The Rubis, a submarine belonging to the Free French Navy, found themselves with a torpedo stuck in one tube, malfunctioning ballast tanks and leaking batteries, in the middle of a German minefield. Essentially, the French navy faced a difficult choice, one that would be made all the more complicated by Germany’s invasion in 1940. The armistice agreement demanded the return of French naval units to stop the integration into Germany’s Kriegsmarine and to avoid defeat, some French commanders decided to wait out the war in some far-flung tropical port, but others continued fighting with their British allies.
RUBIS, a Saphir-class minelaying submarine based in Dundee, Scotland when France capitulated to Germany’s forces, chose not to return home. This was the start of “Operation Catapult” Winston Churchill’s plan to keep French warships out of German hands that resulted in 1,300 casualties at Mers-el-Kebir. Infused with love for their homeland, the sailors embarked on life with Britain. Their enthusiasm and heroism during the war influenced many things; most notably, they encouraged more Naval ships to fight on behalf of France. At war’s end, the tiny Rubis would be one of the most successful units of the Free French Navy.
The first time the Rubis submarine was used was in April of 1933. It could reach a top speed of 9 knots while on battery power and 12 knots on surface. Twin diesel engines in a sub only 70 meters long and with a surface displacement of 760 tons, it carried 42 crewmembers, five torpedo tubes (two external), and 32 mines. its guns were a standard 75mm deck gun, one 13.2mm machine gun and two 8mm machine guns.
The submarine Rubis gained fame as it sailed between French towns during the 1930s and 1940s. The submarine’s dog, Bacchus, became a symbol of the sub and was seen on deck when the boat was welcomed by a crowd.
The Rubis participated in the Norway campaign to prevent German occupation. After the Allies were forced to cede Norway to the Germans, the Rubis remained stationed in Dundee where it was docked when Paris surrendered during May 20th of 1940.
Upon promotion to captain in 1941, Henri Rousselot commands the Rubis and its crew. They are ordered to mine channels off of the coast of Norway. This was Rousselot’s second mission as captain and his crew was excited. Poor weather led to difficult sailing conditions, but this made their crew feel more like heroes.
Norway’s coastal location helped the Germans bypass the British blockade with steel and other precious materials. Also, Norway was also able to produce iron ore that Germany was in need of for their military machinery. By placing mines on Norwegian shores, the supply lines of raw materials were halted from flowing uninterupted.
After the first dispersal, Rousselot noticed a tanker steaming in the opposite direction. He ordered the stern number 3 external tube fired. There was a whoosh followed by a countdown, but there was no explosion.
The gunner insisted the torpedo had been fired—pressure gauges indicated the tube was open, but their periscope showed no wake of a running torpedo.
There was a hum coming from the stern of the Rubis that didn’t make any sense. Suddenly, the crew realized that it must have been a torpedo stuck in the tube and would explode on contact with something. The relief came in knowing that as long as nothing hit the back of the ship, then they were safe. They couldn’t do anything about it so they got over the danger quickly, like they had always done before.
The tanker disappeared out of reach for the submarine.
Following the release of their last mine, four ships emerged from the channel headed right for the Rubis. Two ships were convoy escorts and the other two were merchants flying the swastika.
Once the Rubis was submerged, the convoy’s spotters could not see it and the crew went to action stations once more. Rousselot fired both bow tubes and after a short interval a tremendous crash knocked out their lights. The submarine tilted steeply, which threatened to cause them to surface uncontrollably.
The submarine was badly damaged since the torpedo hit another ship. We had to see the shadow of the sinking ship through our window.
The crew was told to go to the bow in order to level the boat. They then took it down, resting it on the bottom to await the attack. After a few blasts that might have been depth charges or mines hitting from the convoy, there was silence for several minutes. The attack was over and their hope for bragging about surviving had gone away after hearing about their sister ship Minerve surviving 20 depth charges on an earlier patrol.
The Rubis had to stay at the bottom of the ocean for 18 hours until any hunters gave up and rescue ships left the area. Near the end, the crew started to feel lethargic due to high levels of carbon dioxide. The Rubis had to surface.
After the explosion, the ballast tanks had been damaged and were leaking. The Rubis relied on one set to surface, which did not work on the first try. As a final resort, they all were blown up at once and surfaced in darkness minutes after 9pm.
Luckily, after a brief escape the sub managed to reach friendly waters without hitting any mines despite being in the middle of an area marked as heavily mined on sea charts. The size of this particular area meant that the mines were spread thinly and therefore unlikely to pose any threat to a submarine.
The ship’s engines died just as it slid out of sight, leaving it in the middle of a mindfield.
The battery leaked acid, which combined with the water in the bilge to create chlorine gas. The crew had to evacuate from the interior.
The Rubis was one of the French Navy’s only minelayer submarines and they were completely exposed to air attack.
The distress call from the Admiralty only brought bad news. British ships would not meet the Rubis unless she cleared the mined areas, and if she couldn’t, Catalina flying boats would rescue the crew and destroy her.
Max Horton, who was apparently in charge of the submarines and encountered many issues with the Rubis before, wanted to sink the ship. The Old Man is another character who references Max.
For a few minutes, the crew that had torpedoed their own ship realized how close they were to it. Bits of metal from their own torpedoes were stuck in the decking built for them.
The Rubis got lucky. Their submarine was spotted by the catalinas, but they missed and no aerial rescue was necessary. Instead of a tow, staff put on gas masks and got some of the batteries online. They eventually arrived at the open water, were greeted by an escort ship (cruiser), 4 destroyers, 2 tugs, and few chlorines fumes left the crew outside for the entire journey back to Dundee.
The Rubis was so successful and successful in its missions, it received a new medal: the Croix de la Liberation. Admiral Muselier awarded it to the crew of 25 men after their return from England.
Rubis, the only ship in exile navies fighting alongside the British, became a notable success, sinking several German ships. Her most fruitful month was December 1944 when she sabotaged four ships.
The French submarine mine laid more than 680 mines over 23 operations. This included mines off of the Norwegian coast as well as others. She was sent into the Bay of Biscay, to help with the task force assigned to hunt and sink German battleship Tirpitz. The mines sank 21,000 GRT (gross register tons), more than any other part of the Free French Navy combined. The total count was 12 German warships and a total of 22 enemy ships.
The Rubis was retired in 1946 and in 1958, the French government sent the Rubis to be sunk off the coast of France so that divers could visit her remains.
More detailes on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_submarine_Rubis_(1931)