27 November 1942: The French Scuttle Their Fleet
With the Fall of France in June 1940, the French Navy ceased to operate against the Germans and Italians. To prevent the enemy from obtaining the French ships, the British attacked Mers-el-Kebir in July and fought the Battle of Dakar in September. In the wake of these engagements, the ships of the French Navy were concentrated at Toulon where they remained under French control but were either disarmed or deprived of fuel. At Toulon, command was divided between Admiral Jean de Laborde, who led the Forces de Haute Mer (High Seas Fleet) and Admiral André Marquis, the Prefet Maritime who oversaw the base.
The situation at Toulon remained quiet for over two years until Allied forces landed in French North Africa as part of Operation Torch on November 8, 1942.
Concerned about an Allied attack through the Mediterranean, Adolf Hitler ordered the implementation of Case Anton which saw German troops under General Johannes Blaskowitz occupy Vichy France beginning on 10 November. Though many in the French fleet initially resented the Allied invasion, a desire to join the fight against the Germans soon swept through the fleet with chants in support of General Charles de Gaulle erupting from different ships.
In North Africa, the commander of Vichy French forces, Admiral François Darlan, was captured and began supporting the Allies. Ordering a ceasefire on 10 November, he sent a personal message to de Laborde to ignore orders from the Admiralty to remain in port and to sail to Dakar with the fleet. Knowing of Darlan’s change in loyalty and personally disliking his superior, de Laborde ignored the request. As German forces moved to occupy Vichy France, Hitler desired to take the French fleet by force.
Hitler was dissuaded from this by Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who stated that the French officers would honor their armistice pledge not to allow their ships to fall into the hands of a foreign power. Instead, Raeder proposed that Toulon be left unoccupied and its defense entrusted to the Vichy French forces. While Hitler agreed to Raeder’s plan on the surface, he pressed on with his goal of taking the fleet. Once secured, the larger surface ships were to be transferred to the Italians while the submarines and smaller vessels would join the Kriegsmarine.
On 11 November, French Secretary of the Navy Gabriel Auphan instructed de Laborde and Marquis that they were to oppose the entry of foreign forces into naval facilities and onto French ships, though force was not to be used. If this could not be done, the ships were to be scuttled. Four days later, Auphan met with de Laborde and tried to persuade him to take the fleet to North Africa to join the Allies. Laborde refused stating his would only sail with written orders from the government. On 18 November, the Germans demanded that the Vichy Army be disbanded.
As a result, sailors were taken from the fleet to man the defenses and German and Italian forces moved closer to the city. This meant that it would be more difficult to prepare ths ships for sea if a breakout were to be attempted. A breakout would have been possible as the French crews had, through falsification of reports and tampering with gauges, brought aboard enough fuel for a run to North Africa. The next several days saw defensive preparations continue, including the placing of scuttling charges, as well as de Laborde requiring his officers to pledge their loyalty to the Vichy government.
A Nazi tank encounters a scuttled French Navy ship, Toulon, 27 Nov 1942
On 27 November, the Germans commenced Operation Lila with the goal of occupying Toulon and seizing the fleet. Comprised of elements from the 7th Panzer Division and 2nd SS Panzer Division, four combat teams entered the city around 4:00 AM. Quickly taking Fort Lamalgue, they captured Marquis but failed to prevent his chief of staff from sending a warning. Stunned by the German treachery, de Laborde issued orders to prepare for scuttling and to defend the ships until they had sunk. Advancing through Toulon, the Germans occupied heights overlooking the channel and air-dropped mines to prevent a French escape.
Reaching the gates of the naval base, the Germans were delayed by the sentries who demanded paperwork allowing admission. By 5:25 AM, German tanks entered the base and de Laborde issued the scuttle order from his flagship Strasbourg. Fighting soon broke out along the waterfront, with the Germans coming under fire from the ships. Out-gunned, the Germans attempted to negotiate, but were unable to board most vessels in time to prevent their sinking. German troops successfully boarded the cruiser Dupleix and closed its sea valves, but were driven off by explosions and fires in its turrets. Soon the Germans were surrounded by sinking and burning ships. By the end of the day, they had only succeeded in taking three disarmed destroyers, four damaged submarines, and three civilian vessels.
In the fighting of 27 November, the French lost 12 killed and 26 wounded, while the Germans suffered one wounded. In scuttling the fleet, the French destroyed 77 vessels, including 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, and 13 torpedo boats. Five submarines managed to get underway, with three reaching North Africa, one Spain, and the last forced to scuttle at the mouth of the harbor. The surface ship Leonor Fresnel also escaped. While Charles de Gaulle and the Free French severely criticized the action, stating that the fleet should have tried to escape, the scuttling prevented the ships from falling into Axis hands. While salvage efforts began, none of the larger ships saw service again during the war. After the liberation of France, de Laborde was tried and convicted of treason for not trying to save the fleet. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death. This was soon commuted to life imprisonment before he was granted clemency in 1947.