Seventy years ago today, sailors of the French Navy defied the Germans and scuttled their fleet at the main Mediterranean base of Toulon in southern France. The scuttlings took place as German armored formations entered Toulon and the naval arsenal before dawn in a frantic attempt to capture the fleet intact. In some cases, German soldiers boarded the ships even as the French crews set off explosives, forcing French and German alike to abandon ship. Twelve Frenchmen were killed by Germans during the operation.
For more than two years, the French Vichy regime administered most of southern and western France, but after the Allied invasion of North Africa on 8 November 1942, French naval commander Adm. Francois Darlan agreed to try and persuade the fleet to join the allies. German leader Adolf Hitler discovered the deal and ordered his troops to seize the fleet. Most of the French ships carried little fuel and ammunition, requirements of the Germans under the armistice of 1940.
Seventy-seven ships were sunk or destroyed at Toulon that day, including 2 battle cruisers, 1 battleship, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers and 12 submarines. The heart of the French fleet — a modern, balanced Navy that featured the powerful battle cruisers STRASBOURG and DUNKERQUE along with a number of fine, modern cruisers and destroyers — was destroyed. The Germans were outraged, while the French actions were viewed by most Frenchmen as heroic.
The illustration is the cover of a booklet published in France in 1945, “The Heroic Scuttling of the French Fleet,” featuring photographs by Andre Piernic. The cover features the fleet flagship, battle cruiser STRASBOURG, sitting on the harbor bottom. The smoke at right is coming from the heavy cruisers COLBERT and ALGERIE, exploded and on fire at their berths.
While many of the scuttled warships were raised by Italian and German engineers, only a handful of smaller ships were repaired, and none of the major warships ever returned to service.