On 1 July 1940, Vice Admiral James Somerville, the recently appointed commander of the Royal Navy’s Force H, received his first orders from the Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Dudley Pound. Somerville later reflected that the task he had been assigned was “the biggest political blunder of modern times and [it] will rouse the whole world against us . . . we all feel thoroughly ashamed.”
The Allies were in a state of shock in the early summer of 1940. After the hiatus of the so-called Phony War, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, and finally France had been systematically and swiftly overrun by German forces. Britain and its empire now stood largely alone, saved by the English Channel and the Expeditionary Force’s desperate evacuation from Dunkirk.
The French had been comprehensively outfought and outgunned throughout the Battle of France; nevertheless, one branch of their armed forces escaped largely unscathed. The Marine Nationale remained a potent fighting force (the world’s fourth largest navy at the time) and, in the eyes of French military and political leaders, an important bargaining tool in potential armistice negotiations. Across the English Channel, the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, also was aware of the French fleet’s potential; prior to taking over the role on 10 May, he had been First Lord of the Admiralty. On 13 June, during his final visit to rally support for the beleaguered French government at Tours, Churchill singled out the commander of the French Navy, Admiral Jean François Darlan, and stated, “You must never let them get the French fleet.” Darlan assured Churchill that the French Navy would never surrender its ships to the Germans.
In view of these assurances, how and why did the relationship between these erstwhile allies sour to a point where, little more than a fortnight after that conversation at Tours, HMS Hood was firing salvos into the French fleet moored at Mers-el-Kébir? Like so many developments at that time, the superficial answer is simple—but the nuances far more complex.
A Plan Is Hatched
Churchill certainly feared that the French Navy, in particular its modern battleships Strasbourg, Dunkerque, Richelieu, and Jean Bart, might fall into enemy hands. Italy had joined the war on 10 June in an ill-advised, opportunistic attempt to profit from its neighbor’s capitulation. In a single stroke, the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean swung dramatically from the Allies to the Axis.
Italy’s Regia Marina was an impressive fighting force, but prior to the war, France had provided a counterweight to Italian naval ambition. Now, as the terms of the armistice were being negotiated, that equilibrium seemed lost. Compelling the French Navy to join the Royal Navy in the fight against Germany and Italy, or at least neutralizing it, therefore seemed a reasonable course of action.
That the fate of the French fleet was a priority for the British government is beyond question. On 16 June, when the Cabinet finally agreed to French wishes for a separate peace, it was on condition “that the French fleet is sailed forthwith to British harbors.” Churchill reiterated the concerns he had raised with Darlan in a typically melodramatic official communiqué the following day: “I wish to repeat to you my profound conviction that [they] will not injure their ally [i.e. Britain] by delivering over to the enemy the fine French fleet. Such an act would scarify their names for a thousand years of history.”
Ironically, in Berlin and Rome, the Axis leaders sought a similar goal. As Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano wrote in his diary entry for 18–19 June, “He [Hitler] says at once that we must offer lenient armistice terms to France, especially concerning the fleet; this is to avoid the French fleet joining with the English fleet.”
Lost in Translation
The days leading up to the 27 June endorsement of Operation Catapult—the British plan to prevent the seizing of the French ships by the Axis—were fraught. Confusion and miscommunication reigned on both sides of the Channel. The French government was in limbo, nomadically in transit between Paris, Bordeaux, and finally Vichy, while on 23 June the British ambassador and his staff returned to England from Bordeaux, effectively severing formal communications.
The armistice had been signed the previous day, to come into effect at 0035 on the 25th.
Although no English-language version was produced, when the document was analyzed in London, Article VIII, regarding the demobilization and disarmament of the French fleet, was of particular concern.
The translation of a single French word in the first paragraph of the article proved crucial. The British interpreted the paragraph in question as: “The French war fleet is to collect in ports to be designated more particularly, and under German and/or Italian control to demobilize and lay up—with the exception of those units released to the French Government for protection of French interests in its colonial empire.”
To the French, the phrase sous le contrôle was considered to have a rather less controversial meaning of check/verification/supervision. There was even a late concession by the Germans permitting the “demobilization” to be effected in overseas, rather than metropolitan French, ports, due to fears the British might intercept ships as they passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Admiral Darlan, it transpired, kept his promise to Churchill.
The new French government wanted neither to surrender its fleet to the Germans, nor to antagonize them in ongoing negotiations. On 26 June, the eve of the War Cabinet’s approval for Operation Catapult, Darlan issued a communiqué addressing this dilemma: “Demobilized ships are to stay French, under French flag, with reduced French crews. Secret precautions for sabotage are to be made in order that any enemy or ex-ally [i.e. Britain] seizing a vessel by force may not be able to make use of it. . . . In no case obey the orders of a foreign admiralty.” On 28 June, perhaps sensing the impending crisis, he wrote, “To respond to outside interests would lead our territory into becoming a German province. Our former allies are not to be listened to.”
It was not necessarily the rationale behind the British government’s actions but the method that courted most controversy. In his statement to Parliament and subsequent memoirs, Churchill would comment that the War Cabinet never hesitated to endorse Operation Catapult. In truth, there were several dissenters. Although the Prime Minister had the support of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound (known as “Churchill’s Anchor” because of his unswerving devotion to the former First Sea Lord), Somerville’s concerns were echoed by many advisers and senior military commanders. On 27 June, the same day the British government finally agreed to Operation Catapult, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, wrote, “One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me and told me that there is a danger of your generally being disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic and overbearing manner.”
Perhaps the Prime Minister genuinely believed his proposed ultimatum was the only solution. Alternatively, perhaps these were the calculated actions of a man with a track record of sacrifices in pursuit of an ultimate victory. As First Sea Lord in the Great War, Churchill had encouraged neutral merchant shipping into the Western Approaches, where U-boats were prevalent. The hope was that any sinking might turn American public opinion in support of the Allied war effort. By association, he had been indirectly implicated in the sinking of the liner Lusitania off the southern coast of Ireland, which ultimately achieved that objective. Churchill and Admiral Pound knew that in devising and executing Operation Catapult, they were sending an important message to a variety of audiences, both at home and abroad—especially the U.S. President.
Reflecting his personal misgivings, Vice Admiral Somerville discussed his orders with Captain Cedric S. Holland. As the former British naval attaché to Paris, Holland was best placed to predict the French response to the proposed ultimatum.
Somerville subsequently telegraphed the Admiralty: “After talk with Holland and others, Vice-Admiral Force H is impressed with the view that the use of force should be avoided at all costs. Holland considers offensive action on our part would alienate all French everywhere they are.” The curt response from London was unequivocal: “Firm intention of H.M.G. [His Majesty’s Government] that if French will not accept any of your alternatives they are to be destroyed.”
Around dawn on 3 July, French naval vessels were seized as they lay at Portsmouth, Plymouth, Sheerness, and, after extended negotiations, Alexandria.
Meanwhile, Force H had sailed overnight from Gibraltar and arrived off the Algerian coast early that same morning. The destroyer HMS Foxhound with Captain Holland on board went ahead and entered the anchorage of Mers-el-Kébir around 0800 British Summer Time (BST). Despite their personal rapport (a legacy from his time in Paris), the French commander, Vice Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, initially refused to grant Holland an interview. A stickler for convention, Gensoul only would discuss matters with an officer of equal rank and sent his flag aide, Lieutenant Bernard Dufay (another friend from Holland’s time in Paris), in his place.
Thirty minutes later, the main elements of Force H appeared on the horizon, consisting of the battle cruiser Hood, the battleships Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the cruisers Arethusa and Enterprise, and escorting destroyers. A clearly riled Gensoul ordered the Foxhound to leave, but not before Holland had delivered a written copy of the British ultimatum. It read:
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-Kébir 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 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 or Italian hands.
No Good Choices for Admiral Gensoul
Gensoul knew that complying with any of the options proffered would contravene the terms of the armistice, the consequences of which could be devastating for France. He attempted to contact Darlan for advice but only reached his deputy, Rear Admiral Maurice Le Luc. Gensoul’s brief message read, “An English force composed of three battleships, an aircraft carrier, cruisers and destroyers before Oran has sent me an ultimatum: ‘Sink your ships; six-hour time limit, or we will constrain you or do so by force. My reply was: ‘French ships will answer force with force.’”
He also responded to Somerville via Dufay and Holland, reiterating that French ships would not be handed over to the Germans or Italians and closing with the statement, “Given the form and substance of the veritable ultimatum which has been sent to Admiral Gensoul, the French ships will defend themselves with force.”
Despite Gensoul’s bravado, the French had been caught in a particularly weak defensive position. By July 1940, the ambitious naval base construction work at Mers-el-Kébir consisted of no more than a 984-yard stretch of the Jetée Nord and some adjacent quays. The main elements of the Flotte de L’Atlantique—the four battleships Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Provence, and Bretagne and the seaplane carrier Commandante Teste—were moored stern-first to this outer breakwater, facing land. Their only means of escape was via an oblique, narrow channel protected by antisubmarine nets. To compound matters, the breeches of the protective coastal battery had been removed, while local elements of the Armée de l’Air were grounded in compliance with the armistice.
These material deficiencies were compounded by the parlous state of French morale. Reservists composed a significant proportion of the French force, and most were keenly anticipating a swift, post-armistice return home. Many regulars hailed from the northern Occupied Zone and were inevitably concerned about family back home. A general malaise lay over the anchorage.
‘Be Prepared to Answer Force with Force’
Angered by the British ships’ overt encouragement for his men to defect, Gensoul now communicated with the other ships in the anchorage: “English Fleet has proposed unacceptable armistice. Be prepared to answer force with force.” At noon, he sent another message to the French Admiralty, elaborating (in part) on the ultimatum terms and dramatically confirming his intensions to “defend myself with force at the first cannon shot, which will have a result diametrically opposed to that desired by the British Government.” Le Luc ordered reinforcements to sail from Toulon and Algiers; the message was intercepted by his British counterparts.
With time running out, Somerville signaled Gensoul demanding that the French accept one of the British terms or he would open fire. In response Gensoul requested, and was granted, a two-hour extension until 1530 on the pretext of awaiting a reply from his superiors. To increase pressure on the French commander, Swordfish aircraft from the Ark Royal approached and dropped mines across the harbor entrance.
As the revised deadline approached, Gensoul agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Holland. Desperate to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and in defiance of his official orders, Somerville duly offered a further two-hour extension and messaged the Admiralty, “I think they are weakening.” Captain Holland was piped aboard the Dunkerque at 1615 and after a cordial discussion believed “we had won through, and he [Gensoul] would accept one or other of the proposals.”
It was not to be. At 1645 Somerville received a further message from the Admiralty: “Settle matters quickly or you will have reinforcements to deal with.” Half an hour later, with no agreement forthcoming, he messaged his French counterpart, “If none of the British proposals are acceptable by 1730 BST, it will be necessary to sink your ships.”
A dispirited Holland returned to the Foxhound at 1725, noting that despite ongoing preparations, there was a general lack of urgency among the French crews.
Ten Minutes of Torment
Still, Somerville waited, hoping for a last-minute agreement but conscious of both approaching French reinforcements and possible Italian intervention. Unable to delay matters any longer, he reluctantly ordered the Hood to open fire at 1755. Carnage ensued.
Guided by a Swordfish spotter plane, the Hood’s gun crews soon found their range. Gensoul immediately ordered all ships to cast off and return fire. The Dunkerque and Provence duly “met force with force” but scored no hits. Force H was traveling at 17 knots in open sea to the northwest, hidden behind local fortifications. In contrast, the French flagship remained impotently tethered to the jetty, while the veteran superdreadnoughts were barely underway.
The Bretagne was hit by the Hood’s second salvo, igniting the main 340-mm magazine, which blew the aged battleship apart. She sank in just two minutes. Just as the Dunkerque was finally unshackled, she too was struck by a barrage of 15-inch shells. Her electrics disabled and rapidly losing power from damage in her boiler room, Captain M. J. M. Seguin opted to beach the flagship. The Provence also suffered a direct hit but avoided the Bretagne’s fate, thanks to the prompt actions of her crew, who flooded the aft magazine. Nevertheless, like the destroyer Mogador, whose stern was blown off when a stray shell ignited her depth charges, she was run aground to avoid blocking the main channel.
Barely ten minutes after it had all begun, and with the anchorage shrouded in thick smoke, Gensoul messaged his British counterpart, “All my ships are out of action. I request you cease fire.” In the absence of a white flag, a tan blanket was raised on the Dunkerque’s masthead. Meanwhile, unbeknown to Somerville, one of his key objectives was eluding him.
In contrast to her sister, and despite being showered in debris from dislodged masonry and the Bretagne’s destruction, the Strasbourg not only left her berth largely unscathed but also successfully negotiated the mined channel into open water. Protected by the surviving destroyers, Captain Louis Collinet’s charge was soon making 28 knots toward the northeast. Belatedly the British gave chase, but having evaded two further Swordfish attacks, the Strasbourg steamed into Toulon at 2110 on 4 July and was met by a hero’s reception.
‘I Leave It to the World and to History’
The attack on Mers-el-Kébir had left 1,297 French sailors dead and more than 350 wounded. Perhaps inevitably, Churchill’s parliamentary address on 4 July distorted some of the facts to heighten the sense of achievement, but nevertheless it was met with universal acclaim. Betraying his true motives, he concluded: “I leave the judgment of our action, with confidence, to Parliament. I leave it to the nation, and I leave it to the United States. I leave it to the world and to history.”
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was certainly watching—and this show of strength would embolden his resolve to support Britain with material assistance.
Charles River Editors, Operation Catapult: The History of the Controversial British Campaign Against the Vichy French Navy During World War II (Amazon: CreateSpace, 2018).
John Jordan and Robert Dumas, French Battleships, 1922–1956 (Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2009).
Allen Packwood, How Churchill Waged War: The Most Challenging Decisions of the Second World War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Mark Simner, “Operation Catapult: A Most Disagreeable Task,” marksimner.me.uk/operation-catapult-a-most-disagreeable-task/.
Brooke C. Stoddard, “Operation Catapult: The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir,” Warfare History Network.