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A Question of Honour? Scuttling Vichy's Fleet

Why did the whole of Marshal Petain's fleet go to the bottom of Toulon harbour in November 1942? Anthony Clayton uncovers a tale of amour propre in this 50th anniversary account.

France entered the Second World War with one of the finest navies in her history, carefully built up despite the economic and manpower difficulties of the 1930s. On November 27th, 1942, the cream of this navy dramatically destroyed itself to preserve its honour. In the space of two hours more warships were sunk than on any other occasion since the scuttling of the German Navy at Scapa Flow in 1919 – a comparable event.

At the Armistice in June 1940 some ships had opted for neutrality or had been detained in British ports; one or two were in outposts of empire. The Vichy government had wanted to keep its ships in North African ports, out of reach of the Germans and available if necessary to protect French North Africa against the Spaniards or the Italians. Understanding British anxieties, firm assurances had been given by the Fleet Commander in Chief, Admiral Francois Darlan, both verbally and in official statements, that the ships would never be allowed to fall into Axis hands.

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