Clearly, the message Gensoul signaled to his superiors was grossly and negligently incomplete. He made no mention of the options to join the British, turn over the ships to the British, or have the ships sail to neutral and safe ports. Compounding these misrepresentations was the fact that the French Admiralty was on the move—from Bordeaux to Vichy. Darlan could not be reached immediately and a Rear Admiral LeLuc had to deal with the shocking news from Oran.
LeLuc did not see much room for maneuver. The last messages from Darlan touching on the subject were those to the fleet on June 24 and 26, the former ending with the order: “In no case obey the orders of a foreign admiralty.” LeLuc responded by signaling powerful squadrons in Toulon, France, and in Algiers to prepare for action and steam in reinforcement to Oran. This message was intercepted by the British on the Continent and forwarded to Churchill and Pound.
French Sailors Were Visibly Remorseful
As the morning wore on, the British signaled quite visibly and “in clear” to French ships their offer to welcome the French ships into the British fleet. They had supposed that the French commanders might withhold that information from their sailors but that the sailors, being aware of it, might tip the tide of opinion to the British favor. Indeed, one witness later said that during the time of the negotiations the French sailors seemed to go about their duties with exceptional lethargy and remorse.
At a little after noon Gensoul sent a second message to his admiralty, being somewhat more forthcoming about the British terms: “Initial English ultimatum was: either rally to the English fleet or to destroy the ships within five hours to prevent their falling into German or Italian hands. Have replied: (1) The latter eventuality is not to be envisaged. (2) Shall defend myself with force at the first cannon shot, which will have a result diametrically opposed to that desired by the British Government.”
No new decisions were forthcoming from the French Admiralty. The British Admiralty knew only that the French were sending reinforcements prepared for combat.
Somerville ordered a British plane to drop several mines in the main shipping channel of Mers-el-Kébir, the better to box in the French ships and prevent their escape. This was done, and observed by the French.
At 1:15 pm, with the grace period drawing to a close, Somerville signaled Gensoul to accept one of the British terms by hoisting a white flag, or “if not, I will open fire.” Gensoul signaled Somerville to wait until he had heard again from his superiors.
Somerville then disobeyed his orders. He signaled to Gensoul that he would extend the deadline for two hours, until 3:30. At about this time Gensoul received a message from the French Admiralty to this effect: “Do not demobilize—reinforcements are on the way.”
An Ultimatum for Gensoul
As 3:30 neared, Gensoul signaled that he would receive Captain Holland in person. Somerville was heartened by the news and granted another two-hour extension. Holland boarded the Dunkerque and was ushered to Gensoul’s quarters. The British captain again stressed to Gensoul that his government did not at all doubt Darlan’s word, but that the Germans might be capable of a surprise attack that Darlan, even in his best efforts, could not thwart. Gensoul told him that it would never happen. He promised to use force against any German threat, or if time permitted to evade them by sailing to the West Indies or the United States. In fact, Gensoul was now more riled than before. He bristled at being given what he considered an ultimatum under threat of British guns, and since the mining of the harbor he was even more indignant. Holland stressed how close they were to a peaceful settlement.
But time was drawing close. They could come no closer to an agreement. Gensoul felt he had to remain absolutely true to his orders and to the terms of the armistice. Holland signaled Somerville of the impasse. It was 5 o’clock.
Fifteen minutes earlier Somerville had received a new dispatch from the Admiralty. It read: “Settle matters quickly or you will have reinforcements to deal with.” Somerville knew that this meant menace from both surface ships and submarines. In addition to the French ships preparing to bear down on him the Italian Navy might show up—after all, the British force had been in virtually the same location for 11 hours. He sent a final message to Gensoul: “If none of the British proposals are acceptable by 17:30 BST [British Summer Time], it will be necessary to sink your ships.”
Gensoul handed the message to Holland. Then the French admiral stood up, nodded to the British captain, and walked from the room. Holland was given departing honors as he disembarked Dunkerque. It was 5:25, and he saw the French sailors manning their battle stations. But he noted their lack of hustle and that many seemed to be milling on the upper decks as if they believed they would yet escape violence. The officer of the watch on Bretagne saluted Holland in respect.
Gensoul climbed to the bridge of the Dunkerque and said to an officer, “I have done everything to gain time. Now it is finished.”
The Foxhound cleared the harbor, laying mines as it went.
Somerville kept waiting, holding his sights on the French battlewagons, still hoping even to see the white flag that meant his former Allies would meet one of his conditions. But only the French Tricolor flew in the evening air. His deadline came and went. More time passed. At last the cold press of time and duty forced him to action. At 5:55 he gave the order he hated: “Open fire.” The Hood at the head of the British line, 17,500 yards from the French ships and steaming at 17 knots, trembled as its eight 15-inch guns roared.
The French were, of course, sitting ducks. They were lined up with sterns cabled to the jetty, bows pointing toward the land and away from the British battle line. Gensoul ordered fire returned and for his ships to make for the sea. He telegraphed his government: “In action against the British Force.”
Since the French warships had been raising steam there was haze and smoke over Mers-el- Kébir harbor. This made exact ranging difficult. But the British gunners had the assistance of a Swordfish aircraft launched from the Ark Royal. Observing the bombardment from 7,000 feet it could report the location of the landing shells. The first salvo fell across the seaplane carrier, the Bretagne, and the Strasbourg.
French broadsides sent geysers of seawater up near the British battle line, but their aim was defective owing to smoke around their ships. Moreover, their biggest guns could not bear on the British force—the Dunkerque and Strasbourg’s big guns were forward, pointing away from the open sea. Only the Bretagne and Provence could put their largest guns to use. No British vessels were hit.
The second British salvo hit the Bretagne as she was attempting to cast off. At least one shell reached the after magazines, which exploded in a great mushroom cloud. Soon Bretagne was ablaze. She sank in two minutes, taking 977 French sailors to their deaths. By now the seaplane carrier was also on fire. The Dunkerque was hit four times as she attempted to maneuver. Her electrical system out, her crews turned the gun turrets by hand and fired four salvos at the Hood. But damage to her [Bretagne] was severe, and she beached. Slipping through the harbor, Provence was hit in the stern by a 15-inch shell. Her captain feared she would sink, blocking the channel to others, so he beached her.
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.