1942-1945 : The Free French Naval Forces

Michel, 19 years old – departure to london

      We could not talk about Michel without devoting a separate section to his involvement in the General de Gaulle’s Free French Naval Forces, whose experience is particularly present in his works.

Indeed, this engagement was to be a particular turning point in his life, as well as in the lives of the many soldiers who were involved at the time, many of whom kept the most striking events under wraps.

      Since June 14th 1940, the Germans are in Paris, the northern part of France is occupied.

The French government newly formed under Marshal Pétain had to move to Bordeaux. Marshal Pétain announced on the radio the need to stop the fighting, seeking with the enemy a way to end the hostilities.

From June 19th to 20th 1940, Bordeaux was subjected to terrible bombings. The newly created government moved to the city of Vichy.

On june 22th 1940, the armistisce was signed. On the following July 1st, the National Assembly gave full powers to Marshal Pétain.

        Simultaneously, General de Gaulle launched an appeal to the French people via the BBC in London, inviting them to join him in continuing the fight against the occupier :

The appeal of the 18th of june 1940 is launched

The French fleet was now under control of the Vichy regime, General de Gaulle had to find solutions to recover some of the ships, not thinking of handing over his fleet to the Germans. ((Les Marins Français du Jour J – FNFL – NORMANDIE 44, création des FNFL dans un contexte de crise, Jean-Charles Stasi, éditions HEIMDAL, p.15))

A large part of the French ships were already outside of France, however, the fleet that was still there would be sheltered immediately:

  • The battleship JEAN BART left SAINT-NAZAIRE for CASABLANCA
  • The battleship RICHELIEU was evacuated from BREST to DAKAR
  • The submarine SURCOUF, undergoing overhaul in BREST, was sent to ENGLAND, as were the submarines RUBIS and NARVAL1

        Some French sailors, risking their lives, decided to join General de Gaulle in ENGLAND. But, the Vichy regime put pressure on the sailors to remain loyal to it, including their own families. Also, the majority of French sailors continued to work with Admiral Darlan, Chief of Staff since 1937 and close to Marshal Pétain.2

Croix de Lorraine – France Libre

        It was in this context that Vice Admiral Muselier decided to join General de Gaulle in ENGLAND on June 30, 1940 and was to play a major role in the history of FREE FRANCE.

Immediately, General de Gaulle appointed him to command “the French maritime forces that remained free, whatever they were and wherever they were”, he was also provisionally appointed commander of the air forces of the FREE FRANCE. The same day, he called on all French sailors and airmen to join them.

On July 3rd, 1940, Admiral Muselier proposed the Lorraine cross as the emblem of the Free French, in memory of his father, who was born in Lorraine.3

        This is how a real parallel war is taking place on the seas of the globe, including the Battle of the Atlantic in the summer of 1940.

These battles took the lives of many Free French sailors, while others, the vast majority of whom were very young, survived but were terribly affected.

It is notably thanks to these men, true resistance fighters of the seas, that we owe the implementation of the landing of June 6th, 1944, without which France could not have been liberated.

        In 1942, Michel was 19 years old. Attracted by General de Gaulle’s appeal and driven by an irrepressible desire to participate in the great adventure of Free France, he presented himself at the ANGLETERRE consulate in RIO DE JANEIRO. Still a minor at the time (majority at 21 years old), his first request was refused and he had to obtain his father’s official agreement.

On November 27th, 1942, once the requested agreement was obtained, he was given a pass to London.

1st mission order on December 12th, 1942:

“Sending Bernanos to London, Cadet School” – Objective: “To go to the SURCOUF Barracks in London” – No boat having touched Rio for 3 months, we are routing this volunteer via Cape Town (South Africa) from where he will be able to reach England more easily.

Mission order of December 12, 1942
Pass for London, November 27, 1942

        On January 30th, 1943, Michel joins London by the MELBOURNE STAR of the BLUE STAR LINE. These ships were officially merchant ships designed to carry passengers and refrigerated goods. During the Second World War they were unofficially in charge of bringing food and war ammunition to Great Britain. We note that the BLUE STAR LINE had 41 ships scattered around the world, 29 ships were lost to enemy action.

The Melbourn Star – Blue Star Line

The convoy was caught in a U-BOOT attack (German submarines specially designed to attack Allied supply convoys). The MELBOURNE STAR being seriously hit, Michel was transferred to a mixed tanker, some of them burned while sinking, spreading a sheet of fire on the sea, the convoy went on in flames for many hours.

The speed of the convoys is low, often less than 6 knots depending on the ships. […] When the radar indicated a ship or when a submarine’s periscope was seen on the bridge, the convoy was ordered to close ranks and accelerate: it was necessary to destabilize enemy fire calculations, force the submarines to come closer and, if necessary, allow for faster rescues. The tension then increased significantly for the escort ships. The Germans did not always have a precise target, and aimed first at the largest tonnage and tankers or ammunition transports.

When a torpedo hit a ship, the nearest corvette searched for the murderer, while seeing the pack carrying out other attacks in different places… Corvettes can assist rescue ships in the event of a sinking, but the priority is to counter-attack.

A rescue scene is always difficult: the oil from the sunken ship floats and creates a sometimes flaming slick in which the few survivors struggle and in which we also see lifeless bodies floating on their stomachs amidst the debris.4

On April 2nd, 1943, two months later, the MELBOURNE STAR was sunk by an enemy torpedo in the Atlantic Ocean (only 4 of the 116 crew members survived).5

Michel thus got a first glimpse of what his future years of commitment would be like.

        He arrived in London on March 9, 1943, and the military service record indicated on his individual booklet as a reservist in the French Navy provides us with the following information : ((List of FNFL sailors, update of the 29/11/2011, Michel Bernanos – http://www.charles-de-gaulle.org Historical services of defense (SHD) – Administrative files of resistance fighters – http://www.servicehistorique.sga.defense.gouv.fr)) –678

  • From March 11, 1943 to March 19th, 1943: SURCOUF barracks – London: This is the headquarters of the FNFL, the soldiers arriving there are housed for a few days before their assignment is decided, particularly as regards the barracks in which they will be able to carry out their training
  • From 19/03/1943 to 31/03/1943 : BIR HAKEIM barracks (Emsworth – Havent near Portsmouth) : Barracks where the mobilized soldiers had a military training of 1 month at their arrival
  • From 03/31/1943 to 04/8/1943 : MEVREAS barracks (to be determined – no information found)
  • From 04/08/1943 to 04/29/1943 : Béaucouf health center (to be determined – no information found)
  • From 04/29/1943 to 06/20/1943: BIR HAKEIM barracks (Emsworth – Near Portsmouth in England): We would find the training center for the gunners – Michel did his training there – It is important to note that the training courses were very short at the time, the new recruits had to be on the field as soon as possible because of the lack of manpower
  • From 20/06/1943 to 05/08/1943 : Porthmouth base (England) : Main operational place of the FNFL, it is in particular from this port that the boats for the Normandy landing will leave. The young soldiers were trained on the training ship – Cuirassé COURBET – located on this home port.
  • From August 5th, 1943 to August 25th, 1943: BIR HAKEIM barracks (Emsworth – near Portsmouth in England): Michel continued his training as a gunnery sailor
  • From August 25th, 1943 to December 15th, 1944: Michel was assigned to the submarine Fighter 12 – BENODET, mainly made up of men from the Ile de Sein, as a gunnery sailor. He was later appointed radar operator.

In June 1940, almost all the men of the Ile de Sein who were old enough to fight chose to join the FNFL, and they contributed many fishing and trading boats to General de Gaulle’s fleet. The Ile de Sein received the Liberation Cross from General de Gaulle on January 1, 1946.9

        The submarine hunter on which Michel was assigned was one of a series of 17 naval units designed for anti-submarine warfare. These fighters were the result of a program set up in 1937 to build a new type of fighter with a steel hull to replace the American C1 type fighters with a wooden hull from the First World War.

THE 12 FIGHTER – BENODET

These submarine fighters had the following characteristics :10

Technical specifications :

Submarine hunter
Length : 37,1 m
Main beam : 5,66 m
Draft : 1,95 m
Displacement: 107 tons
Deadweight: 137 tons
Propulsion : 2 MAN diesel engines and 2 propellers
Power : 1130 hp
Speed : 15,5 knots
Crew : 23

Military characteristics :

1 x 90mm gun
2 Darne machine guns of 7,5mm
2 Schneider 37mm cannon
2 rear grenades of 16 charges
Range: 1200 nautical miles at 8 knots (5.5 tons of fuel)

The navigation conditions of the Hunters are described as follows :11

These 40-metre surveillance boats carry some thirty sailors and are equipped for counterattack […] They are assigned a sector in which they take charge of convoys or carry out defence operations.

They are many risks : in addition to aircraft attacks, the fighters must avoid and carefully record the long lines of magnetic and acoustic mines installed by the KRIEGSMARINE. They had to regularly counter attacks by speedboats: the S-BOOTS.

The fighters could also carry out grenades against the U-BOOTS (German submarines) which used the Channel to cross the Atlantic.

The navigation is also very difficult, the fighters are not made for stormy weather, the water comes in packets damaging everything it can, making the ships more vulnerable to enemy attacks. Moreover, since the beginning of the war, the lighthouses remain unlit, which considerably increases the risk of accidents.

Within the first few days, Fighters 6 and 7 were torpedoed by the KRIEGSMARINE (German Navy), leaving only one survivor out of the 60 sailors on the two crews. From the Battle of Britain onwards, the Fighters earned the deep respect of the British Admiralty, which knew it could count on them for future operations.

The Fighter 12 served for the Free French Naval Forces from July 3rd 1940, based at Cowes on the Isle of Wight (England), it took part in numerous engagements against enemy aircraft and was scrapped in 1954.1213

Michel on board the 12 Fighter with part of the crew

        To define Michel’s mission on board this ship, I would like to repeating the definition of a gunner displayed on board the MAILLE-BREZE, a museum ship to be visited at NANTES (Loire – France) :14

The value of a ship’s artillery depends on that of the personnel who serve it. That is to say, the importance of the gunner who must maneuver with skill, speed and coolness large caliber guns that fire heavy projectiles at a rapid rate.

Hitting a small and moving target from a great distance, while being on a rolling and rocking platform, is not easy. Also, the skill of the gunners has a solid and justified reputation.

Modern guns with their complicated mechanisms require well-trained gunners, who know their gun, their turret, its projectile supply system and all the equipment attached to the artillery.

        As a radar operator, Michel’s main mission was to analyze and evaluate the surrounding threats while being in charge of the operation of the radar and radio detection devices, the radar/decoy jamming system and the weaponry, which he already had a good command of as a gunner.

On June 22, 1940, the German army invaded the USSR with Operation BARBAROSSA. The ice floe and the coasts of Norway were held by German troops and the Russian and American convoys were ideal targets. Battles raged particularly fiercely in this sector, and it should be remembered that we were at the heart of the Battle of the Atlantic, which would last until 1945.15

The main missions of the Fighter 12 were difficult, they consisted in protecting convoys along the Atlantic Wall16, real fortresses installed by the Germans on the occupied coast.17 The Fighter 12 was also used in the North Sea near the Norwegian coast, which was itself surrounded by German forces. The passage from “La Manche” to the North Sea between Calais and Dover was particularly dangerous and delicate.

The Atlantic Wall in 1942, same situation until the end of 1944

The navigation conditions in the northern seas are particularly difficult, the convoys must regularly make deviations to get out of reach of the U-BOOTS18. It is quite common for water to freeze on the structures of the boats, the whole deck is covered with thick ice for several days.

Moreover, the diet of the sailors is poor, they consume a large part of the usual canned food, which creates strong deficiencies in vitamin C that the body does not produce alone. It is thus noted a generalized slimming, several gingivitis, dark circles and an immense fatigue. Michel, like many others, caught scurvy during this period.

Once in port, the boat had to be repaired, which took several days. The gunners had to clean their parts, the engines had to be overhauled, the boilers had to be swept… Paint work was also carried out because it only takes a few days in the Atlantic for the hull to rust.19

Michel’s booklet does not mention all of his missions because his friend and teammate, Jean LIVET, indicates that he did a replacement on board the submarine RUBIS. Also, from the summer of 1940 to December 1944, the RUBIS carried out a total of 28 mine laying missions on the coasts of Norway and France, resulting in the destruction of 16 enemy ships. The RUBIS is the French warship which sank the most German tonnage during the war.20

Le Rubis

Jean LIVET, whom we sincerely thank for his testimony, underlines the fact that the captain and the crews had very little experience when they were assigned to the ship, as the training was generally done in a hurry due to the lack of time in the middle of the Second World War. So the crew of Fighter 12 was well aware that they could turn around quickly in a storm. :21

The nautical qualities of our kind of unit gave us all chances to turn over in heavy weather. We had the sad proof of it with the fighter 5 shortly before Christmas 1943. Knowing that we were in danger of going under for good without even needing an unfortunate encounter with enemy units – most of them faster and better armed than us – was not a good thing for morale, which had already been severely damaged by the lack of news from the family.

Michel and Jean LIVET regularly went on military permissions together in London. Accustomed to the regular bombings and exhausted by the rhythm of the missions, Jean Livet tells an anecdote according to which Michel, covered with rubble by an explosion on the roof of his lodging, simply went back to sleep in another free bed, after having come very close to death.22

Jean LIVET keeps very good memories of Michel and evokes “a happy cohabitation during his years of war, in spite of the miseries which represented the essential of it”. Michel, with his sense of humor, had the gift of bringing happyness to the crew, even in the most difficult moments :

A few days before the landing, pilots from the Gros had managed to spot us, despite the curtain of smoke that was supposed to hide the south coast of England. Arriving late on the boat deck, Michel had not been able to get behind the D.C.A. piece (anti-aircraft gun) that was usually assigned to him. Of all the men on board, none was willing to give up his place. I was immediately poking my head into the nearest ammunition box when the last bomb of a bombs stick fell into the water near our fighter. Michel, on the other hand, would start pacing the deck, crying out for a “nail file” so that he would not feel totally unarmed.

        On June 6th, 1944, the Fighter 12 participated in the Normandy landings, the crew having prepared ardently for it in the previous days, and had no idea of the day chosen.

Thus, the Fighter 12 took to the sea the evening before, under urgent orders to patrol the waters of La Manche in search of enemy submarines, before proceeding to a specific point from where they would receive further instructions.

Part of the assault fleet, 6 June 1944

Michel was awakened at dawn by shouts and the sound of hurried footsteps in the corridors. Once on the deck, a real spectacle is offered to him, which he describes as follows :23

I saw rising on the horizon, free of its mist, the most fabulous marine spectacle of all times, hundreds and hundreds of ships of all tonnages, from aircraft carriers to barges, side by side in tight rows, covering the entire surface of the water, endlessly, while in the sky, thousands of airplanes were roaring.

The Fighter 12 carried out the first convoy escort: The crew sailed in the heart of the assault fleet.24

       During the operation, the Fighter 12 was called to rescue a barge in trouble off the Isle of Wight, so they turned back to the English coast and decided to drive it to Omaha Beach25 where it was destined.2627

A barge approaching the Normandy coast during the landing with Sherman DD tanks

Omaha Beach was the most heavily protected by the German forces and suffered the greatest number of casualties during the operation. Surrounded by several MG-42 machine guns considered as the most powerful in the world with an average rate of 1500 rounds per minute, the allied soldiers had very little room to maneuver28. Moreover, the troops having lost 27 Sherman DD amphibious tanks out of 29 because sunk by a strong swell before even touching the beach, needed more than anything else reinforcements to save the soldiers stuck in the middle of an incessant rain of bullets and shells.

Sherman DD amphibious tanks – disembarked from a Barge – Training exercises

General de Gaulle thought that he would be able to take back the city of Caen from the Germans in the same time. However, June 6, 1944 was only the beginning of the battle of Caen, which ended victoriously on August 6th, 1944. 2300 tons of bombs will fall on the city and its surroundings in 78 days, causing the death of 2,000 to 3,000 civilians.

        The Great Battle of Normandy was launched, both on land and at sea :

Le Cuirassé Courbet – Bataille de Normandie

Michel and the Fighter 12 crew participates in the naval operations : real operations at sea between German and Allied units which ended in mid-August 1944.

Bataille navale en Normandie

This is how they were tasked with escorting ammunition convoys across the waters of La Manche and carrying out various supply missions at sea. The submarine hunters, being armed and smaller, were able to protect the big boats which were much slower and therefore more easily exposed to enemy fire.

Both sides used the best of their fleets, including special weapons such as pocket submarines and guided torpedoes, and many mines were laid at sea by the parts.

A mine at sea – 1944

        This naval battle resulted in great human losses, with storms at sea adding to the difficulties encountered.

So, from June 18th to June 22nd 1944, a very strong storm took place in the waters of “La Manche”, rendering impossible the actions of the allied and enemy naval forces. For 5 consecutive days, they were exposed to the strongest storm in 40 years, which largely destroyed the artificial allied harbour “Mulberry A” built in front of Omaha Beach and rendered it unusable.29

Mulberry’s artificial harbours – Normandy
Destruction caused by the storm on 19th June 1944

After the landing, France still had to be liberated, the war was far from over. Thus, the Allies progressively recovered the regions occupied by the armies of the Third Reich, resulting in numerous military and civilian deaths until May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered.

        From December 15th, 1944 to January 1st, 1945, Michel was assigned to the “Centre Administratif de la Marine Militaire” in Paris, an organization in charge of managing the marine personnel of the armistice army.

        Then, from January 1st, 1945 to September 29th, 1945, Michel was assigned to the Military Mission for German Affairs (M.M.A.A). Created by decree on November 18th, 1944, this mission consisted of the coordination of measures concerning the interests of France in occupied Germany. It was during this period that Michel joined the STAFF of Admiral MUSELIER, appointed by General de Gaulle as head of the naval delegation of the M.M.A.A.30

Certificate of good conduct for Michel issued by Admiral Muselier, April 1, 1946

However, Michel will encounter important health problems. He benefits from a convalescence leave which is given only by the army when the soldiers are in a fragile state of health and judged by the doctors out of state to fight. He will thus convalesce at AVALLON (Yonne – France).

Michel was thus affected by a pneumonia with an intense and psychic fatigue from which he struggled to recover, that was common during this period among the soldiers returning from the war.

On August 28th 1945, Michel is sent back to civilian life, he will retire to ENTREPIERRES (Provence – France) with his parents, recently returned from Brazil.31

Michel on his return from the war, June 1945

        Most of the soldiers who responded to General de Gaulle’s call within the FNFL were very young. We are not without recalling Michel’s age during his years of war when he fought between his 19 and 22 years old, nor of the terrible facts lived on which he will remain silent.

His entourage, having seen him leave as a child, now found a man with a hard look.

His entourage, having seen him leave as a child, did not recognize him on the platform of the Saint-Lazare station. They now found a man with a terribly hardened look.32

His novels and poems will be his main testimony, starting with The other side of the Mountain (La Montagne Morte de la Vie), written in only 19 days and on which death is omnipresent, not sparing even the soul of its visitors, being locked in a bruised body.

Coming from a poet, the only testimony of his hardest hours had to be pictorial.


Notes et références
  1. Les Marins Français du Jour J – FNFL – NORMANDIE 44, création des FNFL dans un contexte de crise, Jean-Charles Stasi, éditions HEIMDAL, p.14 []
  2. Les Marins Français du Jour J – FNFL – NORMANDIE 44, les FNFL sur toutes les mers du globe, Jean-Charles Stasi, éditions HEIMDAL, p.16 []
  3. Les Marins Français du Jour J – FNFL – NORMANDIE 44, les FNFL sur toutes les mers du globe, Jean-Charles Stasi, éditions HEIMDAL, p.22 []
  4. Résister sur les mers – Une histoire de la Marine Française Libre, Luc-Antoine Lenoir, Editions du Cerf, p.127 []
  5. Melbourne Star tribute website : : http://www.melbournestar.co.uk/ []
  6. Museum of the Order of the Liberation (Hôtel National des Invalides – Paris 7ème) – Display case dedicated to Michel Bernanos, including his act of enlistment in the Free French Forces of March 11, 1943 []
  7. Personal military documents : individual booklet for reservists of the French Navy []
  8. Historique des Forces Navales Françaises Libres – Tome 5 – Mémorial : Complete list of the sailors of the free France, André Bouchi Lamontagne, éditions Services Historiques de la Défense, 2002, 1094 p. []
  9. Liberation: The companion communes – The island of Sein, Order of the Liberation, Hôtel National des Invalides []
  10. Fighter class 5 and other units : Wikipedia.org []
  11. Résister sur les mers – Une histoire de la Marine Française Libre, Luc-Antoine Lenoir, Editions du Cerf, p.86 []
  12. Memory of the crews of the Navies of war, trade, fishing and pleasure from 1939 to 1945futur.alamer.fr []
  13. France Libre Dictionary, Jean-François Broche, Georges Caitucoli and Jean-François Muracciole, Coll. Bouquins, Editions Robert Laffont, p.595 []
  14. Ship of the MAILLE-BREZE, Marine Nationale, Naval Museum : https://www.maillebreze.com/fr []
  15. Les Marins Français du Jour J – FNFL – NORMANDIE 44, Jean-Charles Stasi, éditions HEIMDAL, p.24 []
  16. The Atlantic Wall – Wikipedia.org []
  17. History of the Free French Naval Forces – Vol. 4 – The French Freedom Fleet : History of the Fleet and the course of each ship, Pierre Santarelli, published by Services Historiques de la Défense, 2002, 221 p. []
  18. Unterseeboot, the German submarines – Wikipedia.org []
  19. Résister sur les mers – Une histoire de la Marine Française Libre, Luc-Antoine Lenoir, Editions du Cerf, p.128 []
  20. Les Marins Français du Jour J – FNFL – NORMANDIE 44, Jean-Charles Stasi, éditions HEIMDAL, p.25 []
  21. Les cahiers bleus n°46, Hiver 1988-1989 (1er trim. 1989), « La grande aventure de la France Libre », Jean Livet, p.21 to 24 []
  22. Michel Bernanos, L’insurgé, Salsa Bertin, Preface by Michel Estève, Editions de Paris, p.43 []
  23. Georges Bernanos à la merci des passants, Jean-Loup Bernanos, Plon, 1988, p.397 []
  24. Les Marins Français du Jour J – FNFL – NORMANDIE 44, Les couleurs de la France dans l’Armada alliée, Jean-Charles Stasi, éditions HEIMDAL, p.56 []
  25. Bloody Omaha – Wikipedia.org []
  26. Cols-Bleus – Marine Nationale, n°3079 – Juin 2019, p.21 []
  27. Les cahiers bleus n°46, Hiver 1988-1989 – 1er Trim. 1989, “La Grande Aventure de la France Libre”, Jean Livet, p.21 to 24 []
  28. Maschinengewehr 42 – Wikipedia.org []
  29. Mulberry Ports of Normandy – ddayoverlord.com []
  30. Michel Bernanos, L’insurgé, Salsa Bertin, Preface by Michel Estève, Editions de Paris, p.48 []
  31. Individual demobilization bulletin of Michel Bernanos consulted at the Historical Services of the Defense of Vincennes – Cote GR 16 P 50793 []
  32. Michel Bernanos, L’insurgé, Salsa Bertin, Preface by Michel Estève, Editions de Paris, p.46 []