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 (otherwise the Battle of Libreville) 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.
On 8 October de Gaulle arrived in Douala, the capital of French Cameroun. Here, on 12 October, he sanctioned plans for the invasion of French Equatorial Africa, which the Free French leader wished to use as the springboard for attacks into Axis-controlled Libya. For this reason, he travelled to the north in order to assess the situation in Chad, located on the southern border of Libya. On 27 October Free French forces crossed into French Equatorial Africa and took Mitzic, and on 5 November the Vichy French garrison of Lambaréné, a key town on the Ogooué river, the main waterway of inland Gabon, surrendered.
Meanwhile the main Free French forces under Major Philippe François Marie Leclerc and Major Marie Pierre Koenig left Douala with the task of taking Libreville. On 8 November 1940, the British sloop Milford sank the Vichy French submarine Poncelet. Landed at Pointe La Mondah, Koenig’s forces included French Legionnaires (including the 13th Demi-Brigade de de la Légion Etrangère), Senegalese and Camerounian troops. On 9 November, Westland Lysander army co-operation aircraft from Douala bombed the airfield at Libreville. Despite meeting strong resistance during its approach march, Koenig’s force later took the airfield.
Free French naval forces, including the colonial sloop Savorgnan de Brazza, attacked and sank a sister ship, the Vichy French Bougainville. On 12 November the last forces commanded by Général de Brigade Marcel Tetu surrendered at Port Gentil. Three days later, de Gaulle’s personal appeal failed to persuade most of the captured Vichy French soldiers, including Tetu, to join the Free French movement and, consequently, these were interned as prisoners of war in Brazzaville, French Congo, for the rest of the war.
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.