A Brief History
On November 27, 1942, the French Navy under the direction of Admiral Auphan scuttled a large part of the French ships and submarines in port at Toulon, France, in order to keep these valuable assets out of the hands of the German navy, known as the Kriegsmarine. After Germany had rolled over France in 1940 and the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated to Britain, the defeated French sued for peace and found their country divided between Occupied France and nominally “independent” Vichy France in the South of the country. The Vichy French, so named for the de facto capital city, Vichy, were largely seen by patriotic French and outside countries as collaborators and patsies of the Germans. In fact, Vichy France was in a way now enemies of the Allied nations and had in fact at first resisted by force the Allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) only weeks before the scuttling.
While Hollywood and Western writers have frequently made the heroic French out to be a fiercely independent people that resisted the Germans bitterly throughout the occupation, the fact is that some other occupied countries had much higher levels of resistance than did the French, even though “French Resistance” has become synonymous with “Resistance.” While the French Resistance was certainly heroic and, in many cases, highly effective, the resistance in Slavic countries occupied by the Germans was generally much fiercer and more widespread, with less collaboration. An exception was the Ukraine, where the Ukrainian people saw Germany as a means to get rid of the hated Russians that had intentionally starved as many as 11 million Ukrainians during the 1930’s (a catastrophe known as “Holodomor” in Ukrainian). Many Ukrainians ended up fighting for Germany, even in the hated SS! (The author personally knew a Marine Corps officer whose Ukrainian father had served in the SS.) Ukrainians, notoriously anti-Semitic, also often gladly helped the Germans round up Jews.
Other European nations occupied by Germany also had active “undergrounds,” and many citizens resisted on their own by hiding Jewish neighbors from Germans sent to gather Jews to be shipped off to concentration camps. Even in Italy, a nation allied with Germany, many Italians, including government officials, balked at turning over their Jewish population to the Germans. While of course, many French people also protected French Jews at the risk of their own lives, many French people were a bit too enthusiastic about doing their part to cater to German demands and helped process the evacuation of Jews from France to concentration camps.
Many French government officials and military senior officers had been presented with a dilemma, that of following the official government policy of an orderly surrender and living up to treaty obligations or breaking “French” law by resisting the German occupation. Additionally, many must have feared violent repercussions against themselves and their families if they did not cooperate with their oppressors. Prior to the D-Day invasion of France in 1944 the future must have looked pretty bleak to many in France, and certainly many French people thought they were merely dealing with the political reality of the present when they collaborated. Or was that just an excuse to personally profit from the circumstances? Each individual case must be looked at, and even then finding the real truth behind individual actions would be incredibly difficult.
When the French surrendered to the Germans in 1940, the French Navy was the 4th largest in the world, a considerable maritime force to be reckoned with. The British, who were fighting on against Germany virtually alone lusted after adding those ships to their own fleet if only the French Navy would declare itself “Free French” and continue to fight. Obviously, the Germans also wanted the French ships at their disposal, or at a minimum to remain out of British hands. Likewise, the British greatly feared the French fighting alongside the German Navy or Germans seizing the French ships. Admiral Jean Darlan, head of the Vichy French Navy and seen by the British as anti-British, had secretly instructed his crews to never allow their ships to fall into German hands, nor fight against the British. Unfortunately, British military intelligence did not know of this order and British fears of French ships in the hands of Germans remained allayed. Meanwhile, Germany had disavowed any intention of using French ships against the remaining allies.
The British entreated the French to sail their fleet into British waters and join the British in resisting the Germans. The French refused. The French fleet was dispersed in several Mediterranean ports, some in British hands, some in overseas ports safely away from Germans, while many were located at the Mers-el-Kebir base in Algeria, including 4 battleships (2 old and 2 new), a seaplane aircraft carrier, and 6 destroyers. The British mounted an attack on those French ships and a plan to impound those French vessels as could be seized, called Operation Catapult which commenced July 3, 1940. The British task force sent to Algeria issued an ultimatum to the French fleet moored there, and when no suitable answer was received, the British opened fire on their former ally’s ships, forever damaging British-French relations between their navies. Meanwhile, British forces attacked other French ships at various ports, eliminating most of the French Navy as a potential threat. Only the sizable fleet at Toulon remained in French hands.
Though staying out of hostilities for the next 2 years, the French fleet at Toulon remained a tempting prize for both the Germans and the Allies. When the Germans finally realized the fortunes of war had turned against them and that the French fleet at Toulon could not be considered safely neutralized, and in fact was needed desperately by a Germany unable to match Allied naval construction, German forces were sent into Vichy France to occupy the rest of the country and eliminate the farce of an “independent” Vichy France. Admiral Darlan had meanwhile defected to the Free French under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, and his replacement, Admiral Auphan, ordered the scuttling of the French ships at Toulon before the Germans could seize the vessels. French delaying tactics kept the ships out of German hands long enough for the scuttling operations to progress, and the ships were scuttled, the largest scuttling of a fleet in history, reminiscent of the German scuttling of their own fleet at Scapa Flow after World War I. Successfully scuttled were 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers and 12 submarines, along with dozens of other types of vessels. The Germans were only able to seize 3 destroyers, 4 submarines and some auxiliary vessels. French patriotism and defiance had denied the Germans a valuable prize. Altogether, the French had destroyed 77 of their own ships. The German effort to seize the ships, Operation Lila, was a failure.
Contrary to the impression some may have because of the rapid conquest of France by Germany in 1940, French forces had actually mostly fought valiantly against the German invasion, and French heroics in keeping the German advance away from the British evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940 is what made the evacuation possible. Many French soldiers, sailors and airmen fought the Germans until the war was won as Free French forces or assimilated into other Allied military forces (mostly British). As stated earlier, many French citizens heroically resisted the Germans through underground tactics of sabotage and spying, as well as evacuating downed Allied airmen.
Despite the shameful example of some of the collaborators among their numbers, the French were definitely on the side of the Allies from the start of World War II and through the course of the war. After the war, the French became part of the new Western alliance known as NATO (though not without some friction with their allies). During the Cold War and during the War on Terror, France has remained a valued ally of the United States, make no mistake.
(Author’s note: The author has been to France, including Toulon, and other family members have also visited France. Each of us found the place and the people to be wonderful. See out previous articles, “10 Best Things That Come From France” and “A Timeline of France and the Francophone World”)
Question for students (and subscribers): Should the French Navy have tried to honor the peace treaty with Germany or should they have sailed for Britain to continue the fight? Was Admiral Auphan right to sink his own ships? Were you aware of the British attacks on French ships and the scuttling of the fleet at Toulon? Have you ever been to France? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Albert, Marvin. Operation “lila”. Encre, 1983. (in French)
Auphan, Paul, and Jacques Mardal. The French Navy in World War II. Naval Institute Press, 2016.
Charles River Editors. Operation Catapult: The History of the Controversial British Campaign against the Vichy French Navy during World War II. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2018.
The featured image in this article, aerial pictures by the Royal Air Force of the scuttled French fleet at Toulon, originally from de.wikipedia (description page is/was here), is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID LC-USW33-026496-D. On 28 November 1942, the day after the scuttling and firing of the ships of the French fleet in Toulon harbour, photographs were taken by the Royal Air Force. Many of the vessels were still burning so that smoke and shadows obscure part of the scene. But the photographs show, besides the burning cruisers, ship after ship of the contre-torpilleurs and destroyer classes lying capsized or sunk, testifying to the thoroughness with which the French seamen carried out their bitter task. While the vast damage done is shown in these photographs, no exact list of the state of the ships can be drawn up, since the ships themselves cannot be seen in an aerial photograph. Thus the upper deck of the battle cruiser Strasbourg is not submerged, but here are signs that the vessel has settled and is grounded. The key plan C.3296 shows the whereabouts of the majority of the ships and their condition as far as it can be seen from the photographs. Picture shows: damaged and sunk light cruisers and destroyers visible through the shadow and the smoke caused by the burning cruisers. left is the Strasbourg (bridge above the water but clearly sunk) next to her, burning, is the Colbert under the smoke, the Algérie to the right, the Marseillaise. This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1968; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1968.
HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply)
More information. See also Copyright and Crown copyright artistic works. This work is also in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.