To the current generation Australia being at war with France is unthinkable but this account of events during the early days of WW2 shows the role HMAS Australia played in securing the French Fleet to the Allied cause.
HMAS Australia 11 was a Kent Class Heavy Cruiser launched in 1927 at John Browns yard on the Clyde. She had an overall length of 630 ft and displaced 9,850 tons, 13,630 tons full load, with a wartime complement of 848 men she was well armed with 8 x 8 inch guns paired in four turrets and 4 x 4 inch guns, various smaller calibre guns and two sets of four torpedo tubes. She also carried a Supermarine Seagul amphibian aircraft, a later modification was known as a Walrus. Despite armour plating she had a top speed of over 31 kts and was a handsome and formidable opponent.
In December 1934, HMAS Australia was on exchange duties with the Royal Navy, serving in the Mediterranean and departed for Australia in 1936. She underwent an extensive rebuild and was ready for service in August 1939. During the early stages of WW2 Australia was in home waters employed on convoy duties. October 1939 Australia was detached for service with the Royal Navy.
Dakar – A Brief History
Dakar, a former native village, eventually became the third port in the French Empire in what is now Senegal. It was also a modern naval base and was admirably placed to threaten the trade routes from the United Kingdom, both to South America and the Cape of Good Hope. In June 1940, the defences of Dakar comprised booms, laid so that ships had to manoeuvre through them to reach a berth. In addition, an impressive array of guns and other equipment were sited in strategic points around the area. Also, whilst the French and British were Allies, British ships used the port and facilities, although not being aware of the substantial armaments located at Dakar. A report on 1940 lists a large number of guns of varying calibres at Ouakam south east of the main port. Dakar Bay also came within the limits of the British South Atlantic Station.
On 16 June 1940, the German Army had overcome all French resistance and was in complete control of the territory of France. By this time, the French Fleet was mainly operating in the Mediterranean Sea. The British policy as a consequence was to prevent at all costs, French ships being placed in German hands. Subsequently, the British had to take steps to ensure that the French would remain friendly. On 3 July 1940, the French indicated that they would open fire, should any attempt be made to come into the declared 20 sea miles off Dakar.
“Opeation Menace” The Battle for Dakar
At the beginning of 1940, HMAS Australia was in Scapa Flow as a unit of the Home Fleet. As a result of HMS Fiji being torpedoed, Australia was ordered to replace her on 2 July as a unit of the Dakar Force. She departed Greenock on 6 July, arriving at Freetown in West Africa on the 14 July, thus beginning an involvement in an operation against the Vichy French Forces at Dakar. The large British Naval Forces were intended to deliver some 7,000 troops into French West Africa. General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces, was present in the convoy, hoping that he would be able to convince the Vichy French garrison at Dakar to avoid any blood being shed. The British plan was to occupy Dakar peacefully and rally the local Colonial forces to join the Free French, under de Gaulle.
As part of the Dakar Squadron in July 1940 Australia, in company with HM Ships Hermes, Dorsetshire and Milford was patrolling off the West African coast, observing the French Fleet, with orders to respond to any French attempts to attack British ships. Subsequent Orders were issued to the ships not to attack any French vessels, unless they were hostile. No action was to be undertaken unless ordered by the Commander in Chief of the British Forces.
The time had now come for some hard line action and Australia, Dorsetshire and Milford were detailed to support an ultimatum to attack the French Battleship Richelieu if that ship showed any signs of getting under way and escaping from Dakar. The British remained on station, patrolling the area, in case of an attempt by the French to break out. It was in this time, that Australia fired her first shot in WW2 when she was attacked by a French bomber. August 1940 found Australia involved in “Operation Menace” when she encountered three Vichy French cruisers Gloire, Montcalm and Georges Leygues sailing towards French West Africa. HMAS Australia was signalled to re-direct the three French cruisers and escort them northwards to Casablanca in Morroco. G. Hermon Gill, the official RAN Historian, reported that Captain R. R. Stewart, R N, Australia’s Commanding Officer, left the Vichy ships as they neared Casablanca, with a signal wishing them ‘bon voyage’ in light of the difficult situation.
Having left the French cruisers, Australia rejoined the Expeditionary Force on 22 August at Dakar. There, on the 23 August 1940 the British overtures met with opposition from the local Vichy Forces and attempts to land the 7,000 troops were initially repulsed. During the next two days, Australia was involved in attacks on a number of French vessels, including the sinking of the French destroyer L’Audacieux. Both the British and the Vichy French lost ships and men during the two days of fighting. Australia escaped damage, but HM Ships Cumberland and Foresight were both hit. Australia, with Fury and Greyhound attacked another French destroyer which was set ablaze. On the following day Australia was engaged in a general Fleet bombardment of French ships and forts and was subjected twice to high level bombing. The next day (25 August) Australia and Devonshire moved closer to Dakar to attack French cruisers. During the engagement which followed, Australia received two hits aft.
Her Walrus aircraft, overflying the action, was shot down with the loss of the three crew. They were LCDR Francis Fogerty, RN, Flight Lieutenant George Clarke, RAAF and Petty Officer Telegraphist Colin Bunnet, RAN. Australia sustained two hits during this episode – the accompanying photograph shows the Walrus on the ships catapult about to be launched for what turned out to be her last flight.
Over all, the battle of Dakar did not go too well for the Allies. The Vichy Forces did not back down and during the next few days and Vichy air forces attacked the British base at Gibraltar without causing any great damage. Shortly after noon on the 25 August the British Government called off the operation and the severely damaged Fleet withdrew. This then, completed the role undertaken by HMAS Australia in engaging French forces and she returned to the United Kingdom to have repairs of damage undertaken before proceeding to other theatres of operations.
Naval operations off Dakar, July-September 1940. HMSO
Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 G Hermon Gill AWM
RAN Gun Plot
www.diggerhi story, info
wikwpedia.org/ Battle of Dakar
Last of a legendary Aeroplane V Fazio