Warship Wednesday, March 28, 2018: Le sabordage!

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, March 28, 2018: Le sabordage!


Here we see the French Suffren-class croiseur lourd (heavy cruiser) Colbert in the 1930s when she was among the fastest and most impressive warships of the Republic. She was to have a sad future, but in the end, went out with a bang.

Following the lessons learned from the Great War, where France’s two most significant naval threats– Kaiser Willy’s High Seas Fleet and old Emperor Franz Joseph’s k.u.k. Kriegsmarine— both evaporated at the end of the conflict, the French embarked on a cautious plan to build modern warships in the 1920s, with an eye to keeping overseas colonies in Africa and the Pacific intact from possible encroachment by former WWI allies Italy and Japan. The first major French warships built post-Versailles were the trio of Duguay-Trouin-class light cruisers (9,200-tons, 8×6.1-inch guns, 30 knots) followed by two Duquesne-class heavy cruisers (12,200-ton fl, though “10,000” officially to meet treaty requirements, 8×8-inch guns, 33 kts). Then came the four-pack of Suffren-class cruisers.


Ordered in 1926, these were very modern ships for their time. Like the preceding Duquesne-class, they were large (636-feet oa, roughly the same length as battleships of the day and almost 90 feet longer than the Bretagne-class battleships that were France’s largest at the time), fast ships capable of delivering a bit of brutal damage from their eight 203 mm/50 (8″) Model 1924 guns in four twin turrets.

The ships of the class–Suffren, Colbert, Foch, and Dupleix— were all ordered from the naval shipyard at Brest, one year apart between 1926-29 and each was very slightly different from each other. For instance, the first two were completed with eight Guyot du Temple boilers (six oil- and two coal-fired), while the second two just used an easier all-oil plant. Likewise, Suffren was commissioned with a battery of 75mm M1927 secondary guns while all three follow-on ships received 90mm M1926s. There were several other, minor, differences– basically meaning they were more half-sisters than whole.

The Suffren class underway in the Med, 1938

Our ship, Colbert, was named after King Louis XIV’s celebrated 17th Century minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who among other accomplishments, was secretary of the Navy for 15 years. As such, she was the fifth such French naval vessel to carry the name.

Laid down at Brest June 12, 1927, on her trials she proved to be the fastest of her class. On her trio of Rateau-Bretagne geared steam turbines ran up at the maximum power of 105,722 hp allowed her to hit 33.012 kts, which wasn’t bad as the class was designed for just 32.

Aerial view of Colbert, date unknown; seen in US Navy Department Division of Naval Intelligence publication ONI203, Via ww2dbase. Note the two seaplanes.

She was commissioned March 4, 1931, and just a month later was used to carry President Doumergue to Tunisia while still in her shakedown period. It was the first of several diplomatic missions for the shiny new cruiser which included state visits along with her sister ships Foch and Suffren and others to Barcelona in 1933.

French Warships visiting Barcelona, Spain 1933. Photographed by Lucien Roisin, Barcelona. The French ships, tied up together in the middle distance, are (from left to right): four heavy cruisers (Foch, Colbert, Tourville, and Suffren), a Chacal-class destroyer and five 1500-tonne type destroyers. The vessels in the foreground are pleasure craft, including a yacht at right. The title at the bottom center refers to Montjuich hill and castle, seen in the distance, beyond the French ships. The original print came from the Office of Naval Intelligence. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 95293

On 10 October 1934, Colbert, along with the cruiser Duquesne, escorted the proud British-built Royal Yugoslav Navy destroyer Dubrovnik from France back across the Med, bringing back the remains of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, who had been famously assassinated in Marseilles, to that Balkan country.

Between 1936 and 1939, Colbert spent much of her time off the coast of Spain, patrolling that war-torn country during its Civil War.

When the Allies entered WWII in September 1939, Colbert was in Toulon and immediately put to sea to perform surveillance on the sea lanes between metropolitan France and its North African colonies in conjunction with the new cruiser Algeria and her sister Foch.

French cruiser Colbert, date unknown; seen in US Navy Department Division of Naval Intelligence publication ONI203 ww2dbase

By January 1940, Colbert had been dispatched to the key French West African port of Dakar to be on the lookout for German surface raiders, a task she carried out through April. Returning to the Med, she was at Toulon when the Italians entered the war and, on that day, June 10, her gunners fired at some of Il Duce’s bombers that sortied over the French base. As a bit of payback, she was ordered to sea and bombarded the Italian harbor at Genoa on 13 June– her first shots in anger.

Then came the unthinkable.

On Saturday, 22 June, the French signed an armistice with the Germans, near Compiegne, in the same railway car that had been the scene of Foch’s victory in 1918. Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, the celebrated World War I hero of Verdun, became prime minister of the so-called Vichy government of France, co-opted by Fleet Adm. François Darlan. France was out of the war and officially neither a direct ally of either side, though under German influence.

Sister Suffren, stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, with other French warships, was immediately disarmed and interned there by the British. Then came the horror that was the British bombardment of the French fleet in North Africa at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July.

This event triggered Colbert, Foch, and Dupleix, along with the mighty battleship Strasbourg and the cruiser Algeria, to be formed into the 1st Squadron of the Forces de Haute mer (FHM= High Seas Forces) at Toulon under Vice Adm. Jean de Laborde, the successor of the wartime Force de Raid.

Laborde, center, who would become the fleet’s hatchetman

However, this squadron was largely a farce as the Germans ordered it disarmed– their breechblocks, shells, and powder landed ashore– and the ships defueled. Even with that being said, the French were able to fit their experimental early Sadire radar to Strasbourg, Algeria, and Colbert in early 1942, a sign of how important they saw those three vessels.

Over the next 29 months, the French fleet, under effective house arrest, languished at anchor in a fate like that of Willy’s interned High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1918-1919, and with the same result in the end.

When the Allies launched the Torch Invasion of Morocco on 8 November 1942, Adm. Darlan, then in Casablanca, negotiated a deal with London to keep the French fleet and forces neutral while hinting at maybe a more active alliance, a deal he couldn’t pull off. This triggered the Germans to kick off Case Anton, the military occupation of Vichy France and Corsica, which was pulled off in a fortnight, largely bloodlessly.

I say “largely” bloodlessly because of Toulon. There, a 50,000-strong Vichy army corps stood outside of town and VADM. Laborde, from his flagship Strasbourg, was a wildcard. The Germans had let it be known they would ostensibly leave Toulon unoccupied and the fleet still in being, in hopes of staving off any efforts by the French to bug out for Algeria and make good on Darlan’s unfulfilled promises.

That stage of the operation to seize the fleet, codenamed “Unternehmen Lila” by the Germans, saw elements from the 7. Panzer-Division and SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Das Reich start filtering through the city’s outskirts around 0400 on 27 November. Laborde, his back against the wall without enough fuel to make it to North Africa or the guns to fight off the Germans, really did the only thing he could and at 0525 ordered the fleet to scuttle by signaling “et c’est à vous, marins, soldats, citoyens français que nous transmettons en mourant le Drapeau de la Liberte” (and it is to you, sailors, soldiers, French citizens that we transmit, in dying, the flag of freedom.)

Within minutes, 77 vessels– including 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 avisos (sloops) and 20 submarines– were aflame or settled to the harbor docks, their crews busy wrecking everything they could. The French suffered about 40 casualties. The Germans, only one motorcycle rider wounded.

French fleet scuttles itself! Far left is battleship Strasbourg settling into the water; next to her, burning with giant flames, is our Colbert; under the smoke from her is, Algérie; to the right, Marseillaise. 1942 LOC

The photo above is of the ships to the far left in the diagram.

Internationally, the fleet’s action’s were seen as something of a redemption for going into the disarmament willingly in 1940 as opposed to joining the Free French overseas.

The gesture served as inspiration for the similarly disarmed Royal Danish Navy whose sailors, just nine months later, pulled the plug on their own ships when the Germans sought to take over their vessels. In that action, the Danes succeeded in the scuttling of 32 vessels, while 1 patrol boat, 3 minesweepers an 9 small cutters managed to escape to neutral Swedish waters.

Coastal defense ship Peder Skram of the Royal Danish Navy lies half-sunk at Holmen, scuttled by her crew to thwart a German attempt to seize the Danish fleet, 29th August 1943 

The Danes suffered about 20 casualties and members of the sea service were treated as POWs by the Germans for the rest of the war. Vizeadmiral Hans-Heinrich Wurmbach, commander of the German Kriegsmarine in Denmark and a Great War u-boat commander, told Vice Adm. A H Vedel, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Danish Navy, after that action as, “Wir haben beide unsere Pflicht getan” (We have both done our duty).

Back to our French hero.

Colbert’s’ crew did their job exceptionally well and she was thoroughly wrecked and continued to burn for days.

Le Strasbourg sabordé, derrière lui le croiseur Colbert est en feu

Le Colbert et l’Algérie (27 novembre 1942 – collection Mauro Trevenzoli)

Scuttled French heavy cruiser Colbert, Toulon, France, date unknown ww2dbase 

27 Novembre 1942 Toulon crew of a Panzer IV of 2nd SS Division, Das Reich, watch a burning French warship, cruiser Colbert via Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-027-1451-10 Vennemann, Wolfgang CC-BY-SA Libre de droits

Her sisters Foch and Dupleix were considered salvageable and were raised by the Italians to be repaired for further use by the Regina Marina, which the rapid conclusion of Italy’s involvement in the war in 1943 did not allow.


Dupleix, via Netmarine.net

Class leader Suffren, interned in Egypt, eventually returned to French service and survived the war. She was converted to a school ship in 1963 and remained in service to the Republic until she was scrapped in 1972.

In the end, Colbert was such a wreck that she was scrapped in place in 1948.

The fallout from the great sabotage at Toulon was short. Both the Allies and the Axis kinda considered it a decent outcome as neither had to worry about who controlled the French fleet. De Gaulle was pissed as he did not get the prestigious force and made sure Laborde paid for his “national unworthiness” (Indignité nationale) by putting him on public trial with a resulting death penalty after the war– although the sentence was commuted, and he was released from jail in 1947. In the end, he died in 1977, aged 98, outliving de Gaulle by almost a decade.

As for Darlan, he only outlasted the fleet at Toulon by a couple weeks. On Christmas Eve 1942, he was fatally shot by 20-year-old Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle, a young De Gaulle follower and would-be SOE agent, as payback for the admiral’s collaborations with the Germans. Like the loss of the fleet, both the Allies and the Axis kinda considered it a decent outcome and Chapelle was pardoned just after he was put in front of firing squad, saying he acted “in the interest of the liberation of France.”

As recalled after the war by Petain, erasing the bulk of the French Navy in 1942 was the right thing to do:

To answer the question asked about the scuttling of the fleet, in Toulon, November 27, 1942, it is important to go back. The Armistice left the fleet almost untouched but disarmed and put on guard. It remained our property. It was to avoid a violation of the terms of the armistice, both by the Germans and by the English, and to satisfy the commitment made to the latter at Cange, that, from Armistice and were never repealed, the instructions of scuttling. The aggression of Mers-el-Kebir, July 3, 1940, then allowed to obtain from the Axis powers the constitution of an “FHM.” The order of scuttling was maintained.

After the Anglo-Saxon forces landed in Africa, the Germans on 11 November 1942 invaded the free zone. My government succeeded then in raising around the fleet a final rampart by obtaining from the German high command that the defense of the entrenched camp of Toulon was left to the French navy. On the other hand, under the terms of the secret treaty which I had negotiated with Mr. Winston Churchill, it was stipulated that the fleet should scuttle itself rather than falling into the hands of the Germans or the Italians. When, on the 27th of November, a German armored division penetrated into the entrenched camp of Toulon, and sought to seize our fleet, Admiral de Laborde gave the order of scuttling, in accordance with the permanent instruction, to the engagement undertaken. vis-à-vis the English and the code of maritime justice. The French fleet had not fallen into the hands of the Axis powers.

Why did I not order the fleet on November 11 to reach Africa? The order, for technical reasons, was not executable, and the fleet would have been doomed to destruction; therefore, the departure would have brought the same consequences as the scuttling. In addition, this order would have been the signal for the resumption of hostilities against Germany and would have exposed disarmed France to terrible reprisals without any benefit for the Allied cause. Between two evils, the politician must choose the least. It seemed to me less serious that the fleet was scuttling, in accordance with the commitments, rather than send it to its ruin and unleash on France unprecedented violence, including the return to captivity of the 700,000 prisoners I had obtained the liberation, and the substitution to the French government of a “Gauleiter”.

So, I spared the worst and helped the common victory, preventing Germany from increasing its war potential by capturing our fleet. Nevertheless, I consider the inevitable sabotage as a sacrifice and a national mourning. ” Ref- Philippe Pétain, Acts, and Writings, Flammarion, 1974, pp. 582-583.

Petain died in 1951, aged 95, senile and in prison. He was buried in a Marine cemetery at Port-Joinville on the island of Ile-d’Yeu.

As for Colbert, her name was reissued in 1953 for a new anti-aircraft cruiser, C 611, an impressive ship only decommissioned in 1991. She was sent to the breakers in 2016 after a period as a museum ship.


Displacement: 10,000 tonnes (standard) 13,103 tonnes (full load)
Length: 194.2 m (637 ft)
Beam: 20 m (66 ft)
Draught: 7.3 m (24 ft)
Propulsion: 3-shaft Rateau-Bretagne SR geared turbines, 8 Guyot boilers, 100,000 shp (75,000 kW)
Speed: 32 knots (59 km/h; 37 mph)
Fuel: Oil 1700 tons, coal 640 tons
Range: 4600 at 15 knots
Sensors: Sadire radar added early 1942
Complement: 602
8 × 203mm/50 Modèle 1924 guns (4 × 2)
8 × 90 mm (3.5 in) 55-calibre M1926 anti-aircraft guns (8 × 1)
8 × 37 mm (1.5 in) M1925 anti-aircraft guns (4 × 2)
12 × 13.2 mm (0.52 in) AA (4 × 3), later augmented in 1940s by several 8mm machine guns
6 × 550 mm (22 in) torpedo tubes (2 × 3)
Belt 50 mm (2.0 in)
Deck 25 mm (0.98 in)
Turrets and conning tower 30 mm (1.2 in)
Aircraft carried: 3 early FBA.17 (designed) or later CAMS 37 flying boats, 2 catapults

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