French Navy – The Liberation Of The France I

When the 2nd Armored Regiment of Marines, wearing their sailor hats with red pompons, led the liberating troops into Paris on August 24, 1944, it marked the return of the Navy of France to its native country. The City Hall was reoccupied that night at 10 o’clock to the clamor of bells announcing the news from every belfry. But the German troops still held several blocks of buildings in the heart of the city, and well into the middle of the next afternoon a piece of white bunting quartered with a black cross flew over the building that was the traditional home of the Ministry of the Navy, just off the Place de la Concorde. The flag was the personal emblem of the German Naval Command in France—“Admiral, Frankreich.”

However, for days the building had been under the secret surveillance of a group of men lurking in the adjoining buildings. These were all officers and men of the French Navy who, under the command of Commander Paul Hébrard, had organized a secret Navy headquarters in the city. With them were a number of ordinary seamen who had spontaneously collected around the French Navy group and who were identified by the makeshift uniform of blue and white striped jerseys which they wore under their jackets.

The object of their surveillance was the old Ministry of the Navy building in the Rue Royale.

Below, in the Place de la Concorde, General Leclerc’s tanks opened fire on the German admiral’s headquarters around three o’clock in the afternoon of the 25th. Under cover of this diversion, Commander Hébrard and his companions crossed over by a precarious temporary footbridge thrown across from the neighboring building, and infiltrated into the headquarters of the unsuspecting defenders. Within two hours the battle was over and the flag of France once more flew over the historic Ministry of the Navy. Hastily the Navy captors threw a guard around the premises, so that they might turn the building over, intact, to the new leaders when they should arrive.

The first of these was Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, who had been appointed Vice Chief of Naval Operations at the beginning of the month. Landing in Normandy with General de Gaulle, the admiral had accompanied De Gaulle on his entry into Paris on the 26th, when the admiral took command of all naval establishments in the liberated regions of the north.

On receipt of the news that Paris had been liberated, the members of the Provisional Government, along with the officers of the Consultative Assembly and a few other high officials, had embarked on the cruiser Jeanne d’Arc at Algiers on August 29, to make the passage to Cherbourg. On September 2, the Commissioner of the Navy, Louis Jacquinot, installed himself at the Rue Royale headquarters, where he was joined in a few days by Rear Admiral Lemonnier, coming by plane from the naval front in Provence.

But even while Paris and southern France were being liberated and the great inland drives of the Allies from Normandy and Provence were starting, the movement had begun to clear the invader from the Channel and North Atlantic ports also.

North of the Seine estuary, the Canadian First Army, under General H. D. G. Crerar, headed a drive along the coast to the north and east. Rouen was liberated on August 31, and Dieppe fell the next day without a fight.

The French Captain of the Port at Dieppe, Mr. Quesnel, had succeeded in convincing the German harbormaster that, in times of alert, the drawbridge which straddled the entrance to the wet basins should always be left open. Then, when the Germans were about to depart, he wrecked the bridge machinery while the bridge was in the open position, with its ends resting on the dock, so that when the Germans came along to blow it up in the entrance channel, they were unable to do so.

At Dieppe, also, the French intelligence network to which one of the authors of this book belonged had made contact with a young French woman for whom the German general commanding the division at Dieppe entertained very warm feelings. In accordance with instructions she constantly preached to her admirer on the uselessness of trying to defend Dieppe. Whether the general was convinced, or whether his instructions were different from those issued to other German commanders along the coast, the fact remains that Dieppe was abandoned without a fight, although pretty strong defenses had been erected there.

The Mayor of Dieppe was very indignant that this woman, who had publicly consorted with the enemy, was being protected by a prominent member of the Resistance from the harsh treatment that was given to other women who had shown a weakness for the enemy. He was amazed when the author pointed out to him that it was due to her that he still had his roof over his head, instead of lying under its debris, like his colleagues in other less fortunate cities.

After Cherbourg, Dieppe was the first French port to be reopened to Allied shipping. Though the Germans here, as elsewhere, had tried to destroy the installations, the French Captain of the Port had ingeniously prevented the sabotage from being effective. Three days after Dieppe had passed into Canadian hands, the Allies were unloading 6,000 tons of military supplies there daily.

The small port of Fécamp was also taken by the Allies without a fight. But stern fighting lay ahead at Le Havre, Boulogne, and Calais in the north, and even bloodier fighting for the ports of the Bay of Biscay, to the south.

The capture of Le Havre was almost a repetition of the assault on Brest. Throughout the Normandy campaign the port had served as a base for a small flotilla of German torpedo boat destroyers, which, along with the Schnell Boote of Cherbourg, harassed the invasion fleet like hornets until they were finally blasted to the bottom, one after another. To capture Le Havre required nine days of heavy fighting, supported by more than 10,000 tons of heavy bombs and the powerful guns of HMS Warspite and the British monitor Erebus. Almost 9,000 civilians paid the penalty for being caught in a city blasted by bombs from planes of friends.

The British had other and even more important reasons for a quick capture of Boulogne and Calais. First of all, these fortresses protected the several German V-1 launching sites in the vicinity—and these long-range flying bombs were causing serious damage and casualties in the English capital. Next, here and there about Cape Gris-Nez were the large German guns that not only menaced all passage through the Strait of Dover, but also threw shells into Dover roads as well.

Boulogne had been cut off from the rest of German-held territory by September 7, but it was not until ten days later that the heavy siege guns which had been used in taking Le Havre arrived and were emplaced. The assault lasted six days and ended with the surrender of the 10,000 German soldiers garrisoning the port. Calais fell on September 30, and the first troops entering the city were guided in by Engineer Officer Robert Levert and his Boulogne detachment of naval firemen.

The rest of the story of the liberation of the north and northwest of France belongs largely to the armies, except in part for those warriors of both sea and land, the Marines. For, when General Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division landed at Omaha Beach on August 2, to help drive the Germans back to the Rhine and beyond, his forces included the 2nd Armored Regiment of Marines, equipped with tank destroyer weapons, each of which had been christened with the name of a former French destroyer. Clad in British battle dress, but still obstinately wearing their sailor hats with red pompons, they participated, under the command of Captain Raymond Maggiar, in the pursuit of the retreating Germans. They distinguished themselves at the capture of Alençon. They were the first to march by the Arch of Triumph in Paris. It was in one of the closing engagements on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne that Lieutenant (junior grade) Michel Vassal fell. He had been one of the survivors of the tragedy which had befallen the French submarines in Morocco, two years earlier, at the time of the American landings. And it was still another Marine crew that manned the first French tank to reenter Strasbourg, on November 22, 1944.

But the war was far from over.

“We have found again the France of victory, but we do not forget that the war continues,” wisely declared the Chief of Naval Operations of the French Navy.

Still ahead were some of Germany’s most deadly surprises: on land, the great offensive in the Ardennes, the “Battle of the Bulge”; at sea, the advent of the snorkel and the Walther hydrogen peroxide engine which would give a new lease on life to the U-boat warfare; in the air, vastly increased airplane production (3,031 fighter planes in September as compared to 1,016 the preceding February) and the appearance of the revolutionary jet propelled Messerschmidt 262—“the most sensational fighter plane ever produced up until now.”

This was the opinion of the French aviator, Pierre Closterman. General Carl A. Spaatz, Chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe, had been warning America against this plane ever since July, and had pressed for early delivery of American jet planes to counter it.

The French Navy’s job in this final period was tremendous. There were captive ports still to be liberated; there were construction and repair jobs to be done in those already freed; there was liaison to be maintained with the empire; there were already omens of the coming trouble in Indochina; and, last but not least, there was the clearing of mines along the coasts.

Of all the Navy’s tasks this was the most thankless, yet the one that required the most men and ships; the least spectacular, yet the one most arduous and urgent. During the whole past four years the shallows, the harbor entrances, and the estuaries had been crammed with mines, laid by the Allies as well as by the Germans. So enormous was the task that, even with the assistance of the Allies, it would be impossible to clear the whole coast immediately. Accordingly certain “red zones,” forbidden to shipping, were left alone and every effort given to clearing, on a priority basis, the shipping lanes most urgently needed for the war effort and the civilian subsistence.

In the Mediterranean, the shores of Sète were swept between October 22, 1944, and February 12, 1945—at the cost of the French minesweeper D-202. Port Vendres was tackled next; that took from December 4 to March 28, and resulted in the severe damage of the D-252 by an acoustic mine. Other French sweepers were operating in the region of La Ciotat and Sanary, and in still unsafe corners of the Toulon roadstead.

All the Mediterranean sweeps were accomplished with equipment furnished by the Allies. But in the northern zone—the Atlantic and the Channel —there were available some nine old sweepers of the 1940 fleet, returned by the British but with their machinery well worn out. The Allies, however, agreed to sweep the entrances of the ports north of Brest, while the French undertook to clear those of Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, although to do so they had to call in some of the sweepers from the Mediterranean.

In addition there was convoy escort duty, which had to be kept up as long as the enemy had U-boats at sea. In this duty the Enjoué (ex-P.C. 482), commanded by Lieutenant Georges Decugis, was sunk with all hands by the U-870 off Cape Spartel on January 9, 1945. Twenty-two days later the Ardent (ex-P.C. 473) went down in collision with a British freighter off Casablanca, but fortunately without loss of life. Another two months saw the destroyer Combattante blown up on a mine off the entrance to the River Humber, with a loss of 68 killed or missing out of a crew of 185.

But while the French Navy was defending against enemy submarines in the Channel and the Atlantic, its own submarines were operating against whatever German ships could still be found anywhere. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Curie, commanded by Lieutenant Pierre Chailley, sank two German transports of 2,000 tons on October 2, 1944. Off the Norwegian coast the Rubis closed its glorious career by laying four minefields between September 24 and December 9, 1944. These reaped a harvest of seven victories, bringing the total of the Rubis’ victims to fifteen.