July 3, 1940 — In 1940, as the Second World War began to get into its stride, Britain’s Royal Navy was the strongest maritime force in the world, with the largest number of warships and with naval bases across the globe. The United States Navy came in a close second. Third stood Japan with its burgeoning naval power, while the formidable fleet of France sailed into fourth place.
And that was the problem for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Battle of the Atlantic had started in September, 1939 with the Axis powers of Germany and Italy trying to prevent essential supplies from reaching Britain. It was estimated that at least 20 supply ships needed to arrive each day if the country had any hope of continuing to fight the war.
Already facing heavy damage from enemy submarines (U-boats), Churchill reasoned that the battle would be lost if Germany took control of the French fleet, adding it to their own maritime strength. He also feared that a combined Franco-Italian-German fleet could dominate the Mediterranean.
The Germans had invaded France in May and Paris fell on June 14. As part of the armistice agreement France signed with the Nazis on June 22, Germany occupied northern France and all of France's Atlantic coastline down to the border with Spain.
In one of his few concessions Hitler agreed that the French Navy, although disarmed, would not be surrendered and would remain under French control, albeit under German and Italian “administrative supervision.”
Though Churchill didn’t know it, Hitler feared the French fleet would sail for Britain if Germany tried to take it over, and French destroyers under British control would tilt the military balance against German submarines in the Atlantic.
As France was collapsing under the German onslaught, Admiral François Darlan, commander of the French navy, destroyed France’s Atlantic naval bases to thwart the Nazis and sailed the Atlantic fleet to the Mediterranean port of Toulon. He ordered his admirals to scuttle their ships if the Germans tried to take them.
Anchored in Britain at this time, France had two battleships, four cruisers, eight destroyers and numerous smaller vessels, while other ships belonging to the French Navy – the Marine Nationale – were in port at Alexandria, Egypt. The largest concentration, though, was anchored at Mers-el-Kébir and Oran, Algeria.
Pressed by Churchill, Admiral Darlan promised that he would not allow Germany to take control of his ships, but Churchill and his War Cabinet judged that the fleet was too powerful to risk an Axis takeover.
In his book, Twelve Turning Points Of The Second World War, P.M.H. Bell wrote: “The times were desperate; invasion [of Britain] seemed imminent; and the British government simply could not afford to risk the Germans seizing control of the French fleet”.
He added that the prospect of an invasion aided by French ships crewed by Germans – which must have seemed a significant possibility at the time – was just too great a risk to take. Darlan’s assurance was not deemed safe enough, given the stakes.
Accordingly, Churchill set in motion “Operation Catapult” which aimed to neutralise the French fleet. It began with the boarding and capture of French ships in British ports. There was little resistance but three French crewmen aboard a submarine were killed.
A powerful Royal Navy taskforce, led by HMS Hood under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville was then dispatched to Mers-el-Kébir. He was instructed to issue an ultimatum to the French that would require them to do one of the following:
* Join the Royal Navy in continuing the war with Germany.
* Sail to a British port with reduced crews to be interned for the duration.
* Sail to the West Indies or the United States and remain there for the rest of the war.
* Scuttle their ships within six hours.
If they refused all four options, Somerville was ordered to destroy the French ships to prevent their capture by the Germans. He had received a message from the Admiralty, which read: “You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly.”
In the absence of a satisfactory response to the ultimatum, the British launched what the reluctant Somerville later described as a “shameful” air and sea attack on the French on July 3. The bombardment killed 1,297 French servicemen, sank a battleship and damaged five ships. Five British aircraft were shot down and two crewmen killed.
But the operation did not go as planned. In all the smoke and chaos the battle cruiser Strasbourg, along with five destroyers, escaped and made their way to Toulon. Somerville later wrote to his wife: “For letting the battle cruiser escape and not finishing off more French ships I shouldn’t be surprised if I was relieved forthwith. The truth is my heart wasn’t in it and you’re not allowed a heart in war.”
Churchill had another reason for the attack. He was desperate for American support and according to his principal private secretary Eric Seal: “He was convinced that the Americans were impressed by ruthlessness in dealing with a ruthless foe; and in his mind the American reaction to our attack on the French fleet was of the first importance.”
In his book, The Second World War: The Mediterranean 1940–1945, Paul Collier wrote: “The attack remains controversial to this day, and created much rancour between the United Kingdom and France, but it also demonstrated to the world and to the United States in particular, Britain's commitment to continue the war with Germany at all costs and without allies if need be.”
In a postscript to the story, the Germans did try to capture the French fleet based at Toulon in November, 1942 but all ships of any military value, including the Strasbourg, were scuttled by the French. Many Frenchmen saw this as proof that there had never been any question of them surrendering their ships to the Germans and that the British action at Mers-el-Kébir had been an unnecessary betrayal.
Churchill received a letter from Admiral Darlan: “Prime Minister, you said to me, 'I hope you will never surrender the fleet'. I replied, 'There is no question of doing so'. It seems to me you did not believe my word. The destruction of the fleet at Toulon has just proved that I was right.”
Published: June 23, 2020
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