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The French fleet at Toulon was scuttled on 27 November 1942 to avoid capture by Nazi German forces. The Germans launched a heavy assault, but the naval crews used deception tactics to delay the enemy until scuttling could be carried out. The German operation was judged a failure, with the capture of 39 small ships, while the French destroyed 77 vessels, and several submarines escaped to French North Africa. It marked the end of Vichy France as a credible power. After the Fall of France and the Armistice of 1940, France was divided in two zones, one occupied by the Germans, and the « Free Zone ».
It may be that General Dwight Eisenhower, with the support of President of the United States Franklin D. From 11 November 1942 negotiations took place between Germany and Vichy France. The settlement was that Toulon should remain a « stronghold » under Vichy control and defended against the Allies and « French enemies of the government of the Marechal ». If the former proved impossible, to scuttle the ships. Initial orders were to scuttle the ships by capsizing them, but engineers, thinking of recovering the ships after the war, managed to have the orders changed to sinking on an even keel. On 15 November, Laborde met with Marshal Pétain and Auphan.
Laborde refused to obey anything short of a formal order of the government. On the French side, as a token of goodwill towards the Germans, coastal defences were strengthened to safeguard Toulon from an attack from the sea by the Allies. These preparations included setups for scuttling the fleet, in case of a successful landing by the Allies. Crews were initially hostile to the Allied invasion but, out of the general anti-German sentiment and as rumours about Darlan’s defection circulated, this stance evolved towards backing of De Gaulle.
Vichy military authorities lived in fear of a coup de main organised by the British or by the Free French. Italians, seen as « illegitimate victors » and duplicitous, and defiant of the Germans. The fate of the fleet, in particular, was seen to be doubtful. The objective of Operation Lila was to capture the units of the French fleet at Toulon intact, and was carried out by the 7th Panzer Division, augmented with units from other divisions. The Operation was initiated by the Germans on 19 November 1942, to be completed by 27 November. German naval forces were cruising off the harbor to engage any ships attempting to flee, and laid naval mines. The combat groups entered Toulon at 04:00 on 27 November and made for the harbour, meeting only weak and sporadic resistance.
At 04:30 the Germans entered Fort Lamalgue and arrested Marquis, but failed to prevent his chief-of-staff, Contre-Admiral Robin, from calling the chief of the arsenal, Contre-Admiral Dornon. Twenty minutes later, German troops entered the arsenal and started machine-gunning the French submarines. Some of the submarines set sail to scuttle in deeper water. Casabianca left her moorings, sneaked out of the harbour and dived at 5:40am, escaping to Algiers. Germans without engaging in an open fight. At 5:25am, German tanks finally rolled through, and Strasbourg immediately transmitted the order « Scuttle!
At 6:45am fighting broke out around Strasbourg and Foch, killing a French officer and wounding five sailors. German officer demanded that Laborde surrender his ship, to which the admiral answered that the ship was already sunk. As Strasbourg settled on the bottom, her captain ordered the ignition of the demolition charges, which destroyed the armament and vital machinery, as well as igniting her fuel stores. A few minutes later 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 twenty days.
The stern of the cruiser Marseillaise. Meanwhile, the captain of the cruiser Marseillaise ordered his ship capsized and demolition charges set. The ship sank and exploded, burning for seven days. German troops forcibly boarded the cruiser Dupleix, put her crew out of the way, and closed her open sea valves. 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 fires took hold, Moreau ordered the final evacuation. German Panzertruppen watch a burning French warship, probably the cruiser Colbert.
The cruiser Jean de Vienne, in drydock, was boarded by German troops, who disarmed the demolition charges, but the open sea valves flooded the ship. Officers of the battleship Provence and the seaplane carrier Commandant Teste managed to delay German officers with small talk until their ships were completely sunk. Similar scenes occurred with the destroyers and submarines. The French destroyed 77 vessels, including three battleships, seven cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, six sloops, 12 submarines, nine patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, one school ship, 28 tugs and four cranes.
Thirty-nine small ships were captured, most of them sabotaged and disarmed. Several submarines ignored orders to scuttle and chose to defect to French North Africa: Casabianca and Marsouin reached Algiers, Glorieux reached Oran. Vénus was scuttled in the entrance of Toulon harbour. One surface ship, Leonor Fresnel, managed to escape and reach Algiers. General Charles de Gaulle heavily criticised the Vichy admirals for not ordering the fleet to flee to Algiers.
The Vichy regime lost its last token of power, as well as its credibility with the Germans, with the fleet. While the German Naval War Staff were disappointed, Adolf Hitler considered that the elimination of the French fleet sealed the success of Case Anton. Most of the cruisers were salvaged by the Italians, either to restore them as fighting ships or for scrap. The cruisers Jean de Vienne and La Galissonnière were renamed FR11 and FR12, respectively, but their repair was prevented by Allied bombing and their use would have been unlikely, given the Italians’ chronic shortage of fuel. The main guns from the scuttled battleship Provence were later removed and used in a former French turret battery at Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer, guarding the approaches to Toulon, to replace original fortress guns, sabotaged by their French crews. Position des bâtiments au matin du 27 novembre 1942, Netmarine.