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General de Gaulle, The Dakar Affair and the Role of HMAS Australia

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HMAS Australia after a kamikaze strike (USNphoto)

chance of being crushed."1

Shortly after 6 August these two vastly different leaders reached an agreement on the Dakar expedition along the lines of Churchill's imagination. Unfortunately it was not agreed that de Gaulle would serve under Vice-Admiral Sir John Cunningham who commanded all British ships. De Gaulle would sail on a Dutch liner, the Westerland, which flew the French flag beside the Dutch in command of all Free French forces.

In his memoir there is a photograph of de Gaulle standing on the bridge of his ship. He is wearing the kepi of a brigadier, a turtleneck jersey and a rainproof jacket. In his gloves he clasps binoculars. With his penetrating dark eyes and dark moustache he has the look of an army officer standing in the turret of his tank which was his background. De Gaulle had never before experienced a major amphibious operation, much less commanded one.

The naval force designated for this operation was far less than the one that Churchill had envisioned. The Royal Navy vessels consisted of two battleships, Barham and Resolution, one carrier, Ark Royal, three cruisers, Devonshire, Cumberland znd Australia; ten destroyers and two sloops, plus transports carrying 4,200 soldiers and Royal Marines. HMAS Australia was a replacement for HMS Fiji which had been torpedoed by a submarine west of the Hebrides and severely damaged.

The Free French component consisted of three sloops and two armed trawlers and four French cargo boats. Two Dutch liners, the Pennland and the previously mentioned Westerland, carried Free French troops that numbered approximately 2,700.

Churchill had made it clear to de Gaulle that he could not keep British ships off Dakar for a lengthy blockade. He would need to bring them back to home waters and the Mediterranean in

a short time.

Two unexpected events made the success of the expedition highly problematic. The first was the arrival of a squadron of (Ed: nominally enemy) French cruisers accompanied by three destroyers in the vicinity of Dakar. Historians have speculated whether the news of the forthcoming operation leaked out of Free French sources in London; however, based on a note of Admiral Jean Francois Darlan, Commander in Chief of the French Navy, it is virtually certain that the mission of this squadron was not to reinforce Dakar but to recapture French I Equatorial Africa.

These cruisers, Gloire, Montcalm and Georges Leygues, completed only three years before the war, were among the finest light cruisers in the French Navy. Their main armament was nine rapid firing 6" guns in three turrets. Iftheyjoined the Richelieu at Dakar, the Vichy French would have a formidable concentration of surface ships. In addition they had at least two submarines in Dakar.

The Admiralty ordered Admiral Cunningham to prevent their passage to Dakar. Two of the cruisers, Montcalm and Georges Leygues, got there ahead of the British force. Gloire had engine trouble and Australia was able to intercept her. On 19 September Cunningham ordered Australia to escort Gloire to Casablanca, too far away to succour the garrison at Dakar. What followed was a deliberate effort on the parts of Captain Stewart RAN in Australia and the French captain in Gloire to avoid the need to open fire one on the other. On the following day the two ships proceeded northward at increasing speeds, Gloire's engine

trouble having been remedied. At 7 a.m. on the 21st, Stewart having requested and received the word of the French captain that his ship would proceed to Casablanca, parted company and charted a course southward to rejoin the British ships. His final signal to Gloire was not ungallant. 'Bon voyage. Jevous remerci pour votre courtoisie dans une situation difficile.'2

The other event that caused difficulties for Curiningham and de Gaulle was a dense fog that descended over Dakar and the surrounding waters. The citizens of Dakar could not be intimidated by an invisible fleet. In the event of a fight the British heavy ships would find it difficult to target the Richelieu, the three cruisers and the shore batteries.

A peaceful settlement, which in reality would have been a capitulation to de Gaulle and the British, was still a possibility. De Gaulle has described the Governor-General, Boisson, as 'a man of energy, whose ambition - greater than his discernment - had made him

Journal of the Australian Naval Institute

Issue 153


choose to play on the Vichy side.'3 De Gaulle described the attitude of the French officers in the powerful Richelieu as 'officers (whose) one dream had been vengeance since the British torpedoes had damaged the ship.4

On 23 September, de Gaulle prudently decided not to be part of two groups who were to parlay with the Governor-General. After three of his officers landed in two small aircraft at the main airfield, they were soon arrested. Not knowing their fate, de Gaulle ordered two small craft from his sloops to enter the harbour. His senior naval officer, Commander d'Argenlieu, together with four lower ranking officers, landed on the quay and asked for the port commander. This individual with unconcealed embarrassment informed them he had orders to arrest them. They quickly returned to their small boats. As they drew away, machinegunfire seriously wounded d'Argenlieu and one other officer.

Churchill had been confident that if the garrison and the warships failed to rally to de Gaulle, the British fleet could crush the Vichy forces. For three days the issue hung in the balance. In this three-day battle Admiral Curiningham's larger force was unable to destroy the shore batteries, to silence the Richelieu's 15" guns or to sink the cruisers Montcalm and Georges Leygues. The British lost no ships, but three of their most important ships were damaged. The battleship Barham was

hit by a 15" shell from the Richelieu. The heavy cruiser, Cumberland, was heavily damaged by a high calibre shell. The battleship Resolution was severely damaged by a torpedo.

At the commencement of this three-day battle the odds of the Richelieu's survival were not high. The two British battleships had sixteen 15" guns as opposed to the Richelius's eight 15" guns. The aircraft carrier Ark Royal carried at least twelve Fairey Swordfish torpedo aircraft. If the two British battleships were unable to sink Richelieu, then the Fairey Swordfish could do the job.

Because she had been partially disabled in the earlier British attack on 8 July Richelieu was essentially a stationary target for the British warships and the British torpedo aircraft. Her survival from the combined guns of Barham and Resolution can be partially attributed to extremely poor visibility. On the first day Richelieu was concealed by heavy fog which lifted only gradually. During the remainder of the battle she

was partially obscured by smoke from her own guns and by a smoke screen.

Richelieu was never hit by a torpedo from any of the Fairey Swordfish aircraft. This is an enigma. She was armed with 36 antiaircraft guns consisting of twelve 37 mm guns and twenty-four 13 mm guns which seem to have taken a heavy toll of British aircraft. According to the British naval historian Correlli Barnett, 19 British aircraft were destroyed in the three-day battle. Whether the Richelieu was saved solely by her accurate antiaircraft fire is unclear. There are other possible explanations. The French had over two months to prepare for a second attack by torpedo aircraft. The naval authorities in Dakar may have installed anti-torpedo nets around the Richelieu that could explain the absence of a single torpedo hit.

One other possibility deserves mention. The Richelieu had a normal complement of 1,670. If she were to capsize as a result of one or more torpedo hits, the casualties would be

DetailofHMAS Australia early In (RANphoto)


Journal of the Australian Naval Institute


General de Gaulle, The Dakar Affair and the Role of HMAS Australia

enormous. Admiral Cunningham's original instructions were to minimize French naval casualties. It is conceivable that he would not allow torpedoes to be used against the Richelieu.

The unknown captain of Richelieu undoubtedly wrote a comprehensive report on this three-day battle. If this report still exists, future historians will have an invaluable primary source to write the definitive story of the Richelieu and her captain. Based on what is now known it can be said without equivocation that he fought his ship in a way that upheld the honour of the French Navy.

While the French saved their greatest capital ship from destruction, they lost at least three warships, the destroyer Audacieux and the submarines Persee andAjax. Despite these losses the French forced the British to abandon the operation. It was clearly a French victory.

Two engagements deserve special mention. On 23 September, shortly before 4 pm, HMAS Australia with two destroyers was ordered to attack the destroyer Audacieux that had sallied forth to engage any British ships near the harbour's entrance. It was a courageous decision by Audacieux's captain. Australia had eight 8" guns all of which could be brought to bear. Audacieux had five 5" guns that were manually operated from open barbettes. Her only hope was to engage Australia with her nine torpedo tubes. This engagement barely lasted three minutes. Australia ceased firing after her eighth salvo. By then the French ship was on fire fore and aft. She had only managed to fire two rounds and two torpedoes none of which hit Australia. Captain Stewart deserves credit for sparing the surviving sailors vciAudacieux. Whether her captain survived seems doubtful.

The Persee was a Redoubtable class submarine of the French Navy.

Journal of the Australian Naval Institute

Twenty-nine of

the class were

constructed before

World War II.

According to Jane's

Fighting Ships 1940

they 'have proved

very successful

vessels.'5 Persee's

most lethal weapons \

were eleven 21.7

inch torpedo tubes

including revolving

tubes in triple Xai*

and quadruple

mountings. The

ship's complement was 67.

Shortly after dawn on 25 September Persee's captain manoeuvred her into position to attack HMS Resolution, a 33,500 ton battleship carrying a complement of over 1,000. One of the French submarine's torpedoes hit the Resolution amidships with the ship under full helm. More than anything else that successful attack by Persee determined the outcome of the three-day battle. 'The torpedo that struck Resolution resulted in flooding (in) her port boiler room and causing a 12% degree list to port!6 Shortly afterwards, the destroyer Foresight sank the Persee. Her captain and his entire crew perished. He too was courageous. HMAS Australia suffered no severe damage; however, she was hit twice aft by 6 inch shells from one of the French cruisers. There were no casualties. Tragically, as she was withdrawing from the action, one of her AA guns shot
down what was thought to be an enemy plane. It was the Australia's Walrus which was lost together with its crew.

De Gaulle took the defeat at Dakar philosophically. He blamed neither Cunningham nor Churchill. He later wrote:

But at such a moment and on that particular ground, for us to engage in a big battle (on land) would, whatever its outcome, have gravely diminished our chances. The course of the Dakar affair cannot be understood if it is not realized that that was the conviction which dominated my mind.7 Churchill escaped widespread criticism over the Dakar defeat because it was overshadowed by the Battle of Britain. Churchill spoke to the House of Commons about the young pilots of the RAF. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few!8 Even today in the UK those
French battleship Richelieu in 1944 (Dennifloss)
Richelieu in profile (DavidMalinowski)

Issue 153


pilots are still known as 'the few!

One voice of criticism over Dakar was that of the Australian prime minister, the Right Honourable Robert Gordon Menzies. His cable to Churchill read in part, 'We are very disturbed in regard to Dakar incident which has had an unfortunate effect in Australia. ... To make what appears at this distance to be a half-hearted attack is to incur a damaging loss of prestige.'9

Churchill, who was stung by this criticism from someone he considered a faitWul friend, responded with strong words, 'I cannot accept the reproach of making "a half-hearted attack!' I hoped that you had not sustained the impression from these last five months of struggle which has excited the admiration of the whole world that we were "a half-hearted Government" or that I am half-hearted in the endeavours it is my duty to make!10

Churchill and Menzies quickly made up and remained firm friends for the rest of their lives. HMAS Australia had a long war that she fought with great distinction. On 21 October 1944 off the coast of Leyte, Australia was hit by a kamikaze aircraft which killed her captain, Captain EF V Dechaineux RAN, who had assumed command of Australia on 7 March 1944. In future operations Australia would be hit by four more kamikaze aircraft.

Australia deserves to be remembered for more than the Dakar affair and the kamikaze attacks. In May 1942 she participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Shortly before that battle Admiral Sir John Crace hoisted his flagin HMAS Australia. While the Admiral was Royal Navy, his birthplace was Gungahleen (now Gungahlin, ACT) where he grew up as one of nine children of a pioneer family. He never failed to take pride in his Australian roots.

Admiral Frank Fletcher USN, who was in overall command of Allied

naval forces, hoisted his flag in the aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown. In the initial stages of the battle Fletcher had established Task Group 17.3 under Crace's command consisting of the heavy cruisers HMAS Australia and USS Chicago, the light cruiser HMAS Hobart and US destroyers Farragut, Perkins and Walke which he dispatched westward to cover the Jomard Passage. On 7 May Crace's situation was parlous. He was within the range of Japanese high-level bombers and low-level torpedo aircraft based in Rabaul but beyond the range of air cover from Fletcher's two carriers, USS Lexington and USS Yorktown.

At 230 pm that day Australia and the other ships in the Group were attacked by 12 twin engine naval torpedo bombers followed by 19 high-level bombers. The former aircraft were Mitsubishi G3M2s known by the code name Nell. Only five months earlier, this same aircraft type had sunk HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in the South China Sea. Because of heavy, concentrated flak the Nells released their torpedoes from long range. All torpedoes missed. The high-level bombers also missed their targets. None of Crace's ships suffered a hit other than cannon fire from the strafing Nells.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was a turning point in the Pacific war. American carrier aircraft sank the small carrier Shoho. They severely damaged the large carrier Shokaku. Her sister ship Zuikaku escaped serious damage only by taking advantage of a sudden squall that produced heavy rain. On the American side Yorktown took a bomb hit that penetrated her flight deck before exploding four decks below. Despite heavy casualties she remained operational. Lexington eventually had to be sunk by an American destroyer after she had been hit by two torpedoes, two bombs and had several near misses.

The Americans also lost the oiler, Neosho and her escort, the destroyer USS Sims. Despite these losses it was a vital, strategic victory for the Allies. Never again would Japanese aircraft carriers threaten Australia. 4*-

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