Posts Tagged ‘Vichy France’

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.

Read Full Post »

The Allied landings in North Africa on November 8th met with only modest resistance.  But performance was so terrible that more than one commander was thankful they didn’t encounter any tougher opposition, or the outcome would have looked more like that of Dieppe a couple of months earlier.

And right away, some readers will say, “Hey, you can’t say that about the U.S. Army.  It’s the finest military force in the world, and they won in North Africa!!”  Well, you’re right about the eventual outcome (it’s nice that writing about history doesn’t require keeping the end a secret).  But, on this occasion, the rest of your statement could be debated.

Remember that Operation Torch was the Army’s first large-scale action “in anger” in World War II.  The last time it fought was in France…more than 20 years prior.  They were bound to be rusty, and rusty they were.  The landings went badly with troops landing everywhere but the intended beach.  Initial attacks against Oran and Mehdia weren’t very well planned and less well-executed, and paratroopers were dropped in the wrong places.  And initially, they didn’t react well to enemy fire.  They were just rookies all the way around.

But, in defense of the landing force, the biggest wildcard was the enemy.  It wasn’t the Germans…yet.  It was the French, and a good portion of the difficulties could be attributed to the uncertainty of whether they would fight.  When Germany took overran France in 1940, they set up Vichy France as a German puppet state, and its forces were, in part, dedicated to defending North Africa.  Allied leaders had expended great energy in trying to get the Vichy forces to simply lay down their arms, to the point of spiriting General Mark Clark to the African coast weeks before the invasion to negotiate (a good subject which we’ll cover down the road).  But so far, no clear decision had been reached by the French, so the troops hitting the beach and the leaders with them were somewhat tentative at first (should we fire on the French?…should we not?).  And, in war, “tentative” is bad.  So when the Vichy forces actually did fight, there was some shock and dismay to go with the inexperience.

Still, Allied forces recovered and, after a day or two, began seizing their objectives.  Algiers surrendered on the evening of the initial invasion, as would Arzew and its pair of forts.  Oran, Mehdia, and St. Cloud would give it up on the 10th.  And that left Casablanca, where General Patton had threatened to level the town the next morning if the French didn’t stop fighting.  And early on November 11, 1942, the surrender came…but not just for Casablanca.  All French forces in North Africa were laying down their arms.  Once it was verified that this also included the French navy, the fighting stopped (for the moment) and the U.S., the British, and the French were on the same team again (for the moment).

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

Read Full Post »