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On July 3, 1940, the British navy attacked and destroyed a large part of the French fleet which had taken refuge in the harbor of Seas el-Kebir. After the French defeat of June 1940, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared that his former ally's fleet would fall into the hands of the German army. He ordered Admiral Sommerville, on July 2, to leave Gibraltar at the head of a squadron, baptized "force H", to go to Mers el-Kébir, near Oran, where a large part of the French naval ships ...
Mers al-Kebir: Admirals negotiations
The armistice agreement signed on June 22, 1940 between France and Germany providing for a return of French warships to their home port to be disarmed, the English Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, fears that the French fleet will thus fell into the hands of the German army. On June 27, 1940, the Admiralty decided to take measures to prevent French ships from returning to the metropolis, even if it was to be disarmed; the British government, in fact, does not trust Germany, which has made a commitment to Pétain not to use these ships for its own account.
Churchill orders Admiral Sommerville to leave Gibraltar at the head of a squadron, dubbed "force H", to go to Mers el-Kébir, near Oran, where a large part of the ships of the French navy have found refuge. Vice-Admiral Sommerville's H force is set up around the battle cruiserHood(1), with the battleshipsResolution andValiant, the aircraft carrierArk royal (2), two cruisers and several destroyers. Based in Gibraltar, its position is ideal for both monitoring the behavior of the French Navy and controlling the Italian Navy.
1er In July, Sommerville was ordered to be transferred to British ports, where the surrender or even destruction of French ships in the harbor of Mers el-Kebir, near Oran. On July 3, French Admiral Gensoul faced four choices: join the British fleet that arrived off the port; leave with reduced crews for allied ports; disarm the ships of Mers el-Kebir under English control; scuttle them on the spot. Any other choice would lead to the attack on the port by the English ships. However, in the British camp, this last option is far from unanimous, attacking Allies who not long ago fought alongside them; in addition, Sommerville knows that the French admirals risk taking this kind of ultimatum very badly. He again seeks advice from his superiors, who confirm his willingness to go to the end if necessary.
Indeed, the French reaction is icy: Admiral Gensoul refuses to receive Captain Holland on board his flagship, the Dunkirk. At 10 a.m., the Frenchman replied to the message that he would not be the first to shoot, but that he would reply. Gensoul informed Darlan that his ships would probably be sunk in the next six hours, and at the same time gave the combat readiness orders.
Admiral Gensoul still tries to gain a few hours, waiting for a reaction from Darlan. He finally receives Holland, who learns of Darlan's decision ten days earlier not to deliver the ships (to the Germans). In addition, Gensoul is outraged by the mining of the port started by the planes of theArk royal ! His hierarchy informed him after Holland left that, although Darlan could not be reached, it had been decided to send the French naval forces in the region to assist him against the British squadron. But this message was intercepted by the Admiralty, who then urged Sommerville to settle the matter.
The ultimatum is for 5:30 p.m., English buildings open fire shortly before 6 p.m. French ships are hampered by their maneuvers to leave the harbor: the battleship Brittany is hit first, it capsizes causing the death of 977 sailors! The Dunkirk is struck in turn, while the Provence manages to retaliate on the Hood, before having to run aground after a shell that failed to detonate its ammunition bay. Destroyers, including the Mogador, are seriously affected but the battle cruiser Strasbourg manages to escape to the high seas by hiding behind the smoke released by the Brittany. The fire ceased after a quarter of an hour as the British were reluctant to spill more blood needlessly. The attack caused the death of 1,295 French sailors.
The consequences of Mers El-Kébir
Admiral Sommerville did not expect to see a ship pass the mine barrier. Despite the halt in the harbor, he orders the Swordfish of theArk royal to chase the Strasbourg, but without success. The French battle cruiser, but also the aircraft carrier Commander-Teste, five destroyers and six cruisers from Algiers will arrive in Toulon on the evening of July 4.
While the H force regains Gibraltar, the neutralization of the French fleet continues. The attack on Mers el-Kébir coincides with the seizure of French ships already present in British ports; then, in Casablanca, the battleship Jean Bart, unfinished and who had left St Nazaire to escape the Germans, is spared. But his twin the Richelieu presents a much greater danger; it is anchored in Dakar and, despite damaged machinery, is fit for combat. On July 7, the aircraft carrier Hermes and two destroyers are sent to give him the same ultimatum as in Oran. Same refusal. The British try to undermine the French battleship but fail, and then send their torpedo planes. A torpedo damages its hull, it will take a year to repair it.
In Alexandria, a French squadron was integrated into Admiral Cunningham's Eastern Mediterranean fleet. The latter reacted very badly to the order of his superiors to seize the ships of his allies at the very moment of the bombardment of Mers al-Kebir. After tough negotiations with Admiral Godfroy, however, Cunningham managed to obtain the bloodless disarmament of French ships on July 7, 1940.
The British government, by choosing force, took the risk of pushing the French into Hitler's arms. But Churchill could not risk leaving such a force intact without being assured that it would be allied with him. However, in the French camp, bitterness is great: the example of Alexandria shows that with serious negotiation agreements could have been possible. The French ships remaining overseas were recalled to Toulon and the Germans allowed them to remain armed. The propaganda work of the collaborators was then eased, pointing to British baseness and the need to rally to the Axis.
The Royal's last stand
These difficult blows did not prevent the French navy from experiencing new episodes of glory, albeit very different; first, two months later, the Richelieu (3) had his revenge: yet immobilized in the port of Dakar, he almost all alone defeated the Anglo-Gaullist operation intended to take this strategic city! The British method is the same as in Oran, but the consequences are different. The ultimatum is awkward and points at Governor General Boisson, who asserts his desire to defend Dakar to the end.
Cunningham's squadron, made up of battleships Barham and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark royal and several escort ships, opened fire on September 24, 1940 at 7 a.m. The damage committed was very insufficient, the 380 guns of the Richelieu keeping English ships at bay. Worse, the next day, the Resolution receives a torpedo from the submarine Bévéziers and will have to dry dock for several months in the United States! Half an hour later, it's the Barham (4) who suffers from the blows of Richelieu ! This is too much for Cunningham, who ordered the retreat ... The main consequence of this defeat was a weakening of De Gaulle's rating in England ...
The other, more tragic event was of course the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon on November 27, 1942 ...
- (1) future victim of Bismarck in May 1941.
- (2) it is his Swordfish that will cause the loss of the same Bismarck by damaging his rudder. It was itself torpedoed near Malta in November 1941 by a German submarine.
- (3) the Richelieu will experience various adventures, including participation at the end of the Pacific War.
- (4) the Barham, a veteran of the First World War like the Resolution, will be sunk in the Mediterranean in November 1941 by the U-331.
- F. DELPLA, Mers El Kébir July 3, 1940: England returns to war. Guibert, 2010.
- Mers El-Kebir July 1940, by Dominique Lormier. Calmann-Lévy, 2007.
- J.J. ANTIER, The great naval battles of World War II, volume 1, Omnibus, 2000.