Leading Seaman Martin Kelly, 35, was serving onboard the French Ship FS Branlebas when he died on 14 December 1940. He has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, on Southsea Common. But how did a sailor from Portsmouth come to be serving onboard a French ship?
The Branlebas was a French Frigate – the French Navy has never had Destroyers, only different categories of Frigates – although she has also been described as a Torpedo Boat. The Branlebas was a very new ship, having only been commissioned in March 1938. She managed to escape from the German invasion of France, and took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
After the fall of France, French Naval ships faced a stark choice – sail to Britain and join the Free French Forces, or remain in France under Vichy control. This was obviously a situation that was unthinkable for the British, as it ran the risk of the sizeable French Navy being taken over by the Germans. As the Vichy French Government was not willing to hand over the ships to British control, the Royal Navy was left with no alternative but to atttack and neutralise the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa: a most unpleasant but necessary task.
Wisely, the Branlebas made her was to Britain. After escaping she was pressed into service with the Royal Navy. She was lost on 14 December 1940, 25 miles South West of the Eddystone Lighthouse during a heavy storm.
The Free French Navy was obviously heavily undermanned, as 101 British sailors died when the Branlebas went down.