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Labor Action, 10 March 1947


Jack Arthurson

The ‘Devil’s Odyssey’ of a Ship
That Couldn’t Find a Port ...

(14 February 1947)


From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 10, 10 March 1947, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


PARIS, Feb. 14 – Steaming slowly into Saigon harbor with 8.000 troops aboard at the beginning of February. was France’s largest ocean liner, the Ile de France. The French Expeditionary Corps which started out on January 12 was coming to reinforce the weakened French garrison in Indo-China in the war against the Annamites and others of the five peoples who make up this “jewel of empire” in the Far East.

Their three weeks’ trip, reports Jacques Bermont in a copyrighted story in France-Dimanche, a big weekly paper, was a “devil’s Odyssey,” for all along the route from Toulon, through the Mediterranean, down through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, and along the Indian Ocean, strange troubles beset the biggest liner that ever went through Suez.

In the boiling hot weather each soldier sought means of occupying himself, usually with long and passionate arguments over Indo-China and what they were to do there. The Officers did not argue. They played cards.

Shore Leaves Forbidden

At each port the hot and weary troops thought they would have an opportunity to go ashore and escape the steam-bath existence aboard ship. But the arguments about Indo-China had reached others, along the land routes to the Far East.

Reaching Port Said, where the ship was to stop for food, water and refueling, the troops learned they had been forbidden to go ashore. Afraid of arousing mass demonstrations against the French Expeditionary Corps already badly disliked by Egyptian natives who had never so much as seen the troops, the Egyptian authorities dared not permit French troops ashore. Arabs held that France is slaughtering Indo-Chinese natives fighting for their freedom. They threatened grave incidents against the troops if they dared set foot on land. Everyone stayed aboard.

At Suez the troops were again forbidden land liberty for fear of arousing demonstrations.

Hopefully the soldiers looked forward to getting their feet on terra firma at Colombo in Ceylon. After many days of sailing through the hot Indian Ocean, the ship’s captain received a telegram that docking in Colombo was impossible. Violent demonstrations had broken out in Bombay, India, before the French consulate. Student groups demanded that the French Expeditionary Corps return to France immediately, and that an unconditional agreement be signed with Ho Chi Minh, the Annamite leader. At Colombo this agitation against the French could no longer be contained if the troops came into port.

A second telegram said workers at the port had decided to sabotage refueling of the Ile de France, including food and water for the troops. Trincomalee was the only alternative port for landing or even docking.

No sooner had the big ship reached Trincomalee in the morning than a strike broke out among the workers on the dock who refused to load the ship. General confusion reigned among the troops who once again were not permitted to land.

To supply the ship the British had to furnish a guard of marines who barely averted grave struggles with Ceylon natives.

Colonials Stand Solid

After such consistent manifestations of hatred, Jacques Bermont concluded, wisely, that Middle East and Oriental populations did not like France’s policy in Indo-China. He added that all Asia, which is now striving to eliminate European colonial rule, was solidarizing itself with Ho Chi Minh against the French.

Among strange voyages in modern times the “devil’s Odyssey” of the Ile de France in January–February 1947 may take its place as the finest demonstration of solidarity of colonial peoples in the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Indian Ocean against European rule. Solidarity against the French Expeditionary Corps leaped as if telepathically from country to country, to. bring consternation to 8,000 French troops and inform them in the only way open to these native fighters that all along the land routes and sea lanes to Indo-China nothing but hatred and bitter mass struggles awaited France.

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