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In the wake of the Armistice and the Appeal of 18 JuneCharles de Gaulle founded the Free French Forces (Forces Françaises Libres, or FFL), including a naval arm, the "Free French Naval Forces" (Les Forces Navales Françaises Libres, or FNFL). On 24 June 1940, de Gaulle made a separate call specifically to servicemen overseas to join him, and two days later the submarine Narval entered Malta and pledged its allegiance to the FFL. On 30 June, De Gaulle was joined by Vice-Admiral Émile Muselier, who had come from Gibraltar by flying boat. Muselier was the only flag officer of the French Navy to answer the call of De Gaulle.

The French fleet was widely dispersed. Some vessels were in port in France; others had escaped from France to British controlled ports, mainly in Britain itself or Alexandria in Egypt. At the first stage of Operation Catapult, the ships in the British ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth were simply boarded on the night of 3 July 1940. The then-largest submarine in the world, Surcouf, which had sought refuge in Portsmouth in June 1940 following the German invasion of France, resisted the British operation. In capturing the submarine, two British officers and one French sailor were killed. Other ships were the two obsolete battleships Paris and Courbet, the destroyers Le Triomphant and Léopard, eight torpedo boats, five submarines (MinerveJunon) and a number of other smaller vessels.

As soon as the summer 1940, the submarines Minerve and Junon, as well as four avisos, departed from Plymouth. Towards the end of 1940, the destroyers Le Triomphant and Léopard followed. Le Triomphant sailed for New Caledonia and spent the rest of the war based there and in Australia. The ship saw action in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

To distinguish the FNFL from the Vichist forces, Vice-Admiral Émile Muselier created the bow flag displaying the French colours with a red Cross of Lorraine, and a cocarde also featuring the Cross of Lorraine for aircraft of the Free French Naval Air Service (Aéronavale Française Libre) and the Free French Air Force (Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres).

A number of ships were leased from the British to compensate for the lack of warships in the FNFL, among them, the Hunt-class destroyer  La Combattante  and the Flower-class corvette Aconit.

The FNFL suffered their first loss when the patrol boat Poulmic hit a mine and sank on 7 November 1940 off Plymouth.


Soon after the fall of France, Free France was but a government in exile based in England, with no land of its own to speak of and very few land or sea forces. In an attempt to establish his authority on an important French territory, General de Gaulle attempted to rally French West Africa by personally sailing to Dakar with a British fleet which included a few Free French units; at the same time, a cruiser force had been sent by Vichy France to reclaim African territories which had already announced their support to De Gaulle (notably Chad). The resulting Battle of Dakar ended on a Vichist victory. However, after the occupation of Vichy France by the Germans after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, French West Africa also eventually joined the Free French.

When it did, important ships based in Dakar were obtained: the modern battleship Richelieu, the heavy cruiser Suffrenlight cruisers GloireMontcalmGeorges Leygues, and a few destroyers, including cruiser-sized Le Fantasque-class destroyers.

Role in the French Resistance

Captain d'Estienne d'Orves attempted to unite the French Resistance, became an inspiring symbol when he was arrested, tortured by the Gestapo and executed.

D-Day: Operation Neptune

In the summer of 1944, the Invasion of Normandy took place. The FNFL took part in both naval side of the operations, Operation Neptune, and to the landing itself, with the Naval Commandos (Commandos Marine) of Captain Philippe Kieffer, climbing cliffs under fire to destroy German shore batteries.

The merchant fleet of the FNFL suffered heavy casualties, amounting to one quarter of its men. A number of warships were lost, notably the submarine Surcouf, possibly sunk in a friendly fire incident. Other losses include the destroyers LéopardMimosaAlysse, and La Combattante; submarine Narval; patrol boats Poulmic and Vikings.




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