Obituary: Admiral Jacques Guillon
Saturday 27 December 1997
It was comparatively rare for French naval personnel to join General de Gaulle's Free French movement in London. By the end of 1941, fewer than 5,000 men of the French navy served under his leadership. There were obvious reasons for this since a sailor was of most value if his ship and its crew had remained with him. But, most important of all, the French navy was opposed to Britain because of Operation "Catapault".
At Mers-el-Kebir, by Oran, in Algeria, on 3 July 1940, the British navy had attacked French warships. Some 1,300 Frenchmen were killed in this action, which had been brought about by the British government's fear that the French fleet would be used by the Germans. This event still arouses resentment in certain French memories.
It was remarkable that out of this unhappy episode emerged two young Frenchmen who were to distinguish themselves in the Allied cause. One was Honore d'Etienne d'Orves, a naval lieutenant who was officier d'ordonnance to Admiral Godfroy, the commander of the French force. He came to London in September 1940, returned to France and became a resistance organiser. He was betrayed and shot by the Germans on 29 August 1941, reportedly the first resistance fighter to be executed. The other was Jacques Guillon.
Guillon, who was a product of the cole Navale, was serving on the torpedo boat Tornade as a lieutenant when the British attacked at Mers-el-Kebir. He was lucky because the ship managed to get away and was not pursued by the British. Guillon remained in the Mediterranean until November 1942. Then, with the Allied expedition to North Africa and the German invasion of unoccupied France, the French authorities gave orders that the fleet in Toulon should be scuttled.
Fearful that his own ship would be captured by the Germans or the Italians, Guillon sabotaged it and took refuge on shore. There, disguised as a priest, he made his way on foot to join the Free French forces of General Leclerc in the desert. After his triumphal expedition from Chad, Leclerc was moving into Tunisia and Tripolitania, fighting with British and New Zealand forces. Guillon took part in the capture of Tunis (which fell on 8 May 1943) and Bizerta.
Guillon was given the rank of captain and attached to the tanks and motorised unit of Leclerc's forces. Made up of many nationalities, this was the famous second armoured division, the Deuxieme Division Blindee (known as the Deuxieme DB). After their victories in Africa, they were transferred to Yorkshire for special training in preparation for their landing in France. General Eisenhower had told them that they would not be amongst the first to land but he had promised that it would be French troops that would liberate Paris.
Leclerc and his troops landed at Utah Beach, in Normandy, on 1 August 1944. Guillon, leading his tank unit, moved eastwards towards Paris and south of the Seine. He took part in the liberation of Neuilly-sur-Seine, which had been strongly defended by the Germans, and took many prisoners.
Then the Leclerc armoured division moved eastwards towards the Vosges, towards Strasbourg and Germany. The French flag was raised over Hitler's eagle eyrie at Berchtesgaden on 5 May 1945 and some French troops were able to wander amongst the Fuhrer's library and gramophone-record collection.
For some of them it was a remarkable journey that they had made from the heart of tropical Africa. For Guillon, although he had not been present from the beginning, it was also an achievement which he described in his book From Carthage to Berchtesgaden, written in his retirement (and published in Paris in 1978). He had served with remarkable officers, such as Leclerc himself, or the bold and adventurous Massu; he had been in training in Yorkshire with another naval officer, Philippe de Gaulle, and Moncorge, also known as Jean Gabin.
After the war he returned to the navy. From 1950, he served in Indo-China, where, as captain, he was in charge of a naval unit controlling the Bay of Saigon. This was of particular importance in terms of the war since the Viet-Minh were strong in the Mekong estuary. In more general terms it was important as the population in Saigon-Cholon rose to some two million in 1954 (it had been 300,000 in 1939) and the bay became the centre of great activity which had to be supervised by the French authorities. Guillon also had the particularly delicate task of evacuating the representatives of General Chiang Kai-chek from the interior of Indochina and of arranging their discreet evacuation to Formosa.
Back in France he was promoted, and as Rear-Admiral was in charge of a naval force in Lorient, which was ready for emergencies. In 1965, he was put in charge of the sites in the Pacific which the French government planned to use for nuclear experiments.
From 1969 to 1972, he directed the centre for the training of high-ranking staff officers in all services. With this conclusion to his career, Jacques Guillon had served in all aspects of hard activity, with the unusual addition of having been a distinguished fighting soldier.
- Douglas Johnson
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