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
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.
"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
Sail the fleet to a French, West Indian, or an American port and decommission the
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 fifteen 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
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.
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
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),
(Cruiser), HMS Faulkner (Destroyer), HMS Foxhound (Destroyer), HMS Fearless (Destroyer), HMS Forester (Destroyer),
Foresight (Destroyer), HMS Escort??? (Destroyer), HMS Kepple (Destroyer), HMS Active (Destroyer),
(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
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),
(Destroyer), Tigre (Destroyer), Lynx (Destroyer), Kersaint (Destroyer), Le Terrible (Destroyer)
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.
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French perspective on the the Vichy French years.
Based on an article by Max Johnson.