Key point: London was desperate to keep France's prized warships out of Berlin's hands.
When the armistice between France and Germany was put into force on June 25, 1940, the fate of the powerful French Navy—the fourth largest in the world—was of critical importance to the British.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his government dreaded the prospect of the French Fleet falling into enemy hands while Britain stood alone against the Axis powers. The odds were already heavy against the island nation’s main line of defense, the Royal Navy. Facing both the German and Italian navies, it was stretched thinly in the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Far East, and the Mediterranean Sea.
Surrender of the French Navy
The terms of the infamous armistice at Compiegne stipulated that the French Fleet would not be used by Germany or Italy, but would be immobilized under their control. Also, the Vichy French naval minister, Admiral Jean Darlan, though no friend of the British, instructed his captains that under no circumstances were their ships to be made available to the Germans. But the British were not aware of the full text of Darlan’s directive and feared that France’s battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines might soon be deployed against them.
Most of the main French naval units were scattered among various Mediterranean ports, while others were in British harbors and the French West Indies. Anchored at the Mers-el-Kebir base in Algeria were the modern 26,500-ton battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg; two aging battleships, the 22,189-ton Bretagne and Provence; the 10,000-ton seaplane carrier Commandante Teste; and six large destroyers. The ships formed the main French naval squadron in the Mediterranean.
In the nearby port of Oran were seven destroyers and four submarines. The new, uncompleted, 38,000-ton battleships Jean Bart and Richelieu were tied up respectively at Casablanca in French Morocco and Dakar in French West Africa, while the aging 22,189-ton battleship Lorraine and four cruisers lay under the guns of the British Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria harbor.
Operation Catapult: Destruction of the French Navy
It was a situation that Churchill and his ministers could not permit, so it was decided that the French Fleet must be put permanently out of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s reach. The prime minister noted that the German government had “solemnly declared” that it had no intention of using the French vessels. “But who in his senses would trust the word of Hitler after his shameful record and the facts of the hour?” said Churchill. He believed that the Compiegne armistice could be voided at any time. “There was in fact no security for us at all,” he said. “At all costs, at all risks, in one way or another, we must make sure that the navy of France did not fall into wrong hands, and then perhaps bring us and others to ruin.”
The solution devised by Churchill and the Admiralty was the hasty creation of a powerful squadron to fill the vacuum left by the French Navy in the Mediterranean, and, if necessary, destroy it. The War Cabinet did not hesitate, Churchill reported later. “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,” said the prime minister. “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 harbor by Nelson in 1801; but now the French had been only yesterday our dear allies, and our sympathy for the misery of France was sincere. On the other hand, the life of the state and the salvation of our cause were at stake. It was Greek tragedy. But no act was ever more necessary for the life of Britain and for all that depended upon it.”
So, Force H was formed at Gibraltar on June 28, 1940. Code-named Operation Catapult, its mission was a painful and distasteful one—to neutralize or destroy the French Fleet in the Mediterranean.
Though based at the British bastion guarding the western entrance to the strategic Mediterranean, Force H was to be an independent operational command. The squadron comprised the 22,000-ton carrier HMS Ark Royal; the 42,100-ton battlecruiser Hood; two battleships, 29,150-ton Resolution and 30,600-ton Valiant; the cruisers, 5,220-ton Arethusa and 7,550-ton Enterprise; and the screening destroyers Faulknor, Foxhound, Fearless, Forester, Foresight, Escort, Keppel, Active, Wrestler, Vidette, and Vortigern. Force H was then the main Allied task force in the Atlantic and western Mediterranean.
The first commander was trim, square-jawed, 57-year-old Vice Admiral Sir James F. Somerville, a descendant of the famous Hood naval family. He flew his flag in HMS Hood, which between the wars had been revered as the most powerful ship afloat and the symbol of British naval might.
A decorated veteran of the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign in World War I, Somerville had been invalided out of the Royal Navy with tuberculosis in 1938. Recalled to service at the outbreak of war in September 1939, he helped Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay organize Operation Dynamo, the epic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in June 1940. Somerville was regarded by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, as “a great sailor and a great leader.”
Somerville Issues Four Options to the French
Operation Catapult was launched on July 3, 1940. That night, more than 200 French vessels in British ports, most of them anchored at Portsmouth and Plymouth, were impounded. The ships included the battleships Courbet and Paris, the supply ship Pollux, destroyers, minelayers, minesweepers, submarines, submarine chasers, motor torpedo boats, tugs, trawlers, sloops, and harbor craft. The action was sudden, and overwhelming force was used.
The transfer was amicable, and the French crews came ashore willingly, Churchill reported. However, there were scuffles during the transfer of the destroyer Mistral and the 3,250-ton submarine Surcouf. Two British officers were wounded, a leading seaman killed, an able seaman wounded, and a Frenchman killed. “But the utmost endeavors were made with success to reassure and comfort the French sailors,” said Churchill. “Many hundreds volunteered to join us. The Surcouf, after rendering distinguished service, perished on February 19, 1942, with all her gallant French crew.”
On July 3, 1940, Force H was dispatched to Mers-el-Kebir. There, Admiral Somerville was to open negotiations with Admiral Marcel Gensoul, commander of the French squadron. Gensoul would refuse initially to meet with Somerville’s emissary, and the negotiations were conducted in writing.
The Admiralty had drafted four options for the French admiral: (1) to put to sea and join forces with the Royal Navy; (2) to sail with reduced crews to British ports, where the vessels would be impounded and their complements repatriated; (3) to sail with reduced crews to the base at Dakar, where the ships would be immobilized; or (4) to scuttle his ships within six hours. The Admiralty had instructed Somerville that should Gensoul refuse all of the offers, the French ships were to be put out of action in their present berths, using “all means at your disposal.”
“One of the Most Disagreeable and Difficult Tasks”
Early on the morning of July 3, 1940, with the sea calm and a warm haze in the air, Force H steamed toward the Algerian coast. The 15-inch guns of Hood, Resolution, and Valiant were trained fore and aft, and Admiral Somerville hoped that they would not have to be fired that day in the fulfillment of his task. He blanched at the prospect of killing French sailors, who were comrades in arms of the Royal Navy. On the evening of July 2, Somerville had received a message from Prime Minister Churchill, relayed by the Admiralty, telling him, “You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly.”
At 9:10 am on July 3, the British squadron arrived off Oran and Mers-el-Kebir. Despite the morning haze, “the upper works of the French heavy ships were clearly visible over the breakwater,” reported Somerville, “although only the actual tops and masts could be seen from a position northwest of the fort (guarding the entrance to the base).” His French-speaking emissary, Captain C.S. Holland, a former naval attaché in Paris, had gone ahead aboard the destroyer HMS Foxhound to rendezvous with Admiral Gensoul’s flag lieutenant outside the Mers-el-Kebir defensive boom.
Captain Holland was met at 8:10 am by Gensoul’s barge bearing his flag lieutenant, “an old friend of mine,” the British officer reported. The French admiral refused to meet with Holland, so the flag lieutenant delivered the British War Cabinet’s ultimatum to Gensoul in his flagship, Dunkerque. “At this point,” recorded Holland, “it was observed that the battleships were furling awnings and raising steam.”
Now, as the day grew hotter, Admiral Somerville could only steam back and forth outside Mers-el-Kebir and Oran, waiting anxiously for Captain Holland to signal back reports on the progress of his negotiations with the French. Two and a half hours passed while Holland, Admiral Somerville, and the War Cabinet in distant London all waited for Admiral Gensoul’s response. It was a tense, impotent time, particularly for the Force H commander.