An illustration of the Free French submarine Surcouf, which was refitted at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1941. (Artwork by Rama, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)On July 28, 1941, one of the world’s largest submarines glided into the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, located in Kittery, Maine directly across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth.
Aurore Eaton/New Hampshire Union Leader
23 April 2015
At 361 feet long, and brandishing impressive weaponry, the French submarine Surcouf would have been impossible to miss.
This one-of-a-kind vessel carried its own floatplane and had twin guns set in a water-tight turret near its conning tower. Machine guns and an anti-aircraft cannon were mounted on top of the floatplane’s hangar. The vessel was part of the Free French forces that continued to fight the Germans after Frances’s devastating defeat in June 1940.
The appearance of the Surcouf at an American naval base was a violation of the United States’ policy of neutrality in regard to the war raging in Europe. So in the weeks that followed, the Surcouf was refitted and its officers and crew mingled with the locals, but nothing could be said in public.
Finally, on Sept. 6, 1941, an article in the Portsmouth Herald newspaper stated, “Better Late Than Never! Great news for the citizens of Portsmouth today was released by the Navy department in Washington. Officially an impenetrable shroud of secrecy was lifted from a ’boat’ at the Portsmouth navy yard, from which non-English speaking, blue-uniformed sailors have romped into Portsmouth for several months. Once the unmentionables even played soccer-football for the local Bundles for Britain [war relief effort].”
The article explained that the vessel was being repaired under the terms of the Lend-Lease act as “one of a number of French submarines whose crews had decided to put in with Britain after France fell.”
The Lend-Lease policy, which went into effect in March 1941, was a mechanism for funneling war aid to America’s allies in the name of national defense. Helping the Free French in 1941, however, was a diplomatically shaky venture. At this time, the United States recognized the Vichy government, and not the Free French, as the official representative of France. The Vichy regime had been allowed by the conquering Germans to control the portion of southern France that the Germans did not yet occupy as well as France’s overseas territories. Despite this situation, the Free French, under the leadership of General Charles de Gaulle, found great support among the American people.
Once the word was out that the Surcouf was in Kittery, stories about it began to appear in American and Canadian newspapers. Also reported was the fact that two British submarines in Kittery were being refitted at the same time: the HMS Parthian and HMS Pandora. The officers of the three vessels worked closely together, even sharing office space at the shipyard. A British officer was assigned to the Surcouf as a liaison.
The local inhabitants in Maine and New Hampshire embraced the crew of the Surcouf, as well as the sailors of the British vessels. Communication with the French sailors was facilitated by their acting captain, 35-year-old Lieutenant Commander Louis G. Blaison, a fluent English speaker.
The locals were eager to honor their overseas visitors, inviting crewmen to be their special guests at local events. In early October, the British and French seamen faced off in a well-publicized charity soccer match at Philips Exeter Academy, about 23 miles from Portsmouth. The score was tied at 2 to 2. On Oct. 28, an officer of the Surcouf, Capitaine de Corvette J. Rosignal, was the guest speaker at a Girl Scout parent banquet at Kittery Point. And on Nov. 1, the officers of the Surcouf were treated to a lobster dinner as a fond farewell at a private home in Portsmouth. Among them were the chief machinist, chief torpedoman and the chief electrician.
The Surcouf left the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on Nov. 11, 1941. On Dec. 24 it joined three Free French ships in the peaceful takeover of the Vichy-controlled islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, which are about 25 miles from Newfoundland, Canada. On Feb. 2, 1942, the Surcouf set off from Halifax, Nova Scotia, bound for the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean. It disappeared several days later, likely sunk in a collision with a freighter off the coast of Panama.
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