Henri Giraud, the French general who escaped from his prison in the two world wars

Henri Honoré Giraud was one of the outstanding personalities of the France of the WWIIto the point of not only being considered among the fathers of the Fourth Republic, but also that shortly before it had been CFLN co-chair (Comité Français de la Libération Nationale) together with De Gaulle, who in the end managed to postpone him and assume all the prominence.

But the facet of Giraud that interests us here is his extraordinary ability to escape from German prisons in which he was confined.

This shady and ambiguous character was born at the beginning of 1879 in Paris, son of a humble family. Although his father was engaged in the sale of coal, he made an effort to provide him with a good education and after he went through several schools he entered the Sait-Cyr military academy in 1898.

Upon graduation, he was assigned to North Africa, until the outbreak of the First World War took him back to France.

He was in command of a regiment of Zouaves when it turned out seriously injured in combat, falling into the hands of the enemy on August 30, 1914. His wounds caused an infection that led to pleurisy, inflammation of the pleura that causes terrible pain when breathing, and he spent two months recovering at the Origny-Sainte-Benoite hospital. .

After that time, he must have improved enough to carry out his first feat: elope in the company of another officer. He returned to French territory in an odyssey that led him to cross the Netherlands to move from The Hague to England and then arrive in his country by boat.

Congratulations by all, Giraud was incorporated into the General Staff of the Fifth Army, under the orders of General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, returning to the front. He participated in the battle of Chemin des Dames and in the capture of Fort Malmaison, to later fight in the Balkans. After the war was over, he was still in Constantinople when General Henri Mordacq asked him to collaborate in his military reform project.

Then he found a new assignment in the same land where he had started, the protectorate of Morocco, where, having already reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, he served under the command of the famous General Hubert Lyautey in the rif war: it was to Giraud that he surrendered Abdelkrimthe winner of the Spanish in Annual, the spring of 1926. This gave him the legion of honor and a couple of quiet years at the head of L’École de Guerre, until 1929.

He then returned to Africa to pacify the Moroccan border with Algeria, where the Berbers had taken up arms. By then he had reached the generalship -of a brigade- and as such remained in Oran until in 1936 it became a division and was named military governor of Metz. There she met for the first time -but not the last- with Charles de Gaulle, whose superior she was and with whom her bad relationship was immediately clear.

He was not the only one with whom he had disagreements. Around those dates he was probed by Eugene Delonclea founder politician of the cagoule (La Campana), an extreme right-wing terrorist organization that aspired to carry out an armed uprising against the Third Republic in France similar to the one led by Franco in Spain (in fact, it collaborated with him by sending him weapons), with the aim of establishing a dictatorship military man.

Giraud promised him support but only in case of a communist revolution. In any case, Deloncle was discovered and arrested in 1937, and the general escaped unscathed by not having explicitly committed himself.

Then came the WWII. Following his conservative ideology, Giraud was opposed to French participation, a commitment made with the German invasion of Poland. He also disagreed with de Gaulle’s tactic of using armored divisions offensively.

However, being in command of the Seventh Army, in May 1940 he had to go to the border with the Netherlands, following the Dyle-Breda Plan of General Gamelin to protect that area from a possible enemy invasion.

The German invasion of France in May 1940/Image: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

At that time, after the fall of Poland, the German operations stopped for a while -what became known as the Joke War- and there was only a timid attack on France through the Saarland, since Belgium and the Netherlands were neutral. But then the Wehrmacht broke in violently and Giraud had to do his best to try to contain them in Breda.

The Gallic casualties forced the remnants of the Seventh and the Ninth to be merged and the command was given to him; what he did not know is that the Ninth actually no longer existed, having been annihilated. Looking for him, Giraud was taken prisoner of General Von Kleist.

Given his graduation, they did not send him to a camp but to Königsteina fortress set up as a prison for commanders, which is why it was popularly known as the Saxony Bastille.

It was -and still is- a massive castle, with thick walls, barred windows and a courtyard, which had been located since the 13th century on top of a steep mountain near Dresden; that is to say, in the heart of Germany, which made any escape even more difficult, although that did not discourage Giraud and he immediately began to think of an escape plan.

Königstein Castle today/Photo: Fritz-Gerald Shröeder on Wikimedia Commons

Curiously, since his confinement he sent his Support for the government of Marshal Pétainstating that, in his opinion, the defeat was due to extra-military factors related to the policy of the Third Republic: democracy, parliamentarism, unionism and, in short, loss of authority.

All of this was expressed in a letter to his children that was widely distributed. Perhaps that is why he was granted the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Now, it was one thing to be deeply conservative, and even to feel some sympathy for the Teutonic regime, and another to remain captive. Over the course of two years, in an unprecedented display of tenacity and patience, he dedicated himself to To learn germana memorize a map from the region yahaccumulate wires.

Finally, on April 17, 1942, with the help of other colleagues, he sawed the bars of his window and lowered himself from it using the cable formed by the assembled wires, so that he was able to save the forty-meter precipice.

Giraud walking through the prison/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

He had shaved his lustrous mustache and arranged civilian clothes, which allowed him to blend in unnoticed. Thus, he managed to reach the town of Bad Schandauwhere a contact from the SOE (Special Operations Executive, an espionage and resistance organization created by Churchill, which had thirteen thousand agents spread across Europe), who helped him get to Swiss.

It was a long and tense journey of eight hundred kilometers that did not end there because from the Alpine country he crossed Alsace on foot and reached the vichy francethe one not occupied by the Germans.

that escape caused a sensation. First in Germany, where the Gestapo had desperately searched for him with orders to kill him while Hitler was furious and reproached the German ambassador to France, Otto Abetz, for his clumsiness; and second in this country, where his heroics were enthusiastically celebrated by the Resistance and de Gaulle requested that Giraud be allowed to reach England.

And it is that the Vichy government did not see Giraud’s feat with such good eyes because it compromised him before the Germans and, in fact, his meeting with the prime minister Pierre-Laval was very tense because, according to the politician, the evasion had frustrated the negotiation to free two hundred thousand French prisoners.

Giraud then offered to return to Königstein if Marshal Pétain requested it in writing but, despite the Teutonic pressures, this did not happen.

Giraud settled in Lyon, where he refused to collaborate with the Resistance, which he considered close to communism, but accepted contacts with the Allies, who were already planning to land in North Africa and wanted to have his experience in that area.

Using the pseudonym of king-pin met in Gibraltar with eisenhowerwho asked him to try to convince the forces of the Vichy Government of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to did not resist the imminent Operation Torch.

Disappointed because he expected to have absolute command of the operation, which was granted to Generals D’Astier and Aboulkier, Giraud refused to participate. Ultimately, the Resistance seized power in Algiers, and Admiral François Darlan accepted Allied authority. That meant the occupation of all France by the Wehrmacht and a pique between Darlan and De Gaulle, who did not trust him because of his sympathy with the Vichy regime.

Giraud as president of the CFLN, received in England/Photo: Bert Hardy on Wikimedia Commons

When a royalist assassinated Darlan and Giraud was named to replace him, things got worse; let’s remember that did not exactly get along with De Gaulle and on top of that, he ordered the members of the Resistance to be arrested. Despite everything, it was useful to the allies and they let him do it, getting him to repeal Vichy legislation.

It was from there that he shared the head of the CFLN mentioned at the beginning, but his continuous reluctance to collaborate ended with irritate allieswho openly opted for De Gaulle.

Dismissed, Giraud chose to retire, survived an attack and, after the war, participated in politics without much success because it already had a single protagonist: Charles de Gaulle.

He passed away in 1949 leaving behind two books: A seoul but: la victoire. Algeria 1942-1944 (A single goal: victory. Algiers 1942-1944) and month evasions (My evasions).


Sources

Shadow fighters. The Definitive History of the French Resistance (Robert Gildea)/International Encyclopedia of Military History (James C. Bradford)/American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II (Andrew Buchanan)/Parades and Politics at Vichy (Robert O. Paxton)/Wikipedia/Chemins de Memorie (Ministry of Defense)