand Alliance.
1944 sees the allies breaking through the German lines and heading into the Rhineland. Hitler orders everything the Germans have thrown at them, including gas and other special weapons. Some German commanders quietly ignore the order, others follow them and gas allied troops. (Historically, such orders were issued, but ignored.) Allied bombers gas parts of Berlin and Dresden in retaliation. The result is major panic across Germany and several military surrenders that are carried out against orders. The SS shoots a few hundred soldiers to try to maintain order and ends up sparking off a civil war, of sorts. Several German commanders forge links to the allies, trying to arrange to switch sides. The Allies are in no mood for compromise, but offer to accept any surrenders and a handful of other guarantees. Hitler flees east towards Poland as Berlin is surrounded and starved out by allied forces, who see no particular reason to fight their way through the city. West Germany is surrendering rather rapidly. East Germany is still trying to hold out when the Poles rise in revolt, stabbing Hitler in the back. The SS fights savagely to keep the Poles down, but the result is inevitable. The German lines collapse and thousands of German soldiers either go into POW camps or start walking back to Germany. It’s a long walk.
Relations between Stalin and the Allies have collapsed. Stalin suspects that the French and British have been plotting against him. He’s right. The French Communists have been treated as collaborators and ruthlessly purged even before the French liberated their country. The CPGB has been interned by the British Government. Kim Philby and his allies have been uncovered and seen as proof of a wide-ranging communist plot. (The irony is that Moscow didn’t believe their own success and tended to ignore Kim until the truth dawned on them.) The Polish Vote in the United States is important as hell. Roosevelt tells Stalin that he won’t get anything he didn’t have in 1939, prior to stabbing Poland in the back. The USSR isn’t receiving any lend-lease any longer. Allied lines reach into Poland by late 1944 and capturing thousands of Germans who would prefer to be an allied POW than a Russian POW. The Allies stop on Poland’s 1938 border, although they do continue to accept German surrenders. Stalin goes ballistic when the US signs a peace treaty with Finland and provides an ‘Army of Occupation’ – it’s obviously intended to keep the Russians out. Even so, Stalin isn’t mad enough to start a war. The Soviet Army is in bad shape. In OTL, it depended on far too much from the US. In ATL, it only has the bare minimum to keep the Soviets from collapsing.
Anglo-French forces complete the destruction of Japanese forces in the Far East by 1944, working alongside American thrusts into the heart of Japanese territory. Japan is being starved out as allied submarines get to work on its supply lines and bombers start hitting the Japanese cities. Precisely when Japan surrenders isn’t important. They simply don’t stand a chance. Italy surrenders just after Berlin falls and is generally treated gently. Germany is occupied by the three allied powers – US, UK and France – and the Russians don’t get much of a look-in. Nazis are ruthlessly purged, but there was a general sentiment to avoid repeating the horrors of Versailles and Germany regained limited self-government by 1955.
Post-war, DeGaulle becomes President of France. (I admit that this is largely whimsy on my part as there are other candidates.) Algeria becomes an independent state in 1945, although there is still strong French influence and plenty of economic ties between the French and Algerians. There is much less bitterness than OTL and Algeria remains a democratic state. Libya tended to follow the Algerian model and Egypt received a surprising amount of help from the UK. France itself considered that it had much to be proud of in recovering from such a crushing defeat and Petain ended up being branded – again – as the saviour of France. Absent the Indochina and Algerian Wars, France won't suffer the political catastrophes that almost tore it apart.
The USSR won't have, in this timeline, access to plenty of German industries to loot. This will badly hamper its ability to recover – not helped by resistance movements desperate to avoid the return of the Russian boot and armed by departing Germans – and it will suffer a major economic collapse. The Cold War will have been aborted. The French, British, Poles and (in 1955) Germans will maintain a military alliance – including nuclear weapons – aimed at preventing communist invasion. The USSR will collapse after Stalin’s death as the various SSRs struggle to free themselves from Russian domination.
This was all possible, even in 1940. Shame it didn’t happen.