French battleship Richelieu

French battleship Richelieu

(Sept. 25, 2020) Today, 80 years ago, the British Cabinet decided to cancel the British/Free French force assault on Dakar, the capital of the French colony of French West Africa. Following the end of the colonial period, the colony devolved into the countries of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Guinea, Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger. Dakar remains the capital of Senegal.

After the Armistice between Germany and France, on June 22, 1940, the powerful French fleet came under the control of the “Vichy” French Government, which controlled the southern part of France and the French overseas colonies.

The fleet was divided between the French base of Toulon, on the Mediterranean, and the overseas bases of Casablanca in Morocco, Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria, Dakar in French West Africa, while some units were kept in Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon. But that was not enough for the British.

On 1 July, Churchill finally got the backing of the War Cabinet to sink the French warships that were based in the French colonies if they would not surrender or sail to bases in the U.S. or the Caribbean.

The Royal Navy attacked the French fleet at the port of Mers-el-Kebir, right outside Oran, Algeria, on July 3, 1940. In less than 10 minutes, 1,297 French soldiers were dead and three battleships were sunk. One battleship and five destroyers managed to escape.

On Sept. 9 1940, three French light cruisers — Montcalm, Gloire and George-Leygues —left Toulon and passed through the strait of Gibraltar without being challenged by the British. As a result, the local British commander, Adm. Sir Dudley North, was relieved of his command, and was never to be heard from again. The flotilla refueled at Casablanca and continued to Dakar, arriving on Sept. 14.

By the autumn of 1940, the newly formed Free French forces were anxious to get into action as soon as possible. It was decided to test the loyalty of the French population in Colonial French West Africa by landing a force of Free French, under Gen. Charles de Gaulle, at Dakar, Senegal. And besides, the gold reserves of the Banque de France and the Polish government-in-exile were stored there!

On Sept. 23, the Anglo-French force approached Dakar in the hope that the local population could be persuaded to turn against the Vichy Government, which, after Mers-el-Kebir, was unrealistic. The Royal Navy then bombarded the town and engaged the French warships at Dakar from Sept. 23-25 before ceasing the action.

On September 18, the three French cruisers that arrived on the 14th left Dakar intending to go to Libreville in Gabon. On the way they were intercepted by British naval units, including the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia. The Montcalm and George-Leygues outran the British ships and returned to Dakar, where they helped to defend the port against the attack. The Gloire, slowed by mechanical problems was unable to escape and was ordered back to Casablanca.

The attack on Dakar was code named “Operation Menace.” Free French troops led by Gen. de Gaulle were carried on ships escorted and supported by units of the Home Fleet and Force H under the command of Vice-Adm. John Cunningham. They included the battleships HMS Barham and HMS Resolution, the carrier HMS Ark Royal, three heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 10 destroyers and other ships that carried the British landing force of 4,300 and 3,600 Free French troops.

The Vichy naval forces at Dakar were commanded by Pierre François Boisson. These forces included the unfinished battleship Richelieu, the Montcalm and George-Leygues, four destroyers and several submarines. There were also air units that included American-made Glenn Martin bombers and Curtiss Hawk 75A fighters.

The attack on Dakar began on Monday, Sept. 23, 1940. French aircraft flew off from the carrier HMS Ark Royal and landed at Ouakam aerodrome within Dakar. Propaganda leaflets were dropped over the town by Fleet Air Arm aircraft.

De Gaulle’s representatives entered Dakar Harbor in a motor boat flying the French flag, and a white flag of peace — but were fired upon — and nothing further was heard from them. The next step was a landing of British and the 2,400 Free French troops, which was repulsed after a short, but sharp, action, by French troops loyal to the Vichy Government. This led de Gaulle to declare that he did not want to shed the blood of Frenchmen for Frenchmen. The action now settled into a duel between the Royal Navy battleships and heavy cruisers, and the French battleship Richelieu, French cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

The guns of the French fort at Dakar were also involved in bombarding Royal Navy warships. As a result, a French submarine was sunk, a large destroyer disabled and the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland heavily damaged.

On Sept. 24, there was a duel between the French battleship Richelieu and the British battleship HMS Barham. The Barham was hit twice by the shore batteries manned by ratings from the Richelieu. In the engagement the Richelieu was struck by two 15-inch shells from Barham, but the damage was not serious. During these engagements, the French made use of an ingenious device to distinguish the spotting of their shell bursts. Each salvo was marked by a certain color, Richelieu used yellow, the forts white, and the cruisers green and red.

The action continued on Sept. 25. As the Royal Navy force began to withdraw, the battleship HMS Resolution was struck by a French torpedo, and took on a heavy list to port. In the meantime, Vichy French Martin bombers attacked the stricken ship and dropped large bombs. French fighters were also busy, one Curtiss Hawk fighter shot down a Royal Navy observation plane. The attacking force now left the Dakar area, with the battleship HMS Barham taking HMS Resolution under tow with the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia supporting them as they withdrew at a slow speed.

The attack on Dakar was a debacle for the Royal Navy. Two battleships were damaged, one of them seriously, two heavy cruisers were heavily damaged and two destroyers also seriously damaged. Aircraft were also destroyed and the landing force was repulsed.

In retaliation for the attack on Dakar, on Sept. 24 about 50 aircraft flew from French bases in North Africa and dropped 150 bombs on Gibraltar, while the next day, about 100 aircraft dropped 300 bombs on the harbor and dockyards. Most of the bombs missed. However, some damage and a few casualties were caused.

Dakar would revert to the Allied side in November 1942, after Operation Torch — the Allied landings in North Africa — after which, the Germans occupied the rest of France. With Dakar in Allied hands, it was used to organize convoys, and support U-boat hunting groups in the battle of the Atlantic.

Next week: Huangqiao

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