Mers El Kebir Attack 03. July 1940


from wikipedia

The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir (3 July 1940) also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir , was part of Operation Catapult . The operation was a British naval attack on [French Navy] ships at the base at Mers El Kébir on the coast of French Algeria. The bombardment killed 1,297 French servicemen, sank a battleship and seriously damaged five ships, for a British loss of five aircraft shot down and two crewmen killed.

The attack by air-and-sea was conducted by the Royal Navy after France had signed armistices with Germany and Italy that came into effect on 25 June. Of particular significance to the British were the seven battleships of the Bretagne , Dunkerque and Richelieu classes, the second largest force of capital ships in Europe after the Royal Navy. The British War Cabinet ( Churchill_war_ministry) feared already that France would hand the ships to the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) , giving the Axis assistance in the Battle of the Atlantic or Battle of the Mediterranean. Admiral François Darlan , commander of the French Navy, promised the British that the fleet would remain under French control but Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet judged that the fleet was too powerful to risk an Axis take-over.

After the attack at Mers-el-Kébir and the Battle of Dakar , French aircraft raided Gibraltar in retaliation and the Vichy government severed diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. The attack created much rancour between France and Britain but also demonstrated to the world that Britain intended to fight on. The attack is controversial and the motives of the British are debated. In 1979, P. M. H. Bell wrote that “The times were desperate; invasion seemed imminent; and the British government simply could not afford to risk the Germans seizing control of the French fleet… The predominant British motive was thus dire necessity and self-preservation”.

The French thought they were acting honourably in terms of their armistice (Armistice_of_22_June_1940) with Nazi Germany and were convinced they would never turn over their fleet to Germany. Vichy France was created on 10 July 1940, one week after the attack and was seen by the British as a puppet state of the Nazi regime. French grievances festered for years over what they considered a betrayal by their ally.

What do you think ? Was it justified or not ?


You have to consider the fact in 1940 summer. UK stood alone after France quit fighting and broke Anglo-French pledge of not to seek a seperate peace (which was signed in January 1940 by both countries). British Army although saved main manpower reserves in Dunkirk evacuation and Operation Aeriel afterwards , was in shambles and needed at least six months to reorganise and re equipped. Only RAF and Royal Navy stood in way of a German invasion of Britain (or so it seemed at that time. Even Germans themselves to leading Nazis believed in 1940 summer that they were about to launch an invasion of Britain. They were so deluded themselves that no one asked if German Navy or merchant marine had any sea lift capability or landing craft to carry more than two division across the Channel. Especially after losses of German Navy in Norwegian Campaign) Churchill and British goverment deducted they had no choice. They could not leave any assets that could be utilised to rebalance Axis superiorty on seas (these assets were French Fleet ships)

“But French sunk their ships in Toulon in November 1942” is not a viable excuse for French. British couldn’t know that in 1940. They had no psyhic powers to see the future and entire Metropolitan France and plus two million French POWs were hostages under the thumb of Hitler after French surrender at Compiegne in 22 June 1940. If German dictator had been serious about invading Britain or at east initiate a naval blockade around British isles and wished to acquire French fleet for that aim and decided to keep or execute French POWs or civilians until Vichy goverment gave up the Fleet , would Petain or Laval (both decided to remain as puppets of occupiers instead of fighting in French colonies) resist ? Would British assume so (did they have that luxary of assumption) while their home islands were under danger of invasion (or so it seemed) and they needed to take out every asset at enemy’s (and theirs ) easy reach ? Mussolini and Italian delegation even demanded French Fleet turned over to them during Compiegne Armistice in June 1940 ! (Hitler refused them temporarily trying not to offend Vichy anymore) War is not about being nice. When your back is at wall (and it definetely seemed so in 1940 for UK. No one gave Britain holding out more than six weeks after Compiegne Armistice including their own statesmen except Churchill) you use everything and everyway to repel the enemy. I do not blame British for Mers el Kebir incident.

Besides , French Navy captains scuttled their ships at Toulon during November 1942 under very different circumstances. Operation Torch (Anglo-American invasion) had been in progress since 8th November 1942 , Admiral Darlan , commander of French Fleet (and third man in Vichy goverment) had been captured in Algiers by Americans due to a stroke of luck and he ordered to cease fire and surrender to all French forces under his command in North west Africa (so a vital link who could order definite commands to French Navy was out of picture) , Hitler in response violated Compiegne ceasefire agreement and German Army began invasion of Vichy France territory on 15th November 1942 -Operation Anton-. (without encountering any resistance from Vichy France Army. While they were resisting to British and Americans and fighting them in Dakar , Algeria , Morocco , Madagascar , Syria for two years , they were not thinking their honor anymore when facing German panzers in their homeland , were they ?) French Toulon naval base commander and ship captains decided to take matters to their own hands and when German panzer units appeared on gates of Toulon they scuttled their ships on their own (to the bitter disappointment of Eisenhower who logically assumed French Navy would sail out of Toulon and join Allies after blant agression of Germans occupying rest of France. Assumptions , Vichy promises ? They were empty concepts. In Total War you try to mitigate luck factor by capturing or eliminating any assets or resources in enemy reach)

Operation Catapult in July 1940 had been necessary. Odious , with some regrettable outcome (especially with so much loss of life. Six hours before opening fire , Admiral Sommerville gave an ultimatum to join , disarm , sail to neutral port under RN supervision or scuttle or evacuate those ships. French fleet commander Admiral Bruno Gensoul did not listen and assumed he was bluffing. 1.300 French sailors paid the price of Gensoul’s miscalculation) but necessary. At the other hand French squadron in Alexandria disarmed under British supervision in July 1940 , kept their ships inoperable and crews were repadiated back to France. So much for British perfidry !