"Over by Christmas."
The Liberation of Saint Pierre and Miquelon
by Richard Doody
Geography and Climate
The Saint Pierre and Miquelon archipelago lies some 30 kilometers off the southeastern shore of Newfoundland. The eight Precambrian granite outcroppings are the worn remnants of the ancient Appalachian mountains. They would more properly be termed rocks than islands for there is scarcely enough soil on them to bury a man let alone sustain him. The Grand Banks fishery, in particular the Cod, has been the nearly exclusive economic rationale for four centuries of human settlement on Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Only, Miquelon, the largest of the islands and Saint Pierre are currently inhabited. Another island, tiny Ile aux Marins (called l’ile aux Chiens prior to 1931), was once the site of a bustling outport but has been abandoned since 1956.
A few miles south of St. Pierre the cold waters of the Labrador Current meet the warm waters of the Gulf Stream which explains the islands’ persistent and intense cloak of fog as well as the numerous shipwrecks along their fringes. Captain Cook explored the area in 1764 -67 and proclaimed it to have "three seasons; July, August and Winter".
Brief Early History
The first recorded discovery of these islands was made on October 19, 1520 by the Portuguese explorer Joao Alvares Faguendes. He named the archipelago the Isles of Eleven Thousand Virgins. Faguendes was granted letterrs of patent by King Emmanuel in 1521 but the Portuguese made no attempt to colonize the new found isles.
The chain appears on navigation charts under the name Iles Saint Pierre as early as 1530. It seems they were well known to French cod fishermen long before Jacques Cartier made the first official visit to them on behalf of King Francis I in 1536.The first year round settlement began in 1604 with the plantation of thirty families from Brittany, Normandy and the Basque Country. Their efforts ended in failure and when the British took possession of the Saint Pierre under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the islands were no longer inhabited.
A half century later, France regained Saint Pierre et Miquelon and fishing rights on the Grand Banks as well as the "French Shore" of Newfoundland in exchange for what Voltaire termed, "a few arpents of snow". The French presence in North America, an empire which once stretched from Labrador to Louisiana, was reduced to these islands' 242 square kilometers.
Resettlement of the islands by French fishermen and refugees from British ruled Acadia began shortly after Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years War in 1763. The British returned soon after France entered into alliance with the American revolutionists. Admiral Montague's troops debarked in Saint Pierre in 1778 and expelled the colonists. The archipelago was returned to France under a second Treaty of Paris in 1783. Eight thousand fishermen were arriving at the start of each cod season and over two hundred buildings had been erected when war broke out again. The Royal Navy appeared once more in the harbor of Saint Pierre and once more the inhabitants were deported. Saint Pierre was restored to France under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 but before the exiles could return war erupted yet again. The British would occupy the islands for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars. A third Treaty of Paris, signed in 1815, finally established the French sovereignty which has continued uninterupted to the present day.
France took scant notice of this remnant of New France after the Emperor’s defeat. The Navy maintained a small presence but civil administration was practically non-existent until 1877 when the island’s naval commandant gave way to a Governor responsible to the Minister for Colonies.
The productivity of the colony’s cod fishery began to soar at the beginning of the 1880s. Thanks to improved nets, dories and processing equipment Saint Pierre became the busiest fishing port on the Atlantic. The islands’ golden age lasted for the next quarter century.
The dawn of a new century cast darkness over Saint Pierre’s once shining economy. Newfoundland’s legislature passed a "Bait Bill" barring export of live bait to the islands. France abandoned its rights to establish seasonal fishing camps on the "French shore" in 1904. The dories gave way to large trawlers. The population of the colony plummeted 30% in the three years beginning with 1904. The number of fishing boats dropped from 200 in 1902 to just 70 in 1907. The colony’s economic woes continued through the First World War in which a fifth of the islands’ five hundred man contingent perished.
Saint Pierre made a dramatic recovery following the war. The United States Congress passed the Volstead Act barring the manufacture, sale or importation of alcohol in 1920 but the French government maintained that export of alcohol from St. Pierre was perfectly legal since no crime occurred until ships carrying it entered American waters. France went a step further in 1922. President Millerand signed a decree granting Saint Pierre and Miquelon preferred status in the colonial liquor trade. Rum Runners built several large warehouses and anchored a fleet of booze trawlers in Saint Pierre. Taxes on "legal" alcohol exports now underwrote most of the colony’s budget. The islands’ number one taxpayer, Al Capone paid a visit to his Saint Pierre operation in 1927.
Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 and shortly thereafter Prohibition ended. Saint Pierre was no longer the preferred distribution center for whisky, liqueurs and aperitifs entering the United States. The colony’s happy days were gone again. Saint Pierre was thrust into the misery of the Great Depression. The suddenly reduced circumstances of the population spawned demonstrations and political turmoil. Governor Barrillot writing the Minister for Colonies in 1934 described the situation of the colony as, "becoming impossible" but Paris refused further subsidies. To keep order, the Government sent a corvette along with an Inspector General of Colonies who recommended "a reduction in the standard of living".
The Popular Front government elected in 1936 instituted a "New Deal" for metropolitan France but its policies did little to alleviate the sufferings of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The islands’ governor was replaced by a less costly administrator. Municipal government was abolished and responsibility for the budget transferred from the resident administrator to bureaucrats in the Ministry for Colonies. Separation of Church and State laws instituted in France in 1905 were now made applicable to the colony but their implementation was delayed by the administrator under pressure from the local clergy. The Cures continued to be paid a government salary and housing subsidy. Economic misery continued unabated. The islands’ few trees disappeared for few Saint Pierrais could afford the Nova Scotia coal formerly used for heating. Many families were forced to immigrate to Canada.
World War Two
Saint Pierre and Miquelon mobilized with the rest of the French Empire in September, 1939. The colony contributed 550 soldiers and sailors to the doomed cause. Twenty seven of them never returned. Enthusiasm for the conflict was not entirely universal. The Popular Front’s policies had not been very popular with the islanders, especially among those in the colony’s business and clerical elite.
Though no fighting took place on the islands, the June, 1940 armistice left St. Pierre and Miquelon in a most precarious situation. Its nearest neighbor, Newfoundland, was under the rule of a British controlled commission and Britain supported de Gaulle. Canada and the neutral United States recognized Vichy as the legitimate government of France but froze French assets. The entire Atlantic coast of metropolitan France was occupied by Germany. The population of the colony soared as the French Admiralty ordered fishing trawlers and their crews to remain in St. Pierre. The islands were incapable of sustaining agriculture and with no foreign exchange to pay for imported goods, famine became an imminent possibility. Finally, Canada and the United States agreed to release $80,000 a month in frozen assets to provide relief for St. Pierre and Miquelon.
There was strong sympathy for General de Gaulle, especially among the veterans of the Great War but the Vichy administrator’s control of relief funds provided him with great leverage over expressions of public opinion.
June 22, 1940 - December, 1941
A cache of secret telegrams from the islands Administrator, Baron Gilbert de Bournat to the Minister of Colonies in Vichy provides a glimpse of life in St. Pierre and Miquelon under the collaborationist Petain regime. The messages are so sensitive that the drafts, recovered by Free French investigators after the liberation, found in the Baron’s own handwriting rather than his secretary’s. A few samples...
"Your telegram 37 of March 7. First, all persons named in your telegram are effectively considered as having been active or passive partisans of the de Gaullist movement; plus a large part of the local population, with almost complete unanimity of the crews of the metropolitan fishing vessels that have sojourned in St. Pierre during the second semester."
"In view of the special situation of the colony, surrounded by British territories, with its sole maritime connections assured by British vessels, with all its supplies originating in British or Anglo-Saxon territories, deprived since the armistice of all information and saturated with British or de Gaullist propaganda, the misleading of many appeared to me excusable. Therefore, besides several severe reprimands, I decided it more politic to apply myself to the transferring of Guillot, several dismissals of local auxiliary functionaries old enough (to be retired) and the cancellation of the veterinary le Bolloch." The Guillot referred to is apparently Emile Guillot the chief magistrate of the islands.
The Administrator often writes of , "British pressure to rally to the British or de Gaullist causes." The British, he notes, had sent a representative of the Government of Newfoundland to offer supplies, means of communication and financial assistance in exchange for the fishing trawlers anchored at St. Pierre. "For three days, I opposed courtesy and firmness to the interested party." Vichy responds by dispatching the sloop Ville d’Ys to St. Pierre with orders to fire on any British ship coming within 20 miles of the islands.
Attempts to supply the colony from the continent come to a halt de Bournat reports on the subsequent crisis. "July 12, 1940 - Food situation is critical and worsening steadily because of depletion of stocks and continuous arrival, on the order of the Admiralty, of metropolitan fishing vessels, which will end by increasing by 50% the local population of the principal city and by increasing by 200% the male population between the ages of 16 and 50. In order to prevent panic I must intervene to restrict withdrawals from the banks and from government savings bank accounts. ... I must keep the local shops open for propaganda purposes in order to smooth out all difficulties and (prevent) immediate rally to Great Britain and de Gaulle. Population getting nervous. A strict observation of regulations would inevitably result in rebellion. In my opinion everything must be attempted to prevent it."
"September 8, 1940 - Several hundred French seamen and a few local persons discontented over a gendarmarie arrest caused trouble to the cries of ‘Vive de Gaulle." It seems a policeman enter a local café a few minutes after the 8 p.m. curfew, picked up a patron’s glass to smell for alcohol, got the drink thrown in his face. Another patron tossed his drink at the cop and shouted, "smell this too". The gendarme was then bodily throw out into the street where he landed on his face. A crowd gathered to protest the arrests that followed and was broken up with fire hoses.
"September 14, 1940 - Meeting of the Societe des Anciens Combattants drafts address expressing admiration for de Gaulle. Measure is approved almost unanimously."
"September 18, 1940 - President of the Anciens Combattants solicits authorization to post up the address of admiration voted four days previously. I refuse and attempt to show him the error of the society’s ways."
"September 28, 1940 - Conforming to an order received, I leave St. Pierre for Washington to receive secret instructions..."
"October 14, 1940 - I arrived at St. Pierre after twenty seven particularly bad hours spent on the open sea in foul weather...I soon realized that, during my absence, propaganda had made considerable progress, using all means, notably pamphlets, posters and inscriptions, all anonymous. At this time, no mail has arrived from France for four months, during which British and de Gaullist propaganda weighs heavily on the colony and infiltrates from mouth to mouth through foreign newspapers that arrive illegally, through letters from British suppliers who threaten to seize shipments to the colony if it does not become dissident, through British radio, through American radio - French radio being virtually inaudible during this period."
"A word of mouth campaign is started with a view to demanding from the administrator a plebiscite. If he refuses, it will be done in spite of him."
"October 24, 1940 - I learn that the war veterans will hold a meeting this evening and decide on a plebiscite by an imposing majority. With a view to counteracting their maneuver , I inform them late that Comrade de Bournat, anxious to speak to his comrades, will be present at the meeting. ...Hall is half full and surrounded outside by young local people and metropolitans who cry, ‘Vive de Gaulle’. Beginning of meeting difficult because I spoke my mind immediately and crudely concerning certain methods. Finally, calm is re-established and the veterans listen to me for nearly two hours, during which I renew my affirmation that I would personally oppose a plebiscite of any kind."
"During succeeding days all the partisans of dissidence criticize my intervention, but I realize that it has had an influence beyond all my hopes."
"Today it can be affirmed that it was decisive in the history of the local movement. Hereafter, the administrator will be doubly respected."
"November 1, 1940 - In conformity with instructions received, gunboat Ville d’Ys leaves St. Pierre."
"This departure, immediately interpreted as an abandoning of the colony by France, gives new hope to the dissidents, who secretly decide to take advantage of November 11 to make imposing manifestation, get rid of me and proclaim, a rallying to de Gaulle. I am informed of this during evening of November 8."
"Atmosphere becomes charged. Rare are those who dare still support me openly. However, on the one hand, I shall find precious backing from a few of them, including my chief of cabinet, and on the other hand my personal prestige remains intact because although cries of ‘Vive de Gaulle’ are heard almost everywhere, my passage is respected."
"I disseminate undercover by all means possible that I shall not be got rid of without resistance, that if the colony proclaims its dissidence French naval warships will come to re-establish order and finally and principally, that I am preparing a poster..."
"November 11, 1940 - No official ceremony is contemplated, this having been held November 2. However, several hundred persons are assembled on the main square, but enthusiasm is lacking. Many are suspicious and want to wait to see what my poster will contain. The more militant feel less supported, lose courage. The day passes in this atmosphere."
"November 12, 1940 - My poster, of which 100 copies have been put up and which denounces false rumors and demonstrates the error of a change of attitude, is commented upon the whole day enthusiastically. People are beginning to realize.."
"Each point bears fruit and this evening one feels the fight is won. Those who are hesitant, those who are lukewarm and a few converts react n an evident manner, and I may from this moment guarantee the loyalty of the colony. I will receive during the next days numerous expressions of sympathy and loyalty. Without doubt the partisans of dissidence have not vanished abruptly, but their setback has dimmed their influence and there remains for me only to enlarge the success and this I have endeavored to do daily, using all means."
"I respectfully request mark of your solicitude for population of archipelago, which is subject to rigorous climate, deprived almost totally of amusements and possibility of working normally, and completely isolated from mother country."
December 12, 1941
U.S. Admiral Frederick Horne and Vichy High Commissioner for the West Indies, Admiral Georges Robert conclude an agreement for the "neutralization" of the French Caribbean fleet and French colonies in the West Indies.
Vice Admiral Emil Henri Muselier, Commander in Chief of the Free French Naval Force arrives in Halifax, Canada to inspect the submarine Surcouf and the corvettes Mimosa, Aconit and Alysse which are stationed here on escort duty. General de Gaulle, fearing an extension of the Horne - Robert Agreement to include Saint Pierre and Miquelon, orders Muselier to assemble his forces and prepare to liberate islands as so as practicable.
December 16, 1941
General de Gaulle contacts the Foreign Office to apprise them of his intentions in regard to Saint Pierre. The British raise no objections of their own but urge a postponement until American opposition subsides. Shortly thereafter, London informs de Gaulle that the Canadian Government in agreement with the United States has decided to land its own troops on Saint Pierre with the intention of silencing the island’s radio transmitter. The General delivers a sharp protest against foreign intervention in French territory to both London and Washington.
Admiral Muselier, acting on his own and without the knowledge of Free French headquarters, contacts the Canadian Government and the American embassy in Ottawa requesting their assent to his mission. The U.S. State Department delivers a resounding NO! to Muselier via its ambassador in Ottawa. The Admiral delivers his assurances to both governments that operation will be canceled. De Gaulle countermands the Admiral and once again orders him to proceed as soon as possible.
December 22, 1941
Admiral Muselier notifies the Royal Navy that he is taking the Surcouf and the three corvettes to sea for maneuvers before joining its convoy for the return to England.
Christmas Eve, 1941
The predawn blackness over the frigid waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is broken by the flash of signal lamps, "Execute the mission ordered.". A Free French task force slips past the undefended entrance to the harbor of Saint Pierre. A lookout reports no signs of life on shore. His Captain replies, "They sleep and dream of us for Christmas.". The mail boat to Miquelon approaches and is ordered to turned about and follow along side. It complies. A fishing dory emerges from the mist and passes the flotilla unmolested. The corvettes near the snow covered coal wharf. A solitary figure, an ancient Breton fisherman, spies the Cross of Lorraine and races down the Quai de Ronciere. The click clack of the old man’s sabots on the icy pavement and his bilingual curses, "Petain, le sacre bleu cochon, le old goat!" can be heard across the whole of the island. Sailors on the first of the ships to brush the dock toss him the bowline. As he secures it to the bollard the man exclaims again, "Vive de Gaulle, at last I can say it. Vive de Gaulle!".
Free French sailors and marines in full battle dress race from their ships. By now a crowd of bleary eyed Saint Pierrais has gathered to cheer them on with shouts of Vive de Gaulle!, Vive Muselier! Homemade banners, Tricolors emblazoned with Croix de Lorraine, flutter in the chill North Atlantic breeze. The assault force, intent on seizing the town’s key administrative centers; the town hall, post office, telegraph station and radio transmitter, seems oblivious to their welcome. They meet no resistance. The island’s 11 gendarmes surrender their Vichy supplied machine guns and offer to assist in rounding up the usual suspects. Not a shot is fired nor a drop of blood spilled.
The operation is over in half an hour. The Vichy Administrator, an aristocratic Parisian, Gilbert Baron de Bournat, is taken into custody and led off to the Aconit, Muselier’s flagship. The assembled crowd taunts him with shouts of Vive de Gaulle! The Administrator stops short of the gangplank, turns about, silences the mob with an intimidating glare, and snaps off a crisp, "Vive Petain!".
Admiral Muselier makes his way to the town hall where he reads a proclamation:
"Inhabitants of the French islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon;
Afterwards, the Admiral meets with the local functionaries and asks them to remain at their posts until the plebiscite has been held. "As a Christmas present, Free France will give you what she has to bestow - liberty." One man, Henri Moraze, who presents himself as a simple shopkeeper but who in fact is the island’s richest man, is held in custody. Muselier asks if it is true that Moraze has acted a an agent of Vichy. The shopkeeper replies, "Yes, but I had to." The Admiral cuts him short. " I regret, exceedingly but I have no time for your explanations now. The time for explanations will come later." The manager of the radio transmitter, an ardent supporter of Vichy named de Lort, is placed under house arrest after explaining that his daughter is suffering from bronchial pneumonia. Muselier having just recovered from a bout of the same illness, gives de Lort the remains of the medicine he has brought from England.
Still later in the evening the commander of the corvette dispatched to the larger but less populated island of Miquelon returns to Saint Pierre to report his mission accomplished and an enthusiastic reception from the inhabitants.
President Roosevelt is conferring with Winston Churchill at the White House when Secretary of State, Cordell Hull interrupts to announce the seizure. The grand strategists of the Allied war effort chuckle and brush the matter off but Hull is livid. The Secretary protests the action as a threat to his carefully crafted policy designed to prop up Vichy in hopes it will stand firm against German demands for the remains of the French fleet and bases in North Africa. Hull further denounces the actions of those he terms, "the so-called Free French" as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and the Havana Convention’s proclamation that the American republics will tolerate no transfer of European possessions in the western hemisphere as a consequence of the war. Hull threatens to resign unless Roosevelt backs his demands for a restoration of the status quo in St. Pierre and Miquelon. Roosevelt agrees to persue the matter.
The so called Free French have been found in contempt by Judge Hull. Fortunately for them, the case will be tried in the court of American public opinion. By chance, a competent defense attorney in the person of New York Times reporter Ira Wolfert has accompanied Muselier’s fleet from Canada. The standoff between Free France and the State Department becomes a cause celebre. The fate of a few small fishing villages shares the spotlight with that of Hong Kong and Manila.
America, barely two weeks at war and still reeling from the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific, awakes a small glimmer of brightness. Bold black headlines atop the nation’s newspapers shout,
"FREE FRENCH SEIZE ST. PIERRE AND MIQUELON ISLANDS".
Muselier’s plebiscite is trumpeted to the world as, "the first free expression of opinion permitted Frenchmen who have been governed since the Summer of 1940 by ‘we Henri Philippe Petain". As in France, only males are enfranchised but the age of eligibility is reduced from 21 to 18. The action does little to enlarge the electorate. Since the beginning of the war 150 young islanders have left for Canada and Newfoundland to join the Free French.
Voting proceeds on St. Pierre. The only alternative printed on the ballots is, "Ralliement a la France Libre" or, "Collaboration avec les Puissances de l’Axe". Voters are handed pencils and told to cross out the statement they oppose. The finally tally; 650 for Free France, 10 for collaboration. 100 ballots are voided. Most of the invalidated ballots have been left unmarked, an action presumed by most observers to indicate illiteracy rather than a desire to abstain or hidden pro-Axis sentiments. A few voters have expressed their dissatisfaction with the range of alternatives. On his ballot one scrawls, "Petain is not a German", another, "Vive Petain" and still another, "I want the France of Jeanne d’Arc.".
While St. Pierrais are busy exercising their franchise the State Department has busied itself with a diplomatic counter attack. Foggy Bottom releases its first public statement,
Spokesmen for the Department proceed to justify the position as upholding the Monroe Doctrine and a recently concluded agreement between Admiral Horne and Vichy High Commissioner, Admiral Georges Robert for the neutralization of French possessions in the West Indies and the Caribbean fleet.
Vichy now gives vent to its suspicions. A spokesman for the French Embassy in Ottawa absolves Canada and speculates that the seizure of the islands has its origins in Newfoundland (at the time the island is being governed by a British appointed commission and is not part of Canada). The Vichy press attaché goes further, declaring that the action coming at a time when the Marshal is under increasing attack from the German press is a "worse blunder than Dakar".
Friday - December 26, 1941
Plebiscite held on the Ile aux Marins under supervision of the parish priest, Father Lebris. The result, 63 votes for Free France and 3 ballots voided.
Axis shortwave stations broadcast reports of a blood bath on St. Pierre and relay a bulletin, alleged to have come from Boston Navy Yard, "1,000 refugees have left from St. Pierre and are en route over roaring seas in ramshackle craft to safety in the United States and Canada."
A New York Times editorial praises Muselier’s expedition for the way in which its task, "was accomplished with a display of style and manners in the best tradition of Alexandre Dumas. As an episode in a conflict sadly lacking in chivalrous gestures and romantic flourishes of old fashioned wars, fought between soldiers according to set rules, it made a colorful story..." but the editors go on to adopt the official line. "As an exploit the incident was picturesque but as an act of policy it seems to have been a blunder." they end with a rehash of the argument that support for Vichy can balance the scales against Hitler.
The Times news columns also take on a more "balanced" tone. Wolfert’s analysis of dictatorship as practiced under Baron de Bournat portrays the local version of Petainism as Vichy-light. True the Baron had faithfully implemented all of Vichy’s decrees but while, "Vichy’s anti-Semitic laws were solemnly made effective here, too,...the population was more puzzled by them than anything else, since no Jews live here." An attempt was made to form a chapter of the Chantiers de Jeunesse, a French imitation of the Hitler Youth, but no one joined or was forced to join. The French Legion, the only legal party, enrolled 125 members but most joined under pressure from their employers and the organization never held a meeting. Vichy had withdrawn the fishing fleet from the Grand Banks and a third of the islands’ work force was unemployed but the Baron had doled out $80,000 a month in relief payments. The money came out of frozen Vichy assets released by Canada and the United States. On the other hand, the Baron had shown himself capable of maintaining discipline by withholding these relief payments from would be troublemakers. Henri Humbert, an instructor of English at the local school, was dismissed for equivocating when asked to take an oath of allegiance to Marshal Petain. Another man was sued for criminal libel when he dared to call a Petainist a "Boche". The man was fined 35 francs and given a 30 day suspended jail sentence. Mme. Henriette Bonin, principal of the girls school was forced to take a three month leave of absence for refusing to lecture from a Vichy propaganda pamphlet. The local chapter of the Societe des Anciens Combattants (war veterans) was ordered dissolved after passing a pro-Gaullist resolution in September, 1940.
The Times competitors are less sympathetic towards the administration’s stance. The Post opines, "The State Department has tried cajolery, bribery, blindness, and stupidity in bidding against Hitler for Vichy’s support. Now it is trying treachery." The Herald Tribune issues a sharp rejoinder to the Secretary’s "so called Free French ships" remark. "Perhaps they were pink elephants."
Saturday - December 27, 1941
Vichy announces its satisfaction with Washington’s condemnation of the "so called Free French" and assurances in regards to restoration of the pre-Christmas Eve status quo. "The French Government has appreciated the promptness with which the Federal Government has made known its desire to maintain its position, and to see the status quo restored in the French islands. In any case the action of the de Gaullists forces remain in the final analysis subordinated to the decision of the Anglo-Saxon countries. France hopes, therefore, that early re-establishment of the state of affairs obtaining before the events of December 24th will give her satisfaction." The Colonial Ministry’s communiqué further notes that "Admiral Muselier has been disavowed by the United States" and that he had left the French Navy, "where his reputation for probity and honor was not intact."
Sunday - December 28, 1941
Gaston Henry-Haye, Vichy’s ambassador to Washington, emerges from a one hour session with Secretary Hull and expresses his confidence that an agreement can be reached on Allied supervision of Saint Pierre’s radio station to prevent transmission of secret messages to Axis submarine and restoration of sovereignty over the islands to Vichy. "As far as the wireless station is concerned, that has been used only for fishermen, but I think that there will not be any shadow of doubt that nothing dangerous is transmitted over the station."
Free French headquarters in London counter with a communiqué charging deposed Administrator de Bournat with conducting a, "reign of terror" against Gaullists on St. Pierre and Miquelon.
On the islands, as fears of an agreement between Washington and Vichy mount, Admiral Muselier puts his forces on alert. St. Pierre’s territorial waters are closed to foreign warships and overflights by aircraft prohibited. Baron de Bournat and his German wife are moved from captivity in their home to a cabin aboard one of the Free French corvettes. The Admiral announces formation of a Home Guard and begins distribution of arms to the local civilians. The alert is canceled after two hours.
Wolfert reports a few signs of dissension are beginning to appear as a result of Axis propaganda, "Two arrests were made early in the day - ... The two men confined were known Petain supporters. They were said to have become excited by radio reports and to have been assuring patrons of a café that the Petain regime would be re-established soon and reprisals would be taken. One will be released tomorrow and the other, the town’s butcher, will be charged with ‘inciting to riot’ and tried in civil court.
Monday - December 29, 1941
Results of the plebiscite on Miquelon, last of the archipelago’s three inhabited islands to vote, Free French 69, Collaboration with the Axis 4, voided ballots 72. Eighteen of the voided ballots are cast with some reference to Petain scrawled on them, a few call for the Free French and Petain and a handful bear slogans - "A bas les Boches" or "Vive de Gaulle". One voter pens, "Vive le Paix" , i.e. long live peace. Admiral Muselier broadcasts his thanks to the voters and reiterates his commitment to their cause, "In my long career as a soldier and sailor I have never abandoned any position.".
A communiqué from Free French headquarters in London announces a forthcoming "exchange of views" between General de Gaulle and interested Allied governments regarding the fate of the islands.
Vichy announces that it has received official word, "that the United States has taken the initiative in an effort to effect the voluntary withdrawal of Free French occupation forces at St. Pierre and Miquelon". The collaborationist press in Paris hails the news. Le Temps declares, "Washington’s prompt reaction is a severe lesson to dissidents.".
Wolfert reports the Free French are prepared to resist any effort to dislodge them from the islands.
Vichy maybe cheered by Washington’s assurances but the administration is foundering with the American public if the letters published in the New York Times are any indication....
"The Free French must be shocked and disillusioned by the United States movement to return the converted islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon to Vichy.
- A writer from Philadelphia
"So the State Department would sacrifice St. Pierre and Miquelon and the grail of Free France to the Fuehrer, god of Vichy, Herr Hitler. So decency, morality and humanity are mere pawns to our statesmen! Shall Gethsemane be transferred to Miquelon?
- A writer from New Jersey
Tuesday - December 30. 1941
Monsignor A. Poisson, Apostolic Prefect of the islands of St. Pierre, Miquelon and Ile aux Marins posts a message on the bulletin board of his church,
"My brothers: You have the right to know what your Apostolic Prefect, chief of your souls, did yesterday. Enlightened by three days of observation, reflection and prayers, I went to the Admiral, who was attended by two officers, in order to tell him:
The monsignor’s announcement comes as a surprise in view of his record of scrupulously distancing the Church from politics during the Vichy era. Admiral Muselier responds by calling a meeting at the town hall to deny charges of pressuring the Monsignor (whom reporters have elevated to the status of "Bishop" without the knowledge of the Vatican). "I regret very much to have to declare, that Bishop Poisson is in error when he states I sought to force him to be neutral; I only asked him to be neutral." The Admiral went on to say that one of the reasons Monsignor Poisson gave for his objection to the plebiscite was that the people of St. Pierre, being colonials, had no right to change their government. Muselier finds an appreciative audience amongst the gathered locals who respond to his declarations with, "Vive France Libre!" Afterwards officials announce that the salary, housing and heating allowances previously paid to the clergy by the government will continue to be paid as usual.
British envoy, Lord Halifax arrived in Washington to discuss a proposed agreement on St. Pierre and Miquelon with Secretary Hull. No progress is reported in the talks but the Secretary receives some favorable coverage in the press. New York Times columnist, Arthur Krock, delivers an eloquent rehash of the arguments in favor the administration’s pro-Vichy policy in relations with the French.
Vichy announces the promotion of Baron de Bournat within the Legion of Honor.
Friday - January 2, 1942
The Roosevelt administration’s St. Pierre and Miquelon policy comes under attack once again. This time in the form of a telegram. The wire asks the President to reverse the State Department’s course and is signed by fifty prominent American writers including Carl Sandburg, William Agar, Grenville Clark, Maxwell Anderson, Stephen Vincent Benet, Rex Stout and Franklin P. Adams.
Times Columnist, Arthur Krock, also comes in for criticism for his belated apologia for administration policy. A letter to the editor attacks Krock’s reasoning which the author declares, "...ignores the fundamental and sole purpose of the Havana Convention, namely, to prevent the European possessions in the New World from falling directly or indirectly under control of the Axis powers. Hence, it is a curious perversion of logic and of law to say that the transfer from the Axis-controlled Vichy Government to a government (the Free French) more truly representative of French sovereignty and nationality is a violation of the Havana Convention.
Saturday - January 3, 1942
All prisoners taken into custody by the Free French with the exception of Baron de Bournat are released. Henri Moraze, the colony’s wealthiest man and most prominent of the detainees, immediately sets to work fulfilling a contract to supply the Home Guard with uniforms.
Free French officials express confidence that the British will intercede on their behalf to resolve the islands’ budget deficit. The $80,000 per month shortfall had previously been made up by release of frozen French assets in Canada and the United States, neither of which recognize Free France.
Sunday - January 4, 1942
Vichy formally extends its wartime emergency laws, providing penalties for activities jeopardizing the position of the state, to St. Pierre and Miquelon, Guiana, Guadeloupe and Reunion.
Ira Wolfert reports from St. Pierre - " Proof has been discovered in the files of the radio station here that movements of Allied warships were signaled to Vichy in code by the preceding administration. Other proof was produced in the Middle East, according to Admiral Muselier, that Vichy has the habit of communicating secret military information about the Allies to the Nazis." In response to Wolfert’s questions regarding rumors of a settlement between the U.S., Canada and Vichy, Muselier declares, "There is no power in the world that can remove me or my men alive from these islands."
Monday - January 5, 1942
Free French officials announce the discovery of a cache of secret telegrams from Administrator
German radio reports that the United States has forced the Free French to leave St. Pierre and Miquelon. Vichy’s man in Washington, Ambassador Henry-Haye denies the report. A representative in Montreal confirms that Free French forces are still in possession of the islands and will remain their despite any outside pressures.
Thursday - January 10, 1942
Secretary Hull tells a press conference that a solution to the St. Pierre Question is near but provides no particulars. A United Press report declares that the Free French have agreed to evacuate the islands and the only remaining question is how to do it with the least embarrassment to all parties concerned.
Admiral Muselier issues a sharp rebuff when queried about reports of an impending evacuation declaring:
Canadian Press reports, "St. Pierre Radio Used Code Known to Axis - Free French officials (on St. Pierre) today release the text of a telegram they said was sent from Vichy last July 22 (1940) shortly after the fall of France and received here via Martinique. It read:
Monday - January 12, 1942
The New York Times reports:
Tuesday - January 13, 1942
Secretary of State Hull tells a news conference, "... no insult to the Free French had been intended when the term, ‘so called Free French ships’ was employed in the State Department’s statement in connection with the Christmas Eve occupation of St. Pierre and Miquelon. The ‘so called’ referred to the ships and not to the Free French." The Secretary insisted that he would not explain the State Department’s position on the issue because it was too complicated.
Wednesday - January 14, 1942
General de Gaulle meets with Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. Eden is under orders from Churchill to tell the Free French leader that the islands must be "neutralized" under Allied control and without the participation of the French National Committee. De Gaulle stands firm and the conversation turns to not so subtitle threats. Eden hints that the Americans may send a destroyer or two to St. Pierre.
Friday - January 16, 1942
New York Times report from James Reston in Washington: "General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French movement, has been asked to settle the issue over the occupation of St.Pierre and Miquelon by withdrawing his ships to the St. Lawrence River while the people there vote on whether they wish Free French or Vichy leadership." The report goes on to state that the State Department is hoping to resolve the matter before the inter-American conference at Rio adjourns.
Monday - January 19, 1942
Washington - Secretary Hull meets with French National Committee envoy Adrien Trixier to deliver an explanation of the reasoning for American policy to date.
Thursday - January 22, 1942
London - Churchill and Eden meet with de Gaulle. The Prime Minister proposes an agreement under which the Free French would keep the islands and allow a face saving communiqué to be issued by Washington, London and Ottawa. The General agrees and the matter of St. Pierre and Miquelon drops off the diplomatic radar screen of the Allied governments. The communiqué is never issued. The month long controversy ends in victory for the stripe shirted sailors and fishermen over the striped pantsed diplomats.
The situation in St. Pierre and Miquelon was most precarious in the first few weeks following the liberation. Requests to the Free French committee in London for funds to replace the $80,000 a month relief paid to islanders during Vichy’s administration went unanswered. Starvation was once more a possibility. The short term fiscal crisis was solved by a Marcel Benda the Muselier expedition’s propaganda officer who was also a philatelist. Benda was directing the publication of the Admiral’s proclamation when he discovered the plates and paper for producing the colony’s postage stamps in the local government printing shop. He immediately set about printing limited edition stamps for sale to collectors in the United States and Canada. Muselier was initially opposed to the venture, especially after the islands were threatened with an invasion of stamp dealers seeking to make a killing in the market for the rare Free French overprints, but later relented. The situation then took a scandalous turn. After the Admiral’s departure, it was discovered that Benda had sold $60,000 worth of stamps for $7000. He was replaced as head of the venture in March, 1942 and later served a prison sentence in Canada.
Admiral Muselier left St. Pierre for London on February 28, 1942. Upon arrival he launched an unsuccessful challenge to General de Gaulle’s leadership. He was then replaced as commander in chief of the Free French Naval Force and ended his involvement with the movement.
Baron de Bournat and his wife were repatriated to Vichy by way of the United States and neutral Iberian countries. Before his departure, Muselier, appointed 25 year old Naval Reserve Lieutenant Alain Savary, Governor. Savary went on to serve as the first Deputy (and later Senator) elected to represent Saint Pierre and Miquelon in the National Assembly when the islands were made an overseas territory in 1946.
Following the liberation 398 St. Pierre et Miquelonais joined the Free French Army, 38 served in the Free French Naval Force and 53 in the Women’s Corps of the Free French Naval Force. Some twenty of these made the ultimate sacrifice for liberte, egalite et fraternite.
The most extraordinary of the Free French islanders was, Constant Colmay, a battalion commander in the Fusiliers Marin. Colmay joined the Free French on July 1, 1940 with the 1st Regiment of Fusiliers Marin, fought in the Middle East: Libyan, Tunisian and Italian campaigns; the landings in Provence and liberation of France, and later in Indochina. Colmay was twice wounded and later made a Companion of the Liberation, Commander of the Legion of Honor, Officer of the Royal Order of Cambodia and awarded the Military Medal; Croix de Guerre with 10 citations, 6 palms and 3 stars; Medal of the Resistance with Rosette; the Air Medal; a United States Bronze Star; and the Colonial Medal for service in Libya, Bir Hakeim, Tripolitania and Tunisia.
Saint Pierre and Miquelon was neither the first nor the last of the French colonies to rally to cause of liberation from fascism nor was the controversy surrounding its liberation the most intense of the many diplomatic struggles between Free France and its allies but General de Gaulle retained a lifelong affection for this small bit of France in America. His 1967 visit to St. Pierre was the first by a French head of state.
Under the constitution of the Fourth Republic, inaugurated in 1946, the status of St. Pierre and Miquelon was raised from colony to overseas territory and the islanders were represented in the National Assembly for the first time by an elected deputy and senator. The status of the islands was raised to that of overseas department on a par with those of metropolitan France in 1956.
A Note About Sources
Most of the forgoing information was gleaned from contemporary reports of the events as published in newspapers and magazines. The sources frequently differ in minor details. The New York Times reporter on the scene described the St. Pierrais who greeted the Free French on the docks only as "a small dark figure". A week later Time gave the more colorful details of the gentleman’s background and reactions. One reporter described the islanders arriving at the polls in dog sleds another felt the need to add that the sleds were pulled by Newfoundland dogs. The journalists promoted the Apostolic Prelate of the Catholic Church to a Bishopric and Administrator de Bournat to governor. Neither the Vatican nor Vichy was apprised of the promotions. Journalistic sloppiness or artistic license? Who’s to say? Is Wolfert’s eye witness reporting more reliable than reports produced by rivals with more distant deadlines or did the editors of Time feel the need to make a colorful yarn a little more colorful? Perhaps it is getting too late to really find out the truth but I doubt that such minute discrepancies add or detract much from the essential historical facts. Another discrepancy in the reporting is more easily explained. The State Department’s press release mentions, "three so-called Free French ships" while news reports speak of "four corvettes" neither mentions the ships names. This is undoubtedly, the result of wartime censorship. Admiral Muselier’s task force consisted of three corvettes and a fourth vessel, the submarine Surcouf. The ill fated submarine is a prominently featured on a stamp issued by the St. Pierre and Miquelon post office to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the liberation in 1966.
If this article has peaked your interest in this small bit of France in North America. If you’d like plan a journey there or take a virtual tour down St. Pierre’s Rues Muselier or des France Libres or take a look at the monument aux morts in the Place 11 Novembre visit the Encyclopedia of Saint Pierre and Miquelon website. Just about everything there is to know about the islands is on this site including pictures of General de Gaulle’s 1967 visit, details of the Free French philatelic scandal, complete lists of St. Pierrais and Miquelonais who served with the forces of Free France etc., etc. The site is mostly in French but the homepage and many others are also available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Breton and Basque and of course the fine photos speak a universal language. The amount of information available for such a small territory is amazing.See also...
The pictures were provided by the Encyclopedia of Saint Pierre and Miquelon website. Special thanks goes to Marc Cormier for reviewing the article.
by Richard Doody
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