Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria July 3, 1940

On June 22 and 23, 1940, representatives of the new French prime minis­ter, Marshal Philippe Pétain, signed armi­stices with emis­saries from Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Musso­lini’s Italy. Article 8 of the Franco-German armi­stice permitted the defeated French nation, head­quartered after July 1 in the spa town of Vichy, to keep control of its navy. After Britain, France had the second largest force of capital ships in Europe. Pressed by Britain, the Vichy minis­ter of the French Marine (navy), Adm. François Darlan, assured the highest levels of the British govern­ment that the demo­bi­lized and dis­armed French fleet would never fall into Axis hands. British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill, who succeeded Neville Cham­ber­lain in office on May 10, 1940, the day Hitler’s Wehr­macht fell upon France and the Bene­lux coun­tries in an unde­clared war, was reminded of Cham­ber­lain’s asser­tion that Hitler was “the blackest devil he had ever met.” A poli­ti­cian like Chur­chill, who at 65 had been around the polit­i­cal block a time or two, was not about to put any faith in a man with a his­tory of deceit and unscru­pu­lous­­ness. Not­with­standing Darlan’s sacred word, the Franco-German armi­stice, like the infa­mous 1938 Munich Agree­ment, would doubt­less be insuf­fi­cient in thwarting Hitler from doing whatever he wanted; e.g., seizing French war­ships, arming them, manning them, and, in con­cert with the Italian Navy—the third largest in Western Europe—deploying them against the British in the Mediterranean Sea.

On July 2, 1940, Churchill’s War Cabinet ordered Vice Adm. James Somer­ville, com­man­der of the British naval for­ma­tion based in Gibra­ltar (Force H), to steam to the French North African port of Mers-el-Kébir and present several options to Vice Adm. Marcel Gen­soul. This he did on this date, July 3, 1940, sprinting over­night with a power­ful squa­dron that included his flag­ship battle­cruiser HMS Hood, two battle­ships, the air­craft carrier Ark Royal, and an escort of cruisers and destroyers. One option, explained Somer­ville to Adm. Gen­soul, was for the French fleet to put to sea with the British and con­tinue the fight against the Germans and Italians. Another option: Be escorted to a port in the French West Indies or to a British port where French ships would be demil­i­tarized. A third option was to dis­arm the ships at Mers-el-Kébir under the super­vision of the Royal Navy, while a fourth was to scuttle the ships where they were. If Gen­soul refused “these fair offers,” Somer­ville went on, he was left with no choice but to destroy the French squadron at Mers-el-Kébir.

Of course, Somerville’s options were contrary to the terms nego­ti­ated by Vichy France and her Axis victors two weeks earlier. Gen­soul con­sulted the French Admi­ralty but in his first com­mu­ni­ca­tion he kept the British options to him­self. In his second com­mu­ni­ca­tion he told his superiors he would defend the French fleet at the first cannon shot. Somer­ville delayed bom­barding the French fleet until he learned that the French had dis­patched naval rein­force­ments to Mers-el-Kébir. The British Adm­iralty ordered Somer­ville to settle matters quickly. At 5:55 p.m. Somer­ville gave the grim order to “open fire.”

British salvos did their worst on ships of their former mili­tary ally thanks to reports sent back from Sword­fish spotter air­craft launched from the Ark Royal. French return fire was bedeviled by haze and smoke rising from burning French ships. The battle­ship Bretagne, whose maga­zine blew up, sank in two minutes, taking 977 French sailors to their deaths. Gen­soul’s flag­ship, the battle­ship Dunkerque, hit four times, beached itself. The battle­ship Provence, hit by a 15-in (380mm) shell, was also beached. The power­ful and swift battle­ship Stras­bourg escaped the harbor just in time as 15-in shells slammed into her vacated berth. Fif­teen minutes into the bom­bard­ment Gensoul ran up the white flag and the two admirals struck a ceasefire.

Striking Ex-Ally France: Attack on Mers-el-Kébir Harbor, July 3, 1940

Map of British attack on Mers-el-Kébir harbor, July 3, 1940

Above: The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir is also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir. The action was part of Oper­a­tion Cata­pult, Great Britain’s pain­ful and disagree­able naval strike launched from its western Medi­ter­ranean bastion of Gibral­tar against former comrades in arms. The objects of the strike were French vessels based at Mers-el-Kébir near Oran on the north­west coast of French Algeria. The Royal Navy’s fiery bom­bard­ment killed 1,297 French service­men and wounded 350, sank the battle­ship Bretagne, and damaged five other vessels for a British loss of two air­men and five air­craft. Else­where the French Navy surren­dered ships in Alex­an­dria, Egypt, and three sub­ma­rines, two old battle­ships, and eight destroyers in the English ports of Ply­mouth and Ports­mouth. In Dakar, French West Africa, British air­craft attacked and severely damaged the new battle­ship Richelieu. In retal­i­a­tion Pétain’s Vichy govern­ment ordered French war­planes to bomb Gibral­tar and broke off diplo­matic rela­tions with Chur­chill’s govern­ment on July 5, 1940. In turn Britain recog­nized Free France, the govern­ment-in-exile led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, as the legit­i­mate govern­ment of France. Spanish dicta­tor and Nazi sympa­thizer, Fran­cisco Franco, whose coun­try shared the same penin­sula with Britain’s Gibral­tar, was awed enough by the hor­rific Mers-el-Kébir attack and fall­out to shun Hitler’s en­treaties to join him and Mussolini in their Axis military pact against Great Britain.

Attack on Mers-el-Kébir: Ark Royal and Swordfish bombersAttack on Mers-el-Kébir: French battleship Strasbourg under fire

Left: The Fairey Swordfish was a slow-moving, fabric-covered biplane torpedo bomber. Though obso­lete by 1939, the Sword­fish was famous for her attack on the German battle­ship Bismarck, which con­trib­uted to her even­tual demise on May 27, 1941, in the North Atlantic. At Mers-el-Kébir Adm. Somer­ville sent two waves of Sword­fish two hours apart to sink the fleeing Stras­bourg. The swift battle­ship made it safely to the large French Medi­ter­ranean naval base at Toulon in south­eastern France on July 4, where she met her demise when French crews scuttled her and much of the rest of the French fleet in Toulon on Novem­ber 27, 1942, to prevent their falling into German hands following the Nazi take­over of Pétain’s Vichy France, precisely what Churchill had feared in 1940.

Right: The French battleship Strasbourg under fire during Oper­a­tion Cata­pult, July 3, 1940. The Stras­bourg, three destroyers, and one gun­boat managed to avoid both British salvos and magne­tic mines laid in an opening of the harbor defense boom and escape to open sea and the safety of Toulon.

Attack on Mers-el-Kébir: French battleship Bretagne burns fiercely, July 3, 1940Attack on Mers-el-Kébir: French destroyer Mogador running aground, July 3, 1940

Left: Extensively overhauled at the start of 1940, the World War I battle­ship Bretagne burns fiercely, still under bom­bard­ment at Mers-el-Kébir, July 3, 1940. Hit four times by British 15-in shells, her after magazines exploded. She rolled over and sank in 2 minutes, killing most of her crew.

Right: The French destroyer Mogador running aground after her stern had been blown off by a 15-inch British shell, killing 42 sea­men, Mers-el-Kébir, July 3, 1940. Badly damaged were two other war­ships: Adm. Gensoul’s Dunkerque, for a loss of 210 men, and the elderly battle­ship Provence. Both ships were run aground by their crews. A British Sword­fish torpedo attack on the Dunkerque on July 6 did not prevent the battle­ship from being refloated and eventually reaching Toulon. The Provence was refloated, repaired, returned to Toulon, only to be scuttled, like the Stras­bourg and the Dunkerque, by French sailors on Novem­ber 27, 1942.

Mers-el-Kebir: Violent Tragedy on a Grand Scale, July 3, 1940