After nine minutes of bombardment, Somerville called a respite so the French sailors might leave their ships, which he was convinced they would do once firing began. In this he was wrong. Captain Collinet of the powerful and swift Strasbourg called for full speed and turned for the open sea, and just in time, for a moment later 15-inch shells slammed into her vacated berth. Twisting and turning through the smoke and wreckage she somehow evaded slamming shells and lurking mines then gained speed in the darkening evening outside the harbor. A British plane spotted her, along with five destroyers from the Oran harbor, but Somerville at first dismissed the report.
Hoisting the White Flag
At 6:10 Gensoul signaled Somerville: “All my ships are out of action. I request you cease fire.” Somerville required Gensoul to hoist a white flag. Gensoul did not have one, but improvised with a tan blanket. There was no more firing to or from Mers el Kébir.
But soon Somerville received another report of Strasbourg’s dash out to the northeast. He broke away from land in pursuit. The Strasbourg had a good jump, however, owing to the smoke and the westward position of the British battle line. Somerville ordered a torpedo strike from six Swordfish airplanes. None made a hit, nor was a second attack two hours later successful. The Strasbourgultimately reached the great French harbor at Toulon unscathed. So did a number of destroyers, and eventually the seaplane carrier. A British submarine sank an auxiliary ship attempting flight.
These actions off the Algerian coast were not the only operations against French ships, planned in secrecy with many far-reaching tentacles. In Portsmouth harbor, England, the British seized French vessels during the night of July 2. In Plymouth, at least one British officer and a French rating were killed in a scuffle to seize the submarine Surcouf. In Alexandria, Egypt, Admiral Cunningham began negotiations with Admiral Godfrey. The next day these talks bore fruit, and the French ships surrendered their breech-blocks to the British. On the 8th, aircraft attacked and severely damaged the Richelieu in Dakar.
The Pétain government, which had set itself up in Vichy on July 1, was furious. It ordered bombing runs by French planes against British Gibraltar, which were carried out. It broke off relations with Great Britain on July 5.
The Aftermath of Mers-el-Kébir
But not all French were so dismayed. Charles de Gaulle, then an armor general and leader of the movement to carry on the fight, but whom the British did not consult in advance about Catapult, was restrained no matter what his personal feelings. In all, more than 1,200 Frenchmen lost their lives during the British attacks on the French ships. Families of slain sailors were bereaved and shattered. But two peasant families at least, each of whom had lost sons, requested that the Union Jack as well as the French Tricolor lie upon their loved ones’ coffins.
On July 4 Churchill reported to Parliament. He wrote in his memoirs (1949) that, following his remarks on this day that for the first time, he felt the whole approval of Parliament behind him, not merely its Labour members. He then wrote that “the elimination of the French Navy as an important factor almost at a single stroke by violent action produced a profound impression in every country. Here was this Britain which so many had counted down and out, which strangers had supposed to be quivering on the brink of surrender to the mighty power arrayed against her, striking ruthlessly at her dearest friends of yesterday and securing for a while to herself the undisputed command of the sea. It was made plain that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing.”
Indeed, the attack at Mers-el-Kébir was a turning point of sorts. The booms of the bombardment soon quieted around the harbor, but the shock waves traveled far and wide. Franco in nearby Spain must have been impressed; he never did enter the war on the side of his Fascist brethren. More importantly, Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic, and a former assistant secretary of the Navy, was deeply impressed with this show of British determination. Previously there was much talk in Washington about withholding arms and ships for Britain under the theory that in the likely event of capitulation of the British, these same arms and ships would be turned against Americans. After Mers-el-Kébir, the tenor changed. Very shortly, Roosevelt agreed to send to Britain 50 U.S. destroyers, more confident that Britain had the will to persevere, even to triumph.