Allies At War: Battle of Mers-el-Kébir

Not a battle well remembered in popular literature and media relating to the Second World War, and probably for good reason. Part of 'Operation Catapult', the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, was a naval engagement fought at Mers-el-Kébir on the coast of what was then French Algeria on 3 July 1940. A British naval task force attacked the foremost part of the French fleet, which was at anchor there, resulting in the deaths of 1,297 French servicemen, the sinking of a battleship and the damaging of five other ships. France and the United Kingdom were not at war but France had signed an armistice with Germany, and Britain feared the French fleet would end up as a part of the German Navy. Although French Admiral François Darlan had assured Winston Churchill the fleet would not fall into German possession, the British acted upon the assumption that Darlan's promises were insufficient guarantees. The attack remains controversial to this day, and created much rancour between Britain and France, but it also demonstrated to the world and to the United States in particular, Britain's commitment to continue the war with Germany

In 1940, after the Fall of France and the armistice between France and Nazi Germany, the United Kingdom became concerned about the possibility that the Germans would acquire control of the French fleet. The combined French and German naval forces would mean that the balance of power at sea might tip in Germany's favour, threatening Britain's ability to receive raw materials from across the Atlantic and its communications with the rest of its Empire. The British government feared the possibility despite the fact that the Armistice terms at Article 8 paragraph 2 stated that the German government 'solemnly and firmly declared that it had no intention of making demands regarding the French fleet during the peace negotiations'. Furthermore, on 24 June, Admiral Darlan had given assurances to Churchill against such a possibility.

At this time the French fleet was widely dispersed. Some vessels were in port in France; others had escaped from France to British-controlled ports, mainly in Britain and Alexandria, Egypt, so the British Admiralty initiated  Operation Catapult, which was to take the French ships into British control or destroy them. The most powerful concentration of French warships was the squadron at the port of Mers-el-Kébir in French Algeria. This consisted of the old battleships Provence and Bretagne, the modern battleships (or battlecruisers) Dunkerque and Strasbourg, the seaplane tender Commandant Teste and six destroyers under the command of Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. British Admiral James Somerville of Force H, based in Gibraltar, was ordered to deliver an ultimatum to the French, stating:

It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German enemy. We are determined to fight on until the end, and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer we solemnly declare that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe. In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government have instructed me to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers el Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives;

(a) Sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans.
(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated at the earliest moment.
If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.
(c) Alternatively if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans unless they break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies — Martinique for instance — where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.

If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6 hours.

Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty's Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German hands.

Somerville did not present the ultimatum personally. Instead, this duty fell to the French-speaking Captain Cedric Holland, commanding officer of the carrier HMS Ark Royal. Admiral Gensoul, affronted that negotiations were not being conducted by a senior officer, sent his lieutenant, Bernard Dufay, which led to much delay and confusion.
As negotiations dragged on, it became clear that neither side was likely to give way. French Navy Minister Admiral Darlan never received the full text of the British ultimatum from Admiral Gensoul, most significantly with regard to the option of removing the fleet to American waters, an option that formed part of the orders Darlan gave to Gensoul, to be followed should a foreign power attempt to seize the ships under his command.

The Battle

The British force consisted of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution, and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, plus an escort of cruisers and destroyers. Despite the approximate equivalence of force, the British had several decisive advantages. The French fleet was anchored in a narrow harbour and despite the unequivocal terms of the ultimatum, did not expect an attack and was not fully prepared for battle. The main armament of the Dunkerque and Strasbourg was grouped on their bows and could not immediately be brought to bear. The British capital ships, with their 15-inch (381 mm) guns, also fired a heavier broadside than the French ones.
Before negotiations were formally terminated, British Fairey Swordfish planes escorted by obsolete Blackburn Skuas were dispatched from the Ark Royal to drop magnetic mines in the path of the French ships' route to sea. This force was intercepted by French Curtiss H-75 fighters. One of the Skuas was shot down by French fighters and crashed into the sea, killing its two-man crew, the only British fatalities in the action.

French warships lie peacefully at Mers-el-Kebir before the British attack

A short while later, on Churchill's instructions, the British ships opened fire against their former ally. The British opened fire at extreme range on 3 July 1940 at 17:54. The French eventually replied but ineffectively. The third salvo from the British force and the first to hit resulted in a magazine explosion aboard Bretagne, which sank with 977 of her crew dead at 18:09. After some thirty salvos, the French ships stopped firing. Meanwhile, the British force altered their course to avoid fire from the French coastal forts. Provence, Dunkerque and the destroyer Mogador were damaged and run aground by their crews.

Strasbourg under fire
Strasbourg managed to escape with four destroyers. As these five ships made for the open seas, they came under attack from a flight of bomb-armed Swordfish from Ark Royal. The French ships responded with antiaircraft fire and shot down two of them, and their crews were rescued by the destroyer HMS Wrestler. The bombing attack had little effect and Somerville ordered his forces to begin pursuing at 18:43. The British cruisers Arethusa and Enterprise reported engaging a French destroyer. At 20:20, Somerville called off the pursuit, feeling that his ships were ill-deployed for a night engagement. After weathering another Swordfish attack at 20:55 without damage, Strasbourg reached the French port of Toulon on 4 July.
Subsequently, on 4 July, the British submarine HMS Pandora sank the French aviso (gunboat) Rigault de Genouilly, sailing from Oran. That night, French Air Force bombers carried out a retaliatory raid against the British fleet at Gibraltar to minimal effect.

Since the British believed that damage to Dunkerque and Provence was not very serious, British Fairey Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal raided Mers-el-Kebir the morning of 6 July. One torpedo hit the patrol boat Terre-Neuve, which was moored alongside Dunkerque and was carrying a supply of depth charges. Terre-Neuve quickly sank and its charges triggered a large explosion, causing serious damage to Dunkerque.

The last phase of Operation Catapult was an attack on 8 July by aircraft from the carrier HMS Hermes against the French battleship Richelieu, at Dakar. One torpedo hit and damaged the vessel.
In response to the actions at Mers-el-Kébir and Dakar, the French Air Force launched retaliatory bombing raids on British targets in Gibraltar, including a half-hearted attack on 14 July when many bombs landed in the sea and heavier raids on the 24 and 25 September.

Consequences and popular memory

Mers el Kebir Memorial at Toulon

At Mers-el-Kébir, 1,297 French sailors were killed and about 350 were wounded. Two British aircrew were also killed. Relations between Britain and France were severely strained for some time and the Germans enjoyed a propaganda coup.

British Admiral Somerville was not enthusiastic about the action, saying that it was "...the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us...we all feel thoroughly ashamed..." Although it did rekindle anglophobic feelings in France, the action demonstrated Britain's resolve to continue the war alone and rallied the British Conservative Party around Churchill. Churchill later declared the action meant that for "high government circles in the United States ... there was no more talk of Britain giving in." Harold Nicolson reported the House of Commons to have been "fortified" by Churchill's report of the action.

The French ships in Alexandria under command of Admiral René-Emile Godfroy, including the old battleship Lorraine and four cruisers, were blockaded by the British in port on 3 July and offered the same terms as at Mers-el-Kébir. After delicate negotiations, conducted on the part of the British by Admiral Cunningham, the French Admiral agreed on 7 July to disarm his fleet and stay in port until the end of the war. They stayed there until they eventually joined the Allies in 1943.
The ships Dunkerque, Provence and Mogador were partially repaired and sailed back to Toulon.
In early June 1940, about 13,500 civilians had been evacuated from Gibraltar to Casablanca in French Morocco. Following the capitulation of the French to the Germans, the new pro-German French Vichy government found their presence an embarrassment. In the wake of the attack at Mers-el-Kébir, they were driven at bayonet point, without many of their possessions, onto crowded and dirty interned British cargo ships and expelled.

On 27 November 1942, the Germans attempted to capture the French fleet based at Toulon as part of Case Anton, the military occupation of Vichy France by Germany. All ships of any military value were scuttled by the French before the arrival of German troops, notably Dunkerque and Strasbourg. For many in the French Navy this was a final proof that there had never been a question of their ships ending up in German hands and that the British action at Mers-el-Kebir had been an unnecessary betrayal. Within days Churchill received a letter from Admiral Darlan, in which he wrote; "Prime Minister you said to me 'I hope you will never surrender the fleet. I replied; "There is no question of doing so". It seems to me you did not believe my word. The destruction of the fleet at Toulon has just proved that I was right".

At the Mers-el-Kébir Ceremony of Remembrance in Brest on the July 3 2006,  British ambassador Sir John Holmes´s addressed the crowds:

Mers-el-Kébir was one of those moments when what is at stake is enormous, when the fear of consequences is immense, and when confusion and misunderstandings dominate the day. Horrendous decisions had to be taken rapidly, in conditions that are often described in Great Britain as 'the fog of war'.

Further Reading:

Transcript of The Battles of Britain, a BBC radio programme in which Michael Portillo argues that the action at Mers el Kabir was as important to British survival as the Battle of Britain