Attack at Mers-el-Kébir
The Second World War can be considered one of the deadliest wars in history especially in its early years as both the Allied and Axis Powers tried to subdue each other despite the losses it may incur due to the crossfire from both parties. Despite recovering from the first World War, the Europeans fought the growing fellow European state Germany with the United States while its allies Japan and Italy were also making their own attacks against the Allied Powers. While some of the most notable confrontations had paved the way to the end of the war, there are a few confrontations within the Second World War that caused disastrous consequences especially in relationships between fellow European nations. One of these WWII is the attack at Mers-el- Kébir, part of Operation Catapult, the British Navy attack against the French Navy at Mers-el- Kébir, French Algeria on July 3, 1940 to thwart the French fleet from becoming part of Germany’s growing Navy force. Many experts had questioned as to why Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the attack despite France’s capacity to fend of Germany. Churchill ordered the attacked against the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir because he wished to guarantee that French warships would not fall into German hands.
Before the events on July 3, 1940, Germany was already on the offensive in controlling France and the Low Countries in a tactic similar to the 1914-1918 attack by Imperial Germany against Britain and France. The Allies, hearing Germany’s intentions to claim the French region and its surrounding territories also went on an offensive, following the same tactics in the First World War. However, Adolf Hitler was prepared with this tactic and ensured that his campaign would not be similar to the First World War. Both groups had tried to force the other to underestimate each forces, trying to get the other to go on the offensive. Germany had used its forces to intercept and redirect the Allies to the North, enabling them time to cover the Southern region. The Allies had enacted Operation Dynamo on May 26, 1940 or the Dunkirk evacuation/Miracle of Dunkirk to ensure that Allied soldiers are evacuated in the coast of Dunkirk, France. Although Prime Minister Winston Churchill claimed that the Dunkirk issue was a military disaster, it would have been likely that the troops stranded in Dunkirk could have fallen to the German troops. While the British troops were saved to fight for another day, the French armies had lost a lot of their men and held resentment against Britain for leaving their troops. Under French Admiral Francois Darlan and Marshal Petain, the French fleet ignored all provisions under the active Franco-German armistice signed on June 22, 1940 and sailed towards the Algerian ports of Oran and Mers-el-Kebir on June 29 that same year .
With the fall of France in June 1940 and the armistice signed between France and Germany, it had placed the French naval force in North Africa in a very difficult position. Given their position from the French colonies Dakar to Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, any force of attack can ultimately force the French troops, which were considerably large, to take sides. The French troops located in both Oran and Mers-el-Kebir consisted of four battleships (Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Provence, and Bretagne), 13 destroyers, one aircraft carrier (Comamandant Teste), and four submarines. They also had battleships in Dakar and Alexandria, which can easily hinder the British army. Toulon also contained most of France’s fleet, which is why it would be difficult for Germany or Italy to take over the French fleet without calling the attention of their main fleet. Admiral Darlan himself had stated time and time again prior to the attack that they would not fall into any nation’s hands without a fight. However, his statement was soon met in doubt as he accepted a position in the Vichy government on June 27, 1940. On the other end, both Italy and Germany held a sizable power in the North African region with their troops overwhelming their Allied counterparts. Italy had 500,000 troops – comprising by the Regia Mariana (navy) and the Regia Aeronautica (air force) in Libya alone. Germany had its Fliegerkorps X from the Luffwaffe division located in Italy, and a few of the Afrika Korps were also sent to Libya in February 1941 to support the Italians.
As a response to the potential threat posed by the French naval fleet in North Africa, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the First Sea Lord ordered Force H to execute Operation Catapult, the destruction of the French Forces should they decline British orders to join them in battle . The British government had refused to release France from its duties to aid in the war against Germany and Italy, stating that Britain is willing to aid the French government in exchange to ordering the fleet to proceed to British ports. However, France had declined the call of the British troops, effectively signaling that France and Germany had indeed entered an armistice. Viscount Halifax had stated in his speech in front of the House of Lords:
“His Majesty's Government thus found themselves in a hideous dilemma. It was impossible for them to rely on the unsupported word of the German Government that the French Fleet would not be used against us, and thus acquiesce in the handing over of this formidable naval force into German hands. But if on the other hand they were unwilling to accept that situation, they were faced with the grim alternative of preventing the handing over of the French ships, and therefore in the last resort of using force against their former comrades in arms. ”
As Force H was being assembled in Gibraltar, Vice Admiral James Somerville was assigned to lead the special force to ensure the transfer, surrender, or destruction of the French ships to prevent them from going to Germany and Italy. Aboard HMS Hood, the Admiralty laid down the conditions to the French troops. Four alternatives were presented: sail their ships to British harbor to fight with the British troops, sail their ships to British port and have their crews repatriated, sail to ports in the West Indies where they will be demilitarized or given to the US, or they will sink the French troops. Somerville was given possible course of actions should the French Admiral refuse or accept either one of the four alternatives. Nonetheless, should he outright refuse all alternatives, Force “H” will take full action within six hours to demilitarize the French troops to ensure they will be taken out of commission for at least a year. Delegates were first sent to Admiral Gensoul of the French troops by “Foxhound” with the communique:
"To Admiral Gensoul,
The British Admiralty House sent Captain Holland to confer with you. The British Navy hopes that their proposals will enable you and the valiant and glorious French Navy to be by our side. In the circumstances in your ships would remain yours and no one need have any anxiety for the future. A British Fleet is at sea off Oran waiting to welcome you."
With the negotiations trying to settle a reasonable agreement with the French troops, Force “H” slowly moved to block the entrances of Mers-El-Kebir harbor by mining the area. At first, Gensoul was seen agreeing with the proposition by the British troops, but Somerville noticed that the French fleet was starting to mobilize within Mers-el-Kebir. He had allowed it to continue as he still had no basis regarding such hunch but signaled his troops to prepare for any attack. When Admiral Gensoul finally refusing all terms presented by the British troops, Somerville and Captain Holland discussed their action against the now battle ready French ships, calling the air striking force to mobilize as the ships move towards Mers-el-Kebir to meet the French navy (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Battle Plan of Force “H” in Mers-El-Kebir
France immediately went on an offensive against Britain. Shots were exchanged between the British and French troops with the third wave impacting against Bretagne and the other ships within its vicinity . In the records of the HMS Hood, the Mers-el-Kebir harbor was shrouded in smoke and fire. When Dunkerque and Strasbourg opened fire, the British ship Arethusa engaged in combat. In the record:
Heavy projectiles were saying falling near the British battleships as the enemy fire, at first very short, began to improve in accuracy None of the French projectiles hit, though a number of them (apparently 13.4 in. – presumably from the French Battleships, as there is no evidence of guns of this calibre having been mounted at Mers-el-Kebir) fell close to and in some cases straddled the British ships.”
In 4:04 pm, a cease fire was ordered by the Flag Officer to give time to abandon their vessels and ensure that no ship had escaped the Mers-el-Kebir attack. Foxhound managed to record that the Dunkerque had been stopped in the harbor, Provence and Commandant Teste were badly damaged, and Bretagne was obliterated . Almost 1297 Frenchmen were killed in the battle and 59 smaller warships had been seized by the British troops.
The reactions of the public and the other powers pertaining to the attack was significantly seen as a controversial episode within the war and the ultimate destruction of Anglo-French relations. America saw Churchill’s determination that while he was on the verge of losing, Britain will continue to fight with the same tenacity and courage to achieve victory . In France’s case, the action was unjustifiable and a breach of trust since Britain did not take Darlan’s words by heart and trusted his capacity. Attacks in Gibraltar were also done by the newly instated Vichy government, however, the attack was proven ineffective against the British troops. The French public had also been traumatized by the attack in Mers-el-Kebir, fostering a hysterical Anglophobia to persist in the French territories. French newspapers such as Le Journal du Midi even posted its own comment on France’s “defunct friendship” with the British and called on to the public by stating that the attack in Mers-el-Kebir was London’s way to destroy the reborn French state .
While it can be argued as to how the other neighboring nations saw the attack, Churchill’s decision pertaining to the attack against the French fleet in French Algeria – Dakar, Oran, Alexandria, and Mers-el-Kebir can be seen as Churchill’s means to ensure that France’s powerful fleet in the region would not fall into the hands of the German troops as it may spell disaster for Britain in the end. Churchill was well-informed regarding Hitler’s desire to have the French fleet as it would enable him to conquer even Britain’s troops in the region. Since there is a legal and active Franco-German armistice honored by both parties, Churchill may have anticipated that it is likely that Germany may ask for the French fleet as part of the armistice even if Germany did not demand or show interest of asking the French fleet to be their own . Considerably, the French troops located in the region were at par with both Italy and Britain, making it a crucial wildcard if it falls into either hands. France’s world-class battleships, cruisers, and submarines can prove as a power boost to Germany’s force in the region, triggering the balance of power in the process. Since France had not moved to accept British demands, Germany took the chance and spoke to France, calling them to return back to their ports and allow Germans to handle the area. Sadly, France agreed to the terms. Churchill was determined to control or secure the French ships, namely the two modern battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart as they can change the playing field for the British troops. Churchill stated ‘if the captains refuse to parley, they must be treated as traitors; there must be no escape and rather than their falling to the enemy, we should have to fight and sink them. While many had seen Churchill’s decision to be indecisive and cause difficulties for the British troops, he was resolute in ending the problem. He could not turn away from the possible French resistance that may occur if France falls to Germany. Britain would have to face a hostile France and the sooner Operation Catapult is done in the Algerian region, the better it could be for the British troops to remove the possible hostilities from occurring.
Churchill’s decision cannot be seen as an attack to destroy Anglo-French relations as seen in the first few days before the attack in Mers-el-Kebir, rather, it should be seen as a decision he had to make for the sake of his people and to prevent more onslaught from occurring in the region. In his memoire, Churchill recounted that his decision reminded him of the destruction of the Danish fleet in 1801 and their sympathy towards France is true unlike what the newspapers are saying about him. However, as the leader of a nation that is placed at risk by the growing Germany and Italian forces, he had to make his stand to protect his people due to the possible effects it may have in Britain. In his speech on July 4, 1940, Churchill expressed deep sorrow that he had to order for the attack to prevent France from falling to Germany, but had to decide on the matter for the sake of duty and secure the reasons in which they are fighting for as a nation. He reasoned that:
“When two nations are fighting together under long and solemn alliance against a common foe, one of them may be stricken down and overwhelmed, and may be forced to ask its Ally to release it from its obligations. But the least that could be expected was that the French Government, in abandoning the conflict and leaving its whole weight to fall upon Great Britain and the British Empire, would have been careful not to inflict needless injury upon their faithful comrade, in whose final victory the sole chance of French freedom lay, and lies .”
His speech also showed that he is willing to step up and fight for the nation and although there are losses and relationships that may be broken in the fight, Churchill showed that there is no time for weakness as his troops and himself would been to step up and fulfill their oath to protect Britain. As a result to this speech, many had applauded Churchill’s decision and Churchill himself wept with the support he had garnered from the Cabinet . Analysts had agreed with Churchill’s sentiments as France, if in German leadership, could have been used to attack other nations and fasten serfdom in the region. Britain had given all the alternatives for France to reconsider its actions, giving time for them to save their ships and chance to continue fighting against the Axis Powers or be repatriated back to their homeland. This shows that Churchill was not intending to harm any French troops stationed in Mers-el-Kebir, giving them all the possible alternatives they can work upon with the British troops. It was not a war against France, it was an attack to prevent possible destruction from occurring especially if France falls . Admirably so, Churchill’s decision for the attack had indeed played as a trigger to stop any possible takeover from Italy, which saw the potential of France to hinder Britain.
Churchill’s decision pertaining the Mers-el-Kebir attack could also be attributed to the fact that Britain is fighting against two allied nations (Italy and Germany), and its own ally (France) alone. America, as stated above, had admired Britain’s strong footing regarding the issue as it shows it is more than willing to continue fighting even if it means succumbing to losses. If Italy and Germany had claimed France’s fleet as part of the armistice agreements, Britain would be facing three powerful military forces on its own. America had not agreed with the request of Churchill to send troops, adding more pressure to Churchill to act immediately against the threat . Churchill, in his statement to Roosevelt stated that if Britain falls to Germany, his successor would be forced to give the Royal Navy as part of an armistice agreement and eventually, attack the United States. With no aid from the US and France already in an armistice agreement with Germany, Churchill had called for the drafting of Operation Catapult . In another recount by Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s biographer, France entering the armistice with Germany was something Churchill attributed to betrayal given the relationship both nations have before this. Nonetheless, he had tried his hardest to ensure that France will be away from the fight and gave them alternatives .
The decision of Churchill to attack the French fleet in Mers-el-Kebir can be seen in two ways. One, Churchill’s decision could be considered an amicable choice despite the risks and consequences it may entail as giving Germany an opening to claim the French fleet despite the assurances that France could handle such immediate attack. If Churchill had not acted on ordering the attack in Mers-el-Kebir, it is likely that Germany would easily claim the fleet and use it to deter Britain’s forces and move towards the remaining European nations yet to be reached by the Axis Powers. France’s fleet can be considered at par with the British troops and should a takeover occur, it is likely that the French fleet can overwhelm Britain and incur more loss of life and destruction to occur. On the other end, Churchill’s decision to bombard the French troops despite the reassurances of the French leadership and the lack of German action was a move that only caused Franco-Anglo relations to dissipate completely given the lack of faith Churchill exhibited on the French government. While Churchill, in his later years, admitted his decision in Mers-el-Kebir was not the best of decisions he could have undergone regarding France, the decision had enabled him to save the region from further destruction caused by the Second World War.
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