Even before the July 1940 armistice with Germany, the French government had promised Britain that it would destroy the fleet if necessary in order to prevent it falling into German hands. This pledge notwithstanding, London made an effort to secure units of the French fleet, and at Mers-el-Kébir during Operation catapult in July 1940, British ships opened fire on French ships, sank a number of them, and killed nearly 1,300 French seamen. Despite these actions, France honored its pledge.
Two years later, after arranging a cease-fire with the Allies in North Africa on 11 November 1942, French navy commander Admiral Jean Darlan ordered the fleet to sail from Toulon to North Africa. That same day, German soldiers began occupying the area around the port city and positioned artillery to fire on the fleet should it attempt to depart. While the Germans tightened their noose, the fleet's officers debated their options. They feared both a German effort to capture the French ships from the land and a repetition of the incident at Mers-el-Kébir. Most remained loyal to the Vichy government and opposed the idea of attempting to sail the fleet to Africa, although the officers subsequently had to quell anti-German demonstrations on several ships. Darlan tried to convince the Vichy minister of the navy, Admiral Paul Auphan, to order the fleet to sail, but Vichy officials replaced Auphan with the more pliable Admiral Jean Abrial. They negotiated an agreement with the Germans that promised the neutrality of the Toulon naval base and handed over the remaining 158 ships of France's merchant fleet (totaling 646,000 tons). Germany, however, continued its preparations to seize Toulon.
On 14 November, Laborde ordered all ship crews to make the necessary preparations to scuttle in order to prevent the capture of their vessels. German troops entered the Toulon base in force at 4:45 a.m. on 27 November but failed to surprise the French. Laborde then ordered the ships scuttled, and most had sunk by the time German soldiers reached the piers at 6:20 a.m. French crews sabotaged critical systems and heavy guns with explosives to prevent their salvage, and they detonated explosives on those ships in dry dock. Five submarines managed to reach the open sea, and of these, 1 was lost at sea, 3 joined the Allies in North Africa, and 1 was interned in Spain. In all, the French scuttled 77 ships, roughly half the tonnage of the entire French navy. The total included 3 battleships (the Strasbourg, Dunkerque, and Provence), 7 cruisers, a seaplane tender, 32 destroyers, 16 submarines, and 18 smaller craft. German and Italian engineers subsequently managed to salvage and repair 4 destroyers, 2 torpedo boats, and 2 submarines.
Stephen K. Stein
Auphan, Paul, and Jacques Mordal. The French Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1959.; Koburger, Charles W. The Cyrano Fleet: France and Its Navy, 1940–1942. New York: Praeger, 1989.