Battle of Gabon
|Battle of Gabon|
|Part of World War II|
Free French Hotchkiss H39 tanks during the Battle of Gabon
|Commanders and leaders|
Georges Masson †|
Marcel Tetu (POW)
unknown land strength|
1 heavy cruiser
1 cargo ship
unknown land strength|
|Casualties and losses|
4 aircraft destroyed
unknown human losses|
1 aviso destroyed
1 submarine scuttled
The Battle of Gabon (French: Bataille du Gabon), also called the Gabon Campaign (Campagne du Gabon), occurred in November 1940 during World War II. The battle resulted in the Free French Forces taking the colony of Gabon and its capital, Libreville, from Vichy French forces. It was the only significant engagement in Central Africa during the war.
In June 1940, Germany invaded and defeated France, and subsequently occupied a portion of the country. Philippe Pétain established a collaborationist government in Vichy to administer unoccupied French territory. On 18 June French General Charles De Gaulle broadcast an appeal over the radio to his compatriots abroad, calling on them to reject the Vichy regime and join the United Kingdom in its war against Germany and Italy. The broadcast provoked division in France's African territories, where colonists were forced to choose sides.
On 26 August, the governor and military commanders in the colony of Chad announced that they were rallying to De Gaulle's Free French Forces. A small group of Gaullists seized control of Cameroon the following morning, and on 28 August a Free French official ousted the pro-Vichy governor of Moyen-Congo. The next day the governor of Oubangui-Shari declared that his territory would support De Gaulle. His declaration prompted a brief struggle for power with a pro-Vichy army officer, but by the end of the day all of the colonies that formed French Equatorial Africa had rallied to Free France, except for Gabon. On the evening of 28–29 August 1940, Governor Georges Masson had pledged Gabon's allegiance to Free France. He met immediate opposition from much of Libreville's French population and from Gabon's influential, conservative Catholic bishop, Louis Tardy, who favoured Vichy France's anti-Freemason policies. Facing pressure, Masson was forced to rescind his pledge. Free French sympathizers were subsequently arrested by the colonial administration and either imprisoned on board the auxiliary cruiser Cap des Palmes or deported to Dakar, Senegal. De Gaulle was perturbed by Gabon's refusal to join his cause and described his dilemma in his memoirs: "a hostile enclave, that was hard to reduce because it gave on to the ocean, was created in the heart of our equatorial holdings." General Edgard de Larminat stated that the failure to secure the territory would threaten "the very principle of our presence in Africa."
On 8 October 1940, De Gaulle arrived in Douala, Cameroon. Four days later he authorised plans for the invasion of French Equatorial Africa. He wanted to use French Equatorial Africa as a base to launch attacks into Axis-controlled Libya. For this reason, he personally headed northward to survey the situation in Chad, located on the southern border of Libya.
On 27 October, Free French forces crossed into French Equatorial Africa and took the town of Mitzic. On 5 November, the Vichy garrison at Lambaréné capitulated. Meanwhile, the main Free French forces under General Philippe Leclerc and Battalion Chief (major) Marie Pierre Koenig departed from Douala, French Cameroon. Their goal was to take Libreville, French Equatorial Africa. The British expressed doubt in De Gaulle's ability to establish control over the Vichy territory, but they eventually agreed to lend naval support to the Free French.[a]
On 8 November 1940, the Shoreham-class sloop HMS Milford discovered the Vichy Redoutable-class submarine Poncelet shadowing the Anglo-French task force and gave chase. The sloop was too slow to intercept the submarine, so Admiral Cunningham ordered his flagship, HMS Devonshire, to launch its Supermarine Walrus biplane. The aircraft straddled the submarine with two salvos of 100 lb depth charges as it attempted to dive, damaging it. It was then scuttled off Port-Gentil, with the captain resolving to sink with his vessel. Koenig's forces landed at Pointe La Mondah on the night of 8 November. His forces included French Legionnaires (including the 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade), Senegalese and Cameroonian troops.
On 9 November, Free French Westland Lysander aircraft operating out of Douala bombed Libreville aerodrome. The aerodrome was eventually captured, despite stiff resistance met by Koenig's force in its approach. Free French naval forces consisting of the minesweeper Commandant Dominé and the cargo vessel Casamance were led by Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu aboard the Bougainville-class aviso Savorgnan de Brazza in conducting coastal operations. De Brazza attacked and sank her sister ship, the Vichy French Bougainville. Libreville was captured on 10 November.
The Free French lost four aircraft and six aircrew in the campaign. There is disagreement about the total number of human losses. De Gaulle said "some twenty" died in the campaign. Jean-Christophe Notin claimed 33 were killed. Eliane Ebako wrote that "dozens" lost their lives, while Jean-Pierre Azéma said "roughly one hundred" were killed.
On 15 November, de Gaulle made a personal appeal that failed to persuade most of the captured Vichy soldiers—including General Marcel Têtu—to join the Free French. As a result, they were interned as prisoners of war in Brazzaville, French Congo for the duration of the war.
With their control consolidated in Equatorial Africa, the Free French began focusing on the campaign in Italian Libya. De Gaulle relieved General Leclerc of his post in Cameroon and sent him to Fort Lamy, Chad to oversee offensive preparations.
The conflict in Gabon triggered a mass migration of Gabonese to Spanish Guinea. French Equatorial Africa cut its ties with the Vichy-controlled West African territories, and rebuilt its economy around trade with nearby British possessions, namely Nigeria. Tensions between Vichy and Free French factions remained long after the invasion. The seizure of Gabon and the rest of French Equatorial Africa gave Free France new-found legitimacy. No longer was it an organization of exiles in Britain, as it now had its own sizable territory to govern.
- Kennedy, David M. The Library of Congress World War II Companion p.466
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- Stapleton, Timothy J. A military History of Africa p. 225
- Histoires de Français Libres ordinaires. Entrée au Gabon - Octobre 1940 (in French)
- Ordre De La Liberation Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu (in French)
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- Jennings 2015, p. 84.
- Ebako, Éliane. Le ralliement du Gabon à la France libre: Une guerre franco-française, septembre–décembre 1940. PhD thesis. University of Paris IV, 2004.
- Labat, René. Le Gabon devant le Gaullisme. Paris: Delmas, 1941.
- La vérité sur l'affaire du Gabon, Septembre–Octobre–Novembre 1940: Allocutions prononcées à la chambre de commerce de Dakar le 4 avril 1941 par MM. Chamussuy, Aumasson et Boisson. Dakar: Grande imprimerie africaine, 1941.
- Ntoma Mengome, Barthélémy. La bataille de Libreville: De Gaulle contre Pétain: 50 morts. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2013.
- Free French order of battle (in French)