Operation Menace: A Propaganda Victory for Vichy France

Operation Menace: A Propaganda Victory for Vichy France

British battleship salvos during Operation Menace
British battleship salvos during Operation Menace

The British attack of 3 July 1940 on the French fleet anchored in the Algerian harbour of Mers-el-Kébir would not be the last time the two former allies would clash during the Second World War. Although Winston Churchill believed he had neutralised the potential threat posed by the French warships in the Mediterranean, for now at least, he was concerned about France’s colonial empire. In the wake of the armistice of June and the establishment the Régime de Vichy, the British attempted to determine which French colonies swore their allegiance to Philippe Pétain’s puppet-government and which had taken the brave decision of continuing the fight against the Axis powers and threw in their lot with Charles de Gaulle’s La France Libre.

One colony that appeared loyal to Vichy France was French West Africa. However, de Gaulle was of the opinion that they might switch to supporting Britain and the Free French Forces. If this could be achieved it would be a serious political blow to Pétain, and a morale booster to the Free French. Also, the port at Dakar in Senegal was the location at which the gold reserves of both France and Poland were held, and the port itself would be of great use to the Allies. There was also the fear that Dakar might eventually fall into Axis hands, offering Germany an excellent base for U-Boat operations in the South Atlantic.

Operation Menace

A task force, consisting of two battleships (HMS Resolution and Barham), an aircraft carrier (HMS Ark Royal), five cruisers and ten destroyers was assembled to sail to Dakar under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Cunningham. With them would be a number of transports carrying 4,200 British troops and 2,700 Free French troops under Major-General Noel Irwin. Already in the area keeping watch was the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes and cruiser HMAS Australia. The Australia would join the task force following the torpedoing of HMS Fiji by German submarine U-32 just west of the Hebrides, forcing the cruiser to return to the Clyde for repairs.

Admiral Sir John Cunningham
Admiral Sir John Cunningham

The basic plan was to persuade Pierre Boisson, the High Commissioner for French Africa, to accept the occupation of Dakar by the Allies, or otherwise to take it by force. Boisson, however, was keen to keep to his policy of strict neutrality. The operation would be codenamed Operation Menace.

De Gaulle’s men were not prepared for the coming operation, since none of the French troops had received training in amphibious warfare. The British Royal Marines, at least, had the required expertise but there were only eighteen landing craft available. Air cover was also limited, with just twenty-five obsolete Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers and twenty Blackburn Skua fighters aboard the Ark Royal. The Vichy French on the other hand were in possession of more modern American built Curtiss Hawk Model 75 fighters.

Opposing the Allies was a naval force of two French cruisers (the Georges Leygues and Montcalm), four destroyers (the L’Audacieux, Le Fantasque, Le Malin and Le Hardi) and three submarines, all under the command of Contre-Amiral Célestin Bourragué. The French cruiser Gloire had attempted to sail to Dakar along with the Georges Leygues and Montcalm but was intercepted by the Australia and compelled to retire to Casablanca after suffering mechanical issues. Nevertheless, the arrival of additional French ships at Dakar on 20 September further made Boisson determined to resist.

In addition, there was also the battleship Richelieu, a brand new warship that had not yet been completed. The Richelieu had previously been at Brest in June but had set sail before completion to avoid capture by the Germans. On 8 July, aircraft from the Hermes had mounted an attack on the French battleship at Dakar, causing her to become immobile, although her guns remained operational.

Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle

French naval reinforcements arriving at Dakar made London nervous, and there was talk of calling Operation Menace off. However, de Gaulle told Cunningham and Irwin that if they turned back now it would merely hand Pétain a propaganda victory. An impatient Churchill also wanted the operation to go ahead, and so orders were given to continue.

The Attack

The operation commenced on 23 September 1940, although the aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm did not initially drop bombs but rather rained down propaganda leaflets over Dakar in an attempt to win over the local population. Two Free French aircraft, with four crewmen, took off from the deck of the Ark Royal and landed at Ouakam to seek talks – they were all immediately arrested. De Gaulle next sent a motorboat under the command of Capitaine de corvette Georges d’Argenlieu into the harbour in the hope of opening negotiations, but as it approached it was fired at. It was not an auspicious start to the operation.

At 10:00 hours a number of Vichy ships were seen attempting to leave the harbour, and so the Australia was ordered to fire warning shots to encourage them to return to their anchors. In response, the coastal defences commenced a fire on the Australian warship, which in turn led to the British fleet opening fire on the French batteries. Unfortunately, some of the British shells overshot the Vichy defences and caused civilian casualties in Dakar itself.

The Australia would quickly be in action again when, at 16:00 hours, the French destroyer L’Audacieux suddenly emerged from the harbour, a move which the British destroyers HMS Fury and Greyhound responded to by at once steaming to attack her. The ensuing exchange of fire saw the French warship set on fire and run aground, eighty of her crew being killed.

Vichy French destroyer in action during Operation Menace
Vichy French destroyer in action during Operation Menace

Elsewhere, at 17:30 hours, de Gaulle ordered some of his Free French troops to land at Rufisque, a beach located a little to the south-east of Dakar. However, due to heavy machinegun and artillery fire from the defenders de Gaulle decided to cancel the assault because of his understandable aversion to Frenchmen shedding the blood of other Frenchmen. He said at the time:

 “The attempt to enter the harbor peaceably has failed. Bombardment will decide nothing. Lastly, a landing against opposition and an assault on the fortifications would lead to a pitched battle, which for my part, I desire to avoid and of which, as you yourselves indicate, the issue would be very doubtful. We must, therefore, for the moment, give up the idea of taking Dakar. I propose to Admiral Cunningham that he should announce that he is stopping the bombardment at the request of General de Gaulle.”

Cunningham considered calling off the operation, but a 21:00 hours he received a message from Churchill saying “Having begun, we must go on to the end. Stop at nothing!” Thus, at 23:15 hours, Cunningham, after conferring with Irwin and de Gaulle, sent a message to Boisson stating the Allies would seize Dakar at all costs, giving the Vichy defenders until 06:00 hours in the morning to agree to Allied demands. Boisson, however, replied several hours before the deadline that he would defend Dakar until the end.

 As the first day of Operation Menace drew to a close, it had clearly not gone as well as the Allies had hoped. Nevertheless, they persisted in attacking the coastal defences of Dakar the next day, while the Vichy defenders continued to put up a stiff resistance. British torpedo-bombers attempted to strike at the Richelieu and the coastal defences but to no avail.

A British Fairey Swordfish shot down during Operation Menace
A British Fairey Swordfish shot down during Operation Menace

The British battleship Barham, however, did managed to hit the Richelieu twice with its 15-inch guns, while the French gunners aboard experienced problems with their charges, which rendered their guns virtually ineffective. It is said that of the twenty-four shots fired by the French battleship not one found its mark. The Allies also managed to sink the Persée and Ajax, two of the three Vichy submarines at Dakar. The third French submarine, the Bévéziers, experienced better luck, damaging the Resolution with a torpedo, resulting in serious flooding. In addition, the Vichy gunners in the coastal batteries managed to hit the Barham, as well as damage two British cruisers.

As the naval battle raged, the Armée de l’air de Vichy made an appearance, when a number of Martin Model 167 bombers attempted to conduct high-level attacks of the British fleet. They were, however, completely unsuccessful in their mission.

After three days of fighting, the Allies decided that the determined French defenders at Dakar were not going to switch their allegiance from the Vichy Government to the Allies. As such, Operation Menace was called off and Allied forces began to withdraw.

Aftermath

Allied casualties included the Resolution being crippled, which had to be towed to Cape Town in South Africa for repairs, the Barham damaged, two cruisers damaged, an armed trawler sunk and six aircraft shot down. Vichy losses amounted to the Richelieu damaged, the L’Audacieux grounded and the two submarines sunk.

Charles de Gaulle’s reputation was also damaged, since he had believed French forces at Dakar would likely join the Allies, but instead he found nothing but determined resistance from his fellow countrymen. His false belief was in spite of existing intelligence at the time that pointed to the contrary, and his failure had perhaps been inevitable.

The Allied debacle at Dakar merely gave the Vichy Government a propaganda victory, ironically the one thing de Gaulle had earlier feared if the operation had been cancelled. Nevertheless, French West Africa would eventually turn to the Allies following the German occupation of Vichy France in 1942.

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