Operation Seal

'Seal', otherwise known as the 'Liberation of La Réunion', was the Free French seizure of the Vichy French island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean (27/30 November 1942).

The undertaking took the form of an amphibious landing and uprising which brought the island of La Réunion onto the Allied side, and was performed by the Free French destroyer Léopard, which landed a small force that toppled the administration loyal to the Vichy French régime and replaced it with a Free French administration.

Since the German defeat of France in May and June 1940, the island of La Réunion had possessed little strategic significance, and as a result had little on the way of any defensive capability. The Franco-German armistice signed at Compiègne Armistice on 22 June 1940 had reduced the military on the island to three officers, one doctor, 11 non-commissioned officers and about 270 men, of whom only 23 were professional soldiers. The island’s coastal artillery was not operational.

On 23 June 1940, Raoul Nativel, president of the local conseil général administration, denounced the armistice in a radio broadcast from St Denis, the island’s capital, and on the following day the British consul, Maurice Gaud, met the island’s governor, Pierre Emile Aubert, to propose British payment in the event that La Réunion remained in the fight against Germany. This proposal became public when Radio Mauritius broadcast it. Aubert consulted with senior members of the local population but, faced with the choice of whether or not make an illegal surrender of the island to a foreign government, decided to remain loyal to the Vichy France government headed by Maréchal de France Philippe Pétain. Supporters of the Free French exile government of Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, general secretary Angelini and Capitaine Plat were transferred, and Adrien Lagourgue, the president of the colonial commission, and Nativel were dismissed.

Although loyal to the Vichy régime, Aubert was relatively moderate in his support of Pétain’s policies, but also had supreme authority on the island. On the other hand, his cabinet director, Jean-Jacques Pillet, was enthusiastic in his support of the Vichy French révolution nationale, and organised censorship, propaganda, a special criminal court, and a pro-Vichy militia.

A local resistance movement soon emerged. On 11 November 1941, the 23rd anniversary of the end of World War I, about 20 women laid flowers on the 1918 memorial in St Denis, and were fined. Communist cells operated under Léon de Lepervanche but maintained a low profile. La Réunion also harboured Duy Tân, the exiled emperor of Vietnam, who was a keen radio 'ham' and managed to communicate with Mauritius but was detained shortly thereafter and had his equipment confiscated.

After the Japanese took Singapore on 15 February 1942, Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s British Eastern Fleet retreated to the atoll of Addu Atoll in the Maldive islands group. Then, following the 'C' (ii) raid of 31 March to 9 April 1942 into the Indian Ocean by elements of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s 1st Air Fleet and Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi’s 2nd Southern Expeditionary Fleet from an advanced base on Celebes island, the Eastern Fleet moved its operational base to Kilindini near Mombasa in Kenya, increasing the British presence along the coast of East African. Soon afterwards, the British struck the French possessions of Madagascar, under Vichy French control, with 'Ironclad' on 5 May 1942. by now La Réunion had lost its maritime communications with mainland Africa, and the attack further encouraged anti-British sentiments among the island’s Vichy French loyalists. On the other hand, de Gaulle, who had not been involved in 'Ironclad,' felt hard-pressed to reclaim La Réunion from the Vichy French before the British or Americans did so.

On 8 May, Vichy French elements in Madagascar signalled that a British cruiser had departed South Africa with 600 men aboard to seize the island. Aubert then decided to obstruct the harbour of Le Port by scuttling a ship in the entrance. He also ordered evacuation of St Denis, the island’s capital, so as to avoid a bombing like that at Diego Suarez in the northern tip of Madagascar. By the evening, about 9,000 people had moved to La Montagne, Le Brûlé, St François and Ste Marie. No bombing materialised, however, and the population gradually drifted back to its homes.

The incident had highlighted the fact that the island was helpless against any invasion. On 18 September, it was decided that resistance to a landing would be limited to a mere token fight. Some elements of the military were determined to offer a fierce resistance to a British invasion, however. On 27 September, St Denis was declared open city, while the authorities moved to Hell-Bourg, mocked by Free French supporters.

On 8 November, the Allied 'Torch' landings in French North-West Africa triggered 'Anton', the German seizure of the so-called 'Free Zone' of France, resulting in the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon. Admiral de la Flotte François Darlan emerged as a rival to de Gaulle, and undertook negotiations in North-West Africa with Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief Allied Expeditionary Force Mediterranean.

On the night of 26/27 November, the Free French large destroyer Léopard departed Mauritius with 74 troops, and arrived off St Denis at 23.00 on 27 November. The destroyer was captained by Capitaine de frégate Jules Evenou.

Five men were then despatched in two launches from the destroyer to find a good landing spot. At 02.30, Léopard was sighted by lookouts on the island, who spotted the invasion troops were boarding boats. About 60 men landed and, led by Lieutenant Moreau, took control of the governor’s residence, and the rest of St Denis was under Free French control by the evening. An officer named Barraquin, leading the little invasion force, made contact with friendly elements in the population, notably the communist leader Léon de Lépervanche, and general secretary Rivière, who started arranging the hand-over of the island. One Pillet, a died-hard Vichy French believer, then fled to Hell-Bourg to organise a resistance. André Capagorry, the new governor designated by de Gaulle, arrived at about 18.00 to the cheering of the local population, and gave a speech on Radio St Denis in which he appealed for calm.

On the following day, 28 November, communist cells under Lépervanche were activated, seizing the city hall, arresting the mayor and electing Lépervanche as leader of a 'Committee of Public Safety'. Next, the communists failed in an attempt to seize the battery of 95-mm (3.74-in) coastal guns at Le Port under the command of Lieutenant Émile Hugot, who was considered a hard-core 'Pétainist'. In retaliation, the battery opened fire on Léopard, which retired into the open sea and started firing back, hitting the Pointe des Galets with her 130-mm (5.1-in) guns and killing two men. An engineer named Raymond Decugis attempted to effect a ceasefire, but was killed by small arms fire. A sortie by the Vichy French was thwarted by small arms fire from the men of the island’s resistance movement, and Hugot was severely wounded. Fearing an assault of their positions by regular troops, the gunners retreated after silencing their battery, and Léopard approached Le Port.

On discovering that the invasion force was French rather than British, and without any response from his government in spite of repeated requests for instructions, Aubert renounced the idea of even a symbolic fight. However, Evenou was becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of enemy submarines and fearing for his ship, clumsily attempted to force the issue by threatening to destroy factories on the island. After lengthy negotiations involving Capagorry, Aubert eventually agreed to surrender on the condition that the ultimatum on the factories be made again as a way for him to save face. The surrender was formalised at 20.45 on 30 November.

On 2 December, Pillet, local army commander Artignan and their wives were discreetly brought aboard Léopard to avoid any popular 'justice'. Aubert came aboard on the following day after lunching with Capagorry, Evenou and Barraquin, and the destroyer then departed for Mauritius.

Léopard made several trips between Mauritius and La Réunion to deliver rice, which had been lacking, and this contributed greatly to Capagorry’s popularity.

From 20 April 1943, a specially constituted court cancelled all sanctions and charges imposed under the Vichy French régime. Officials of the Vichy French administration suffered at most light penalties, except for Jean-Jacques Pillet, who was dismissed.