War, Cooperation, and Conflict: The European Possessions in the Caribbean, 1939-1945

By Fitzroy André Baptiste | Go to book overview

6
The Fall of France and French Caribbean Repercussions

The French Caribbean problem of World War II derived directly from the fall of France to Germany in June and July 1940. Following the debacle, two rival French regimes were formed, one of which became allied to Germany and the other to Great Britain, namely, the regime of Marshal Henri Phillippe Petain at Vichy and the Free French Council of Liberation under General Charles de Gaulle in London.1 These developments had an inevitable effect on the French Empire, including North Africa, West Africa, St. Pierre, and Miquelon off Canada's Atlantic Coast, and Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana in the Caribbean. The developments also had serious implications for the security of Britain, Canada and the United States.

The immediate central issue for those democracies, as for Germany and Italy (which entered the conflict on June 11, 1940), was the fate of the French Fleet. According to a British Admiralty analysis of June 16, 1940, the principal dispositions of the French Fleet, apart from home ports, were at the well-defended naval base of Mers-el-Kebir in French Algeria and at Alexandria, Egypt. The Algerian force was the so-called Force de Rade, consisting of two battle cruisers, Dunkerque and Strasbourg, two battleships, and four 8-inch cruisers under the command of Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. The Alexandrian naval force, commanded by Admiral Rene-Emile Godfroy, French commander in chief, consisted of one old battleship; two 8-inch cruisers, two 6-inch cruisers, and some destroyers. In addition, two new, powerful warships, the Richelieu and the Jean Bart, were at Brest and St. Nazaire in France. The Richelieu, just completed, was described as "the most powerful battleship in the world today," while the Jean Bart was incomplete but in moveable condition. As the crisis unfolded, the French Admiralty ordered these two units to proceed to French Africa.2

The French Caribbean assumed importance as the location of a small Western Atlantic naval force. In June 1940 this force consisted of the armed merchant cruisers, Esterel,Barfleur, and Quercy, each of which had 50 men, at Martinique; and the 6-inch

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