Find a Security Clearance Job!


Vichy French Fleet

The French Navy, with a long and proud tradition and composed largely of Bretons, was violently anti-British. The loyalty of the French Navy, it was evident, was not so much to Vichy as to the Service, and this loyalty among enlisted personnel was heightened by their interest in ratings and pensions, to obtain which absolute conformity to the naval hierarchy was necessary.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 actually made the Americas more secure. The powerful British Royal Navy, supplemented by the French fleet, controlled the Atlantic. As long as those navies existed, the German and Italian fleets could offer no threat to the United States, for no Axis invasion fleet could hope to cross the Atlantic in safety. The overwhelming power of the British and French Navies encouraged the United States in its decision to place the majority of its own fleet in the Pacific to provide security against any possible Japanese attack.

On the morning of the day that France sued for an armistice, 17 June 1940, US Army Chief of Staff General Marshall remarked that, among the various possibilities, it had occurred to him that Japan and the Soviet Union might suddenly team up in the Pacific and force the bulk of the United States Fleet to remain there to defend the American position. If at the same time the French Fleet were surrendered to Germany and Italy, the United States would face an extremely serious situation in the South Atlantic. If Britain and France were defeated in Europe and their fleets escaped across the Atlantic, the United States would probably become involved in the war automatically, since only the United States possessed the ports and base facilities from which these vessels could operate.

If Germany secured the French Fleet, the United States would have to embark at once on full mobilization of its resources and manpower for hemisphere defense; therefore, it could not continue to send aid to Britain. In addition, the outlook for Great Britain's survival seemed exceedingly dubious. In late June 1940, American Army and Navy experts were anticipating the probability of a British defeat or negotiated peace before the end of the summer.

Late in May 1940 President Roosevelt had warned the French that the United States considered retention of their fleet to be vital for the ultimate control of the Atlantic as well as for the eventual salvation of France. Before 10 June 1940, both the French and the British repeatedly urged the United States to send strong naval forces to eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean waters to deter Italy from entering the war, but until the French armistice the United States held firmly to the policy of keeping its fleet in the Pacific. What it must do after that depended on what happened to the French Navy.

The French request for an armistice on 17 June 1940 found the Germans unprepared to give an immediate answer since they had not decided on either the temporary or the long-range demands that they would impose on France. After consulting with Mussolini (and rejecting his proposals), Hitler presented relatively lenient armistice terms to the French on 21 June 1940. He did not ask for control of the French Fleet, nor did he require the French to open their African territories to German occupation. To the Italians, Hitler explained that he wanted to keep the French Fleet out of British hands. He also felt that the presentation of harsher terms might have led to a withdrawal of the new Petain government to North Africa. Hitler's primary aim was to get the French out of the war in order to widen the rift that had developed between the French and British and thus to weaken Great Britain's ability further to resist.

On 19 June 1940 France's Admiral Francois Darlan gave his oath that the French Fleet would not be allowed to fall into German hands and that an armistice would be rejected if the Germans made such a demand. Continuing, Darlan asserted that if, subsequently, the Germans should attempt to seize any ship of the fleet, it would be scuttled by the French. 24 The United States Government put little faith in this pledge. Secretary Hull later told the French Ambassador that the terms of the armistice "apparently threw the entire French fleet directly into German hands."

The British, who of course were more immediately concerned about what happened to the French Navy, had even less faith in Darlan's assurances. On 3 July 1940 the British issued ultimata to all French naval commanders to put their vessels under British control or suffer the consequences. A substantial number of French vessels were then berthed in British-controlled ports and were taken over without much difficulty. The critical portion of the French Fleet not under British control was stationed at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran in Algeria, and the commander of this force ignored the British ultimatum. Thereupon the British attacked, sinking or disabling most of the French ships and causing heavy loss of life-an action that produced a bitter breach in relations between the British and Vichy Governments. Secretary Hull in his Memoirs has written, "this was an action solely between the British and French." It is now known that President Roosevelt discussed and approved the British plans in advance with the British Ambassador, though apparently without the knowledge of the Department of State.

The action at Mers-el-Kebir settled the French Fleet problem for the time being. Germany would not get possession of any significant portion of the French Navy, the British would continue to have naval superiority in the eastern Atlantic, the United States Fleet could remain in the Pacific as a check to Japan, and the Axis Powers could not, even if they wished, launch a sizable attack across the Atlantic until they defeated Great Britain.

The French Navy's anti-British attitude had been strengthened by British attacks on French naval units at Oran and Dakar in 1940, and by suspicions of British designs on Bizerte. It was anticipated that the fact that the United States had now joined the British would make little difference; indeed, the French Navy considered that Anglo-Saxon sea power was a threat to the continued existence of the French colonial empire.

Marshal Petain's announcement on 24 October 1940 that Vichy France would support the Axis war effort against Great Britain had seemed in Washington to presage easy German access to French North and West Africa. Immediately after Petain's announcement of 24 October, the United States sent a sharp warning to Vichy stating that any French connivance with Germany "would most definitely wreck the traditional friendship between the French and American peoples" and implying that such French action would justify American occupation of French possessions in the Western Hemisphere. This strong message offended the French, but it also helped to dampen their enthusiasm for collaboration with Hitler.

The United States and Great Britain were both gravely concerned over the possibility that the Vichy French might permit units of their Navy at Dakar and at Martinique to join the Axis in operations against the British Navy. The United States went so far in November as to offer to buy two unfinished French battleships, one located at Dakar and the other at Casablanca, in order to keep them out of German hands. The Vichy Government rejected the offer, though it repeated its earlier pledge not to allow French naval forces to be used offensively against the British. Petain refused to attend the collaboration ceremony the Fuehrer had planned to stage in Paris on 15 December; instead, he sent a message to President Roosevelt reiterating his solemn promise that the French Fleet would be scuttled before it would be allowed to fall into German hands, and otherwise indicating his decision to avoid any active collaboration with the Nazis.

Admiral Jean-Franois Darlan, Vichy naval commander, whose authority was second only to that of Marshal Henri Ptain himself, was deputy prime minister of Vichy France. Vichy French forces, particularly the fleet in Toulon, consisted mostly of French warships, small army garrisons, and shore batteries. The French Navy presented a problem in itself. Based on prior political and military events, it was expected that the naval, units and personnel would resist an Allied invasion. The resentment caused by the British attack on thenaval bases of Dakar and Mers-el-Kebir in 1940 was expected to flare up again. This anticipated resistance had to be reckoned with, because it was known that sizeable naval units werein the vicinity of ORAN, ALGIERS and CASABLANCA, and, further, the harbors of these cities were studded with coastal gunsmanned by naval personnel.

The Allied assault on the Moroccan and Algerian coasts took place as scheduled in the early hours of 8 November 1942. The American nature of these forces was stressed wherever possible to avoid exacerbating the feelings of British-French animosity that had been inflamed by the destruction of elements of the Vichy French fleet at Mers El Kebir by British units in 1940. The Casablanca landings, under eGeneral George Patton, Jr., encountered dogged if confused resistance by French naval units and shore batteries.

Early in the morning of the 8th, French planes attacked the fleet and soon afterward shore batteries, aided by the Jean Bart, opened fire. The American vessels returned the fire. The Massachusetts paid particular attention to the Jean Bart, and succeeded not only in silencing her guns for the day but also in damaging her so seriously that her stern settled on the bottom. The French fleet stationed at Casablanca included one light cruiser, three flotilla leaders, seven destroyers, submarines, and additional small craft. The Jean Bart and three submarines had now been sunk, and three other ships either had been put out of action or were undergoing repairs. Three of the remaining submarines managed to escape. Next, the cruisers, destroyers, and flotilla leaders attempted two sorties, but were driven back with a loss of six vessels. The others retreated to Casablanca. Algiers fell on 8 November, Oran on the 10th, and Casablanca on the 11th.

On 10 November 1942 French Adm Darlan broadcast orders for French forces in North Africa to cease resistance against Allies. Negotiations continued until 13 November, when Darlan was recognized as de facto head of the French Government in North Africa. And on 17 December 1942 Adm Darlan announces French Fleet units at Alexandria, Dakar, and North African ports are joining Allied forces. On 24 December 1942 Darlan was assassinated. Although the French quickly named General Henri Giraud as replacement, his acceptance by de Gaulle's Free French government was questionable, and the issue of French reliability arose all over again in Allied command bunkers and foxholes.

Press and radio commentators were uniformly hostile, some passionately so, to the agreement General Mark Clark struck in November 1942 with Vichy admiral Jean Darlan to halt the fighting between Vichy French and Allied troops in North Africa. "I have been called a Fascist and almost a Hitlerite," General Dwight Eisenhower, Clark's superior, complained. Press criticism of the Darlan deal propelled the "unconditional surrender" policy adopted by the Casablanca Conference in January 1943.

The North African ports of Oran and Casablanca posed significant problems for salvage forces. Both harbors contained damaged and sunken drydocks that were necessary for docking damaged ships. Also, both harbors contained numerous wrecks that blocked harbor entrances or berths within the ports. Thirteen wrecked ships were removed or salvaged from Casablanca, which included five large cargoor passenger ships, the French battleship Jean Bart, a French destroyer, and two floating drydocks. There were twenty-seven French wrecks littering the harbor at Oran. Masts and stacks at crazy angles broke the surface...wherever one's eyes lighted-in most cases, the hulls, whether right side up, upside down, or on their sides, were wholly submerged and invisible. A string of masts and smokestacks lay across the entrance to the inner harbor. There six ships, anchored in two lines nearly bow to stern, had been scuttled to block the port. Inside there were sunken destroyers, sunken submarines, sunken freighters, sunken passenger ships, sunken drydocks. Everything in the port had been scuttled before the surrender.

Join the mailing list