On 30 April 1940 the French destroyer Maillé Brézé was at anchor off Greenock, on the Clyde. Seamen were working on one of the ship’s deck-level torpedo tubes. Whether through human error or technical fault, it’s not known, the tube fired and sent a live torpedo across the deck.
The weapon detonated and exploded, setting fire to fuel tanks and an armaments store. The ship began to sink slowly, trapping men below decks. Despite great bravery by firefighters from Greenock and nearby ships, the blaze could not be brought under control. Finally, fearing an explosion that would have killed all on board, the order to abandon ship was given at 3:15pm.
A plan to tow the ship to safer waters was abandoned. There was already too much water inside the Maillé Brézé. Instead, a small number of sailors re boarded the vessel. They opened the sea cocks to speed up the rate of sinking. The aim was to flood the forward magazine and cushion any subsequent explosion. An effort that was only partly successful. The ship’s upper works remained out of the water for years, a visible reminder of the loss of men and ship.
All of those trapped on the ship’s mess deck lost their lives. If they were not killed by the explosion or fire, they were drowned as the ship sank below the waters of the Clyde. It later emerged that medical staff were taken out from Greenock to give massive doses of morphine to trapped men who were holding their arms out of portholes. They were aware of their imminent fate. In total, the disaster killed 37 crewmen. Forty-seven were injured. The dead, who were on deck when the accident happened, were buried in Greenock. After the war, they were disinterred to be returned to rest forever in their native France.
Maillé Brézé was a heavily armed warship carrying shells for her many deck, machine and anti-aircraft guns. In addition, she had 12 torpedo tubes and enough depth charges to sustain a submarine hunt. Had she exploded at her anchorage that event may have caused nearby naval and merchant ships to explode, be badly damaged or sunk. The deep anchorage off Greenock is known as The Tail O the Bank. It was one of the most important assembly locations for Atlantic convoys and their naval escorts. They came together at The Tail O the Bank before sailing to the USA and Canada to bring back vital supplies of food and arms to sustain Britain’s war effort.
Schools closed and children evacuated to the hills above Greenock
Such was the fear of the shock wave from a massive explosion reaching Greenock, that schools were closed. Police officers guided the children to the moors at the back of the town. They were told to avert their eyes and not look at the Maillé Brézé. The fire on the vessel and the plume of black smoke it produced were visible for miles. Keeping young eyes from witnessing the terrible scene was as much to do with security as concern for their welfare. It was essential that the Nazis got no wind of the disaster. It would have been used as propaganda tool to undermine morale in France. Local chatter was to be kept to a minimum.
Meanwhile, church halls were being opened as casualty stations in case the local infirmary could not cope with the number of injured. As it was, just one hall was called into service as a mortuary for the bodies of those killed by the initial explosion.
Much admiration was evident in the towns of the Clyde for the firemen who had braved great danger in attempting to save lives and save the ship. There was sympathy too for those who had to make the terrible decision to scuttle her. The trapped men were sacrificed to reduce the threat to many thousands of others. Greenock then was a town of over 70,000 people, a huge number of them carrying out vital war work in shipyards and engineering shops along the banks of the river. The young Frenchmen died in the hope that a far greater catastrophe would be avoided.
Maillé Brézé never exploded. She lay semi-exposed and a constant danger for fourteen years. The authorities eventually decided she had to be cut up. Work began in 1954. Teams were brought in to remove the rusting bombs and other armaments. Human remains were removed and, with what those involved said was with great dignity and respect, taken ashore and then to France, to join their shipmates in their final resting place.
Greenock has no memorial to the men of the Maillé Brézé
Surprisingly, there is no memorial in Greenock to the men who lost their lives in the Maillé Brézé tragedy. There is, high above Greenock and overlooking Gourock, the Clyde estuary and the hills of Argyle, a great white Cross of Lorraine and anchor. This is the Free French Memorial. The leader of the Free French forces and later president of France, General Charles de Gaulle, adopted the Cross of Lorraine, with its distinctive double bars, as the symbol of the Free French.
The Greenock memorial was paid for by the officers and men of the Free French forces in memory of their colleagues who lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic. On a tablet in Greenock’s municipal buildings, it says the Free French veterans also dedicated the memorial to the people of Scotland in recognition of their friendship and support in those dark days.
Every year on Armistice Day, an official representative of the French government is joined by local dignitaries and members of the public to lay wreathes and remember those Frenchmen who gave their lives in the cause of liberty. The ceremony has been a part of Inverclyde’s Remembrance Sunday for as long as most local people can recall. It also marks a bond between the people of Inverclyde and the people of France that many still hold dear.
If you walk up Lyle Hill to the Free French memorial, you’ll be rewarded with the most spectacular views. It is said that on a clear day, you can see seven counties. Read the inscription carved in stone on the plinth of the great cross, look out to the west towards America and remember the men of France who gave their lives on this river and on the grey Atlantic Ocean beyond.
“This monument is dedicated to the memory of the sailors of the free French forces who sailed from Greenock in the years 1940 -1945 and gave their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic for the Liberation of France and the success of the Allied cause.”
There are still local people who believe the memorial was raised in memory of the casualties of Maillé Brézé. That’s not the case, but almost by default it has also become their memorial. Perhaps it is time for one just for them.
In his novel, The death of the Fronsac, Scottish novelist, journalist and broadcaster, Neal Ascherson, who lived for a time in wartime Greenock, renames Maillé Brézé, Fronsac. The story of the ship is one of the central themes of his book, though deeper themes of love, loss and Scotland run through the novel. The Death of the Fronsac is available in many good bookshops and online.