This was the German seizure of Vichy French assets, and in particular the naval base at Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast, largely by elements of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps, as part of the Axis move into the Vichy-controlled zone in France after the Anglo-US ‘Torch’ landings in French North-West Africa (27 November 1942).
By the signature of the Franco-German armistice of 22 June 1942, which paved the way to the end of hostilities between the two nations on 25 June, France had been divided in a zone occupied by the Germans, and a so-called ‘Free Zone’ administered by the new French régime with its capital at Vichy. The armistice stipulated that the French fleet would be largely disarmed and confined to its harbours, but would nonetheless remain under French control. The Allies were concerned that the fleet, which included several modern warships, might fall into German and/or Italian hands, and thus spurred the British ‘Catapult’ assault on Mers el Kébir in Algeria on 3 July 1940, and the ‘Menace’ attack on Dakar on 23 September 1940.
As part of the ‘Torch’ landings in North Africa, Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander-in-chief, had the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in reaching a secret accord with Amiral de la Flotte François Darlan, commander-in-chief of the Vichy French forces, that Darlan would be given control of the French fleet if he joined the Allied side.
When Adolf Hitler discovered this plan, he immediately triggered ‘Anton’, the occupation of Vichy France. From 11 November 1942 there were negotiation between Germany and Vichy France, resulting in an agreement that Toulon would remain a ‘stronghold’ under Vichy French control and defended against the Allies and the ‘French enemies of the government of the Maréchal [Henri Pétain]’, the head of the Vichy French government. Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief of the German navy, believed that French naval officers would fulfil their armistice agreement not to let the ships fall in the hands of any foreign nation, and managed to secure an audience with Hitler: Raeder was led to believe that the German aim was to use anti-British sentiment in the French navy to persuade it to side with the Italians, while Hitler was in fact preparing a forcible seizure of the fleet.
Hitler’s plan was for German forces to capture the French ships and then to pass them to the Italians. The order for the plan’s implementation was issued on 19 November. Eight days earlier, as German and Italian troops encircled Toulon, the Vichy French secretary of the navy, Amiral Gabriel Paul Auphan, ordered Amiral Jean de Laborde, commanding in Toulon, to oppose, without spilling of blood, the entry of foreign troops into naval establishments, air bases and buildings and also on board French ships by reaching local settlements, and if this proved impossible to scuttle the ships.
The first orders were to scuttle the ships by capsizing them but, thinking of recovering the ships after the end of hostilities, French naval engineers managed to have the orders changed to sinking the ships on an even keel. On 15 November de Laborde met with Pétain and Auphan. In private, Auphan tried to persuade de Laborde to set sail and join with the Allies, but the Anglophobic de Laborde refused to obey anything short of a formal order of the government. Auphan resigned shortly after this.
As a token of goodwill toward the Germans, the Vichy French coastal defences were strengthened to safeguard Toulon from any Allied naval attack, but meanwhile preparations were made for the scuttling of the fleet, in case of a successful landing by the Allies.
The French fleet in Toulon comprised 38 generally modern warships under de Laborde’s command, and other local forces, totalling 135 smaller vessels, were commanded by Amiral André Marquis, the préfet maritime and were mainly in armistice custody or under repair. Under armistice provisions, the French ships were supposed to have very little fuel in their bunkers, but by means of false reporting and gauges which had been subjected to tampering, the crews had managed to bunker fuel sufficient to reach North Africa. One of the cruisers, Jean de Vienne, was in dry dock and therefore helpless.
After the remnants of the French army had been disbanded at German insistence, French sailors had to man coastal defence artillery and anti-aircraft guns themselves, which made it impossible to swiftly gather the crews and have the ships quickly under way. The crews were initially hostile to the Allied invasion but as general anti-German sentiment increased after ‘Anton’ and rumours about Darlan’s defection circulated, this stance evolved toward backing of the Free French movement led by Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle. During the afternoon of 12 November, Darlan further escalated the tension by calling for the fleet to defect and join the Allies.
The Vichy French military authorities had long feared a coup-de-main attempt, organised by the British or Free French, to capture the fleet in Toulon. The population of Toulon was in the main favourable to the Allies, the army was hostile to the Italians, who were regarded as ‘illegitimate victors’ in June 1940 and in any event not to be trusted, and all were defiant of the Germans. During 11/26 November many arrests and expulsions were made, and de Laborde and Marquis were urged by their subordinates to indicate their support of the Vichy French government. The crews were first kept aboard their ships, and when allowed ashore were monitored in all places suspected to be targeted by the resistance forces.
The Germans decided on 19 November to implement ‘Lila’ on 27 November and thus take Toulon and capture the French fleet. The German forces were to enter Toulon from the eastern side to take Fort Lamalgue, headquarters of Marquis, and the Mourillon arsenal, and from the western side to take the main arsenal and the coastal defences. German naval forces were to cruise off the harbour to engage any ships attempting to flee, and mines were to be laid in the waters off Toulon.
At 04.30 on 27 November the German force, spearheaded by Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision of General Hans Felber’s Armeegruppe 'Felber', under the temporary command of Oberst Nikolaus von Vormann, entered Fort Lamalgue and arrested Marquis, but failed to prevent his chief-of-staff, Contre-amiral Robin, from calling the chief of the arsenal, Contre-amiral Dornon. The attack came as a complete surprise to the Vichy French officers, but Dornon transmitted the order to scuttle the fleet to de Laborde on board the flagship Strasbourg. Though startled by the actuality of the German operation, de Laborde nonetheless transmitted orders to prepare for scuttling, and to fire on any unauthorised personnel approaching the ships. Some 20 minutes later, German troops entered the arsenal and started machine gunning the French submarines. Some of the submarines got under way so that their crews could scuttle their boats in deeper water. Casabianca left her moorings, managed to exit the harbour and dived at 05.40 and so escaped to Algiers.
The German main force became lost in the arsenal and was one hour behind schedule, and when reached the base’s main gates the sentries pretended to need paperwork so as to delay the Germans without engaging in open fight. At 05.25 German armour finally rolled through, and from Strasbourg there came the order, by radio, optical signal and dispatch boat, for the fleet to be scuttled.
The French crews left their ships and scuttling parties started final preparations on their demolition charges and began to open sea cocks. At 06.45 fighting broke out around Strasbourg and Foch, a French officer being killed and five sailors wounded. When naval guns started engaging the German tanks, the Germans attempted to negotiate. A German officer demanded that de Laborde surrender his ship, to which the admiral responded that the ship had already been sunk. As Strasbourg settled on the bottom, her captain ordered the demolition charges to be fired, so destroying the armament and vital machinery, as well as igniting her fuel bunkers. Strasbourg was a total loss.
A few minutes after the cruiser Colbert exploded. The German party attempting to board the cruiser Algérie heard the explosions and tried to persuade her crew that scuttling was forbidden under the armistice provisions. However, the demolition charges were detonated and the ship burned for 20 days. Meanwhile, the captain of the cruiser Marseillaise ordered his ship to be capsized and the demolition charges to be initiated. German troops requested permission to come aboard, but when this was denied they made to effort to achieve their object by force. The ship sank and exploded, burning for seven days.
However, German troops forcibly boarded the cruiser Dupleix and, pushing aide her crew, closed her open sea cocks. The ship’s captain, Capitaine de vaisseau Moreau, ordered the scuttling charges in the main turrets to be lit with shortened fuses, and when they exploded and the subsequent fires took hold Moreau ordered the final evacuation. French and Germans alike fled the vessel. Explosions in the ship’s torpedo stores finally destroyed the vessel, which burned for 10 days.
The cruiser Jean de Vienne, in dry dock, was boarded by German troops, who disarmed the demolition charges, but the opened sea cocks allowed the ingress of water and the ship sank, blocking the dry dock. In another dry dock, the captain of the damaged battle-cruiser Dunkerque at first refused orders to scuttle, but was persuaded by his counterpart in the nearby cruiser Galissonnière to follow suit. The holes in the hull caused by earlier British torpedo attacks were used to sink the ship, and demolition charges destroyed her vital machinery. As Dunkerque exploded, Galissonnière emulated Jean de Vienne’s scuttling process.
The officers of Provence and Commandant Teste managed to delay German officers with apparent negotiation until their ships had settled on the bottom.
Events on the destroyers and submarines were basically similar. The Germans eventually seized three disarmed destroyers, four badly damaged submarines, three civilian ships, and the remains of two pre-dreadnought battleships of no naval value.
Thus ‘Lila’ failed as the French were able to destroy the two modern battle-cruisers (Strasbourg and Dunkerque), one old battleship (Provence), seven cruisers (heavy cruisers Dupleix, Foch, Algérie and Colbert, and light cruisers Marseillaise, Jean de Vienne and Galissonnière), 16 destroyers (Cassard, Aigle, Gerfaut, Guépard, Lion, Linx, Indomptable, Mogador, Panthère, Tigre, Kersaint, Tartu, Valmy, Vauban, Vauquelin and Vautour), 13 torpedo boats (Casque, Bordelais, Bison, Bayonnaise, Foudroyant, Trombe, Siroco, Poursuivante, Mars, Hardi, Palme, Cyclone and Mameluk), eight sloops (Épargne, D’Iberville, Chamois, Yser, Impétueuse, Curieuse, Granit and Dédaigneuse), 15 submarines (Redoutable, Eurydice, Diamant, Thétis, Sirène, Vénus, Vengeur, Naïade, Pascal, Espoir, Achéron, Fresnel, Caïman, Henri Poincaré and Galatée), nine patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships including the seaplane tender Commandant Teste, one training ship, 28 tugs and four cranes.
The German did manage to take 39 small ships, most of them sabotaged and disarmed. None of the scuttled ships was salvageable.
Several of the submarines ignored the scuttling order and escaped from Toulon to join the Free French forces: Casabianca and Marsouin reached Algiers, Glorieux reached Oran and Iris reached Barcelona in neutral Spain. Vénus eventually scuttled herself in the entrance of Toulon harbour.
One surface ship, Leonor Fresnel, managed to escape and reach Algiers. de Gaulle heavily criticised the Vichy French admirals for not ordering the fleet to flee to Algiers, and with the scuttling Vichy France lost its last token of power, and its credibility with the Germans. In this way the French fulfilled the promise made by Darlan, commander-in-chief of the French navy, to Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, at the time of France’s armistice with Germany in June 1940 that the French navy would under no circumstances fall into German hands.