The French surrendered to the Germans on June 22, 1940. The terms of the capitulation were unusual. The Germans permitted the new French administration, under Marshall Petain, to establish itself in the city of Vichy in the south and central France. From there, unoccupied independent Vichy France governed over half of the French landmass in the south of France whilst retaining their overseas colonies and their navy.
Germany’s occupation of France’s north and west coasts was intended only to prevent any Channel Crossing of Allied armies. This would deny the opening of a Second Front similar to that which had brought terrible carnage to all sides of the conflict in World War I (1914-1918).
Germany ascertained that Vichy France would henceforth be considered a neutral power thereby rendering its armed forces impotent and unable to play any part in the war that was now in a state of negotiation and stalemate.
Hitler’s peace terms stated clearly that Germany would undertake to return to its pre-September 1939 borders if peace could be assured. But, the British decided to immediately destroy the newly independent free French fleet by any means at their disposal.
After the signing of the German-French armistice, many French naval units fled France. The largest single concentration of the French fleet lay at anchor in the French Algeria port of Mers-El-Kebir. Early in July 1940, Churchill ordered the formation of ‘Force H’, under Vice-Admiral Somerville, to prepare for possible action in the Mediterranean.
A number of senior British commanders argued that Operation Catapult, the code name given to the planned engagement, would turn French public opinion against the British. They also contended that the French fleet could resist, inflicting significant damage to the Royal Navy fleet, which was already spread very thinly, due to wartime commitments.
However, for Churchill and his War Cabinet, the risk of the French warships falling into enemy hands was paramount. In the early hours of July 2, Somerville received the following signal for French Admiral Gensoul;
‘It is impossible for us to allow your ships to fall into the power of the German or Italian enemy. 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) Surrender to us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans and Italians.
(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 or Italians unless these 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 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 or Italian hands.’
French Admiral Marcel Gensoul was known to be ‘completely service.’ He was fervently loyal to the French naval commander, Admiral of the Fleet Jean François Darlan, and to the independent Vichy government.
Admiral Marcel Gensoul replied in writing that (under the terms of neutrality) in no circumstances would his ships fall into German or Italian hands adding that that force would be met with force. The French admiral’s statement was a genuine commitment and complied with international law. Undeterred, the Royal Navy prepared to open fire on the French navy and on ships officers and ratings who had been their allies just 10 days earlier.
Operation Catapult commenced on July 3, 1940. Early in the day, all French warships in British territorial waters were boarded and impounded by the Royal Navy (codenamed Operation Grasp).
This added up to two battleships, four cruisers, eight destroyers, some submarines, numerous support vessels and smaller craft, which had fled when the collapse of France seemed inevitable. This part of the operation went relatively smoothly. However, resistance did occur on the French submarine, Surcouf, resulting in the deaths of one French sailor and a Royal Naval Rating, plus several others injured.
Later in the day ‘Force H’, with the flagship, HMS Hood arrived off the coast near Mers-El-Kebir. A three-point ultimatum was sent to Admiral Gensoul, the French commander, giving him the following options;
Bring out your ships and join the Royal Navy.
Take the fleet to a British port with a reduced crew from where they would be repatriated. Sail the fleet to French, West Indian or an American port and decommission the fleet there.
French Admiral Gensoul decided not to act on this, preferring to open a dialogue with the British chief negotiator, Captain Holland of HMS Ark Royal. However, Vice-Admiral Somerville soon became aware of Gensoul’s equivocation and a fourth option was added to the earlier ultimatum ‘scuttle your ships where they lie.’
A little after 1300 the British dispatched Swordfish planes, from the carrier Ark Royal, to mine the harbour entrance. This action angered Admiral Gensoul, as the British had plainly acted in bad faith. However, despite the heightened tension, outwardly all remained calm until 4:46 pm.
Somerville received a communiqué from the Admiralty, which considerably raised the stakes. It stated that Somerville had to settle matters quickly as French reinforcements were on their way. This was not true.
At 5:15 pm, Admiral signalled to the Battle Cruiser, Dunkerque, that if his proposals were not met by 5:30 pm, he would have to destroy their ships.
The French were basically caught off their guard. Action stations on the Royal Navy vessels were sounded then the first salvo from the Hood’s fifteen-inch guns smashed into the side of the French battleship Bretange, causing fatal damage. She sank with the loss of 977 crew members.
For fifteen minutes, H Force’s guns ranged down on the French fleet in the harbour, causing appalling death and destruction. Apart from the sinking of the Bretagne, the Dunkerque was crippled with 200 dead and many officers and ratings injured, the destroyer Provence had run aground and Mogador was badly damaged. This was England’s first engagement with France since the Battle of the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805).
French Admiral Gensoul signalled a cease-fire. But, Somerville was determined to totally annihilate the French squadron. He radioed, ‘unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again.’ The French squadron had been destroyed but with a very high cost in French lives.
Further along the coast at Alexandria, a second British battle force had assembled to confront a substantial part of the French navy based in the southern Mediterranean.
This time, the British commander at Alexandria, Admiral Cunningham was able to open a successful dialogue with his French counterpart, Admiral Godfroy. Despite orders from Churchill for results to be achieved by nightfall, he held the negotiations over till the next day, July 4 and a settlement was reached. French Admiral Godfroy’s eleven ships were immobilised in Alexandria harbour with the draining of their oil supplies and the confiscation of their breech blocks by the French consulate at the port.
The Vichy French Government was, understandably, incandescent at the breach of international law and broken promises. The British had slain 1,297 French officers and ratings, who had been, just two weeks earlier, their close allies. In addition, they had seized, immobilised or sunk a large part of the French navy.
Field-Marshall Petain broke off diplomatic relations with Britain. Two days later, the Vichy French captured three British merchant ships in retaliation. Further skirmishes between the former Allies occurred, including the bombing of Gibraltar by the French and the torpedoing of the French battleship, Richelieu, at Dakar, by the British. When the action was announced to Parliament, there was cheering from both sides of the house. Ultimately, the action at Mers-El-Kebir was a tragedy.
The wily Winston Churchill did have an ulterior motive in acting as decisively and as devastating as he did. Britain’s half-American warlord was determined to convince U.S. President F. D. Roosevelt throwing the weight of industrial America into the war on Britain’s side would benefit the United States enormously in the event of victory over Hitler’s Reich.
Churchill’s strategy worked: Roosevelt glorified Churchill’s action and welcomed it ‘as a service to American defence’. To other American officials as well, Operation Catapult eradicated all doubts of Britain’s ability to engage with the Reich.
This newfound confidence translated into material benefits for Britain as FDR pressured Congress to step up support through Lend-Lease and the Destroyers for Bases arrangement and would pave the way for a Soviet attack on Europe from the East.
The British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir was a major turning point in World War II. As Britain braced herself for the upcoming duel with Germany in the skies and on the sea, the vital commitment of the United States would weigh heavily in the balance. Source 1, Source 2
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