Operation Floodlights

'Floodlights' was the US overall designation of the naval blockade of the Caribbean islands controlled by Vichy France (1942/43).

The French West Indies comprised the Caribbean territories of Martinique island, Guadeloupe island and French Guiana on the mainland of South America, each with its own governor and with a total population in the order of 615,000 persons. After the fall of France in June 1940, the territories came under the control of the new Vichy régime of unoccupied France, whose high commissioner was Vice-amiral d’escadre Georges Robert with a remit which also included the small French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off the eastern coast of Canada. Robert suspended the local exercise of democratic rights, and the British thereupon imposed a blockade which restricted trade with France and the USA, and also prevented the movement of French warships based in Martinique, and of the French gold reserves which had been shipped there in 1940. The blockade meant that the import of food and the export of the territories' primary products, sugar and rum, became very difficult.

The USA did prepare plans for an invasion by an expeditionary force to capture the island, and at various times the USA and UK established blockades. For instance, between July and November 1940, the British light cruisers Fiji and Dunedin maintained a watch to ensure that the French aircraft carrier Béarn and the other French naval vessels in Martinique did not slip away to Europe.

In June 1940, the French light cruiser Emile Bertin had arrived in Martinique with 286 tons of gold from the Banque de France. The original intent was that the bank’s gold reserve would go to Canada for safekeeping, and a first shipment did go there. When France signed an armistice with Germany, the plan was changed and the second shipment was re-routed to Martinique. When it arrived in Martinique, Robert arranged for the storage of the gold in Fort Desaix. The island was blockaded by British warships, and the British used the gold as collateral for Lend-Lease facilities from the USA, on the basis that the gold could be 'acquired' at any time if needed.

Lare in 1941, Robert agreed to keep the French naval vessels, including Emile Bertin, immobilised in return for the Allies not bombarding and invading the French Antilles. In mid-1943, Robert returned to France via Puerto Rico and Lisbon, and Free French sympathisers took control of the gold at Fort Desaix, and also of the French warships.

It was when the USA entered the war in December 1941 that its naval forces had taken over responsibility for the blockade. Early in November 1942 Amiral de la Flotte Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan, the commander-in-chief of the Vichy French forces and already in discussion with the Allies, asked Robert to make the French warships based in the West Indies available for operations against the Germans, but Robert refused this as well as a US request that the ships be disarmed.

During March 1943 the USA manoeuvred French Guiana into declaring for Général d’Armée Henri Giraud, the USA’s preferred leader of the anti-German French movement, both to prevent the colony joining the faction controlled by the Free French leader, Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, and to obtain base rights and facilities there. But Robert refused to waver from his adherence to the Vichy French régime, and on 30 April the USA broke off diplomatic relations.

Local resistance groups eventually pressured Robert into resigning on 30 June 1943 in favour of Henri Hoppenot, a Giraudist representative of the Comité Français de Libération Nationale (French committee for national liberation), later replaced by a Gaullist.