The French Fleet-- Mers El Kebir (July 3, 1940)


Figure 1.--.

The Royal Navy began World War II with only 9? battleships, a fraction of the World War I Grand Fleet. Italy's fleet of fast modern battleships and carriers already outnumbered the Royal Navy in the Mediterranen. The French batleships if they had fallen into German hands would have given the Axis the striking power to confront the Royal Navy. Neither Pétain or the French admirals ordered the French fleet to British ports or scuttled it. Rather the French Government decided to order the fleet to ports where it would be decomissioned under Axis supervision. Churchill's most difficult decission after France fell was the order he gave to neutralize the French fleet. A British squadron was dispatched to Oran (Mers El Kebir) where the French flet had sought shelter. The French fleet was given the options of joining the British in the fight against the NAZIs, imobilizing their vessels, or destruction. The French rejected the British demands and the British opened fire. About 1,200 French sailors were killed. Only the French battleship Strassbourg survived. Besides aleviating the threat of the fleet falling into German hands, the action reportedly convinced President Roosevelt that the British were determined to resist the Germans. [Lash, p. 165.]

The Mediterranean

The Royal Navy began World War II with only 9? battleships, a fraction of the World War I Grand Fleet. Italy's fleet of fast modern battleships and carriers already outnumbered the Royal Navy in the Mediterranen.

French Navy: Marine Nationale

The French fleet at the outbreak of World War II was the second most important navy in Europe and a force of considerable importance. The French had a powerful fleet, including battleships and cruisers. Both the French and Italian fleets were renowned for the speed of their cruisers. The reduction in the size of the British Royal Navy after World War I meant that the French fleet was of considerable importance, both in the Mediterranean where Allied supply lines were threatened by the Italian fleet and in the North Atlantic where the German U-boats proved to be an unexpectedly leathal challenge. France was when war broke out significantly expanding its naval force.

World War II

The French Navy was involved in a several operations during the first yeat of the War. This included the Battle of the Atlantic (September 1939-June 1940), the Allied Norwegian campaign (April 1940), and the Dunkirk evacuation (May 1940). As Italy only entered the War a few days before France surrendered to the Germans (June 1940), there were no significant operations in the Mediterranean.

Fall of France (June 1940)

The fall of France in June 1940 tremendosly increased the effectiveness of the German naval campaign, providing indespenseable French Atlantic ports. The Germans set about building bomb-proff U-boat pens all along the French coast with direct access to the Atlantic. This provided Doenitz's U-boats a huge advantage that they did not have in World War I. These pens became major targets of RAF Bomber Command, but the facilities were so massive that the bombing had little affect. More effective was targeting transportation links to the pens. With the fall of France, the Royal Navy stood alone againt the German and Italian navies. The immediate naval concern was the French fleet.

Franco-German Armistice

The French could have continued the War, both from Britain and the North Africaas well as from its Caribbean possessions. The French fleet was a mobile force that could have operated from British ports and French portd in North Africa. Instead Marshall Pétain decided to surrender to the Germans. The British government feared the Germans could take control of the French fleet. The fleet was especialluy addressed in the Franco-German Armistice. The fleet was left in cthe control of the French Government, meaning Vichy. The French Navy unlike the Army was not interned and transported to POW camps in the Reich. The surender exempted the French fleet. Vichy refused to decommission the French battleships or turn them over to the British was unwilling to commit them to the British cause,

Importance

The French fleet at the time of thge fall of France was an asset of some importance. The batleships and battle cruisers if they had fallen into German hands would have given the European Axis (Germany and Italy) the striking power to confront the Royal Navy. The French even had an aircraft carrier. Neither Pétain or Admiral Darlan who had considerable prestige within the French. They refused to order the French fleet to British ports or scuttled it. Rather the French Government decided to order the fleet to ports where it would be decomissioned under Axis supervision, but left under Vichy control. The fall of France dramatically changed the strategic ballance in the Mediterranran. The Royal Navy would have to face the Italian fleet alone. This was barely possibe, but if the French fleet was added to the Italian and German fleets, not only would the Mediterranean be lost, but the War for Britain woukd be lost. And for the United States looking on from afar, President Roosevelt and his military advisrs had to consider that the Axis could possibly add both the French and British fleet to their naval might. That would be a naval force that the U.S. Navy, facing the Japanesecin the Pcific, could not possible conffont.

Admiral Darlan

Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan was assigned the task of modernizing the French Navy (1929). Primeminister Leon Blum appointed Darlan as admiral chief of staff (1936). The following year he was promoted to admiral of the fleet commanding all French maritime forces. Darlan held right-wing and anti-British convictins. He came to think that NAZI Germany would win World War II. He thus like Pétain concluded that resistance was futile and not in France's interest. He thought that France should seek the best deal that could be obtained from Hitler. Admiral Darlan, after Dunkirk assured Churchill that he would never allow the French fleet to fall into German hands. He signaled every captain commabding a French vessel that he was go scuttle his shipif the Germans attempted to seize it. Darlan appears to have expected Churchill to accept his word on this, not understanding that when the fate of nations are cinvolved, personal assurances can not be accepted as fully reliable. The French Government had promissed the British never to make a separate peace with the Germans. After Primeminister Paul Reynaud resigned (June 16, 1940, Darlan agreed to support his replacement, Henri-Philippe Pétain. Pétain named him minister of the navy. Hitler did indeed offer terms, severe ones, but terms. What men like Darlan an Pétain did not grasp is that after Germany had won the war, he could impose what ever termns he wanted. Munich had shown tht he was not a man of his word. Pétain signed the armistice, Darlan ordered the French fleet to colonial bases in North Africa to keep them out of German hands. He also orderd the Navy to remain loyal to the Vichy government.

Mers El Kebir

The French fleet at the time of the Armistice was stll largely in tact. The Italian fleet after entering the War (June 1940), did not launch any major naval operations. The fleet was widely scattered. Mers El Kebir near Oran in French Algeria was the principal French naval base in Algeria. With the Armistice, the French fleet was withdrawn from active duty in the Mediterranean and sheltered there. This represented a substantial part of the French fleet, especially some of the most important vessels. Other ships were in port in France. Some had escaped from France to British controlled ports, mainly Channel ports or Alexandria in Egypt.

Operation Catapult (July 3-8)

Churchill's most difficult decission after France fell was the order he gave to neutralize the French fleet. French vessels were located in various locations. About 200 smaller Frenc vessels were located in British ports and seized with only limited incidents. Some if the most powerfull units in the Frenmch fleet, including the powerful battle crusiers Strassbourg and Dunkerque. hChurchill ordered a powerful British squadron, Force H, commanded by Adm. Summerville to Mers El Kebir where the French flet had sought shelter. The French fleet was given the options of joining the British in the fight against the NAZIs, imobilizing their vessels, or destruction. The French rejected all three options, but assured the British that it would not let the fleet fall into German hands. the British demands and the British opened fire. About 1,200 French sailors were killed. Only the French battleship Strassbourg survived undamaged. The principal action occurred at Mers El Kebir, but Operation Catapult also included actions againt the French vessels in British ports.

British Channel ports (March 3)

The British launched Operation Catapult in Plymouth and Portsmouth, Channel ports where several French ships had sought refuge. The British boarded the ships at night (July 3). The crew the Surcouf resisted. This was the largest largest submarine in the world. In the ensuing action, two British officers and one French sailor were killed. The British seized othr ships without serious incident. This included two obsolete battleships (Paris and Courbet), the destroyers Le Triomphant and Léopard, eight torpedo boats, five additional submarines, and several smaller ships. Many of these vessels would be used by the Free French. The sailors on the vessels weregivn the option of joining the Free French or repatriation to France. This was arranged with the Vichy Government.

Mers El Kebir (March 3-6)

The principal action assocuiated with Operation Catapaul occurred at the French naval base at Mers El Kebir near Oran in French Algeria. Here was the the most powerful concentration of French warships. The French vessels there included two obsolete battleships ( and Bretagne, the fast modern battleships/battlecruisers ( Dunkerque and Strasbourg, the seaplane tender Commandant Teste and six destroyers. The vessels were commanded by Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. The Admiralty assigned Admiral James Somerville commanding Force H in Gibraltar to deliver an aultimatum to Admiral Gensoul. Force H was one of the most powerful vormations in the Royal Navy. It consisted of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution, and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in addition to escorting cruisers and destroyers.
July 3: The Admiralty under Churchill's personal ordrs instructed Admiral Somerville commanding Force H, based in Gibraltar to proceed to Mers El Kebir and deliver an ultimatum to Admiral Gensoul. The ultimtum read, " 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 unless they 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 hands." Admiral Somerville did not present the British ultimatum personally Gensoul. It is unclear if this would have made a difference. The assisnment was given to Captain Cedric Holland, commanding officer of the carrier Ark Royal who spoke French fluently. Admiral Gensoul saw this as discouteous and assigned hiscsubordinate Bernard Dufay to meet with Holland. Thelack of persoinal contact complicated the resulting nehotiations. , which led to much delay and confusion. The negotiations did not go well and it soon became clear tht there would be no meeting of minds. Admiral Gensoul refused to accept terms offered under the threat of force. Admiral Gensoul consulted Admiral Darlan who at the time was te French Mavy Minister, but he did not provide the full text of the British ultimatum. There is some reason to believe tht Darlan might have accepted the option of removing the ships to American waters. When it became clear that the negotiations were going nowhere, but before they were officially terminated, Admiral Sommerville ordered Ark Royal to launch Fairey Swordfish to mine the harbor to prevent the French ships from exiting the port. French Curtiss H-75 fighters attempted to disrupt this operation and shot down an escorting Skuas. This was an obsolete Britih fighter. Shortly after, Primeminister Churchillmorder Sommerville to open fire. The French ships and British Force H were roughly comparable, but the French were in no position to resist. The French ships were was anchored in a narrow channel and thus easy targets. They were also suprised by the British ultimatum nd not prepared for an actual naval engagement from the British. Even worse, the big guns on the Dunkerque and Strasbourg were on their bows and could not be easily brought to bear on the British ships at sea. The British ships with 15-inch (381 mm) guns were in a position to fire broadsides into the French ships. The British opened fire at long range, beyond the range of the French vessels (16:56). The French guns were at first silent , but entually replied. Their fire was ineffective. The third British salvo ignited a magazine aboard Bretagne. The ship sank (17:09). The ship suffered the loss of 977 men. After firing about 30 salvos, the French ships ceased firing.The Dorce H altered course to avoid fire from the French coastal batteries. The British had damaged Provence and Dunkerque as well as the destroyer Mogador. The captins ran the ships aground to prevent them from sinking. Strasbourg with escorting destroyers escaped from the port. Force H engaged them, but Admiral Sommerville decided against a major night action. Thus Strassnourg was able to reach Toulon without major damage.
July 4: The British submarine Pandora sank the French aviso (gunboat) Rigault de Genouilly which has sailed from Oran. French bombers carried out a retaliatory raid at night against British ships at Gibraltar, but scored no major hits.
July 6: The British assessment was that Dunkerque and Provence were not seriously damaged. Admiral Sommerville the Fairey Swordfish on Ark Royal to attack the French vessels. A torpedo hit the patrol boat Terre-Neuve moored alongside Dunkerque with a large supply of depth charges. Terre-Neuve sank and the depth charges on board caused a massivd exlosion, with danmaged Dunkerque.

Alexandria (March 3-7)

French ships in Alexandria were commanded by Admiral René-Emile Godfroy. They included the obselete battleship Lorraine and four cruisers. The British blockaded the ships in port (July 3). Admiral Godfroy was offered the same terms as presented at Mers-el-Kébir. Here with the ships blockaded the British did not feel it mecessary to act precipitously. After protracted negotiations, Admiral Godfroy agreed to disarm his fleet and remain in port until the end of the war (July 7). The French vessels remained in lexandria until the Free French obtained controlm of them (1943).

Dakar (July 8)

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier launched an attack on the Richelieu, one of the most moder and powerful ships in the French Navy. It was in the Vichy controlled port of Dakar. One torpedo struck and damaged Richelieu.

Aftermath

The attack on the French vessels at port sowed anger amongst the French towards their former ally. Vichy ministers wanted to declare war on Britain. Petain vetoed that idea, commenting, "One defeat is enough." The attack also increased tension between Churchill and the leader of the Free French Forces, Charles de Gaulle. The French and the rest of the world was shocked that Britain would attack its close ally. The Germans used it in anti-British propaganda.

Significance

Besides aleviating the threat of the fleet falling into German hands, the action reportedly convinced President Roosevelt that the British were determined to resist the Germans. [Lash, p. 165.]

Subsequent Vessel Movements

The French managed partial repairs to Dunkerque, Provence and Mogador. They were thus able to sail back to Toulon. After the Allied Operation Totch landings (November 6, 1942), Hitler ordered the unoccupied zone of France to be occupied--Case Anton (November 10-12, 1942). Italian forces assisted in te operation. Hitler did not think that the Vichy forces in Algeria and Morocco has resited the Allies vigorously. The Germans attempted to seize the French fleet at Toulon. The small. lightly armed Vichy Army at first set up a defense around Toulon, but when ordered by the Germans to stand down did so. The Germans activated Operation Lila to seize the French vessels at Toulon. French naval commanders succeeded in foiling German plans, delaying themn by both negotiation and subterfuge. This gave the vessels captains time to scuttle their ships before the Germans arrived. The fleet at Toulon consisted of three battleships, seven cruisers, 28 destroyers and 20 submarines.

Opertion Anton: Toulon (November 1942)

American and Britain launched operation Torch (November 1942). Hitler disatisfied with the Vichy resistance, activated Case Anton, the occupation of the Vichy unoccupied southern zone of France. This was probably something he was thinking about anyway. One of the major goals was to seize the French navy ships in home ports, especially Toulon. The French captains as previously ordered scuttled their vessels. Many sailors on board set about destroying the guns. The Germans backed by tanks rolling into the baval bases were furious. Admiral Darlan wrote to Churchill, claiming that he was right and that Churchill should have trusted him.

Assessment

The Btitish attack at Mers El Kebir has been the subject of considerable historical debate. The French at the time were outraged, considering it an act of betrayal. There was a danger that Vichy might declare war. Churchill wrote that history would decide. Admiral Darlan wrote to Churchill after the French scuttled the fleet before the Germans were able to seize the fleet at Toulon. He wrote and claimed that the action vindicated his word that the fleet would not be turned over to the Germans. Such French statememnts miss the point. The French after all had previously pledged not to make a separate peace with Germany, but this is exactly what they did. In affairs of state, personal guarantees and even formal treaty commitments can not be taken as absolute guarantees. The fact is that the Royal Navy was hard pressed after the fall of France. It faced the Germany Navy in the Atlantic and the Italian Fleet in the Mediterranean and America was not yet in the War. Had the Germans obtained possession of the French fleet it would have radically changed the naval balance. This would have threatened Britain's very survival. And France would have been seriously affected. Britain's defeat would have meant that there would have been no D-Day and liberation of France.

Sources

Lash, Joseph P. Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-1941 (1976).






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Created: 5:30 AM 10/12/2008
Last updated: 7:55 PM 9/25/2012