Operation Catapult – Attack on Mers-el-Kébir: British vs French

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Operation Catapult was the code name given to the naval military action by Britain to ensure the French fleet did not fall into German hands following the signing of the armistice.

“Provided, but only provided, that the French fleet will sail forth-with for British harbors pending negotiations, his Majesties government give their full consent to an inquiry by the French government to ascertain the terms for an armistice for France.” Winston Churchill.

Why was Winston Churchill so concerned about the French fleet falling into Geman hands that he would take such drastic steps to nullify it.  The war situation for England in Europe and the Mediterranean was going very badly. With the collapse of France and Italy’s entrance into the war with Germany the whole balance of power shifted. Almost overnight all of Europe was either in the fight against England or under the control of her enemies; she was standing alone in a worse situation since 1917 especially since America had not yet entered the war. Frances navy was the fourth largest in the world compared to (Britain, America & Japanese) she had built a fine and powerful navy which included the following ships and god forbid the Axis gain control of them.

French Western Mediterranean Fleet:

  • 4 Battleships
  • 10 heavy / light Cruisers
  • 37 Destroyers
  • 36 Submarines
  • various oilers / supply and repair vessels …

French Eastern Mediterranean Fleet:

  • 1 Battleship
  • 4 heavy / light Cruisers
  • 3 Destroyers
  • various oilers / supply and repair vessels …

Although the Royal navy was the most powerful in the world (at this time) its resources (ships and man power, repair docks were continually stretched thinner and thinner. But the Navy still had its objectives, 24 hours a day 7 days a week objectives.

January 1940: Royal Navy Objectives

  1. Defense of trade routes
  2. Detection and destruction of surface raiders and U-boots
  3. Maritime blockade of Germany and Contraband control
  4. Defense of Great Britain’s coast
  5. Escort troops to France and between Britain and the dominions and other areas under allied control.

Royal Navy as of June 1940

  • 15 Battleships
  • 3 Battlecruisers
  • 7 Aircraft carriers
  • 66 Cruisers (heavy & light)
  • 184 Destroyers (of all types)
  • 60 Submarines (mostly modern & 9 building)
  • 45 Escort and Patrol vessels
  • 56 flower class corvettes on order and or on the stocks.

In addition to: 6 Royal Canadian naval destroyers and 6 Escort and patrol vessels of the Royal Indian Navy.

We have looked at the Royal Navy, her size, ships dedicated crew and officers and the understanding that she was stretched across 139.7 million square miles of ocean. Mr. Churchill had two factors to consider; first the Western Mediterranean was primarily the responsibility of the French navy (with British naval reinforcements readily available).The Eastern Mediterranean was in the hands of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet with a French squadron based at Alexandria. And now with Italy’s entrance into the war she and her military and navy was in a power position astride the central Mediterranean basin, losing the French as allies and the possibility of having the French warships used against England had to be dealt with, either by negotiations between allies or by force. Secondly, Besides war ships  France by signing the armistice agreed to turn over the following ports to the axis for their use, this too is a serious concern, for use as u-boat and bomber / fighter bases, and most importantly cities and bases to be used as invasion ports across the channel.

French channel ports: Cherbourg, Brest, Lorient, St. Nazaire, La Pellicle.
Mediterranean ports: Toulon; Oran; Algeria, Algiers, Algeria; Bizerte, Tunisia; Sousse, Tunisia; Beirut, Lebanon
Over Seas Atlantic ports  Casablanca, Morocco; Dajar, Senegal; Martinique, West Indies;
Asian-Pacific Ports: Saigon, Indo China; Indo-China Station
Allied Ports & Bases: Dundee, Scotland; Halifax, Canada; Alexandria Egypt

German Naval Strength as of June 1940

“The Kriegsmarine”

The Kriegsmarine, one of the three branches of the Wehrmacht grew rapidly during the late 30’s when Hitler was seated firmly as Chancellor and ignored the treaty of Versailles. It was at this time Germany’s enemies in the “next war” were to be Poland and France so a naval construction plan was developed with these opponents in mind. Once war loomed on the near horizon the Kriegsmarine was woefully inadequately prepared. The Z plan was then ordered to put the Kriegsmarine on an even par with the Royal navy by 1944. When war did break out in the fall of 1939 earlier than thought the Z plan was shelved in favor of building U-boots. During the early part of the war the German navy was involved with several operations, commerce raiding  and convoy attacks. With more and more military action in the Mediterranean she did send u-boots to prowl for fat allied transports heading for North Africa.

Kriegsmarine warship strength – Early 1940

  • 2 Battleships (under construction)
  • 2 Battlecruisers
  • 3 Armoured cruisers (inaccurately called Pocket battleships)
  • 7 Heavy / light Cruisers
  • 22 Destroyers
  • 40 – 60 Torpedo boats
  • U-boots – 25 presently in service; 121 under construction; 6 captured and in use.

Important dates, leading up to that fateful day of destruction:

March ’40: France and Great Britain signed an agreement that neither would sign a separate peace agreement (treaty) with Germany.

May 26 June 6th 1940: “Dunkirk” To the British & Americans Dunkirk was considered a successful evacuation, a saving grace for the English military. To France it was considered an act of cowardice and desertion. (Although many thousand French soldiers were rescued as well to fight another day.)

June 15th, 1940: Paul Reynaud (Prime Minister) Resigned. He was then replaced by the Aged Marshal Petain, and the French fleet was scattered.

June 20th, 1940: Admiral Darlan sent a coded message ordering the captains of each of the French warships based in France and French African ports “Do not surrender your ships to the Germans intact.”

June 22nd, 1940: With the signing of the French / German Armistice Marshal Philippe Petain violated the “No separate peace agreement” with Britain; which most definitely dealt a blow to British interests and further fanned the flames of Britain’s distrust of the French.

June 24th, 1940: Admiral Darlan repeated his original orders and included specific instructions to make preparations to scuttle their ships if there was any likelihood that the ships were about to be captured.

June 27th, 1940: Churchill and everyone else in the British government (including the war council) were all completely unaware of the instructions and orders that Darlan had sent to his captains on either  June 20th or on the 24th. It was then on this date that the British government made the decision that under no circumstances should the French ships fall into the hands of either the Germans or the Italians, and that the Royal Navy WOULD do what was necessary to ensure that this would not happen. Operation catapult was dated to take place July third.

June 28th, 1940: Force “H” was created under the command of Vice-Admiral James Somerville. The warships involved were, the HMS Hood (Battlecruiser) as flag ship, HMS Resolution and Valiant (both battleships), Aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal along with eleven destroyers. This powerful fleet was based at Gibraltar.

July 03, 1940: Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville and “Force H” arrived and stood off Mers-el–Kebir. The following were Admiral Somerville’s orders: Negotiations with the French admiral was to center around the following four choices (ultimatums).

  • Join the Royal Naval fleet gathered and sail together to Britain or sail independently to a British port the ships to be interned and the crews repatriated to unoccupied France.
  • Sail his fleet to Martinique (or the United States) where his ships would be decommissioned / interned and the crews repatriated.
  • He could scuttle his ships where they now were anchored.
  • And now lastly, If he (Admiral Gensoul) rejected all of the above options, Force H of the Royal navy was directed and will be so ordered to destroy the French fleet.

I believe that it is important for me to tell you that Vice Admiral Somerville commanding Force H, and Vice Admiral Andrew Cunningham (whose concern it was to prevent the eleven French warships docked at Alexandria from falling into Axis hands) both of these fine Royal Navy Admirals had serious misgivings and objections to “Operation Catapult” the destruction of these two French fleets. Their fears (concerns) was that if the royal Navy in fact did destroy the French warships at Mers–El–Kebir and or Alexandria would create an enemy and fuel anti-British sentiment even among still friendly and supportive (but defeated allies) seriously disrupting the English war effort, however both were dedicated Royal Naval officers and orders were of course orders and there were to be no question as to carrying them out precisely.

Negotiations between Holland and Admiral Gensoul from the very start did not go well. With mutual distrust and poor communication both sides were quite wary of each other’s honesty and motives. Include also the French’s pride and unwillingness to negotiate while under the 15” gun barrels of the Royal Navy. Both Captain Holland and Admiral Marcel Gensoul were both stout “NAVY” men with Gensoul having a reputation of being quite stubborn and difficult to deal with.

Battleship Bretagne exploding

Battleship Bretagne exploding

July 3rd

0810: The first meeting (negotiation) between the French forces “Was” to take place at 8:10 am, however it ended before it began with Gensoul refusing to see Captain Holland.

0847: Admiral Gensoul did not appreciate in the least Holland’s “gunboat” diplomacy and ordered the HMS Foxhound complete with Captain Holland to leave the Harbor immediately. Holland knowing full well the seriousness of the situation and the losses that would take place on both sides if operation catapult was carried out ordered a launch to return to the harbor in an attempt to meet with the French admiral. He was intercepted in mid stride by a French flag Lieutenant Dufay who again informed the British Captain that Admiral Gensoul would under no circumstances see Holland and again ordered him back to his ship and out of the harbor immediately. In an act of desperation Holland gave Lieutenant Dufay a copy of the text of the British terms asking him to at the very least give the text to Gensoul to review since he refuses to meet face to face attempting to impress upon Dufay the seriousness of the situation and the very brief time table at hand and assist.

0945: Admiral Gensoul read the British ultimatum and quickly became enraged. He then immediately signaled the French admiralty in Toulon informing them that he was being confronted by fleet of Royal navy war ships at (Mers-el–Kiber and Oran with orders to sink his ships within 6 hours. Gensoul added that he intended to reply force with force.

0950: While waiting for a reply from the French admiral Holland became aware that the French were making ready their ships and raising steam, seemingly preparing to leave harbor. Holland immediately reported this to First Sea Lord Sir Alfred Dudly Pound who then ordered Somerville to have the entrances / exits of the harbor effectively mined to prevent the French from leaving.

1000: Holland received a message from Admiral Gensoul who did in fact refuse to accept any of the four British terms. He also forcefully inform Holland that he would immediately following being fired upon by force H his warships would take action against the British- they were quite prepare to fight.

1300:  Holland with time drawing down was more convinced than ever that he must have an extension to the time table and try his utmost to reach the French admirals “good sense”. That it was most certainly in British and French best interest if a resolve to the current situation could be found and was in fact he was granted an extension until 4:30pm in an effort to find an agreement.

1615: Gensoul finally relented and agreed to meet with Holland. He then at this time informed Holland that as long as the Germans and Italians allowed the French fleet to remain in French ports (with a reduced crew) he would therefore do so. While this meeting was taking place the British began the process of mining the exits to the harbor. This act (seen as hostile) and in sensed the French admiral but negotiations continued and more delays being granted until it became quite apparent that the French were stalling for time the talks became more and more volatile from then on.

{During this time Somerville was informed that the British admiralty intercepted a signal from the French admiralty instructing Gensoul to stand firm and that orders have been given to prepare all French naval and air forces in the western Mediterranean to prepare for battle and proceed with all speed  to Mers-el-Kegir and.}

1715: After nearly three hours of additional extensions a message from Holland was received aboard the Dunkerque which read… “If none of the British proposals are accepted by the French admiralty no later than 5:30pm, I will be therefore necessary to sink your ships. This message did of course put an end to negotiations for a peaceful settlement.

1730: Force H led by the “Mighty Hood” opened fire with broadside after broadside of 15” HE shells screaming in marking the first exchange of naval gunfire between the two nations for 125 years. The Royal Navy’s shells were coming in fast and accurate to the stationary French ships. The French warships were certainly at a severe disadvantage; either not moving or just starting to move as well as being hemmed in the port and not free to maneuver.

Although the French returned fire but by the time the cordite smoke cleared most of the French warships lay on the bottom of the harbor, burning or beached leaving 1,297 French sailors dead and 354 wounded. At this time Somerville ordered a cease fire after he received a plea from the French to stop the bloodshed, instead the French used this break in the action to attempt to allow as many (still operational) ships as possible to escape to open sea. During this 13 minute (virtually one) sided shelling.

The battleship Bretagne was sunk with a heavy loss of life due to a 15” HE shell plunging into her magazine. The Battleship Dunkerque was heavily damaged and sunk in the mud of the harbor. The Provence was hit multiple times was then beached by her crew to prevent her sinking. The Destroyer Mogador, heavily damaged with a loss of 37 lives. The battleship Strasbourg did manage to escape during the smoke and flames and ceased fire.

Destroyer Mogador running aground after having been hit by a 15-in round

Destroyer Mogador running aground after having been hit by a 15-in round

At Dakar: the Battleship Richelieu was severely damaged by aircraft for the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.

At Plymouth and Portsmouth armed British sailors and Royal marines stormed and took control of the French ships in harbor there.

There was however more bloodshed during the armed takeover of the French submarine “Surcouf”. Here a French officer got killed and two British officers wounded.

2000 (approx): The French Charge d’effairs formally protested the action even going so far as having the Admiral of the fleet Darlan order all French warships to engage any and all the British warships whenever and wherever they were found.

July 5thA small French air force squadron attacked and bombed Gibraltar causing little damage.

July 8th: The French Vichy government officially severed all diplomatic ties with London.

*The true heart of the problem: the surrendering of the French, necessitating signing of the armistice.

Armistice agreement between the German High Command of the Armed Forces and the French Plenipotentiaries, Compaigne. June 22nd, 1940.

{Excerpts of the originally translated treaty follow, I underlined some words as I find them important and noteworthy.}

(Article I) The French Government directs a cessation of all fighting against the German Reich in France as well as in all French possessions, colonies, protectorate territories and mandates as well as on the seas.

(Article VI)  Weapons, munitions and war apparatus of every kind remaining in unoccupied portions of France are to be stored and or secured under German and or Italian control.

(Article VIII) The French war fleet is to collect in ports to be designated more particularly, and under German and or Italian control to demobilize and lay up – with the exception of those units released to the French Government for protection of French interests in its colonial empire.

                        The peacetime station of ships should control the designation of ports.

The German Government solemnly declares to the French Government that it does not intend to use the French war fleet which is in harbors under German control for its purposes in war, with the exception of units necessary for the purpose of guarding the coast and sweeping of mines.

 It further solemnly and expressly declares that it does not intend to bring up any demands respecting the French war fleet at the conclusion of a peace.

All warships outside France are to be recalled to France with the exception of that portion of the French war fleet which shall be designated to represent French interests in the colonial empire.

Under German and or Italian CONTROL. Used 3 separate and distinct times, with the word control have a very interesting purpose in this Armistice.

The German High Command, also states interestingly so “Solemnly declares” in two different parts here.

{The formal agreement to the terms of surrender occurred on June 30th at Wiesgaden}

With French navy under German and or Italian control and French ports to be handed over to the which was quite worrisome to Churchill and the British government as well (especially) the channel ports that were a direct threat to the Home island itself and shipping.

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2 Comments

  1. Bernard Mariès on

    Comment from a French perspective :

    Thank you for this article, which is much more balanced than other sources in English.

    From what I have read, English opinions makers (websites, newspapers…) plead this way : Operation Catapult was unfortunate but necessary. British can be proud of what they did, because it contributed to final victory. Their relation of the events usually stop (as yours actually do) on July 3rd of 1940.

    I would like to introduce new elements and perspective :

    Elements : please note that in Dunkirk, The British were able to evacuate because French soldiers litterally sacrificiated themsleves by sustaining heavy German shelling in a drastically little perimeter, to ensure British evac and continuation of the war.

    when in 1942 the Germans finally invaded French Free Zone, the remaining French fleet was scuttled in Toulon, “rageously” said one French author, to remember the British that French word was true, that even while in French port, French navy was out of German hands, and that the events of Mers-el-Kebir were all the more outrageous because they proved to be, finally, unnecessary.

    Also, if is common to preach about French anglophobia, there was also real display of English francophobia. There was no need to arrest and brutalize French sailors whose ships were anchored in British ports. In Mers-el-Kebir, there were reports of British planes and British sailors gunning down French sailors that were trying to swim away of their sinking ships. All of that is hard to justify. French Navy in Mers El Kebir was there on request of the British, out of French will to honor the terms of the alliance. Sad story indeed.

    Perspective : I think commentators could go deeper in analyzing this, not in military terms, bot from an organizational perspective. Bottom line : although I am French, I feel there was failure on both sides, and that it was a tragic illustration of how things can go bad when people don’t pay attention to the consequences of their acts.

    Failure #1, aka Truth matters : French politicians : they built their carreers on lying constantly to both electors and partners. For a politician, being untrue to his word is common business. Problem : it creates distrust. Churchill did not trust French leaders at the time, and considering their past, this was very understandable. Don’t lie, you destroy your credit. Perhaps British could wonder what in their recent history has fuelled distrust. It is too sensible a topic for a French to even start in that direction, if we want to achieve results. The Holy Spirit and British readers – if any – will do the job.

    Failure #2 : History and Culture matters : to long to explain here. Some English are proud of being francophobes, some French pride themselves in being anglophobes. To heal that requires a long time commitment, much longer than any politician would be interested in. When a crisis happen, it can triggers rifts along these cultural lines. Time then is too short to correct people perceptions.

    Failure #3 : Individual matters : Gensoul was stubborn. Knowing that, sending a captain to negociate with an admiral was seen by the admiral as a sign of contempt. Somerville was an honest man, perhaps overobedient. There was disaster in Mers-El-Kebir, but not in Alexandria were situation was yet similar. It happend that in Alexandria there were wise men of both sides, whose wisdom allowed them to “interpretate” orders to reach the objective (disarming the French Fleet) respectfully and without killing anyone.

    Failure #4 : Intelligence matters : it appears now that French Navy was overrated. It was a nice attempt to remain a major naval power, yet the extent of modernization the American had to do on French ships who made it to America demonstrates how the French naval architecture was lacking behind. Italian Navy, even in peacetime, was out of capable officers and oil. Now we know it, it can be understood that Churchill would take no chance.

    Failure #5 and conclusion : Churchill show courage in taking an unperfect decision with limited intelligence. That it why leaders exist, and he is certainly a great one. Petain showed wisdom in containing French outrage and preventing French retaliation (bombing Gibraltar was a way to appease the admirals, knowing that dropping so few bombs on such formidable defence would be mainly symbolical).

    Please note Organizations create their own errances, when stupid or overdisciplined people happen to be involved, on both sides (Mers-El-Kebir). When apt commanders are in charge, one can still hope for the best (Alexandria). Generalization about “the French” or “the British” are nothing but continuation of old prejudices (elaborate term for stupidity). We should use peacetime to heal those prejudices. We cannot change the past, but we can perhaps influence the future in a good direction.

    Your article is a valuable contribution to that. God bless you, peace on earth to men of goodwill. Hopefully one day this message will reach English and American readers. Be well.

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