Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
Teaser Image

Dakar, Attack on (23–25 September 1940)

Vichy-held West African port. Following the defeat of France by the Germans in June 1940, the new Vichy government assumed control of most of the French colonial empire. In late August, Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle convinced French Equatorial Africa to continue the fight against Germany under his leadership. De Gaulle next turned to French West Africa and its capital, Dakar. Located in the most westerly part of Africa, Dakar boasted an excellent deep-water port and was equidistant from Europe and Brazil. The British feared that the Germans might pressure the Vichy French to allow them to use Dakar as a base from which to launch air and naval attacks against British shipping. De Gaulle pushed for an attack—eager to expand his power base in Africa, to show himself a key Allied figure, and to encourage other Vichy-held African territories to rally to his cause. The resulting joint British–Free French plan was named Operation menace.

Previously, on 8 July, British aircraft flying from the carrier Hermes had attacked and immobilized the modern French battleship Richelieu at Dakar. This operation followed the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria on 3–4 July and gave ample warning to the Vichy French forces that the British were willing to attack their former allies. Despite this aggressive move, both British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill and de Gaulle hoped for a bloodless victory at Dakar.

Operation menace involved 23 warships, including the battleships Barham and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, 4 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. These warships escorted 11 transports carrying 7,900 men, 3,600 of whom were Free French. The Allies hoped that the authorities at Dakar would rally to the Free French. Failing that, the French troops would go ashore; the British troops were to be employed only in an emergency.

Operation menace was plagued with problems from the beginning. The Allies lacked a clear picture of the strength of the Dakar defenses, which were to include three Vichy French cruisers and three destroyers. These ships arrived at Dakar just in advance of the Allied ships.

On 23 September, the French administrator at Dakar, Pierre Boisson, refused to talk to the Free French negotiators. The negotiators went ashore, and the French coastal batteries at Dakar opened fire on the Allied ships. The Allied ships returned fire. Over the next several days, the exchange of fire included both the French shore batteries and ships, especially the 15-inch guns of the immobilized Richelieu. The Vichy submarine Beveziers damaged the battleship Resolution with a torpedo, and several other British ships were hit by shell fire. The lack of adequate naval support combined with foggy conditions led the Allies to abandon the operation on 25 September.

The failure of Operation menace was a blow to British and Free French prestige and demonstrated British inexperience in combined operations. It also revealed the hatred felt by many French for the British and severely damaged the relationship between de Gaulle and Churchill. In addition, it profited the Vichy French government, which trumpeted it as a great naval victory. On 24 and 25 September, in response to the Dakar attack, Vichy bombers carried out three raids against Gibraltar—dropping some 600 tons of bombs, sinking a destroyer, and damaging the battle cruiser Renown and a submarine, but causing little damage to shore facilities. As a result of menace, Adolf Hitler saw some utility in Vichy France's assistance. He also had proof that Vichy would defend French Africa against the Free French. Admiral Jean F. Darlan then entered into talks with the Germans to allow them to use French air bases in Syria.

C. J. Horn

Further Reading
Churchill, Winston L. S. The Second World War. Vol. 2, Their Finest Hour. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.; de Gaulle, Charles. The Complete War Memoirs of Charles De Gaulle. Vol. 1, The Call to Honor, 1940–1942. Trans. Jonathan Griffin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.; Heckstall-Smith, Anthony. The Fleet That Faced Both Ways. London: A. Blond, 1963.; Kersaudy, François. De Gaulle and Churchill. New York: Atheneum, 1981.; Marder, Arthur. Operation Menace: The Dakar Expedition and the Dudley North Affair. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.; Paxton, Robert O. Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940–1944. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
  Documents Prior to 1938
  1939 Documents
  1940 Documents
  1941 Documents
  1942 Documents
  1943 Documents
  1944 Documents
  1945 Documents
ABC-cLIO Footer