Attack on Mers-el-Kébir

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The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir (3 July 1940) also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, was part of Operation Catapult, the operation was a British naval attack on French Navy (Marine nationale) ships at the base at Mers El Kébir on the coast of French Algeria. The bombardment killed 1,297 French servicemen, sank a battleship and damaged five ships, for a British loss of five aircraft shot down and two crewmen killed.

The combined air-and-sea attack was conducted by the Royal Navy after the Second Armistice at Compiègne between Germany and France on 22 June, the only continental ally of Britain had been replaced by a government administered from Vichy, which inherited the Marine nationale (French navy). Of particular significance to the British were the seven battleships of the Bretagne, Dunkerque and Richelieu classes, the second largest force of capital ships in Europe after the Royal Navy. Vichy France—created on 10 July 1940, one week after the attack—was seen by the British as a puppet state of the Nazi regime. The British War Cabinet feared that Vichy France would hand the ships to the Kriegsmarine (German navy) or the Regia Marina (Italian navy), giving the Axis an advantage in the Battle of the Atlantic. Admiral François Darlan, commander of the French Navy, promised the British that the fleet would remain under French control but Winston Churchill decided that the fleet was too powerful to be left vulnerable to an Axis take-over.[3]

After the attack at Mers-el-Kébir and the Battle of Dakar, French aircraft raided Gibraltar and the Vichy government severed diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. The attack created much rancour between France and Britain but also demonstrated to the world that Britain intended to fight on,[4] the attack is controversial and the motives of the British are debated. In 1979, P. M. H. Bell wrote that "The times were desperate; invasion seemed imminent; and the British government simply could not afford to risk the Germans seizing control of the French fleet... The predominant British motive was thus dire necessity and self-preservation". Recruitment for the Free France movement plummeted, the French thought they were acting honourably according to the terms of the armistice with Nazi Germany and would never turn over the fleet to the Axis and considered the attack a betrayal by their ally, which has festered. On 27 November 1942, the Scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon foiled Operation Anton, a German attempt to capture the fleet.

Background[edit]

Franco-German armistice[edit]

After the Fall of France in 1940 and the armistice between France and Nazi Germany, the British War Cabinet was apprehensive about the Germans acquiring control of the French navy from the government of Vichy France. The French and German navies combined could alter the balance of power at sea, threatening British imports over the Atlantic and communications with the rest of the British Empire, that the armistice terms at article eight paragraph two 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" and similar terms existed in the armistice with Italy, was considered to be no guarantee of the neutralisation of the French fleet. On 24 June, Darlan assured Winston Churchill against such a possibility.[5] Churchill ordered that a demand be made that the French Navy (Marine nationale) should either join with the Royal Navy or be neutralised in a manner guaranteed to prevent the ships falling into Axis hands.[6]

At Italian suggestion, the armistice terms were amended to permit the French fleet to stay temporarily in North African ports, where they might be seized by Italian troops from Libya, the British made contingency plans to eliminate the French fleet (Operation Catapult) in mid-June, when it was clear that Philippe Pétain was forming a government with a view to signing an armistice and it seemed likely that the French fleet might be seized by the Germans.[7] In a speech to Parliament, Churchill repeated that the Armistice of 22 June 1940 was a betrayal of the Allied agreement not to make a separate peace. Churchill said "What is the value of that? Ask half a dozen countries, what is the value of such a solemn assurance? ... Finally, the armistice could be voided at any time on any pretext of non-observance ..."[8]

The French fleet had seen little fighting during the Battle of France and was mostly intact. By tonnage, about 40 percent was in Toulon near Marseilles, 40 percent in French North Africa and 20 percent in Britain, Alexandria and the French West Indies. Although Churchill feared the fleet would be put into action, the Axis leaders did not intend to employ a combined Franco-Italian-German force, the German Navy and Benito Mussolini made overtures, Adolf Hitler feared the French fleet would defect to the British and be used against German submarines in the Atlantic, if they tried to take it over. Churchill and Hitler viewed the fleet as a potential threat, the Vichy French leaders, including Pétain, used the fleet (and the possibility of it rejoining the Allies) as a bargaining counter against the Germans, to keep them out of the Zone libre and French North Africa. The armistice was contingent on the French right to man their vessels and the French Navy Minister, Admiral François Darlan, had ordered the Atlantic fleet to Toulon to demobilise, with orders to scuttle if the Germans tried to take the ships.[9]

British-French negotiations[edit]

The British tried to persuade the French authorities in North Africa to continue the war or to hand over the fleet to British control. A British Admiral visited Oran on 24 June and on 27 June, Duff Cooper, Minister of Information, visited Casablanca,[10] the French Atlantic ports were in German hands when the British needed to keep the German surface fleet out of the Mediterranean, the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean and blockade Vichy ports. The Admiralty was against an attack on the French, in case enough damage was not done to the ships, Vichy France was provoked into declaring war and that the French colonial empire would become more hostile to Free French Forces. Given the need to keep the Atlantic approaches open and that the Royal Navy lacked the ships to provide a permanent blockade on the Vichy naval bases in North Africa, the risk of having the Germans or the Italians seize the French capital ships was deemed too great, because the fleet in Toulon was well guarded by shore artillery, the Royal Navy decided to attack the ships in North Africa.[11]

Operation Catapult[edit]

French ships based in Africa, June 1940

Apart from French vessels in metropolitan ports, some had sailed to ports in Britain and to Alexandria, Egypt. Operation Catapult was an attempt to take French ships under British control or destroy them. French ships in Plymouth and Portsmouth were boarded without warning on the night of 3 July 1940.[12][13]The submarine Surcouf, the largest submarine in the world had been berthed in Portsmouth since June 1940 The crew resisted the boarding party and three Royal Navy personnel, including two officers, were killed along with a French sailor. Other ships captured included the two old battleships Paris and Courbet, the destroyers Triomphant and Léopard, eight torpedo boats, five submarines and a number of lesser ships. The French squadron in Alexandria, including the battleship Lorraine, heavy cruiser Suffren and three modern light cruisers were neutralised by agreement.[14]

Prelude[edit]

Ultimatum[edit]

The most powerful force of French warships was at Mers-el-Kébir in French Algeria, consisting of the old battleships Provence and Bretagne, the newer Force de Raid battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg, the seaplane tender Commandant Teste and six destroyers under the command of Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. Admiral James Somerville of Force H, based in Gibraltar, was ordered to deliver an ultimatum to the French but the British terms were contrary to the German-French armistice terms.[10][a] Somerville passed the duty of presenting the ultimatum to a French speaker, Captain Cedric Holland, commander of the carrier HMS Ark Royal. Gensoul was affronted that negotiations were not being conducted by a senior officer and 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. Darlan was at home on 3 July and could not be contacted. Gensoul told the French government that the alternatives were internment or battle.[10] Removing the fleet to United States' waters, had formed part of the orders Darlan gave to Gensoul, if a foreign power attempt to seize the ships under his command.[15]

Attack[edit]

Blackburn Skuas of No 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm prepare to take off from HMS Ark Royal

The British force comprised the battlecruiser HMS Hood, battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and an escort of cruisers and destroyers. The British had the advantage of being able to manoeuvre while the French fleet was anchored in a narrow harbour and the French did not expect an attack, the main armament of Dunkerque and Strasbourg was grouped on their bows and could not immediately be brought to bear. The British capital ships had 15-inch (381 mm) guns and fired a heavier broadside than the French. On 3 July, before negotiations were formally terminated, British Fairey Swordfish planes escorted by Blackburn Skuas from Ark Royal dropped magnetic mines in the harbour exit. The force was intercepted by French Curtiss H-75 fighters and a Skua was shot down into the sea with the loss of its two crew; the only British fatalities in the action.[16] French warships were ordered from Algiers and Toulon as reinforcements but did not reach Mers-El-Kebir in time to affect the outcome.[10]

Diagram of the British attack on Mers-el-Kébir

A short while later at 5:54 p.m., Churchill ordered the British ships to open fire against the French ships and the British commenced from 17,500 yd (9.9 mi; 16.0 km).[17] The third salvo from the British scored hits and caused a magazine explosion aboard Bretagne which sank with 977 of her crew at 6:09 p.m. After thirty salvoes, the French ships stopped firing; the British force altered course to avoid return fire from the French coastal forts but Provence, Dunkerque and the destroyer Mogador were damaged and run aground by their crews.[18] Strasbourg and four destroyers managed to avoid the magnetic mines and escape to the open sea, under attack from a flight of bomb-armed Swordfish from Ark Royal. The French ships responded with anti-aircraft fire and shot down two Sworrdfish, the crews being rescued by the destroyer HMS Wrestler. The bombing had little effect and at 6:43 p.m. Somerville ordered his forces to pursue and the light cruisers HMS Arethusa and Enterprise engaged a French destroyer. At 8:20 p.m. Somerville called off the pursuit, feeling that his ships were ill deployed for a night engagement. After another ineffective Swordfish attack at 8:55 p.m., Strasbourg reached Toulon on 4 July.[19]

Battleship Bretagne burning fiercely and still under shellfire

On 4 July, the British submarine HMS Pandora sank the French aviso (gunboat) Rigault de Genouilly, sailing from Oran. The British believed that the damage inflicted on Dunkerque and Provence was not serious, Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal raided Mers-el-Kébir again on the morning of 8 July. A torpedo hit the patrol boat Terre-Neuve, which was full of depth charges and moored alongside Dunkerque. Terre-Neuve quickly sank and the depth charges went off, causing serious damage to Dunkerque.[20] The last phase of Operation Catapult was another attack on 8 July, by aircraft from the carrier HMS Hermes against the battleship Richelieu at Dakar, which was seriously damaged. The French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) made reprisal attacks raids on Gibraltar, including a half-hearted night attack on 5 July, when many bombs landed in the sea and raids on 24 September by forty aircraft and the next day with more than a hundred bombers.[21][22]

Aftermath[edit]

Analysis[edit]

The French destroyer Mogador running aground, after having been hit by a 15-inch shell.

Churchill had later written that, "This was the most hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned". [23] Relations between Britain and France were severely strained for some time and the Germans enjoyed a propaganda coup. Somerville said that it was "...the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us...we all feel thoroughly ashamed..."[24] Although it did rekindle Anglophobia in France, the action demonstrated Britain's resolve to continue the war alone and rallied the British Conservative Party around Churchill (Neville Chamberlain, Churchill's predecessor as prime minister, was still party leader), the British action showed the world that defeat in France had not reduced the determination of the government to fight on: ambassadors in Mediterranean countries reported favourable reactions.[21]

The French ships in Alexandria under command of Admiral René-Emile Godfroy, including the World War I era 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 Andrew Cunningham, the French admiral agreed on 7 July to disarm his fleet and stay in port until the end of the war,[25] some sailors joined the Free French while others were repatriated to France; Surcouf and the ships at Alexandria went on to be used by the Free French after May 1943. The British attacks on French vessels at port sowed anger amongst the French towards the British and increased tension between Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, who was recognised by the British the leader of the Free French Forces on 28 June.[26][27] One French survivor of the attack was enraged at the British that he took a razor blade and sliced off a Union Jack tattoo he had on his arm.

Churchill had a secondary reason for the operation. According to his principal private secretary Eric Seal, "[Churchill] was convinced that the Americans were impressed by ruthlessness in dealing with a ruthless foe; and in his mind the American reaction to our attack on the French fleet in Oran was of the first importance." On 4 July, Roosevelt told the French ambassador that he would have done the same.[28] De Gaulle's biographer Jean Lacouture blamed the tragedy mainly on miscommunication, had Darlan been in contact on the day or had Somerville been a more diplomatic character, a deal might have been done. Lacouture accepted that there was a danger that the French ships might have been captured by German or more likely Italian ground forces, as proven by the ease with which the British seized French ships in British ports or the German seizure of French ships in Bizerte in Tunisia in November 1942.[29][30]

Casualties[edit]

Memorial on the coast path at Toulon to the 1,297 French seamen killed at Mers El Kebir
Casualties of the action at Mers-el-Kébir
Officers Petty officers Sailors and marines Total
Bretagne 36 151 825 1012
Dunkerque 9 32 169 210
Provence 1 2 3
Strasbourg 2 3 5
Mogador 3 35 38
Rigault de Genouilly 3 9 12
Terre Neuve 1 1 6 8
Armen 3 3 6
Esterel 1 5 6
Total 48 202 1,050 1,300

Two British servicemen were also killed.[16]

Subsequent events[edit]

British–Vichy hostilities[edit]

Following the 3 July operation, Darlan ordered the French fleet to attack British naval ships wherever possible but Pétain and Foreign Minister Paul Baudouin over-ruled his decision the next day. Military retaliation was conducted through ineffective air raids on Gibraltar, as Baudouin noted, "The attack on our fleet is one thing, war is another", as sceptics had warned, there would also be complications with the French empire; French colonial forces defeated de Gaulle's Free French Forces at the Battle of Dakar in September 1940.[31] Recruitment for the Free French movement plummeted and Germany responded by permitting France to maintain its remaining fleet armed rather than demobilised.[32]

Gibraltarian civilians[edit]

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 and the attack on Mers-el-Kébir, the Vichy government found their presence an embarrassment. Later in June 15 British cargo vessels arrived in Casablanca under Commodore Crichton, repatriating 15,000 French servicemen who had been rescued from Dunkirk. Once their French servicemen had disembarked, the ships were interned until they agreed to take away all the evacuees, who, reflecting tensions generated after the attack on Mers-el-Kébir, were escorted to the ships at bayonet point minus many of their possessions.[33]

Case Anton[edit]

On 27 November 1942, the Germans attempted to capture the French fleet based at Toulon—in violation of the armistice terms—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, Strasbourg and seven (four heavy and three light) modern cruisers. 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-Kébir had been an unnecessary betrayal.[16] Darlan was true to his promise in 1940 that French ships would not be allowed to fall into German hands. Godefroy, still in command of the French ships neutralised at Alexandria, remained aloof for a while longer but on 17 May 1943 joined the Allies.[34]

Orders of battle[edit]

Royal Navy

French Navy (Marine Nationale)

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ 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 lest they break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West IndiesMartinique 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 or Italian hands.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Playfair 1959, p. 137.
  2. ^ O'Hara 2009, p. 19.
  3. ^ Paxton 1972, p. 43.
  4. ^ Thomas 1997, pp. 643–670.
  5. ^ Butler 1971, p. 218.
  6. ^ Greene & Massignani 2002, p. 57.
  7. ^ Lacouture 1991, pp. 246–247.
  8. ^ Hansard, War Situation, 25 June 1940, 304–05
  9. ^ Greene & Massignani 2002, p. 56.
  10. ^ a b c d Lacouture 1991, p. 247.
  11. ^ Bell 1997, pp. 19–20.
  12. ^ Butler 1971, p. 222.
  13. ^ Roskill 1957, pp. 240, 242.
  14. ^ Smith 2010, pp. 47–56, 93.
  15. ^ Butler 1971, pp. 224–225.
  16. ^ a b c Greene & Massignani 2002, p. 61.
  17. ^ Brown 2004, p. 198.
  18. ^ Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 58–59.
  19. ^ Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 59–60.
  20. ^ Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 60–61.
  21. ^ a b Playfair 1959, p. 142.
  22. ^ Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 94–95.
  23. ^ Lacouture 1991, p. 246.
  24. ^ Smith 2010, pp. 86, 88.
  25. ^ Playfair 1959, pp. 140–141.
  26. ^ Auphan & Mordal 1976, pp. 124–126.
  27. ^ Butler 1971, p. 230.
  28. ^ Smith 2010, p. 92.
  29. ^ Lacouture 1991, p. 249.
  30. ^ Smith 2010, p. 404.
  31. ^ Playfair 1959, pp. 142–143.
  32. ^ Smith 2010, p. 99.
  33. ^ Bond 2003, p. 98.
  34. ^ Roskill 1962, pp. 338, 444.

Bibliography[edit]

Books

Journals

  • Thomas, Martin (1997). "After Mers-el-Kébir: The Armed Neutrality of the Vichy French Navy, 1940–43". English Historical Review. 112 (447). ISSN 0013-8266. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Collier, Paul (2003). The Second World War: The Mediterranean 1940–1945. IV. Oxford: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-84176-539-6. 
  • Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques Ehrengardt; Shores, Christopher J. (1985). L'aviation de Vichy au combat: les campagnes oubliées 3 juillet 1940 – 27 novembre 1942 [The Vichy Air Force in Combat: The Forgotten Campaigns]. Grandes batailles de France. Tome I. Paris: C. Lavauzelle. ISBN 978-2-7025-0092-7. 
  • Jenkins, E. H. (1979). A History of the French Navy: From its Beginnings to the Present Day. London: Macdonald and Jane's. ISBN 978-0-356-04196-4. 
  • Lasterle, Philippe (2003). "Could Admiral Gensoul Have Averted the Tragedy of Mers el-Kebir?". Journal of Military History. 67 (3): 835–844. ISSN 0899-3718. 

External links[edit]