Daily Event for April 30, 2015

The Maillé Brézé was one of six Vauquelin class destroyers built for the Marine Nationale in the early 1930's. She was launched on Nov. 9, 1931 at Chantiers et Ateliers de St Nazaire Penhoët in St. Nazaire and completed in 1933. The Vauquelin class were 410' long with a full load displacement of 3,140 tons. They mounted five 5"/40 main guns, various anti-aircraft guns and seven 55cm (21.7") torpedo tubes. They were designed for a complement of 230 officers and men.

On April 30, 1940 she was at Greenock, Scotland, having just returned from a trans-Atlantic voyage escorting the battleship Bretagne to Canada with the French gold reserves. A little after 2 o'clock in the afternoon there was an explosion onboard the ship. It was determined that a live torpedo discharged from the tube and exploded on the deck. The explosion set the fuel tanks on fire and trapped a number of men in the forecastle when the hatch became jammed.

HMS Furious was anchored nearby and a boat was sent from the carrier to assist the men in the destroyer. Even though they were told that the ship was burning internally and that the forward magazine was expected to explode, men from Furious, including a doctor, clambered aboard the burning ship. To their horror they could do nothing to free the men in the forecastle and as the fires inside the ship got hotter in must be assumed that they knew those men would soon die. The sailors from Furious finally had to leave as the deck of Maillé Brézé became too hot to stand on. One can not even imagine the terror of the French sailors trapped inside the burning ship.

Ammunition that was on deck exploded and by 1600 all the ready use ammunition had gone up. While many small vessels came to aide the ship, these explosions prevented them from getting too close. She was finally taken in tow, but as the forward part of the ship was getting white hot and it was feared that the magazine would explode, she was cut loose and soon sank in shallow water.

The story of the loss remained a secret until released in the press in mid August. Even though thousands of people had witnessed the sinking and had seen the survivors, even though the wounded were treated in local hospitals, no word of the disaster was leaked until the Admiralty released the news. A member of the press was told "The way the news was kept secret is a wonderful tribute to the public's sense of duty and responsibility and an example to every one engaged in work of national importance."

The sailors who had been trapped in the forecastle remained in the wreck for fourteen years. On Aug. 29, 1954 the bodies of twenty-one men were removed from the wreck, and brought ashore under full military honours by a Royal Navy Honour Guard. They were returned to France for burial. The ship was later raised and scrapped in Port Glasgow.

Maillé Brézé was the first ship in her class to sink, but all the rest of the class would join her. Chevalier Paul sank from a British aerial torpedo attack off Syria on June 16, 1941, and the remaining four ships, Cassard, Kersaint, Tartu and Vauquelin, were all scuttled at Toulon on Nov. 27, 1942.
© 2015 Michael W. Pocock