Charles Delestraint

1879-1945
Charles Delestraint DMPA collection

Charles Delestraint was born in Biache-Saint-Vaaste (Pas-de-Calais) in 1879 and admitted to the Saint-Cyr military academy in 1897. On 1 October 1900, the young second lieutenant chose the 16th infantry battalion as his outfit. In 1914, Delestraint took a brilliant, noteworthy part in the retreating French army's earliest fighting, but the Germans captured him during the attack on Chesnoy-Auboncourt on 30 August 1914. He spent four years in the Plasemburg POW camp and was released in December 1918. Then, Delestraint led a brilliant military career. A passionate interest in heavy cavalry led him to become second in command of the Versailles tank school in 1930. Promoted to the rank of colonel in 1932, he commanded the 505th Vannes tank regiment; in 1936 Delestraint became a general and took over the third tank brigade in Metz. As a reserve officer, he was recalled to active duty when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and demobilised in July 1940.

Delestraint rejected the armistice, resisted the occupation and fiercely opposed Nazism; his Christian faith led him to loathe theories that debase human beings and espouse racism and anti-Semitism; he refused to believe that barbarism would replace civilisation. His opposition, which crystallised in 1942, was philosophical and theological. When Jean Moulin contacted him on 28 August 1942, both men agreed on the appropriateness of separating the military from the political in the resistance. Under the alias Vidal, he became head of the secret army that grouped together the Combat, Libération and Franc-Tireur networks' fighting units. Delestraint went underground and moved to Lyon, near Gestapo headquarters, where he put together the secret army's general staff: Frenay, Commandant Castaldo, General Desmazes, Hardy, Aubrac and Lassagne. In February 1943, Delestraint and Moulin went to London to coordinate the secret army's actions with those of the inter-allied command. Back in France, he developed the Resistance, in particular in Vercors. "Vidal" tirelessly worked on his troops' unification and operational cohesiveness and prepared demonstrative, occasional actions, preferably in the daytime. A series of arrests on 15 March 1943 decimated his staff. On Tuesday 8 June 1943, the Abwehr arrested Delestraint at the Muette metro stop while he was on his way to a secret meeting. After nine months of interrogation, during which the general disclosed no information, he was sent before the tribunal of Breslau and interned at Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp on 10 March 1944 as part of Nacht und Nebel. As the allies pressed forward, the prisoners were transferred to the Dachau concentration camp, where Delestraint was executed in cold blood on 19 April 1945.