French Navy – The Liberation Of The France II


On land, the French naval infantrymen, even if they did not have ships’ decks under them, had no cause to complain of lack of action. Lieutenant Commander Kieffer’s battalion, which had been engaged at Ouistreham, continued its operations with the British 1st Brigade of Commandos, and distinguished itself at the taking of Walcheren Island, blocking the mouth of the Scheldt, in November, 1944, and in raids on the companion island of Schouwen in December. The Naval Armored Regiment, forming part of the French 2nd Armored Division, participated in the drive to the Rhine. By February 9, 1945, they had destroyed 57 enemy tanks, 11 half-tracks, 27 armored vehicles, and caused numerous enemy casualties, at a cost to themselves of only 5 tanks, and 51 men killed and 215 wounded.

After being recalled westward for the Royan operation, the Naval Armored Regiment returned to the eastern front and was in on the taking of Berchtesgaden on May 5, 1945.

The 1st Naval Infantry Regiment, after its operations at Toulon, participated in the hard fighting in Alsace at the end of the year, and finally ended its activities in the Aution Mountains in the Italian theater. The 4th Naval Infantry Regiment was occupied in keeping the Germans shut up in Lorient. The 3rd and 5th Regiments were just being organized in the region of Arcachon, and would become the nucleus of the future Brigade of the Far East.

Although the Germans had been driven out of southern France they still held strong positions in northern Italy, where they remained a constant menace to Provence. After the American Army had driven north from the Provence beaches toward the Rhine, the only troops left to meet any eruption of the Germans were General Paul Doyen’s force, which was largely infantry, with practically no artillery and only a very small air force. What he needed badly was the support of naval ships.

Up until October 16, 1944, that support was provided by Rear Admiral Davidson’s Task Force 86. On that date Rear Admiral Auboyneau succeeded Admiral Davidson in command of the force, which was now largely made up of French ships. Less than three weeks later the force was reorganized and redesignated the Flank Force with a new commander, Rear Admiral Jaujard, flying his flag in the Montcalm. Although the composition of the force varied from time to time, it usually included 4 or 5 French cruisers, half a dozen French destroyers, and a number of escort ships, patrol craft, and minesweepers. In addition to the French ships, the Flank Force at the beginning included 4 destroyers, 12 minesweepers, some escort ships, and a flotilla of MTBs from the U.S. Navy.

Admiral Auboyneau had left on the Emile Bertin on a mission to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.

French ships that served at one time or other with the Flank Force included the cruisers Montcalm, Georges Leygues, Gloire, Emile Bertin, Jeanne d’Arc, and Duguay-Trouin; the super-destroyer Tigre, and the destroyers Alcyon, Basque, Fortuné, Simoun, Tempête, and Trombe.

The cruisers, based on Toulon, constituted the bombardment group. The destroyers making up the support force also operated from Toulon. All ships of the force cruised continually, during daylight hours, some ten miles off the coast, between Ventimiglia and Cape di Nola. At night the destroyers took over the job of blockading the Gulf of Genoa.

At Cannes there was based a patrol group consisting, on the average, of four escort vessels and submarine chasers. This group was particularly effective against the floating mines which the enemy released in the westward current in the hope that they would interfere with the traffic out of Toulon.

Sometimes as many as 40 of these mines were destroyed in a single day; in all, 430 were destroyed in the approaches to Toulon.

Finally, the MTBs based at Golfe Juan, near Cannes, carried out night raids along the Italian coast.

It would be useless to try to describe all the various occasions on which the Flank Force fired against German batteries, communication centers, amunition dumps, and other such targets in support of the Allied armies operating ashore. The figure of 3,766 shells fired by the cruisers and 6,392 by the destroyers will give some idea of their activities.

But one of the most useful activities of the patrol craft of the Flank Force was the interception of “human torpedoes,” which made their appearance off the Provence coast subsequent to the landings. Three of these torpedoes, ridden and steered by enemy swimmers, were sunk on September 5, 1944, by the U.S. destroyer Ludlow and the French Malin. The Cimeterre also sank a human torpedo, and in December and January the Sabre and the Fortuné destroyed three Italian MTBs of the 10th MAS. The Javelot, the Cimeterre, and subchaser No. 105 each sank an explosive-laden motorboat also.

This flotilla was a part of the small fraction of the Italian Navy which remained loyal to the Fascist Republic created by Mussolini in the brief period after his spectacular liberation from the Gran Sasso on September 12, 1943.

After February of 1945, when Germany’s situation was becoming rapidly worse, the Flank Force had to redouble its activities in order to check any last minute acts of desperation on the part of the Germans. The cruisers stepped up their bombardments, the destroyers worked in closer to the shore. Three more enemy MTBs were sunk—one by the Lansquenet on March 15, another by subchaser No. 25 on April 11, and the third by the Trombe on April 16. But in the engagement the Trombe was struck by a torpedo from the enemy MTB which killed 19 men, probably the last casualties to be suffered by the French Navy at sea during the war. Eight days later the subchasers No. 112 and No. 122 and the Lansquenet sent six more MTBs to the bottom. Three others (two Italian and one German), which had left San Remo to carry out a raid on the Corsican coast, scuttled themselves in the Gulf of Porto on April 24, with all the crews being made prisoners. The war was nearing its end for Hitler’s forces in Italy as well as elsewhere, but, before evacuating the Italian Riviera, the Germans sank the last of the French ships scuttled at Toulon and later refloated by the Italians and towed to Genoa or La Spezia.

But before the Flank Force was dissolved on May 13, 1945, it had had to log one major disaster to its forces, and that was not caused by enemy action. On Christmas, 1944, the Terrible and the Malin, of the 10th Light Cruiser Division, were in collision during exercises off Naples. The Malin lost its bow as far back as No. 1 gun.8 The Terrible had one fireroom flooded and her superstructure razed from the after stack to No. 3 gun. After the collision, 69 men were reported dead or missing, of whom 61 were from the Malin.

The Malin was repaired by replacing the damaged section with the bow of the Indomptable, which had been scuttled at Toulon on November 27, 1942.

By now the dread German war machine that had once swept over most of Europe had been pushed back completely out of France except for strongly fortified pockets along the Channel coast south of Brest. Here they were hemmed in by 80,000 French fighting men coming for the most part from the former French Forces of the Interior (F.F.I.). But the improvised armaments of these besiegers would not permit their taking the offensive against an enemy so well entrenched, so well provided with artillery, and constantly in touch with its homeland by air. Furthermore, the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of French civilians had to be considered. They were, in effect, hostages in these German-held cities.

These communication lines were kept open by planes taking off at night from the base at Friedrichshafen, on Lake Constance.

The cost of taking such grimly defended fortresses, only to win a wrecked city and an unusable port, had been only too well learned at Brest. That was the reason besiegers had refrained from assaulting Lorient, Saint-Nazaire, La Pallice, and La Rochelle.

Bordeaux, as described before, had fallen, intact, to the F.F.I. on August 28, 1944. But lying almost 100 kilometers up a river easy to mine, the port had never been used by the Kriegsmarine other than as an entry port for blockade-runners and, from September, 1940, to September, 1943, as a base for Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic. This last activity had brought down on the city some heavy Allied air attacks, one of which, on May 17, 1943, had caused the death of 172 civilians. The Allied bombs had destroyed the locks to the drydocks, leaving five Italian submarines stranded, and halting use of the harbor by the Axis for several months.

To avoid the dangerous passage of the Strait of Gibraltar after each patrol, the Italian Navy had obtained permission from the Germans to establish an Italian submarine base (Betasom) at Bordeaux. Twenty-seven Italian submarines from the Mediterranean were based here, as well as three others which joined from the Red Sea after General Wavell had captured their bases in Eritrea. Of these 30 submarines, three were sent as cargo carriers to Japan or the Indian Ocean, a few returned to Italy, and 16 were lost while on patrol. At the time of the Italian armistice there were only two at Bordeaux, both undergoing major overhaul.

It was from Bordeaux that Lieutenant Commander Prince Valerio Borghese, in the Leonardo da Vinci, carried out the trials of a small “pocket” submarine, which was to be carried on the deck of a large submarine to the entrance of the Hudson River in order to attack the ships in New York harbor. The trials were completely successful but the sudden turn of the war in Italy prevented the project ever being carried out.

When General von Blaskowitz had received the order from Hitler’s headquarters to withdraw his forces on August 17 and to regroup them where needed, he had given General Albert Nake, commanding in the Bordeaux region, the order to destroy all the harbor installations before leaving. But after negotiations with the encircling F.F.I., General Nake had agreed not to carry out this destruction in exchange for the pledged promise of the F.F.I. not to harry his troops in their retreat. The Germans probably thought that the obstructions they had already placed in the Gironde below the town would effectively prevent its use by the Allies. The F.F.I. promise had been kept, the Germans had moved out, and the national flag of France had again been run up over the city hall by Lieutenant Commander René Jalabert, who at the time was serving with the Maquis of Dordogne.

These obstructions consisted of seven ships, varying between 40 and 140 meters in length, sunk in two parallel rows across the axis of the channel. Although the work of clearing them away was begun in late 1944, it was not completed until February of 1946.

Even without the obstructions, the harbor of Bordeaux would have been unusable by the Allies as an unloading port, because the Germans still had strong garrisons heavily dug in at Point de Grave and around Royan, on both banks of the Gironde near its mouth.

Had not the ports of Cherbourg and Dieppe in the north been available to the Allies for supplying their armies as they drove inland, there might have been good reason for giving first priority to recapturing some of the large ports on the Atlantic coast of France. But thousands of tons of cargo could be poured in through those two channel ports alone every day, and, in addition, Marseilles was rapidly being restored to usefulness. Hence, despite the impatience manifested in some Government circles for “reasons of prestige,” the Allies had wisely decided to make the attack toward the Rhine their first concern, and leave the recapture of the Atlantic ports until more forces were available.

With the end of the land campaign on the Provence and Languedoc coasts, it seemed as though that time had come. The Moroccan 1st Infantry Division, from De Lattre de Tassigny’s Army, and the 1st Naval Infantry Regiment were detached for that purpose and ordered to the southwest front on December 18.

Then, within less than 24 hours, the Germans had erupted in that desperate winter offense in the Ardennes, with its ensuing threat against the pivot point of Strasbourg. The 1st Naval Infantry Regiment was immediately recalled to the threatened eastern front, and the projected attack against the coastal ports had to be postponed, even though an actual date— January 10—had been set for its beginning.

Through some error never explained, the air attacks which the Allies had been asked to make as preliminary bombardments on the Gironde pockets were never cancelled. On January 5, 1945, some 175 British bombers came over as originally planned, and dropped tons of bombs— not on the German pockets, but on Royan itself, which was destroyed from top to bottom, with 1,000 of its inhabitants dead in the ruins.

The French naval forces, not being able to do anything about the battles in the Ardennes and at Strasbourg, continued to plan for the eventual campaign against the German-held strong points on the coast. On the Gironde front, ever since October of 1944, there had been the 1st Regiment of Naval Gunners, commanded by Commander Charles Touraille. For air support there was Naval Air Group No. 2, commanded by Commander François Lainé, which had been organized in November, 1942, by combining Lieutenant Félix Ortolan’s Fighter Squadron 3F with Lieutenant Raymond Béhic’s Fighter Squadron 4F.

Originating as a battery of four 155-mm. guns, and designated as the 1st Battery of Naval Gunners, it received an addition of four 90-mm. batteries after the Italian campaign and had been redesignated the 1st Regiment of Naval Gunners.

From December 9, 1944, until May 8, 1945, this air group carried out 1,108 sorties and dropped 532 tons of bombs. Its missions varied from reconnaissance and patrols over the lines and at sea to bombing the German defenses in the pockets. It lost altogether eight planes and four crews, but among its losses was Warrant Officer Paul Goffeny, who had already distinguished himself in Syria. On New Year’s Day of 1945 he and his whole plane crew were lost in the resulting explosion when he bombed a German tanker off Point Coubre at almost masthead height.

His name was honored by being given to the ex-German aircraft tender Max Stinsky, which had escaped from one of these German pockets and was interned in Spain until it was eventually turned over to France in 1946. As the Paul Goffeny it took an important part in the war in Indochina, and is today still in commission.

For the projected attack on the Atlantic pockets, the Navy had organized a French Naval Task Force (F.N.T.F.) on December 15, 1944, and had placed it under the orders of Rear Admiral Joseph Rue, flying his flag in the Lorraine. While waiting to take its part in the final assault operations, the F.N.T.F. had the responsibility of blockading the German pockets to prevent the Germans from bringing in supplies—often in neutral ships— or of escaping after destroying everything.

In a letter dated February 5, 1945, Admiral d’Argenlieu called attention to the constant traffic between the German pockets and the Spanish ports. He stressed the strength of the German force of 8 submarines, based at Saint-Nazaire and La Pallice, plus numerous armed trawlers and minesweepers, as compared to the French force of only 8 MTBs at Brest, plus a few submarine chasers and armed trawlers.

The F.N.T.F. had assembled at Cherbourg in December, when first organized. It consisted at that time of the Lorraine, Duquesne, Gloire, some 1,500-ton destroyers, and a group of minesweepers that had just come from the Mediterranean. But the German Christmas offensive had so disrupted the original plans that the Gloire and the destroyers had to rush back to the Mediterranean.

An attempt to begin operations on a limited scale in December had turned out badly also. The objective had been the recapture of the small islands of Houat and Hoedic, off the mouth of the Loire River. But the French armed trawler Abel Alain, with a small assault force of sailors, had run unto a flotilla of Germans who were on their way to Houat with a much larger body of reinforcements. The encounter, which had been brought about by a fog, resulted in the Abel Alain being beached, its commanding officer killed, and some 30 French sailors captured.

Later, an attempt by the Duquesne, with the destroyer escorts Hova and Somali, to bombard the German defenses of Belle Isle was thwarted by another fog. For the time being, the only activities continued were the duels between the batteries of the 1st Regiment of Naval Gunners and the German antiaircraft guns on Point de Grave and in the La Rochelle-Royan region.

During this lull in the hostilities along the coast, the local French commanders and the German leaders of the garrisoned pockets—Vice Admiral Ernst Schirlitz at La Rochelle, and Colonel Hartwig Pohlmann and Rear Admiral Hans Michaellis at Royan—had made agreements aimed at reducing the suffering caused by the sieges. These agreements provided for the exchange of many prisoners, the evacuation of the civilian population who wished to leave the cities, and the preservation of La Rochelle and La Pallice from the destruction that had been visited upon other French cities by their German defenders.

This state of affairs, in which the Germans were being hemmed into their fortifications without loss of lives, could just as well have continued right up to the capitulation of Germany, of which many unmistakable signs were beginning to appear. Nevertheless, on April 13, at a time when the American armies were within 100 kilometers of Berlin and the Russians less than 50, General de Larminat, commander of the French forces in that sector, launched “Operation Vénérable,” intended to clear the entrance to the Gironde. And, 15 days later and only one week before Germany’s capitulation, he ordered the attack on the Ile d’Oléron designated as “Operation Jupiter.”

Although not in favor of these operations, the Navy carried out its commitments. The Lorraine and the Duquesne made up the bombardment group of the F.N.T.F., along with the destroyers Fortuné, Basque, Alcyon, the destroyer escort Hova, the frigates Aventure, Découverte, and Surprise, and the sloop Amiral Mouchez, plus eight French and a dozen British minesweepers. A squadron of seaplanes based on Hourtin and Lieutenant Béhic’s 4F Squadron from Cognac also played a prominent role in the operations.

The blockade of the German positions which had been carried out by light craft from Brest was augmented each night by the 23rd Flotilla of MTBs. Armed pinnaces patrolled the mouth of the Gironde. Fourteen enemy vessels which attempted to evade this blockade were captured, and only five slipped through to Spain.

On the night of April 5, the Surprise drove two German Class M minesweepers to shelter behind the German minefields, and on the following night the pinnace Coccinelle captured an enemy picket boat with two officers. On April 10 the Fortuné and the Hova captured the German-manned trawler Hasard off Les Sables d’Olonne. Another German trawler was captured by one of the French seaplanes, and six other ships were intercepted on April 18. The only active reply from the Germans was a very accurate salvo from the German batteries on the Ile de Ré which made the Surprise draw off to safer distance.

For Operation Vénérable, General de Larminat had considerable forces: 42 infantry battalions, 23 artillery groups, the equivalent of 4 armored regiments, and 2 engineer battalions—a total of 50,000 men, 300 tanks, and 280 guns, of which 190 were larger than 75-mm. In the artillery was the 1st Regiment of Naval Gunners with four batteries of 155-mm. guns. For air support there were 100 French planes plus innumerable Allied planes so that on certain days there were “more friendly airmen in the skies than there were enemy troops in the defenses below.” Altogether these planes made 5,400 sorties, during the course of which they dropped 10,000 tons of bombs!

Such was the case on April 14 and 15, when the Royan pocket, with a total of only 4,600 defenders, was assailed by 1,000 Flying Fortresses and 8000 troops.

To prepare for the assault, the minesweepers had swept and bouyed the firing stations of the large ships on the night of April 14. The bombardment force, departing from Plymouth, arrived on station at 0745 on the 15th, and at 0800 the Lorraine, Duquesne, and the destroyers opened fire on Point de Grave. One of the main reasons for this bombardment was to draw the defenders’ attention to the Point de Grave side while the land troops assailed the Royan area. For two days the bombardment group kept up their fire without the slightest response from the enemy—no enemy planes, no submarines, no enemy shellfire, even. Then, informed that they were no longer needed, the F.N.T.F. returned to Brest, lighter by several hundred tons of powder and shells!

Seven magnetic or acoustic mines were swept from the stations which the bombardment ships were to occupy.

The defenders of the Royan pocket surrendered on the evening of April 17, Admiral Michaellis being captured in his own command post at Pontaillac. But on Point de Grave the fighting continued until the 20th. There a German lieutenant commander, commanding the Narvik Battalion, refused to surrender, and it became necessary to blast him out with one-ton bombs and tank destroyers.

Four thousand and six hundred Germans were captured at Royan, of whom 150 were officers. At Point de Grave the prisoners numbered 3,500. But the price paid for the victory was high—369 men killed and over 1,500 wounded, to say nothing of the obliteration of the communities and the casualties in the civilian population. And all of this was done simply to open, 15 days ahead of VE-day, a river which was so obstructed that it could not be cleared for traffic until the following year!

Although equally useless, Operation Jupiter, begun on April 29, at least had the merit of being less costly. The Lorraine’s big guns were not deemed necessary, so Admiral Rue had shifted his flag to the Duquesne. While covering the landing of the troops on the southern end of the Iie d’Oléron, the Duquesne expended five hundred and fifty 8-inch shells on the German batteries, and the destroyers fired 100 shots each. The following day, May 1, 1945, Oléron capitulated.

At La Rochelle, at Saint-Nazaire, and at Lorient, the French commanders had the intelligence to sit tight and wait for the end of the war when Germany as a whole would capitulate and these cities could be regained without bloodshed and without mass destruction.

Dunkirk also capitulated in the same manner, though here things were somewhat different. Whereas elsewhere the German defenders had remained within their fortifications and waited to be attacked there, Admiral Friederich Frisius, commander at Dunkirk, was a man of another caliber. He had formerly been the commander of the German naval forces on the Pas-de-Calais coast. When he had been forced to fall back to Dunkirk in September of 1944, he had drawn to himself all the German units on the Belgian coast which had been unable to withdraw to the Breskens pocket or to escape across the Scheldt. Now, during the closing days of hostilities, he enlivened matters by making audacious sorties that aroused quite a commotion in that region.

For instance, on April 9, he sent out a strong raiding party to disturb the sleep of the Allied troops. At that time the low lands behind Dunkirk were all inundated, as the Germans had blown up the dykes in order to have the additional protection of the flooded areas. The ground beyond was held by the siege lines made up of a Czech brigade, a few elements of British artillery, and three French battalions, formerly of the F.F.I.

Coming down a canal silently in rubber boats, the Germans scattered two companies of newly arrived besiegers and penetrated several miles inside the Allied positions. In the panic of surprise the English engineers blew up several bridges at Gravelines. Seasoned reinforcements had to be hurried up; these were found in a group of naval infantrymen whom the Commandant of the Navy at Boulogne had organized. Even so, the besiegers never did manage to dislodge the Germans from the strong positions they had taken, regardless of how many bombs the Allied planes rained upon them.

Admiral Frisius caused more troubles to the Allies than did his colleagues at Lorient and La Rochelle put together. In a way, it may be said that he never surrendered. When, in Germany, Marshal Alfred Gustav Jodl signed a capitulation on May 7, 1945, for all the armed forces of Germany everywhere, the redoubtable Admiral Frisius consented to quit fighting—two days later.

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