Scuttling of the French Fleet
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseOn 19 Nov 1942, German leaders in Berlin set Operation Lila in motion, with the objective of capturing the French port city of Toulon, along with the French fleet in its harbor. German forces were to attack from both east and west. From the east, the plan was to capture Fort Lamalgue, headquarters of Admiral André Marquis, and the Mourillon arsenal; from the west, the plan called for the capture of the main arsenal and the coastal defenses. German naval forces were cruising off the harbor to engage any ships attempting to flee, and naval mines were laid.
ww2dbaseAt dawn on 27 Nov, the execution of the operation began. At 0425 hours, German tanks arrived at Fort Lamalgue on the east side of the port, capturing Marquis by surprise, but failing to prevent his chief of staff Rear Admiral Robin from contacting Rear Admiral Dornon at the arsenal, who sent the recommendation to scuttle the fleet to Admiral Jean de Laborde aboard flagship Strasbourg. At 0520 hours, the Germans broke through the Mourillon gate (Porte Nord); five minutes after, Castigneau gate to the northwest was penetrated. While the Germans took the following 20 to 30 minutes to advance to the moorings, French sailors worked diligently in deploying explosives, smashing machinery, and opening valves. At about 0550 hours, the Germans finally reached the moorings; it was around this time that Admiral Laborde officially ordered the scuttling to begin via radio, visual signals, and dispatch boat. Shortly after, fighting broke out near battleship Strasbourg and cruiser Foch. A German tank fired on battleship Strasbourg (hitting a secondary turret, killing officer and wounding six men) while various machine guns fired on submarines. At 0620 hours, the demolition charges went off aboard Strasbourg, destroying her armament, machinery, and fuel stores. A few minutes later, cruisers Colbert, Algérie, and Marseillaise were destroyed in similar manners. Cruiser Dupleix was boarded by force by German troops, but they failed to prevent Captain Moreau from setting the demolition charges, which detonated the magazine at 0830 hours, destroying the ship. In the port's drydock, demolitions set up aboard cruiser Jean de Vienne were disarmed in time by German troops, but the open sea valves brought her to the bottom, blocking the drydock. Shortly after, in another drydock, battleship Dunkerque was destroyed by demolition charges, then cruiser La Galissonnière was scuttled to block that drydock.
ww2dbaseAgainst orders, several submarine captains refused to scuttle their boats, and chose to defect to the Free French instead. Submarines Casabianca and Marsouin reached Algiers, Le Glorieux reached Oran, and Iris reached Barcelona to reach that end. Submarine Vénus failed to leave the harbor, and was scuttled at the entrance to Toulon harbor instead.
ww2dbaseOne surface ship, Leonor Fresnel, managed to escape and reach Algiers. Destroyers Panthère, Tigre, and Trombe survived as they were under maintenance; they would later be pressed into Italian service.
ww2dbaseDuring the scuttling operation, the French destroyed 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 1 school ship, 28 tugs, and 4 cranes. 12 French naval personnel were killed and 78,888 were captured (although they would be speedily freed after the French pledged full cooperation in the salvage efforts). In the end, the Germans were only able to capture three disarmed destroyers, four damaged submarines, three civilian ships, two obsolete battleships of little military value, and 27 other small vessels, some of which were damaged. The only prize of value was the 40,000 tons of fuel oil found on storage tanks. Toulon harbor burned for several days, and oil pollution was so bad that it took two years before the harbor water cleared.
ww2dbaseThe destruction of the French fleet at Toulon symbolically ended the Vichy government's military importance.
John Jordan, Warship 2013
Last Major Update: Sep 2007
Scuttling of the French Fleet Interactive Map
Scuttling of the French Fleet Timeline
|12 Jun 1940||French Admiral François Darlan, Commander-in-Chief of the French Navy, assured British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that there would be no question of surrendering the French naval ships. He further asserted that orders would be given to scuttle the ships if such a danger were to exist.|
|9 Nov 1942||Adolf Hitler informed Italy, via Galeazzo Ciano, that he intended to occupy Vichy France soon.|
|10 Nov 1942||As Pierre Laval visited Adolf Hitler in Germany, Hitler told the French Prime Minister that Germany intended on moving its forces into Vichy France and Tunisia; Hitler did not share the timetable and gave no indication that it was to happen soon. Laval did not protest. At 2030 hours, Hitler gave the order to launch the occupation on the following day.|
|11 Nov 1942||Vichy France became occupied by German and Italian troops in order to defend against a potential Allied invasion. The American embassy in Vichy was seized by German troops by force.|
|13 Nov 1942||Adolf Hitler promised France that Germany would leave the French fleet at Toulon, France alone.|
|25 Nov 1942||Adolf Hitler ordered the seizure of the French fleet at Toulon, France.|
|27 Nov 1942||Germans occupied naval base at Toulon; French Navy scuttled warships to avoid German capture.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945