“Ambivalent Support to a Fledgling Navy: British Assistance to the Free French Naval Forces 1940-1941” is Commander Hugues Canuel’s entry to the 2014 Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture Postgrad Essay Contest. Hugues is a PhD student at Canada’s Royal Military College.
Charles de Gaulle stood nearly alone in the summer days of 1940. Seeking legitimacy among the nation and the Allies, he set about building up the Free French Forces, including a navy that played a pivotal role the first critical year. It provided the reach to rally territories overseas and contributed early on to fighting the Axis in key theaters of operations. In turn, British support would prove essential to enable this effort, however ambivalent it may have been in view of conflicting political and military priorities as England faced her darkest hour.
Charles de Gaulle stood nearly alone on the morning of 4 July 1940. His now memorable radio address of 18 June calling on his countrymen to continue the fight despite the ceasefire declared by Marshall Philippe Pétain had gone largely unnoticed at the time. (i) Following the evacuation of France’s Atlantic ports ahead of the German onslaught, more than 26,000 uniformed Frenchmen had found refuge in the British Isle but barely 4,000 had rallied to the tricolour flag emblazoned with the Croix de Lorraine . (ii) Virtually no prominent figure from the political class, nor the diplomatic and civil service ranks, had joined the French National Committee proposed by de Gaulle in London on 20 June. (iii) The British Cabinet formally recognized him eight days later as ‘Leader of all Free Frenchmen, wherever they may be, who rally to him in support of the allied cause.’ (iv) Nevertheless, the movement did not have the status of other governments-in-exile, such as Poland and the Netherlands, and Great Britain maintained diplomatic relations with the regime established in Vichy, in France’s unoccupied zone. (v)
The worse blow came on 3 July when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the seizure or destruction of all elements of the French Navy that were within reach to prevent their falling into enemy hands – Operation Catapult . (vi) All ships and submarines – including merchant vessels – found in Great Britain and Commonwealth territories were boarded and their crews interned ashore. Within the next few days, another force stranded in Alexandria, Egypt accepted to disarm while retaining skeleton crews on board. The battleship Richelieu was put out of action in the Senegal port of Dakar. The operation proved most brutal in Mers el-Kebir (outside Oran, Algeria) where unsuccessful negotiations between local commanders led to an overwhelming gun and aerial assault that resulted in the loss of nearly 1,300 French sailors. (vii) Devastated by the news, a despondent de Gaulle momentarily thought of retiring to Canada as a private citizen but quickly recovered and continued building up his movement, soon to be known as the Forces françaises libres (Free French Forces). (viii)
The FFL are remembered today through such feats of arms as the defeat of Rommel’s forces at Bir Hakeim in 1942 and Leclerc’s race to Paris in 1944. (ix) Less well understood is the earlier contribution made by the Forces navales françaises libres (Free French Naval Forces), providing a forlorn de Gaulle with the initial means to rally political support through the French colonial empire and make an initial military contribution to the allied cause. Pivotal to this effort would be the assistance of Great Britain, though ambivalent it may have been, as FNFL leaders set about creating a navy virtually from scratch, in wartime and without access to national resources. This essay will focus on such British support, contrasting the military reluctance to redirect precious materiel and industrial allocations away from an overstretched Royal Navy to the political requirement to buttress the legitimacy of the leader of the Free French. To that end, the narrative will explore the beginnings of the Gaullist movement before looking at the generation of British support to the FNFL in the summer of 1940 and studying the latter’s performance during its first year of existence. Initially, though, one must trace the difficult journey that led to the downfall of French sea power during that same period to fully comprehend the significance of the rise of the Free French Naval Forces.
FROM GREATNESS TO DARKNESS
France’s Marine nationale could claim an impressive array of ships, submarines and aircraft at the outset of the Second World War but it was not without its flaws. (x) Advances in radar and underwater detection technologies went ignored during the inter-war period, anti-aircraft defences were lacking, concepts for the use of air power at sea and the submarine in commercial warfare neglected. Nevertheless, many of these failings were shared by most navies on the eve of the war and the French fleet remained a force to be reckoned with. Composed of 263 vessels displacing 600,960 tons, it was fourth in the world, the largest in continental Europe, making France first among the second-rank naval powers. (xi) Planners assumed that London and Paris would be allies in a conflict against the Axis powers, with the Royal Navy (RN) bottling up the Kriegsmarine in the North Sea and the Marine nationale focusing its effort in the Mediterranean against Mussolini’s navy. (xii) This they set about to do, although France retained more units on its Atlantic coast than originally planned as Italy did not immediately enter the hostilities while escort requirements grew more important in the face of the submarine and surface raiders threats. (xiii) By the time France fell to the Blitzkrieg , her navy had performed well. It had held its own against U-boats in the Atlantic, fought surface actions off Norway, assisted in the Dunkirk evacuation, preserved the sea lines of communications with the Empire, and taken the fight to the Italian coast through shore bombardments after that country joined the hostilities. (xiv)
Within weeks of the Armistice, this fine instrument of sea power lay prostrated. In the wake of Operation Catapult , all vessels found in Great Britain and Commonwealth ports were detained, lost to both de Gaulle and Pétain. Most others accepted the peace terms and rallied to Vichy but remained in isolated pockets dispersed around the world. The main body was consolidated in Toulon, in the unoccupied zone. Across the Mediterranean, light units were found in the Algerian ports of Mers el-Kebir and Algiers as well as in Bizerte, Tunisia and Beirut, Lebanon. The 35,000-ton battleship Jean Bart (accompanied by one cruiser and several destroyers and submarines) had found refuge in Casablanca, barely seaworthy following her precipitated escape from the Saint-Nazaire shipyard where she had still been under construction as the Germans closed in on the city. (xv) Her sister-ship Richelieu remained immobilized in Dakar, with two light cruisers as well as destroyers and submarines. In Alexandria, Force X (battleship Lorraine , four cruisers and three destroyers) was disarmed but manned by skeleton French crews under close British guard. (xvi) Another force – including the aircraft carrier Béarn and two cruisers – had been neutralized in Fort-de-France (Martinique) under American guarantees. (xvii) Lastly, two small squadrons continued with their colonial duties in Madagascar and Indochina. (xviii)
The majority of French crews interned in Great Britain in the wake of Operation Catapult chose Pétain over de Gaulle. As the Vichy government severed diplomatic relations with London after Mers el-Kebir, barely 3,300 of the 13,500 sailors marooned in England rallied to the FNFL through the remainder of 1940. (xix) The others joined a vast repatriation effort coordinated between British, French and German authorities to evacuate more than 20,000 military members and 10,000 civilians (including 2,000 merchant seamen) from Great Britain. (xx) A similar operation was required to remove from Alexandria the majority of sailors from Force X who chose repatriation that summer. Once back on French soil, reservists were demobilized and regulars found themselves underemployed in France’s unoccupied zone and in North Africa. Too few ships and submarines remained operational and even those did little but linger alongside as the battle readiness of the Vichy navy declined rapidly due to the lack of fuel, ammunition and time at sea. (xxi) And yet, as the former Marine nationale faded into darkness, the much smaller Gaullist fleet had already initiated a rebirth of French sea power as de Gaulle set about gaining much needed political and military legitimacy among his people and within allied circles.
DE GAULLE’S QUEST FOR LEGITIMACY
De Gaulle quickly bounced back after Mers el-Kebir. On Bastille Day, he led a contingent of 200 FFL troops through the streets of London, having broadcast a defiant message the night before on the BBC: ‘(W)e must do our utmost to beat the enemy… Our English allies, already masters of the seas and who will soon dominate the skies, are getting stronger everyday… France, although divided and pillaged, has not lost.’ (xxii) Legitimacy remained an issue, however. Though Whitehall had acknowledged de Gaulle as leader of the Free French, allied and neutral powers – most critically the United States – maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy, thus recognizing the Pétain regime. Many pointed at the seemingly lawful transfer of power that had occurred in France on 10 July. A majority of sitting senators and deputies then ratified the terms of the Armistice and agreed to make the unelected Marshall head of state, accumulating both executive and legislative duties, thus ‘… voting the Third Republic out of existence.’ (xxiii)
But for de Gaulle that regime had accepted defeat before the war was lost and sacrificed the French people while they were still fighting, therefore relinquishing the authority to represent the citizenry and rule the country. (xxiv) In order to restore the nation and reestablish France as a great power after the hostilities, it was vital that Frenchmen continue to fight and that organized French forces make a potent contribution to the liberation of the homeland. That campaign could not be left to the Allies alone, however benevolent they may be, if France wished to stand alongside the victors at war’s end. The path ahead was clear to de Gaulle in the summer of 1940, requiring, in his words:
… the reappearance of our armies on the field of battle, the return of our territories to belligerency, the involvement of the country itself in the efforts of our combatants, the recognition by foreign powers that France had not ceased fighting, in brief the transfer of sovereignty from the zone of disaster and neutrality to that of war fighting and, one day, victory. (xxv)
De Gaulle did not only aspire for his movement to make a contribution to the eventual defeat of the German occupier. He sought the more immediate “transfer of sovereignty” from the vanquished regime in Vichy, and this momentous ambition necessitated legitimacy, internally among his people and externally on the international scene. His idea of sovereignty very much reflected Westphalian concepts and those of Max Weber in terms of a centralized government exercising supreme and independent authority over a given territorial area, holding the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. (xxvi) Within that framework, de Gaulle seized on the urgency of establishing these three pillars (authority, territory, armed forces) under the Free French movement. Once enough senior figures rallied to him, he announced the formation of the Conseil de défense de l’Empire (Council for the Defence of the Empire) on 27 October 1940, an executive body of sort to manage governmental affairs. (xxvii) Sovereign territory was sought through gaining the allegiance of France’s colonies, a contest of such importance that fratricidal fighting often ensued such as in Dakar (September 1940), Gabon (October 1940) and Syria (May-July 1941). (xxviii) The most pressing effort in the summer of 1940, however, was that of constituting proper armed forces, including a navy capable of carrying de Gaulle’s ambitions in the European theatre of operations as well as reaching out to the farthest reaches of the Empire. This task would require both political support and military assistance on the part of the British, neither of which was necessarily forthcoming at the time.
Whether Churchill truly perceived de Gaulle – the individual – as the savior of France or merely as a choice of last resort following the Armistice is debatable and need not be resolved here. (xxix) Of more significance was the Prime Minister’s conviction of the need for a French ally to remain engaged in the war and to keep the colonies out of Axis hands. This position was in contrast to that of several members of government as well as the civil service and military circles. The unprecedented situation resulting from the presence of a militant de Gaulle in Great Britain and an ostensibly legitimate regime in Vichy left British politicians, diplomats and military leaders facing a conundrum many were reluctant to resolve. (xxx) Active and forceful interventions on the part of Churchill would often be required that summer, whenever Free French leaders went knocking on closed doors, seeking support in standing up their fledgling forces. (xxxi) These tensions would become particularly apparent in the formation of de Gaulle’s navy in the aftermath of Operation Catapult and the bloody legacy of Mers el-Kebir.
On 1 July, Vice-Admiral Émile Muselier, the first officer of the general rank to respond to de Gaulle’s call and the only flag officer to join the Free French that year, was placed in command of the FNFL. (xxxii) In addition to the difficulties met in attracting sailors to the movement was that of wrestling back control over French vessels detained in British ports. The Royal Navy wished to make up for its losses over the previous months by sailing some of these ships under the White Ensign with its own crews. (xxxiii) The First Sea Lord, Admiral Dudley Pound, rejected a “navy-to-navy” agreement proposed by Muselier in early July but political priorities prevailed over the rather dismissive attitude of British military leaders. Several favoured recruiting French personnel directly into the UK armed forces instead of letting them form stand-alone units but Churchill pressured the Admiralty to accept that the FNFL would take control of all French vessels for which they could provide crews. (xxxiv)
This important step shaped the accord concluded through a formal exchange of letters between de Gaulle and Churchill on 7 August 1940, laying out fundamental principles of support and coordination between Great Britain and the Free French movement. (xxxv) The parties agreed that the FFL would preserve their French character in terms of flags, discipline, and the administration of personnel, thus avoiding amalgamation in the armed forces of another country. Great Britain accepted that de Gaulle’s forces would have priority of assignment for all French equipment in territories under British control – from capital ships and aircraft to ammunition, stores and supplies – as long as these forces could effectively use such equipment. London also committed to furnishing additional items when necessary to bring French units up to par with their UK equivalent. As a quid pro quo , de Gaulle accepted that Great Britain and other allied powers could avail themselves of unused French equipment – including ships, submarines and aircraft – on a temporary basis as such equipment would remain French property and be returned to France after the war. De Gaulle further agreed that, while he retained national command over all Free French forces, these would be placed under British operational control when taking part in a given campaign – which would be the case for most operations involving the Forces françaises libres for the foreseeable future. Lastly, Great Britain consented to fund all FFL expenses subject to having those sums reimbursed after the war. (xxxvi)
The accord provided a tremendous political boost to de Gaulle but practical realities severely circumscribed the ambitions of both the FNFL and the RN with regards to the use of French naval resources. As the most capable units of the Marine nationale had found refuge in North Africa, many of the 100 or so vessels that had made their way to British ports that summer were too old or damaged to be of much use, whether under the White Ensign or the Croix de Lorraine . Differences in equipment standards, from gun calibers to torpedo diameters down to electrical outlets and the threading of screws – this combined with the lack of original spare parts – made most repairs or modifications to English norms overly prohibitive. (xxxvii) These obstacles compounded the challenges facing the FNFL in terms of mustering qualified crews from a much reduced pool of manpower while support from British dockyards to overhaul those few French ships selected for employment was extremely limited as they were under great pressure to respond to RN needs as a matter of priority. (xxxviii) The sum of these efforts resulted in a flotilla circumscribed to three large torpedo boats ( avisos or sloops, the Savorgnan-de-Brazza , Commandant-Duboc and Commandant-Dominé ), four submarines ( Rubis, Minerve, Junon and Narval ) and smaller patrol boats made available for immediate service at sea. Several other vessels, including the battleship Courbet, were retained in port for use as depot ships and alongside training. The RN contented itself with the battleship Paris and a number of patrol boats, also mooring them in port permanently to support other ships and training. Four more sailed under the British, Polish and Dutch flags, sometimes with mixed crews. (xxxix)
THE FIRST YEAR AT SEA
The FNFL fleet grew slowly through the winter as more qualified personnel became available to man French vessels, including two modern destroyers – Le Triomphant and Léopard – the world’s largest submarine ( Surcouf ), and additional torpedo boats. (xl) Inherent difficulties of maintenance and training with different equipment and standards remained, though, leading Muselier and Pound to agree in April 1941 for FNFL crews to take over new British constructions, starting with seven Fairmile motor launches and seven Flower-class corvettes through the course of that year. (xli) Such new-found largesse on the part of the RN was facilitated with the enactment of the Lend-Lease Act on 11 March 1941, authorizing the Roosevelt administration to ‘… sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of… any defense article… (to) any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.’ (xlii) Although Lend-Lease was not initially extended to the Free French, it did allow Great Britain to re-direct some of its own resources to de Gaulle’s forces but this support was not limited to the transfer of hulls. As important was the provision of training ashore and experience at sea. The RN opened its schools to French sailors and embarked them in British ships to acquire hands-on practice in battle before they went to man their own vessels. (xliii) These initiatives were pivotal in familiarizing the Free French with the latest technological developments while exposing them to the complexities of anti-submarine and anti-air warfare. Continued funding and access to British yards to maintain and modernize ships and submarines through the onset of the Battle of the Atlantic were also critical as d e Gaulle sought to leverage the contribution his small fleet could make to the cause.
As early as September 1940, French ships and submarines went back to sea, working in cooperation with the British under the clauses of the 7 August agreement. The three largest torpedo boats were present during the Battle of Dakar and then moved on against Libreville in Gabon, the first colony to be rallied by force of arms. Two of them sailed to the Indian Ocean in 1941 and contributed to the blockade of Djibouti, still loyal to Vichy, while others participated in the campaign for Syria. Smaller vessels remained based in Great Britain to escort coastal convoys and conduct cross-Channel raids. The destroyer Léopard joined the North Atlantic Run, where it would be joined by the British-built corvettes acquired through 1941. (xliv) Submarines Rubis and Minerve operated off the coast of Norway, laying minefields and landing commandos, and the Malta-based Narval patrolled in the Mediterranean until her early loss to a sea mine in December 1940. (xlv) Destroyer Le Triomphant and torpedo boat Chevreuil arrived separately in the Pacific in the fall of 1941 to patrol France’s possessions in Micronesia and escort convoys out of Australia and New Zealand, while Admiral Muselier personally led a naval force to rally Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, off the Canadian coast, that December. (xlvi) October 1941 had already witnessed the birth of Free French naval aviation with the stand-up of a combined Navy/Air Force fighter group, shore-based in Great Britain and equipped with Spitfires. The FNFL was even able to muster enough personnel to field a regiment of fusiliers marins (naval infantry), which was expanded throughout the period 1940-41. (xlvii)
By the end of 1941, the Forces navales françaises libres had provided world-wide reach to de Gaulle, allowing him to achieve increased legitimacy among France’s people and within Allied circles. Vessels crewed by French personnel, flying French flags sporting the Croix de Lorraine , had been present in the rallying of several overseas territories and deployed in the most critical theatres of the early naval war. They had made an admittedly very small but direct contribution to the defence of the British Isles in the hour of greatest peril and remained actively involved in allied operations. De Gaulle’s navy was but a fraction of the Vichy fleet and could not operate autonomously due to its lack of capital ships, support vessels and national shore infrastructure. Nevertheless, British backing had enabled the formation – as once remarked with reference to the Canadian post-war navy – of ‘a good, workable little fleet to start with.’ (xlviii)
The assistance of Great Britain in this enterprise would soon be overshadowed by that of the Americans, who committed to rebuild France’s armed forces after landing in North Africa in November 1942. (xlix) The United States provided a tremendous material and technical boost to a rejuvenated Marine nationale once its disparate parts were formally amalgamated under a single authority on 1 August 1943. (l) Yet, these later achievements were rooted in the support provided by British authorities during that critical first year of the FNFL’s existence, however ambivalent it may have been in view of conflicting political and military priorities at the time of England’s darkest hour. The Royal Navy opened its schools to Gaullist sailors and provided them with combat experience at sea; shipyards refurbished French ships and delivered new ones to the Free French; RN and FNFL vessels fought alongside each other against Axis forces; funds, stores, ammunition and fuel were disbursed despite severe shortages. As the Vichy navy declined into irrelevance, British support allowed the fledgling Forces navales françaises libres to assume the mantle of French sea power and make an important contribution to France’s eventual renaissance.