Toulon Harbor, French Mediterranean November 27, 1942

Between November 10 and 12, 1942, Germany and Italy engaged in a joint opera­tion (German, Unter­nehmen Anton, or Case Anton) to occupy Marshal Philippe Pétain’s Vichy France, the French Riviera, and the French Medi­ter­ra­nean island of Cor­sica. These three areas com­prised the so-called “Free Zone,” which was an arrange­ment by Pétain’s col­la­bora­tionist French govern­ment head­quartered at the Central French resort town of Vichy that allowed Southern France, unlike Northern and Western France, to avoid German occu­pa­tion (see map below). How­ever, follow­ing the Allied inva­sion of Vichy French North Africa on Novem­ber 8, 1942 (Opera­tion Torch), Adolf Hitler could not risk an exposed flank on the French Medi­ter­ra­nean; hence, Case Anton, planning for which had begun seven months earlier.

The Germans next formulated Operation Lila with the aim of cap­turing intact the demo­bilized Vichy French Marine Nationale fleet at Toulon, its home port, and turning the ships over to the Italian Navy. (The Royal Navy had either sunk or put out of action a large part of the French Medi­ter­ra­nean fleet, killing and wounding nearly 1,650 sea­men, on July 3, 1940, during the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir near Oran in French Algeria.) Anti-German French­men correctly guessed what Hitler had in mind and, as German and Italian troops began encircling but not entering Toulon, formu­lated their own plans, which called for setting out demo­li­tion charges and scuttling their moth­balled war­ships. (There was briefly talk about the fleet making a dash for French North Africa and defecting to the Allies in the wake of the suc­cess­ful Torch landings. The war­ships’ fuel tanks had enough fuel to do just that; instead, they chose to stay in port, thus denying their ser­vices to the Allied cause had some of them managed to escape to French Algeria.)

By order of the Admiralty of Vichy France, French naval com­man­ders managed to delay the German assault on their fleet by nego­ti­a­tion and subter­fuge long enough to scuttle 77 ships on this date, Novem­ber 27, 1942, before they could be seized, thus pre­venting 3 battle­ships, 7 crui­sers, 15 destroyers, 12 sub­marines, 13 tor­pedo boats, and nu­mer­ous aux­il­iary ships and tugs from falling into the hands of the Axis powers. French sub­marines Casa­blanca and Marsouin, along with two others, managed to escape the harbor, block­aded by German naval forces, and arrive in Algiers, the capital of newly liber­ated Algeria; the other two reached the Algerian port of Oran and Spanish Barce­lona. The scuttled ships—some of them burned for weeks, and their spilled fuel oil pol­luted Toulon’s harbor for years. Salvage oper­a­tions (cruisers and destroyers) were conducted by the Italians. French casual­ties during Oper­a­tion Lila were 12 killed, 26 wounded, and the loss of 3 destroyers and 39 small ships seized by the Germans. German casualties consisted of one wounded soldier.

The German Naval War Staff was miffed by French “per­fidy.” Hitler, who earlier in the day had told Pétain that he could no longer trust French admi­rals (for instance, Admiral de la flotte Jean-Fran­çois Dar­lan, Vichy’s mili­tary com­man­der in chief, had defected to the Allies in a secret agree­ment uncovered by the Germans), con­sid­ered the elim­i­nation of the Marine Nationale to have sealed the suc­cess of Case Anton. Also sealed was the fate of Pétain’s Vichy France, which had lost its last token of power, sover­eignty, and credi­bility with the Germans. By the end of Novem­ber 1942 Vichy France was an occupied zone without an army, empire, or fleet.

French Scuttle Fleet in Reaction to Case Anton, the Military Occupation of Vichy France by Nazi Germany, November 1942

Occupation zones, France, 1940–1944

Above: Map showing German-occupied France (two-thirds of the country) and the remainder, the so-called Free Zone, or Vichy-admin­is­tered France, which the Germans and Ital­ians occu­pied in Novem­ber 1942 (Case Anton) following Anglo-Amer­i­can landings on the south shore of the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea in Vichy French North Africa. Green and purple-hatched areas in south­eastern France desig­nate the Ital­ian occu­pation zone up to Septem­ber 1943, when Italy signed an armi­stice with the Allies. The expanded Italian zone incor­po­rated the Vichy naval port of Toulon and all of Provence and much of Rhône-Alpes to near Geneva, Switzer­land, as well as the Medi­ter­ranean island of Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Scuttled French warships at Toulon, Vichy France, November 27, 1942Scuttled French warship at Toulon, Vichy France, November 27, 1942

Left: The Vichy French scuttled all ships of any mili­tary value at Toulon, their large mili­tary har­bor on the north shore of the Medi­ter­ra­nean coast, Novem­ber 27, 1942. This aerial photo­graph, taken by the Royal Air Force the next day over the Quais de Mil­haud har­bor area, testi­fies to the thorough­ness with which French sea­men carried out their bitter task: Scuttled battle­ship Stras­bourg (left) and crui­sers Col­bert, Algérie, and Marseil­laise. The Stras­bourg, whose bridge remained above water, cap­sized after a U.S. bombing attack on August 18, 1944. Free French Forces of Gen. Jean de Lattre de Tassigny captured Toulon ten days later.

Right: Probably the French light cruiser Marseil­laise during the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon. Anxious that the Ger­mans should not cap­ture his ship, the cap­tain of the Marseil­laise ordered scuttling charges to be set and the sea valves opened on one side. The ship slowly cap­sized as German soldiers watched from the docks. Explo­sions even­tually ripped the ves­sel apart and fires took hold as the last French sea­men aban­doned ship. The ship’s officers were taken prisoner. The ship burned for seven days.

Scuttled French warship at Toulon, Vichy France, November 27, 1942Scuttled "Strasbourg" at Toulon, Vichy France, November 28, 1942

Left: Members of a motorcycle battalion from the 2nd SS Panzerkorps Das Reich inspect a Panzer IV medium tank, while in the back­ground a French war­ship, pro­bably the heavy crui­ser Col­bert, burns at its Toulon berth. (Terms of the Franco-German Armis­tice of June 1940 for­bade German officers from boarding the demo­bil­ized French ships.) The cruiser was blown apart when her maga­zine exploded. The Col­bert’s rusted hull remained on the sea floor until 1948, when her remains were scrapped.

Right: A photograph of the Stras­bourg taken on Novem­ber 28, 1942, at Toulon. The Ital­ian Navy refloated the French flag­ship on July 17, 1943, but the armis­tice between Italy and the Allies in Septem­ber 1943 halted these activi­ties and the ship was taken over by the Germans. On April 1, 1944, the ship was returned to Vichy French autho­rities. Her wreck was then towed to the near­by Bay of Lazaret, where she was heavily bombed by U.S. air­craft and sunk three days after the start of Opera­tion Dragoon, the August 15, 1944, Allied landings, as part of the preparations for the liberation of Toulon.

Brief German Newsreel from November 1942 Showing Scuttled French Fleet in Toulon (in English)