The Free French Naval Forces
Little more than a handful of sailors, headed by Admiral Muselier, responded to General de Gaulle's call. Seven thousand of them would set sail in a dozen fighting ships, and two thousand others in some sixty merchant vessels. The Free French navy, though modest in size, immediately proved itself a highly efficient force. The FNFL sailed alongside the Royal Navy in the difficult years of 1941-42, when the outcome was so uncertain and when the enemy seemed to be triumphant on every front, whether in the Atlantic, the Channel or the Mediterranean. After the USSR, Japan and the USA entered the war, Free French naval forces were to be found on all the world's oceans, and in every theatre of operations.
The FNFL's war record is remarkable :
Pride of place must go to the merchant vessels which made a hugely important contribution to victory, for example the Fort Binger which drove off an enemy submarine using cannon fire, the tanker Franche Comté, indefatigably refuelling the convoy escorts, the Indochinois, nicknamed the "Atlantic tram" for the regularity of its solo crossings and which, under incessant bombardment, brought a thousand tons of meat to the population of Malta who had tasted none in the past ten months, or the Félix Roussel which, under Japanese fire in Singapore, managed to save a thousand women and children.
The anti-torpedo boats, torpedo boats, despatch vessels, frigates, corvettes and patrol boats played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic, of which Churchill said, "It was the battle that had to be won at all costs, for without this victory there would have been no other battles and no other victories". Four U-boats were officially sunk, U 136 by the Léopard, U 432 and 444 by the Aconit, U 609 by the Lobélia. In the course of the war our surface ships carried out over fifty depth-charge attacks on German submarines, inflicting considerable damage and playing a part in submarine kills never officially attributed to them.
The submarines were particularly active:
The Rubis completed 28 combat missions, and laid 683 mines which were officially recorded as sinking 16 enemy vessels.
The Minerve and the Junon carried out numerous patrols along the coast of Norway in search of the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz or on hazardous special operations to land secret agents.
The Curie performed distinguished service in the Mediterranean where, on her 13th patrol, she succeeded in destroying three cargo vessels in a matter of hours.
The submarine hunters operated in the front line in the Channel and in the Thames estuary, and took part in the Bruneval and Dieppe operations.
From March 1943 onwards, the 23rd flotilla of motor torpedo boats (MTB) went into action in the Channel. Their mission was to intercept and destroy enemy convoys and patrols along the shores of France. They performed brilliantly, sinking or damaging twenty or more enemy vessels.
The Fusiliers-marins, or marines, rank among some of the most distinguished units of the FNFL. The 1er BFM, later to become the 1er RFM, fought alongside the 1ère DFL and shared its glory at Bir Hakeim and in Africa, Syria, Italy and France. The 1er BFM commandos were to carry out a large number of covert but hazardous raids in the Scilly Isles and along the coasts of France, Belgium and Holland and, of course, performed with distinction at Ouistreham on 6 June 1944.
The naval air arm commenced operations at the end of 1943, with the 6e FE (6th exploration flotilla). It numbered among its ranks many who had won glory with the air-marine group, the famous 340 squadron, flying combat missions over the Channel during the Battle of Britain and at the time of Dieppe.
Taking part in the Normandy landings were: the 1er BFM commandos, the Courbet, La Combattante, four frigates, four corvettes, six submarine hunters and 8 MTBs. Most of these were later engaged in mopping up pockets of resistance on the Atlantic seaboard.
In addition to the tally of enemy submarines and surface vessels sunk, the FNFL also accounted for 16 enemy aircraft, 6 falling to the Courbet and 8 to the submarine hunters.
Our vessels often came to the assistance of ships in distress. The FNFL can claim to its credit over 1 300 rescues at sea, the record being held by Commandant Détroyat with 322 in a single operation.
The FNFL unfortunately paid a price for its activity in heavy losses. The merchant marine suffered most (25% of its men), but the navy was not spared either, with the Léopard, Surcouf, and Ch 5 lost at sea, and the Narval, Mimosa, Alysse, Vikings, Poulmic, Ch 8 and La Combattante lost to enemy action. The achievements of this handful of men are nonetheless impressive. Few though they were, they succeeded in destroying or damaging more enemy submarines, surface vessels and aircraft than the rest of the French navy put together.