After France surrendered to Germany, Britain’s Royal Navy smashed the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria.
The popular narrative of World War II is typically summed up thus: In a consistent show of staunch unity, Allied forces came together to fight their common Axis powers enemies (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan) from the beginning of the war in 1939 until its end in 1945. What is missing from this generalization is that wartime relations between the Allies were far more complicated, with missteps along the way that belied this narrative. For example, at the conclusion of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s 1940 campaign that defeated France and pushed British forces off the European continent, Britain’s Royal Navy launched a major strike that seriously strained the country’s relationship with France and gave Germany a propaganda coup to trumpet “British treachery.”
On June 22, 1940, following a six-week “blitzkrieg” campaign, representatives of victorious Nazi Germany signed an armistice with the French government, which since June 16 had been led by France’s aged World War I hero Marshal Philippe Pétain. The Germans carefully orchestrated the signing ceremony for maximum propaganda value, holding it inside the same railway car at Compiègne where, over two decades earlier, defeated Germany’s representatives had signed the armistice ending World War I.
Under the German-imposed terms of the 1940 armistice, metropolitan (European) France was divided: Germany would occupy the northern three-fifths of the country, while Pétain’s French puppet regime governed the remainder, with Vichy as the capital. The Vichy government would continue to administer France’s colonies (although in September, Germany’s Axis ally Japan would occupy northern French Indochina). Additionally, a small French military force was permitted to remain in the country, and France’s navy – one of the larger and more advanced navies in Europe – would remain under French control.
After the May 27-June 4 evacuation at Dunkirk, but before France surrendered, Britain began to steel itself for the likelihood of continuing the war without allies on the continent. Throughout June, with the defeat of France looming, it was clear to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Germany’s full attention soon would shift to conquering Britain, likely via a cross-Channel invasion. Once again, Britain turned to its traditional first line of defense, the Royal Navy, to shield it from a German incursion and to guard the island nation’s vital ocean supply lines. The fall of France, however, raised the grave specter that the French navy would be added to the German and Italian navies, possibly tipping the balance of sea power in the Axis’ favor. Britain’s very survival depended on preventing this at all costs.
As France capitulated on June 22, French navy commander in chief Admiral François Darlan repeatedly assured Churchill that “whatever happened, the French fleet should never fall into German hands.” Although Churchill knew that the armistice between France and Germany specified that the French navy would remain under French control, he did not trust the agreement. In his memoirs, Churchill wrote: “It was therefore clear that French war vessels would pass into that control while fully armed. It was true that in the same article the German government solemnly declared that they had no intention of using them for their own purposes during the war. But who in his senses would trust the word of Hitler after his shameful record and facts of the hour? … There was in fact no security for us at all.” Churchill assembled the War Cabinet, and the decision was made to act immediately to eliminate the potential threat.
The prime minister also directed the first lord of the Admiralty and other service ministries that all members of the French military then on British territory should be repatriated to France, but only after they had been told they were welcome to remain. Churchill ordered, “Care must be taken that no officer or man is sent back into French jurisdiction against his will.” Those who wished to return home would be sent to French-held ports in North Africa.
In fact, the French navy was scattered throughout a number of ports. Several French ships were already under Allied control: two battleships, four light cruisers, eight destroyers and a number of submarines and smaller ships were docked at Portsmouth and Plymouth, England; five ships were at Alexandria, Egypt; and three ships, including an aircraft carrier, were at Martinique in the eastern Caribbean. Yet Churchill was worried about the other French warships, particularly those in North African ports in Algeria: Algiers, Oran and Mers-el-Kébir. He noted that the superior quality of the 11 French warships – including battleships/battle cruisers – anchored at Mers-el-Kébir and the port’s strategic location in the Mediterranean could pose a significant threat to British sea power if the ships and port were to come under German control.
On July 1, 1940, Churchill issued orders to execute Operation Catapult, an action intended to eliminate much of the French navy as a potential threat by seizing control of French ships in British ports and by dispatching a Royal Navy task force to neutralize – or destroy, if necessary – the French squadron at Mers-el-Kébir. Thus, during the night of July 2 and morning of July 3, British forces stormed the Plymouth and Portsmouth ports, taking control of each French vessel. With the exception of one submarine (a French crewman and three British sailors were killed), the French crews did not resist.
Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy task force (Force H) under the command of Admiral James Somerville moved in on the Mers-el-Kébir naval base on July 2. (See “Opposing Forces at Mers-elKébir,” p. 24.) Upon arriving off the coast of the port, Somerville began negotiations with his French counterpart, Admiral MarcelBruno Gensoul, although the two men never met in person. On July 3, Somerville issued a five-part ultimatum to Gensoul. (See “British Admiral Somerville’s Ultimatum to French Admiral Gensoul.”)
Gensoul reported the British ultimatum to the French Admiralty; however, he failed to convey the extent of the options it contained. Had he done so, he likely would have been ordered to accept the choice of sailing for Martinique in American waters. Instead, Gensoul was ordered to resist British demands, but he permitted Somerville’s emissary, French-speaking Captain Cedric Holland of the Ark Royal, to meet with his own lower-ranking emissary. The negotiations were tedious, and working through emissaries delayed the proceedings.
While this was happening, the French Admiralty ordered all ships in the Mediterranean to set sail for Oran, with Gensoul to take command. The French admiral stated that his ships would not fall into Axis hands, but that any force by the British would be met accordingly. Negotiations languished throughout the day, until Somerville received orders from London: “French ships must comply with our terms or sink themselves or be sunk by you before dark.”
Reluctantly, with all options exhausted, Somerville ordered his ships to open fire on the French squadron. Aircraft launched from Ark Royal deployed mines to hamper the French ships’ movements (one of the planes shot down resulted in the only two British fatalities of the day). Bretagne was destroyed early in the fight, while Provence, Dunkerque and Mogador were damaged as they attempted to counterattack. Strasbourg and a number of other ships escaped. In 10 minutes the French fleet lost 1,297 sailors killed and 354 wounded.
The fallout from the Royal Navy attack on Mers-el-Kébir was immediate. France’s Vichy government promptly broke off all ties with Britain, and Germany began spreading this propaganda windfall throughout France to sow doubt about British trustworthiness. In the years following the attack, Operation Catapult caused major issues for the Allies. Britain, for example, accepted a lesser role in Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion of French North Africa. Yet despite the apparent desperation of Britain viciously attacking its recent ally, Churchill realized that the assault on Mers-el-Kébir was a firm demonstration to the still-neutral United States of his country’s resolve to continue the war against the Axis. He later wrote that after Mers-el-Kébir “there was no more talk of Britain giving in” among high government officials in America.
Andrew Liptak, a graduate of Norwich University, is a freelance writer and historian specializing in 20th-century military and popular culture history.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armchair General.