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~ OPERATION CATAPULT~

MERS-EL-KEBIR - 3RD JUL 1940

Operation Catapult aimed to secure the immobilisation of the French Naval Fleet lest it should fall into German hands. Although not a Combined Operation this naval action is included in this website because it provides useful background to British concerns about Vichy French military resources and foreign held territories. These concerns subsequently resulted in actions involving Combined Operations such as those in North Africa (Torch) and the Litani River.

Background

Plans & Prep

Action

Outcome

Summary of Action

Further Reading

Acknowledgments

 

Background

After the surrender of the French to the Germans on June 22 1940 Britain stood alone. Most of Europe had been completely overrun and the only thing that prevented the continuation of Germany’s expansion into the U.K. was the English Channel. The terms of the French capitulation were unusual. The Germans allowed the new administration in Vichy, and its leader Marshall Petain, to keep 2/5th of their land. As well as this they were also allowed to continue to administer their overseas colonies and control their navy. This was a particular worry to the British since they believed, with some justification, that the neutrality given to the French by the Axis powers could not be relied upon. Consequently they decided to act on their own initiative and to silence the French fleet by any means at their disposal. After the signing of the armistice many French naval units had fled France to avoid capture. The biggest single concentration of the French fleet was at the port of Mers-El-Kebir in French Algeria. Early in July Churchill ordered "Force H", under Vice-Admiral Somerville to the area in order to secure the French squadron for the British.

Plans & Preparations

A number of senior British commanders, notably Somerville himself, opposed the plan. They argued that "Operation Catapult", the name now given to the planned engagement, would turn French public opinion totally against the British. They also argued that the French fleet could resist with force and cripple the Royal Navy, which was already spread very thinly due to wartime commitments.

Churchill and his War Cabinet ignored these concerns and in the early hours of July 2 Sommerville received the following text to be sent to the French Admiral Gensoul:

"It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German or Italian 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 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 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."

Admiral Gensoul replied in writing that in no circumstances would his ships fall into German or Italian hands and, ominously, that force would be met with force. The distress felt by the British Admiral and his senior staff was evident in the exchanges of signals with London. The ships they were about to fire on were manned by men who had been their allies just 10 days earlier. Understanding the difficulties Churchill instructed the Admiralty to send the following message to Somerville;

"You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly." The final signal despatched at 6.26 pm read "French ships must comply with our terms, sink themselves or be sunk by you before dark,"... but the action had already started at 5.45 pm.

Action

"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 amounted to two Battleships, four Cruisers, eight destroyers, some submarines, and 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 when one French sailor and a Royal Naval Rating, were killed and several others injured.

Later in the day "Force H", with H.MS Hood as flagship, drew up outside 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 a French, West Indian, or an American port and decommission the fleet there.

Gensoul decided not to act on this and, in an effort to buy time and ready his ships to fight, he opened a dialogue with the British officer sent to communicate with him. However Somerville soon became aware of Gensoul’s vacillation and a fourth option was added to the ultimatum offered by the chief negotiator, Captain Holland of HMS Ark Royal - "scuttle your ships where they lie."

At just past 1pm the British decided to act and Swordfish planes from the carrier Ark Royal mined the harbour entrance. This action angered Gensoul who felt the British had acted in bad faith. However, despite the heightened tension outwardly all remained calm until 4:46 pm when 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. Somerville wasted no time. At 5:15 pm he signalled to the Battle cruiser Dunkerque that if his proposals were not met by 5:30 pm he would have to act and destroy their ships. The French failed to respond. Captain Holland’s negotiations had failed. Action stations sounded as the first salvo from the Hood’s eight inch guns smashed into the side of the French battleship Bretange causing fatal damage which consigned it to the depths along with 977 of its crew.

For fifteen minutes "H Force’s" guns ranged down on the fleet and the harbour causing death and destruction. The French had been badly mauled. Apart from the sinking of the Bretagne, the Dunkerque was crippled with two hundred dead and many injured, the destroyer Provence had run aground and Mogador was badly damaged. Gensoul then signalled a cease-fire to which Somerville replied "unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again." As a precaution Somerville then pulled "H Force" out of the range of the French guns. He assumed that his mines would stop any breakout by the remaining French ships. However the French battleship Strasborg saw an opportunity and at full speed it picked its way through the wrecks and mines of the harbour and escaped Mers-El-Kebir. An immediate pursuit by the Hood along with aircraft from the Ark Royal began. However, Somerville felt the absence of these vessels left the remaining blockading ships too vulnerable and the pursuit was soon called off. The Strasbourg made it to Toulon and back into Vichy French hands. Despite this setback the French squadron had effectively been neutralised but at high cost in human lives.

Further along the coast at Alexandria a second British battle force had assembled to confront a substantial part of the remaining French navy in the southern Mediterranean. This time the British commander at Alexandria, Admiral Cunningham, was able to open a successful dialogue with his friend, and 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. Godfroy’s eleven ships were immobilised in Alexandria harbour with the draining of their oil supplies and the handing over of their breech blocks to the French consulate at the port. 

Outcome

The Vichy Government was understandably not happy at the turn of events at Mers-El-Kebir and other ports. The British had killed twelve hundred French sailors who, just two weeks earlier, had been their allies and in addition they seized, immobilised, or sunk a large part of the French navy. Many French citizens who had previously supported the British, felt betrayed and alienated. Petain broke off diplomatic relations with Britain and two days later the French captured three British merchant ships in retaliation. Further skirmishes between the former Allies occurred for the next week the two most notable of which were the bombing of Gibraltar by the French and the torpedoing of the French battleship Richelieu at Dakar.

Despite the animosity from the French, the affair had unexpected results in Britain. It allowed the newly appointed Prime minister, Winston Churchill, to demonstrate that he was the right choice as premier for a country at war. It was his first major war act since gaining power and was seen as a popular move both inside Parliament and in the country more generally. When the action was announced to Parliament there was universal cheering from both sides of the house. Further afield the action had further beneficial implications for Britain. Roosevelt was later to tell Churchill that his decisive action against the French Navy had convinced him that Britain still had the will to fight, even if she was alone.

Ultimately the action at Mers-El-Kebir was a tragedy but the action had served its purpose. The French navy could no longer fall into the hands of the Axis powers and pose a threat to Britain at a time when she was most vulnerable.

Summary of Action

Allied Forces: Sea - Force H - HMS Hood (Battleship) Vice- Admiral, Sir James Somerville. Flag, HMS Resolution (Battleship), HMS Valiant (Battleship), HMS Ark Royal (Carrier), HMS Arethusa (Cruiser), HMS Enterprise (Cruiser), HMS Faulkner (Destroyer), HMS Foxhound (Destroyer), HMS Fearless (Destroyer), HMS Forester (Destroyer), HMS Foresight (Destroyer), HMS Escort??? (Destroyer), HMS Kepple (Destroyer), HMS Active (Destroyer), HMS Wrestler (Destroyer), HMS Vidette (Destroyer), HMS Vortigern (Destroyer), HMS Ark Royals aircraft consisted of: 12 Skuas (800 Squadron), 12 Skuas (803 Squadron), 12 Swordfish (810 Squadron), 9 Swordfish (818 Squadron), 9 Swordfish (820 Squadron).

Vichy French Forces: Sea - Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, Strasbourg (Battle cruiser), Dunkerque (Battle cruiser), 2nd Battleship Division. Rear- Admiral Bouxin, Provence (Battleship), Bretagne (Battleship), Mogador (Destroyer), Volta (Destroyer), Tigre (Destroyer), Lynx (Destroyer), Kersaint (Destroyer), Le Terrible (Destroyer)
Located to the east of Mers-El-Kebir at the port of Oran were the following French forces. Light Destroyers: 10, Submarines: 6 ( 3 Operational), Assorted smaller ships 13.
Land - French Shore Batteries; Fort Santoni: 3x194mm Guns, Gambetta Battery: 4x120mm Guns, Espagnole Battery: 2x75mm Guns, Canastel Battery: 3x240mm Guns.

Further Reading

There are over 200 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

 A French perspective on the the Vichy French years.

Acknowledgments

Based on an article by Max Johnson.

News & Information

 

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