Of battlewagons and panzers, today, 76 years ago
27 Nov 1942: Here we see Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf.G (Sd.Kfz.161/1) turmnummer 812 from Panzer-Regiment 25 7.Panzer-Division entering the French harbor of Toulon during Operation Lila. The battleship in the background is Strasbourg, sent to the bottom by order of French Adm. Laborde just moments earlier along with 77 other vessels in order to keep them out of German hands. You can just make out Strasbourg‘s #1 quadruple 330mm/50 turret to the far right. The PzKpfw IV, not expecting a fight, still has her muzzle cover on her 75mm L/48 main gun.
As noted by WWII images:
On November 27, the Germans commenced “Unternehmen Lila” with the goal of occupying Toulon and seizing the fleet. Comprised of elements from the 7. Panzer-Division and SS-Panzergrenadier-Division “Das Reich”, four combat teams entered the city around 4:00 AM. Quickly taking Fort Lamalgue, they captured Adm. Marquis, the maritime prefect of Toulon, but failed to prevent his chief of staff and FHM commander Vice Adm. Jean de Laborde, aboard Strasbourg, from sending a warning via signal lamp and flag to prepare to destroy the unarmed fleet. Stunned by the German treachery, de Laborde issued orders to prepare for scuttling and to defend the ships until they had sunk. Advancing through Toulon, the Germans occupied heights overlooking the channel and air-dropped mines to prevent a French escape. Reaching the gates of the naval base, the Germans were delayed by the sentries who demanded paperwork allowing admission.
By 5:25 AM, German tanks entered the base and de Laborde issued the radio order to scuttle from his flagship. Fighting soon broke out along the waterfront, with the Germans coming under fire from the ships’ machine guns (the main guns being disarmed). Out-gunned, the Germans attempted to negotiate but were unable to board most vessels in time to prevent their sinking. German troops successfully boarded the Suffren-class cruiser Dupleix and closed its sea valves, but were driven off by explosions and fires in its turrets.
Soon the Germans were surrounded by sinking and burning ships. By the end of the day, they had only succeeded in taking three disarmed destroyers, four damaged submarines, and three civilian vessels.
In the fighting of November 27, the French lost 12 killed and 26 wounded, while the Germans suffered one wounded. In scuttling the fleet, the French destroyed 77 vessels, including 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, and 13 torpedo boats.
Five submarines managed to get underway, with three reaching North Africa, one Spain, and the last forced to scuttle at the mouth of the harbor. The survey ship Leonor Fresnel also escaped. While Charles de Gaulle and the Free French severely criticized the action, stating that the fleet should have tried to escape, the scuttling prevented the ships from falling into Axis hands. While salvage efforts began, none of the larger ships saw service again during the war. After the liberation of France, de Laborde was tried and convicted of treason for not trying to save the fleet. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death. This was soon commuted to life imprisonment before he was granted clemency in 1947.