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Attack on Mers-el-Kebir
Part of the Mediterranean Theatre of World War II
Croiseur de bataille Dunkerque 03-07-1940 jpg.jpg
Battleship Strasbourg under fire.
Date 3 July 1940
Location off Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria, North Africa
Result Disabling of the French fleet
Belligerents
United Kingdom United Kingdom France France
Commanders
United Kingdom Sir James Somerville France Marcel-Bruno Gensoul
Strength
1 aircraft carrier,
2 battleships,
1 battlecruiser,
2 light cruisers,
11 destroyers,
unknown aircraft
4 battleships,
6 destroyers,
1 seaplane
Casualties and losses
6 aircraft destroyed,
6 dead
1 battleship sunk,
2 battleships heavily damaged,
3 destroyers damaged,
1 destroyer grounded,
1,297 killed,
unknown wounded

The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir, part of Operation Catapult and also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, was an engagement off the coast of French Algeria on 3 July 1940. A British Royal Navy task force attacked and destroyed much of the French fleet, killing 1,297. France and Britain were not at war, but France had signed an armistice with Germany, and Britain feared the French fleet would end up as a part of the German Navy. Although French Admiral Darlan had given Winston Churchill assurances[1] that the fleet would not fall into German hands, the British acted upon the assumption that Darlan's promises were insufficient guarantees.[2] The attack demonstrated to the world, and to the United States in particular, Britain's determination to continue the war with Germany.[3]

Contents

Events

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Background

In 1940, during World War II, following the armistice between France and Nazi Germany, the United Kingdom became concerned about the transfer of the French fleet to Germany. A larger German fleet meant that the balance of power at sea might tip in Germany's favour rather than Britain's, thus changing Britain's ability to receive raw materials from across the Atlantic and its colonies. The British government feared the Germans could take control of the ships, despite Article 8 paragraph 2 of the Armistice terms, by which 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 in the armistice with Italy. Furthermore, on 24 June, Admiral Darlan had personally given assurances to Churchill against such a possibility[4] (indeed, a later German attempt resulted in the French fleet scuttling itself in Toulon in 1942 rather than allow German control of the fleet). It also emerged later that Hitler did not have the intention or the means to do so.[5] Winston Churchill ordered that the French Navy (Marine Nationale) should either join forces with the British Royal Navy or be neutralised in some way to prevent the ships from falling into German or Italian hands.

The French fleet was widely dispersed. Some vessels were in port in France; others had escaped from France to British-controlled ports, mainly in Britain itself and Alexandria, Egypt. Operation Catapult was to take the French ships into British control, or destroy them if that was not possible. In the first stage, the French ships in the British ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth were simply boarded on the night of 3 July 1940. On the then-largest submarine in the world, the Surcouf, which had sought refuge in Portsmouth in June 1940 following the German invasion of France, the crew resisted; two British officers and one French sailor were killed. Other ships captured included two obsolete battleships, Paris and Courbet, the destroyers Triomphant and Léopard, eight torpedo boats, five submarines and a number of less important ships. Many – including the Surcouf – went on to be used by the Free French forces. Some sailors joined the Free French while others were repatriated to France. The attack on the French vessels at port sowed anger amongst the French towards their ally and increased tension between Churchill and the leader of the Free French Forces, Charles de Gaulle.

Ultimatum

The most powerful concentration of French warships at the time was the squadron at the port of Mers-el-Kébir in French Algeria. This consisted of the old battleships Provence and Bretagne, the modern battleships (or battlecruisers) Dunkerque and Strasbourg, the seaplane tender Commandant Teste and six destroyers under the command of Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. British Admiral James Somerville of Force H, based in Gibraltar, was ordered to deliver an ultimatum to the French, stating:

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 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 hands.

Somerville did not present the ultimatum personally. Instead, this duty fell to the French-speaking Captain Cedric Holland, commanding officer of the carrier HMS Ark Royal. Admiral Gensoul, affronted that negotiations were not being conducted by a senior officer, sent his own lieutenant, Bernard Dufay, which led to much delay and confusion.

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

As negotiations dragged on, it became clear that neither side was likely to give way. French Navy Minister Admiral Darlan never received the full text of the British ultimatum from Admiral Gensoul, most significantly with regard to the option of removing the fleet to American waters, an option which formed part of the orders, given to Gensoul by Darlan, to be followed should a foreign power attempt to seize the ships under his command.[5]

Before negotiations were formally terminated, British Fairey Swordfish planes escorted by obsolete Blackburn Skuas were dispatched from the carrier Ark Royal to drop magnetic mines in the path of the French ships' route to sea. This force was intercepted by French Curtiss H-75 fighters. Thanks to the escorting Skuas, none of the Swordfish were lost, but one of the Skuas was shot down by French fighters and crashed into the sea, killing its crew, the only British fatalities in the action.[6]

A short while later, on Churchill's instructions, the British ships opened fire against their former ally.[5]

The attack

The British force consisted of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal plus an escort of cruisers and destroyers. Despite the approximate equivalence of force, the British had several decisive advantages. The French fleet was anchored in a narrow harbour and, despite the unequivocal terms of the ultimatum, was not expecting an attack and was not fully prepared for battle. The main armament of the Dunkerque and Strasbourg was grouped on their bows and could not immediately be brought to bear. The British capital ships, with their 15-inch (381 mm) guns, also fired a heavier broadside than the French ones.

Destroyer Mogador running aground
Battleship Bretagne exploding

The British opened fire at extreme range on 3 July 1940 at 16:56. The French eventually replied but ineffectively. The third salvo from the British force and the first to hit resulted in a magazine explosion aboard Bretagne, which sank with 977 of her crew dead at 17:09. After some thirty salvos, the French ships stopped firing. Meanwhile, the British force altered their course to avoid fire from the French coastal forts. Provence, Dunkerque and the destroyer Mogador were damaged and run aground by their crews.

Strasbourg managed to escape with four destroyers. As these five ships made for the open seas, they came under attack from a flight of bomb-armed Swordfish from Ark Royal, two of which were lost (their crews being rescued by the destroyer HMS Wrestler). The bombing attack had little effect, and Somerville ordered his forces to begin pursuing at 18:43. The British cruisers Arethusa and Enterprise reported engaging a French destroyer. At 20:20, Somerville called off the pursuit, feeling that his ships were ill-deployed for a night engagement. After weathering another Swordfish attack at 20:55 without damage, Strasbourg reached the French port of Toulon on 4 July.

Subsequently, on 4 July, the British submarine HMS Pandora sank the French aviso (gunboat) Rigault de Genouilly, sailing from Oran. That night, French bombers carried out a retaliatory raid against the British fleet at Gibraltar to no great effect. Since the British believed that damage to Dunkerque and Provence was not very serious, British Fairey Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal raided Mers-el-Kebir the morning of 6 July. One torpedo hit the patrol boat Terre-Neuve, which was moored alongside Dunkerque and was carrying a supply of depth charges. Terre-Neuve quickly sank and its charges triggered in a huge explosion, causing serious damage to Dunkerque.[7]

Aftermath

Memorial on the coastal path at Toulon to the 1,297 French seamen who died during the British bombardment of their ships at Mers El Kebir.

At Mers-el-Kébir, 1,297 French sailors were killed and about 350 were wounded. Relations between Britain and France were severely strained for some time and the Germans received a propaganda coup.

British Admiral Somerville was not enthusiastic about the action saying that it was "the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us…we all feel thoroughly ashamed…" [5] In fact, the action demonstrated Britain's resolve to continue the war alone as well as rallying the British Conservative Party around Churchill (although Prime Minister Churchill was not party leader). Churchill himself later declared the action meant that for "high government circles in the United States ... there was no more talk of Britain giving in." Harold Nicolson reported the House of Commons to have been "fortified" by Churchill's report of the action.[8]

The French ships in Alexandria under command of Admiral René-Emile Godfroy, including the old 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 Cunningham, the French Admiral agreed on 7 July to disarm his fleet and stay in port until the end of the war. They stayed there until they eventually joined the Allies in 1943.

The last phase of Operation Catapult was an attack on 8 July by aircraft from the carrier HMS Hermes against the modern French battleship Richelieu, at Dakar. One torpedo hit and damaged the vessel.

As retaliation for the actions at Mers-el-Kébir and Dakar, French bomber raids were made on Gibraltar, including a half-hearted one on 14 July when many bombs were dropped in the sea and heavier raids on the 24 and 25 September.[9] 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, the new pro-German French Vichy government found their presence an embarrassment. In the wake of the attack at Mers-el-Kébir, they were expelled by being forcibly driven at bayonet point, without many of their possessions, onto crowded and dirty interned British cargo ships.[10] (see: Military history of Gibraltar during World War II).

The ships Dunkerque, Provence and Mogador were partially repaired and sailed back to Toulon.

On 27 November 1942, the Germans attempted to capture the French fleet based at Toulon 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 including Dunkerque and Strasbourg.

Casualties

French casualties in the action were distributed thus:

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 1050 1300

Orders of Battle

Royal Navy Order of Battle

French Navy (Marine Nationale) Order of Battle

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Ernest Harold Jenkins, History of the French Navy, ISBN 0-356-04196-4
  2. ^ Paxton, Robert.O (1972). Vichy France. pp. 43 para 2. 
  3. ^ Paul Collier, The Second World War (4): The Mediterranean 1940–1945, ISBN 978-1-84176-539-6
  4. ^ Claude Farrère, Histoire de la Marine Française
  5. ^ a b c d Kappes, Irwin J. (2003) Mers-el-Kebir: A Battle Between Friends, Military History Online
  6. ^ Christian-Jacques Ehrengardt & Christopher J. Shores, L'aviation de Vichy au combat. Tome I: les campagnes oubliées, Lavauzelle, 1985
  7. ^ Philippe Masson La Marine française et la guerre 1939-1945 p. 164
  8. ^ Churchill, Roy Jenkins, Macmillan, London, 2001, pp623 - 625
  9. ^ Piekałkiewicz, Janusz (1987), Sea War: 1939-1945, Blandford Press, London - New York, 1987.
  10. ^ Bond, Peter (2003), "The Third Century 1904-2004". 300 Years of British Gibraltar, 1704-2004 Peter-Tan Publishing Co, Gibraltar.

Sources

External links

Coordinates: 35°43′10.18″N 0°41′20″W / 35.7194944°N 0.68889°W / 35.7194944; -0.68889



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