Here's What You Need to Know: The crew of Surcouf was sent to a camp set up on a racetrack in Liverpool.
When built, the French Surcouf was the largest submarine in the world. She was named for Robert Surcouf, the famed French privateer who waged successful economic warfare against England during the Napoleonic era. This Goliath was intended as a modern-day corsair able to do her namesake proud. Instead, the submersible wound up in England, having fled the advancing Germans in the spring of 1940. Once there, she played host to a tragic gunfight between French and British sailors.
The ill-fated submarine was laid down in 1927 but not commissioned until 1934. Surcouf was intended as the lead boat of a series of large “cruiser” or “corsair” submarines, heavily armed to hunt enemy shipping. Besides her dozen torpedo tubes, Surcouf sported a pair of eight-inch cannon mounted in an oval-shaped turret at the front of the superstructure, just ahead of the conning tower. A small hangar supported a floatplane for scouting and spotting. A contemporary edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships listed her as 393.7 feet long and displacing 4,300 tons submerged. Her speed was 18 knots surfaced, 10 submerged.
Intended to be a shark-like leviathan among the world’s undersea fleets, Surcouf was instead a whale. Plagued by mechanical problems and poor seakeeping qualities, the vessel never lived up to its reputation. When the German invasion of France came, Surcouf was sitting dockside at Brest, a port city on the Breton Peninsula. As the advancing Germans drew near, the submarine was moved to England, hopefully to finish repairs there and make her battle worthy.
Unfortunately, her engines were inoperable. Three of the connecting rods in the two diesels were broken. Only the electric auxiliary motors were usable. As the sun set over the English Channel on June 18, 1940, Surcouf limped slowly toward Britain at only four knots, her best speed. In her disabled state she could not submerge. Nevertheless, according to the ship’s doctor, Bernard Le Nistour, “All of us hoped to continue the fight … morale was high; the physical fitness of the crew excellent.”
What to do With the French Navy?
Just after dawn the next morning a Royal Air Force Short Sunderland flying boat spotted the submarine and exchanged recognition signals with it. Off Penzance at England’s southwestern tip, Surcouf stopped while her engineers made some improvements allowing 10 knots the rest of the way to Plymouth and later Devonport. Along the way, English beachgoers waved at the submarine with her French flag. At Devonport, Surcouf tied up alongside the World War I-era French battleship Paris. Nearby were two more French submarines and a destroyer. Within a few days, French officials were surrendering to the triumphant Nazis in the same railroad car where the German surrender ending World War I had been received in November 1918.
A critical issue of France’s surrender for the British government was the fate of the French fleet. The surface fleet of Germany’s Kriegsmarine was too small to pose an existential threat to the United Kingdom, though its surface raiders and U-boats were a dire threat. If the surface units of the French fleet, including battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and a single aircraft carrier, were transferred to Germany, it would create an intolerable imbalance of forces. The victorious Germans made promises not to seize France’s navy, but by then Hitler’s guarantees were no longer believed.
It was more than Great Britain could risk. Furious efforts were made to secure the French fleet by entreating its commanders to either continue the fight alongside Britain as part of the nascent Free French movement or incorporate their vessels into the Royal Navy. Alternatively, they could accept internment in the United States or a distant French possession such as Martinique in the Caribbean. Much of the Navy had already been moved to North Africa or sat in port in Vichy territory not yet occupied by the Nazis. As a last resort, the crews could scuttle their ships.
In the days immediately after the French surrender, tension began to grow as it was uncertain what France’s sailors would do. Few of them opted to join the Free French, and most thought Great Britain would make terms with the Germans within weeks at most.
Britain, however, elected to continue the fight and took steps to neutralize its ally’s warships. At Devonport, hundreds of French sailors could not help but notice the guns of the British battleship Revenge laid on their ships and submarines. At home, Vichy France’s new leaders were determined those ships would not fall into British hands, though most were equally resolute they would not be turned over to the Germans either.
The Plan to Seize the Surcouf
In the case of Surcouf, preparations were made to protect her from any British seizure attempt. Her torpedoes were already disarmed. The captain, Paul Martin, ordered all but one hatch locked down. The open hatch, nearest her bow, was guarded by two armed sailors at all times. A petty officer was tasked to watch for approaching boats or frogmen. Since Surcouf was tied to Paris, no one could get on the ship that way without first boarding the battleship. This gave an added measure of security. If the British came to take his vessel, the sentries were to give warning by dashing through the open hatch into the submarine so it could be scuttled.
Finally, the order came from Vichy to destroy the submarine on Wednesday, July 3, 1940. Before dawn a radio message came in. The operator took it to the duty officer, Lieutenant Emile Crescent. He retrieved the codebook from the safe and began deciphering the transmission. When finished, he hurried to Captain Martin, calling out, “The English are coming.” He was trying to provide the 140 crewmen with the time to sink their submarine. Little did he know, the Royal Navy had already enacted its own plan to take the French ships in Devonport and elsewhere. The British were not coming—they were there.
Intent on denying Germany any of France’s ships, the British planned to seize all French naval vessels in British ports. Each ship was assigned a boarding party commensurate with its size. Officers carried revolvers, as did some sailors, who also hefted wooden clubs. Royal Marines and some sailors also toted bayoneted rifles, which might prove unwieldy below decks.
Various letters exhorting the French sailors to surrender were issued, and all personnel wore the British-pattern steel helmet, which would help with identification. The boarding party assigned to Surcouf numbered 60 men, half Marines and the rest crewmen from the British submarine Thames. They were to seize the submarine without bloodshed if possible. The group was commanded by Captain Denis Sprague, nicknamed “Lofty,” of the Thames. His second was Lieutenant Patrick Griffiths, who had served as a liaison officer and visited Surcouf a few days before.
The British Boarding Party
The British move began at 0430, just before dawn. Rather than cross to Surcouf from the neighboring Paris, Sprague led his men from the water side using a trio of motor launches. Another Thames officer, Lieutenant Francis Talbot, was first aboard the submarine. His boarders quickly followed and surprised one sentry, capturing him. The other guard thought more quickly and ran to the one open hatch, banging on the hull as he went. The hatch shut as soon as he disappeared through its opening. The English had not planned on all the hatches being shut and were now locked out.
Below, Lieutenant Crescent, the decoded message still clutched in his hand, saw the sentry come through the hatch. The man reported the boarding party above. Crescent told the man to sound action stations as he went to alert the other officers and rouse the Surcouf’s lead electricians and torpedomen, ordering them to start destroying equipment.
Only a minute later, the Frenchmen rushed back to the bridge and ran into Captain Sprague and his armed sailors, who had gained entry. The observant Lieutenant Talbot had climbed Surcouf’s conning tower and inspected its hatch. There, he noted the catches were designed to be opened from the outside by rescue divers in case of disaster, just like the hatches on British subs. The young Talbot would be “mentioned in despatches” for his quick thinking.
The boarding party quickly spread through the vessel and opened the rest of the hatches to allow their comrades in. Sprague asked all the French officers to gather in the wardroom, and they complied. The French enlisted sailors were less cooperative; some refused to move at all, and some had to be awakened. With all the officers in the wardroom, Sprague read them a letter claimed to be from French Admiral Coyal aboard Paris. The letter, apparently a fake, begged the Frenchmen to join the Free French.
Captain Martin did not believe the letter and asked to meet Coyal and hear the message in person. Sprague agreed to let him go even though he knew the letter was false. Martin placed a junior captain named Pichevin in command and departed.