On 8 November 1942 the Allies invaded French North Africa (Operation Torch). General Dwight Eisenhower, with the support of Roosevelt and Churchill, made a secret agreement with Admiral François Darlan, commander of Vichy Naval forces, that Darlan would be given control of French North Africa if he joined the Allied side. When Adolf Hitler discovered this plan, he immediately triggered Case Anton, the occupation of Vichy France, and reinforced German forces in Africa.
From 11 November 1942 negotiations took place between Germany and Vichy France. The settlement was that Toulon should remain a "stronghold" under Vichy control and defended against the Allies and "French enemies of the government of the Marechal". Großadmiral Raeder, commander of the Kriegsmarine, believed that French Navy officers would fulfill their armistice duty not to let the ships fall in the hands of any foreign nation, and managed to have the ear of Hitler. Raeder was led to believe that the German aim was to use anti-British sentiment amongst the French sailors to have them side with the Italians, while Hitler was in fact preparing a forcible seizure of the fleet….>On the French side, as a token of goodwill towards the Germans, coastal defences were strengthened to safeguard Toulon from an attack from the sea by the Allies. These preparations included setups for scuttling the fleet in case of a successful landing by the Allies…. Under armistice provisions, the French ships were supposed to have their fuel tanks almost empty; in fact, through falsification of reports and tampering with gauges, the crews had managed to store enough fuel to reach North Africa. One of the cruisers, Jean de Vienne, was in drydock, helpless. After the remnants of the French Army were required by the Germans to disband, French sailors had to man coastal defense artillery and anti-aircraft guns themselves, which made it impossible to swiftly gather the crews and have the ships quickly underway.
Crews were initially hostile to the Allied invasion but, out of the general anti-German sentiment and as rumours about Darlan's defection circulated, this stance evolved towards backing of De Gaulle. The crews of Strasbourg, Colbert, Foch and Kersaint, notably, started chanting "Vive De Gaulle! Appareillage!" ("Long live De Gaulle! Set sail!"). In the afternoon of the 12th, Admiral Darlan further escalated the tension by calling for the fleet to defect and join the Allies….
On 19 November, Operation Lila was triggered by the Germans, with the objective of capturing Toulon and the French fleet, with an execution date of 27 November. German forces were to enter Toulon from the east, capturing Fort Lamalgue, headquarters of Admiral Marquis, and Mourillon arsenal; and from the west, capturing the main arsenal and the coastal defences. German naval forces were cruising off the harbour to engage any ships attempting to flee, and naval mines were laid.
The combat groups entered Toulon at 04:00 on 27 November 1942 and made for the harbour, meeting only weak and sporadic resistance. At 04:30 the Germans entered Fort Lamalgue and arrested Marquis, but failed to prevent his chief of staff, Contre-Amiral Robin, from calling the chief of the arsenal, Contre-Admiral Dornon. The attack came as a complete surprise to the Vichy officers, but Dornon transmitted the order to scuttle the fleet to Admiral Laborde aboard the flagship Strasbourg. Laborde was taken aback by the German operation, but transmitted orders to prepare for scuttling, and to fire on any unauthorised personnel approaching the ships. Twenty minutes later, German troops entered the arsenal and started machine-gunning the French submarines. Some of the submarines set sail to scuttle in deeper water. Casabianca left her moorings, sneaked out of the harbour and dived at 5:40am, escaping to Algiers.
The German main force got lost in the arsenal and was behind schedule by one hour; when they reached the main gates of the base, the sentries pretended to need paperwork so as to delay the Germans without engaging in an open fight. At 5:25am, German tanks finally rolled through, and Strasbourg immediately transmitted the order "Scuttle! Scuttle! Scuttle!" by radio, visual signals and dispatch boat. French crews evacuated, and scuttling parties started preparing demolition charges and opening sea valves on the ships. At 6:45am fighting broke out around Strasbourg and Foch, killing a French officer and wounding five sailors. When naval guns started engaging the German tanks, the Germans attempted to negotiate; a German officer demanded that Laborde surrender his ship, to which the admiral answered that the ship was already sunk. As Strasbourg settled on the bottom, her captain ordered the ignition of the demolition charges, which destroyed the armament and vital machinery, as well as igniting her fuel stores. Strasbourg was a total loss. A few minutes later the cruiser Colbert exploded. The German party attempting to board the cruiser Algérie heard the explosions and tried to persuade her crew that scuttling was forbidden under the armistice provisions. However, the demolition charges were detonated, and the ship burned for twenty days….
The Germans eventually seized three disarmed destroyers, four badly damaged submarines, three civilian ships, and the remains of two battleships of no value….
Operation Lila was a failure. The French destroyed 77 vessels, including 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 1 school ship, 28 tugs and 4 cranes. Thirty-nine small ships were captured, most of them sabotaged and disarmed. Some of the major ships were ablaze for several days, and oil polluted the harbour so badly that it was two years before it was possible to swim there. Several submarines ignored orders to scuttle and chose to defect to French North Africa: Casabianca and Marsouin reached Algiers, Glorieux reached Oran. Iris reached Barcelona. Vénus eventually scuttled in the entrance of Toulon harbour. One surface ship, Leonor Fresnel, managed to escape and reach Algiers.
General De Gaulle heavily criticised the Vichy admirals for not ordering the fleet to flee to Algiers.
The Vichy regime lost its last token of power, and its credibility with the Germans, with the fleet.
Most of the cruisers were salvaged by the Italians, either to restore them as fighting ships or for scrap. The Jean de Vienne and La Galissonnière were renamed FR11 and FR12, respectively, but their repair was prevented by allied bombing and their use would have been unlikely, given the Italians' chronic shortage of fuel...