Dunkerque and the Strasbourg Battleships

Dunkerque as built.

Dunkerque

The design of Dunkerque and Strasbourg was heavily influenced by the latest British practice. The battleships Nelson and Rodney, scaled-down versions of the G3 battlecruiser design of 1922, entered service in August and November 1927 respectively and had a major impact on the thinking of other navies. They introduced a number of revolutionary design features: an all-forward main armament with the machinery aft, a secondary battery in trainable twin turrets above the weather deck, a tower structure to carry the main fire control directors, and an inclined 14/13in armour belt topped by an exceptionally heavy armoured deck. The all-forward main armament placed the turrets at the broadest part of the hull to maximise protection for the magazines from shells and torpedoes. Locating the machinery aft saved on shaft length and therefore on weight. The inclined armour belt was equivalent to a thicker vertical belt, and a shell striking at an oblique angle was more likely to be deflected or broken up. And the secondary turrets had better all-weather capability, superior firing arcs and greater range than casemate-mounted guns; they also benefited from replenishment systems similar to those of the main guns, which gave them a high sustained rate of fire.

Many of the key features of the Nelson design were focused on securing complete protection for the magazines and machinery. In particular, the length of the armoured citadel was reduced to a minimum in order to maximise armour thickness; this ran counter to accepted practice in other navies, notably the US Navy, which saw the armoured belt as a protector not only of the ship’s vitals but also of its buoyancy and stability.

The French ships were by no means slavish copies of Nelson and Rodney, but the influence of the British ships on Dunkerque and Strasbourg and on their successors is readily apparent, particularly if the latter ships are compared with earlier French capital ship designs such as the 37,000-tonne battlecruisers. The all-forward main armament with the secondary guns in trainable turrets aft, the single funnel and heavy tower structure amidships, the inclined armour belt topped by a heavy armoured deck over the magazines and machinery, and the relatively short length of the armoured citadel (equivalent to approximately 58 per cent of length between perpendiculars); all these features were characteristic of the latest British capital ship designs, and distinguish Dunkerque and Strasbourg from the ‘paper’ designs of the 1920s. In her general configuration and layout Dunkerque is as different from the 37,000-tonne battlecruiser as the last French treaty cruiser Algérie from the Suffren class.

However, there were also many important design differences between the British and the French ships, some of which relate to the relatively high speed of the French ships and others which result from Dunkerque being designed almost ten years later, when naval technology had moved on. The Nelsons had a two-shaft propulsion system with eight boilers and two sets of turbines delivering 45,000shp for their designed speed of 23 knots; Dunkerque and her sister had four shafts, six boilers and four sets of turbines delivering 107,000shp for 29.5 knots. Although the Indret boilers developed for Dunkerque were large high-pressure models and were housed side by side in pairs, the three boiler rooms were necessarily longer than those of the Nelsons. Moreover, the four-shaft propulsion system required two separate engine rooms, so the machinery spaces occupied a length of 53.5 metres as compared with 41.5 metres in the British ships. The French vessels, however, had only two main gun turrets because of the adoption of quadruple mountings, so the machinery spaces could be moved farther forward and occupied a more central position, with the forward engine room (housing the turbines for the wing shafts) in the broadest part of the hull amidships. As a result, the secondary quad turrets could be located abaft the superstructures – in the Nelsons these were abeam the superstructures – enjoying excellent arcs on after bearings.

The layout adopted for Dunkerque freed up the stern for comprehensive aviation facilities which included a trainable 22-metre catapult and a two-tier hangar on the centreline served by a lift. Three long-range reconnaissance aircraft could be carried, which was a particularly valuable resource when the ships were hunting down enemy commerce raiders. By locating the big guns forward and the aircraft facilities on the quarterdeck, the risk of blast damage was eliminated, and the arrangement also had the advantage of placing the aircraft and the hangar close to the volatile aviation fuel, which in accordance with customary French practice was stowed in tanks isolated from the hull structure in the upper part of the stern.

Other novel features of the design included the mounting of fire control directors one above the other atop the forward tower and around the heavy pole mainmast. This arrangement was to have an unforeseen drawback, but it was certainly an ingenious way of economising on centreline space, and it ensured clear, uninterrupted training arcs for the directors. Considerable attention was also given to ‘passive’ protection measures such as subdivision, the layout of the machinery spaces, and the design and location of the main gun turrets. Despite the single funnel a ‘unit’ machinery arrangement was adopted, with one boiler room forward and the other two between the two engine rooms. This had the disadvantage of extensive – and poorly protected – uptake trunking leading from the forward boiler room above the main armoured deck to the single funnel, but enabled the ship to continue to steam with two or even three adjacent machinery compartments flooded or otherwise out of action. The quadruple turrets were divided into two independent gunhouses by a central 40mm bulkhead which extended down into the working chamber beneath the turret at a reduced thickness of 25mm. In order to minimise the risk of both turrets being disabled by a single shell or torpedo hit, they were separated by a distance of 28.5 metres – significantly greater than in the British Nelsons.

Service

During the first four months of the war forty per cent of Allied ship losses resulted from magnetic mines; after that, the percentage of losses dropped by half. On the whole, while magnetic mines constituted an added hazard to navigation and a source of mental anxiety to the High Command, they caused less actual losses than might have been expected. In fact they proved less deadly than the more conventional weapons, such as submarines or surface raiders.

At the very beginning, however, the situation was at times so alarming that Winston Churchill, accompanied by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, made a special trip to Maintenon to ask the French Navy for assistance.

Admiral Darlan, who, like General Gamelin, had a special train at his personal disposal, sent it to Cherbourg to pick up the distinguished guests. The French naval stewards who manned the dining car were ordered to make certain that there would be no lack of champagne and other spirituous refreshments. Consequently the atmosphere of the meeting was particularly cordial. The conference took place under the trees of the Parc de Noailles, a setting which somewhat astonished the English. But the exchange of views which took place was straightforward and without ulterior motive, for both sides had in mind the one objective of winning the war. Curiously enough, when one reflects on events which were to follow, Mr. Churchill declared to Admiral Darlan that he had complete confidence in the Admiral and his officers—but he would prefer that the French Navy Minister and the French politicians not be kept too well informed on operating plans as he, Mr. Churchill, did not consider them capable of keeping a secret!

The British were particularly interested in the large new French battleships. To meet German battleship and cruiser raids they had only battleships that were too slow or battle cruisers that were too thinly armored. Until the time the new Prince of Wales would be ready in 1941, the British were counting a great deal on the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg, as well as on the Richelieu, then nearing completion, and on the Jean Bart, under construction, which they asked be completed at the earliest possible moment.

French industry was to perform miracles in this respect; the British were far ahead in submarine detection gear, and they promised to provide the French Navy with a class of trawlers equipped with asdic.

Returning to London after his conference with the French Admiralty, Mr. Churchill informed the House of Commons on November 8, “I wish to point out to you the remarkable contribution of the French Navy, which has never been, for many generations, as powerful and effective as it is now.” Later, he was to write in his memoirs that French assistance “exceeded by a great deal all the promises made or engagements entered into before the war.”

A few days after the conference, and in the same spirit of fellowship, the British Admiralty asked for the assistance of French submarines in escorting the transatlantic convoys being formed at Halifax. To defend against German surface ships that might possibly be encountered, the convoy escort generally included one British battleship or cruiser and one submarine steaming in the midst of the merchant ship group. From November, 1939, to May, 1940, except for the middle of the winter, French submarines of 1,500 tons alternated with British submarines in escorting eight Halifax convoys. On the African coast, likewise, the British often requested French assistance in escorting British convoys for Sierra Leone and Cape Town.

With their resources strained by the transatlantic convoys, the Royal Navy no longer had enough ships to escort their important shipping which traversed the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean unguarded, but which had to be convoyed from Gibraltar to England. The French Navy agreed to take turns with the British Navy in escort duty on that essential route, and from October, 1939, to May, 1940, French destroyers, torpedo boats, and sloops provided the escort for 29 convoys in one direction and 27 in the other. Ships thus escorted totalled 2,100, of which 89 per cent were British or British-chartered vessels. Out of the 56 convoys, only four ships were lost—three British and one Greek.

These large convoys, sometimes numbering as many as 60 ships, were too unwieldy to burden them further by adding French ships bound from the Mediterranean or Morocco to French Atlantic ports. Moreover many of the older French merchant ships could not make the minimum required speed of nine knots to keep up with the English convoys. Consequently the French Admiralty was forced to sail its ships in small groups from Oran and Casablanca, and then form them into one convoy off Gibraltar for the run north; on the return voyage, the procedure was reversed. From October, 1939, to May, 1940, the Navy thus escorted almost 200 small convoys between the Bay of Biscay and Gibraltar. These convoys totalled 1,532 French or French-chartered ships, of which only seven were sunk by the enemy.

The greatest deficiency of the French Navy in antisubmarine warfare was in submarine detection devices. Rarely was a U-boat found on the surface where well-aimed guns would quickly eradicate it, and the only way to reach it down below was by depth bombs. Differently from the gun crews, for whom target practice was frequently held, there had been no practice at depth bombing with live charges. Consequently the ships too often mistook the great surface upheaval resulting from the explosion of the depth bomb as sure evidence of a “kill.” To reduce such erroneous reports to a minimum, the French Admiralty distributed a film on depth charging which showed the true crescent-shaped eddies formed on the surface by a series of explosions. Still, in order not to discourage the attackers, the Admiralty was quite liberal in giving credits to those who had pressed home an attack vigorously.

Up to May, 1940, the French Navy had recorded more than fifty attacks on submarines in the western theater, not counting numerous ineffectual searches. In the eastern end of the Channel, German submarine activity was practically zero, thanks to the effective Allied Pas-de-Calais minefield barrier, in which three U-boats were sunk during the month of October. Most of the reports of submarines sunk, however, were found to be erroneous. Such was the case with the U-boat which the Lorientaise reported it had sunk in the Bay of Biscay on January 19, 1940, and which a diver even claimed he had actually seen lying on the bottom. German archives, examined after the war, proved however that no U-boat was lost in that vicinity. Similarly the U-41, attacked with gunfire and depth charges by the Siroco in the Bay of Biscay on November 20, 1939, and reported sunk, was able to return to port and report the attack. These same German archives, however, confirmed the victory of the Simoun, which rammed and sank the U-54 on February 23, 1940—a sinking which had not been officially recognized by the French Admiralty at the time.

As for other attacks carried out in conjunction with British forces, the degree of success attributable to either will never be known. Such was the case of the U-55, attacked simultaneously on January 30, 1940, by the French destroyer Valmy and two British destroyers and a British plane.

The really important thing was that the U-boat had been sunk!

In addition to convoy escort and antisubmarine warfare—routine tasks in any naval war—numerous other missions devolved upon the French Naval Forces.

First there was the protection of the heavy troop movements at the beginning of the war: seven convoys transporting two divisions from Africa to the Rhine front; eight troop convoys from Marseilles and Algiers to Beirut, to form the Army of the Levant; and two convoys of British troops from Gibraltar to Malta, which were escorted by the French. In addition a steady stream of native African troops—45,000 men in nine months—began to flow from Dakar and Casablanca to France.

Other important convoys were those carrying the British Expeditionary Force to French soil—four modern divisions in 1939, and thirteen by the end of May, 1940. At first these landed at Brest and in the ports of the Loire, in order to be beyond range of German air raids. The escort was British, though French destroyers and fighter planes often participated in the protection of convoys carrying troops. Local patrols and the sweeping of harbors and harbor entrances for mines was the particular responsibility of the French.

The great minefield barrier which the Allied navies had laid across the Pas-de-Calais at the beginning of the war, had only two narrow passageways through it, each of which was guarded by microphones and other detection gear. One of these passageways was close to the English coast, and opened toward the Downs roadstead; the other was at the foot of Cape Gris-Nez, and opened toward Dunkirk. As its share in the barrier, the French Navy laid 1,000 mines, but within the next few weeks the swift Channel currents tore over 200 of them up and deposited them on the nearby beaches. But just as many British-laid mines washed up on these same beaches. With typical courtesy the French mine disposal officer disarmed these mines, disassembled them, greased them, and returned them to their British owners.

As soon as the Pas-de-Calais mine barrier was in place, the terminal ports for British military convoys were moved closer to the front. Saint-Malo replaced Brest, but the principal port of disembarkation was Cherbourg, where before April, 1940, over 300,000 men were landed without incident. On mail steamers from Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk a stream of sick or wounded men, of non-combatants from various organizations, and of men on leave crossed the Channel for England, sometimes as many as 2,000 or 3,000 within a day.

It was not only in the Channel that the French Navy cooperated in ensuring the safety of British troop convoys; in December, 1939, London requested the loan of the Dunkerque to escort a Halifax-to-England convoy of seven passenger liners carrying Canadian troops to join the British Expeditionary Corps in Europe.

Other crossings requiring special care were the convoys carrying gold. Not only was the United States of America not in the war at that time, but it was so fearful of being dragged in that a special neutrality law—the “cash and carry” law—governed all dealings with the belligerents. Under the law these latter were required to pay for all purchases in cash and then to transport the goods themselves, as American ships were forbidden to enter the war zone. The Allies had to transport the purchased goods either in their own ships or in neutral ships chartered by them. When the Allies ran out of U.S. dollars, the only currency the Americans would accept was gold.

In November, 1939, the battleship Lorraine, escorted by two cruisers, carried the first shipment of gold to the United States; on its return it escorted a convoy of merchant ships loaded with airplanes. When in December the Dunkerque went to Halifax to escort the Canadian troop convoy mentioned above, it deposited there, as at a teller’s window in a bank, 100 tons of gold. The aircraft carrier Béarn, going to pick up airplanes in the United States, took over 250 tons of gold, and the passenger liner Pasteur an additional 400 tons. The cruiser Emile Bertin started for America with 300 tons, but the armistice intervened and she was diverted to Fort-de-France, in the island of Martinique, instead.

In addition to safeguarding the transfer of all this gold without a penny’s loss, the French Navy also rescued, via Beirut, 78 tons of gold belonging to the Republic of Poland—gold which later figured in important diplomatic exchanges at the time of the evacuation of the reserves of the Bank of France when the country was invaded by the Germans.

Nor was the Navy’s part confined to the mere convoying of ships; it also mounted offensive operations against surface raiders which threatened them.

The operations of the German surface raiders are now well known, but in 1939 the Chiefs of Staff in London and Maintenon could not deduce the German plans from the maze of information, both true and false, which poured in from all over the world.

On September 30, for instance, news was received of the sinking of the English freighter Clement, sunk in the South Atlantic by a German pocket-battleship. The French battleship Strasbourg promptly sailed from Brest for Dakar on October 7, to join the British aircraft carrier Hermes in forming a “killer group.” The Strasbourg would be relieved later by two heavy cruisers from the French Mediterranean Squadron. These “killer groups” made periodic sweeps of the tropic seas, and eventually the raider, identified by then as the Admiral Graf Spee, was brought to action off the Río de la Plata on December 13, 1939, by a British force under Commodore Henry Harwood. Damaged, and driven into the neutral harbor of Montevideo, the Graf Spee scuttled herself. Perhaps her refusal to come out for a final fight was due in part to a rumor, carefully “leaked” by the French, that several large ships were cruising off the Río de la Plata.

A second German raider, the Deutschland, was reported loose in the North Atlantic on October 21. The Dunkerque and a division of cruisers promptly put to sea to safeguard to its destination an unescorted British convoy from the West Indies.

A month later a British auxiliary cruiser was sunk north of Scotland by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Believing mistakenly that the blow had been struck by the Deutschland, which in reality had already returned to Germany undetected, the British sent out a search group built around the Dunkerque and the British battle cruiser Hood, which swept the northern seas unsuccessfully from November 25 to December 2.

In the Indian Ocean the French heavy cruiser Suffren was escorting Australian convoys, while in the Atlantic joint patrols searched for the Altmark, the Graf Spee’s supply ship. But the Altmark escaped all its hunters until two months later when it was intercepted in Norwegian waters, bare hours from the safety of its home port.

Also watched by the French Navy were certain areas suspected of running supplies to enemy ships at sea. One such area was the Iberian Peninsula. Spain was proclaimedly neutral, but her government was indebted to the Germans for help rendered during the Civil War. Also many German merchant ships, caught at sea by the war, had taken refuge in Spanish ports, especially Vigo. The British and French Admiralties suspected that some of these ships were secretly taking supplies out to enemy submarines or even enemy cruisers at sea. Therefore the French Navy had its light craft, during the entire war, patrolling the approaches to the Cantabrian coast and the principal ports from Bilbao to Vigo. French airplanes and even French submarines participated in these patrols at the beginning. Nevertheless, out of the score or more of German merchant ships that were reported to have slipped out of Spain’s northeast ports between September, 1939, and May, 1940, only two were intercepted. Of these one was captured, and the other was scuttled by its crew.

As for German submarines slipping in and obtaining supplies from German merchant ships anchored in Spanish harbors, even today little is really known.

The French naval attaché at Madrid sent in reports giving in detail the identifying numbers of German submarines supposed to have been supplied from merchant ships anchored in Spanish ports. German records examined after the war proved, however, that none of these particular submarines had been within hundreds of miles of Spain at the times cited. On the other hand a German submarine commander made an official report, as evidenced by the German archives, that he had had to forego seeking the shelter of the Spanish coast in order to recharge his batteries, because the sector was too closely patrolled by the French for safety.

In addition to all the areas mentioned thus far, the French Navy was also responsible for patrolling the regions of the Azores and of the Canary, Madeira, and Cape Verde Islands, where some German freighters and tankers had taken refuge. On several occasions our own submarines or auxiliary cruisers would investigate these suspected areas, and on September 23, 1939, the French submarine Poncelet captured the German freighter Chemnitz, which had slipped out of Las Palmas and was attempting to get back to Germany. In October a joint Franco-British “killer group” intercepted the German freighter Halle, which scuttled itself, and captured the German Santa Fe. In the middle of the following month the German freighter Trifels was captured by the French auxiliary cruiser Koutoubia, while trying to get away with 21,000 cases of gasoline. On February 14, 1940, a prize crew from the small sloop Elan sailed into Brest with the German Rostock, captured off the Spanish coast three days earlier.

But the most extraordinary episode was that of the German freighter Corrientes, which on the night of May 9 suddenly blew up with a mysterious explosion while trying to get under way in the Las Palmas roadstead. Now it can be revealed that the explosion was caused by two audacious officers from the French freighter, Rhin, cruising off the port, who swam in and placed limpet mines against the underwater hull of the German ship.

But convoy escorting, blockade duty, and vain “killer” patrols were not enough to fill a need for activity which the Italian status of nonbelligerency left unsatisfied in the Mediterranean. At the suggestion of the French Navy, the Royal Navy accepted the offer of a few French submarines to assist in keeping the watch in the North Sea against a possible sortie by the German forces.

The French submarine tender Jules Verne, with a division of 600-ton submarines, arrived at Harwich on March 23, 1940. A month later another division of 600-ton submarines as well as a division of 1,500-ton boats reported at Harwich, bringing the total to 12 submarines thus placed at the disposal of the British Command. The force was further increased by the submarine minelayer Rubis, since the services of such a vessel had also been requested by the British.

But the hazardous operations of this flotilla in German waters more properly belongs to the account of the Norwegian expedition and therefore will be told in that chapter, along with the equally fascinating story of the super-destroyers of our Fantasque-class in the grim battles of the North Sea.

Fifteen Days of War in the Mediterranean

It was a strange aberration that led Benito Mussolini to the balcony of the Palazzo di Venezia on June 10, 1940, to announce to the world the entry of Italy into the war. Strange, because he had made apparently sincere attempts to prevent the outbreak of war during that month of August, 1939. Upon the outbreak of hostilities he had immediately declared his country a nonbelligerent. Like the democracies, he had sided with Finland against the invading Russians. All along he had permitted Italian industry to fill French orders for war materials. In short, while remaining technically faithful to the Axis pact, he had given proof of intelligent moderation. Now he had suddenly given France the “stab in the back.” In actuality it was not France, but his own country, to which he was giving the coup de grâce.

There is no doubt that the Allies’ decision at London to blockade Germany by placing an embargo on her exports, even though these were carried in neutral ships, was a serious blunder. The Italians were exasperated by the stopping and boarding of their colliers bringing German coal to Italy, and still more exasperated when the embargo forced them to import this needed coal by rail over the Brenner Pass. Also there was undoubtedly a deep aversion between the Fascist leaders and many statesmen of the democracies. Nevertheless none of these reasons was sufficient to bring Italy into the war—which in the case of France could be considered almost fratricidal—and Italian opinion, including the military, was all against it.

The only explanation for Mussolini’s declaration of war is, perhaps, the slogan that circulated in Rome: “To participate in the peace, one must participate in the war.” Germany’s quick success in Norway had disturbed Mussolini. Now, with France apparently breaking up, he thought he had better get in a few quick shots if he wanted to sit down as a conqueror at the peace conference afterward—a conference where he could demand Nice, Corsica, Tunis, etc., as Italy’s legitimate compensation for participating in the victory.

The Allied Navies had been preparing against just such an action by Mussolini ever since the beginning of April. At that time responsibility for the Mediterranean was divided by agreement between the two Allies: the French Navy was to have responsibility for the western half, the Royal Navy for the eastern half. Although the British, strained by the demands of the Norwegian campaign, had given thought to asking the French Navy to take over the responsibility for the entire Mediterranean, it had been decided to adhere to the original agreement, with some slight modifications.

For instance, it was decided that as a precaution against Italy’s entry into the war, the French Raiding Force should be transferred immediately from Brest to the western Mediterranean, and that in addition another French squadron should be sent temporarily to the eastern Mediterranean where at the time the English had only some light forces.

In accordance with this plan, Admiral Gensoul’s squadron, consisting of the Dunkerque, Strasbourg, and several light groups, sailed for Mers-el-Kebir, French Algeria, arriving there on April 27. An improvised squadron called Force X, consisting of the old battleships Lorraine, Bretagne, and Provence, plus several heavy cruisers and some light craft, all commanded by Vice Admiral René Godfroy, were sent to Alexandria. They joined Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s two old British battleships which had just arrived there. Three weeks later, when Admiral Cunningham’s squadron was reinforced from England, the Bretagne and the Provence returned to the western Mediterranean; the Lorraine remained, to form part of a British division.

Thus, in order to cope with the Italian Fleet, the Allies had made strategic dispositions as follows: at Toulon, the Third French Squadron, of 4 heavy cruisers and a dozen destroyers; at Mers-el-Kebir and Algiers, Admiral Gensoul’s fast battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg, and two older and slower battleships under Rear Admiral Jacques Bouxin, plus two cruiser divisions and many destroyers; at Bizerte, six divisions of French submarines; at Malta, a number of British submarines; and finally, at Alexandria, a British squadron and Force X, under the over-all command of Admiral Cunningham.

In basing the large ships of the Allied navies at the ends of the Mediterranean, far from Italian airfields, the Allied leaders were perhaps according the Italian Air Force the same respect they gave the Luftwaffe—something which experience later proved was overrating it.

Admiral, South (Admiral Esteva), who had cordial personal relationships with Admiral Cunningham, set up his headquarters at Bizerte. In anticipation of hostilities with Italy, British maritime traffic between the eastern and the western Mediterranean had been suspended and the ships routed around Africa. But in the western waters, traffic between France and North Africa continued as usual, under protective cover of the air forces of the 3rd and 4th Naval Districts and of the escort and patrol divisions in that area.

On May 15 the strategic plan had been formed that, if Italy entered the war, the Allies should attack that very night, should bombard her bases and industrial centers, and should shoot up her coasts to try to provoke the Italian Navy into coming out to fight. For aerial bombing, some Royal Air Force squadrons had been based in Provence, where they were in striking distance of the Po valley factories. The French 3rd Cruiser Squadron was to bombard the petroleum tank farms and other military installations in the Gulf of Genoa. The code name for this operation was “Vado.”

Other operations were to follow without delay: the Toulon forces were to strike in the Tyrrhenian Sea; the forces at Bizerte and Algiers were to raid southern Italy and Sicily; and the Alexandria forces were to strike in the Dodecanese and along the coasts of Cyrenaica.

Hostilities began at midnight on June 10. At 0850 on the morning of June 11 the French Admiralty sent out the order to execute Vado that evening. The English were informed that the French would rely on the assistance of their aviation units as previously planned. Admiral Emile Duplat, of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, received orders to go ahead even if the French Air Force could not provide him with air cover. When the order was confirmed at 1735 that afternoon, the cruiser force was assembled in the Salins d’Hyères roadstead, with turbines warmed up, waiting for night to fall so they could get under way and strike the target at daybreak.

Then, 22 minutes later, came the unexpected counterorder: “Cancel Vado. Cancel preceding dispatches. This is a Government order.”

Admiral Duplat sent a respectful but firm protest, but all in vain. Once more he was told that it was not the Admiralty but the Government which had given the counterorder.

Gloom settled over the ships. The crews had to be informed. The squadron made a crestfallen return to Toulon, since the Salins roadstead was poorly defended against air attacks.

What was going on?

The truth gradually came out. At Briare that day, during a Ministers’ conference one or them had remarked that, considering the position of France at the time, it seemed to him foolish to provoke the Italian Air Force unnecessarily by taking the offensive. This opinion had prevailed, and Admiral Darlan had had to abide by it. General Joseph Vuillemin, Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, received orders to stop the R.A.F. squadrons which were just getting ready to take off.

The decision thus made created considerable excitement. Churchill mentions it with decided acidity.

It is known that on June 10 the Italian Air Force was under very restrictive instructions: reconnaissance flights alone could be made, and these could not fly over the French coasts. It was really a most unusual war!

But the next day Mussolini lifted these restrictions. On June 12, some 21 Italian Savoia-79 bombers attacked Bizerte, damaging a few planes and setting fire to some gasoline drums on the Sidi Ahmed airfield.

Darlan thereupon managed to obtain a reversal1 of the counterorder. Vado would be carried out. Not that night, because there was not time enough, but on the night of June 13.

“Bizerte having been bombarded, the Government authorizes reprisals. The 3rd Squadron will carry out Vado the night of June 13. . . . Give British air squadrons freedom of action to attack.” Admiralty message, 2250, June 12.

As if to sweep away all French scruples, the Italians bombed Toulon that night, but so timidly that the French commander requested the antiaircraft batteries to save their ammunition.

The exact results of the shelling by the ships of Admiral Duplat at daybreak on June 14 have never been assessed. What counted were the exultant reports brought back by those who had participated in the action.

The squadron had approached the Italian coast in two groups, and despite enemy fire had carried out the bombardment exactly as planned. The Italian resistance had been feeble. Enemy aviation did not show up at all. Four or five motor torpedo boats attacked, but without success, and lost one ship for their temerity. Only one French ship was hit—the destroyer Albatros, which was struck in the fireroom by a 152-mm. shell, resulting in 10 men burned to death. She continued her firing, however, and returned with the rest of the squadron at 25 knots.

The first group consisted of Algérie and Foch; the second, of Dupleix and Colbert. Each group was escorted by two divisions of destroyers.

That same night the R.A.F. attacked the industrial centers of northern Italy, and the airplane Jules Verne,3 of Naval Air, gained laurels by bombing the gasoline storage tanks of Porto Maghere, at Venice.

The Jules Verne was a 4-engine commercial-type Farman plane with a 6,000-kilometer range of action. It had been requisitioned by the Navy to carry out scouting missions over the Atlantic. Though it had a negligible armament, it could carry over 4 tons of bombs. Manned by a crack crew under command of Lieutenant Commander Henri Daillière, the Jules Verne, during May and June of 1940, carried out a series of very risky operations over the enemy’s lines at Aachen, Flushing, and Rostock. It even ranged as far as Rome, where it flew several times to drop propaganda leaflets.

Its most famous operation was the bombing of Berlin—the first such action of the war—which it accomplished on June 8, despite violent antiaircraft fire. When the bombing officer had nothing left to drop on his objective, he took off his hobnailed boots and held them threateningly over the heads of the Berliners. The same petty officer, on a trip over Rome, became very worried because a bundle of leaflets he had dropped had failed to open. His comrades assured him that without a doubt he had made a direct bull’s-eye on the Vatican!

The following day Admiral Cunningham carried out a raid in the Dodecanese with two battleships, an aircraft carrier, and light forces. From Beirut, in Lebanon, Admiral Godfroy led the cruisers of Force X to the vicinity of the straits of Casso. The Bizerte submarines set up a barrier line in the central Mediterranean. Admiral Gensoul had sortied from Mers-el-Kebir on the false report4 that a German squadron was preparing to drive past the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean.

The origin of this false bit of intelligence lay in two suspected shadows—German supply ships, in fact—which had been detected in the Iceland-Faeroes channel several days earlier by the Northern Patrol, at the time of the sortie of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, during the evacuation of Narvik.

Surprisingly, almost no enemy submarines were sighted during all these operations. One launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack against a cruiser of the Raiding Force; another sank a Swedish freighter and a British cargo ship; a third, damaged, had to intern itself at Spanish Ceuta. Not a single enemy surface ship had shown itself.

Despite the entry of Italy into the war, French morale was high, and neither they nor their English allies had any idea of giving up control of the Mediterranean.

Merchant shipping in the western Mediterranean, which had been suspended on June 10, was resumed on the 12th. The ships followed the French and North African coastal routes as far as Port Vendres and Oran, respectively; there they were formed into convoys and routed, under escort, well to the westward of the Balearic Islands, as far as possible from enemy bases. One of these escorts, the French sloop Curieuse, rammed and sank the Italian submarine Provana 30 miles south of Cape Palos, on June 16.

Meanwhile, back in France, General René Olry’s Army of the Alps, reduced to three divisions, was holding its own against Italian attacks on the frontier. But on June 18, the Germans, rushing down the valley of the Saône, entered Lyons; on the 21st they occupied Clermont-Ferrand. To prevent his flank being turned, General Olry had to pivot hurriedly along the line of the Isère River. Instinctively reacting in the same way it had done when Paris was threatened, the Toulon navy yard rushed twenty 47-mm. and 65-mm. guns to that front, where their sailor crews distinguished themselves against German tanks at Voreppe, near Grenoble.

Here was the enemy in the valley of the Rhône. The usual throng of fugitives was swarming on all roads leading south. On June 21 a German bombing attack on Marseilles sank the passenger liner Chella and killed or wounded hundreds of civilians.

The port of Marseilles was one of the principal evacuation ports of southern France. Through here were routed not only many civilians, but also large detachments of troops and enormous quantities of raw materials—copper, brass, zinc, tin, molybdenum, petroleum etc. These invaluable strategic materials were hustled out of France ahead of the invaders, and were hidden in North Africa on the chance that there would come a day when France would reenter the fight.

During the days preceding the armistice, the majority of merchant vessels in French harbors got under way as soon as loaded and proceeded without waiting for convoy protection. But contrary to what was happening on the Atlantic side, shipping in the Mediterranean did not sustain a single loss from enemy mine, plane, or submarine.

People have asked why at this time the Navy did not evacuate a large part of the French Army, in order to continue the war from Africa.

As a matter of fact, all military groups which arrived at the docks of the French Mediterranean ports were evacuated. Even the Polish troops, for whom the Navy had no transports available when they first arrived, were safely carried away by the English—especially since they wanted to go to England, and not North Africa.

After the evacuation of Dunkirk and the ports of the north, the Royal Navy extended its evacuation operations—“Operation Aerial”—to retrieve all British troops and supply services still in France. It succeeded in evacuating approximately 180,000 men—including Polish troops—through Atlantic ports as far south as Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and slightly more than 10,000 through French Mediterranean ports.

One of the most interesting of such operations was the evacuation to Algeria of the entire movable stock of the French Air Force—trucks, cranes, tank cars, repair shops, spare parts, bombs, etc. This important material arrived at Port Vendres in sufficient time because the Air Force General Staff issued the necessary orders far enough in advance. At the same time all operational planes were being flown to North Africa.

The only way more troops could have been evacuated would have been for half of them to dig in and hold the Germans off while the other half hurried to the seaports and embarked. Such an operation would have been possible only if the plans had been made three or four weeks earlier, when there was still something of a front on the Somme and on the Aisne. But it was impossible for a single force to hold a front on the north and simultaneously retreat toward the south.

Also, it would have been necessary to assemble the required number of transports well in advance. At Dunkirk all that had been required was to evacuate, across a narrow strait, troops who had abandoned all of their equipment. But in the Mediterranean, if the evacuated troops were to carry on the war, it would have been necessary to load aboard with them the material they would need overseas—arms, ammunition, food, vehicles, petroleum—everything.

And to transport a single division overseas, with its necessary supplies and equipment, it was estimated that 20 suitable ships would be required. By violating all rules, it could have been done with half that number—but this would mean carrying men and nothing else, for while men can be squeezed, equipment is incompressible.

Briefly, it would have required 100 ships if it had been desired to embark, for example, 100,000 to 120,000 troops. And because of the demands for vessels in the Norway operation and in the evacuation of the Atlantic ports, the bulk of French Mediterranean shipping had been rushed to the Atlantic side of France. The same was true of English shipping, as the Mediterranean in principle was closed to it and everything was being routed around the Cape of Good Hope. Lastly, up until June 15, there was still talk of establishing a Breton Redoubt, which would have required additional shipping.

It is true that around June 12 the French Government did ask the Navy to plan for the evacuation of several hundred thousand men, without being able to give the dates or even the embarkation ports, Atlantic or Mediterranean. In order to obtain the necessary tonnage, the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, had decided to ask the British for assistance, and had sent General de Gaulle, Assistant Secretary of the Army, to London on that mission, as has been previously mentioned.

General de Gaulle’s trip was useless insofar as that mission was concerned. For the British had no time or ships to spare. Furthermore, there were no troops to embark. There were French ships in the Mediterranean sufficient to evacuate—as they did—all those who presented themselves at the evacuation ports during those days just before and after the armistice. These evacuations averaged several thousand troops each day, plus some civilians.

Since it was well known that armistice talks were in progress, there was not a person in the Navy who was not aching to fire a few last rounds or drop a few last bombs on the enemy before the end of the war—a day which they anticipated with great bitterness.

They just missed such an opportunity in the western Mediterranean on June 23. Some important French convoys were at sea that day between Marseilles and Oran. The 4th Cruiser Division, under Rear Admiral Jean Bourragué, with escorting destroyers, was convoying them. Coming out of their lethargy, the Italians had sent out a light task force, the Sansonetti squadron, the day before. After having steamed as far west as Minorca, these Italian ships were returning to their Sardinian bases when they were sighted by a French plane. The 3rd Cruiser Division, under Rear Admiral André Marquis, immediately got under way from Algiers to intercept them, but contact was lost and the enemy was not brought to battle.

In the eastern Mediterranean, the Lorraine sortied on June 20 with the British division to which she was attached. She bombarded Bardia, in Italian Cyrenaica, on June 21.

The French armistice delegation was meeting with the Italian delegates in Rome at that very time. When the news of the Bardia bombardment, as well as of the bombing of Trapani and Leghorn by French naval air squadrons, was given to the French delegates, a furtive smile lit up their faces. The Italians had the good taste to consider it all just a routine matter.

On the evening of June 22 the entire Franco-British squadron at Alexandria was scheduled to put to sea to bombard Augusta and to raid toward Messina, and to wipe out all Italian communications with Libya. The French cruisers were about to cast off from the buoys when suddenly the British battleships reversed course and Admiral Cunningham sent a signal cancelling the operation. The French were to learn later that the order to do so came from London direct.

The armistice with Germany had just been signed, and Churchill was taking no chances. In Churchill’s eyes it was imperative that French Force X be immobilized in the Alexandria roadstead, under control of the British, the moment the armistice became effective. It was the same pattern as was to be followed in the case of all French ships taking refuge in Great Britain; in fact the British admirals at Portsmouth and Plymouth were receiving orders to that effect at that very moment.

The French Navy had fired its last shots. But it was only now that its real trials and tribulations were to begin.

1 thought on “Dunkerque and the Strasbourg Battleships

  1. Pingback: Dunkerque and the Strasbourg Battleships — Weapons and Warfare | Ups Downs Family History

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