In a recent television documentary about the loss of the I French submarine SURCOUF, a distinguished British submariner expressed the view that be was of the opinion “that the French submarine LA PERLE bad come to an equally mysterious end.” The records show, however, that there was nothing mysterious about LA PERLE’s demise: she is what is rather euphemistically referred to in British Admiralty records as a “self-inflicted loss.”
LA PERLE was a mine-laying submarine of the SAPHIR1 class built by the Dockyard at Toulon and launched on 30 July 1935. In addition to her armament of three 550mm torpedo tubes and two 400mm triple torpedo mountings, she carried 32 mines in external wells housed in the ballast tanks. PERLE avoided decommissioning under the terms of the 1940 Armistice with Germany and at the end of 1942 was on a routine transit to Dakar when the Anglo-American forces invaded North Africa and she came over to the Allied side. In 1943 and early 1944 she participated in a number of special operations in the Mediterranean and Bay of Biscay before proceeding to the USA for a much-needed refit.
On 8 July 1944 LA PERLE was returning to the Mediter-ranean after a refit in Philadelphia Navy Yard when she was bombed and sunk by Swordfish aircraft operating from the MAC sbips2 EMPIRE MACCOLL and EMPIRE MACCALLUM which the supentructure removed and filled with a Oight deck (some also bad limited hanzcr facilities) for operatin& four aircraft. They succeufully combined the fuactlons oC merchant ship and aircraft carrier without detrimeatto either. Thou&h the aircrew and supportin& penonnel were from the Royal NIIY)’, the ships sailed under the Red Ensip and their offioen and crew were £rom the Merchant NIIY)’. Indeed some of their aircraft had Merchant Navy painted on their fuselage instead or the usual Royal NIIY)’. were part of the escort for convoy ONM.243. There was one survivor, Chief Petty Officer Emile Cloarec who was picked up by HMCS HESPELER. He reported that fifteen of LA PERLE’s ship’s company of 58 officers and men had escaped from the submarine before she sank but the others had been unable to keep afloat.
That the attack should have occurred at all was a cause for concern. It was the practice for allied submarines, when making transit of areas in which friendly forces were operating, to move in a haven in which all attacks on submarines by friendly ships and aircraft were prohibited. The position of the haven was adjusted daily by rough DR computation of the submarine’s likely position. To move out of the haven could have disastrous consequences for the submarine3 but could also impose constraints on submarine operations4.
LA PERLE, under the command of Capitaine de Corvette Tacbin, left New London CT, on 26 June for St. John’s Newfoundland under escort by the American destroyer COCKEREL After a short stay in Newfoundland she sailed for Holy Loch. In coastal waters she was escorted by the Canadian destroyer CHICOUTIMI but would make the crossing of the Atlantic alone and travelling on the surface.
Sailing across the Atlantic at the same time and on a roughly similar course was the Halifax-Oyde convoy ONM.243 which included the MAC ships EMPIRE MACCOLL and EMPIRE MACCALLUM. The convoy was escorted by the· C.5 escort group commanded by acting Commander C. H. Stephen OBE DSC RCNR, in the destroyer HMCS DUNVER. The Escort Group, since sailing, had received daily situation reports from Western Approaches headquarters at Liverpool which included details of LA PERLE’s movements. However signals advising friendly forces of the bombing restrictions in force around LA PERLE’s likely position were not passed to the Escort Group. Adequate information, however, was available to Commander Stephen, to indicate that LA PERLE would pass sufficiently close to the convoy to be within the area covered by his air patrols. This was realized by Stephen who sent two signals on 7 July warning of LA PERLE’s proximity to the convoy. The signals were to be passed by HMCS DUNVER to the convoy commodore, vice-commodore and the MAC ships. As no evidence was available from the commodore’s ships it is not possible to establish why the procedure was not adhered to.
Prior to the convoy sailing, a general agreement with regard to air patrols was made, by telephone, between Commander Stephen and the Air Staff Officer in EMPIRE MACCOLL, Lieutenant Commander Neale. No patrol orders were given to the MAC ships while at sea, so no special precautions were taken to advise aircrew prior to morning patrols on 8 July that a friendly submarine was in the area. Stephen may also have been lulled into a false sense of security by a message, received at 0038Z on 8 July from Western Approaches headquarters which placed the submarine, wrongly, further away from the convoy than she actually was.
LA PERLE was first sighted by a SwordfiSh at 1253Z. The pilot, Lt Otterveanger, an officer of the Royal Netherlands Navy, resolved to shadow the submarine and call up reinforce-ments rather than make an immediate attack which he felt might not be successful given the quick diving time of a U-boat. He noticed the recognition signals made by LA PERLE but disregarded them.
Between the time of LA PERLE being sighted and the attack being carried out, an interval of more than an hour elapsed. Surprisingly neither the pilot nor the air staff in EMPIRE MACCOLL thought it strange that the supposed U-boat should remain on the surface keeping a steady course and doing fifteen knots while making no attempt to dive into safety. It was not until 1358Z that Stephen realized that the submarine which his aircraft were bent on destroying might be LA PERLE. Even then, there was no degree of urgency about his signal and no attempt was made to halt the attack by communicating directly with the aircraft. Stephen’s failure to realize the situation was probably due to the latest Admiralty intelligence report indicat-ing that a U-boat might be in the vicinity of the convoy.
Before take-off, the aircraft were advised of the current recognition signals then in force. On sighting the aircraft LA PERLE made the correct signals in good faith having been informed of the total bombing and attack restrictions in force around her, which were totally disregarded by the aircraft. Presumably because the pilots had not been warned of the LA PERLE’s presence, they disregarded any signals coming from a potentially hostile submarine.
Once OtteiVeanger had been joined by the other seven Swordfash, he led the attack dropping three depth charges alongside the submarine. The explosions stove in LA PERLE’s hull in the region of the control room causing flooding which in turn caused electrical fires.
Chief Petty Officer Emile Cloarec5 had just asked permission to spend a quarter of an hour on the bridge when the attack began. The bridge and conning tower6 were crowded with seamen getting some fresh air. The fire in the control room vented up through the conning tower and most of the men there and the officers on the bridge were horribly burned. Lieutenant Long, the Royal Navy liaison officer, fired off a number of Very cartridges indicating that the submarine was friendly but to no avail.
On receiving reports from inside the submarine that the fire and flooding were out of control, Commandant Tachin gave the order to abandon ship. LA PERLE began to settle by the stem and eventually sank — twelve minutes after the Swordfish attack. Cloarec together with fourteen other members of the crew, had escaped from the submarine and were left swimming. One by one the Frenchmen drowned or succumbed to exposure until only Cloarec was left alive. He was eventually picked up by the Canadian destroyer HESPELER which had been detached by Stephen to look for survivors. Cloarec was picked up practically unconscious and initially taken for a German seaman. It was only when he was heard to speak French, HESPELER having a number of French Canadians in her ship’s company, that the awful truth of what had happened was confirmed.7
The French Navy received an expression of regret from A V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty, for what happened but it was not enough. The French wanted a full scale enquiry which was held under chairmanship of Rear Admiral Lionel Murray CBE, Commander in Chief Canadian North West Atlantic, at St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Board found that LA PERLE was sunk at 1410Z on 8 July 1944 in position 550Z7’N 33°50’W by a concentrated attack by Swordfish aircraft from the EMPIRE MACCOLL and EMPIRE MAC· CALLUM. If the French wanted blame to be apportioned then they were to be mistaken. Commander Stephen was exonerated as were the aircrew from the MAC ships. Only the signals officer in HMCS DUNVER, Lt Benson, was reprimanded.
The sad affair of LA PERLE is fraught with questions. Why was LA PERLE given a route that would take her so close to ONM.243? Why were Stephen’s two signals not received in the MAC ships? Why did the aircrew ignore the correct recognition signal when fired by LA PERLE? Most important of all, why did LA PERLE not dive8, rather than bother with identification, as soon as the Swordfish was sighted at 1253?
In the end the matter boils down to human envr and a series of ifs. Submarines, by their nature are vulnerable and in the heat of the moment are likely to become the victims of their own side. This state of affairs will certainly be true in any future conflict, for although modern communications and computerized action information systems have given command-ers more information they do not always clarify the fog of war. The truth of the matter is that the submarine in war is as much at risk from the attentions of her own side as she is from the enemy.