Charles De Gaulle in the BBC studios in 1940, broadcasting his call to arms to all French people on British soil Image Credit:

With its bland architecture and grey concrete pavement, little distinguishes Curzon Square from its surroundings in the heart of London’s Mayfair district. But it was here that Charles de Gaulle wrote a speech that would change his country’s fate and, he believed, fulfill his destiny.

On June 17, 1940, still reeling from France’s fall to Nazi Germany three days earlier, de Gaulle fled to London, where he borrowed a friend’s apartment at 3 Curzon Square (then called Seamore Grove) and drafted a passionate call to arms. The next day he broadcast a message on BBC radio — a direct, clarion appeal to the French people: “I, General de Gaulle, now in London, call on all French officers and men who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, with or without their arms; I call on all engineers and skilled workmen from the armaments factories who are at present on British soil, or may be in the future, to get in touch with me.”

De Gaulle’s initial broadcast reached only a few parts of occupied France. (Subsequent transmissions on June 19 and 22 reached greater swathes of Vichy territory.) But today, it is considered one of the most significant moments in French history, even honoured with its own square in Paris, Place du 18 Juin 1940.

On a cold, damp day in February, I gazed up at the building that has replaced de Gaulle’s borrowed flat as the final words of his speech rang in my ears: “Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.”

A statue of Charles de Gaulle in London’s Carlton Gardens. AP

I was standing at the birthplace of that resistance movement, one of the cornerstones of de Gaulle’s legacy.

These days, the scars of the Second World War have largely faded from central London; it’s easy to forget that many of the newer buildings replaced Blitz-era bomb destruction. Beneath the polished surface, the memory of Britain’s finest hour, as Winston Churchill famously called it, lingers tenaciously, encouraged by a seemingly endless parade of popular books, television shows and films set during the war.

Amid these tales of British resilience and everyday courage, the story of the Free French in London is often overlooked. And so, nearly 80 years after his unceremonious arrival, I set out to find Charles de Gaulle’s London - and I came to understand the isolation, determination and sense of destiny that characterised the three years he spent there.

In 1940, as now, Mayfair had an air of starchy establishment, anchored by embassies, banks and that most British of institutions, gentlemen’s clubs, which served as social hubs for an elite membership. Into this rarefied world dropped Charles de Gaulle, a tall, awkward man of 49, recently promoted to the rank of general. He brought with him only one colleague, his aide-de-camp Geoffroy Chodron de Courcel, and 100,000 francs of secret government funds.

“On the 18th of June, he was a man alone,” Hubert Rault, who leads walking tours with his company, de Gaulle in London, said as we stood on Curzon Square. “He didn’t even speak English. But he came to England because he needed support from Churchill. He knew without English support, there would be no Free French.”

Indeed, Churchill was an early advocate of the French general, overruling the British Cabinet when it tried to block de Gaulle’s initial BBC radio address. Ten days later, Churchill officially recognised de Gaulle as the head of the Free French Forces. As he later wrote in his memoirs, Churchill believed de Gaulle was “l’homme du destin” — the man of destiny.

With Rault as my guide, I set out to find de Gaulle’s haunts among the elite addresses of London’s West End. At St James’s Square we stopped to admire a pretty Georgian building that once housed the Petit Club Francais, a wartime watering hole for French exiles and their friends; it is now the Royal Naval and Military Club. A few steps away, we paused at Norfolk House, a wide brick building where Eisenhower planned Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion better known as the Battle of Normandy. Along Pall Mall, we gazed at the Royal Automobile Club looming in Beaux-Arts splendor; during the war, the private club offered free membership to Free French soldiers who frequented the dining room as their canteen.

The back of the Royal Automobile Club faces Carlton Gardens, a quiet dead-end street where, at No 4, a tall, plain building served as the headquarters of the Free French Forces. A small blue plaque honors de Gaulle, while a second, larger panel displays a version of his famous appeal, embellished with French flags, the Lorraine Cross (the symbol of the Free French) and, running across the bottom, the words “Vive La France!”

Today the building houses the offices of the Edmond de Rothschild Group, a private financial firm, and is closed to the public. At Rault’s urging, I peered closely at the third floor’s corner windows, glimpsing a second set of dark wood window frames behind the newer facade. “That was de Gaulle’s office,” he said. “I was invited inside a few years ago and they’ve kept it exactly as it was.” A photograph of de Gaulle shot by Cecil Beaton at Carlton Gardens shows a solitary man standing before his desk with crossed arms, his features only half illuminated by the light cascading from the windows.

Across the street, a life-size bronze statue depicts this same erect figure standing with an outstretched hand, unveiled in 1993 by Queen Elizabeth. Though the statue is now ringed with fencing, someone managed to tuck a bouquet of silk flowers at the bottom of the pedestal, adorned with a tricolour ribbon that read “Forces Navales Francaises Libres” — Free French Naval Forces — and “en souvenir” — in remembrance.

In 1940, a small and motley group of volunteers worked at Carlton Gardens. (By D-Day, they numbered 600.) Some were French soldiers who had been serving in Britain when France fell; others had heard de Gaulle’s radio appeal and braved incredible odds to join him. These men and women soon found themselves in the eye of the Blitz. “It was a large part of the context of de Gaulle’s experience,” Rault said. “No one believed they would win the war in the beginning.” The near-daily air raid attacks — which lasted eight months and killed 43,000 civilians — drove people into shelters like the Down Street tube station at Down Street Mews. A brisk walk from Carlton Gardens, de Gaulle may have visited this disused underground station, which was Churchill’s first bunker meeting room. Today, only a shiny, red-tiled facade hints at its London Transport history.

But what of the general’s personal life? How, if at all, did he relax? I found my way to The French House in Soho, a former favourite pub of Free French Forces. One tall tale claims that de Gaulle wrote his famous June 18 appeal here and even though I knew that wasn’t true, the pub’s old-fashioned atmosphere — with its wooden bar, panelled walls papered in black-and-white photos and low-wattage globe sconces — did make me feel like I had stepped into the 1940s. Still, as I sat at a sticky table sipping a Kir amid a boisterous after-work crowd, I had a hard time picturing the general here. “He wasn’t really a pub man,” Rault had told me.

Presumably, he was more comfortable at Berry Bros & Rudd, a London wine and spirits merchant, where he kept an account. Founded in 1698, the family business still occupies its original 17th-century storefront, a room with wide-planked floors and timbre-framed walls that “looks very much like de Gaulle would have seen it,” said Maggie Huntingford, who was behind the front desk during my visit. Today this building is used as offices while, around the corner, a bright and modern retail shop sells an impressive array of bottles. I looked for de Gaulle’s preferred tipple, Armagnac, and found a range spanning over a hundred years, beginning with 1897.

Back on Pall Mall, I strolled past some of de Gaulle’s frequent lunch spots: the Carlton Club, an exclusive establishment where Churchill was a member, the Ritz and the Cavalry and Guards Club. At the grand Connaught hotel he dined regularly on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which he referred to as “island specialities.” He also kept rooms on the hotel’s top floor where he lived during the Blitz while his family sheltered near the Welsh border.

In fact, de Gaulle’s wife and three children — who had endured a harrowing escape across the English Channel in June 1940 — spent long periods apart from him, tucked away in different corners of rural England. After the Blitz, they rejoined the general and moved to a house in the north London neighbourhood of Hampstead.

Compared with Mayfair’s stately grandeur, Hampstead twinkles with village charm. Exiting the underground station, I crossed a busy high street and dove into a web of narrow lanes edged with trees, hedgerows and attached houses. The sound of rushing cars broke the birdsong, and I saw the general’s house standing before me: 99 Frognal Road, an elegant three-story brick villa adorned with tall French windows. A brick wall surrounded the garden where Yvonne de Gaulle kept chickens so that her youngest daughter, Anne, could have fresh eggs. Now called St Dorothy’s Convent, the house is a residence for international women students. A plaque honouring de Gaulle is almost hidden by the garden wall.

A short stroll back through the leafy lanes brought me to St Mary’s Hampstead, a slender white church established in 1816 by the Abbe Jean Jacques Morel, a priest who fled France after the 1789 revolution. A Catholic, de Gaulle worshipped here regularly — a sign near the door said “his tall and impressive figure was always to be seen in the front bench at the 11 o’clock Mass whenever he was home.”

By the time de Gaulle moved to Hampstead in September 1942, his relationship with the British government, and in particular, Winston Churchill, had grown contentious. Though the two men shared a mutual respect, they clashed frequently. In May 1943, de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers, ending his exile on British soil. In departure, he left a letter for Churchill, who was in Washington meeting Roosevelt, in which he expressed no thanks for British help. (At the same time, Churchill was unsuccessfully lobbying the British Cabinet to end their support of de Gaulle.) In the years since the liberation of Paris, the story of the Free French Forces in London has slipped away, and French gratitude to Britain has gone unmarked by an official monument.

Or has it?

On my last afternoon in London, I visited old Broadcasting House, the BBC’s original headquarters. Built in 1932, the building is an art deco icon, a round tower adorned with the works of the sculptor Eric Gill. But I was there for another reason: to see the place where de Gaulle made his June 18 appeal.

Robert Seatter, the head of BBC history, led me to the Artists’ Lobby, once the green room for visiting performers. After showing me an enormous wartime microphone, we paused before a gold and black tapestry. Called “Le Poete”, the work was created by French artist Jean Lurcat as homage to the Paul Eluard poem “Liberte”.

“A lot of people don’t realise how important the BBC was to landlocked Europe,” Seatter said. At the beginning of the war, the BBC’s wartime foreign-language programming — the only reliable news source for many in France and other countries of occupied Europe — was broadcast in eight languages; by the end, it had grown to 48. “If you could only see us listening to your broadcasts,” wrote one French listener at the time. “We only live for that.” In 1949, “the French government gave the tapestry to the BBC as a thank-you for its service during the war,” Seatter said.

I gazed at the work, which depicts a male silhouette hidden behind a screen of leaves. It was a metaphor of liberty, a symbol of gratitude never forgotten.

–New York Times News Service