Battlescruiser Strasbourg under fire.
July 3, 1940: Provence (foreground) seen settling by the stern, Strasbourg (center) and Bretagne seen burning in the background during the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir.
Somerville’s fast ships withdrew to the west, to concentrate Force `H’ once again. At the beginning of the day he had instructed the submarine Proteus to remain clear, to the north of Oran, but at 2150 it was ordered to close the coast again; it was to attack any French ships encountered, as was the Pandora, off Algiers, where, the latter was informed by Force `H’ at 2205, the Strasbourg might arrive after 2300. His own intentions were to launch a dawn air-strike on Mers-el-Kébir. This was, in the event, thwarted by fog and at 0630 on 4 July Somerville abandoned further operations and headed back to Gibraltar, where all ships had arrived by 1900. Total Royal Navy losses on 3 July amounted to two aircrew missing, five aircraft and the Foxhound’s motor-boat.
After the Admiralty received Somerville’s 1637 signal that he was waiting Holland’s return, nothing further was heard from Force `H’ until 1940, when a report timed at 17537 was received: `Have opened fire on French ships.’
With communications lagging so far behind the action, those in Whitehall were powerless to do anything to affect the operations at Mers-el-Kébir, other than despatch orders which became increasingly irrelevant. The same was true of their influence on Alexandria, where the recalcitrant Cunningham was handling the cooperative Godfroy with great care, but the impatient Prime Minister’s attempted long-range micro-management here resulted in what was undoubtedly the most ridiculous signal of the day. At 1727, Cunningham had reported that the French cruisers had started to discharge their fuel oil and that the destroyers were about to commence. This was received quite quickly by the Admiralty whence, at 1824, a further order was despatched: `Admiralty note French ships discharging oil but crews should commence being reduced by landing or transfer to Merchant Ships especially key ratings before dark tonight. Don’t fail.’ The lack of sense of timing, as well as the final injunction, betrays the authorship of this useless order – the sun had already set in Alexandria, far to the east of Whitehall, when it had been originated; by the time that the signal reached Admiral Cunningham, nearly two hours later, it had long been dark. He simply ignored it and went on to deal with the deterioration of relations which had resulted from Godfroy’s learning of the action at Mers-el-Kébir. In this he was ultimately successful, securing the peaceful demilitarisation of Force `X’ on 4 July while retaining the personal goodwill of Vice-amiral Godfroy.
At Mers-el-Kébir, the damaged Dunkerque and Provence had had to be beached and abandoned. The fires on board these ships and the Mogador anchored in the harbour were fought by parties who remained, assisted by the tugs, but not for several hours were they brought under control. At 2130, Amiral Gensoul signalled to Somerville `Batiments de combat a Mers-el-Kébir hors de combat. Je fais évacuer les batiments par leur personnel.’ Although this omitted the fact that a number of warships, including the undamaged Strasbourg, had got clean away, it was a clear admission that Force `H’ had fulfilled its orders as far as the ships which remained were concerned. The message was received by the British admiral, although the time of receipt is not known, and the latter reported that it contributed to his decision to return to Gibraltar on 4 July.
The signal was also received by the Amirauté. The normally self-controlled Darlan was by now beside himself with rage against Churchill, Pound and the entire Royal Navy and he approved Le Luc’s very swift response, originated at 2153, which gave Gensoul absolutely no freedom to save his fleet: `Cessez de parlementer avec l’ennemi. Référence votre 2030/3-7 [i. e. 2130 Z-1] s’il est authentique.’
During the evening, Le Luc sent from Nérac, on Darlan’s authority, a series of urgent signalled instructions to ships and commanders. Had these orders been implemented before cooler heads in the Council of Ministers prevailed, the French Navy would have been in an immediate state of war with Britain; fortunately, Darlan and Laval, who sided with the admiral, were overruled by Pétain and Baudouin and they continued to be thus restrained even after the reattack on Mers-el-Kébir on 6 July. The most that Pétain would agree to as an immediate measure was a 20-mile exclusion zone around French possessions.
The fog on 4 July possibly saved one French ship: during the early afternoon the submarine Proteus sighted the seaplane-carrier Commandant Teste off Oran at 1447 but lost it in the poor visibility. The aviso Rigault de Genouilly was near-simultaneously (1458) sighted off Algiers by the Pandora, which was able to make an attack. Two torpedoes hit the big sloop, which sank with heavy loss of life an hour and a half later. The British government apologised to the French Embassy for this tragic incident and that evening the Admiralty instructed all Commanders-in-Chief that ships and submarines were to be ready for attack but were not to fire the first shot at French vessels.
A second attack on Mers-el-Kébir was ordered by Churchill, between meetings of the War Cabinet. Somerville, although he knew for a certainty that the Dunkerque had been damaged and beached, was not able to give the categorical assurance, demanded by the First Sea Lord on behalf of the Cabinet on 5 July, that it she could not be repaired within a year. Whether any French naval architect could have given an estimate at that point is debatable and it was such an unreasonable demand to place on Admiral Somerville that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Churchill was determined upon further warlike action.
No gunfire was used on 6 July as the Dunkerque’s position was suitable for air torpedo attack. Further damage was inflicted by freakish means: a torpedo struck and sank a patrol craft (the Terre Neuve) alongside the battlecruiser and the depth-charges aboard the small vessel exploded, causing massive flooding in the Dunkerque. One tug was also hit and sunk.
The French personnel losses in the second attack were not counted separately: altogether, 47 officers and 1,238 ratings were killed and 351 wounded on 3 and 6 July. Of these, 210 were lost aboard the Dunkerque and 38 aboard the Mogador, but the vast majority – 36 officers and 976 ratings – were lost with the Bretagne. The Dunkerque’s temporary repairs – refloating and making her fit for passage to Toulon – were not completed until February 1942. She had long been preceded by the Mogador and the Provence which left Mers-el-Kébir, the former under tow, in November 1940.
The affair stirred deep emotions, while it was in train and for 50 years after. It is therefore difficult to obtain an unclouded perspective when all participants and witnesses, writing concurrently with the events or retrospectively in their memoirs, were affected to a greater or lesser degree. But what does emerge from examination of the tragic history is the victory on the British side of perceived political necessity over military reality.
From the outset, the senior British professional – the First Sea Lord – never really believed that the French Navy would voluntarily evacuate its ships to British ports: in the event of the capitulation of France, it would prefer to scuttle in its own bases. This opinion did not deter him from attempting to persuade his opposite number, Amiral Darlan, to send his most modern ships to continue to fight alongside the Royal Navy.
The immediate consequences of the action – Amiral Darlan’s enmity aside – were the relaxation of the Axis armistice terms relating to the French fleet, which was encouraged to remain under arms to counter future British attack. Within the French Navy, the one-sided action at Mers-el-Kébir polarised attitudes: most of the long-service personnel who had been wavering in their attitude to the Vichy government were persuaded to give their full obedience but there were also ships and submarines which mutinied during the days which followed. The same applied among the `Free French’ who were being recruited by General de Gaulle and Amiral Muselier – many of those who had agreed to fight on now applied for repatriation.
Abroad, to judge by the response of the neutral Press, Operation `Catapult’ was generally approved (and in several instances applauded) – the demonstration of Britain’s determination, which, it was alleged, had been Churchill’s intention throughout, had therefore succeeded.