[Translator’s Note: As a loyal submariner and a member of the largest submarine family who are members of the Naval Submarine League (along with brother, CAPT Hank Bress, and son, LTjg Mike Bress], I am pleased to forward to you the enclosed article which I translllted from the 28 October 1992 issue of the leading French newspaper, Le Figaro.
During a business trip in Europe last October, I noticed this most interesting article on the fiftieth anniversary of a French submarine’s escape from the Germans just before the French Navy scuttled its fleet in Toulon. Since l .am certified Naval Interpreter of French, I decided that I would translate the article into English, type it, and submit it to the Naval Submarine League.
I elected to translate it exactly as it is written, namely in the present tense. It comes across somewhat awkwardly in the present, but appean to retain a bit of suspense.
As an historical note, the CASABlANCA was named after a French ship of the line which was anchored in the harbor ofAboukir in 1798 and was surprised by an attack from English ships com-manded by Admiral Lord Nelson. It survived the attack but lost its Corsican captain. The captain also lost his son who was a twelve year old apprentice seaman, embarked in a sister ship called the ORIENT, and refused to abandon the buming ORIENT without his dead father’s pennission to do so. During World War II, CASABlANCA participated in the liberation of Corsica which had been occupied by 80,000 Italian soldiers and two divisions of the Afrika Korps.]
Allyn Y. Bress
Captain, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Tomorrow at Toulon Admiral Bodart will unveil a plague commemorating the historic saga of CASABlANCA and her crew.
Toulon, 27 November 1942, 0500. Three weeks earlier, the news of the Anglo-American landing in North Africa had exploded like a bomb! As soon as the immense Allied convoy was recognized at Gibraltar, security measures were taken. Emergency condition “danger” was adopted. The crews are kept aboard their ships. The Strasbourg battle group is ready to get underway with boilers lit.
On 19 November, the Germans give the order to disband the French army of the German/French armistice. They no longer want “to trust these French dogs.” Their planes have taken over all the ex-free zone air fields. Those planes based at Hy~res are within five minutes of the harbor at Toulon, their bombs at the ready, with magnetic mines ready quickly to block the channels.
The Wermacht deploys itself along the entire Mediterranean coast. The ships of the Strasbourg battle group are forced to lower their boiler fires. It will take five hours for them to get underway.
The submarine flotilla, on the other hand, is prepared to escape from their trap in the greatest of secrecy, and resume a combatant role. Everything had been checked: watertight integrity for diving, surface full power speed tests, which, with 20.5 knot capability, are most satisfactory. Since demagnetizing coils had been installed, the submersibles are “vaccinated” against magnetic mines up to a distance of 20 meters. Small arms, rapid fire 10 mm guns, machine guns, are loaded aboard. All fuel tanks are topped off.
On board the submarine CASABlANCA, the sentries are patrolling. The crew — 85 officers and men — are in a state of watchfulness. On 27 November at 0500, the whistle sounds: “Alert!” The machine guns crackle from the arsenal of Mourillon and toward the BazeiUes gate, two blocks from the piers. The Germans were moving quickly. The officers’ building, 30 meters from the submarine, is already surrounded.
Without wasting any time, the captain L ‘Herminier, “pacha” of the CASABlANCA orders “let go all lines!” Then, “ahead four.”
At the same moment, the VENUS, a submarine of 600 tons, faster at achieving ordered speed, takes a position in the lead. The CASABlANCA comes to all stop immediately in order to permit the ship in the lead to cut the anti-submarine cable, and then follows the VENUS half a meter on her stem. The SS units, unfamiliar with naval procedures, had not thought of manning the two breakwaters that close the port of Mourillon.
The two submarines move quickly through the opening at 12 knots. The surface ships appear to be dead. About twenty aircraft fly overhead, lights on as though they were in training. But it is a trick. The aircraft tum off their lights and launch blazing rockets. The harbor becomes bright like a silver platter.
A bomber aircraft dives on the CASABlANCA The Executive Officer, Henri Bellet, revolver in hand, boards the tug whose captain refuses to open the harbor nel The German aircraft, at the end of its dive, releases a bomb which explodes less than 10 meters astern of the CASABlANCA. The subma-rine weaves its way ahead while scraping the buoy. The magnetic mines, attached to their parachutes, rain down like little beads. The shower gushes forth close aboard, ahead to port. We must dive. All ahead six: the klaxon sounds. The venting air whistles and the CASABlANCA settles into the sea. After the bombs, the mines leap under the keel. The explo-sions violently shake the submarine and its crew.
Meeting with the British
The day wears on toward 0700. The CASABlANCA proceeds ahead in a southerly direction at a depth of 40 meters. At 0800, the ship shifts course to the north. Sadness grips the heart of the submariners. Sinisterly, one hears the reverbera-tions of the explosions, transmitted by the sea, of the fleet which did not have the time to light off their boilers, and prefers to scuttle itself than to surrender its ships. A great cloud of black smoke obscures the sky over Toulon: the navy officers have set fire to the oil storage tanks.
On 30 November at 0700, the CASABlANCA surfaces, coming face to face with a British corvette which readys its forward deck gun. Two French sailors raise the French tricolor. The British, ready to fire, are at a distance of 300 meters from the CASABlANCA. A conversation ensues by signal lights:
- “What is your British liaison officer doing?”
- “We do not have one.”
- “We are arriving from Toulon.”
The British captain throws his cap in the air in an expression of joy. The crew gives a cheer.
At 0945, the French submarine moored in berth n~mber 9 at the north jetty in the port of Algiers.
The CASABlANCA enters the war against the Axis powers, and into legend.