The SS “Ile De France” in Southern African Waters 1940-1945
There must still be quite a few folk who had the privilege of sailing aboard the French Luxury liner, the SS Ile De France, this exquisite ship making its last voyage on the 1 November 1958.
The SS Ile De France was not the largest ship to sail the seas (a Behemoth nonetheless), neither was she the fastest, but this graceful and majestic Lady of the Oceans was considered the most aesthetically pleasing ship, after the “Normandie”, to be built by the French, and her links with Southern Africa are interesting to relate.
Built in thirty-three months by the Chantier de Penhoet in St. Nazaire, the SS Ile De France was launched on the 14 March 1926.
Known to her architects and builders as plain old “SS 5”, she was christened Ile De France by Mademoiselle Fould, the shipyard president’s wife, for the “heart” of France, comprising Paris and the five surrounding departments, bounded by the rivers Seine, Marne, Oise, Aisne, and Ourqc.
Having plied the oceans for thirteen years, and warmed the cockles of many a privileged passenger’s heart, the SS Ile De France then went to war.
It was 1940, and the Second World War was about to begin in earnest. The “Phoney War” was almost over, and France was about to begin her five years of abject servitude under the heel of Hitler’s Germany.
At six o’clock that evening, the SS Ile De France, then at New York, set sail for Marseille, after which she then embarked for Saigon, in French Indo- China, in order to bring Indo-Chinese labourers back to France.
Her whereabouts were known to the Germans and her captain and crew listened anxiously and attentively to the radio, and it was, just prior to her arrival at Cape Town on the 14 June, that the SS Ile De France received awful tidings.
The Germans had entered Paris. While docked at Cape Town, German radio announced, rather astonishingly, that the Ile De France was in Cape Town; the ship’s radio officers drinking a grim toast of congratulations to the German Secret Service and their South African informants.
On the 16 June 1940, two days after arriving at the Cape, The SS Ile De France then sailed for Saigon. The war-years dragged on, and in 1941 we find the SS Ile De France making a strenuous series of dashes between Suez and Durban, with occasional calls at Aden and Bombay: “She was sometimes in convoy, often alone, relying on her 24-knot speed and zigzag to elude enemy attack.”
The war was going rather grimly for the Italians in North Africa, and the SS Ile De France carried a number of Italian Prisoners-of-war guarded by Greek soldiers and Palestine Police, and in turn carried Zulus and Basutos from Durban to Suez.
The Basutos, hailing from Basutoland, in South Africa were superbly disciplined troops, but they were “far from sophisticated” and on one occasion a contingent “gave way to panic when the Ile De France began to move away from her quay,” because the Basutos “had thought, when being marched aboard, that they were entering an enormous building”.
It was totally and utterly inconceivable to them that any structure so huge and elaborate could possibly be a ship!
When there were Zulus and Basutos aboard, there were often singing competitions and dancing. Although no longer a cruise ship, but now a rugged troopship, life aboard the SS Ile De France was not entirely intolerable.
Danger was a constant companion, such as the sight of the bombed “Georgiac”, sinking fast by the stern as the SS Ile De France arrived with troops at Suez on the 21 July 1941, or when assigned to an escort party guarding a thousand Italian P.O.W.s and bound for Durban, the ship’s crew discovering a number of wooden crates containing light machine guns and the necessary ammunition.
The consequences could have been disastrous. An overhaul of her boilers overdue, the SS Ile De France was laid up in Port Elizabeth, situated on South Africa’s east coast, from the 10 September to the 13 December 1941, and again from the 26 March to the 8 April 1942.
Not only her boilers were overhauled, but extensive re-fitting increased the SS Ile De France’s troop-carrying capacity to no-less than seven thousand troops.
She still managed to make several Durban-Suez-Bomabay trips carrying British and South African troops, Italian P.O.W.s including Generals Di Girgio and Buttafuocco, and one lot of five thousand Australian troops.
Port Elizabethans took the SS Ile De France to their hearts; One Port Elizabethan in particular, the pretty school-teacher daughter of the painting contractor for the South African Railways and Harbour Board, took Radio Officer Douspis especially to her heart, and ended up marrying him.
Having been refitted, the SS Ile De France returned to service on the 9 April 1942, carrying five-thousand British troops and a contingent of WAAFS to Suez, returning to Durban with a “mixed bag of Royal Navy and R.A.F. personnel, Polish and Free French troops, and a thousand German P.O.W.s”.
It was while in the Madagascar Channel that this French Leviathan attempted to help a Royal Navy trawler in distress.
The SS Ile De France was delayed an entire day in trying, unsuccessfully, to give the tiny ship a tow, but the David and Goliath discrepancy in size proved insurmountable, as the SS Ile De France’s stern “threatened to hoist the trawler’s bow clear out of the water as soon as the big ship got under way”, the SS Ile De France finally taking some of the trawlers company aboard while summoning a destroyer to take the trawler in tow.
Inevitably tempers frayed and things went awry at times.
On one occasion, the SS Ile De France, fully-laden with 6, 500 troops, lay at dock in Durban for three grueling days, awaiting her sailing orders. Obviously and quite naturally the men “packed uncomfortably in the sweltering , poorly ventilated ship grew increasingly restless until discipline finally broke down entirely”.
Many men slid down ropes to the quay in search of girls and liquor, while rafts and furnishings were thrown overboard, and eventually “a concerted rush on the gangways was made and Military Police had to turn hoses on the troops to beat them back.
The SS Ile De France laid up in Port Elizabeth again, ready for more overhauling and refitting.
During her previous lay-ups at Port Elizabeth, sixteen of her thirty-two boilers had been overhauled, and the remaining sixteen were now renovated, while further modifications were made to her troop-carrying facilities.
It was on the 19 April 1943 that the SS Ile De France made the last of her many Durban-to-Suez voyages, sailing from Durban with 7,200 soldiers of the newly formed Sixth South African Armoured Division, who were bound for training in North Africa before later proceeding to Italy where they were to greatly distinguish themselves under Major-General Everard Poole.
They were indeed a lucky “band of men”, as it came to light after arriving at Suez on the 30 April, that an American ship had been torpedoed and sunk off Durban just a few hours after the SS Ile De France’s departure, and if this was not enough to generate consternation and anxiety, another two ships had been lost in the Indian Ocean on the very same day.
Then came rumour that the SS Ile De France was finally to sail for the United Kingdom, the first time since the outbreak of the war. And so they sailed for Durban for the last time, taking a circuitous route to avoid the exceedingly active and predatory Japanese submarine fleet operating off the coast.
She arrived in Durban on the 16 May, and shortly afterwards embarked for the United Kingdom and “service on the ocean for which she had originally been designed, the Atlantic”.
The greatest conflagration the world had ever witnessed was nearly at an end, but it would be November 1945 before South Africans were again to lay eyes on the majestic Lady of the Seas. The SS Ile De France set sail on the 7 November 1945 on a fifty-nine day voyage to Freetown, Cape Town, Mombasa, Bombay and back to Durban.
The war over, her duty now was to transport repatriated “troops and officers of both sexes and assorted colours, as well as military dependents including large numbers of children” home.
Christmas Day 1945 was celebrated aboard the crowded SS Ile De France at sea between Durban and Freetown.
But, SS Ile De France’s association with southern Africa was not quite at an end, and unfortunately it ended in sad and turbulent circumstances. It was the 13 July 1946 that the ship left Cherbourg, France, carrying nearly ten-thousand passengers, including two-thousand Senegalese troops and four-thousand Malagasy troops who hailed from their native Madagascar, most of whom were being “repatriated after more than six years away from home”. The four-thousand Madagascans were unruly from the very get-go. They had been caught up in the fighting in France in 1940 and had suffered great privation during the German occupation of France.
So here we have a vast multitude of frustrated soldiers who had not seen their native Madagascar for more than six years, while also being forced to wait a further year after the end of the war in Europe before they finally set sail for their beloved shores, having waited all that time for transport home.
Now that they were en route, their behaviour took on the persona of troops already demobilized, bacchanalian revelry being the order of the day (which is quite natural, but rather dangerous on a crowded ship bound for distant lands).
The Madagascans brawled among themselves and completely defied any attempts at military discipline.
The plot thickens when it becomes apparent that because the SS Ile De France was no longer a troopship under naval control, bars had been set up for the troops.
But so unruly were the Madagascans, or “Malgaches” as they were then known, that the other ranks’ bar was closed after just the first day at sea, and the officers’ bar only two days later.
Rather predictably, a “kind of mutiny” was staged, the men refusing to clean up either their own quarters or the cafeteria after their meals.
The Officer Commanding, nor the Madagascan officers themselves, was powerless to do anything to curb the emotions and actions of his rebellious command.
A Jesuit priest, who could speak Malagasy, subsequently sought out Commander de Guibert, the French Naval observer attached to the SS Ile De France for the outbound voyage, and pointing out to him that a young Madagascan officer, had political ambitions, whereupon de Guibert promptly suggested to the young Lieutenant that he demonstrate his qualities of leadership by organizing nine-hundred men to clean the ship.
The results were instant, and it took but one hour flat for the job to be done.
Although a tad better, the Madagascan soldiers were still barely controllable, however, and their unruliness was aggravated by the conduct of a number of female passengers who had taken advantage of the fine weather to sunbathe all over the decks of the liner, generally displaying the briefest attire possible.
Well, what transpired, is that after a few potentially nasty incidents had been narrowly averted, the Captain La Huede lost his patience and “curtly announced that women who appeared in shorts henceforth would be locked in their cabins for the rest of the voyage”.
The ship was nearing the African coast, and the threat had the desired effect; the girls were more discreet, and more importantly, the troops calmed down. Eventually Madagascar hove into sight and the soldiers from Madagascar were home at last.
And so came to an end the SS Ile De France’s association with southern Africa during the war.
This majestic ship would “soldier” on for another thirteen years, being sold to a Japanese scrapping company, departing French waters for the very last time on the 16 February 1959.
Hail the SS Ile De France; southern Africans and all those who sailed aboard this veritable Queen of the oceans, will remember her with affection!
The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek
- The SS “Ile De France” in Southern African Waters 1940-1945