Mers-el-Kebir: A Battle Between Friends
by Irwin J. Kappes
As a young sailor during World War Two, I served aboard the U.S.S. CHAMPLIN
(DD-601) which escorted an Allied convoy to Oran, Algeria in the spring of
1943. The nearby harbor of Mers-el-Kebir was still littered with the battered
and rusty hulks of some of the French warships sunk three years earlier by
their erstwhile ally, the British. Our ship tied up to the beached wreck of the
4-stack destroyer EPERVIER—now made useful as an improvised docking pier.
Most of my shipmates hurried ashore to a few trucks waiting to take us on a
liberty in nearby Oran. I took a few moments to explore the fallen warrior.
Souvenir hunters or salvage crews had long since stripped the ship bare. But
the rudder indicator in the pilothouse still pointed dead ahead as if she had
been intentionally run aground at full speed. In a moment of reflection, and in
my ignorance of world affairs at the time, I wondered why the British would
have sought the destruction of their ally’s fleet. In the ensuing years I have
studied accounts written at the time. They still provide no truly logical
explanation—illustrating once again that in warfare there is often more emotion
than logic. And, as in many historic naval engagements, a series of
misunderstandings and lack of communication determined the outcome.
The first misunderstanding came in the spring of 1940 when Hitler’s Panzers
defeated the French at Sedan, driving the British into a small beachhead at
Dunkirk. To the British and American leadership, the successful evacuation of
British forces was hailed as providential. But to many Frenchmen it appeared to
be an act of cowardly desertion.
The second failure of communication occurred with the signing of the
French-German armistice. In March of 1940 the French and British had concluded
an agreement that neither would ever sign a separate peace treaty with the
Nazis. Three months later Paris had fallen and a beleaguered Premier Paul
Reynaud petitioned Churchill to be released from the obligation. Churchill
responded in typical fashion. The French would be permitted to explore
conditions for an armistice but only on condition that the French fleet set
sail for British ports. It was the fourth largest fleet in the world and in
German hands could wreak havoc on Allied shipping. He also set forth a proposal
of “indissoluble union” between Great Britain and France. It was a dramatic
gesture but clearly unrealistic under prevailing circumstances. France was
already a beaten nation and was attempting to salvage some measure of
sovereignty over the southeastern half of its territory.
French Marine Minister Admiral Darlan had given Churchill his word that the
French fleet would never be allowed to fall into the hands of the Nazis. But
what neither knew at the time was that Hitler had no interest in acquiring
it—only neutralizing it by scuttling or by internment for the duration in
French ports “under German or Italian supervision”. Hitler’s naval emphasis had
been on submarine warfare and he simply did not have the manpower to staff a
fleet of seven battleships, twenty cruisers, two aircraft carriers and dozens
of destroyers and auxiliary ships.
The British High Command was very wary of the neutralization of the French
fleet in ports of Unoccupied France, as some had proposed. They feared that the
Germans might at some point be able to take possession by threatening to torch
Paris or Marseille unless the fleet were handed over. After all, Hitler had
already displayed far more grievous treachery than this.
The words “under German or Italian supervision” ultimately found their way into
Article Eight of the armistice agreement which had been drafted in French. It
immediately sounded alarm bells in the British Admiralty because of inclusion
of the French word contrôle. In French it means to keep custody of and to
inspect, but not to exert operational control. The British, never known for
their interest in foreign languages, quite naturally took the word to mean that
the Germans would take over control of the French fleet. Feeling betrayed, a
meeting of the British War Cabinet on June 24, 1940 concluded that Article
Eight’s assurances were to be disregarded. This resulted in a cascading
distrust between two nations that had every need--and reason--to feel
solidarity with one another, even though one had been beaten by a common enemy.
Still, Churchill’s stirring offer of union had moved Reynaud, who responded to
Churchill that, with such stout assurances of support, he would “fight to the
last”. Churchill replied by giving orders to the Admiralty to “suspend action”
on his earlier demand for the neutralization of the French fleet. But
miscommunication once again enters the picture. “Suspend” was translated by the
French as rapporter, which can be understood to mean “revoke”—and now it was
the French who suspected British treachery.
The unpleasantness rankled Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. For reasons having
little to do with his feeling of betrayal, he resigned on June 16 and was
replaced by Marshal Pétain, the aging hero of the Battle of Verdun in World War
I. Less than a week later, Hitler humbled the French by requiring them to sign
an armistice in the same railway car in which the Germans had been forced to
sign a humiliating surrender in 1918.
At this time the French fleet was scattered among ports in England, France,
Egypt and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. At Portsmouth and Plymouth
were two battleships, four cruisers, eight destroyers and numerous subs and
small craft. In Alexandria were one battleship, four cruisers and three
destroyers. More than twenty destroyers were located in ports on the North
African coast. But the main body of the fleet, the Atlantic Squadron, was
anchored in Mers-el-Kebir and nearby Oran, Algeria. Here were the battleships
BRETAGNE and PROVENCE and the battle cruisers STRASBOURG and DUNQUERQUE as well
as thirteen destroyers, four submarines and a seaplane carrier. With no
expectation of surface attack, their main batteries were for the most part
pointed toward the shore—an oversight that would have disastrous but not
On July 3rd, Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s “Force H” stood off
Mers-el-Kebir. It included the battleships RESOLUTION and VALIANT, the battle
cruiser HOOD, the carrier ARK ROYAL, two cruisers and eleven destroyers. His
orders were to give French Admiral Gensoul four choices. He could join the
British fleet or sail to a British port and have his crews repatriated to
Unoccupied France. He could sail to Martinique or the U.S. where his ships
would be decommissioned. Or alternately, he could scuttle his ships where they
lay anchored. If Gensoul refused all four options, the Royal Navy was simply
ordered to destroy the French fleet.
“Operation Catapult”, as the plan was dubbed, was strongly opposed by
Somerville and by Vice Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. (The latter was Commander
Mediterranean forces and his other major concern at the time was preventing the
eleven French warships docked in Alexandria from falling into Axis hands.) Both
feared that the fleet’s destruction would convert a defeated ally into an enemy
and fuel anti-British sentiment even among otherwise friendly allies.
Somerville even dared oppose his headstrong prime minister by proposing that
the French fleet be permitted to put to sea where they would be “captured” by
Force H. Churchill brushed the idea aside and Somerville’s subsequent naval
career suffered for his having proposed it.
One final attempt to neutralize the French fleet was made when Captain Cedric
Holland was sent into the harbor of Mers-el-Kebir aboard the destroyer FOXHOUND
to confer with Admiral Gensoul. He spoke French fluently and as a devoted
Francophile was totally dejected about the French defeat. Likewise, Gensoul
regarded himself as pro-British but as a proud naval commander had expected to
negotiate personally with Somerville—or at least an officer of flag rank. The
snub offended Gensoul who responded in kind by sending his lieutenant, Bernard
Dufay, to meet with Holland. But Holland insisted that his orders were to
deliver his message personally to Admiral Gensoul. The demand was relayed to
Gensoul aboard his flagship, the DUNQUERQUE, but Gensoul would have none of it.
He ordered Holland to board the FOXHOUND and leave the harbor at once. Still in
the belief that Gensoul would listen to reason if only he could be approached
in person, Holland made a daring move. He boarded the FOXHOUND’s whaleboat and
made a dash across the harbor for the DUNQUERQUE. After much delay he was
ultimately able to communicate the Admiralty’s terms directly to Gensoul. They
negotiated for nearly two hours, but Gensoul was not optimistic. He had already
ordered all ships to fire up their boilers in preparation for action. During
these final talks, Gensoul showed Holland a copy of his orders from Admiral
Darlan. They revealed that if any foreign power were to try to seize control of
the French fleet they were to immediately set sail either for the United States
or be scuttled. But in retrospect it is clear that Gensoul was merely trying to
buy time to allow his ships to prepare for battle.
In the final and most critical failure of communication, Gensoul failed to send
Admiral Darlan the full text of the British terms, which would have permitted
the French fleet to sail to the United States. It is doubtful that it would
have made a difference. Gallic pride prevented Gensoul from any willingness to
negotiate while under threat of British fire. And to make matters even worse,
while negotiations were still underway, British Swordfish planes from the
carrier ARK ROYAL were already dropping magnetic mines in an attempt to prevent
the French fleet from leaving port.
In London, Churchill was becoming impatient. Suspecting that Darlan had ordered
eastern Mediterranean units of the French fleet to come to Gensoul’s
assistance, he finally ordered Force H to resolve the impasse at once. At 5:26
P.M. Somerville radioed Gensoul that if none of the British proposals were
accepted within 15 minutes, he would be obliged to “sink your ships”. Both
sides had boxed themselves into a corner from which there was no honorable
retreat. It was one of the great naval tragedies of the Second World War.
As Captain Holland was leaving the DUNQUERQUE he saluted the French tricolor
smartly with tears in his eyes. As he boarded the boat for his return to the
FOXHOUND he heard the call to battle stations sound over the fleet’s speakers.
He said later that he couldn’t believe all this was happening. He hadn’t even
reached the HOOD ten miles offshore when Force H opened fire. HOOD’s 15-inch
shells first struck the DUNQUERQUE, destroying a gun turret, the main generator
and the ship’s hydraulic system. Despite being the most heavily armored capital
ship ever built by any navy, she was put out of action within four minutes, set
afire and beached. The old battleship BRETAGNE was sunk, and the PROVENCE was
heavily damaged as were the 3,500 ton contre-torpilleur MOGADOR and several
Huge columns of thick black smoke rose from the harbor. The French fleet
pitiably attempted to return fire but was quickly silenced. Somerville’s main
target, the 26,500 ton battle cruiser STRASBOURG managed to escape damage in
the hail of fire and using the smoke as a screen got underway carefully picking
its way through the burning hulks and minefields. Once safely outside of the
harbor, and racing at flank speed, the STRASBOURG and several destroyers
out-maneuvered Somerville and made it safely to the French port of Toulon.
Against overwhelming odds it was an incredible display of both courage and
seamanship. Though frustrated, even the British Admiralty was admiring.
Aside from the loss of the main body of the French fleet, the cost of Britain’s
OPERATION CATAPULT to the French was l,297 men killed or missing, with 354
wounded. The British had not a single casualty, but the loss in British-French
relations, at least for a time, was incalculable. Addressing his sailors during
a memorial service for the dead, Admiral Gensoul bitterly told his men, “If
there is a stain on a flag today, it is certainly not on yours”. For his part,
Admiral Somerville later commented that the action at Mers-el-Kebir was “the
biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world
against us…we all feel thoroughly ashamed…” In a letter to his wife he
predicted (correctly) that he would be criticized for having let the STRASBOURG
escape, and wrote that, “In fact, I shouldn’t be surprised if I was relieved
forthwith. I don’t mind because it was an absolutely bloody business…The truth
is my heart wasn’t in it.”
The leader of the Free French cause, General Charles de Gaulle, was
headquartered in London and he reacted with anger and expressed disgust that
the British press was announcing the event as a great victory. However, he
could ill-afford to be too critical of his otherwise supportive British hosts.
The operation also caused a near collapse of his efforts to enlist French
volunteers in his movement. Few Frenchmen would now fight alongside the British
in the great anti-Nazi crusade. But in the U.S., the press echoed the British
view of CATAPULT as a great naval victory, though the whole thing left most
Americans somewhat puzzled.
In Germany, Hitler and his Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels had a field day
promoting anti-British rage in occupied France. Posters showing drowning French
sailors and proclaiming “Remember Oran” began appearing all over Paris. One
poster even depicted a bloated and evil-looking Churchill grinning over the
cemetery crosses of the French fallen. A Berlin newspaper proclaimed the action
as “the greatest scoundrelism in world history.” Many Frenchmen agreed.
The new French government of Unoccupied France reacted furiously, severing
relations with Britain. And so great was the feeling of betrayal there that it
was only through Marshal Pétain’s influence that the Vichy government did not
cast its lot with the Nazis.
The poisonous atmosphere was not yet dispelled one month later when Churchill
made a long, and some thought, hypocritical peroration in the House of Commons
on the heroism of the seamen on both sides, describing it as a “melancholy
action”. With tears in his eyes he spoke of the tragedy of his forces having to
fire on their former allies. There were cheers on both benches, but some may
have recalled how the whole affair might have been avoided by better
communication and by just a little more trust and good will.
THE BATTLE LINE
Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville, Commanding
3 Battleships (HMS HOOD, HMS VALIANT, HMS RESOLUTION)
1 Aircraft Carrier (HMS ARK ROYAL)
2 Cruisers (HMS ENTERPRISE, HMS ARETHUSA)
Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, Commanding
2 Battle Cruisers (DUNQUERQUE, STRASBOURG)
2 Battleships (PROVENCE, BRETAGNE)
1 Seaplane Carrier
12 Small Craft
Copyright © 2003 Irwin J. Kappes
Written by Irwin Kappes. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Irwin Kappes at:
About the author:
Mr. Kappes served in U.S. Navy on destroyers in the Atlantic and
Pacific during WWII. He holds an MBA from Boston University and retired after a 32 year advertising career with the Du
Pont Company. He was also a retired Vice President with United States Hosiery. He is married and his hobbies include painting,
writing, and travel. His hometown is New Castle, PA. and presently living in Tinton Falls, NJ.
Published online: 03/15/2003.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.