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FS Maillé Brézé

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Tail of the Bank, 2009
Tail of the Bank
© Thomas Nugent

FS Maillé Brézé was a French ship, a Vauquelin-class destroyer of the French Navy named after a Grand Admiral of the 17th century, which was destroyed while at anchor in the Tail of the Bank off Greenock.

On April 30, 1940, at 14:15 local time, an armed torpedo was launched on to the vessel's deck when a torpedo tube malfunctioned. The resulting explosion set fire to the fuel tanks and the forward magazine which, fortunately, did not immediately explode.

The ship had been launched at St Nazaire on November 9, 1930, and entered service 3 years later. The ship was a large contre-torpilleur destroyer having a displacement of 2441 tons, fitted with seven torpedo tubes, and mounted with five 5.5-inch guns. The destroyer had just returned to the Clyde for maintenance after escorting the battleship Bretange and the cruiser Algerie across the Atlantic, where they had delivered the French gold reserves for safe keeping in Canada.

The destroyer had been lying in the crowded anchorage when there was an explosion on board followed by fire. The aircraft carrier HMS Furious was anchored nearby, and Lieutenant DS Johnston led a rescue party from the carried, including a doctor and a sick berth attendant. The party climbed the Maillé Brézé’s anchor chain to get on board, despite being told by a French sailor who had been blown off the ship into the water, that the forward magazine was not flooded. The party found a group of men trapped in the forecastle - the initial explosion had badly damaged the bow hatch, they were cut off by the resultant faire. The rescuers could do nothing to free the men, and the doctor is reported to have administered doses of morphine to all who get their arms out of the portholes. When the deck became too hot for the party to remain, the doctor passed the syringe and the remaining doses of morphine through one of the portholes.

All the small boats in Albert Harbour, next to the naval headquarters, were sent out to assist.

HMS Barfield, a boom defence vessel, raised steam and headed towards the Maillé Brézé. The tried to get alongside with their fire hoses at the ready, but were driven off by large explosions.

By this time, shells were raining down all around the area, and the anchorage was in chaos as warships, tankers, and other ships tried to get away from the danger, most leaving the buoy jumpers sitting astride their buoys.

By 16:00, all the ready use ammunition had exploded and there was nobody left alive on board.

The tug Marauder took the damaged vessel in tow, still afloat despite the damage. The tug had to drop the tow as the bow compartments had become red hot in the fire, and the forward magazine was still in danger of exploding.

Five and a half hours after the first explosion the Maillé Brézé sank by the bow, settling on a sandbank which was clear of all the navigation channels.

Accounts vary as to the number of casualties. John D Drummond in "A River Runs to War", 1960, states that 6 died on the upper deck, 30 trapped in the forecastle died, and a further 47 were hospitalised.

Osborne and Armstrong, in "The Clyde at War", 2001, state that a total of 28 died with 7 bodies recovered and buried in Greenock Cemetery, while the remaining fatalities were those trapped in the forecastle.

As regards the cause of the fire, the accepted account describes how a torpedo tube had been turned inwards for maintenance, and a live torpedo accidentally fired inwards and downwards to the heart of the ship. Other accounts state that an accident happened while a live torpedo was being moved, and exploded after being dropped.

In 1954, the wreck of the Maillé Brézé was raised and taken to the Ardmore sandbank. The remains of the crewmen trapped in the forecastle were removed in August 1954 with full naval honours, after which a requiem mass was held in St Lawrence’s Church in the east end of Greenock. The remains were then taken to France for burial, and the ship was taken to Smith & Houston’s breakers yard in Port Glasgow.

There appears to be some confusion reported regarding the purpose of the Free French Memorial which sits above Greenock on Lyle Hill, and overlooks the Tail of the Bank. This is sometimes either wrongly attributed to the Maillé Brézé, or queried regarding the absence of any reference to the accident on the monument.

It seems that the Free French forces, to which the memorial is dedicated, did not come into being until a few months after the sinking of the destroyer,

Memorial

Maillé Brézé Memorial, 2012
Maillé Brézé Memorial
© Bill Nicholls

There is a memorial to those who died in the sinking of the Maillé Brézé, at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey, England.[1]

References

1 Maille Breze Memorial - WyrdLight Retrieved April 10, 2013.

  • A River Runs to War, John D Drummond, 1960.
  • The Clyde at War, Brian D Osborne & Ronald Armstrong, 2001.

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