The Maille Breze was a Vauquelin class destroyer built for the French navy by the Ateliers et Chantiers de Penhoët shipyard at Saint Nazaire. The 2441 ton vessel was launched in November 1931 and dimensions were 424.2′ x 38.7′ x 16.3’. Powered by twin Parsons’s steam turbines she could reach a maximum speed of around 36 knots. The main armament consisted of five 5.5in guns; six AA machine guns; one triple and two twin deck mounted 21in torpedo tubes and a pair of depth charge chutes with throwers at the stern.
On the afternoon of 30 April 1940, the Maille Breze was lying in the crowded anchorage at the Tail of the Bank off Greenock. Her full crew were aboard busily preparing for her next sortie. At 14.15hrs, while maintenance was underway on her forward torpedo tubes; the starboard forward tube accidentally fired, and a live torpedo slithered along the deck of the destroyer. The torpedo hit the rear of the engineer’s quarters and exploded killing 6 crew instantly. The explosion also tore a hole in the main deck and breached boileroom 1 causing massive damage; igniting a fierce fire in the bridge area which quickly spread into the forward section of the vessel fanned by strong winds.
The anchorage immediately burst into life with vessels of all shapes and sizes rushing to the assistance of the stricken destroyer including boats from HMS Furious anchored close by. As the Maille Breze began to settle, the rescue ships picked up several survivors from the water and from the hot decks of the burning ship. The skippers of these vessels exposed themselves and their crews to considerable danger from the continuously exploding shells and ammunition on board the destroyer.
The front bunkers could not be flooded as the remote controls and the means of access had been damaged by the explosion but fortunately did not immediately explode. In anticipation of the inevitable, the Commander of the Maille Breze gave the order to abandon ship at 15:15hrs. Groups of officers and men returned frequently thereafter, and the rear ammunition bunkers were flooded at around 16.30hrs. Later, the arrival of the Greenock firefighters with powerful pumps mounted on Admiralty drifters made it possible to fight the fire more effectively and bring it under control around 19.15hrs.
Horrifically during all the turmoil, the rescuers could hear the screams of French sailors trapped inside their burning sinking ship, some of them even visible through the portholes of the forward mess deck. However, despite strenuous and heroic efforts by the rescuers to save those unfortunate men, the screams soon died as they succumbed to the smoke and the flames. Some were given morphine through portholes by medics from HMS Furious to bring some relief to their inevitable demise, this must have been harrowing experience for these men.
By early evening, the heavily flooded vessel was sinking by the bow, the flooding of the aft bunkers only hastened the inevitable and the Maille Breze sank around 20.00hrs. She had sunk on the north side of the main shipping channel in 7 fathoms slightly tilted to starboard, her masts, the debris of the bridge and the tops of the three remaining funnels remaining visible. Of the total crew of circa 230, 6 were killed in the initial explosion, 21 were lost trapped below decks in the fire, 47 were treated for serious injuries resulting from the explosions.
The Maille Breze remained submerged off Greenock for over 14 years, her mast protruding above the surface a visible reminder of the horror of that April afternoon in 1940. Her sinking position was recorded on contemporary charts as 55°57.683’N 004°44.916’W
In 1953, work commenced to look at the feasibility of lifting the wreck as there were fears that her bunker fuel may begin to leak and live munitions remained within the wreck. The Admiralty Salvage Division were commissioned by the Ministry of Transport to plan and undertake the works which commenced on site in the summer of 1954. The salvage team was led by Mr Charles Black and no fewer than 9 ships comprising five lifting craft; a salvage vessel; three boom defence vessels and a salvage tug took part in the operation.
Also removed from the hulk were her store of depth charges, and this task was undertaken by the Royal Navy. The canisters were taken into deep water off the Gareloch where they were safely detonated. By the end of August the hull had been pumped out and patched and was ready for tow to the yard of Smith & Houston at Port Glasgow where the Maille Breze was later dismantled, a sad end to this once proud vessel.
The raising of the Maille Breze, a dead weight lift of around 3,500 tons was regarded at the time as one of the heaviest tidal lifts in the history of marine salvage.