Warship Wednesday, March 15, 2023: Of Skis, Retired Admirals, and Tons of Gold
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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 15, 2023: Of Skis, Retired Admirals, and tons of Gold
About we see a scene from the deck of the French croiseur auxiliaire (auxiliary cruiser) Ville d’Oran (X5) in which famed alpine skier Maurice Lafforgue– who competed in the 1936 Winter Olympics and won two silver medals at Chamonix in 1937– showing his skis to a bachi-clad French sailor. The date is mid-April 1940, and Lafforgue is suited up in the traditional “Blue Devils” uniform of France’s elite mountain troops. At the time, Ville d’Oran was carrying the 13e Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins (13e BCA), a proud unit that dated to 1853, to Norway as part of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Scandinavie with the doomed goal of kicking the Germans out.
But first, happier beginnings
Sunny Mediterranean travel plans
A paquebot in French parlance, Ville d’Oran and her sister ship, the logically named Ville d’Alger, were short-trip ocean liners ordered in 1935 from Société Provençale de Constructions Navales at La Ciotat for the Cie Gle T (Compagnie Generale Transatlantique) line– the same folks that owned the Normandie.
At some 10,172 tons (GRT) and 461 feet in length, they were not ocean crossers but were instead built for express service between Marseille to Algiers– a run of just under 500 miles that the turbine-powered passenger liners could make in just over 19 hours, or Marseille to Oran in 25.
Capable of carrying as many as 1,100 passengers arranged in four classes (Deluxe, Priority, Tourist, and Deck) as well as a modicum of dry and refrigerated goods, the sisters enjoyed a fair bit of enjoyable peacetime service, complete with a full white, black and red livery and false second funnel to give the illusion of extra grandeur. Indeed, for the upper-class passengers, there were very well-appointed dining rooms and elegant smoking lounges as well as both open and closed promenade decks.
Alas, we are not here to talk of sedate peacetime seaside travel.
Following the outbreak of WWII, Ville d’Alger was requisitioned by the French Navy for use as a troopship while her sister, our Ville d’Oran, was given a quick makeover to become an auxiliary cruiser, one of 12 such conversions ordered by the Navy in September-October 1939.
Under the command of one Capitaine (de Frégate) Roqueblave, Ville d’Oran had her false second funnel removed, received a coat of grey paint, five Canon de 138 mm Modèle 1910 naval guns in shielded single mounts, and 16 13.2mm Hotchkiss M1929 AAA guns. Her pennant number was X5 while the rest of the French auxiliary cruisers used similar numbers ranging from X01 to X20.
After such a quick refit, Ville d’Oran was assigned to RADM Jean-Emmanuel Cadart‘s (Ecole Navale 1903) 1re Division de Croiseurs Auxiliaires (DCX) along with three other converted liners– his flagship El Djézaïr (X17, 2400t, 7x138mm), El Kontara (X16, 5079t, 2x75mm AA), and El Mansour (X06, 5079t,2x75mm AA)– all of a similar speed.
The mission of Cadart’s force, from October 1939 until March 1940, was simply to backfill the French Mediterranean fleet to cover units transferred to the Atlantic and, in doing so, keep one eye out for German blockade runners while using the other eye on the movements of (then neutral) Italian warships.
Headed to Norway
Then, 1er DCX was called up to the big leagues in late-February 1940 as part of the French effort to bring assistance to Finland during that country’s Winter War with the Soviets. However, as the Finns and Russians signed an uneasy peace on 12 March, the expedition soon morphed into an effort to occupy Norwegian ports and strategic mines to preempt a German invasion aimed at doing the same. This effort, too, would have to be morphed as the Germans struck first, launching Operation Weserübung to occupy Denmark and Norway on 9 April– beating the French, Free Polish, and British to the punch by days.
The relief force sent to dislodge the Germans from Norway, as far as the French go, consisted of the light cruisers Emile Bertin and Montcalm, six destroyers (along with three Free Polish tin cans), three large torpedo boats, Cadart’s four auxiliary cruisers (which would carry troops as well as provide muscle), the submarines Rubis and ORP Orzeł, and a further 20 transports and cargo ships. Of the 38,000 Allied expeditionary troops sent to Norway in April 1940, over two-thirds were French and Polish.
Ville d’Oran and her sister, the unarmed Ville d’Alger, would carry the 5e Demi-Brigade de Chasseurs Alpins (DBCA) of Brig. Gen. Antoine Béthouart, consisting of the 13th, 53rd, and 67th BCA, as well as other brigade and division assets. Laffourge, the Olympian in the top photo, was a member of the brigade d’éclaireurs-skieurs (ski recon) company.
There are several captivating photos of the trip to Norway aboard Ville d’Oran, including lots of shots of their dogs.
With the Germans already in possession of every decent harbor and airstrip in the country, the British and Franco-Polish troops eschewed the heavily-defended (and populated) south Norway and instead landed in the center and north of the country around rural Narvik, Aandalsnes, and Namsos. It was the last small port (pop. 3,000) where Gen. Bethourart’s 5e DBCA would be landed by Ville d’Oran and Ville d’Alger, with the 2,500 French alpine troopers assigned to support Mauriceforce, British Maj Gen. Carton de Wiart’s 146th Infantry Brigade, which began landing at Namsos, 70 miles north of Trondheim, on 14 April.
Sadly, as the harbor facilities at Namsos were not capable of handling 10,000-ton ocean liners, most of the heavy cargo– including 5e DBCA’s mules, artillery, and skis– could not be unloaded. Further, with the Luftwaffe committing over 300 land-based tactical fighters and bombers to the fight and the Kriegsmarine supplying the battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst along with almost 40 U-boats to the region, the Allies could neither count on control of the air or sea off Norway. The French task force only carried a handful of 5- and 6-inch guns as a talisman against the potential damage from the 11-inchers carried by Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and was woefully lacking in AAA guns.
After two weeks of withering on the vine, 5e DBCA/Mauriceforce at Namsos would leave everything larger than a rucksack behind and be evacuated by Allied destroyers coming in danger close under a rain of bombs by German Ju 87 Stukas of I./StG 1, with the French losing the Guépard-class destroyer Bison and the British losing the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Afridi (F07) on 3 May in the process. The destroyers transferred 1,850 French and 2,354 British troops to Cadart’s four-pack of auxiliary cruisers and the whole force headed back home from Scandinavia– just as the war in the Lowlands was fixing to heat up.
The Fall of France
Sailing for Brest, Cadart’s little squadron of converted liners, Ville d’Oran included, could do little but patrol as the German blitzkrieg crashed through Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland and into Northern France, trapping the British Expeditionary Force along with the French First and Seventh Armies along the coast around Dunkerque by the end of May. Ordered to help pull off the “Miracle” there, 1er DCX pitched in with the Allied flotilla that ultimately was able to evacuate 338,000 Allied troops.
Then, with Paris under direct threat, the French government needed something other than soldiers moved to safety.
The Banque de France’s reserves at the time included 1,777 tons of gold that belonged to the Republic. Added to this were another 230 tons of Belgian and Polish gold, as well as 200 cases stored for the National Bank of Switzerland.
In late May, the carrier Béarn and training cruiser Jeanne-d’Arc sailed for Halifax with 299 tons of gold on board.
Ville d’Oran was detailed, escorted by the torpedo boat Le Hardi, to sail for Casablanca at top speed with 212 tons of gold bars and coins, arriving there on 9 June and transferring the precious cargo to the vaults of the Banque de l’Afrique Occidentale. She then rushed back to Brest.
This still left a huge chunk that could possibly fall into German hands. With that, some 1,260 tons of gold were rushed to the Fort de Portzic, near Brest, via a military convoy.
The light cruiser Emile-Bertine, also just returned from the Norway fiasco, left in early June with another 254 tons of gold, which would ultimately arrive at Fort-de-France in the overseas Caribbean colony of Martinique.
The cruiser Primauguet likewise left for Casablanca with a smaller, 11-ton, shipment.
Meanwhile, the ocean liner Pasteur left Brest with 213 tons of gold which it unloaded at Halifax for storage with the Royal Bank of Canada.
Working around the clock over three days, between 16-19 June, paroled sailors from the French Navy brig at Brest helped load 16,201 boxes and bags of gold– carried from Fort de Portzic by garbage trucks– on the recently returned Ville d’Oran as well as three of Cardet’s other auxiliary cruisers just returned from the Dunkirk evacuation: El Djezair, El Kantara, and El Mansour.
The ships left for Casablanca with nearly 750 tons of gold and were met while underway by the auxiliary cruiser Victor-Schœlcher (X07, 4500t, 2x75mm AAA) with another 6,000 cases of gold from the banks of Belgium (200 tons) and Poland (71 tons) aboard.
This five-vessel convoy, under Cadart’s flag, arrived at Casablanca on 23 June– the day after the Frenc Armistice that knocked the country nominally out of the war– carrying a whopping 1,021 tons of gold between them. In one of the last gasps of the French Third Republic, an order was flashed to Cadart to pull up anchor for Dakar in the colony of Senegal, which was thought to be more secure as the country was still at war with the Italians (until 27 June) and the Vichy government had yet to be formed.
Pulling into Dakar safely on 28 June with their cargo intact, Cadart’s sailors helped transport the massive gold reserve 45 miles inland to the Army stronghold at Thiès. From there, it could be placed on boxcars of the Dakar–Niger Railway and be spirited even further inland another 600 miles to Koulikoro in French Sudan (now Mali) if needed. Koulikoro was also conveniently located on the Niger River, thus allowing even further access to anywhere in West-Central Africa at little notice. In short, neither the Germans nor the Allies were going to lay hands on it any time soon.
With this last service to the old Republic, Cadart’s 1er DCX was soon ordered to return to its place of birth, the Med, where it was disbanded in October. The old admiral was allowed to return to the retired list while his auxiliary cruisers were disarmed.
Continued wartime service
Ville d’Oran resumed a liaison shuttle service under Vichy’s orders between Marseilles and Algeria, under a more prewar livery complete with large French flags on her waterline, from October 1940 through September 1941. This pipeline saw thousands of demobilized officers and NCOs in mufti shuttle from Metropolitan France to North Africa, where the local authorities made sure to find places in police units, *new colonial formations, and secret ledgers should they be needed soon. Also on these regular runs were all manner of spies from both sides. You know, basically the subplot of the movie Casablanca.
*Notably, Brig. Gen. Antoine Béthouart, the old commander of 5e DBCA in Norway, was shipped to North Africa around this time to take command of the Division de Casablanca (newly formed from colonial units– 1e RTM, 6e RTM, RICM, 6e RTS, 1e RCA, 3e RSM, and the RACM), with the good general later assisting the Allies in rallying the French troops in Morocco to the Allied cause in November 1942.
With the French government’s access to fuel oil greatly curbed by the Germans, even this rinky-dink cruise line was shuttered by October 1941, and Ville d’Oran was laid up in Algiers, where the war would soon catch up to her.
Soon after the Allied Torch landings in French North Africa, and the fall of the Vichy government, Ville d’Oran, and Ville d’Alger would return to wartime work, this time with the Free French flag and under the management of Cunard, as troopships.
They would carry men to the beaches of Sicily in Operation Husky in July 1943, participate in the Avalanche landings at Salerno in August 1943, and the Dragoon landings in Southern France in August 1944.
Post VE-Day, Ville d’Oran would carry Allied POWs–specifically South African, Palestinian, and Cypriot troops– back from German Camps in Europe to Alexandria for demobilization.
She would also carry German POWs from Italy back to Egypt for processing at the same time, an expedient thought easier than sending them to occupied Germany.
Ville d’Oran would receive the Croix de Guerre from the Fourth Republic for her wartime service.
Returning to commercial service with Cie Gle T, Ville d’Oran and her sister Ville d’Alger would continue their pre-war Marseille to North Africa runs, and never did get that fake funnel back.
Following the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954, the sisters would also serve as one of the main modes of transport for French troops coming from Europe to serve a stint on the lines against the ELN. Typically, conscripts would briefly train in metropolitan France, then be shipped to Algeria after which they would be released from their (nominal) 18 months of service upon arriving back home at Marseille.
This duty earned Ville d’Oran an FLN bomb attack in January 1957 that cause negligible damage.
As Cie Gle Transatlantique had moved on to more prestigious ships in the early 1960s– the massive 70,000-ton SS France had just entered service– and, after the country’s withdrawal from North Africa after 130 years of colonization, ending the appeal of regular cross Med liner runs, Ville d’Oran and sister Ville d’Alger were sold in 1965 to the Greek Typaldos Lines.
However, the Greeks soon ran into financial trouble and both sisters were sold for scrap in 1969.
Today, few relics remain of Ville d’Oran, other than a Hein Muck 1:250 scale model both in her pre-WWII and wartime auxiliary cruiser layout.
Cie Gle T itself would be defunct by 1976, and its assets rolled into the container shipping company now known as CMA CGM.
Of the men associated with them, the jolly old admiral, Cadart, a man who had the distinction of receiving the Legion of Honor from the old Republic for his actions off Norway, and the Vichy Order of the Francisque from Petian himself for his gold run, would pass in 1962 at age 78. The Dakar gold stash, incidentally, would return back home in 1945.
Meanwhile, the 13e BCA is still in active service, having returned from Norway in May 1940 in time to fight the Germans along the Somme at Liomer-Brocourt, its men convert to maquis status during the Occupation, then reformed in 1945 just in time to seize the Petit-Saint-Bernard pass (altitude 7,600 ft) from German Gebirgsjäger during the Alpine Campaign. Post-war, they occupied Austria for seven years, fought in Algeria, Chad, Djibouti, and Côte d’Ivoire, scrapped with Saddam’s boys during the First Gulf War and served on a host of UN and NATO missions in Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Since 1999, they have been part of the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade (27th BIM), based in the Roc Noir district in the small Alpine town of Barbie, near Chambéry.
Their motto is “Without fear and without reproach” (Sans peur et sans reproche).
Ships are more than steel
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
That some ships have a
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