Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945

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This study is the product of research undertaken by my late husband Eliezer Yapou largely from 1977 to 1987. It is also to some extent a personal record, as the author himself witnessed many of the events described and was acquainted with some of the protagonists through personal encounters and interviews.

As a correspondent in London during the Second World War he was regularly in touch with the exiled governments and most of their leaders. Later he conducted research on these governments in the Public Record Office in London, at the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères (Quai d’Orsay in Paris, the National Archives in Washington, and in libraries in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and The Hague. He published two articles connected with the subject of this study, “The Autonomy that Never Was,” 1981 (on the question of the Sudetenland), and “Human Rights in Territorial Disputes – the Trieste Precedent,” 1983, both in the Israel Yearbook on Human Rights.

Eliezer Yapou was born in 1908 in Palestine – at that time part of the Ottoman Empire – to parents of Eastern European origin. He studied law in France, obtaining the Doctorat en Droit at the Sorbonne and graduating from the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales of the University of Paris. After working for several years in Paris as a journalist for Ha’aretz (of Tel Aviv) and later in London for two French newspapers (Paris Soir and Le Journal), also covering sessions of the League of Nations in Geneva, he was employed by the Overseas News Agency (an American service) in London during and after the Second World War. He joined the newly formed foreign service of Israel in 1948. Beginning his diplomatic career as Press Attaché in London, he served for thirty years in a number of countries and capacities, several times as a member of Israel’s mission to the United Nations in New York. He completed his diplomatic career in 1976 as Israel’s representative to UNESCO in Paris.

Most of the work on this book was done during the years of his retirement. At his death in 1998 the body of his text was complete, but prolonged illness had prevented him from completing the footnotes, filling in gaps and making necessary corrections. In the last decade of his life he had also been unable to follow recent research and bring his manuscript up to date. But considering the fact that the subject of his study has not received much attention in its entirety, and in view of the amount of material he assembled, it seemed worthwhile to make it accessible to those interested in the extraordinary coalition of exiled governments formed in Great Britain during World War II.

This opinion was shared by two friends without whose encouragement and active assistance I could not have undertaken to publish his work: Dr. Nissim Bar-Yaacov, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the late Ambassador Michael Elizur, of the Israel Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Professor Bar-Yaacov contributed tirelessly and over a long period to the editing of the manuscript and assisted in checking and completing, as far as possible, quotations and sources used, while Ambassador Elizur incorporated the numerous corrections into the manuscript. To both I owe heartfelt thanks.

Yonna Yapou-Kromholz has also copy-edited the manuscript, and Dr. Alfred Kromholz has made it possible for the text to be accessible online.

Edith Yapou
Jerusalem, February 2006


The exile of eight European governments during the Second World War is an extraordinary saga of separate struggles for national survival. It is told here as a whole for the first time, drawing on documentary sources, some of which have been made available only in recent years. In the year between Hitler’s offensives in the West in May 1940 and his invasion of Russia in June 1941, these governments reached England at a time when Britain stood alone against the assault of the Nazi and Fascist powers. What came into being was an unprecedented alliance of governments at war who maintained their sovereignty on foreign soil and together faced the threat of world domination by a cruel tyranny.

The exiled governments also played a significant role in the Grand Alliance formed to overthrow Adolf Hitler’s "New Order". In his memoirs written before his execution in Nuremberg, Ribbentrop spoke of "the national dynamism of these states"[1] and considered this a major cause of the collapse of Nazism.

The sovereignty of these governments was recognized by Britain, the Commonwealth and, when they entered the war, by the Soviet Union and the United States. Each government maintained full-scale diplomatic activity and organized from its base abroad an heroic and determined underground movement at home which transformed itself into a struggle for national liberation. At the end of the war all the occupied countries survived geographically and ethnically, some as independent states within their former frontiers, others with an ethnic base on which to rebuild their national life.

The gradual arrival in London of the exiled governments, as Hitler occupied Europe’s western coast from Narvik to Bayonne and catastrophe overtook one country after another, was not guided by any advance design for constituting the coalition and alliance on British soil which later materialized. Their establishment and the development of their activities in London was an improvised and piecemeal process. The British Government encouraged and helped them to reach the British capital with the primary objective of denying the occupier of their countries any legitimate authority and branding Germany as the usurper of the constitutional government of their countries – and hence of legitimate sovereignty in them. This was achieved. The alliance of the exiled governments with Britain was to have an important role in later developments in the war. The successful arrival of these representatives constituted the first Allied victory in those dark days.

Governments in exile, or the equivalent consisting of a monarch and his retinue, had been known in the past. There was, for example, King James II, who in 1688 sought refuge at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where Louis XIV was his host; and also Louis XVIII, King of France, who in 1814 took refuge in Ghent, where, for 100 days ("les cent jours") between Napoleon’s two abdications, he promoted the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in France. Another type of government in exile appeared during the First World War, when the de jure governments of Belgium and Serbia found refuge at Saint-Adresse in France and on the Greek island of Corfu, respectively, and continued to function abroad after their countries were occupied by the German and Austro-Hungarian armies.

When, a quarter of a century later, the exiled governments landed in Britain, they were not merely escaping from the invaders. It was their intention to persist in the defense of their countries in cooperation with the Allies, to prepare their liberation, and to ensure the continuity of their States. In a more detailed definition of their aim, the French author Maurice Flory wrote that a government in exile is a government that "leaves its territory to win the war, to establish itself on foreign sovereign soil while safeguarding its own sovereignty and being recognized as a government without its territory or its population."[2]

The arrival of the governments in the British Isles raised unprecedented constitutional issues involving the co-habitation and co-existence of sovereign governments on the territory of a host country without interfering with the latter’s territorial supremacy. The consequent legal problems, which were complex, could be solved only within the framework of the Allied common cause. Furthermore, as some legal authorities maintained, "the exemption of a State itself from the jurisdiction of another is not based upon a claim to extraterritoriality, but upon the claim to equality."[3]

The British judiciary, while accepting this claim, added to it a reservation, which introduced the factor of a time limit. In the Amand case of 1942 it recognized that the Dutch governing bodies "or such of them as survive have the right to make and execute acts of legislation which have the force of law during a time of emergency."[4]

In this spirit the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs introduced a bill in Parliament on March 6, 1941, which accorded diplomatic immunity and privileges to members of sovereign Allied governments established in the United Kingdom. He stated that by this act Parliament expressly conferred on the governments in exile "the independent and dignified status to which their position and sovereign power entitles them."[5] This act was preceded by the Allied Forces Act (1940) and followed in turn by the Allied Powers (Maritime Forces) Act, which authorized the establishment of Allied Military and Maritime courts in Britain.

Legally the States over whose destinies the Allied governments had presided until their territories were occupied by the enemy, forcing them to leave and abandon their populations, continued to exist. It was the aim of these governments to ensure this continuity while in exile and after liberation. They could in fact base themselves on Article 43 of the Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, annexed to the Hague Convention of 1907, whose contents supported their aim.[6]

It is apposite to cite in this context a 1915 decision of Germany’s Supreme Court in Leipzig: "Through hostile occupation of enemy country no changes in state boundaries or in state sovereignty legally occur, and the territory in question is in no way acquired by the state through whose troops it is conquered."[7]

Further analysis of the principles of the Covenant of the League of Nations, of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which laid down that war is outlawed as an instrument of national policy, and of the Atlantic Charter – approved unanimously in 1941 by the Allies at St. James’s Palace – paved the way for the doctrines of "implied constitutional power" or "international legitimacy" of the governments in exile on foreign sovereign soil. By mutual consent between partners in the cause of freedom the supremacy of the sovereignty of the host State remained unaffected.

The constitutional legitimacy of these governments did not appear at first to present a particular problem where the monarchies were concerned, with the exception of Belgium, whose government had to entertain the fiction of acting on behalf of le roi prisonnier. When, later, the position of the kings of Yugoslavia and Greece became increasingly contested as a result of upheavals in their homelands, the intervention of the Great Powers – particularly Britain – induced their governments to toe the allied line. Among the republics, the Czechoslovak Republic under President Beneš, who had resigned under duress, gained gradual recognition as the war developed, while the Polish Government under General Sikorski had to part with certain supporters of former Prime Minister Pilsudski and former Foreign Minister Beck before its legitimacy was fully accepted.

* * *

There were significant exclusions from the inter-Allied club. The Free French movement under General Charles de Gaulle was never recognized as the government of France in exile, and it is therefore only briefly referred to here. France’s long absence from the Allied Councils was interrupted only by the symbolic invitation to the French National Committee to represent France at the inter-Allied conferences held at St. James’s Palace in June and September 1941, where the principles of the world to come, formulated in the Atlantic Charter, were proclaimed in common.

It was not until October 23, 1944 – four and a half months after the Normandy landing, and two months after Paris had been liberated – that the Provisional Government of the French Republic headed by De Gaulle was formally recognized by Britain, the United States and the USSR.

De Gaulle’s historic call for resistance had been broadcast from London by the BBC on June 18, 1940, the very day Marshal Pétain decided to sue for an armistice. The forty-nine-year-old general was then a little-known brigadier only recently appointed as French Under-Secretary of War. A few days later he appealed to the Governors-General and military commanders in France’s colonial empire and to General Weygand in France to continue the struggle overseas. De Gaulle then made another broadcast over the BBC on June 23 announcing the formation of a "French National Committee [that] will account for its acts either to the legal and established French Government, as soon as such a one exists, or to the representatives of the people as soon as circumstances allow them to assemble in conditions compatible with liberty, dignity and security."[8] This was followed by a statement of the British Government taking note of the formation of the "provisional French National Committee."[9]

In the absence of any positive response from the French overseas authorities, the British Government on June 28 issued a communiqué declaring that it recognized De Gaulle "as the leader of all free Frenchmen, wherever they may be, who rally to him in support of the Allied cause."[10] This was followed on August 7 by the formal agreement laying down the conditions under which the Free French forces would be organized and British assistance would be forthcoming. However, as Churchill told the War Cabinet, De Gaulle "was recognized as the head not of an independent Government, but of a committee established to facilitate the cooperation of those Frenchmen who were determined to go on fighting the common enemy."[11] This British position was maintained throughout De Gaulle’s Committee’s stay in London. As late as May 1942, at the height of the preparation for the landing in North Africa, Foreign Minister Eden telegraphed Lord Halifax, then British Ambassador in Washington, that it would be a mistake for the United States to recognize the French National Committee as a Government or indeed go any further than Great Britain in the degree of recognition accorded to General de Gaulle."[12]

In fact the British Government’s relations with the Vichy régime were never to be formally broken off, although Pétain’s signing of the armistice with Germany was condemned on June 23 in a French broadcast of the BBC which further affirmed that the British Government "could not recognize the Bordeaux Government [later in Vichy] as that of an independent country."[13] For Britain, engaged in a crippling struggle to keep open the sea lanes in the Mediterranean, it was vital to prevent the French fleet, which had been disarmed and immobilized in Toulon, from falling into German hands and to keep North Africa outside the reach of the Wehrmacht. Hence the Government’s policy to go slow in withdrawing recognition from Marshal Pétain’s government. When the recognition of De Gaulle’s National Committee was discussed in the Foreign Office, it was considered advisable "not to ride two horses at the same time". In the event Britain merely withdrew its Ambassador from Bordeaux when the Franco-German armistice was signed.

In the three years of its stay in London until it was merged into the French Committee of National Liberation in Algiers in June 1943, De Gaulle’s Committee of National Liberation inspired resistance to the Germans and Vichy in both occupied and unoccupied France. All French overseas territories gradually came under the control of the Algiers French Committee of National Liberation.

The tumultuous existence of the Committee, first under the joint presidency of Generals Giraud and De Gaulle and later of De Gaulle alone, aimed at a full take-over of France after liberation. It faced a virtual veto by President Roosevelt. American traditional anti-colonialism and long-lasting support of Vichy’s fictitious neutrality were diametrically opposed to De Gaulle’s aim of continuing the war against Germany and the return of the French overseas possessions to full French sovereignty. A series of incidents, such as De Gaulle’s seizure of the Atlantic islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon and the assassination of Admiral Darlan in Algiers, further exacerbated relations between Roosevelt and the leader of the Free French movement.

As the latter was about to enter Paris, Roosevelt told his advisers in Quebec bluntly that "he did not want to give De Gaulle a white horse on which he could ride into France and make himself master of the Government there."[15]

However, the participation of French troops in the battles of Tunisia and Italy, the increased weight of the resistance movement in occupied France, and pro-De Gaulle pressure in parliament and in the press in Britain and the United States resulted on August 27, 1943, in the first reserved recognition of the French Committee of National Liberation in Algiers. The British recognized the Committee "as administering the French overseas territories which acknowledge its authority" and as "the body qualified to ensure the conduct of the French effort in the war within the framework of inter-Allied cooperation."[16] The United States issued a similar statement, adding, however, that "this does not constitute recognition of a Government of France."[17] In contrast, a Soviet statement referred to the Committee as representing "the state interests of the French Republic" and as "the sole representative of all French patriots in the struggle against Hitlerism."[18]

Two more months of wrangling were to pass before France again had an internationally-recognized government, even though De Gaulle’s administration was already established in Paris.

France was not the only country to be excluded from the inter-Allied club. Other countries that were victims of Axis aggression were likewise left out. Denmark, invaded simultaneously with Norway, accepted the occupation, and the King and Government remained functioning in Copenhagen under German supervision. The United States, however, continued to maintain contact with the Danish King’s Ambassador in Washington and signed a treaty with him concerning the defense of Greenland. Leading Danish politicians reached London during the war but failed to obtain official recognition. Danish shipping and seamen served the Allied cause.

Two countries that were invaded by Italy were not invited to participate in the 1941 inter-Allied conferences at St. James’s Palace. One of these was Abyssinia, whose Emperor Haile Selassie was then in exile in the Middle East, and the Foreign Office considered his country’s participation "undesirable" as "the de jure position is still undetermined, and the presence of an Abyssinian would be distinctly embarrassing."[19] On British advice Haile Selassie later associated himself with the resolutions which were passed there. The other was Albania, whose ex-King Zog was in England, but his alleged corruption and earlier collaboration with Fascist Italy rendered him persona non grata in England, and his recognition as head of an Allied government was opposed by both the Greek and Yugoslav royal governments.

One should also mention the government in exile of the Spanish Republic then in Mexico, which was still recognized by several countries. There seemed to be a tacit agreement between the nations assembled in London to ignore its existence because of the imperative need at the time to keep General Francisco Franco out of active belligerency in the war.

* * *

The community of the governments in exile within the Grand Alliance was selective but cohesive in its determination to overthrow Nazism and Fascism through a complete victory and in agreement on common basic principles concerning the peace which was to follow. Between 1939 and 1945 close contact and coordination were maintained between the British and the commanders of the various Allied armies in Britain.

In a message to the British Chiefs of Staff, of 12 July 1940, Churchill declared: "It is most necessary to give to the war which Great Britain is waging single-handed the broad, international character which will add greatly to our strength and prestige."[20] Indeed the salvage of Polish and Czechoslovak units from defeated France enabled them to reassemble in Britain, while Greek units evacuated from Greece and Crete to the Middle East reorganized in Egypt. They participated in emergency operations in both areas: guarding the British coast when the German invasion seemed imminent, and during strategic retreats in the western desert.

However, one problem, which the British leadership had to take into account, was the overwhelming desire of the Allied governments concerned to keep these army units intact and in a state of readiness to lead their return home on liberation. The Poles fought in Greece and Italy, but ultimately they had to face a Soviet veto on their return to Poland. Almost the same happened with the Czechoslovak army in Britain when Prague was liberated from the East by the Russians. Political dissension and intrigues, attributed in London mostly to prolonged inactivity, paralyzed the Greek and Yugoslav units in the Middle East, and only a few of them returned to Athens when it was liberated to support the Damaskinos regency.

The British alliance with the governments in exile was cemented, more than a year after their arrival, at the two inter-Allied conferences held at St. James’s Palace. The first, on June 12, 1941, proclaimed the Allied governments’ determination to continue the struggle against Germany and Italy "until victory is won" and that "an enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples". The second, on September 24, 1941, in which the Soviet Union participated for the first time, unanimously adopted the principles of the Atlantic Charter. This aim of future cooperation of the Allies was reaffirmed and broadened in February 1945 at Yalta, on the eve of victory, when the Big Three undertook to help the liberated peoples "to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems."

During the presence of the governments in exile in Britain the British Government was repeatedly obliged to deal with matters affecting them. A series of Acts of Parliament regulated their activities. British Ministers had to answer many parliamentary questions ranging from the treatment of conscientious objectors to anti-Semitic incidents in some armies. More than once the British judiciary had to decide on basic issues such as the right of the Dutch Government in exile to call up its nationals residing in the United Kingdom, or the Belgian Government’s right to dispose of its assets in England.

A whole network of contacts with the resistance movements on the Continent was operated from London in cooperation between the governments concerned and the British services. For the first time in the history of warfare extensive use could be made of broadcasting to the occupied countries and of agents parachuted from the air – factors which made possible unprecedented subversive and underground operations behind the lines.

During most of the war relations between each government in exile and the British Government were thus on an essentially bilateral basis. In 1942 a short-lived attempt was made by some governments to establish a joint committee of their foreign ministers. It was argued that as the Great Powers were absorbed by the major decisions required by the conduct of the war, it would be advisable for the smaller Allies to consider problems of special interest to them independently and keep the major Allies informed of their common views. However, this idea was never put into practice.

Between the end of the Blitz and the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 London was the center of intense inter-Allied planning concerning the post-war era. But the plans for Czechoslovak-Polish and Greco-Yugoslav confederation never materialized, and the ominous rift between the Polish and Soviet governments cast a shadow on the horizon as the first light of victory dawned. The Polish Government’s reliance on the underground "Home Army", which led to the tragic Warsaw uprising, and the ascendancy of the pro-Communist guerrillas in Yugoslavia and Greece ultimately resulted in the extinction of their governments in exile.

* * *

As D-Day in Europe approached, the exiled governments grew increasingly uneasy for several reasons. Their exclusion from the Teheran and Yalta Conferences and from the London-based European Advisory Commission, and the reluctance of the Great Powers to accept an automatic and immediate transfer of the liberated territories to their own national administrations, introduced elements of distrust and confusion into the relationship of these governments with the Big Three.

The relationship of the governments in exile with the British Government, however, was on the whole more intimate and frank than with the other two Great Powers. This was due first to the fact that they had found asylum in the British Isles at the moment of their greatest danger, that they had stayed in London where they functioned freely in the midst of war, and that they had got used to the workings of England’s democracy and the English way of life. From the beginning to the very end of their stay in Britain the exiled governments accepted British guidance in major questions of policy, though they sometimes did so grudgingly and even under protest.

Throughout the war Britain pursued a consistent policy of opposing the division of Europe into hostile camps and strove for a framework, which would guarantee an effective system of collective security. In pursuit of this aim Britain’s leaders sometimes resorted to unorthodox diplomatic procedures. During Molotov’s visit to London in June 1942 Eden suggested the adoption by Britain and the Soviet Union of an Anglo-Soviet "Self-Denying Ordinance" requiring each government to obtain the agreement of the other before concluding a treaty with one of the smaller allies.

Two years later, on October 9, 1944, during the British Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow, Stalin endorsed Churchill’s proposal to share influence in the Balkans on the basis of a percentage system, the proposal later known as "the half sheet of paper". While both these initiatives ended in failure, they remained clear testimony to Britain’s efforts to prevent rivalry among the Great Powers.

But once the Big Three had agreed on a course of action, Churchill did not hesitate to use the full vigor of his persuasive powers to get Mikolajczyk to join the Polish National Unity government in Warsaw under Bierut, to make King Peter of Yugoslavia recognize Tito’s premiership, and to insist that King George II of Greece accept Archbishop Damaskinos’s regency in Athens.

Hitler’s Reich was crushed. Once the governments in exile returned to their liberated countries, they were confronted with national heart-searching in regard to past and future policies. Massive problems of reconstruction and rehabilitation had to be solved. The foundations of peace remained to be laid in an increasingly polarized world confronted by the alternatives of parliamentary democracy and one-party totalitarianism.

Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945


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Next:   Chapter 1: CZECHOSLOVAKIA – From Putney to Prague
  Chapter 2: POLAND – The Polish Eagle
  Chapter 3: NORWAY – Neutral into Ally
  Chapter 4: BELGIUM – Disintegration and Resurrection
  Chapter 5: LUXEMBOURG – The Smallest Ally
  Chapter 6: THE NETHERLANDS – Under the Banner of the Queen of Orange
  Chapter 7: GREECE – From National Unity to Civil War
  Chapter 8: YUGOSLAVIA – Between Četniks and Partisans

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