Operation Menace

This was a British and Free French attempt to take the strategically important Vichy French port of Dakar in the Senegal region of French West Africa (31 August/29 September 1940).

After the 25 June implementation of the 22 June armistice which suspended hostilities between France and Germany, there was considerable confusion as to the allegiance of the various French colonies and mandated territories comprising the African federation (Dahomey, French Guinea, French Sudan, French Togo, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, French West Africa and Upper Volta). Dakar, the capital of French West Africa, was the third largest port in the French empire, and the capital of Pierre François Boisson, who had been appointed as the Vichy French high commissioner of Black Africa (French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa). Boisson in fact controlled only French West Africa as French Equatorial Africa was on the verge of rallying to the Free French cause under Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle as a result of the Battle of Gabon 1 between 8 and 12 November. The battle resulted in de Gaulle’s Free French seizing from the Vichy French forces first Libreville, the capital of Gabon, and then all of French Equatorial Africa.

Meanwhile, in French West Africa, Boisson tried and generally succeeded in applying a policy of strict neutrality, but the presence of powerful French warships in Dakar caused the British considerable concerns which dovetailed with the ambitions of de Gaulle to enlarge his Free French 'empire'.

Before the Franco-German armistice, the French fleet in the Mediterranean had counterbalanced the Italian navy in that vital theatre, leaving the Royal Navy free to concentrate on the German warships in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. That the French fleet might fall into German hands after June 1940 then led to the British 'Catapult' attack on the French fleet at Mers el Kébir in July 1940, but while this attack suppressed a possible threat to British superiority in the Mediterranean, it did nothing to encourage individual units to join the UK-based Free French.

de Gaulle believed that he could persuade the Vichy French forces in West Africa to join the Allied cause, even though all the available intelligence suggested strongly that this was not the case. The political consequences of a change of allegiance by another Vichy French colony would in themselves be a major advantage for the Allies, but there would also be a significant military benefit: it would deny the Germans any chance to base U-boats and/or surface vessels in the port of Dakar for forays against Allied convoys in the South Atlantic, and as Allied base Dakar was much better situated for the naval forces protecting the convoys sailing round West Africa than Freetown, the base in Sierra Leone which the Allies were currently using.

Another factor militating for the seizure of Dakar was the fact that much of the gold reserves of the Banque de France and the Polish government-in-exile was stored in Dakar.

The Allied 'Menace' plan had been finalised and the operation authorised on 27 August. The invasion force sailed in three groups under the command of Vice Admiral J. H. D. Cunningham, previously commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron in Admiral Sir Charles Forbes’s Home Fleet: that from Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group comprised three transport vessels escorted by the light cruiser Fiji and three destroyers, that from the Clyde river of the heavy cruiser Devonshire, one destroyer, three Free French sloops and one trawler, and that from Liverpool of three transports escorted by three destroyers. Major General N. M. S. Irwin’s ground force comprised 4,200 British troops (centred on the 101st Royal Marine Brigade) and 2,700 Free French troops embarked in the Free Dutch liners Pennland and Westernland, and the Free Polish liner Sobieski. The ground force’s heavy equipment and other specialised stores (including motor transport) sailed with a mercantile convoy to Freetown, where the invasion force was to gather for the operation proper.

The orders given to this Allied force were first to seek a negotiated settlement with the Vichy French high commissioner, and only if this was unsuccessful to use force to take the port and city.

Naval support was vested in Cunningham’s Force 'M', which comprised the new fleet carrier Ark Royal, old battleships Barham and Resolution, heavy cruisers Australia (replacing Fiji which had been torpedoed by U-32 off the Hebrides islands group on 1 September and had to return for repairs), Cumberland and Devonshire, light cruisers Delhi and Dragon, destroyers Echo, Eclipse, Escapade, Faulknor, Foresight, Forester, Fortune, Fury, Greyhound and Inglefield, escort/patrol vessels Bridgewater, Commandant Dominé, Commandant Duboc, Houduce, Milford and Savorgnan de Brazza, and Dutch liners Pennland and Westernland serving as transports.

Part of this naval force was supplied by Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force 'H', whose contribution took the form of Ark Royal, Resolution, Faulknor, Foresight, Forester, Fortune. Fury and Greyhound, which departed Gibraltar on 6 September to rendezvous with the convoy, the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Cumberland and the sloops Bridgewater and Milford arriving from the South Atlantic before proceeding to the assembly point at Freetown.

The Vichy French naval forces present at Dakar under the command of Contre-amiral C. J. L. Bourragué were the battleship Richelieu, light cruisers Georges Leygues and Montcalm, destroyers Audacieux, Fantasque, Malin and Hardi, escort/patrol vessels Calais, Commandant Rivière, d’Entrecasteaux, d’Iberville, Gazelle and Surprise, auxiliary cruisers El Kantara, El Mansour, Schoelzer and Ville d’Oran, submarines Ajax, Bévéziers and Persée, and merchant ships Porthos and Tacouna.

One of the most advanced warships in the French navy, Richelieu had departed Brest on 18 June before the Germans reached the port despite the fact that she was only about 95% complete. She had been damaged by air-launched torpedo attack on 8 July. Until the establishment of the Vichy French government, the British light carrier Hermes had been operating with the French forces in Dakar as the French had no such ships of their own, but on the establishment of the Vichy French regime had been ordered to sea and remain on watch. Joined by Australia, her bombers had attacked Richelieu, hitting her with one torpedo. When the Allied force arrived, therefore, the French battleship was immobilised but still able to function as a very powerful floating gun battery.

Three submarines and several lighter ships had been there with her.

A note of confusion had been added to the overall situation on 11 September when Cunningham received a report that the Vichy French light cruisers Georges Leygues, Gloire and Montcalm, escorted by three large destroyers, were believed to be in the area after passing westward through the Strait of Gibraltar after departing Toulon in the south of France. There was considerable confusion in British naval circles (in the UK, at Gibraltar and with Force 'M') about the likely destination of the Vichy French squadron and how the problem was to be overcome, but the matter resolved itself when Georges Leygues and Montcalm, as well as the three destroyers, put into Dakar, Gloire having been shepherded into Casablanca after suffering mechanical problems. The light cruiser Primauguet, patrolling from Dakar, was also persuaded to put into Casablanca.

The French squadron had in fact been destined for Libreville in Gabon to bolster the local forces against Free French leanings in central Africa, Chad having defected recently to the Allied cause, and its fortuitous presence in Dakar did much to strengthen the pro-Vichy French stance of the Senegalese administration, already confident of its ability to resist British naval pressures thanks to the availability of Richelieu.

The British and Free French forces reached Freetown, just to the south of Dakar, on 14 September and completed their final preparations before heading to the north in three groups between 19 and 21 September. On 23 September Fleet Air Arm aircraft dropped propaganda leaflets on the city of Dakar, and Free French aircraft flew off Ark Royal to land at the city’s airport. A boat carrying de Gaulle’s representatives entered the port, but was engaged with gunfire.

At 10.00, Vichy French ships trying to leave the port received warning shots from Australia and returned to port, but the coastal forts opened fire on Australia. This led to an engagement between the battleships and cruisers on the one hand, and the forts on the other. In the afternoon Australia intercepted and fired on the Vichy French destroyer Audacieux, setting her on fire and causing the crew to beach the ship.

During the afternoon, an attempt was made to set Free French troops ashore on a beach at Rufisque, to the north-east of Dakar, but they came under heavy fire from strongpoints defending the beach. de Gaulle now declared that he did not want to 'shed the blood of Frenchmen for Frenchmen' and the attack was called off.

During the next two days, the Allied fleet attacked the Vichy French coastal defences. Two Vichy French submarines, Persée and Ajax, were sunk.

The Allied fleet also suffered damage: Resolution was torpedoed by Bévéziers and had to be towed to Capetown for short-term repairs, and Barham was hit by two shells from the coastal defence batteries which had been manned by crew of one of Richelieu's main turrets. Two cruisers were also damaged.

The Allied force then withdrew, leaving Dakar and French West Africa in Vichy French hands.

During the period of 'Menace', bombers of the Vichy French air force operated from bases in North Africa to attack the British base at Gibraltar. On 24 September about 50 aircraft dropped 150 bombs, and on the following day about 100 aircraft dropped 300 bombs on the harbour and dockyards. Most of the bombs missed. Some damage was caused, but few casualties were suffered. Only the British armed trawler Stella Sirius was sunk by direct hits.

The effects of this Allied failure were mostly political. de Gaulle had believed that he would be able to persuade the Vichy French at Dakar to change sides, but this turned out not to be the case, which damaged his standing with the Allies. French West Africa returned to neutrality, but finally declared for the Allies only in November 1942 after the German 'Anton' occupation of Vichy France.

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The Battle of Gabon, also known as the Gabon Campaign, took place in October and November 1940, and led to the capture from Vichy French forces of Gabon and its capital, Libreville, by Free French forces. This little campaign was the only significant engagement in Central Africa during World War II.

Following its defeat of France in June 1940, Germany occupied the northern two-thirds of that nation. Maréchal de France Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Pétain then established a collaborationist government in Vichy to run unoccupied one-third of France. On 18 June, Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, a considerably more junior French officer who had escaped to the UK, broadcast an appeal by radio to his compatriots abroad, calling on them to reject the Vichy French régime and join the UK in its war against Germany and Italy. The broadcast provoked considerable division in France’s African territories, where French colonists were compelled to choose sides. On 26 August, the governor and military commanders in the colony of Chad announced that they were rallying to de Gaulle’s Free French movement. A small group of Gaullists seized control of Cameroun during the morning of the following day, and on 28 August a Free French official ousted the pro-Vichy governor of Moyen-Congo. The next day the governor of Oubangui-Shari declared that his territory would support de Gaulle, and this declaration prompted a brief power struggle with a pro-Vichy army officer, but by the end of the day all of the colonies that formed French Equatorial Africa, with the exception of Gabon, had rallied to Free France. On the evening of 28 August, the governor, Georges Masson, had pledged Gabon’s allegiance to Free France, but encountered immediate opposition from much of Libreville’s French population and from Gabon’s influential, conservative Catholic bishop, Louis Tardy, who favoured Vichy France’s policy against Freemasonry. In the face of these pressures, Masson was forced to rescind his pledge, and Free French sympathisers were soon placed under arrest by the colonial administration and either imprisoned on the auxiliary cruiser Cap des Palmes or deported to Dakar in Senegal.

After Cameroun had rallied to the Free French cause on 27 August, the Gabonese authorities decided to reinforce their frontier with that province along with the Ntem river. On 3 September, Roger Gardet entered Bitam by pretending a medical emergency and receiving authorisation from Capitaine Gourvès at Bitam to cross the frontier. Gourvès agreed to rally his troops to Free France only if his superior, the chief administrator of Woleu-Ntem based at Oyem, one Besson, did the same. Besson at first refused, but on 5 September Gardet informed him that he was relieving Besson his command. Besson left for Cameroun and on the following day, 6 September, Free French forces arrived in Bitam and Oyem with Pierre Roger Martocq as the new administrator of Woleu-Ntem.

On 11 September, Masson met his army and navy commanders, and these men agreed to reinforce Mayumba. On 9 and 15 September, Colonelle André Parant led about 12 Free French fighters into Mayumba in a Potez 540 aeroplane. On 15 September, Vichy French reinforcements arrived on the Cap des Palmes, escorted by the submarine Poncelet: this party comprised marines from Bougainville and the defence of Port Gentil. While the commander of the submarine, Bertrand de Saussine du Pont de Gault, was taking breakfast with the district administrator, the Free French swept into the administrator’s residence. After several hours of discussions, and with Parant’s men occupying the city, Saussine was allowed to depart, taking with him everyone who did not desire to join the Free French. Most of the marines opted to stay in Mayumba.

On 8 October, de Gaulle arrived in Douala, the capital of Cameroun, and four days later authorised plans for the invasion of Afrique Equatoriale Française (French Equatorial Africa), which was the federation of French colonial possessions in equatorial Africa, extending northward from the Congo river into the Sahel, and comprising what are today Chad, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, and Gabon). de Gaulle wished to use French Equatorial Africa as a base to launch attacks into Axis-controlled Libya, and in pursuit of this aim he then travelled to the north to survey the situation in Chad, located on the southern border of Libya.

On 27 October, Free French forces crossed into French Equatorial Africa and took the town of Mitzic. On 5 November, the Vichy garrison at Lambaréné capitulated. Meanwhile, the Free French main strength under Lieutenant Colonelle Philippe François Marie Jacques Leclerc de Hauteclocque and Adjutant Marie Joseph Pierre François Koenig departed Douala in Cameroun with the object of taking Libreville in French Equatorial Africa. Though they were uncertain of de Gaulle’s ability to establish control over the Vichy French territory, the British eventually agreed to lend naval support to the Free French.

On 8 November 1940, the British sloop Milford discovered the Vichy French submarine Poncelet shadowing the Anglo-French task force and gave chase. The sloop was too slow to intercept the submarine, so Vice Admiral John H. D. Cunningham ordered his flagship, the heavy cruiser Devonshire, to launch her Supermarine Walrus biplane. This 'boat straddled the submarine with two salvoes of 100-lb (45-kg) depth charges as it attempted to dive, damaging the boat that was then scuttled off Port-Gentil. Koenig’s forces landed at Pointe La Mondah on the night of 8/9 November. His forces included French legionnaires (including the 13th Demi-Brigade de la Légion Etrangère) and both Senegalese and Camerounian troops.

On 9 November, Free French Westland Lysander aircraft operating from Douala bombed the airfield at Libreville, and this was later captured despite the stiff resistance met by Koenig’s force as its approached. Free French naval forces, comprising the minesweeper Commandant Dominé and the cargo vessel Casamance were led by Capitaine de corvette Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu on board the colonial sloop Savorgnan de Brazza undertook coastal operations.Savorgan de Brazza attacked and sank her sister ship, the Vichy French Bougainville. Libreville was captured by the Free French on 10 November.

On 12 November, the final Vichy forces at Port Gentil surrendered without a fight and Masson, the governor, committed suicide.

The Free French forces lost four aircraft and six aircrew in the campaign, but there is disagreement about the total number of human losses, with figures ranging from 13 to about 100.

On 15 November de Gaulle made a personal appeal that failed to persuade most of the captured Vichy French soldiers including the local military commander, Général de corps d’armée Marcel Louis Joseph Têtu, to join the Free French. Those who refused to change side were then held as prisoners of war in Brazzaville, the capital of the French Congo, for the rest of the war.

With their control consolidated in Equatorial Africa, the Free French began focusing on the campaign against the Italians in Libya. de Gaulle replaced Leclerc in Cameroun and posted him to Fort Lamy in Chad to oversee offensive preparations.

The conflict in Gabon triggered a mass migration of Gabonese to Spanish Guinea. French Equatorial Africa severed all links with the Vichy French-controlled West African territories, and rebuilt its economy around trade with nearby British possessions. Tensions between the Vichy French and Free French factions in Gabon remained long after the invasion. However, the seizure of Gabon and the rest of French Equatorial Africa gave the Free French a certain legitimacy, for no longer were they an organisation of exiles in the UK but a 'nation' with their own sizeable territory to govern.

In the aftermath of the Free French seizure of Gabon and the British 'Compass' victory over the Italians in North Africa came the capture of Kufra, is a basin and oasis group in the Kufra district of south-eastern Cyrenaica in the Libyan desert. In 1940 Kufra was part of the Italian colony of Libia Italiana, itself a part of Africa Settentrionale Italiana, which had been created in 1934. With some early assistance from the British Long Range Desert Group, Kufra was captured by Free French troops when the Italian and Libyan garrison surrendered after a siege lasting from 31 January to 1 March 1941.

Located in the Libyan desert subregion of the Sahara, Kufra was an important trade and travel centre for the nomadic peoples of the region, these peoples including Berbers and Senussi. The Senussi had made the oasis their capital at one point against British, Italian and French designs on the region, but in 1931 Italy captured Kufra and incorporated it into the Africa Settentrionale Italiana colonisation of the Maghreb. The Italian position at Kufra included the Buma airfield and radio station, the airfield being employed for aerial supply and communications with Italian East Africa, and a fort at the nearby village of El Tag.

After the Allied defeat of June 1940 at the climax of the Battle of France, the colony of the FEA (French Equatorial Africa) had declared its allegiance to Free France, the government-in-exile led by Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle. The northern part of the FEA, Chad bordered southern part of Libya. de Gaulle now ordered the Free French forces in Chad to attack Italian positions in Libya. Kufra was the obvious target and the troops available to the Free French commander in Chad, Lieutenant Colonelle Jean Colonna d’Ornano, were 5,000 tirailleurs (riflemen) of the Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad (Senegalese Rifle Regiment of Chad), whose 20 companies garrisoned various places, and also three detachments of méharistes (camel-mounted cavalry) in Borkou, Tibesti and Ennedi.

Attacking Kufra would be very difficult for these Free French units, for there was little in the way of motor transport and the troops were faced with a 250-mile (400 km) crossing of the desert, much of which was sand dune or the fine, powdery fech fech soil, which was thought impassable to motor vehicles. The French received assistance from the Long Range Desert Group, which was a reconnaissance and raiding unit formed to operate behind the Italian lines, and who men had become expert in desert navigation. The LRDG’s Major Pat Clayton wished to join with the Free French in an undertaking to test the Italians, and had under his command the G Patrol (Guards brigade) and T Patrol (New Zealand) with 76 men and 26 vehicles.

The LRDG and Free French first raided the Italian airfield at Murzuk, in the Territorio Sahara Libico-Fezzan region of south-western Libya. d’Ornano and 10 Free French (three officers, two sergeants and five local soldiers) met the LRDG patrols on 6 January at Kayouge and the combined force reached Murzuk on 11 January, delivering a daring daylight raid which surprised the sentries and allowed for the destruction of the base. While most of the force attacked the main fort, a troop from T Patrol under Lieutenant Ballantyne attacked the airfield, destroying three Caproni aircraft and capturing some prisoners. d’Ornano was killed in this raid, as was one trooper of T Patrol. A diversionary raid by French camel cavalry failed after it was betrayed by local guides, and these troops were then relegated to reconnaissance rather than combat.

Colonelle Philippe Leclerc then took command in succession to d’Ornano. After the success of the Murzuk raid, Leclerc concentrated his units for an assault on Kufra. The attacking column included about 400 men in 60 trucks, two Laffly S15TOE (Théâtre d’Opérations Extérieures) scout cars, four Laffly S15R cross-country personnel carriers and two 75-mm (2.95-in) mountain guns. The core of the opposition which faced the Free French was protected by two defensive lines around the El Tag fort with barbed wire, trenches, machine-guns and light anti-aircraft guns, and the Italian garrison comprised the 59th and 60th Compagnie mitraglieri (machine gun companies) with 280 askaris (local infantry) armed with medium machine guns, light machine guns and rifles, and the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra (Kufra Sahara Company), which was a 120-man mixed force of motorised infantry with well-armed SPA AS.37 cross-country vehicles. The ground units could call on the Italian air force for support.

Leclerc requested that the LRDG to deal with the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra, which was based in the fort at El Tag. The approaching LRDG was detected by a radio intercept unit at Kufra, however, and the Italians organised a mobile column of 40 men, one AS.37 and four FIAT 634 trucks to intercept the British, whose G Patrol had been kept in reserve. On 31 January, Clayton was at Bishara, about 80 miles (130 km) to the south-south-west of Kufra with the 30 men of T Patrol carried in 11 trucks. The patrol was spotted by an Italian aeroplane in the morning, and T Patrol decided that it was only prudent to cover in a small wadi (dried water course) at Gebel Sherif, a short distance to the north. The aeroplane directed the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra to its attack on the LRDG patrol, and given the combined firepower of the Italian vehicles armed with 20-mm cannon and the air attacks, T Patrol was driven off, losing four trucks and Clayton who, with several others, was captured. Trooper Ronald Moore led other survivors to safety after a long foot march. The remaining LRDG force withdrew to Egypt for refitting, the sole exception being a vehicle of T Patrol equipped for desert navigation. During the fight, Primo Tenente Caputo, commander of the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra, was killed, as too were two Libyan soldiers.

Leclerc pressed on with his attack despite the fact that the Italians had found a copy of the Allied plan on Clayton’s body. After further reconnaissance, Leclerc reorganised his forces on 16 February, abandoning his two armoured cars and taking with him the sole serviceable piece of artillery. Only about 350 men reached Kufra as a result of truck breakdowns on the march. Aware of the French approach, the Italians organised another strong mobile column (70 men, 10 AS.37 vehicles and five trucks) from the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra. On 17 February, Leclerc’s force met the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra ion an area to the north of Kufra. Despite losing many trucks to the 20-mm cannon of the Italian AS.37 cars, the French drove off the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra as the garrison at Kufra made no intervention. The French surrounded El Tag and laid siege to the fort, despite another attack by the Compagnia Sahariana di Cufra and harassment from the air. The 75-mm gun was used to fire at a range of 2,750 yards (3000 m), and thus outside the range of the fort’s defenders, and 20 shells per day at regular intervals from different places to give suggest that the Free French had more than just one gun. Some 81-mm (3.2-in) mortars were placed 1,375 yards (1500 m) from the fort and dropped a steady stream of bombs on the Italian positions to increase the pressure on the defenders.

The fort was commanded by an inexperienced captain of the reserves, lacking both the will and the determination to continue the fight. Surrender negotiations began on 28 February, and on 1 March the Italian garrison of 11 officers, 18 n on-commissioned officers and 273 Libyan soldiers (12, 47 and 273 according to French sources) surrendered El Tag and the Kufra oasis to the Free French. During the siege, the Italian garrison had suffered one Italian officer killed, two Libyan soldiers killed and four wounded; the French suffered four deaths and 21 wounded. The Italian garrison was allowed to pull out to the north-west, and booty taken by the Free French included eight AS.37 Autocarro Sahariano light trucks, six lorries, four 20-mm cannon and 53 machine guns.