On this day in 1942, French Admiral Jean de Laborde sinks the French fleet anchored in Toulon harbor, off the southern coast of France, in order to keep it out of German hands.
In June 1940, after the German invasion of France and the establishment of an unoccupied zone in the southeast, led by Gen. Philippe Petain, Adm. Jean Darlan was committed to keeping the French fleet out of German control. At the same time, as a minister in the government that had signed an armistice with the Germans, one that promised a relative “autonomy” to Vichy France, Darlan was prohibited from sailing that fleet to British or neutral waters. But a German-commandeered fleet in southern France, so close to British-controlled regions in North Africa, could prove disastrous to the Brits, who decided to take matters into their own hands by launching Operation Catapult: the attempt by a British naval force to persuade the French naval commander at Oran to either break the armistice and sail the French fleet out of the Germans’ grasp—or to scuttle it. And if the French wouldn’t, the Brits would.
And the British tried. In a five-minute missile bombardment, they managed to sink one French cruiser and two old battleships. They also killed 1,250 French sailors. This would be the genesis of much bad blood between France and England throughout the war. General Petain broke off diplomatic relations with Great Britain.
But two years later, with the Germans now in Vichy and the armistice already violated, Admiral Laborde finished the job the British had started. As the Germans launched Operation Lila, the attempt to commandeer the French fleet, Laborde ordered the sinking of 2 battle cruisers, 4 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 1 aircraft transport, 30 destroyers, and 16 submarines. Three French subs managed to escape the Germans and make it to Algiers, Allied territory. Only one sub fell into German hands. The marine equivalent of a scorched-earth policy had succeeded.