This week in the war, on 23 September 1940, the Free French leader, Charles de Gaulle, arrived with a Royal Navy task force at Dakar on the coast of the Vichy-controlled colony of French West Africa. He sailed on board the Dutch liner Westernland, which flew Free France’s new flag: the French tricolour with the Cross of Lorraine at the centre.
Despite the threat of a German invasion of the British Isles (Operation Sealion), Britain was willing to divert appreciable resources to continue its (undeclared) war against neutral Vichy.
“Remember this,” de Gaulle had announced on the BBC, “France does not stand alone. Behind her stands a vast empire.” He was not referring to the British Empire, but to the French Empire. The plan was to stage a British/Free French landing at Dakar to recapture the colony.
The Royal Navy’s two old battleships, Barham and Resolution, and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, were pitted against the shore batteries and the modern French battleship Richelieu. The defenders refused to surrender, or to join the Gaullist cause, and their determined defence eventually caused the attackers to withdraw. It was only a minor setback for the British cause, considering that, closer to home, the RAF was winning the Battle of Britain.
The Vichy forces in Dakar would eventually join the Allied cause in 1942, after the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch), and the Richelieu would sail to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs. Notice, in the picture to the left, that the battleship’s second turret has a gun missing—the result of an explosion in the barrel in September 1940 during the battle for Dakar.