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A Controversial Attack on Mers-el-Kébir Heightened WWII Tensions

The French fleet posed a difficult problem for British officials.

attack on mers el kabir
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  • 'Mogador' burns after a British attack.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After France formally surrendered to Germany on June 22, 1940, Britain faced many problems, particularly with France’s navy, the Marine Nationale. Some ships were elsewhere, but most were in French ports and could be commandeered at any moment. Churchill’s options were depressingly few and time was fast running out. Something had to be done.

France had agreed its fleet would come to Britain, but the fleet had not yet moved from its ports. Admiral of the Fleet François Darlan also began ignoring queries from London within days of France surrendering, ordering French warships in British ports to leave. Darlan, who had originally made brash statements about the impossibility of French ships entering German hands, was finding himself hesitating now that the possibility was in fact real.

Despite Darlan's initial protestations, Churchill intensely distrusted the admiral. The Franco-German armistice specifically stated the fleet would return home for decommissioning. Darlan, trying to get French warships released from British ports, was caught telling London otherwise. Churchill also believed Nazi guarantees guaranteed exactly nothing.

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If Hitler took the fleet he could significantly increase his limited naval assets. Churchill reluctantly made a decision. The Marine Nationale could come to Britain, place their ships outside Nazi reach in foreign ports, scuttle them or be destroyed. If France would not neutralize its fleet, Britain would. 

Churchill later called it “The most hateful decision, the most un-natural and painful in which I have ever been concerned.” Admiral James Somerville was sent to Gibraltar to command Force H. The battlecruiser Hood, battleships Valiant and Resolution, and aircraft carrier Ark Royal would deliver Britain’s ultimatum. 

Part of present-day Algeria (then French territory) Mers-el-Kébir was preferred to the more heavily-defended Toulon, as the British wished to avoid unnecessary losses this early in the global conflict. Somerville intended to destroy French ships if necessary, not risk his own.

Somerville loathed the idea, later calling it “… The biggest political blunder of modern times… …We all feel thoroughly ashamed.”

attack on mers el kebir
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  • British aircraft line up to take off from the HMS Ark Royal.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

However distasteful, orders were orders. The fleet had to be neutralized by any necessary means. He could try negotiating before attacking, but only briefly. Somerville sent former naval liaison and fluent French-speaker Captain Cedric Holland and negotiations went badly. 

With Darlan unavailable, Admiral Marc-Bruno Gensoul took offense at a lower-ranking officer delivering an ultimatum. Refusing to meet Holland for hours, Gensoul demanded they talk through his subordinates. Darlan, who might have prevented bloodshed, remained absent. 

With Holland hesitant and Gensoul obstructive, nothing was accomplished. When Gensoul finally met Holland personally, he produced orders from Darlan to destroy the fleet rather than surrender it. It was too little, too late.  As Holland left Mers-el-Kébir, Force H opened fire. A reluctant Somerville finally attacked in considerable force.

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Hood, Valiant, and Resolution bombarded Mers-el-Kébir. Ark Royal’s Swordfish aircraft dropped mines and bombs to prevent escape. While French and British fighters duelled overhead the French fleet was devastated. The British lost only five aircraft. Two naval airmen were killed and two sailors wounded. 

The attack lasted under 15 minutes with 1,297 French sailors killed and over 350 wounded. The battleship Bretagne was destroyed, the battleship Dunkerque severely damaged. Three destroyers were damaged and a seaplane tender run aground. A destroyer and two gunboats were sunk. Somerville’s worst fears had been realized. 

The battleship Strasbourg, three destroyers, and a gunboat somehow escaped to Toulon. Strasbourg’s captain had anticipated trouble, keeping Strasbourg ready for immediate departure. French aircraft attacked British ships and bombed Gibraltar to little effect. The guns had ceased fire, but the political storm was only just beginning.

Pétain quickly severed diplomatic relations after overruling Darlan’s orders to attack all British warships. At Alexandria, Admiral Andrew Cunningham negotiated with Admiral Rene-Emile Godfroy. Perhaps fearing another Mers-el-Kébir, Godfroy promised his ships would stay docked until the war’s end. 

Hoping to finish off Dunkerque, torpedo planes attacked Mers-el-Kébir again on July 8. When a patrol craft’s depth charges exploded, Dunkerque was almost sunk. Towed to Toulon, she never left port again. Gibraltar was bombed again in late September and a naval skirmish saw gunfire but no casualties on either side. 

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The attack ruined Anglo-Vichy relations, but ruthlessly demonstrated British resolve to continue fighting. President Roosevelt privately admitted he would have done the same. Secretary of State Cordell Hull had already warned the French Ambassador that ”The French fleet in the hands of the Germans would be  comparable to a cannon poised to fire at us.” 

The Nazis did try commandeering the remaining ships at Toulon in November 1942 during Operation Anton. By then, the Allies were winning and French sailors scuttled dozens of ships including Strasbourg. Hitler was ambivalent, knowing neither side now had them. His naval staff, however, were greatly disappointed.

Darlan had defected when Allied troops invaded North Africa just before Operation Anton. He was murdered in Algiers on December 24, 1942 by French monarchist, resister and anti-Vichyist Fernand Bonnier de la Chappelle. Conspiracy theories quickly surfaced. Did Chappelle act alone or on behalf of others? 

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  • French ship Bretagne under fire.

    Photo Credit: Jacques Mulard via Wikimedia Commons

Chappelle also had contacts within the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Office of Strategic Services (OSS). His pistol came from either SOE or OSS stores, but was almost certainly stolen. Speculation exists, even today, of low deeds in high places with no shortage of potential suspects. 

The British had despised Darlan’s flexible loyalties. Harold Macmillan, Churchill’s advisor to Eisenhower in 1942 and later Prime Minister himself, remarked “Once he was bought, he stayed bought.” Free French leader Charles de Gaulle considered him a potential post-war rival and the Nazis had distrusted Darlan even before his defection. 

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Tried on December 25 by a Vichy tribunal (taking around 15 minutes, with his casket already provided), Chappelle was shot on December 26. Tried and executed with unseemly (and, to some, suspicious) haste, Chappelle was exonerated by a French court in 1945 having acted (in the court’s opinion) in the national interest.

Admiral Gensoul, whose pomposity cost time and possibly lives, never spoke of Mers-el-Kébir. He died in 1976. Captain Holland died in 1950 still feeling he had failed. Somerville died in 1949 still regretting Mers-El-Kebir. He reportedly admitted to his wife that he could have attacked harder, but had decided not to.