The Most Hateful Decision – The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir
Following the fall of France, the British were very concerned that the Vichy Government would allow Germany to take control of the depleted, but still excellent French fleet. The combination of the German and French fleet could alter the balance of the war at sea, and almost certainly make the invasion of Britain possible for the Kriegsmarine. The terms of the armistice article eight, paragraph two stated that Nazi Germany:
“…solemnly and firmly declared that it had no intention of making demands regarding the French fleet during the peace negotiations.”
This can only be described laughable, given the Germans’ attitude to previous treaties and diplomatic agreements. Moreover, the French military leaders within the Vichy regime had an extremely ambivalent attitude to France’s future relationship with the British. Despite his being a Francophile, Churchill was under no allusions concerning the reliability of the French and the German attitudes to the armistice terms. Churchill demanded that the French Navy should either join the Royal Navy or be neutralised in a manner that would prevent its ships falling into Axis hands.
The Italians helpfully suggested that the terms of the armistice were amended to allow the French fleet to stay in North African ports, conveniently enabling Italian troops from Libya to seize the ships whenever they liked. By making a separate peace, Churchill told Parliament that the French were in violation of any alliances with the British Empire. The die had been cast.
The French fleet had seen little fighting at sea and its ships were well-provisioned and intact. Apart from the few ships that had sailed to Britain, by tonnage, 40% of the fleet was based in Toulon, 40% in North Africa and 20% was either in Alexandria and the French West Indies. Marshal Pétain was playing a duplicitous game, using the French fleet as a bargaining chip to ensure the integrity of the Zone libre of Vichy France and although the order had been given to scuttle the ships if the Germans tried to seize them, the British were not convinced that the French could be relied on to do this.
The British tried to persuade the French authorities in North Africa to continue the fight or hand the fleet over to British Control. The Minister of Information, Duff Cooper visited Casablanca where he received a less than cordial response from the French. Lacking sufficient ships to blockade the Vichy ports, the British put Operation Catapult into effect and attack the French ships in North Africa. Toulon was considered to be too well defended by shore batteries. All of the French ships in British ports around the world were boarded on the night of 3rd July 1940. Some French sailors resisted and three RN personnel were killed before the ships were seized.
The French ships in Mers-el-Kébir consisted 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. 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. The British delivered the ultimatum that French ships should be removed to United States’ water or face attack.
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 doubted that the British would attack a former ally. 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 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. French warships were ordered from Algiers and Toulon as reinforcements but did not reach Mers-El-Kebir in time to affect the outcome.
At 17:54 hrs, Churchill ordered the British ships to open fire against the French ships and the British commenced from 17,500 yards. The third salvo from the British scored hits and caused a magazine explosion aboard Bretagne which sank with 977 of her crew at 18:09. The Royal navy ships fired thirty salvoes before 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. 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 Swordfish, 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 20:20. Somerville called off the pursuit, feeling that his ships were ill deployed for a night engagement. The Strasbourg reached Toulon on 4 July.
On 4 July, the British submarine HMS Pandora sank the French 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. 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 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.
The attack on French ships soured relations between France and Britain for many years to come, arguably permanently. It probably explains de Gaulle’s animosity to the British, but it’s not as though the French require much in the way of provocation to dislike the English anyway. The battle of Mers-El-Kebir was a ruthless but essential way of ensuring Britain’s survival, which merely continued the 1,000 year tradition of annoying the French.
© Blown Periphery 2018