Hubert Germain, who has died aged 101, was the last survivor of 1,038 French soldiers and resistance fighters decorated as “Companions of the Liberation” by their wartime leader (and future French president) Charles de Gaulle for their role in freeing France from German occupation during the Second World War.
The members of the resistance who fought the Nazis inside their occupied homeland as rural and urban guerrillas were known as the “maquis”, named after the underbrush that often served as their cover. They became the French Forces of the Interior (FFI).
Germain, on the other hand, did much of his fighting outside his country as part of the Free French Forces (FFL in the French abbreviation). He fought alongside US, British and other Allied forces in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Italy, where he was wounded.
He had fled France for London in June 1940, inspired by de Gaulle’s famous 18 June “Appel” – call or summons – over BBC radio, urging French resistance to the German occupation.
Germain was disgusted that the new French prime minister, Marshal Philippe Petain, had declared an “armistice” with Adolf Hitler that was effectively the same as a surrender. Germain initially joined the French Foreign Legion, but when some legionnaires – many of whom were not French – sided with the Germans or Petain’s collaborationist regime, he and others became part of de Gaulle’s Free French Forces.
He first saw action in May and June 1942 as commander of an antitank unit in a fierce battle at Bir-Hakeim, an oasis in the Libyan desert near Tobruk. He fought alongside the British Eighth Army against the mighty Afrika Korps of German general Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”. The French were ultimately forced to retreat after waves of attacks by Luftwaffe Stuka dive-bombers.
“Outnumbered 10 to one, the French held off Rommel’s forces and delayed their offensive, allowing the British to re-establish themselves at El Alamein,” wrote French war historian Dominique Lormier.
Historians estimate that 141 French forces were killed at Bir-Hakein, 229 were wounded and more than 800 were taken prisoner. But Rommel’s forces sustained greater losses, with 3,300 troops killed or wounded and 227 captured.
“In the whole course of the desert war,” German general Friedrich von Mellenthin later wrote of the French, “we never encountered a more heroic and well-sustained defence.”
As a lieutenant in the Free French Forces, Germain went on to fight at El Alamein and in Tunisia before taking part in the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944. Commanding a French antitank unit, he was wounded and later received a commendation from De Gaulle.
Within a month, Germain was back in combat as part of Operation Dragoon, which was originally planned to divert German forces in southern France on 6 June 1944, when Allied forces were coming ashore during the D-Day landings in Normandy, in northern France. Operation Dragoon was delayed by logistical problems, and Germain finally landed on a beach of his homeland on 15 August.
He then helped liberate the city of Toulon, the Rhone valley and the city of Lyon. In April 1945, he and his Free French joined with British forces in the Battle of Authion, in the French Alps, driving the Germans off their mountaintop fortress and opening up a strategic route between France and Italy. It effectively marked the end of the war in France, and within a month Germany had surrendered to the Allies.
Hubert Jean Louis Germain was born in Paris on 6 August 1920. His father was a general in France’s colonial army.
Germain attended a bilingual French-Arabic school in Damascus, Syria, then under French mandate, before moving to a French school in Hanoi. He completed his education in Paris.
In June 1940, he was taking an exam to qualify for a French naval school when he learned that Hitler’s advancing forces were headed for Paris, and the French government was planning to surrender.
In his 2017 interview with AFP, Germain recalled walking up to his naval examiner, five minutes into the test, handing him a blank piece of paper and saying: “It’s useless to go any further with this. I’m leaving for the war.”
When he found out that thousands of Polish soldiers were trying to get to England to fight the Germans, he joined them aboard the SS Arandora Star, a British ocean liner commandeered as a troopship. They landed in Liverpool on 24 June 1940. (Eight days later, the Arandora Star was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of 805 passengers and crew.)
Germain, who was almost 6ft3 tall, soon met the exiled de Gaulle in London.
“He stopped for a second, looked at me and said, ‘I am going to need you,’” Germain recalled to AFP. “When, as a 19-year-old, you get that in the face, amid a general disaster, it is something that moves you deeply.”
He said he “found a father figure” in De Gaulle and “immediately got into the war”.
After the armistice in 1945, Germain served as an aide-de-camp to General Pierre Koenig, commander of the French-occupied zone in Germany. He married Simone Millon in October 1945, and they went on to have three children. Details of his survivors were not immediately known.
Germain worked for a chemicals company for several years before becoming mayor of Saint-Cheron, southwest of Paris, from 1953 to 1965. He was a Gaullist member of the French parliament and went on to serve as France’s postal service and telecommunications minister from 1972 to 1974 in the government of Georges Pompidou. He later ran a jewellery shop in Paris before he retired.
Germain will be buried on 11 November, France’s Armistice Day, in a crypt at the Mont-Valerien fort west of Paris. De Gaulle selected it as a national memorial site for its symbolic importance because it was used by Nazi occupiers to put more than 1,000 members of the resistance and others before the firing squad. (There is also an American military cemetery on the site.)
In June 2020, to mark the 80th anniversary of de Gaulle’s historic BBC Appel, Britain named Germain an honorary Member of the British Empire (MBE) for his bravery alongside British troops during the war.
The Times quoted Germain as saying he regretted telling his troops in Alsace to use the frozen bodies of dead German soldiers as steps into a building he needed as a watch post. He also lived and died with the guilt of taking so many lives as a soldier.
“I am a Christian, but I killed people,” he said not long before he died, according to The Times. “It still bothers me today.”
Hubert Germain, politician, born 6 August 1920, died 12 October 2021
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