April 07, 2021

The Fate of the French Fleet Part 1

In 1940, France's fleet was the 4th-largest in the world,1 and had proved a valuable ally to the British during the opening months of the war, protecting the sea lanes and helping in the battle for Norway, as well as taking responsibility for the eastern Mediterranean when Italy looked posed to enter the war. Unfortunately, this power also made it a potential threat to the British if it ended up in unfriendly hands.

Francois Darlan

This scenario became terrifyingly real to London in June 1940. Even after the stunning German successes in Belgium and Northern France, which ultimately forced the British to evacuate their troops from Dunkirk and destroyed many of France's best units, the French planned to fight on. The Germans began to attack south at the beginning of June, and the French initially fought well, raising hopes that they would be able to hold out. Unfortunately, it was not to be, and French defenses began collapsing within a few days. Admiral Francois Darlan, chief of the Marine Nationale, attempted to preserve the fleet as best he could, ordering evacuation of all ships from the threatened Atlantic ports, scuttling of any ships which couldn't be evacuated, and destruction of shore facilities to deny them to the Germans.

His orders were carried out despite the speed of the German advance, with the vast majority of ships successfully evacuated. The battleship Richelieu was undergoing trials at Brest when the Germans invaded, and she was officially declared finished on the 15th, the day after Paris fell. Three days later, the Germans closed in on Brest, although heroic efforts by the French saw 74 of the 83 warships in the harbor evacuated successfully, some under tow or with major systems inoperable. Richelieu pulled out only four hours ahead of the Germans, bound for Dakar in West Africa and carrying the midshipmen of the French Naval Academy.

Even more impressive was the escape of her sister Jean Bart, launched in March and still fitting out at Saint-Nazaire in a basin separated from the main shipping channel by shallow water. A channel would have to be dredged before she could escape, which wasn't scheduled until October, but on May 25th, the commander at Saint-Nazaire began dredging on his own initiative. But even with this head start, the battleship would have to escape on the high tides between June 18th and 22nd or be trapped for weeks. To make matters worse, Jean Bart would have to reach the main channel with minimal fuel and no ammunition onboard. Three boilers had been ready for a week, but only two of the propellers were fitted and the turbines hooked up to them had never been tested. Dredging was finished at 2 AM on June 19th, an hour and a half before high tide, and the French already knew that the Germans would arrive before their next chance the following night.


The darkness meant that the tugs pulling the battleship missed some of the marker buoys, and managed to run her bow into the side of the channel, and before they could correct her stern swung wide and also grounded on the other side. Six tugs managed to pull her off with only a bent propeller blade, but the Luftwaffe appeared overhead at 0445, just as she was starting her engines for the first time. They managed a single bomb hit, which did minimal damage, and the engines worked well despite the lack of testing. A pair of tankers passed over fuel and water, and Jean Bart headed for sea, following the destroyer Le Hardi, due to her lack of a compass. The British sent destroyer Vanquisher and a pair of tugs with an offer to take her to Britain, but her captain chose to follow his orders and make for Casablanca, arriving on the 22nd after making the passage at an average speed of 21 kts.

But even with the ships from the Atlantic ports safely out of German hands, there was still the question of the long-term fate of the Marine Nationale, and of France as a whole. The French briefly studied evacuating as much of the Army as possible to North Africa and carrying on the fight, but it soon became obvious that this would not be feasible, and that they would have to seek an armistice. Instead the British offered to let the French out of their pledge not to seek a separate peace, so long as the fleet was sent immediately to British harbors. This offer was rescinded within hours in favor of a proposal for a full union between the two countries, which the French government rejected.

The ultimate fate of the fleet remained a serious concern as negotiations began. Admiral Darlan was deeply committed to the fleet's survival, and refused to consider any solution which involved handing his ships over to the Germans, as had been done to the High Seas Fleet 22 years earlier. Instead, he gave orders that any ship which might fall into the hands of foreigners should instead be scuttled, and made preparations for evacuation to either Britain or the French colonies in North Africa. It soon became obvious that the rest of the French government was in agreement with Darlan, and he was appointed Minister of Marine as armistice negotiations began. The Germans were more than willing to go along with French desires on the matter, as this allowed them to neutralize both the Marine Nationale and the French Empire diplomatically instead of risking their continued participation in the Allied cause.

Jean Bart in Casablanca harbor

One of the major reasons the Germans were so agreeable was that they believed the war was almost over, and that the British would soon join the French in seeking peace. This colored the terms they set for the French, including a demand that the French ships return to their peacetime ports, and be placed under the control2 of the Germans or Italians. The French pointed out that many of their vessels were based at Brest, within easy range of British air attack, and requested that they be allowed to be disarmed in Africa. The Germans refused to alter the formal terms, but indicated that they would allow the matter to be discussed by the armistice commission, particularly as the British were likely to intervene in any attempt to move the ships. With these terms agreed, the Franco-German Armistice was signed on June 22nd, followed by a Franco-Italian armistice two days later. In theory, France was now neutral, leaving Britain on her own.

Churchill, recently arrived in office and facing defeatism within the British government, was not willing to accept French assurances that the fleet would not be allowed to fall into Axis hands. Instead, he became implacably focused on removing the threat immediately, whatever the damage to Anglo-French relations. Darlan's best efforts to communicate French resolution on the matter via his naval attache was unsuccessful, and Churchill also chose to ignore both the opinions of his naval advisors, who pointed out that the French were dispersed across a number of ports, and indications that the armistice commission was willing to allow the ships to be disarmed in place, well outside the reach of the Axis powers. Instead, he chose to use stronger measures, which would ultimately do terrible damage to Britain's diplomatic standing. We'll take a look at what happened next time.

1 Based on a look at the fleet strength tables in the book On Seas Contested. The Italian fleet might have been slightly larger depending on the metric chosen.

2 This also caused confusion in London, as the French word translated as "control" was in fact something closer to "monitoring".


  1. April 07, 2021Ian Argent said...

    I assume the Top 3 Navies are the RN, the USN, and the IJN (not necessarily in that order)?

  2. April 07, 2021ike said...

    @Ian Yeah, from what I remember of the treaties it was: Britan = USA > Japan > France = Italy

  3. April 07, 2021ike said...

    This purely academic, but when Germany and Russia were added to the treaty system, where in that hierarchy was it intended to put them?

  4. April 07, 2021bean said...

    Sorry. I sort of assumed it was common knowledge how the treaties were set up. Might edit to clarify.

    The Anglo-German Naval Agreement gave Germany 35% of Britain's tonnage, which was what France and Italy got in Washington, although I think France and Italy were allowed to go higher in light units and Germany wasn't. I don't recall the details of the Anglo-Soviet agreement offhand, but I wouldn't be surprised if the terms were very similar.

  5. April 07, 2021Mike Kozlowski said...

    ....Let me strongly recommend "The Fall Of The Third Republic" by William Shirer - coming up on sixty years since publication, but for my money still the BEST single-volume account of the fall of France in 1940. Obviously the fate of the French fleet takes up an important part of the book, and especially as Shirer still had access to some of the people who were there, it is a fascinating, detailed, and tragic account.

  6. April 07, 2021Alsadius said...

    Not a fan of Catapult, then?

    I'll be honest, much of what I've read about it was from Churchill himself, so not exactly an unbiased source. But it does feel like a pretty plausible choice to me - a costly one, but a lot less costly than the Germans getting a bunch of free battleships. Even taking the chance seems like a poor trade.

  7. April 07, 2021bean said...

    I am not. I read fairly extensively on this, and came across a strong case that it was essentially an overreaction. The French were very clear that they weren't going to let the Germans have the fleet, as indeed they did not. Letting the situation develop would have been a good idea, both from a military perspective (Catapult didn't actually work that well) and a diplomatic one (I am amazed the French didn't declare war afterwards).

    More coming Wednesday.

  8. April 08, 2021ike said...

    So how screwed would Britain have been if they cheesed the French off enough to enter a firm alliance with Germany and Italy?

  9. April 08, 2021bean said...

    If it was firm, then very. There’d be at least one extra battleship immediately, plus the rest of the fleet, and more as other ships got repaired. But the bigger problem would be the French colonies, which give the Axis all sorts of options for bases and new fronts that would require substantial resources to deal with. Germany and Italy were pretty well contained, but France was the only country with a worldwide reach to rival Britain’s, and, for instance, Madagascar would make supplying the forces in Egypt via the Cape of Good Hope a much trickier proposition. Note that the British did take action in a couple of cases, some of which I’ll talk about next Wednesday.

    That said, I doubt the alliance would be that firm, and that France would be allowed to operate so freely. Too much historical animosity with Germany for the Germans to turn around and say "yes, you can be our friends now". But even a more active use of French colonial bases would have been very bad for the British.

  10. April 08, 2021Blackshoe said...

    A Franco-German alliance in 1940 sounds like it would be exactly as stable as say...an Anglo/American-Soviet alliance in 1945.

  11. April 08, 2021Anonymous said...

    (I am amazed the French didn't declare war afterwards).

    The only thing that might actually change for France is that the RAF would have a more permissive target list when flying over France and that doesn't seem to be a cost worth paying to help out a regime they didn't really like.

  12. April 16, 2021ec429 said...

    I think there's a game-theoretic justification for Catapult. If France can just seek a separate peace and get treated as a neutral from then on, then they'll do so as soon as things look bad, which might be fine if you're just fighting a classic European war against Bismarck but not so much when you're supposed to be defending the free world against genocidal totalitarians. Being willing to Catapult them reduces the probability that you'll need to.

    Besides, I think Churchill was right not to trust the Germans in any "solemn and firm declaration", given their track record over the previous few years. And not to trust the French either: AIUI the reason why the French ecumene (and thus fleet) didn't fight on was because the metropole told it not to, for fear that the Germans would retaliate by making life harder for the metropole. Which shows us that (a) the French metropole would yield to German pressure, and (b) the ecumene would do what the metropole told it. So if Britain had left the fleet alone, and two years later Germany had squeezed Vichy's nuts some more, it's far from impossible that the French fleet would have been handed over.

  13. April 16, 2021bean said...

    I'm not saying France should have been treated as just another neutral. They're part of the German economic sphere, and should be treated as such. Catapult risked turning them from neutral to active hostile.

    As for trust, the issue isn't trusting the Germans, it's trusting the French. Tell the French to keep the ships where the Germans can't easily get them (which is what was going to happen) and keep your intelligence services tuned to what's going on. As for the French colonies, they were closely tied to the metropole and it would have been harder for them to fight on independently. Not impossible, but not trivial, either, and when this comes across as just another war about European geopolitics (knowledge of the Holocaust and such is still several years away), there's not much reason to do that.

    And it's difficult to overstate how invested Darlan was in keeping the fleet out of German hands. I fully believe he would have ordered them to flee and join the war effort if the Germans had tried to take them. The French did scuttle them when it came down to it.

  14. April 18, 2021ike said...

    Darlan was the one who was killed by de Gaul after sureneding to the Americans, right?

  15. April 18, 2021bean said...

    He was in North Africa when the Allies invaded, and surrendered that territory. He was placed in charge, which caused significant controversy, and assassinated shortly thereafter. I don't know of any serious allegations of de Gaul being involved.

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