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Mers-el-Kebir: A Battle Between Friends
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Mers-el-Kebir: A Battle Between Friends
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 decisive consequences.

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 other ships.

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

BRITISH:
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)
10 Destroyers


FRENCH:
Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, Commanding
2 Battle Cruisers (DUNQUERQUE, STRASBOURG)
2 Battleships (PROVENCE, BRETAGNE)
1 Seaplane Carrier
13 Destroyers
4 Submarines
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:
ijkapp@yahoo.com.

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.
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