The new ‘Vichy’ French Government insisted that French naval personnel in Britain be repatriated, their position being that the war was over for France. Only men who volunteered to serve with the Free French under De Gaulle were permitted to stay.
Apparently it was not possible to communicate the matter of repatriation to the Germans, leading to a tragic incident. The full circumstances were set out by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr A.V. Alexander, in the House of commons the next day:
This vessel was one of a number being used for the repatriation of French naval officers and men who wished to return to unoccupied France in accordance with the terms of the Armistice. The French Government’s representative had been informed in advance of our intention to repatriate these men in French ships.
The “Meknes” left Southampton yesterday for Marseilles with nearly 1,300 officers and men on board. Special care had been taken to make her neutral character apparent. She was flying the French flag, and had French colours painted on deck and sides. At night she was fully illuminated and had her navigation lights burning.
According to reports so far received, she was stopped by an enemy motor torpedo boat, which fired on her without warning, at about 10.30 p.m. last night. Apparently the passengers and crew were then given five minutes to take to the boats, but during this interval the motor torpedo boat fired a fresh burst every time the “Meknes” tried to signal her name. She was then torpedoed, and sank in four or five minutes.
I have just heard that the German High Command admit responsibility for this sinking in a communiqué which states[…]
In an attack off the South Coast of England one of our speed boats off Portland sank a large enemy merchant ship of 18,000 tons by a torpedo.
Immediately upon the receipt of her distress signals British naval units and aircraft were ordered to proceed at once to the scene, and I am happy to say that so far about 1,000 survivors are reported to have been saved. It is too early as yet to tell for certain how many Frenchmen have lost their lives in this deliberate and callous attack on a ship whose non-belligerent character was so obvious.
I fear, however, that the number of deaths may be as many as 300. I am sure that the House will wish me to express our deep sympathy with the dependants of any who may have fallen victims to this latest example of German methods of conducting war at sea.
Later that day the Admiralty issued further details:
It is now possible to give in greater detail an account of the sinking of the French ship Meknes, which was repatriating Frenchmen to France, by a German motor torpedo-boat. The Meknes had the French colours painted on both sides, and was fully illuminated with a searchlight trained on the French ensign.
At 10.30pm the officer of the watch on the bridge of the Meknes heard motor-engines, and saw the wake of a vessel. The Meknes came under machine gun fire almost immediately. She stopped at once, blew her whistle to indicate that she had stopped, and made the signal “Who are you ?” No reply was received to this signal, and thereupon flashed her name and nationality several times.
The machine-gunning continued, and was followed by heavier fire from a small-calibre gun. The port lifeboats were holed and rendered unseaworthy by this time. At 10.55 the Meknes was hit by a torpedo, and she sank some minutes later.