Then It Will Blow Up

 

Toulon_1942

The scuttled French fleet at Toulon: aerial pictures. 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.  To the 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.

(Caption & photo in the public domain and courtesy of the US Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC).

 

On 27 November 1942,  in violation of the terms of the armistice between the Vichy government of France and Nazi Germany, German troops and tanks broke down the gates of the main French naval base at Toulon and made an effort to seize the French High Seas fleet.

There was a minor exchange of small arms fire then both sides stop firing. The French sailors on guard duty had already reported all the details to the C-in-C so they stood aside no doubt smiling to themselves. It was 0400 and still very dark.

German infantry and tanks had a difficult time finding their way through the huge naval base to the piers where the ships were secured. Just because one could see the silhouette of a ship in the distance didn’t mean you could drive in a straight line to it. There was the usual dockyard impedimenta: cranes, huge machine sheds, stacks of barrels, warehouses, vehicles, steel plates, rope, spare parts, wharves for smaller vessels which could be mistaken for larger vessels in the dark.

The French stayed true to their word to the British and Americans to never allow their fleet to fall into the hands of the Germans. As the Germans swarmed into the naval base, Admiral de Laborde, C-in-C of the High Seas Fleet aboard his flagship Strasbourg, ordered all ships to scuttle themselves according to a pre-arranged and plan and they did.

 

Toulon, Panzer IV

German panzertruppen watch a burning French warship, probably the cruiser Colbert.(Photo courtesy German National Archive).

Critical machinery and gyro compasses were destroyed by grenades. Reduction gears in the turbines were damaged beyond repair. Electrical fuse boxes smashed. And all the guns were blown up.

German officers finally made their way to the pier where the French cruiser Algérie was located. This ship happened to be the the flagship of the heavy cruiser squadron and the commander of the squadron, Admiral Lacroix, was aboard.

All the guns except the after turret had been blown and the ship was sinking.

“We have come to take over your ship!” one of the Germans officers yelled in French.

“You are a little late,” replied Admiral Lacroix. “It is already sinking.”

“Will it blow up?”

“No.”

“In that case,” the German officer shouted, “we will go aboard.”

“In that case,” the Admiral replied, “it will blow up.”

At that point the after turret exploded and flames shot up through hatches close to the bow as the interior of the ship began burning.

The Germans did not come aboard.

 

Toulon, französisches Kriegsschiff

The stern of the light cruiser Marseillaise. (Photo courtesy German National Archive)

 

Source: author’s research and The French Navy in World War Two by Rear Admiral Paul Auphan, French Navy (retired) and Jacques Mordal. Published by the US Naval Institute Press, 1959.

 

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/