The scuttling of the French fleet on Nov 27th, 1942 was the direct result of the allied landing in North Africa some weeks before (Nov 5). First of all, the event had led the German troops to invade the southern zone hitherto unoccupied. This was in violation of the armistice signed in June 1940 at Rethondes and it raised the question of the future of the fleet moored in the Toulon roadstead since the end of hostilities with Germany.
There were three possible solutions.
The fleet would go to North Africa so as to carry on the offensive action with the Allies.
The fleet would be seized by the Germans or the scuttling of the fleet in order to avoid it falling into German hands, following the plan anticipated by Admiral Darlan as early as June 20th, 1940.
Alleging the allied landing in North Africa, Hitler’s idea was actually to implement the assault code-named Operation “Lila” aimed at disarming the Armistice Army and seize the fleet by surprise.
Unaware of this plan, Admiral Laborde, whose Anglophobia was notorious ever since Mers-el-Kebir refused to rig out the warships to Morocco and Algeria out of loyalty to Marshal Petain. All the more so, since on November 18th, the Germans seemed ready to accept the idea of the existence of an entrenched camp in Toulon, consisting of French troops of the Armistice Army. But this maneuver was actually a deception designed to allow the German troops to gain time for their military preparations. Operation “Lila’ was drawn up in its definite form on November 24th at Marseilles. The onslaught was launched three days later by the “Das Reich” Division, the 7th PZD, the 3rd Luftflotte, 200 sailors from the Kriegsmarine and a squadron of Stukas whose mission was to fire shells in the event of ships attempting to flee.
At 4.30 am the naval Prefect Admiral Marquis was captured at Fort Lamalgue while in the meantime, one of his staff was able to alert the Strasbourg, Laborde’s flag ship. Le latter, disbelieving at first the offensive action, nevertheless ordered the scuttling. Within a few minutes, the sound of explosions could be heard. Some ships, among which the heavy cruisers Algerie, La Marseillaise and Le Dupleix burnt on for several days. At Le Mourillon, five submarines refused to obey orders and succeeded in getting through the passes of the military harbor in spite of the magnetic minefields and enemy bombing.
Two of the submarines rallied Algeria (Casablanca and Marsouin), one went to Oran (Glorieux), another found shelter at Barcelona (Iris), and the last one (Venus) preferred to scuttle in the roadstead. Only one surface battleship Leonor Fresnel rallied Algiers after getting away from the Hyares Salins.
Although the success of the scuttling was due to a mistake in the German command, it was also thanks to the offensive operation launched by the French troops to prevent a German approach of the ships.
By accepting to sacrifice its ships, the Navy honored its 1940 pledge: never to allow the fleet to fall into foreign hands.
The material loss was heavy, that is to say more than half the whole French fleet.
Laborde (High sea fleet): 1 battleship, 3 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 10 destroyers, 6 fleet torpedo boats, 8 submarines
Marquis (local force): 1 battleship, 1 seaplane tender, 6 fleet torpedo boats, 8 submarines
Gardiennage (paid off ships): 1 battleship, 2 cruisers, 8 destroyers, 6 fleet torpedo boats, 10 submarines
Total: 3 battleships, 2 cruisers, 3 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 18 destroyers, 1 seaplane tender, 18 fleet torpedo boats, 26 submarines
3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 30 destroyers, 1 seaplane tender, 18 auxiliary ships, 16 submarines lost
The French fleet at Toulon whose Commander in Chief of the French Navy, Admiral Darlan, had promised the British that the ships would be scuttled if there was any chance of them falling into German hands. On the 9th November, 1942, Admiral Darlan ordered a cease fire which was countermanded by Vichy Government. The Toulon fleets were commanded by two admirals, Admiral de Laborde and Admiral Marquis. Laborde commanded the high seas fleet. Perhaps Laborde was now regretting that he had answered “Merde!” to Darlan’s request to move his ships to Dakar, for the German intent was obvious. Not only had they made the notable moves about Toulon and at other ports, they were also bringing up a contingent of sailors. Laborde’s fleet comprised the new battleship Strasbourg, 3 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 10 heavy destroyers and 3 other destroyers; and Marquis commanded the old battleship Provence, a seaplane tender, 2 destroyers, 4 torpedo boats and 10 submarines. Also, there were the damaged battleship Dunkerque, 2 cruisers, 8 heavy destroyers, 6 other destroyers and 10 submarines decommissioned under the armistice terms and crewed by maintenance staff. Thus there were 64 important warships as well as numerous light craft – chasers, patrol vessels, sloops and mine sweepers, a Navy larger than those possessed by most nations of the world.
Strasbourg and Dunkerque
The Strasbourg after having been scuttled
The more worthwhile ships were tied up at wharves or adjacent to those tied up. Dunkerque was one of five ships in the large dry docks, and the naval yards extended over an area more than a mile wide and half a mile deep. Ashore lay the main arsenal. There were outposts to be passed by intruders but the main impediment to human movement was a high wall with only two gates. The Germans planned to take the dockyards with a surprise move by an army group travelling up the Nice road on motorcycles while another three groups, including men from the despicable and cowardly “Das Reich” Division, seized the peninsula and its coastal batteries and the actual town. When the move did take place the only Frenchman to arrive with the news was a despatch rider sent by a gendarmerie outpost – and he arrived on his motorcycle almost at the same time as the Germans on theirs. The main alert, however, came when Marquis was captured in bed at 4.30am and his staff were able to alert Laborde who was still naive enough to disbelieve, at first, that the Germans would attack the base. He ordered steam to be raised in all ships and for all precautions to be taken in case the Germans dare try to board them. Five submarines got away while German troops were trying to scale the high walls and being shot at in the process. Then the order to scuttle was repeated again and again to all ships when an enemy tank bulldozed through the main gate. The French Fleet was about to honour its pledge. Knowing that it could take up to five hours for most of the ships to work up sufficient steam to move out of the Inner Roads, the Germans were somewhat dilatory about their work and probably didn’t know how quickly a ship could be scuttled. They were in the navy yard after 5am, then it took another hour for the tanks and troops to find their way through the immense area to the larger ships moored at the outer piers. At last they reached the pier from which the Strasbourg had floated when her lines were cast off by the crew. Admiral de Laborde was aboard, as the Germans knew by now, and a tank fired an 88mm shell into a second battery turret, mortally wounding an officer. The German officer in charge called out to Laborde to hand over his ship undamaged but the admiral, who had ordered the ship’s machine guns to cease firing at the tank, replied that the Strasbourg had already been scuttled. The ship, and its sister ship, Dunkerque, took a lot of water to sink their 26,500 tons displacement and they sank slowly once the sea cocks were opened. A German called out, “Admiral, my commanding officer sends word that you have his greatest respect,” just before any further chit-chat was drowned by the sound of explosions from all parts of the ship : guns were blown up, important machinery was wrecked with hand grenades, and oxy-torches burned through turbine reduction gears. Slowly she settled, on an even keel, to the bottom, and even then the large tower, reminiscent of the skyscrapers on Japanese battleships, was almost entirely out of the water.
Algerie (top) and Colbert (bottom) after 27th November 1942
The cruiser Algerie (full load displacement 13,900 tons) had been extensively overhauled at Toulon and was berthed two piers away from Strasbourg. The cruiser’s sea cocks were opened and she was going down fast when a German hailed her to announce that he had come to take her. This was Admiral Lacroix’s flagship on which he was going the short distance down. He informed the German that he was a little late, that she was already sinking. The German had heard and seen the destruction of her guns yet stated that he would go aboard when the Admiral told him that the ship would not blow up, whereupon the Admiral said that if the German did come aboard it would certainly blow up. A few minutes later the after turret blew apart. Algerie burned for two days with occasional eruptions as ammunition and torpedoes exploded.
The Jean de Vienne and Galissonniere (top), and the funnels of the Vauquelin (bottom)
From the high hills around the bay the people of Toulon, and the German troops stationed there, were provided with flame and fireworks display for more than a week, the time it almost took for the Marseillaise, an 8,214 ton (empty) cruiser of the sleek and fast La Galissonniere class, to burn herself out after settling on an angle. The latter ship was also scuttled, then she was salvaged and used by the Italians until retroceded to the French in 1944. Not only did the “Suffren” class cruiser Colbert sink, she blew apart when her magazine blew up, almost taking with her some of the enemy who had rushed on board then quickly off when they saw the fuses burning and an officer setting alight to his aircraft on its catapult.
Kersaint and Vauquelin
The same near miss among the Germans happened on the cruiser Dupleix. The battleship Provence, 22,000 ton sister ship to Bretagne and Lorraine, was almost lost to the enemy by the doddering indecision of her captain who was confused by a message : “Orders have been received from Monsieur Laval that all incidents are to be avoided.” With other ships listing, exploding, settling and capsizing all over the place the captain thought he should follow suit although he was surrounded by armed Germans on his ship. He stalled for time by sending an officer across the yard to find out what the order actually meant, at the same time as his crew were pulling out the plugs. The captain and the Germans were still arguing and waiting for the officer to return when the old battleship slowly listed under their feet. The captain was led ashore smiling. Dunkerque ended as scrap metal stripped away by Italian dock workers and sent back to Italy to be used in war material. Her guns had been blown up and turbines destroyed as she lay in the large drydock.
The Marseillaise after scuttling
Of the “2,100ton” type large or “super” destroyers, three of them, Lion, Tigre and Panthere were staffed only with skeleton crews because of repair work; thus they were only partly sabotaged and they went more or less intact to Italy with the destroyer Trombe. The Strasbourg had probably reached the bottom when Laborde, high and dry on the projecting upper works, was refusing to leave his ship, declaring to his German captors that they had broken their oath in encroaching on the French Fleet at Toulon. The German commander left him there, having theoretically gone down with his ship, until Petain could persuade to him to leave his ship; and when he sent the signal, “I learn at this instant that your ship is sinking. I order you to leave it without delay. Philippe Petain,” it was picked up by the French naval units in North Africa, giving them their first news of the scuttle or whatever was happening to Laborde and his battleship. The submarines Venus, Casablanca, Marsouin, Iris and Glorieux started instantly the alarm was given and as soon as crews could get to action stations; they had probably often practiced for this scramble. Before German tanks could rush their pier they were on their way to crash through the booms with their strong, sharp bows. The commander of the Glorieux replied with pistol fire to the machine gun fire from tanks and infantry. The anti submarine net was withdrawn by its tender and when they passed through that barrier the submarines came under shell fire and a bombing and depth charge attack by the Luftwaffe. Also, the exit channel had been mined. They certainly were going to the “gates of Hell”, as the captain of the Iris called out to the captain of the Venus. The latter boat was damaged and, to facilitate an easier rescue of the crew, she was scuttled in the outer roads; Iris escaped and, for some unknown reason, her captain took her to Spain and internment – perhaps his idea of Heaven. The other three submarines that escaped made it safely to Algeria while the four left behind at Toulon were scuttled at their moorings and their crews, like all other personnel at Toulon, were interned until it was decided what to do with them. The French successfully argued that the scuttling had not been an act of hostility, only an act of destruction legalised by the terms of the 1940 armistice so they were all released and continued to receive their regular pay from Vichy, as indeed, the dependents of Free French sailors also received their allowances from the same source!
A German tank at Toulon, and the seaplane tender Commandant Teste.
Extract from “The Fleet Without a Friend”, John Vader