The Battle of Mers el Kebir

or

The day the French wouldn't surrender

After the bad turn of fortune for the Allied ground forces in France against Germany in May and June 1940, it was clear France would not be able to be successfully defended. For Winston Churchill, the main goal became to secure Great Britain's defense, so as to prevent the success of Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of England. Among the measures securing this, were the evacuation of the UK Army at Dunkirk. The other major concern for Churchill, at the time, was also to make sure the French Navy, still modern and undamaged by the ground war, would not fall into the hands of Adolf Hitler.

Despite having the largest naval force in the world, the United Kingdom was fighting in the Pacific Ocean against Japan; in the Atlantic Ocean against Hitler; and, as Italy declared war on June 10th, Benito Mussolini was to be fought in the Mediterranean sea, too. The Axis gaining the use of the French Navy could very well be enough to tip the balance. Plus, many in the French military felt betrayed by the United Kingdom's evacuation of France; how much could their Admirals be relied on not surrendering the fleet to Hilter, after the signing of an armistice by Philippe Pétain?

On the third of July Operation Catapult was launched, and the French ships stationed in British harbors were captured by force, though with little violence. However most of the Atlantic fleet was anchored in Mers El Kebir, a French naval base near Oran in Algeria. The orders of the British Force H fleet, consisting of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and many smaller ships, led by rear-admiral James Somerville, were to get the French force either to surrender or to sink it. His emissary, Cedric Holland was to negotiate with Admiral Gensoul, who led the French fleet, and answered to Admiral Darlan, chief of the French Navy.

The French were to be given four options :

  • Going to Britain, to join the fight with Germany.
  • Going to Britain, from where the crew were to be repatriated to France
  • Scuttle the ships
  • Sail to the West Indies where the ships were to be entrusted to USA custody for the duration of the war

Apparently, the fourth possibility was not transmitted from Gensoul to Darlan, and Gensoul was ordered not to surrender the ships. It is to be noted that Darlan was a good old English-hating Frenchman. He later joined the Vichy Government, only to be in Algiers when the Allies captured it; he was supposed to be the leader of French Northern Africa, only to be assassinated by a gaullist, so that Charles de Gaulle would be recognised as sole leader of the Free French by Franklin Roosevelt. A man who was not of the kind to surrender to England, indeed.

Admiral Somerville also intercepted orders from Darlan to all French ships to converge to Mers El Kebir; it was clear he had to obey his orders, although he disliked them. At 5:54 PM the HMS Hood opened fire. Due to the way the French ships were anchored, their largest guns pointed towards the countryside rather than the English fleet; the bay was too small for the French to easily maneuver and escape. The third salvo of fire finally hit the French fleet; the Bretagne battleship was hit and capsized. The battlecruiser Dunkerque (Dunkirk...), the battleship Provence and the destroyer Mogador were hit and grounded, the carrier Commandant-Teste could not escape; but the modern battlecruiser Strasbourg, and five destroyers, were able to escape to Toulon. The battle was at most a half-success. Not a single British sailor was hurt; on the other hand, the French death toll was huge. Acounting an air strike the following day by planes from the Ark Royal, there were over 1300 sailors and officers killed; a higher number than that of Germans killed up to that date by the Royal Navy.

Such a tragic ending was not a necessity; in similar circumstances on the same day, in Alexandria, the French and the British forces came to an agreement - both slightly disobeying orders, by continuing to negotiate after Churchill's deadline. Indeed, both Somerville and Holland (who was commanding the Ark Royal) were disgusted with the whole affair, knowing the negotiations were close to an agreement, and were dismissed from their positions. The effect on French opinion of England was disastrous, both in the general population and among the military. Many who might have joined the British forces in the French Empire decided not to, as it came to be seen as treason. Even Charles de Gaulle was put in a difficult position, and for a time considered retiring to Canada as an ordinary citizen. The resentment over this event, the first naval engagement between the French and the British since the battle of Trafalgar, is still strong in the French Navy, more than sixty years later.

On the other hand, this brutal action showed that Winston Churchill was determined to go on with the war, and not seek armistice with Adolf Hitler. This had a strong effect both on the British population and on Franklin Roosevelt. Militarily, it is not sure the Battle of Britain could have been won if the German had seized the French Navy - However, it is not sure they would have been able to do so; it is likely the French would have rather scuttled their ships than give them to Hitler as the remains of the fleet in Toulon were, on Darlan's orders, when the Germans occupied the Vichy zone in 1942.

Thanks to Albert Herring who got the last word, and adamk who caught a gallicism.

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