Obituary: General Jean Crepin

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The Independent Online
On the morning of 24 August 1944 a reconnaissance plane flew over the Ile de la Cite in Paris and dropped a message. It was signed by Colonel Crepin and it stated "Hold on: we are coming." This meant that General Leclerc was on his way and was going to relieve the French capital where insurgent forces were still fighting against the German army. That evening, at about 10.30, the first units of Leclerc's army arrived and the bells of Paris rang out in celebration.

This was the most dramatic moment in the distinguished career of General Crepin and, unfairly perhaps, it is the best remembered.

He was already a distinguished officer, a specialist in artillery, when he joined Free France in the summer of 1940. He was attached to Leclerc and his army in West Africa, and he fought with them in their epic expedition to Tripolitania. From there he transferred to Britain, to prepare the Second Armoured Division for the invasion of France. He was beside Leclerc from the moment the division landed in Normandy, but in spite of his loyalty to him, it was typical that he should afterwards have been critical of his tactics, particularly claiming that Leclerc's deployment of troops hindered the movement of the American army under General Gerow.

In 1945 Crepin was sent to Indo-China with General Leclerc. They had the task of negotiating for the future French re-occupation of Indo-China. For a time Crepin was in Chung King and negotiated directly with Ho Chi Minh. He was later the chief French representative in Hanoi. When Leclerc returned to France in January 1947, the question arose as to whether he should return to Indo-China as French High Commissioner and carry out his policy of giving the French colonies some degree of independence. Crepin assisted Leclerc in this period of negotiation and indecision, and is one of the few sources of information about the stormy interview between de Gaulle and Leclerc, which turned out to be their last meeting. Leclerc refused Indo-China and was killed in an air accident shortly afterwards.

But Crepin had other preoccupations. In 1945 de Gaulle had erected a Commissariat for Atomic Energy, and after his retirement it continued to function and it was always helped by Gaullists in various positions. Crepin, who had been made brigade-general, played a most important role. He was in charge of the committee for nuclear explosions, a committee that was so secret that few government ministers knew anything about it. He can therefore be considered one of the creators of the French bomb, although when it was exploded and an excited de Gaulle cried "Hurrah for France", the more realistic Crepin said that it was "only an experimental device".

But before this event (13 February 1960) Crepin had, like many army officers, to go through the experience of Algeria. In 1959, as a full general, he was serving at Ain Arnat, south of Oran, when de Gaulle gave his first intimations that his policy in Algeria was one of "autodetermination". This was not supported by General Massu, the commander of the Army Corps of Algiers. He was removed from his post and a wave of protests swept through Algiers. On 24 January 1960, fighting broke out in the capital, some 24 people were killed and barricades were put up. Crepin was ordered to succeed Massu (with whom he had fought in Leclerc's army). The danger was that the army would fire on the rebels, and this would lead to a widespread revolt against de Gaulle, which would be joined by many sections of the army. Crepin convinced de Gaulle that such bloodshed would be fatal, and it was his policy which succeeded, the insurrection simply petering out.

For this Crepin was promoted to be Commander-in-Chief in Algeria, but here he was less successful. He was nicknamed "Cassenoisette" because of his prominent jaw, and he was distrusted as being too close to de Gaulle. At the same time he was influenced by the atmosphere and uttered several "Algerie francaise" remarks. He was therefore removed to take command in Germany and also to command the Central Europe section of Nato. He was the youngest five-star general in the French Army when he retired in 1967.

He then began a career as an industrialist. His experience as a military engineer made him an ideal president of the North Aviation Company, and eventually in 1970 the National Society of Aerospatial Industry, and the French-German Euromissile Company. In this capacity, the man who was one of the creators of the French atomic bomb became one of the creators of the Exocet and other missiles.

General Crepin had many decorations, including the Distinguished Service Order.

Jean-Albert-Emile Crepin, soldier and industrialist: born Bernaville, Somme 1 September 1908; married 1948 Simone Granday (deceased, two daughters); died Acheres-la-Foret, Seine et Marne 4 May 1996.