Mers-el-Kebir: Sinking the French Fleet

An article kindly supplied by Nigel Parker

France defeated and divided

In the terms of the Armistice between France and Germany signed at Compiègne on 22nd June, France was to be divided into two zones, the Northern part and the West Coast down as far as Spain was to come under German / Axis control while the Southern and South-Eastern 40 percent of France was to come under the control of the French Government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain initially from the town of Bordeaux but as soon as the armistice was signed this transferred to Vichy.

Under the terms of the Armistice (24 Articles) the French were to surrender all their arms and ammunition to German control and that ships of the French Navy were to sail to their home ports in France, apart from those ships required to police France’s Colonial interests, where they were to be decommissioned. The Germans and her allies declared that they would not make any attempts to take control of the French Fleet while the terms of the armistice were complied with.

Britain was concerned that although under the terms of the armistice the French Fleet would be laid up in their home ports, the ships would not be permanently immobilised and that they could readily be taken over by Axis Forces and readied for sea, posing a threat to dominance of the Mediterranean by the Royal Navy. It was therefore proposed by the British Government to the French Government that either the French Navy sailed British ports and joined with the allies, to sail to the West Indies and mothball their fleet or fully disable their ships which would entail scuttling them. If the French were unwilling to meet any of the demands laid down the British then action would be taken to put the fleet out of action by destroying them by gunfire or demolition.

Apart from elements of the French Fleet already in their home ports, they were also berthed at Plymouth and Portsmouth, Alexandria, Martinique, Casablanca, Dakar and Algiers.

The French Fleet in German hands?

The attitude of the French Government and Admiral François Darlan; the Chief of the French Navy was that it was only a matter of time before Britain was defeated and therefore being able to use the French Navy as a bargaining chip in obtaining more favourable terms from the armistice was a positive step. It was the only part of the French armed forces that had not been defeated but also had not seen any action during the German invasion of France. The Germans wanted to ensure that the French Fleet would not join with the British and given the state of their own navy following the debacle in Norway, if they could capture the ships intact they would be a valuable asset in boosting the Kriegsmarine at some point in the future. The French Government was at this time in disarray and still on the move with fractured communications they were not in a position to make significant decisions, along with the historic distrust of the British amongst many in government; Trafalgar and Waterloo had not faded into the mists of time as far as the French were concerned.

The British were concerned time was short with the possibility of the French Government conceding to the terms of the armistice and inadvertently allowing the Axis Powers to capture the French Fleet by stealth or Italian Fleet putting to sea and blockading the French Mediterranean ports.

Sir Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet were not prepared to risk the French Fleet falling into Axis hands under any circumstances even though Admiral Darlan reiterated that under no circumstances would the fleet be allowed to do so or be used against the Royal Navy. If the French Fleet were no longer going to be able to counter the threat from the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean the balance of power would swing in favour of the Axis navies and thus the Royal Navy Force H was rapidly assembled in Gibraltar.

 

Churchill wrote
“This was the most hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned”
Mers el kebir Oran
Six Blackburn Skuas of No 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm line up on deck before taking off from HMS ARK ROYAL.  Source WIKI/IWM

Operation Catapult

Operation Catapult was the code name for the actions required to prevent the French warships based at Mers-el-Kebir and Oran, Algeria falling into the hands of the Axis, with Anvil the code word to sink the French fleet if all other options could not be agreed.

Force H, under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, his flagship being the battlecruiser HMS Hood along with, battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Resolution, the aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, two cruisers HMS Arethusa and HMS Enterprise, along with eleven destroyers from the 8th and 13th Destroyer Flotillas.

Captain Cedrick “Hooky” Holland, captain of the Ark Royal had been seconded to the destroyer HMS Foxhound as the task had fallen to him to personally negotiate with the French commander, Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul at Mers el Kebir into accepting the British demands. Holland had previously served as Naval Attaché in Paris and was fluent in French. Having transferred to the destroyer HMS Foxhound in Gibraltar, Captain Holland proceeded towards the harbour at Mers-el-Kebir.

At 0445 hrs (GMT) HMS Foxhound stopped outside Mers-el-Kebir harbour and Captain Holland transferred to Foxhounds’ launch for the final trip to the harbour. Permission from the French to enter was not given and initial negotiations were carried out just outside the harbour anti-submarine boom between Admiral Gesoul’s ADC, Lieutenant de Vaisseau Bernard Dufay aboard the admirals lighter. Admiral Gesoul based on the battlecruiser Dunkerque refused to meet with Holland on the basis of discrepancy of rank and considered that Admiral Sir James Somerville, C in C Force H, aboard HMS Hood should have attended in person. Following various delays and protracted negotiations throughout the day in which the French fleet prepared to sail and came to action stations while Force H steamed to and fro on the horizon.

ATTACK ON THE THE FRENCH FLEET AT ORAN, NORTH AFRICA, 1940
ATTACK ON THE THE FRENCH FLEET AT ORAN, NORTH AFRICA, 1940 French sailors escape from fires below deck on board an unidentified French battleship which had been damaged during the attack by Royal Navy warships on the French Fleet at Oran. The controversial attack, which was designed to prevent the French Fleet falling under the control of Germany following the fall of France, was carried out by Force H under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville, after the French had refused the British Government's demand that its Fleet either scuttle itself or sail to a British port. © IWM HU 63611
FRENCH FLEET RETURNS HOME. 13 AND 14 SEPTEMBER 1944, TOULON. THE CEREMONIAL REENTRY OF THE FRENCH FLEET INTO THE PORT OF TOULON ON 14 SEPTEMBER, 17 DAYS AFTER THE RECAPTURE OF THE PORT BY THE ALLIES. (A 25666) The French battleship STRASBOURG and an overturned French cruiser scuttled in the harbour. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205157361

Force H Opens fire

To put further pressure on Admiral Gesoul, swordfish from HMS Ark Royal dropped magnetic mines in the mouth of the harbours at Mers-el-Kebir and Oran thus sealing the French fleet inside its ports. With one last attempt to avert an encounter and at about three o’clock in the afternoon Admiral Gesoul agreed to meet the British delegation of Captain Holland and Lieutenant Commander Davies aboard the Dunkerque but no further compromise could be agreed. Finally at 1620 hrs a message was received from Admiral Darlan’s headquarters stating that the Admiral of the Fleet had ordered all French Naval Forces in the Mediterranean to rally to Admiral Gesoul, thus it was deemed that there could be no longer any reason for further negotiations. At 1625 hrs Captain Holland and Lieutenant Commander Davies took their leave and boarding their small launch headed out to sea; HMS Foxhound having been ordered to join the fleet so as to be out of the line of fire.

At 1654 hrs GMT Force H opened fire on the French fleet in Mers-el-Kebir harbour consisting of the battlecruisers  Dunkerque and Strasbourg, battleships Provence and Bretange and the seaplane carrier Commandant Teste, along with the destroyers Mogador, Volta, Terrible, Lynx, Tigre and Kersaint.

The action lasted ten minutes during which time the Dunkerque was hit by a number of 15 inch shells and badly damaged to the extent that she had to beached on the west side of the harbour to prevent her sinking. The Bretagne was hit in the stern, her magazines exploded and within eight minutes had capsized and sunk. The Provence was also hit astern and had to be beached, along with the destroyer Mogador. The Commandant Teste was relatively undamaged.

The Strasbourg escapes

The Strasbourg under the cover of the smoke from the battle was able to escape through a mine swept channel and accompanied by the destroyers Volta, Terrible, Lynx, Tigre and Kerisant and headed out into the Mediterranean and east along the coast where they were joined by destroyers from Oran including La Poursviante and Extremis.

At 1725 hrs six Swordfish of 818 Squadron had taken off from HMS Ark Royal, along with three Skuas to act as fighter escort. The Swordfish carried four 250 lb SAP and eight 20 lb bombs originally intended to dive bomb the ships in Mers-el-Kebir were diverted to pursue and attack the Strasbourg and her attendant ships. Soon after take-off the formation was attacked by a formation of French Curtis 75A’s and in the subsequent dog-fight one of the Skuas, L2915 was shot down and crashed into the sea. [Skua II, L2915, A7C, 803 Sqdn FAA. PO (A) Thomas Frank Riddler FX.76494 +.  Lee-on-Solent Memorial, Hampshire, Naval Airman 1st Class Horace Turner Chatterley FX.77466 +. Lee-on-Solent Memorial, Hampshire].

Dive bombing and dog fights

At 1810 hrs a further formation of nine aircraft consisting of Curtis 75A’s and Morane 406’s was engaged in a dog-fight and two French aircraft were claimed as damaged. Then at 1830 hrs another three Curtis 75A’s were engaged but no claims were made on either side.

The formation of Swordfish caught up with the Strasbourg and commenced their dive bombing attack from the west, out of the sun into an intense barrage of anti-aircraft fire. No hits were claimed on any of the French ships. On the return two Swordfish were forced to ditch due to damage from anti-aircraft fire but their crews were rescued by the destroyer HMS Wrestler, which had earlier engaged the Strasbourg as she left Mers-el-Kebir harbour and then was subsequently engaged by shore batteries off Oran.

Hood in pursuit

At 1814 hrs a small motor boat, flying the white ensign was sighted by the crew of HMS Hood fifteen miles off the coast; it was the motorboat from HMS Foxhound carrying Captain Holland, Lieutenant Commanders Spearman and Davies, along with their crew. They were subsequently rescued by the destroyer HMS Forrester and the launch abandoned.

The Strasbourg and her attendant destroyer screen made off at full speed towards the north-east pursued by HMS Hood, a destroyer screen and behind them HMS Valiant and HMS Resolution. With night rapidly falling the chase was abandoned. A final torpedo attack was carried out on the Strasbourg at 1855 hrs by six Swordfish which approached at twenty feet above the sea. One torpedo exploded under the stern of the battleship and another claimed to have hit amidships but due to the darkness this could not be confirmed. Strasbourg and a small number of accompanying destroyers reached the port of Toulon the following evening.

At 1833 hrs the cruiser Rigault de Genouilly was sighted leaving Oran harbour to follow the Strasbourg but was engaged by the cruisers HMS Arethusa and HMS Enterprise, along with HMS Hood and HMS Valiant; being hit the French cruiser turned back to Oran. The next day while making for Algiers she was intercepted by the submarine HMS Pandora, hit by two torpedoes she sank six miles off Cape Matifou.

Torpedo attacks on the Dunkerque

On the 4th July a signal was intercepted from the French Admiral Estéva detailing the previous events at Mers-el-Kebir and included the sentence “The damage to the Dunkerque is minimal and the ship will soon be repaired”, although no damage assessment or survey had been carried out on the ship. To this end, Force H, now in Gibraltar was again brought to readiness to set sail and finish the job. Initially the plan was to once more bombard the Dunkerque where she lay but would mean that there would be considerable damage to buildings and property on shore so it was decided that a torpedo attack should be carried out by Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal. On 6th July, at 0620 hrs six Swordfish of 820 Squadron carried out a torpedo attack on the Dunkerque, with five of the torpedoes hitting their target but only four exploding. Twenty minutes later three Swordfish from 810 Squadron carried out another attack, this time escorted by six Skuas. Two of the torpedoes found their target and detonated, one hitting the ocean-going tug Terre Neuve which had come along side the Dunkerque to assist evacuating the wounded and non-essential personnel. The Terre Neuve had been requisitioned by the navy as an anti-submarine vessel and was still loaded with depth charges when she was struck and detonated completely destroying the vessel and causing the Dunkerque to settle even deeper. The final attack was made by another three Swordfish of 810 Squadron; the first torpedo hit the Dunkerque and exploded amidships. The second aircraft dropped its torpedo at a longer range but this struck a tug that was passing in-front of the line of fire and disintegrated, while the third torpedo found its mark but again failed to explode.

French losses; Air attacks on Gibraltar

Mers el Kebir Oran
The British naval bombardment of the French Mediterranean fleet in July 1940 was prompted by strategic necessity but provoked a damaging backlash of anti-British propaganda. Following the armistice between Germany and France and the subsequent creation of the Vichy regime there was a risk that French warships would fall under German control. The British government launched 'Operation Catapult' to persuade the commander of the French naval base at Mers-el-Kebir, off the North African coast at Oran, to put his fleet beyond German reach or to scuttle the ships. The French refused these options and the subsequent British bombardment sank a cruiser and two battleships with the loss of 1,250 French sailors. Vichy France responded with strong propaganda conveying public anger at the loss of life and demonising Churchill as the instigator. The event embittered French attitudes against Britain which, only weeks before, had been an ally. The appeal of the common sailor is a device used by poster designers of other sea-faring nations where an attack on the Navy is felt to be an attack on nationhood. In this case the interest lies in the uncompromising emphasis on the French flag. Appearing just at the moment when French nationhood was in question, this poster is designed to bolster French identity with the new Vichy regime.

All the aircraft from the Ark Royal returned, although there had been a number of dog-fights between French fighters and the Skuas, while some of the Swordfish were badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire.

It was estimated that the action had caused the deaths of 1,300 French sailors and two Fleet Air Arm airmen.

The French ships berthed at Plymouth and Portsmouth were boarded by Royal Navy sailors and captured but resulted in the deaths of two RN sailors and one French sailor when the submarine Surcouf was boarded. These included four more submarines, battleships Paris and Coubert, destroyers Triomphant and Léopard, eight torpedo boats and a number smaller vessels.

The French warships, battleship Lorraine, and four cruisers, in the harbour of Alexandria under the command of Admiral René-Émile Godfroy found themselves hemmed into the inner-port and conceded on 7th July to comply with the British demands that the ships should be decommissioned remaining in the harbour until 17th May 1943 when they were recomissioned and used by the Free French.

On 5th July the Vichy French Air Force raided Gibraltar but caused little damage. 

On 24th September 1940 Gibraltar bombed by sixty Vichy French aircraft dropping 45 tons of bombs and later that night 81 bombers dropped 60 tons of bombs.

Military personnel: Gunner Sidney Durrant 3 HAA Regt RA, Lance Sgt George Hare HQ 82 HAA Regt RA, Capt Peter Raikes RE, Gunner Harry Shipley 4th Bty, 3 HAA, RA, Gunner George Smith 4th Battery, 3 HAA RA, Lt John Ball RAMC, Paymaster Commander John Smith HMS Cormorant RN, and Captain Harrald Trythall were killed. The Anti-submarine trawler Stella-Situs was sunk and Seaman Gilbert Thomas was killed. Also six civilians: Mercedes Crisp, Josephine Crisp, Francis Crisp, Leopoldina Border, Francisco Gordillo and James Orfila died in the air raids.

8th July 1940 British torpedo boats attacked the incomplete French Battleship Jean Bart in Casablanca harbour and caused some damage and it was moved to shallow water on 8th August.

The Battle of Dakar

At this point of the war Dakar was the depository for the gold reserves for the Banque de France and that of the Polish Government in Exile along with being a strategic port on the West Coast of Africa.

On the 6th September the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, the battleships HMS Barham, HMS Resolution, along with five cruisers; HMAS Australia, HMS Devonshire, HMS Cumberland, HMS Dragon and HMS Delhi, eleven destroyers and several troop ships carrying 8,000 troops from the 101st Brigade, Royal Marines and the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion set sail from Gibraltar towards Dakar. In response the Vichy French cruisers Georges Leygues, Montcalm and Glorie along with three destroyers set sail from Toulon with the intention of reinforcing the Dakar garrison. 

On 7th September 1940 Swordfish flying from the carrier HMS Hermes attacked the French battleship Richelieu which was docked in Dakar Harbour, French West Africa. The ship was hit by a torpedo which blew a large hole in the side of the ship and it settled on the bottom of the harbour. The following day a further attack was carried out by Swordfish but was unsuccessful. 

On 11th September the Vichy French force passed through the Straits of Gibraltar unopposed but as soon as the British realised their intended destination sent the Battleship HMS Renown and three destroyers to intercept the French force. After refuelling at Casablanca the French force now only consisting of the three cruisers made off for Dakar being pursued by HMS Renown and six destroyers but Glorie was intercepted by HMAS Australia and forced to return to Casablanca.

23 September 1940; Operation Menace.

The French forces under General Charles de Gaulle and the Royal Marines arrived outside Dakar and two aircraft were sent off from HMS Ark Royal, landing at Dakar aerodrome to negotiate with the Vichy French garrison but they were imprisoned. Then a boat proceeding into Dakar Harbour with the intention of starting negotiations was fired upon and two personnel wounded. At 0900 hrs British warships approached the harbour but were fired on by shore batteries and five crew were killed. At 1030 hrs the Vichy French submarine Persée was sunk while attempting to torpedo the cruiser HMS Dragon. Later the cruiser HMAS Australia attacked the destroyer L’Audacieux, killing 81 sailors and forcing her to beach. A landing in the afternoon at Rufisque Bay by Free French forces was repulsed and de Gaulle appeared to show reluctance to push harder due to not wanting to kill fellow Frenchman and the Governor of French West Africa Pierre Boisson rejected demands for the surrender of Dakar.

On 24th September the destroyer HMS Fortune detected the submarine Ajax and forced it to the surface with the use of depth-charges and subsequently sank it with gunfire after the crew of 61 had been evacuated. HMS Barham hit the Richelieu with two shells badly damaging the Vichy French battleship which was further damaged by a misfire in number 2 Turret. The bombardment of Dakar continued throughout the day with the French Coastal Batteries returning fire and hitting HMS Barham and HMS Resolution which was put out of action. Following this Operation Menace was abandoned and the British force returned to Gibraltar.

During Operation Case Anton, the German occupation of Vichy France on 10th November 1942, Toulon was surrounded by German forces in Operation Lila on the 27th November which intended to capture the French Fleet intact but by employing various delaying tactics the French were able to scuttle a large proportion of the fleet and preventing it from falling intact into German hands. Three battleships, including the Strasbourg and Dunkerque, seven cruisers, thirty destroyers, fifteen submarines, the Commandant Teste, and eight sloops were put out of action or sunk. Thirty-nine smaller ships were not scuttled and were captured by the German forces.

Submarines Casablanca, Marsouin managed to escape and reach Algiers, Glorieux reached Oran and Iris reached Barcelona. Vénus was scuttled at the entrance to Toulon harbour. The Leonor Fresnel was the only surface ship to escape and reached Algiers.

Some of the smaller ships that had been scuttled were raised by the Italian Navy although they were not put back into operation before Italy surrendered to the Allies.

Although Operation Lila had failed to capture the French fleet intact as far as the Axis forces were concerned it was not a total failure as it had prevented the other scenario of the fleet from joining the Allies and therefore maintained a semblance of naval balance in the Mediterranean. 

During the period July 1940 until the surrender of Italy in September 1943 the Vichy French Government had sent two cruisers, ten destroyers seven submarines, six corvettes and eight minesweepers to Italy to be manned by Italian crews.

Operation Menace - IWM Video

Operation Menace
Operation Menace, the attempt on Dakar in September, 1940. Cameraship is HMS Barham. Other miscellaneous items include an episode about minelaying and another on the commissioning of the battleship HMS Howe. (Please note there is NO SOUND)

Click on photo to start

About The Author

Nigel Parker has followed a career in Engineering and for 23 years ran the Cryogenics Department at Oxford University. Having a lifelong interest in military aviation and being involved in the research and recovery of many crashed military aircraft he chose to take early retirement and follow his passion; writing a twelve volume series on the German Air Force losses over Great Britain in World War 2; “Luftwaffe Crash Archive”, followed by a three volume series entitled “Gott Strafe England”; the German air assault against Great Britain 1914 – 1918. He is now writing a book on the V1 and V2 campaign and also a revised history of the Battle of Britain.
Nick Brazil

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