The French Cruiser ‘Emile Bertin’ Escaped Halifax With a Belly Full of Gold
The vessel switched sides twice during World War II
In June 1940, the 581-foot-long French light cruiser Émile Bertin sat docked in Halifax, when back in Europe, French officers gathered in the late Ferdinand Foch’s railway car at Compiègne to sign the humiliating armistice with Nazi Germany — sealing continental France’s subordination to German hegemony for a following four years.
Émile Bertin‘s crew and skipper found themselves in the curious situation of being docked at a country still at war with Germany after their own country had surrendered.
To complicate the situation further, the warship was on her second trip hauling gold reserves from France to shelter in Canada. Unfortunately for the Allies, the cruiser’s skipper ordered the vessel — with the gold — to dash for the Vichy-held volcanic island of Martinique in the Caribbean instead of joining the Free French Forces.
She made a successful voyage unbothered by the Royal Navy, which couldn’t catch the fast-moving cruiser.
The glamorous French steam transport ship Pasteur — another ship hauling gold — was not so lucky, and Allied troops seized her before she could make it out of port. Pasteur went on to have a productive war-time career in British service moving troops and German prisoners of war. (Pasteur‘s fate: she sank accidentally in the Indian Ocean in 1980 while being towed to a Taiwanese scrapyard.)
Above, at top and below — ‘Emile Bertin.’ Photos via World War II Database
French warships like Émile Bertin, however, had fascinating, adventurous and often tragic careers.
In July 1940, Vichy French vessels and sailors at Mers-el-Kebir off Algeria suffered heavy losses from British air and naval attack. At Dakar in 1940, French destroyers boldly shot their way out of a harbor under heavy fire while laying smoke. At Toulon in 1942, French Adm. François Darlan scuttled 77 vessels to prevent them from falling into German hands after the Nazis invaded “neutral” Vichy.
Émile Bertin was a lucky ship. Launched in 1933, she was a destroyer flotilla flagship and spent the early war — still in the Allies — moving Polish gold to French-controlled Lebanon. A sleek, fast and beautiful ship, the Émile Bertin could make 34 knots at top speed thanks to six boilers and steam turbines producing 102,000 shaft horsepower. She carried two seaplanes and a launch catapult.
For armament, the cruiser — and others of the Émile Bertin class — carried nine six-inch cannons in three turrets, two on the forward deck and one rear. She had formidable anti-aircraft defenses, including four 3.5-inch guns, eight 1.5-inchers and eight 13.2-millimeter guns. She had six torpedo tubes and also carried 200 sea mines — one of her primary duties.
Her one combat mission occurred off Norway during Operation Weseruebung, the German invasion in 1940, where she sustained damage during a German air attack. Then once in Vichy hands, she sat at Martinique unused and technically out of the war, although German U-boats regularly made resupply stops at the island until summer 1943, when Free French forces assumed control of the island.
Once fighting for the Allies, the United States modified her in Philadelphia, removing the torpedo tubes — unnecessary at this stage of the war — while reconfiguring her anti-aircraft armament and removing the two seaplanes and catapult. The best available record for her remaining service is within U.S. Atlantic Fleet wartime records.
In 1944, she fired her guns to support troops in Italy and carried out a preliminary bombardment of Porquerolles, an island strongpoint off the coast of southern France — aiding in the Allied landings during Operation Dragoon.
“Big Willie,” an enormous stationary turret with two 340-millimeter guns on Cap Cepet near Toulon, shot at Émile Bertin but missed. The 1,800 sailors manning “Big Willie” and other guns at Cap Capet would later surrender after the liberation of Paris.
She spent her remaining years serving in southeast Asia, and then as a training ship until 1959, when she was scrapped.