Warship Wednesday, May 5, 2021: De Gaulle’s Pearl

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, May 5, 2021: De Gaulle’s Pearl

BuShips photo 19-LCM-67592 via the National Museum of the U.S. Navy.

Here we see a great surface view of the Free French Saphir-class minelaying submarine (sous-marin mouilleur de mines) Perle (Q-184) while off the Philadelphia Navy Yard, 5 June 1944– the day before the Normandy invasion to begin the liberation of her homeland. Perle, in the above photo, was preparing to sortie from PNSY to continue her already active war, having just completed an overhaul. Sadly, she would never see France again.

The six minelaying boats of the Project “Q6” Saphir-class were ordered across a series of naval programs in the late 1920s. With a double-hull construction, the 216-foot subs were small enough for work in the confined waters of the Mediterranean, displacing less than 1,000 tons when fully loaded and submerged. Using a pair of Normand-Vickers diesels and a matching set of electric motors they were not built for speed, capable of just 12 knots on the surface and less than that while under the waves. However, they could remain at sea for a lengthy 30-day patrol, able to cover 7,000nm without refueling.

Saphir

Besides the capability to carry and efficiently deploy 32 Sautter-Harlé HS 4 2,500-pound contact mines double-loaded vertically into a series of 16 Normand-Fenaux chutes built into the hull on either side of the sail, the class had three 550mm torpedo tubes and two smaller 400mm tubes (but only stowage for six spare torpedos) as well as some modest deck guns.

Drawing of a Saphir-class submarine. The black circles are the vertical mine launchers, which worked on compressed air to eject their mines. You can also note her 75mm deck gun forward and twin 13.2mm MG mount, aft. She also carried a pair of 8mm Hotchkiss MGs that could be mounted on her tower. Via К.Е.Сергеев/Wikimedia

Our Perle was something like the 18th warship used by the French to carry the name of the jewel of the ocean-going back to a circa 1663 34-gun ship of the line. Of note, the 17th Perle was also a submarine, a tiny (70-ton/77-foot) Naïade-class boat of the Great War era, complete with Russian-style Drzewiecki drop collar torpedoes.

Laid down in 1931 at the Arsenal de Toulon as the final member of her class, our Perle was commissioned 1 March 1937 and was assigned to the 21ème Division des Sous-Marins (DSM) at Toulon.

The Phony War

When the war kicked off against Germany in 1939, the French Mediterranean fleet was left where-is/how-is just in case the Italians decided to enter the game. When Mussolini obliged on 10 June 1940, Perle was dispatched to sow a defensive minefield off the Corsican port of Bastìa and patrol alongside sistership Diamant.

Vichy Boat

The general French ceasefire on the 22nd ended Perle’s initial involvement in the war. However, after the British plastered the Vichy battleline at Oran two weeks later, she and three other submarines were ordered to head to Gibraltar for a bit of revenge that was called off at the last minute.

Then came deployment to the strategic West African port of Dakar, which was under pressure from the British and De Gaulle’s nascent Free French movement. There, Perle joined the 16ème DSM, which consisted of several smaller submarines, to prepare for a second Allied assault on Senegal that never came. Instead, once the Torch Landings in North Africa triggered the German dismantling of the Vichy French republic and the order to scuttle those ships still in European French waters, Dakar came over to De Gaulle and Perle switched sides by default.

Working for the Liberation

By early 1943, Perle had been integrated into Allied efforts in the Med and was in Oran and was soon running patrols off Cannes and Marseille in between landing operatives and agents where needed, helping no doubt to spread the deception at play across the region as to where the Allies would strike next.

From December 1942 (Operation Pearl Harbour) through November 1943, the “Algerian Group” Free French submarines to include Perle, Casabianca, Marsouin, and Arethuse were heavily involved in running “Le Tube” along the Riveria. Run by intelligence officer Colonel Paul Paillole, the subs made regular runs to Southern France and Corsica, dropping off OSS, SIS, and French resistance agents and supplies ranging from STEN guns to suitcase transmitters. In many of these cases, the submarines would have selected shore party members sent through abbreviated commando training, just in case. 

On one of these missions, in late October 1943, Perle landed Guy Jousselin Chagrain de Saint-Hilaire, who used the nomme de guerre “Marco” in the hills outside of Cavalaire sur Mer in Southern France along with two radio operators and their equipment. Saint-Hilaire would set up the Marco Polo network which played a key role in the liberation in 1944.

Those landed ran the gamut from small groups of operatives, such as Marco and his common guys, to teams of exiled field-grade French Army officers complete with regimental banners that had been spirited out of France in 1940, eager to reform units to spring into action for the liberation. The trips, coordinated with local Resistance cells, would also pick up Allied agents and downed pilots looking to exfiltrate from Nazi-occupied France and carry back important dispatches, reports, objects of intelligence, and film.

In short order, Perle, along with the other Algerian Group subs, conveyed shadowy individuals to Barcelona (where she planted Deuxième Bureau Capt. D’Hoffelize on the beach), Cap Camarat in Corsica, and elsewhere.

Speaking of Corsica, Perle was used to deliver 30 operators of the Bataillon de Choc near Ajaccio on 13 September to help pave the way for the Firebrand landings. The larger Casabianca would land 109 commandos of the same unit– so many that she carried them across the Med while surfaced!

Free French soldiers from the Bataillon de Choc, a commando unit created in Algeria in early 1943. The Bataillon was decisive in the liberation of Corsica and Elba. This picture, with a recently repurposed camouflaged German 7.5cm Pak 40, was taken after they landed in Provence during Operation Dragoon, during the fight to free Toulon, August 1944. Note the mix of gear including British watch caps, American M1903 rifles, boots, uniforms, and gaiters; and Italian Beretta MAB 38sub guns. Also, note the open 75mm shell crate with two rounds ready, no doubt fixing to get back into service against its former owners.

The French commandos, meeting no opposition, soon linked up with Corsican partisans, some 20,000-strong, who had been in open revolt against the German occupation force. Perle’s skipper at the time was able to twist the arm enough of the Toulon-Ajaccio ferry captain to sail to Algiers and come over to the Free French side of things. The submarine also landed three tons of flour on 16 September– more important than guns when it came to winning hearts and minds. The submarine Arethuse arrived two days later to bring five tons of munitions from North Africa to help put those minds to use. 

The campaign evolved rapidly and De Gaulle, on his arrival in Ajaccio on the 8 October 1943, declared Corsica to be the first part of Metropolitan France to be liberated – eight months before Overlord.

The final “Tube” mission was one of Perle’s. On 29 November, she appeared at the designated point and time off the French coast and sent her shore party to the beach only to run across a German patrol, resulting in two prisoners and one killed on both sides.

The results of the covert efforts in Southern France were evident in the Dragoon landings the next year, where it seemed that well-organized FFI units were everywhere. 

Free French Resistance meeting Allied troops on the beach at Saint Tropez, Aug.1944 During Dragoon (Signal Corps Photo 111-SC-212383 via NARA)

Refit

At this point, Perle was in dire need of an overhaul and made for Philadelphia, one of numerous Free French vessels to do so at the time. There, arriving just before Christmas 1943 by way of Bermuda, she would land her 13.2mm machine guns for a set of American-made 20mm Oerlikons, as well as undergo general modification for continued work with the Allied fleets.

A great series of photos exist of her from this time in the states. 

Cleared to return to the war, she sailed in late June 1944 for Holy Loch via Newfoundland in the company of the destroyer escort USS Cockrill (DE-398). Leaving St. Johns with the Flower-class corvette HMCS Chicoutimi (K156) on 3 July.

Five days later, while some 1,000 miles out into the Atlantic, Perle came close to the outbound 94-ship convoy ONM243, sailing from Halifax to Clyde, while it was roughly between Greenland and Iceland. The convoy was protected by a pair of merchant aircraft carrier (MAC) ships, MV Empire MacColl and MV Empire MacCallum who, tragically, were not notified of the possible presence of the Free French submarine until it was too late.

In the early afternoon of 8 July, a Fairey Swordfish Mark II torpedo bomber flown from Empire MacCallum by a Free Dutch Navy pilot of 836 Squadron FAA, was flying ahead of the convoy performing routine a sweep and spotted the mysterious submarine, and subsequently executed a textbook attack that proved successful.

From an article by Dr. Alec Douglas, a former Canadian Forces Director General of History, in the Autumn 2001 Canadian Military Journal:

The pilot, Lieutenant Francoix Otterveanger of the Royal Netherlands Navy, assumed that the submarine, surfaced and on a northeasterly course, was a U-boat, as did the senior officer of the Canadian Escort Group C5 in HMCS Dunver [a River-class frigate]. That officer, Acting Commander George Stephen, the colorful and widely respected Senior Officer Escorts (SOE), is reputed to have exclaimed “Sink the bastard!”, as he ordered the two MAC ships in company to get all available aircraft up.

The ‘string bag’, a slow old biplane, had to give a wide berth to U-boat flak. Lieutenant Otterveanger put his Swordfish into a position upwind between the sun and the target. He waited for the other aircraft from Empire MacCallum and Empire MacColl to join him, and then held off for another ten minutes or so while the six Swordfish (four from Empire MacCallum and two from Empire MacColl) formed up, flying clockwise around the submarine, to carry out a series of attacking runs.

It was just about then, at 1358Z, an hour and five minutes after receiving the sighting report at 1253Z, that Commander Stephen suddenly passed a voice message to the MAC ships: “Have aircraft been informed that submarine ‘La Perle’ might be in our vicinity?”

The bewildered air staff officer in Empire MacCallum knew nothing about La Perle, nor exactly what to do about the message, but tried to alert the aircraft with a belated warning: “Look out for recognition signals in case the sub is friendly. If not, attack.” Only one aircraft heard him over the RT (radiotelephone) traffic that filled the air, and asked in vain for a repetition, just as Lieutenant Otterveanger was beginning his attacking run between 1404 and 1408Z, about an hour and fifteen minutes after the first sighting.

When Otterveanger saw a series of “L’s”, the correct identification for the day, flashing from the conning tower of La Perle, and not having heard the last-minute caution, he concluded it was simply a ruse de guerre and fired four pairs of rockets at the target. All the other aircraft followed up with rocket attacks and (now running into light machine gun fire from the submarine), in the last instance, with two depth charges on the order of Lieutenant Otterveanger, “who had conducted operations in a most proper manner from the start”.

So effective was the operation that the air staff officer in Empire MacCallum was moved to comment, in a more triumphal tone than probably was intended: “The attack was extremely well coordinated and was over in the space of a minute. At least eight hits were scored on the submarine which sank within four minutes of the attack.”

By the time escorts from Convoy ONM-243 reached the scene, only one man out of a crew of sixty men, a Chief Petty Officer machinist [Émile Cloarec, rescued by HMCS Hesperler], was still alive.

A board of inquiry into the loss pointed a lot of fingers, largely at Acting CDR Stephen, and exonerated Ottervaenger.

She was not the only Free French submarine to be lost during the war. The mighty cruiser submarine Surcouf would vanish on her way to Panama in 1942, taking 130 men down with her.

Epilogue

Documents on “the French submarine Le Perle” including her PSNY repair log and the report of her sinking by a Swordfish aircraft are on file in the U.S. National Archives.

Of her five sisters, Nautilus, Saphir, and Turquoise were captured by the Axis in North Africa in 1942 who tried to put them to use but instead scuttled them. Diamant was likewise sunk at Toulon by her own countrymen.

Rubis, like Perle, would join the Allied effort, escaping the Fall of France in 1940 by nature of already working out of Scotland with the Royal Navy at the time. She would carry out an impressive 28 war patrols including almost two dozen mining operations off Norway, sowing deadly seeds that could claim at least 15 Axis vessels.

French submarine Rubis as seen from the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Curacoa in the North Atlantic. Photo via the Dundee Submarine Memorial

Rubis would have a stacked Jolly Roger by the end of 1944.

What is left of the 6-submarine Saphir class in the 1946 edition of Jane’s.

One of a handful of submarines in the immediate post-war French Navy, Rubis would retire in 1949. She was scuttled as a sonar target in 1958 off Cape Camarat. Her wreck is in 135 feet of water between Cavalaire and Saint-Tropez and is a popular dive spot.

The French Navy has carried on the legacy of both of the hardworking WWII Saphirs with the Rubis-class attack boat SNA Pearl (S606) commissioned in 1993. She is currently under extensive repair and refurbishment at Cherbourg-en-Cotentin following a fire last summer.

Rubis-class SSN Perle (S606) surfacing. Just as the previous Perle was the sixth and final boat of the Saphir-class in the 1930s, the current boat is the sixth and last of the Rubis series.

Specs:

A scale model of the Saphir class with a net cutter forward and no 13.2 twin mount. If you look close, you can see the doors to the mine chutes. Via Wikimedia Commons

Displacement: 761 tonnes (surfaced), 925 tonnes (submerged)
Length: 216.5 ft.
Beam: 23.3 ft.
Draft: 14 ft.
Machinery: 2 Normand Vickers diesels of 650 hp ea., 2 Schneider electric motors of 410 kW ea., 144 batteries
Speed: 12 knots (surface), 9 knots (submerged)
Range: On 75 tons diesel oil- 4000nm @12 knots, 7000nm @7.5 knots surfaced; 80nm @4 knots submerged. 30 days endurance
Hull: 13mm shell, 80-meter operating depth
Crew: 3 officers, 10 petty officers, 30 enlisted
Armament:
2 550mm bow tubes with four torpedoes.
1 trainable 550mm tube
2 400mm tubes with four torpedoes
1 x 75mm/35cal M1928
1 x Twin 13.2mm Hotchkiss M1929 machine gun mount
2 x 8mm Hotchkiss M1914 machine guns
32 Sauter-Harlé HS4 mines (2,400lbs each with 704 pounds of explosives)

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