The demarcation line (1940-1944)

Corps 2
partition france
The division of France. Thirteen départements
were crossed by the demarcation line:
the Basses-Pyrénées, the Landes, the Gironde,
the Dordogne, the Charente, the Vienne, the Indre-et-
Loire, the Loir-et-Cher, the Cher, the Allier,
the Saône-et-Loire, the Jura and the Ain.

After the collapse of the French army in June 1940 the new government, led by Marshal Pétain, resigned itself to the defeat and requested an armistice on the 17th June 1940, whilst General de Gaulle went to England and on the 18th June launched an appeal from London to continue the fight against the Nazi occupying forces. Signed in Rethondes on the 22nd June 1940, the Franco-German Armistice planned the division of France into several zones, separated by a demarcation line. 

I - Dividing France following the armistice of the 22nd June 1940 From the 25th June 1940, the demarcation line divided France into two large principal zones: 

The occupied zone (or "the northern zone") Occupied by the Germans, this zone was placed under the authority of the military governor of Paris and covered about 55% of the country. It was renamed the northern zone in November 1942, the date from which the Germans also occupied the free zone.

The free zone (or "the southern zone ") On the 2nd July 1940, the French government settled in Vichy which became a sort of "capital" of the free zone, commonly known as the " nono zone " (for non occupied). On the 10th July 1940, Parliament voted for full powers for Marshal Pétain who announced "the French state" and shortly afterwards engaged in a policy of collaboration with the occupying Nazis. In November 1942 the free zone was renamed the "southern zone" when it was invaded by the Germans.

Following an abstract and arbitrary route, the demarcation line divided départements, towns, fields and woods. On the ground, this line would be subject to various modifications, as dictated by the whim or demands of the occupying Germans. Around 1200 kilometres long, the demarcation line started at the Spanish border, level with the town of Arnéguy, in the Basses-Pyrénées (the Pyrénées-Atlantiques) département and then passed through Mont-de-Marsan, Libourne, Confolens and Loches; it then ran up to the north of the Indre département to fork off to the east and then, after crossing Vierzon, Saint-Amand-Montrond, Moulins, Charolles and Dole, it joined the Swiss border level with Gex. In addition the occupying Germans gave special status to some French areas that were almost cut off from the rest of France: 

The Alsace and the Lorraine In August 1940, the Alsace and the Lorraine, annexed in fact by Nazi Germany, were administratively attached to a Gau (an administrative district in the Nazi organisation): one to the Bade Gau and the other to the Sarre-Palatinat Gau. 

The Nord and the Pas-de-Calais These two very industrialised départements, rich in coalfields, were placed under the authority of the Militärbefehlshaber (military governor) of Holland and Belgium; they were cut off from the rest of France by the line of the Somme.

From the mouth of the Somme to the Rhone This zone, which extended from the mouth of the Somme to the Rhone where it leaves Lake Léman, was called the "reserved zone" by the Germans, but was commonly known as the "forbidden zone" by the French who surrendered it with great difficulty. Controls were tightened at its extremities, along the Channel coasts and the Franco-Swiss border. 

The Italian "occupied zone" This zone extended from Lake Léman to the Mediterranean. It passed to the east of Chambéry, Grenoble and Gap and went as far as, and including, Nice. However, the Italians only effectively occupied a few points in this area. 

The "Atlantic wall" In the autumn of 1941, a new forbidden zone was created along the coasts of the Channel and the Atlantic, a prelude to the construction of the Atlantic wall. The only people allowed to enter and circulate there were those who had lived there for at least three months, civil service personnel working for the German army and the mobile personnel of the SNCF. In addition, the sending of telegraphs and telephone calls were forbidden. With the division of the country established by the armistice, the occupying Germans thus reserved the right to the principal industrial regions and the whole Atlantic coast.

II - Movement restricted until 1944 

The demarcation line at Chalon. The line was identified in various ways, from sentry boxes...Source: National Résistance Museum - Champigny ... to a simple placard. ... Source: National Résistance Museum - Champigny
The demarcation line at Chalon. The line was identified in various ways, from sentry boxes...Source: National Résistance Museum - Champigny ... to a simple placard.
... Source: National Résistance Museum - Champigny

Following the armistice of the 22nd June 1940, the Germans quickly put in place a series of measures to restrict the movement of people and goods across the country, as well as postal traffic between the two major zones. By "opening" and "closing" the demarcation line at will according to its needs, the occupying Nazis had a means for applying pressure to the French and ensuring their stranglehold on the country and its economy. 


The inter-zone card and free passes No post could move from one zone to the other until September 1940 when the inter-zone card, also called the family card, was introduced. It bore a series of pre-printed words and only permitted the provision of brief and impersonal news, without leaving the possibility of adding any words. Sending letters and parcels thus became the object of the first illegal traffic.

Inter-zone card. Source: Museum of the Résistance and the Deportation of Bourges and the Cher
Inter-zone card. Source: Museum of the Résistance and the Deportation of Bourges and the Cher

Apart from the main crossing points by road or rail, the line could was not always automatically identifiable. Depending on the lay of the land, posts in German colours were erected here and there. Sentry boxes and barriers were set up at crossing posts, which were signposted. On the French side, a similar system, though very patchy due to the lack of manpower and funding, was established.


The occupation authorities carried out rigorous surveillance along the demarcation line, which could only be crossed with permission at official crossing points on presenting an identity card and an Ausweis (free pass) issued by the Kommandanturen (German authority offices responsible for the military and civil administration of a particular zone). Any request had to be accompanied by a complete file submitted to the German authorities, including identity photographs, an address certificate and the reason for the request... A free pass could only be granted for recognised emergencies (births, funerals or the serious illness of close relatives) and applicants requesting to cross were subject to interminable formalities and a great deal of administrative hassle. In addition, people living ten kilometres either side of the line could request an "Ausweis für den kleinen Grenzverkehr" (free pass for a small cross-border journey) allowing them movement for a limited period across their dissected département. The issue of these free passes was under the jurisdiction of the local Feldkommandanturen and Kreiskommandanturen.


Refugees and the demarcation line 

In May and June 1940 the advance of German troops led to an exodus of several million people fleeing along the roads. Following the armistice of the 22nd June 1940, they wanted to return home. The return home of the refugees took a year of organisation from the summer of 1940 to the summer of 1941. The Germans authorised the opening of crossing points, whilst the armistice army set up stopover accommodation. From the autumn of 1940, the conditions for returning became more difficult.


The Germans replaced the free pass with a repatriation certificate and, at the beginning of 1941, only four crossing points were allowed: at Langon (Gironde), Vierzon (Cher), Moulins (Allier) and Chalon-sur-Saône (Saône-et-Loire). In the summer of 1941, measures were taken to help to group together the families of refugees who wished to remain in the southern zone. In addition, restrictive measures were taken regarding foreigners and Jews, for whom the regulations just kept on getting harder. From September 1940, the latter were no longer authorised to return to the northern zone. In October 1940, a pass was made compulsory for foreigners wanting to cross to the southern zone and then, on the 23rd October 1941, the demarcation line was closed to them.

Illegal crossings 

From the start, there were many illegal crossings of the line, mostly for commercial or private reasons. Later, crossings were increasingly arranged by real networks created to help French prisoners of war and British escapees, people from the Alsace and Lorraine who refused to enlist in the German army, volunteers wanting to join the Free French and anyone who felt under threat to cross into the so-called "free" zone. Consequently, the controls became more numerous and stricter, especially from the spring of 1941, when the soldiers of the Wehrmacht were replaced by customs officers.


Although there were few arrests before 1941, the patrols and controls increased from this year onwards, with chases and shooting into the non-occupied zone no longer being rare occurrences. From the summer of 1940, residents close to the demarcation line were the channels through which the line could be crossed on foot, by bicycle, by rowing boat, in carts of manure and in barrels - by all possible means. Illegal crossings were initially carried out by a few isolated smugglers, before becoming increasingly organised by bona fide networks.


Many were those, both men and women, who took part privately in such action, often before becoming involved with escape networks, whether it was just to do a favour, because they found the idea of a border unbearable, or because they were against the oppressive yoke. Money, civilian clothing and supplies were collected to be handed to escapees before they left. Teams were organised, such as railway workers, policemen and gendarmes. Greed was not however absent from the actions of some who wouldn't think twice about profiteering from their services, by abandoning or quite simply handing over their charges to the German or French authorities.

The economic consequences of the demarcation line 

The demarcation line led to an imbalance between the north and the south of the country. The Germans had kept the richest agricultural and areas for themselves: the occupied zone produced 72.5 % of all the wheat, 78 % of the barley, 80 % of the oats, 70 % of the potatoes, 87 % of the butter, 95 % of the steel and 76 % of the coal.


Due to the raw materials "confiscated" to benefit the German economy, the southern zone saw its manufacturing and farming industries heavily handicapped, even completely paralysed. The situation proved particularly difficult in the border zone, with businesses finding themselves cut off from their workforce and farmers from their fields. Because of higher prices in the northern zone, smuggling and a black market developed despite the control measures that were adopted. Supply problems made the risk of famine, or at least scarcity, a reality. Just like the movement of people, the transport of goods was subject to authorisation by the German authorities, with the North-South traffic being the most monitored. In May 1941, there was some relief when Darlan obtained, through an exchange with his counterparts in Syria, the reestablishment of traffic of goods and commodities, essentially moving from the non-occupied zone towards the occupied zone. Despite some shortages of energy, raw materials and labour, the economy picked up slowly, only to deteriorate once again in 1942-1943 and to collapse in 1944. In February 1943, the demarcation line was abolished by the Germans who had occupied all French territory since November 1942.


However, it did not disappear from the German military command maps and some restrictions remained, especially regarding the movement of goods. The threat of its reintroduction having weighed on the French until the end of the war, the demarcation line remained until 1944 a means of pressure.


III - Complementary file The key dates of the demarcation line (1940-1944)


Films and books on the demarcation line The division of the country and the consequences as a result of the establishment of the demarcation line deeply affected the collective imagination. Amongst the works (testimonials, novels etc.) and films (for cinema or television) referring to this painful period of the history of France, we can name: "The demarcation line", film by Claude Chabrol (French, 90mn, black and white, 1966) Claude Chabrol (born in Paris in 1930) devoted his first film on the period of German occupation to the demarcation line. Claude Chabrol wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Gilbert Renault (Vannes 1904-Guingamp 1984), alias Colonel Rémy, a Gaullist from the very start, resistance fighter and the founder of the Confrérie Notre-Dame advisory network. Chabrol's film tells of the daily life in 1942 of a small village located around Dole, some of whose inhabitants belong to a résistance network and operate across the demarcation line. "The demarcation line", a work in 22 volumes by Colonel Rémy in which he notably presents several accounts from resistance smugglers (Published from 1964 to 1974, Editor Librairie Académique Perrin). "The demarcation line, 1940-1944: une frontière artificielle (an artificial border)", a publication by Eric Alary, in Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains (World wars and contemporary conflicts), April- June 1998, no.190. "The demarcation line", a work by Eric Alary (Editor Perrin, 2003) "The demarcation line", a work by Danièle Gervais-Marx, Preface by Jean-Pierre Azéma (Editor Hachette, Pluriel Collection, 2004)

A museum about the demarcation line Opened in June 2006 at Génelard (Saône-et-Loire), the first French museum dedicated to the demarcation line is open to the public all year round. Demarcation line Centre of Interpretation Place du Bassin 71420 Génelard Tel.: + 33 (0) 3 85 79 23 12

Source: "Mémoire et citoyenneté" (Remembrance and citizenship) Collection. N° 7, Department of Defence/SGA/DMPA

  • The division of France. Thirteen départements
    were crossed by the demarcation line:
    the Basses-Pyrénées, the Landes, the Gironde,
    the Dordogne, the Charente, the Vienne, the Indre-et-
    Loire, the Loir-et-Cher, the Cher, the Allier,
    the Saône-et-Loire, the Jura and the Ain.

  • Inter-zone card. Source: Museum of the Résistance and the Deportation of Bourges and the Cher

  • The demarcation line at Chalon. The line was identified in various ways, from sentry boxes...Source: National Résistance Museum - Champigny ... to a simple placard.
    ... Source: National Résistance Museum - Champigny

  • German order of the 4th October 1940 against the illegal crossing of the demarcation line published in L'Oeuvre on the 18th October 1940. Source: National Résistance Museum - Champigny The demarcation line at Moulins. From 1st March 1943, a pass was no longer required to cross the line. Source: LAPI/ National Résistance Museum - Champigny

  • <p>Refugees crossing the demarcation line at Vierzon.&lt;/br&gt;Source: Museum of the Résistance and the Deportation of Bourges and the Cher</p>

  • People arrested crossing illegally in the Pleumartin area. Source: Departmental archives of the Vienne

  • The "Courage-Liberté" (Courage and Freedom) Monument in memory of the those crossing illegally, created by Jean-Pierre Niogret, Thénioux. Source: Jean-Pierre Niogret

  • The question of supply became a matter of concern as the Germans took 40 % and more of all production for themselves. Anti-German leaflet. Source: National Résistence Museum - Champigny All products, absolutely anything, was of interest to the Germans... Label placed on a carriage bound for Germany. Source: MINDEF/SGA/DMPA