FRENCH SUBMARINES OPERATING OUT OF HARWICH: 1940 Part I of II

La Sibylle in 1933, just after commissioning. A slightly larger ‘600-ton’ submarine, built some years after the Circé-class, she was 651 tons on the surface and 807 tons submerged. La Sibylle and her eight sister ships, including Orphée, Amazone and Antiope, could do a fair 9.5 knots submerged, but no more than 14 knots on the surface.

Jules Verne. Known as a ravitailleur de sous-marins, literally, a ‘refuelling ship for submarines’, the 4,350-ton vessel was an integral part of the French submarine forces operating from Britain in 1940.

To ensure a more flexible use of the French ships, First Sea Lord Churchill and Admiral Pound visited Maintenon [location of French Navy High Command] in September 1939 to meet with Admiral Darlan. It was agreed that in addition to help protect the steady stream of British troops transported across the Channel, the Marine Nationale would participate in the escort of certain Atlantic and Gibraltar convoys as agreed on a case-by-case basis. In return, asdic-equipped trawlers would be provided as well as general A/S and minesweeping competence. The mistrust between the two allies ran deep, though, and, in spite of the best of intentions, it would take time before any direct co-operation between the navies started to develop.

There were few targets for the French submarines deployed in the Atlantic and, after a while, the French Admiralty (l’Amirauté) decided to offer some of their long-range submarines as convoy escort, partly to free surface ships for other tasks, partly as it was believed the convoys would attract those German raiders and U-boats that might be at sea. From November 1939 to April 1940, the 1,500-ton submarines Casabianca, Sfax, Achille and Pasteur escorted at least eight Allied Halifax convoys as well as several convoys to Freetown or South Africa. Surcouf was also used for this purpose at times and the boats were occasionally diverted to purely French convoys to their own colonies.

In early 1940, after the loss of Seahorse, Starfish and Undine, it was agreed that French submarines should augment British submarines in the North Sea, working from British ports. Hence, the 13th and 16th submarine divisions were transferred from Brest to Harwich. The first three, the 600-ton boats Antiope, La Sibylle and Amazone, supported by the depot ship Jules Verne and minelayer Pollux, arrived at Harwich in the evening of 22 March 1940 to make the core of what was to become known as the 10th Submarine Flotilla by the British and Groupe Jules-Verne by the French. Capitaine de Vaisseau Felix Raymond de Belot was in overall command of the forces.

The French submarines were to operate under British control, but as Horton was uncertain of their operational efficiency he deployed them in the less exposed areas until they had gained more experience and proven their operational capabilities. By giving them billets in the approaches to the Heligoland Bight, west of the Westwall and in the northern approaches to the Strait of Dover, Ruck-Keene’s 3rd Flotilla could be moved further north, off the Norwegian coast and into the Skagerrak. In mid-April, five more submarines, Orphée, Doris, Thétis, Circé and Calypso also arrived, as did the 1,500-ton boats Casabianca, Sfax, Pasteur and Achille. The latter four were transferred to the 9th Flotilla at Dundee at the end of their first patrols. The final French submarine to operate from British ports in this period, the minelayer Rubis, docked in Harwich on 1 May, making the total number of French submarines in Britain thirteen.

The first of the French submarines to go on patrol from Harwich was La Sibylle on 31 March. The billet was off Terschelling and the patrol, which was quite uneventful, lasted for six days. After the patrol, the British liaison officer, Lieutenant Thomas Catlow, made a confidential report to Ruck-Keene and Horton of his observations, which makes for interesting reading:

The Commanding Officer [Lieutenant de Vaisseau Alphonse Raybaud] is an extremely competent and keen officer with a firm hold over officers and men. For a southern Frenchman he has equable temperament and I never saw him panic. [. . .] I had no opportunity to see him under true action conditions due to an uneventful patrol. His only weakness to date is his inability to take his boat alongside well, one, I consider, to his considerations for his `drowned’ fore-‘planes. Takes every precaution for the safety of his submarine, but [. . .] full of dash. [. . .]

In the French navy, there is a special rating, a Petty Officer, who does a 3-year course in Pilotage. He looks after the charts and pilots the submarine under the supervision of the Captain and officers. [. . .]

The coxswain of the submarine, the Patron [. . .], has complete hold on the crew and never at any time did I hear bickering or complaints. The crew of the submarine were keen and hardworking and of a pleasant disposition generally. Their discipline is very good and they show very marked respect towards their officers and Petty Officers [but] if a rating has an idea of his own, he immediately said so to the officer or Petty Officer, the matter was discussed and the best idea carried out.

Overall, Lieutenant Catlow compared La Sibylle with a British S-class submarine. She had some external fuel tanks, though, requiring pumps to access. These pumps had limited volumes and, frequently breaking down, could make fuel a concern, even on shorter patrols. Also, she had above-water exhaust outlets and could not be trimmed down when on the surface. To obtain fully charged batteries, La Sibylle needed five to six hours on the surface.

Submerged, depth-keeping was immaculate. Diving time was well over a minute, though Catlow believed they could do it significantly faster, once they had experienced a real emergency. Should the boat take up an angle during the dive, however, Lieutenant Catlow feared stability might become a challenge as she has a large and wide casing outside the pressure hull. For some reason, the French submariners coped poorly with the deterioration of air quality inside the boat after being submerged for some time. In spite of purifiers and oxygen being fed into the submarine’s atmosphere, they were troubled by the lack of fresh air, while Catlow was barely affected.

The patrols that Lieutenant de Vaisseau Raybaud and his men made while stationed at Harwich during April and May 1940 were largely uneventful. Disaster was near, though, when Lieutenant Marcel Balastre of Antiope mistook La Sybille for a U-boat and fired three torpedoes at her, west of Terschelling on 20 May. Fortunately the torpedoes missed. On her last patrol before returning to France, numerous technical problems started to appear and a spell in the yards was obviously becoming necessary.

Orphée under Lieutenant de Vaisseau Robert Meynier made only one short patrol out of Harwich, but this was quite eventful. In the afternoon of 21 April, two days into the patrol, while about midway between Ringkobing and Dundee, two torpedoes were fired on what turned out to be U51 under Kapitänleutnant Dietrich Knorr. Two U-boats had been sighted about fifteen minutes earlier and Meynier chased one of them at full speed to ascertain whether it was alien. When close enough, he and the British liaison officer, Sub-Lieutenant Peter Banister, agreed it was `definitely not British’ and decided to attack. On a parallel course to the German, on her starboard bow, the centre and stern torpedo turrets of Orphée were turned at a firing angle of 50 degrees. Time was of the essence, lest the U-boat should dive, and there was no time to set any gyro angles, just fire as soon as the tubes had been trained in the right direction. Only two torpedoes were fired, but Meynier ascertained they were running correctly through the periscope. Just before he went down, he could also see that the German started his diesels and made a small change of course, but believed this to be just routine. In fact, U51 had problems with her port diesel engine and made several attempts to restart it at the time of the attack. Orphée was not sighted at all, just the torpedo tracks. Once these were reported, Knorr sounded the alarm and made an emergency dive while turning to port, away from the tracks. For some reason, both torpedoes exploded close to the U-boat, making it `jump’ several metres. There was no damage, though, and as nothing further was heard from the enemy submarine, U51 fell back on her general course and continued homewards. Twenty-four hours later, she was safely moored in Kiel at the Tirpitzmole, having passed through the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal during the afternoon of 22 April.

On board Orphée, two explosions were heard at about the expected time at short intervals, and it was believed erroneously that the torpedoes had hit. Concern about the second U-boat that had been sighted and a low battery made Meynier take Orphée away from the area after a brief look for wreckage through the periscope. Two days later, Orphée was back in Harwich. At the time, it was believed that a U-boat had really been sunk and Lieutenant Meynier and his crew received some attention, including in the French press, as the boat was awarded a Croix de Guerre for the assumed achievement. Orphée returned to Cherbourg on 3 June.

Doris in 1938

Another of the French boats operating out of Harwich in the spring of 1940 was Doris, a 600-ton, Circé-class coastal submarine. She had been commissioned in January 1930 after a lengthy building and work-up process and appears to have been continuously plagued by technical problems originating from being fitted with German Schneider diesels, which were unreliable and had a chronic lack of spares. Nevertheless, she was considered suitable for operating from bases in Britain as part of the 10th Flotilla.

A few days into her first patrol out of Harwich in late April, the port engine compressor broke down. This was serious as it meant the engine could not be used and Doris would only have the starboard engine available for running as well as charging. The patrol was terminated and Doris returned to Harwich on 25 April. There were no spare parts available on board Jules Verne and they had to be ordered from Toulon. This took time – all the more so, as the first crates with spares to arrive did not contain the actual parts needed.

Even so, Capitaine de Corvette Jean Favreul was asked to prepare for a sortie in early May to a billet north of the Frisian Islands, off the Dutch coast. Something was brewing and, fearing that a German invasion of the Low Countries was being prepared, VA(S) considered it necessary to have as many boats as possible guarding the area south of the Westwall.

Discussing with his flotilla commander, Favreul agreed that it would be possible to take air from the working starboard compressor and run the port engine at half power. With only one and a half engines, the submarine would be a sitting duck should they actually run into the Germans they were looking for, but the men of Doris were willing to take the risk. A series of letters left behind by the crew for their families show that they recognised their vulnerability and left Harwich with few illusions.

In the evening of the 7th and early morning of 8 May, around a dozen Allied submarines, including Doris, departed for the coast off Holland. To avoid errors with so many different Allied submarines in the area, each commanding officer was given orders not to attack any other submarine, unless it could be identified with absolute certainty as being German. Intelligence received at the Admiralty indicated that the Germans could read the British cypher-codes and thus had knowledge of the disposition of the Allied boats. This has been difficult to verify with certainty in this specific case, and there are no indications in the war diary of U9 that she was on anything but a normal patrol. It is true, though, that German intelligence to a large degree could read British naval signals at the time and could plot the position of vessels using their radios. In any case, new recyphering tables had been issued to most boats and the two that had not received new tables, Antiope and Thétis, were held back, patrolling the entries to Harwich.

Doris reached her billet off the Dutch coast between Ijmuiden and Den Helder by nightfall. She was not alone.

The 26-year-old Oberleutnant Wolfgang Lüth had taken his nimble type II U-boat through the Westwall, following the safe route Weg I the night before, towards a billet off the Dutch coast. By chance, this area overlapped partly with the southern part of the billet assigned to Doris. Due to numerous fishing boats, U9 had stayed submerged all day and only surfaced after dark at 22:27. It was starlit, with a new moon and moderate to good visibility. The fishing boats had largely returned to port, but the lights from ten or twenty of them could still be seen to the east, towards land, as U9 moved slowly southwards. About an hour and a half later the port lookout reported that what appeared to be the silhouette of a blacked-out submarine moved in front of some of the lights from the fishing boats, steering a northerly course, 3,000-4,000 metres (3,300-4,400 yards) away. Lüth turned towards the submarine (which was Doris), very carefully as he had the brighter western horizon behind him. Doris was apparently not zigzagging, but from U9 it looked as if she turned from a north-westerly course almost 180 degrees towards the south and then, a few minutes later, back again towards the north-west. Still, it does not appear Capitaine Favreul or anybody else on board ever realised that they were being stalked.

Finally, at about a quarter past midnight on the 9th, German time, Lüth had U9 in the position he wanted relative to his target and, turning towards it, fired two torpedoes: one electrical G7e running at 2 metres (6.5 feet) depth and one conventional G7a running at 3 metres (9.8 feet). The range was only about 750 metres (820 yards) and after less than a minute, there was a huge fireball. According to U9’s war diary, the G7e torpedo passed in front of its target while the G7a torpedo hit Doris just aft of the conning tower. This apparently set off a secondary explosion of one or more of the warheads in the French boat’s own dual mid-ship torpedo turret. Taking U9 over to the site of the explosion, there was nothing to be found of the other submarine except a large patch of oil.

Doris went to the bottom with forty-five men on board. There were no survivors and it is not known if anybody on board Doris saw the torpedoes approaching. The British liaison officer Lieutenant Richard Westmacot, Yeoman of Signals Harry Wilson and Telegraphist Charles Sales were lost with Doris.

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