One of the most daring episodes of World War 2 submarining took place on November 27, 1942.
That story comes from the French Navy in the port of Toulon in a most unexpected fashion. On that day, the officers and men of the Casabianca disobeyed the orders of the Vichy French and managed to pull off a great escape all their own.
The story started for the brave ship and crew many years before the first shots were fired.
The French Navy between the wars was as state of the art as any of the major powers. Battleships, Cruisers, Destroyers and a healthy respect for submarines were all part of the French contribution to the world’s navies. Casabianca was a Redoubtable Class submarine that was commissioned in 1935.
As submarines of her era go, she was a capable vessel indeed.
- Displacement: 1500 tonnes (surfaced) 2000 tonnes (submerged)
- Length: 92.30 m
- Propulsion:2 diesels, of 4,300 hp 2 electric engines of 1,200 hp
- Speed:20 knots (surfaced) 10 knots (submerged)
- Range: 14,000 nautical miles (26,000 km) at 7 knots (13 km/h),
10,000 nautical miles (20,000 km) at 10 knots (20 km/h)
4,000 nautical miles (7,000 km) at 17 knots (31 km/h)
- 90 nautical miles (170 km) at 7 knots (submerged)
- Test depth: 80 meters
- Complement: 5 officers (6 in operations) 79 men
- Armament: 11 torpedo tubes 1 x 100 mm gun 1 x 13.2 mm machine gun
Sadly, policy and politics did not prepare the French Navy for preparations any more than those of the French Army. During the phony war, the Casabianca made several patrols in the north but quickly found herself in the clutches of the Vichy. After the Fall of France and subsequent armistice, she was disarmed in 1941.
This is where the spirit of true heroes and submariners took over however.
Her new captain, Capitaine de Vaisseau Jean L’Herminier, managed to illegally restore the fighting potential of the submarine, and store 85 m³ of fuel aboard. His insight and preparations were powerful beyond measure. Hitler had a secret plan to take over the French Fleet held at Toulon as the French found themselves being slowly absorbed by the Nazi’s. Despite assurances, his plan included capturing the French fleet intact and turning it over to his Italian allies.
On the 27th, as the Wehrmacht moved in by land, French Naval forces delayed them long enough to scuttle the majority of the capital ships. But Capitaine L’Merminier and his crew took the ultimate risk; they sailed in the face of the enemy. From WIkipedia:
On the 27 November 1942, the SS stormed the harbour of Toulon to seize the French fleet, triggering the scuttling of the French fleet. As other vessels were scuttled by their crews, the Casabianca managed to set sail and dive, under fire from German forces. She sailed south to Algiers, where she surfaced in front of the screen of British patrol boats before signaling her status and intentions. Two other submarines, the Marsouin  and the Glorieux , arrived in the next few days.
From December 1942 to 1944, the Casabianca landed intelligence elements, radios, ammunitions and weapons in Corsica and Provence for the Maquis. Her elusiveness earned her the nickname of “Phantom Submarine” from German troops.
In her last mission, she landed a hundred men of the elite forces (achieving a record for a submarine of such a displacement in the process). The men were landed on an isolated beach at Arone near the village of Piana in the North West of Corsica. A monument exists there now.
During her career, the Casabianca achieved the following success :
- 1 warship sunk by torpedo
- 1 warship sunk by gun
- 1 merchantman hit by torpedo
- 7 secret missions
- Liberation of Corsica
After the liberation of Corsica, the Casabianca was used for regular patrols. In 1944, she was hit in a friendly fire accident by a British plane, and had to refit in Philadelphia until March 1945. The submarine was scrapped in 1956, but the conning tower survives — since 2004, it has been on display in Bastia near the harbor
The French Navy’s Rubis class nuclear submarine Casabianca (S 603) was named after the submarine.