There was also a clause that allowed the Germans to use ships as “necessary for coast surveillance and mine-sweeping.” Who knew how the Germans might interpret that, or use large portions of the French fleet and thus free up their own vessels? The British did not doubt Darlan’s word about never surrendering the French ships to their enemies, but they did doubt whether he had the means of forever making it good. Thus they viewed the French fleet as a very large weapon idling in a kind of no-man’s land.
If the French warships could not be converted to British use or somehow neutralized peaceably, they must be destroyed. Churchill, the former First Lord of the Admiralty, was adamant. He debated with his military advisers, won them over, and set in motion operations to eliminate—by violence if need be—the threat of the French ships.
Looking back in 1949, Churchill reported in his memoirs: “The War Cabinet never hesitated. Those Ministers who, the week before, had given their whole hearts to France and offered common nationhood resolved that all necessary measures should be taken. This was a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned. It recalled the episode of the destruction of the Danish Fleet in Copenhagen Harbour by Nelson in 1801…. It was a Greek tragedy. But no act was ever more necessary for the life of Britain and for all that depended upon it.”
Scattering of the French Fleet
Despite Churchill’s later statements, he did meet early opposition among his counselors. Some of his military advisers in London were opposed to the use of ultimatums and force. Commander of Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, Sir Andrew Cunningham (commanding from Alexandria), and Somerville at Gibraltar were opposed. But Churchill took some solace in the fact that Franklin Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, saw the terrible necessity for strident action. Both Roosevelt’s Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark were so concerned about a strong German Navy cruising the Atlantic that they considered transferring a good portion of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor to Atlantic waters.
On June 22, when the French agreed to their armistice with the Germans, the French fleet was scattered. In British ports were the old battleships Paris and Courbet, as well as a number of large destroyers, and seven submarines, including the Surcouf, which was the world’s largest. At Casablanca and Dakar (French West Africa) lay the new, though not yet complete, powerful battleships Jean Bart and Richelieu. Other French ships were anchored at Alexandria, along with the British Mediterranean fleet.
The largest squadron was at Mers el Kébir just northwest of Oran, Algeria. Tied up by the stern at the long jetty were the older battleships Bretagne and Provence, but also the modern, fast battle cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg. There was also a seaplane carrier and six large destroyers. In Oran harbor lay seven more destroyers and four submarines.
Churchill and his War Cabinet would shortly see that the French were doing little to move their ships out of harm’s way and thus they set in motion Operation Catapult, the scheme to win over or neutralize the French ships, especially at Mers-el-Kébir. Secrecy and surprise were to be essential; much was to be done in different parts of two continents on the same day or very close together. Orders were sent out to Cunningham in Alexandria and Somerville, who was to lead a squadron—code-named Force H—from Gibraltar to Mers-el-Kébir.
Meanwhile, Darlan was signaling his own fleet. On the 26th he sent a message that stated in part: “Demobilized ships are to stay French, under French flag, with reduced French crews. Secret precautions for sabotage are to be made in order that any enemy or ex-ally [French captains would know this referred to Great Britain] seizing a vessel by force may not be able to make use of it…. In no case obey the orders of a foreign admiralty.” In a communiqué two days later he wrote: “To respond to outside interests would lead our territory into becoming a German province. Our former allies are not to be listened to.” Darlan not only believed that if the French fleet submitted to Britain, then Germany would denounce the armistice and occupy all of his country, but he also probably believed that Britain would soon be defeated. In that case, what was the point in having the French fleet be defeated with them?—if the French ships held out, the French Navy could later say it was the one fighting force against the Axis that was not beaten in battle.
Both the British and the French had some cause for feeling somewhat betrayed. The British believed the French had broken their word, first about not contemplating a separate peace and then doing so, ignoring the one provision laid on by the British—moving their fleet to British-controlled ports. For their part, the French felt bitter over what they believed to be inadequate aid from the British in thwarting defeat, especially in not sending more airplanes to France to slow Werhmacht advances (the British position being that they needed these airplanes in case Germany attempted an invasion of England).
“If French Will Not Accept Any of Your Alternatives They Are to be Destroyed.”
Somerville did not like Catapult in the least. After conferring with Captain Cedric S. Holland, former British naval attaché in Paris and the person most acquainted and friendly with high-ranking French naval officials, he telegraphed London: “After talk with Holland and others Vice-Admiral Force H is impressed with the view that the use of force should be avoided at all costs. Holland considers offensive action on our part would alienate all French everywhere they are.”
Several hours later the Admiralty signaled back: “Firm intention of H.M.G. [His Majesty’s government] that if French will not accept any of your alternatives they [the ships] are to be destroyed.” Under this cloud, Somerville sailed overnight from Gibraltar to Mers-el-Kébir.
As the sun rose on July 3, Somerville and his Force H arrived off their destination. Force H was a powerful squadron comprising Somerville’s flagship the HMS Hood, possibly the most powerful ship then afloat; battleships Valiant and Resolution; aircraft carrier Ark Royal; two cruisers; and 11 destroyers. His orders were explicit: He was to deliver to Vice-Adm. Marcel Bruno Gensoul the following terms, spelled out—after an explanatory preamble—thus:
“(1) Sail with us and continue to fight for victory against the Germans and Italians.
“(2) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews will be repatriated…. We will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war, or pay full compensation if they are damaged ….
“(3) Alternately, if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against Germans or Italians, since this would break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies … where they will be demilitarized by us to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States of America….
“If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret require you to sink your ships within six hours. Finally, failing the above, I have the orders of His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands.”
Attack a Former Ally?
Somewhat ahead of the main body of Force H, at 6:30 in the morning, HM destroyer Foxhoundconveyed Captain Holland, the former naval attaché in Paris, to the harbor entrance to deliver these terms to his friend Admiral Marcel Gensoul. Another good friend of Holland’s, Gensoul’s flag lieutenant, a Lieutenant Dufay, received him. Dufay sped to Gensoul’s flagship Dunkerque for instructions. The French presently spotted the bulk of Force H. Gensoul did not like the smell of this at all; as a proud Frenchman he was not about to be manipulated with ultimatums, especially under the shadow of powerful guns. He had his orders to follow. Gensoul sent Dufay back to Holland with the message that he would not see him. In addition, at 8:47, Gensoul ordered Foxhound to leave the harbor. Holland ordered Foxhound to retire, but took a launch to Dunkerque himself in hopes the admiral would change his mind. He at least managed to have the written version of the British position terms delivered to Gensoul.
Then Holland, Somerville, Pound, and Churchill anxiously awaited Gensoul’s decision. In his memoirs, Churchill reported that “at the Admiralty there was manifest emotion” at the prospect of “open[ing] fire on those who had so lately been our comrades” but that “there was no weakening in the resolve of the War Cabinet.” He remained in the Cabinet Room during the critical hours in contact with the Admiralty.
Between 9:30 and 10 am, Gensoul first sent the following to the French Admiralty: “An English force composed of three battleships, an aircraft carrier, cruisers and destroyers before Oran has sent me an ultimatum: ‘Sink your ships; six-hour time limit, or we will constrain you or do so by force. My reply was: ‘French ships will answer force with force.’” He then ordered his fleet to get up steam and prepare for action. He also sent a message with Dufay to Holland: “The assurances … remain un- changed. In no case, anytime, anywhere, any way, and without further orders from the French Admiralty, will the French ships fall intact into the hands of the Germans or the Italians. Given the form and substance of the veritable ultimatum which has been sent to Admiral Gensoul, the French ships will defend themselves with force.”