Before beginning this bizarre story, let me say a few things about my own peculiar backgrou11d. I served as a gunnery officer aboard the heavy cruiser USS ROCHESTER during the Korean War and left her ill December 1952 for Submarine School in New London. After grad11ation and reporting aboard USS TIR U (SS4 I 6) in Japan, I received the gold dolphins of a qualified submariner a year later at Pearl Harbor. When I left active duty I remained in the Naval Reserve and worked for I 6 years at Electric Boat building submarines, concurrently serving during the last few years as Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Reserve Submarine Division 3-1 I at the Submarine Base, New London. I was privileged to know and work with some of the finest submariners of the day as well as nuclear and missile experts of great distinction. I was particularly close to Hal Shear and Bob Long. both later Admirals, and Captain Cy Young, having made shakedown cruises with them aboard Polaris submarines PATRICK HENRY and THOMAS A. EDISON. A lifelong sailor, I have sailed across the Atlantic three times, two of them in my own 35-foot boat, and have sailed to Bermuda many times. So I bring some knowledge of nautical matters relating to this story.
Almost every submariner of my vintage (commissioned 1951, qualified in submarines 1954) has heard some version of the story of SURCOUF, the giant French submarine which visited New London just before World War II began, tying up at State Pier because she was too long to fit the Sub Base piers. The most common version had her posing as Free French while secretly refueling and reprovisioning U-boats at sea, and the story recounts how the Navy became suspicious after several visits and arranged for one of our subs to tail her, catching her alongside a U-boat and sinking them both. Since we were not yet at war with Germany, the story usually ends with “We were told never to talk about this.” There’s just one problem with this fascinating tale…. almost nothing about it is true except that SURCOUF came to New London in November, 1941. The true story of this French floating fiasco is far more fascinating.
There is an old cliche about history being written by the winners, and that is often true. But sometimes the losers get their chance-and sometimes neither winners nor losers prefer to talk about what really happened. This is one of those stories. It concerns what was then the largest submarine in the world-the French Navy’s SURCOUF (NN3). She was a creature of 1920s strategic thinking and became a subject of controversy even before she was commissioned in 1934, having been specifically designed to evade international restrictions. This was the era of the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty of I 922 and the London Conference of 1930 which were intended to inhibit warship construction. By 1942 she was caught up in a web of pure incompetence, deceit, disinformation, and treason which threatened to disrupt relations between the U.S. and its allies in the nascent war against the Nazis. There are six key facts upon which an understanding of SURCOUF’s true fate depends:
1. There was distrust between the Royal Navy and the French Navy of long standing, with deep roots in their history as adversaries. One of the most obvious manifestations of this distrust was the reality that when France surrendered to the Nazis in 1940, of fifty admirals in the French Navy only one (Vice Admiral Emile Henry Muselier, winner of an American Navy Cross during WWI) came to fight on the British side. The new chief of state of what came to be known as Vichy France was Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, who expressed his government’s position in clear terms: “The Axis powers and France have an identical interest in seeing the defeat of England accomplished as soon as possible. Consequently, the French Government will support, within the limits of its ability, the measures which the Axis Powers may take to this end.”* This distrust, in the case of SURCOUF, was aggravated by the circumstances of her arrival in England and the manner in which she involuntarily came under the command of the Royal Navy’s Flag Officer, Submarines, Admiral Sir Max Kennedy Horton, GCB, DSO, during Operation CATAPULT. Combined with Gallic pride which habitually balked at accepting help from outsiders, particularly Englishmen, this visceral lack of trust prevented both officers and crew from getting the benefit of any submarine training offered. Eventually, her short but totally dysfunctional career under British operational command convinced senior officers of the Royal Navy that she was not only politically unreliable but, because of her mechanical limitations and the repeatedly demonstrated incompetence of her crew, of no use to the Allied cause. During the same period, the officers and crew of SURCOUF became increasingly convinced that they were distinctly unwelcome both in the U.K. and in the U.S. to the point that their British operational commander was determined to rid himself of them by any means, fair or foul.
2. The design and physical configuration of SURCOUF was ill-suited to WWII-style warfare. Displacing 3257 tons on the surface (almost double the displacement of U.S. submarines of WWII) and 361 feet long, she had reduced stability because of the topside weight, particularly a (sometimes) watertight 185-ton rotating turret sporting two 203 mm. (8″) guns in the forward superstructure and a watertight capsule aft to house a tiny Besson MB.411-ANF monoplane with twin floats and a rudder on the bottom of the fuselage. Also topside were two 37 mm. cannons, two Hotchkiss machine guns and two quad-mounted torpedo tube arrays on the after deck-one each for 15.7″ and 21.7″ torpedoes -which could only be fired while on the surface. She also had four 21. 7” bow torpedo tubes which could be fired while submerged. Conceived by one of France’s premier naval strategists, Admiral CJ.A. Drujon, and designed by naval engineer Jean-Jacques Leon Roquebert, she had two large Sulzer 3800 h.p. diesel engines and two propeller shafts, each driven by two 850 h.p. C.G.E. electric motors, giving the vessel a theoretical surfaced speed of 18.5 knots and a submerged speed of 10 knots for one hour on battery propulsion. SURCOUF was launched Nov. 18, 1929 in Brest and delivered to the French Navy July 11, 1931. Her maximum design depth was 80 meters (262′). She had no radar.
3. Almost all of the pre-war operating experience of SURCOUF’s crew was lost shortly after she arrived in England. How that happened will be covered later, but only one officer, Yves Daniel, and about fourteen crewmen remained from a crew of more than 147. Reporting aboard in Britain was Capitaine de Corvette Georges Louis Nicolas Blaison, who was an experienced submariner recently retired for medical reasons. He had previously commanded the French submarine SIBYL. Capitaine de Fregate Paul Ortoli, a gunnery expert who had spent 1930 through 1932 as a lieutenant aboard SURCOUF trying to get the turret and weapons to work as designed, was senior to Blaison. After SURCOUF, Ortoli had gone off to other assignments and in 1940 commanded a flotilla of trawlers during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Although he had never commanded a submarine, he had commanded LA FLORE, a small destroyer. Admiral Muselier, who had been appointed by General de Gaulle to command the Free French naval and air forces, decided to appoint him to command SURCOUF, with Louis Blaison as his executive officer. This decision was a major factor in the unfortunate course of events of the next year. Capitaine de Corvette Georges Alphonse Rossignol was third officer and also an experienced submariner. Beyond that the submarine experience was very thin, for the rest of her existence, SURCOUF would be plagued by frequent and serious operational problems stemming from lack of submarine skills, not helped by a lack of willingness to accept training or criticism from the British submariners aboard. Captain Ortoli himself found it impossible to accept any advice from the first Royal Navy liaison officer, Lieutenant John Greene, a submariner since 1935, or from his successor, Lieutenant Francis Boyer, also a submariner, each with valuable experience and fluent in French. Both were very critical (appalled might be a better word) at the state of training and discipline aboard and they described it in their reports to Admiral Horton. Each of them reported gross incidents like submerging with the conning tower hatch open, (resulting in flooding and chlorine gas in the battery compartments and living spaces), as well as diving without a proper trim with resulting loss of control and serious depth excursions. Even Sub-lieutenant Roger Burney, the third and last British Navy Liaison Officer (BNLO), not a submariner by training, reached the same negative opinion after a few bad frights. In normal times, the responsible submarine skipper would have been relieved in disgrace and a new team sent in to restore conditions for safe and reliable operation. But these were not normal times …. and there was no new team.
4. There were powerful political forces at work in the U.S. in 1940. A large portion of the American public was determined not to get involved in another European War and had also managed to both deplore and ignore Japan’s rampages through Asia. Modern readers may have trouble understanding the strength of movements like the America First Committee. With roots in the mid-West and intellectual support from Yale Law School, funded by wealthy and influential businessmen and led by national hero Charles A. Lindbergh, more than 800,000 members advocated building up U.S. defenses and staying out of war. Political leaders like President Franklin Roosevelt had to cope with this political reality in setting national policies. One of the consequences was U.S. recognition of the Vichy regime as the legitimate government of France despite its pro-Nazi leanings. The U.S. government entered into negotiations with Vichy to guarantee the neutrality of French colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Vichy’s negotiator was pro-Gennan French Navy Admiral Georges Robert, the “High Commissioner of the Republic to the Antilles and Guiana and Naval Commander in Chief for the Western Atlantic”. Later convicted and punished for collaboration with the Nazis, he would play a key role in SURCOUF’s fate.
5. The U.S. Navy was completely unprepared for anti-submarine warfare in 1941. In a navy focused on long-range offensive operations, the standard U.S. destroyer had only one QC sonar set and two depth charge racks with five Mark 7 depth charges on each rack. Its main mission was anti-aircraft screening of capital ships, with a secondary mission of shore bombardment. The Army Air Corps was supposed to defend American waters. ASW aircraft as such did not exist, and almost anything that could fly (including civilian aircraft and blimps) was thrown into the hunt for U-boats. There was no ASW organization, no experts, no tactics, no training facilities and few weapons. The Germans exploited this weakness in what U-boat commanders later called the happy time”, the golden days or the American shooting season. They launched ‘Operation Paukenschlag’ (Drumbeat) in December 1941 with five Type IX U-boats which ranged at will up and down the U.S. east coast. In February, 1942, just when SURCOUF was leaving Bennuda, four more U-boats entered the Caribbean to conduct coordinated attacks on oil refineries at Aruba, Curacao and Trinidad on the 16th. U-502 alone, operating near Aruba, sank six ships between 16 and 23 February. By July, there were 70 U-boats operating in American waters and by October this had grown to 105. During America’s first year of war, 1027 Allied ships were lost to U-boats, mostly in the American defense zone, at a cost of only 86 U-boats sunk.
6. For reasons which will become clear, neither the British government, the French government nor the U.S. government wanted to admit the truth about SURCOUF. The Germans who knew what had actually taken place were few, and most of them departed this life on 17 February 1943 with the loss of U-69. That is how the loss of SURCOUF came to be associated with the story ound in all the official history books, that she was sunk in a collision with the American freighter THOMPSON LYKES. It was a plausible and convenient fiction which embarrassed no one. But that is not really what happened.
From what I have discovered in doing the research for this article, this was a French submarine crew which could barely keep their own boat operating, much less carry out the difficult task of resupplying another submarine in the open sea. During her entire existence, she never fired a single shot in anger-neither guns nor torpedo tubes. Plagued with problems from the start, she rolled in heavy seas, sometimes far enough to spill acid from her batteries. She was slow to dive (two and a half minutes to 40 feet) and hard to control while submerged, with recurrent hydroplane and rudder problems. The aircraft could only be launched and recovered on the surface in a flat calm, and then it took 30 minutes. The turret leaked.
An unbiased observer would judge SURCOUF to have been a failed experiment, but despite her technical shortcomings, she was considered to be an important symbol of French seapower. Since Napoleonic times, the French had been unusually devoted to symbols of military prowess, even though their symbols had not served them well as military technology rapidly advanced. (The Maginot Line was such a symbol, along with the symbolic courage of the French infantryman, who, if properly led, was believed to be able to overwhelm lesser men armed with machine guns, Stukas and Panzers.) But even symbols, if they are complex machines, must be maintained. That requires trained technicians and a steady supply of repair parts, but most of SURCOUF’s machinery had been custom-built in Cherbourg, and during the German occupation, spare parts were simply not available
After a very short time trying to operate her as a Free French vessel under his command, the Royal Navy’s Flag Officer, Submarines, Admiral Horton, decided that she could be of no help to the Allied cause as well as being very vulnerable to radar-equipped ships and aircraft. (Horton was described by military historian Charles McCain as “not the nicest man in the world … ruthless, indifferent to anyone’s feelings, hard as nails and close as a clam” but also as ” perhaps the greatest fighting admiral produced by Great Britain in the 20th Century”). But for political reasons (to avoid alienating the Free French), he was directed to Admiral Horton keep SURCOUF in commission, and to find something useful for her to do.
It was very late in my research that I read the excellent book by James Rusbridger titled WHO SANK SURCOUF? The Truth about the Disappearance of the Pride o( Tire French Navv, published in 1991 by Random Century Ltd., London (ISBN 0-7126-3975-6). The author exhaustively documents the strange story of this unlucky ship which sprouted legends and rumors from the moment it first arrived at Devonport in the British port of Plymouth. Of all that has been written about SURCOUF, a great deal of it clearly incorrect, Mr. Rusbridger did the most careful sorting of fact from fiction. His extensive research produced the most reliable and definitive account of SURCOUF’s short career as part of the Royal Navy… right up to the moment of her departure from Bermuda in February, 1942. I genuinely regret that he did not live to see the military and diplomatic correspondence, logbooks, war diaries and action reports recently declassified and available at the National Archives and Records Administration facility in College Park, Maryland. It would have been a great experience to work with him to develop the surprising conclusions I have reached, which differ so markedly from any previous accounts.
When France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, SURCOUF was in Martinique. From 26 September to 18 October, she came slowly home as a convoy escort to KJ-2, a 25-ship convoy (including 11 tankers) from Jamaica to Brest. Picking up her story after the French Army collapsed under the German onslaught on June 12, 1940: Britain stood alone. Most Europeans, having seen the Nazi war machine in action, believed England was doomed. Like a cornered bulldog, Churchill was determined not to go down without a fight. His first task was to rescue the British army trapped at Dunkirk by the German advance to the sea. Hailed as the miracle at Dunkirk (officially it was called Operation DYNAMO), in only nine days, more than 338,000 troops were brought back to England from Dunkirk harbor and nearby beaches. Before they were even safely ashore, the British launched a new operation called AERIAL with three major objectives:
- to evacuate from western France all remaining British and Allied troops (which numbered more than 190,000)
- to keep the Germans from gaining control of the French Navy
- to demolish all French port facilities which might be useful to the Nazis
The British were determined to ensure that the ships of the French Navy did not fall into German hands. On 17 June, Operation AERIAL was already underway as the new French premier Marshal Petain petitioned the Germans for an armistice. In Brest, the evacuation began that same day. At 4 p.m., all French naval ships began departing. Many of them turned west and south and made for Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria, or Dakar, with only a few heading across the Channel to England. On 18 June, among the last to leave was the largest submarine in the world, the pride of the French Navy, with the dull booming echoes of demolition charges following her out to sea as British military engineers systematically blew up the harbor facilities.
SURCOUF had been undergoing a refit with much equipment disassembled for repair. Both of her big Sulzer diesels were out of commission, but Captain P. M. H. Martin decided she could get to Plymouth, 122 nautical miles to the north, using her storage batteries to drive the four electric propulsion motors while steering with a hastily improvised system.
At sunrise the morning after her hasty departure from Brest, SURCOUF’s bridge watch sighted the port of Penzance on the south coast of Cornwall. Her enginemen had been working all night to reassemble the diesels, finally getting the starboard engine running. From the radio room came two conflicting messages. The first one, sent at 1145 on June 18, was signed by Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan, Minister of Marine of the temporary French government at Bordeaux, ordering all French warships to cease engagement and head for the nearest French port. The second message, at 1420 the same day, was from the senior French Navy officer at Brest, Capitaine de Vaisseau Le Franc-Guyader of the battleship PARIS, who counter-manded the 1145 order, correctly deducing that it had been sent by the Gennans since it lacked proper authentication: Le Franc-Guyader ordered SURCOUF to any English port. Given her location and state of disrepair, Captain Martin thought it prudent to ignore the first and obey the second. She entered Plymouth harbor at 0200 on 20 June, 1940, and was assigned a downstream mooring. It turned out to be a bad location. At low tide she was on the bottom and heeled over. It was a bad beginning but things were going to get worse.
Admiral Darlan was a supporter of Marshall Petain. He would eventually become the de facto head of the Vichy government. Like many upper class Frenchmen, his politics tended to the right, favoring the Fascist regimes of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, while the French working classes leaned to the left and tended to support the Communists in the government which had fled Paris as the Nazi army approached. Darlan initially found favor with the Gennan sympathizers who controlled that part of France not yet occupied by Germans. Along with Marshall Petain, Darlan helped set up a government in the city of Vichy after France surrendered on June 22, 1940. Petain and his associates detested Charles de Gaulle, a French Anny officer who almost singlehandedly built a competing Free French government-in-exile in London. Although sophisticated Englishmen like Sir Winston Churchill, writing in his splendid history of WWII, might express some sympathy and even admiration for French leaders like Petain or Darlan, among the French and British working classes, the general attitude was simply mutual loathing. The Royal Navy enlisted men assigned to SURCOUF to assist the British Navy Liaison Officer (BNLO) with communications felt isolated, rejected, and at times even threatened by their French shipmates. According to their letters home, they had seriously considered what they would do if the crew mutinied and defected to Vichy France.
The French Navy had traditionally been anti-British. (Darlan’s great-grandfather had been killed during Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar). More recently, the French had contested British domination of the sea at every tum, designing and building a whole series of capital ships to match or exceed whatever Britain produced. SURCOUF herself had been built as a submarine with the firepower of a cruiser because there were treaty limits on cruisers but not on submarines. The relationship between the Royal Navy and the French Navy could have been described as formal correctness tinged with distrust and suspicion. Free French Navy units in Britain were commanded by Admiral Muselier, while across the water Admiral Darlan was directly and publicly cooperating with the Nazis. Ironically, they had been classmates at L’Ecole Navale in 1899.
Fearful that French warships would either be surrendered to or captured intact by the Germans, on 3 July, 1940, the British launched Operation CATAPULT to make certain that did not happen. After a failed attempt to negotiate with the local French commander, the Royal Navy attacked the French ships at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria, destroying one French battleship, seriously damaging five other ships and killing 1,297 French sailors. That same day in Plymouth at 0415, a British boarding party of submariners and Royal Marines clambered aboard SURCOUF to announce that she would henceforth be under British control. By a strange quirk of fate, Captain Martin had just received another radio message from Darlan directing him to scuttle his ship, but before this order could be carried out, shooting broke out and a French officer, two British officers and one British enlisted man were mortally wounded. Captain Martin and the rest of the crew surrendered and were marched up the pier to Hamoaze barracks to stay until tempers cooled. The British offered to return them to France if they wished to go. Most of the officers and crew accepted. Those being repatriated may have been lost en route*.
Perhaps Ortoli and Blaison had an impossible task before them-to meld the new officers and crew into a competent, smoothly functioning team. They needed to quickly teach people who had never before served aboard (or in one case even seen) a submarine how to perform dozens of essential functions efficiently and safely. But when the three English veteran submariners aboard, the British Navy Liaison Officer and his two assistants, Leading Telegraphist Bernard Gough and Leading Signalman Harold Warner, offered their help and advice, the French crew followed the lead of their officers and refused to listen. On 15 September 1940, Captain Ortoli hoisted the French colors and readied his ship for sea. She had been officially assigned to the 3rd Submarine Flotilla and ordered to report to HMS Titania for training. Titania was a base on the Clyde in Greenock, Scotland, very near Holy Loch. The British had gathered all French Navy personnel there to organize and train crews for Free French ships. Admiral Horton’s orders read. In view of circumstances which have rendered it necessary to man this submarine with many officers and ratings without submarine experience … the period of working-up shall be of sufficient duration which will enable it to proceed on service with complete confidence. ” In simpler terms, “You should keep training as long as it takes to learn what you need to know.”
According to a TIME magazine article from November 10, 1941, XO Blaison recalled of this period that. With a small nucleus of veteran submarine men, we built up a crew, we transformed fishermen into gunners, peasants and college boys into electricians, firemen and soldiers into mechanics …. ” Subsequently it would become obvious how unsuccessful this on-the-job training had been.
On 20 December 1940, Ortoli took his new command to sea for the first time, and two days later, performed his first trim dive (a nonnal submarine routine of compensating for weight changes by pumping water in or out, forward or aft, as necessary to adjust the vessel to neutral buoyancy). With a good trim, the boat can come to a complete stop submerged and remain at the same depth with no up or down angle. On most submarines this is done daily since it is an important part of being able to dive quickly and remain in control when threatened.
On 1 February, 1941, SURCOUF sailed for the Clyde. A few days later, while conducting a trim dive in Loch Fyne, she went completely out of control because of a gross error in filling a trim tank which should have been emptied. This was an unforgivable demonstration of incompetence by both officers and crew. Admiral Horton concluded she could never be relied upon to take any part in the war he was fighting every day. He terminated all efforts at submarine training in Scotland and ordered her to go to Canada to operate on the surface as a convoy escort.
On 19 February, she left Scotland for Halifax. Two days later she submerged and lost depth control again, reaching a depth of 65 meters before recovering. Five days after that, storm conditions forced a change of course because she was rolling so heavily that acid spilled out of the batteries. She also had a fire in the main propulsion switchgear. Considered overdue on February 25th, she did not arrive until March 3rd.
In early April she sailed as a convoy escort for an eastbound convoy called HX-118. One week into the voyage, the dissatisfied convoy commander asked that she be recalled by Admiral Horton to Devonport. Upon arrival, Lt. Greene was delighted to find his relief, Lt. Boyer, ready to take over as BNLO. On April 22nd, while SURCOUF was in Devonport, the Luftwaffe launched a weeklong series of air raids nicknamed the Plymouth Blitz. These raids killed one crewman who was ashore and damaged SURCOUF’s aircraft. Taken ashore for repairs, the little plane was never returned aboard.
On April 24, 1941, Horton decided to reassign SURCOUF to Bermuda. His message to the Commander in Chief, American and West Indies Station, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Kennedy-Purvis at HMS MALABAR said “After arrival on your station, SURCOUF is allocated to you for operations against enemy supply ships and raiders. It is intended that she should normally operate from Bermuda but could fuel from Gibraltar or Freetown as desired. It is expected SURCOUF will be borne on the books of HMS Malabar as an independent command.”
On June 30 she set off to sink or damage some enemy ships. Instead she managed to damage and nearly sink herself. A few days out, she had a major electrical problem which left her drifting without power for several hours. On the 18th she had a cascade of casualties starting with diving with an open conning tower hatch. Sea water reached the batteries, generating chlorine gas and sickening several crew members. With the added weight of water aboard, she was out of trim, plunging to more than 100 feet and causing the gun turret to begin taking on water, making her even heavier. Captain Ortoli ordered the ballast tanks blown without remembering to close the ballast tank vents first, but fortunately the added buoyancy was enough to get them to the surface. They started the diesels, pulling fresh air in to ventilate the boat and dilute the chlorine fumes. It had been a really close call, and they had not handled it well. Fifteen crew members were disciplined for misconduct and several more were hospitalized when she returned to Bermuda at 0800 on 20 July.
Then, for a change, there was some good news. As part of the new U.S. Lend-Lease program for supporting the Allied cause, the Americans had agreed to overhaul SURCOUF at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNSY) in Kittery, Maine. She left Bermuda with alacrity just five days after her aborted patrol, making a speed run on the surface in summer weather to an America still at peace, arriving on 28 July and entering Dry Dock No. 2. The executive officer met shipyard engineers on the morning of August 41st with a 70-item worklist and shortly afterward thought of about 70 more. The yard was hampered by a lack of drawings and technical manuals which had been destroyed along with many other documents by SURCOUF’s crew during the British boarding in Devonport. There was also a problem with understanding French technical and nautical terms, and, in those days, metric dimensions. In many cases, the yard could proceed only by copying old parts to make new ones. This refit was to be neither quick nor easy. A week later, PNSY estimated the work at $800,000 plus $10,000 more for reconditioning ammunition which had been stored aboard for years. On 15 September, the Navy Yard Industrial Manager (CAPT Henry Davis) and Planning Officer (Commander A. I. McKee, whom I knew many years later at Electric Boat as “Admiral McKee”), met with SURCOUF’s second-in-command, Louis Blaison, to explain that, ” … the condition of your ship is much worse than we thought it would be. Eve1y time we have started on a work item, we find more things that need repair. We may not be able to finish everything that needs to be done in the time we have. You were supposed to be out of here by October 41″ but if we have to replace the main bearings, we can’t finish until at least October 22nd, and work on SURCOUF is already delaying work on new construction. We need you out of that d1y dock! ” (Content authentic, but dialogue imagined.) So ready or not, SURCOUF vacated Dry Dock No. 2 on 29 October.
Captain Ortoli, having presided over a year of near-disasters, had been relieved of his command on 20 September 1941. His executive officer, Louis Blaison, became the new C.0. While at Portsmouth, the BNLO, Lt. Boyer, who had been aboard since April, reported to his superiors that he was “extremely concerned about the state of morale on board and that I had confirmed evidence from U.S. Navy intelligence there was a lot of talk around the town about what the crew were going to do a11d how they were not going to take the submarine to sea again. And there was talk about whether, if they did take the submarine to sea again, they should t1y to go back to Brest and turn their submarine over to the Germans for which they thought they would get very high praise and be forgiven for having served with the Free French and allowed to go back to their families. I also felt the boat was unsafe and should not be allowed to go to sea again because the captain and crew were incapable of operating it satisfactorily …. the boat is valueless to the allied side, and we’re just wasting our time. ” In Sanford, Maine, just to the north of Portsmouth Navy Yard, there were many French-Canadian families who had come to the area to work in the textile mills. Many of them opened their homes and their hearts to the sailors of SURCOUF. I suspect that some of this intelligence might have been gathered in warm and friendly kitchens after a few glasses of wine. In vino, veritas, in aqua, Sanitas, the Romans used to say Truth may indeed be found in wine, but there was some doubt whether for SURCOUF sailors, health would be found in water.
Lieutenant Boyer’s frank assessment of SURCOUF’s situation earned him some displeasure with at least one senior officer, and on November 5, he was relieved as BNLO by Sub-lieutenant R.J.G. Burney. Warner and Gough remained aboard but only because they were ordered to. In letters to family, they told of their shunning by the French crew and their gloomy predictions for the future. Pressed by shipyard officials who badly needed to focus on production of new U.S. submarines, on 10 November Captain Blaison signed the paper accepting the shipyard’s work, officially ending the refit. SURCOUF departed the next day to conduct sea trials at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut.
Being too large to safely maneuver at the Sub Base piers, she moored on the north side of State Pier. On 21 November, she got underway with a Navy escort for the local operating areas to commence sea trials. The following day, she collided with her escort, damaging No. 3 and 4 ballast tanks. The resulting decision to terminate the sea trials allowed the U.S. Navy personnel to enjoy their Thanksgiving holiday. Temporary repairs to the ballast tanks were completed quickly and she departed for Bermuda on 27 November, arriving on 30 November. The collision in New London had caused a new flurry of communications between Bermuda and London headquarters relating to the desirability of decommissioning SURCOUF.
When Captain Blaison told Admiral Purvis-Kennedy that he had been summoned to Halifax by Admiral Muselier “to take part in a naval review” (which was nothing but a subterfuge), permission was quickly granted. She left on 7 December and had a strange surface encounter with a tanker which Captain Blaison had decided to stop for questioning about why he was flying a distress signal. Apparently he was flying the distress signal and radioing for help because he was being chased by a giant submarine.
SURCOUF took Admiral Muselier aboard in Halifax and told the British Navy representative they were going to sea on 20 December “to conduct exercises.” Instead they headed north, encountering Atlantic winter seas which rolled her to extreme angles and again spilled battery acid. She entered the St Lawrence estuary and transported the Admiral to Quebec City. Apparently during this time, Muselier was in communication with General de Gaulle, who informed him that the proposed liberation of the French islands off Newfoundland had been vetoed by the Americans. Despite this veto, de Gaulle directed Muselier to proceed with the operation just as they had planned it.
On 24 December, flying a distinctive Cross of Lorraine ensign in place of the traditional tricolor, and in company with Free French corvettes MIMOSA, ACONIT and ALYSEE, she entered the harbor at St. Pierre, where Admiral Muselier declared that the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were now under Free French control and that the Vichy government was ousted. With naval guns in the harbor and armed sailors and marines at the town hall, the transition was quick and bloodless and sealed with a plebiscite. The vote was about 900 to 30 in favor of the Free French. The British were probably quietly pleased, but the Americans were furious with de Gaulle, Muselier and SURCOUF. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, feeling that his carefully crafted strategy built around neutrality for France’s possessions in the Western Hemisphere was imperiled, tendered his resignation, but President Roosevelt talked him out of it. However, relations between the U.S. and the de Gaullists were at a low point. After this episode, the British stopped supplying intelligence information to the Free French.
SURCOUF received secret orders from Admiral Horton while she was still in St. Pierre directing her to proceed to Tahiti and New Caledonia via Bermuda and the Panama Canal. Later, in his 16 January report to Admiral Horton, Sub-Lt Burney reported that the Admiral’s secret orders had been known on the streets of St. Pierre the day after they arrived.
But those orders would never be carried out. SURCOUF and her crew had endured too many breakdowns, too many close calls and too much anguish about the fate of their country and their families left in France to be enthusiastic about going halfway around the world to fight under British command. In the next issue, the rest of the story.
THE FIRST INSTALLMENT of this article described the strange set of circumstances which brought the giant French submarine SURCOUF in 1940 to England and then to America before taking part in the liberation of the north American French colony at St. Pierre and Miquelon. Almost the entire experienced crew had left her immediately after arriving in Britain, and from late 1940 onward she had been operated by a crew recruited from available French Navy men who had escaped from France just before the surrender to the Germans. This experiment in on-the-job training had not gone well.