Vichy France: Islands and Raids I

Acre, Palestine, 1941-07-12. General Andre de Verdilhac and other Vichy French representatives arrive to discuss terms of an armistice.

In the year since the Franco-German armistice the undeclared war between the former allies Britain and France had ranged over Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific. It had necessarily been largely a naval war, though considerable military forces had been engaged in Syria. In the process the French overseas empire had begun to break up. The Pacific territories were under Free French rule in most cases, but it was Australian naval power which ensured that. In the Caribbean the United States Navy played the same role, though there it was to safeguard Vichy rule, not destroy it. The African territories were split between the two claimants. Syria and Lebanon had been handed to Free France after the British conquest, but it was clearly British policies which would prevail despite General de Gaulle’s protests.

So far, however, the metropolitan territory had been largely unaffected by the quarrel with Britain. Certain Channel ports, from Dunkirk to Brest, had been subject to sporadic British attacks in their campaign of defence against a possible German invasion. Since the autumn of 1940, however, it was clear that such an invasion was highly unlikely, and after 22 June 1941 it was beyond Germany’s capacity, so long as the German army was engaged in war with Russia. These ports, however, were still menaces to Britain, above all the great ports fronting the Atlantic, which had become major German naval bases. For it was, as ever, at sea that Britain was waging the greater war.

A month before the war in Syria began, while the argument about what to do about that country was still going on between London and Cairo, and between Vichy and Beirut, and while Rashid Ali in Iraq was feeling the pressure of a British force consolidating its landing at Basra, the German navy sent out its greatest ship, the battleship Bismarck, to raid the convoys crossing the Atlantic from the United States to Britain. For ten days the ship was searched for and hunted by every British warship which could be spared. The battle-cruiser Hood was sunk, but in the end, damaged and half crippled, Bismarck was caught and battered and destroyed by the assembled aircraft carriers and battleships of the Home Fleet and Admiral Somerville’s Force H. Sinking Hood was its only success, for it never found a single merchant ship. Nor did its companion, the cruiser Prinz Eugen, do any better, though it was at sea a good deal longer. The convoys had been well protected.

When its course was plotted, it became clear that the ship was heading for the port of Brest, or perhaps St Nazaire. Had it reached one of those French ports it could have been repaired, and, along with its original partner, Prinz Eugen and the two battle-cruisers already at Brest, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, it would have been a very potent threat to, once again, the Atlantic convoys – or even possibly a cover for a renewed attempt at invasion of the British Isles. It had taken the combined attentions of the Home Fleet, several ships taken from convoy protection duties, and Force H from Gibraltar, to corner and sink just one battleship. Three German battleships sailing together would, at the least, have been able to cut the Atlantic lifeline for a month, and at the most would have sunk far too many British ships.

This drew attention yet again to the Germans’ use of the French ports. Cherbourg, Brest, La Pallice, La Rochelle, St Nazaire, Nantes, and Bordeaux were well used by U-boats and by auxiliary cruisers. Brest in particular was a major German naval base, where the big ships and the submarines were based. Lorient was the headquarters of the submarine command. Bordeaux was especially the port to which the ships used as blockade runners went. It was farther from hostile territory (that is, Britain) than almost any other French Atlantic port, and the Gironde estuary could be reached in part by using neutral Spanish territorial waters; and if a ship was caught in its voyage in the Bay or in the eastern Atlantic it may be able to take refuge in a Spanish port, even if a French port was out of reach.

So the Bay of Biscay was an intermittently active war zone. U-boats passing through were the objects of attack by British aircraft and submarines; minefields were laid outside many of the ports; French ships were sunk in these fields as often as German. Above all the German naval bases were the object of bombing raids, in particular when a major German warship was in port. For much of 1941 and into 1942 the presence of the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau attracted RAF raids to Brest. Most bombs missed the ships, though it only took one hit to force a ship to stay longer in the port. For the French, who might well, in the occupied zone at least, be pleased to see a German warship damaged, the real problem was that the bombs which missed the ships tended to hit French property. And those which hit the dockyards created damage which reduced the chances of French workers having jobs the next day.

This situation made a mockery of the Vichy claim to neutrality. French territory, French ports and cities, were being used as bases for the attacks by German and Italian ships on the vital convoys bringing food and supplies to Britain. It was the same situation as had obtained in Syria at the same time that Bismarck was being hunted in the Atlantic – May was the month of both Bismarck and Rashid Ali. It might well be that the Vichy government could do nothing to prevent the use of French territory in this way, but there is no record of any of its ministers, nor its Head of State, making any protest. In the same way, these same men accepted with no protest the German demand to use their imperial territory as a basis for attacking British forces – in Syria and in Tunisia. The only areas the Germans had wanted to use and were denied them were West Africa, Morocco, and Algeria. It is no wonder that the British viewed Vichy with deep suspicion.

For the most part, the relations between Britain and Vichy in the second half of 1941, after the end of the Syrian fighting, were therefore as cold as ever. That is, the two countries reverted to the condition which had obtained before the Syrian war, in which Vichy could do nothing very much, and in which the British continued to harass Vichy in various ways. Bombing raids were one aspect of this, though none were yet being delivered into the unoccupied zone. German demands for industrial goods were bound to grow once the Russian war had begun, and that could lay the cities and factories even of that zone open to attack. Those in the occupied zone were already vulnerable to this, and the low-level conflict of convoy and threat essentially continued mainly at sea.

At Gibraltar Admiral Somerville, when warned that the invasion of Syria was about to take place, prudently took his ships out into the Atlantic the day before, just in case the French in North Africa sent more bombers in retaliation. This does not seem to have happened, and the wary stand-off between the British in Gibraltar and at sea and the French in the Algerian and Moroccan ports continued. Dunkerque was still at Oran, but by April 1941 it was clear that the ship had been sufficiently repaired to sail. Regular flights checked on her condition and on her readiness to sail. If the ship did come out it was intended to torpedo her – again Somerville took Force H to sea to avoid the French retribution when it seemed that the ship was really going to sail. But she did not.

At Alexandria Admiral Cunningham kept a wary eye on the interned French ships. He dreamed of being able to use the battleship Lorraine to supplement his fleet in blockade duties after the grievous losses to the Mediterranean Fleet in the Cretan campaign. He was worried that the news of the British attack on Syria would provoke a reaction among the French sailors, just as Somerville was. In fact Admiral Godfroy stopped shore leave for his men for a time, but then, even as the fighting was still going on in Syria, there was so little reaction that he reinstated it. But deserters welcomed by the British reported that scuttling charges on the French ships were still in place.4 So the standoff continued, unaffected in any serious way by events in Syria.

The Vichy convoys between West Africa and the South of France also continued with few interruptions, though always liable to be detained and inspected and possibly confiscated by the British. Ships sailing independently were, however, always likely to be seized, especially if they were away from the recognized convoy routes, on the reasonable assumption that they were trying something clandestine. The steamship Winnipeg, operating under the Vichy flag, was captured off Martinique in May by a Dutch gunboat. In the same region, on 17 June, the auxiliary cruiser Pretoria Castle, one of the armed merchant ships used by the British to patrol distant waters, seized another Vichy ship, Desirade. The French islands in the Caribbean were, of course, subject to the British blockade, so any independent ships sailing in the West Indies were generally assumed to be blockade runners, perhaps carrying rubber from South America. A fortnight later, the Ville de Tamatave was taken by the cruiser Dunedin in the South Atlantic, and on 22 July the same ship captured Ville de Rouen off Natal. These were clearly moving goods from Madagascar to Europe.

There is no sign of Vichy replies to these seizures, other than the usual expressions of annoyance, and where possible armed escorts to their convoys were provided, but in November a whole convoy from Madagascar on its way to Indo-China was captured off South Africa. The escorting vessel was permitted to go, but the four civilian ships in the convoy were taken into port.6 Madagascar was one of the few sources of tropical products still under French control, and it had been blockaded successfully since June 1940. The result had been a drop by three-quarters in the quantity of its exports and a developing support for the Free French amongst the French population of the island.

The island lay athwart the British route from South Africa to India and the Middle East, which made the British particularly nervous about it as tension rose in the Pacific over Japan’s ambitions. Japan had already acquired military control of French Indo-China, and had secured naval footholds there, using Camranh Bay and Saigon as naval bases. Should the Vichy governor of Madagascar succumb to the same pressures as the Governor-General of Indo-China, Madagascar might become not merely an unfriendly island, but an active naval base severing the British line of convoy and supply between the Atlantic and their Indian and Southeast Asian territories. The prospect of a pack of U-boats based at the modern fortified port of Diego Suarez at the north end of the island was distinctly unsettling; Italian ships escaping from Somaliland had already been given refuge there.

Vichy’s essential problem was that its government was without military, and had little naval power; its situation is a perfect example of the need for armed backing for a government to be listened to. With two-fifths of France under German occupation, with large sections of the empire removed into Gaullist or British control, with a minimal army, and a fleet which was penned into harbour, with a population whose wealth was steadily declining, and with a rising tide of disobedience and resentment and resistance among its people, there was virtually nothing the government could do to delay, prevent, or avoid suffering anything which the British chose to inflict on them. In October the French coaster Divana was attacked inside French territorial waters off Tunisia by some British aircraft and driven ashore; nine men were killed. The only response that could be made was to order that such ships should in future be escorted, and attacking aircraft should be fired on. There is no sign that this was ever implemented. The basic cause of the incident was that Italian ships were now permitted by Vichy to use Tunisian ports; these clearly became a legitimate naval target as a result. A fortnight later a dopey Italian submarine (Dandolo) sank the tanker Tarn outside Algiers harbour (and then went on to sink a Spanish ship – hence ‘dopey’). There is no sign that the French government reacted. These were the sorts of mistakes which happen in war. The aggrieved party normally protests; the perpetrator either toughs it out or apologizes. But Vichy France could actually do nothing, not having the political clout.

December brought war in the Pacific. De Gaulle declared war on Japan on 8 December, the day after Pearl Harbour, on behalf of Free France. It was also the day after the Japanese invasion of Malaya was launched from Vichy territory in Indo-China. The Vichy government was by that time helpless to affect events within its own Far Eastern territories. The Japanese had extracted so many concessions from Governor-General Decoux, that the Japanese military had effective control of the whole territory by the end of 1941. In addition the Vietnamese nationalists broke out into rebellion in several areas – the Japanese, who had encouraged these revolts, then let the French suppress them – and then the Thais attacked. Despite being defeated, the Thais gained slices of territory because the Japanese insisted. In December 1941 Camranh Bay was the base from which part of the Malayan invasion force sailed, and Saigon was the source from which another section came. No member of the Vichy regime in Indo-China (or in Europe) protested at this misuse of their territory to attack a country with which both France and Japan were at peace.

This permission, even if involuntary, to use French territory in such a way was clearly an unfriendly act – or perhaps non-act – which would normally fully justify a declaration of war by the victim (though it was no worse in essence than the German use of French ports and airfields to attack British ships and cities). No doubt, however, there were grim expressions of near-approval, particularly among French sailors with memories of Mers el-Kebir, but the image of Vichy in collaboration, even alliance, with Japan might have improved had there been at least an apology from a member of the government in France, perhaps pleading force majeure.

The British were, of course, unpopular among the French in Indo-China, not simply because of the memories of Mers el-Kebir and Dakar and Syria, but because they had imposed a naval blockade on Indo-China as on all other French overseas territories. The result, as in other regions, was a distinct reduction in the incomes of the planters, which was that part of the local population to which the Governor-General had to pay the most attention. A few ships did get through the blockade, perhaps three per month, a distinct reduction, though since it was a distant blockade, operating in the Indian Ocean and out of Singapore, it was not too difficult to breach it. Compared with other grievances, though, this was quite enough to harden local attitudes against the British and the Free French.

The enforcement of the blockade ended in February 1942 with the Japanese conquest of all the surrounding lands, particularly Singapore, though that scarcely helped the local economic situation, especially since the Japanese practice was simply to seize whatever resources they felt they needed. French Indo-China was thus being immiserated in much the same way as the French homeland, if rather more crudely.

Vichy’s control of the French overseas empire thus continued to be whittled away gradually. The Japanese military were in effective control of Indo-China, the British had conquered Syria and now disputed its government with the Free French, the Free French losing the argument. The Free French controlled the Equatorial African colonies and the French outposts in India – Pondicherry and Chandernagore – and most of the islands of the French South Pacific. The entry of Japan into the war now triggered further losses, minor in themselves, but significant in respect of Vichy’s general powerlessness. In the South Pacific two islands, Wallis and Futuna, north of Fiji and Samoa, had remained under their pre-war Resident, Vrignaud, who was a convinced Vichyite. The islands were so small and remote that it had not been worth dislodging him. At the same time the general confusion in the other South Pacific islands, notably Tahiti and New Caledonia, had been such that any man who actually was in charge was usually too busy holding on to his post to initiate expeditions. (The only French warship which had been in the region, the sloop Dumont d’Urville, had gone to Indo-China, when the Gaullists seized power in New Caledonia, and when the Australian cruiser Adelaide arrived.)

The rapid expansion of Japanese power in early 1942, however, put Wallis and Futuna in a particularly delicate position. The Japanese conquests reached to the Solomon Islands to the west and the Marshall Islands to the north. Distances were huge, of course, but so was the reach of carrier fleets, and these islands were separated from Japanese held islands only by the open ocean. Given the apparent co-habitation of the Vichy French in Indo-China with the Japanese military, it was inevitable that any Vichy French islands near to the Japanese conquests were regarded by Australians, New Zealanders, British, and Americans with profound suspicion – and quite possibly by the Japanese as easy targets.

The power in the South Pacific now lay with the United States, which had a strong tendency to ignore local sensibilities in the interest of the wider war, claiming the need to safeguard its own interests without allowing others the same self-interest. (This was much the same behaviour, if less physically brutal, as their Japanese enemies.) The new Gaullist High Commissioner in the South Pacific, Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu (promoted from commander within the past year – he was an early adherent of de Gaulle), arrived in the region in November 1941 and soon became entangled in the local politics and disputes within the various colonies. Finally realizing just how strong US determination was to control the region he sent a Free French warship to Wallis, and displaced Vrignaud. This was in May 1942, the same month which saw the final conquest of the Philippine Islands, and the first major check to Japanese expansion in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The day after the Gaullist takeover of the two islands, an American force arrived, also intent on removing Vichy influence. Thus Vichy lost two more fragments of its empire, in its long slow death of a thousand cuts.

Germany and Vichy could not agree on a peace treaty, but this was more due to German indifference and general satisfaction with the exploitative conditions produced by the armistice than to any French resistance. (The US aim of managing Vichy’s independence could not work.) As with the Japanese in Indo-China German power meant that it was always possible for the Nazis to compel the French to give more. In the Protocols of May 1941 the use of Syrian airfields had been conceded – with disastrous results for Vichy’s empire – and while German use of Bizerta and Dakar was contested at the time, by October and November Tunisia had become a regular supply route and base for the German and Italian forces fighting in Libya – with fatal results for the Divana. This was, of course, as unfriendly and un-neutral an act as permitting Indo-China to be used as a base for the invasion of Malaya – but it was similarly something Vichy was incapable in the end of preventing. Had the British wished, they had received ample provocation which would justify their declaring war.