The French fire on the British at Dakar

The distinctive profile of General De Gaulle, centre, accompanied by General Spears, en route to Dakar to attempt to persuade French colonial forces in Africa to join the Free French.

General De Gaulle enjoyed British support as the recognised head of the Free French, following the collapse of France. It was hoped that he would be a rallying figure for the substantial French forces that were distributed around the French colonies.

However these forces proved to be obstinately loyal to the Vichy regime in France that had come to terms with Germany. At Mers-el-Kebir the British had been rejected when they tried to get French Fleet to put themselves beyond the reach of the Germans. Now De Gaulle believed that a direct approach by one Frenchman to another at the French Naval base at Dakar would be more productive.

Mackenzie J Gregory was a eighteen year old Midshipman on board HMAS Australia, part of the substantial British and colonial force sent to support the Free French. On the 23rd September they were stationed in the Atlantic just outside Dakar in Senegal on the west African coast:

This day dawned quite hazy, with visibility down to about a mile and a half. The French aircraft flew off from Ark Royal, and landed at Wackem aerodrome within Dakar. Propaganda leaflets were dropped over the town by Fleet Air Arm planes, it seemed to be a Paper War. De Gaulle’s representatives in a motor boat entered Dakar Harbor, flying the French flag, and a white flag of peace – but were fired upon – and nothing further was heard from them.

Battle flags were hoisted – the Australian Ensign at the fore, a large White Ensign at the main, and our usual Ensign at the gaff. I recall the huge surge of pride I felt observing our Commonwealth Ensign flying at the foremast for the first time in this war.

At 1000, ships were reported to be moving out of the harbor – we were ordered to turn back these French destroyers and sloops – we fired a warning shot, they turned about and returned to harbor. The forts now engaged us at close range, and we rejoined the battleships. Our force closed the forts and the battleships engaged them – in turn, the forts responded with 9.4 inch and 5.4 inch gunfire. Submarines were reported underway, and a British Destroyer HMS Foresight was hit, the shell passing right through her hull, making a neat hole on entry, but a huge ragged hole on exiting.

Dragon scored a hit on a submarine, but was herself hit by the shore batteries. Two shells from the fort guns fell very close to Australia as the force turned away, but Cumberland was hit by a 9.4 inch shell. At our Action Stations, we were served Action Stew!

My action station was in the High Angle Transmitting Station, situated well below the water line, deep in the bowels of the ship. Completely blind visually to whatever happened above the deck -to keep me informed about the action, I had to rely on a running commentary linked by a phone head set to the High Angle Control Position, located high up in the ship.

When the French shells landed alongside, close to the ship, fragments could be heard striking the ship’s side, well below the waterline- very, very scary indeed!

Mackenzie J Gregor’s full story and much more can be read at his website Ahoy.

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