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Posts Tagged ‘Toulon’

I’m not sure if I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas, but we’re going to get one regardless.  It started snowing early this morning and it has been floating down most of the day.  It’s not been blizzard-like or anything, but we’ve probably got…I don’t know…five inches or so.  But everyone has their lights on and, as the night takes over, it really looks pretty out there.

In 1942, there wasn’t snow in Algiers on Christmas Eve.  Rick Atkinson describes the scene in An Army at Dawn“Algiers on Christmas Eve was festive if not quite spiritual.  The white houses spilling down the hills gleamed beneath a mild winter sun.  Palm fronds stirred in the sea breeze.  French mothers bustled from shop to shop in search of toys and sweets for their children. … Nipping from hidden casks of wine, troops washed their uniforms in gasoline and gave one another haircuts in preparation for midnight chapel services.”

Allied soldiers had landed back in November in an effort to drive the German and Italian military from North Africa and now, as Christmas loomed, everyone hoped for a day of peace and quiet.  They wouldn’t get one.

Admiral Francois Darlan was not Algiers’ most popular resident.  In fact, the Frenchman was one of the most reviled men in the war.  When Pétain took over in France in 1940, Darlan became one of his deputies and promoted an alliance between Vichy and Nazi Germany, which made him an enemy of the Free French.  When Darlan ordered part of the fleet to French North Africa, he gave assurances to British Prime Minister Churchill that it wouldn’t fall into German hands.  But Darlan’s duplicity gave Churchill no comfort (he referred to Darlan as “a bad man with a narrow outlook and a shifty eye”), so he ordered the French fleet destroyed at Mers-el-Kebir.

When the Allies landed in North Africa, it was expected that Darlan would order his forces to cease fighting.  But it took General Mark Clark three days (and numerous threats) to finally get Darlan to give the orders, which didn’t sit well Eisenhower.  And then Darlan couldn’t convince Admiral Jean de Laborde to spirit much of the remaining French fleet out of Toulon, and that didn’t endear him to anyone.

So Darlan was pretty much hated by everyone on the Allied side of the fighting.  He was now hated by the Germans (for surrendering Vichy forces in North Africa).  And he was hated by pro-Vichy, pro-Nazi elements, who now considered him to be a traitor.

But only Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle acted on his feelings.  This 20-year-old son of a French journalist was an ardent anti-Vichyiste.  Shortly after 3:00pm on December 24, 1942, he waited until Darlan returned to his office, where he promptly shot the Admiral twice in the head and once in the abdomen.  Darlan would die a short time later on the operating table, and Chapelle would be executed the day after Christmas.

The reaction to Francois Darlan’s death was, well, I think Atkinson’s words are way better than mine, so let’s allow him to finish up.  “While Mark Clark considered that Darlan’s death was ‘like the lancing of a troublesome boil,’ he moved quickly to score propaganda points by implying Axis complicity in the murder.  An official AFHQ statement declared, ‘Complete order reigns in Algiers notwithstanding general indignation caused by the event.’  The suggestion that the citizenry might riot in pique at Darlan’s demise struck many as ludicrous.  One correpsondent observed that he had ‘never seen happier faces in Algiers.’

It’s a bit morbid, but Christmas Eve in Algiers got a little better for a lot of people.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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The decision by Vichy French forces to lay down their arms in North Africa didn’t play well at the top of the German military.  The announcement, coming on November 11, 1942, was immediately followed by the German occupation of Vichy France.

Nazi forces rolled through Vichy (which comprised the southeast half of France) and arrived at Toulon, a major port that opened into the Mediterranean Sea.  It was also home (and still is, for that matter) to a large portion of the French fleet, which interested the Germans greatly.  Docked in Toulon were 3 modern battleships, 7 cruisers, 18 destroyers, nearly 2 dozen submarines, and dozens of smaller auxiliary boats, tenders, and tugs.

It presented a nice addition to the Germany Navy, and a huge boost to their presence in the Mediterranean.  At that point the Germans began negotiating with Admiral Jean de Laborde, trying to get him to surrender the fleet peacefully.

Simultaneously, French Admiral Darlan was trying to get Laborde to sail the fleet out of Toulon and to the North African coast (not all that long of a journey) and add its firepower to the Allied side of the ledger.  The French ships stationed at Casablanca had foolishly decided to fight the incoming Allied forces and were soundly defeated.  The addition of the ships from Toulon would be most welcome.

For two weeks the negotiations continued, with the Germans and Allies each trying to win the day.

In the early morning hours of November 27, 1942, German patience ran out and SS panzer troops stormed the gates of Toulon’s naval base.  Immediately, Laborde gave the “Scuttle, scuttle, scuttle!” order.  And in one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage ever, the French sailors complied.

The sea cocks were opened and the waters of the harbor poured into the ships.  The engines were destroyed, along with the instruments, and the base at Toulon became a giant junkyard.  One by one, the ships got lower in the water, the fires set in the engine rooms eventually succumbing to the incoming flood.

In all, more than 70 vessels were sunk.  The 3 battleships, the 7 cruisers, 15 of the 18 destroyers, a dozen submarines, most of the torpedo boats, and all the tugs.

The immense frustration felt by Darlan (and many others) was tempered by General Eisenhower who, always the diplomat, reminded everyone that keeping such a powerful force out of German hands was a victory of sorts.

I wonder if anyone was brave enough to tell the good General that it wouldn’t take many of these victories to cost the Allies the war.

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The invasion of France in 1944 has, for more than 60 years, lived in relative obscurity when compared to the invasion of France in 1944.

Confused?

Don’t be…there were two.

The first invasion you already know about.  It’s the famous operation, code-named Sledgehammer during the planning stages, that became Overlord and was launched on June 6thThis invasion of France is extremely well-known.

The second invasion began on August 15, 1944.  Like Overlord, it carried two different names in its lifetime.  During the planning phase, it was called Operation Anvil (get it?…Sledgehammer and Anvil?).  But when it was launched, Anvil became Dragoon.  Three U.S. Divisions and a French Division took part in the initial landings, located between Cannes and Toulon in Southern France.

And while military and political leadership were pretty much unanimous in executing Overlord, the same could not be said of Dragoon.  Winston Churchill had been growing increasingly suspicious of the intentions of Joseph Stalin, and Soviet advances in the East over the last 18 months had made those concerns acute.

And rather than “wasting” resources in Southern France, Churchill much preferred that they be used to free areas in the Balkans and Eastern Europe…before the Russians, and the Communism that the British Prime Minister loathed, arrived as liberators.

But he was outnumbered.  Overlord and the following breakout had caused the Germans to pull troops from the south to reinforce the north, and the fall of Rome meant the Allied troops hitting the beaches would face less resistance.  So despite British concerns, nearly 100,000 Allied troops landed that first day.

The Germans, trapped “between hammer and anvil”, could do little but retreat.

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