Obituary: Vice-Amiral Henri Rousselot

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The Independent Online
Henri Rousselot, naval officer: born Lorraine 22 March 1912; married Margaret Marsh (one son, four daughters); died St Renan, Brest 23 August 1994.

HENRI ROUSSELOT was a gallant friend and ally of Britain (and Scotland in particular) during the Second World War.

When France fell in June 1940, Rousselot's submarine Rubis was one of the first Free French ships to join the Allies. Rubis, already in Dundee, had then completed four mine-laying operations on the coast of Norway, one up a fiord involving what was said to be the longest operational dive (about 36 hours) yet carried out. Rousselot, previously First Lieutenant, took over command in May 1941 when the commanding officer accepted another appointment after the eighth patrol.

Rousselot's second patrol in command was the most eventful in Rubis's history, and very nearly her last. While laying her mines in the prescribed position close to Egersund, in South Norway, a convoy of two ships carrying iron ore from Finland was sighted, which Rubis had been ordered to attack. Rousselot decided to attack with torpedoes after he had finished his lay: when he did so, the first ship was hit by two torpedoes but at such close range that Rubis herself was damaged and had to lie on the bottom until she could surface after dark. No serious counter-attack ensued, to the disappointment of the French sailors, who wanted to go home boasting of more than the 20 depth-charges recently dropped on their sister ship Minerve. Eventually Rubis surfaced, but with much difficulty.

Rousselot knew he could not dive again: he would have to take Rubis back to Dundee straight across the German declared minefields. 'Pouf] I have been there before, me]' he said, 'There cannot be so many mines.' Rubis proceeded on the surface for about 45 miles and then stopped, in broad summer daylight and flat calm but out of sight of the Norwegian coast. Cells in her batteries were on fire, the boat filled with chlorine gas fumes and the crew had to go on deck, part of which was wood, in which fragments of one of her torpedoes were found by the excited French sailors.

The Rubis's predicament and position were signalled to the Admiralty. Surface ships were promised and for an hour or so RAF Beaufighters gave cover and took photographs. However by nightfall no surface ships had appeared. Then a signal was received saying that the Navy would not cross the enemy mine-fields unless Rubis was attacked by surface ships, and that if Rubis could not proceed, two Catalina flying boats would be sent to take off the crew, and Rubis would have to be sunk.

As the British Naval Liaison Officer aboard, I had to decode this signal and then took it to the bridge and read it out to the assembled French officers. They all burst out laughing, and Rousselot cried 'Mais c'est une manie] He is determined to sink us, the old man]' The 'old man' was Max Horton, our Flag Officer (Submarines). The reason for the hilarity was that on Rubis's previous patrol in the Bay of Biscay, the rudder had jammed and Rubis had gone round in circles for two days. A British submarine had been sent with orders to take off her crew and sink her, if she could not be repaired. However, seas had abated, an engineer went over the stern and made repairs.

The Catalinas were sighted on the horizon but they did not see us. French electricians wearing gas-masks were at last able to go below and found enough undamaged cells to couple up and provide power to putter along on the surface until, at nightfall a day later, the British ships were met. Rubis came home to Dundee with her crew still on deck, escorted by one cruiser, four destroyers, two tugs and a large number of aircraft. No enemy planes appeared: Hitler had just started his attack on the Soviet Union.

By the end of the war, Rousselot had received the DSO and the DSC, and Rubis had completed 28 successful patrols, laid 683 mines, and was credited with doing more damage to the enemy than the rest of the Free French Naval forces put together. When Rousselot took Rubis back to France, he had served in the same submarine for the entire war without missing a single operation. He was not received back into the French Navy without problems (of jealousy and hatred, mostly) but he survived. As Flag Officer Submarines he oversaw the introduction of nuclear submarines to the French Navy. He retired in 1972 as Prefet Maritime at Brest and

Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic.

Rousselot was born in 1912, the son of a judge. Henri was tall, black-haired and good-looking. He manoeuvred against the enemy, whether in a game of bridge or for real, by intuition, not by any book, and his crew loved him. Like many of them he married a Dundee girl, by whom he had a son born in Dundee and four daughters born in France. His wife, Maggie, is a character and their home life conducted in a mixture of French and broad Scots was of the happiest.

(Photograph omitted)