Operation Catapult - Mers-el-Kebir, North Africa
Neutralisation of elements of Vichy French Naval Fleet -
3rd July 1940
Operation Catapult aimed to neutralise a
squadron of the French Naval Fleet at anchor in Mers el Kebir harbour. If the
fleet fell into German hands it would be a considerable threat to the British
Navy. Although not a Combined Operation, this naval action is included here
because it provides useful background to British concerns about military
resources under Vichy French
control, including their foreign held territories. These concerns resulted in
several Combined Operations against the Vichy French, including the Litani River
raid of June 1941,
the invasion of Madagascar in May 1942 and
Operation Torch, North Africa, in Nov 1942.
After the French surrendered to the Germans on June 22 1940, Britain stood alone.
Most of Europe had been quickly overrun and only the English Channel prevented
Germany’s conquest reaching the UK. The terms of the French capitulation were
unusual. The Germans permitted the new French administration, under Marshall Petain,
to establish itself in the city of Vichy in south, central France. From there,
they governed over 2/5ths of the French land mass in the south of France, their
overseas colonies and their navy.
This arrangement was a particular worry to the British, since they believed, with some justification, that the neutrality given to the French by the Axis powers,
could not be relied upon. The British, therefore, decided to neutralise the French fleet by any means at their disposal,
including force, if absolutely necessary.
After the signing of the armistice, many French naval units fled France to avoid capture. The biggest single concentration of the French fleet
lay at anchor in the the French Algeria port of Mers-El-Kebir. Early in July
1940, Churchill ordered the formation of "Force H", under Vice-Admiral Somerville,
to prepare for possible action in the Mediterranean.
Plans & Preparations
A number of
senior British commanders, notably Somerville himself, opposed the
plan. They argued that "Operation Catapult", the code name given to
the planned engagement, would turn French public opinion against the
British. They also argued that the French fleet could resist,
inflicting significant damage to Royal Navy fleet, which was already spread very
thinly, due to wartime commitments.
However, for Churchill and his War Cabinet,
the risk of the French war ships falling into enemy hands was too
paramount and, in the early hours of July 2, Sommerville
received the following signal for French Admiral Gensoul;
"It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of
the German or Italian enemy. We are determined to fight on until the end, and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget
that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer, we solemnly
declare that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose, we must make sure that the best ships of the
French Navy are not used against us by the common foe. In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government have instructed me to demand
that the French Fleet now at Mers el Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives;
of Mers-el-Kebir harbour in Algeria. © IWM (A 14413).]
(a) sail with
us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans and
(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated
at the earliest moment.
If either of these courses is adopted by you, we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of
the war or pay full compensation, if they are damaged meanwhile.
(c) Alternatively, if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans
or Italians unless these break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews, to some French port in the West Indies -
Martinique for instance - where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain
safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.
If you refuse these fair offers, I must, with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6
Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty's Government to use whatever force may
be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands."
replied in writing that in no circumstances would his ships fall into
German or Italian hands and, ominously, that force would be met with
force. The distress felt by the British Admiral and his senior staff
was evident in the exchanges of signals with London. The ships they
were about to fire on were crewed by men who had been their allies just 10 days
earlier. Understanding the difficulties, Churchill instructed the Admiralty to send the following message to Somerville;
"You are charged
with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British
Admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete
confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly."
The final signal, dispatched at 6.26 pm read,
"French ships must comply with our terms, sink themselves or be sunk
by you before dark,"...
but the action had already started at 5.45 pm.
Operation Catapult commenced on July 3, 1940. Early in
the day, all French warships in British territorial waters were boarded and impounded by the Royal Navy (code named Operation Grasp).
amounted to two battleships, four cruisers, eight destroyers, some submarines, numerous support vessels and smaller craft, which had
fled when the collapse of France seemed inevitable. This
part of the operation went relatively smoothly, however, resistance did occur on the French submarine, Surcouf,
resulting in the deaths of one French sailor and a Royal Naval Rating,
plus several others injured.
Later in the day "Force H", with
flagship, HMS Hood, arrived off the coast near Mers-El-Kebir.
A three-point ultimatum was sent to Admiral Gensoul, the French
commander, giving him the following options;
Bring out your ships and join the Royal Navy.
Take the fleet to a British port with a reduced crew from where they would be
Sail the fleet to a French, West Indian or an American port and decommission the
not to act on this, preferring to open a dialogue with the British
chief negotiator, Captain Holland of HMS Ark Royal. However, Somerville soon became aware of Gensoul’s vacillation
and a fourth option was added to the earlier ultimatum "scuttle your
ships where they lie."
little after 1pm, the British dispatched Swordfish planes, from the carrier
Ark Royal, to mine the harbour entrance. This action angered Gensoul, who felt the British had acted in bad faith. However, despite the heightened tension,
outwardly all remained calm until
4:46 pm. Somerville received a communiqué from the Admiralty, which considerably raised the stakes. It stated that Somerville had "to settle matters quickly" as
French reinforcements were on their way.
[Photo; The French fleet at anchor in Mers el Kebir
Somerville wasted no time. At 5:15 pm, he signalled to the Battle cruiser, Dunkerque,
that if his proposals were not met by 5:30 pm, he would have to
destroy their ships. The French failed to respond. Captain Holland’s
negotiations had failed. Action stations were sounded then the first salvo
from the Hood’s fifteen inch guns smashed into the side of the French battleship Bretange, causing fatal
damage. She sank with the loss of 977 crew members.
For fifteen minutes, H Force’s guns ranged down on the
French fleet in the harbour,
causing death and destruction. The French had been badly mauled. Apart from the sinking of the Bretagne, the Dunkerque
was crippled with 200 dead and many injured, the destroyer Provence had run aground and Mogador was badly damaged.
signalled a cease-fire, to which Somerville replied "unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again."
As a precaution, Somerville moved H Force out of the range of the
French guns. He assumed that his mines would stop any breakout by the
remaining Frenc, along
with aircraft from the Ark Royal, took up the pursuit. However, Somerville
soon brought the chase to a halt, since the absence of these vessels left the remaining blockading ships too
vulnerable to attack. The Strasbourg later arrived at Toulon,
where it was once more under Vichy French control. Despite this setback,
squadron had effectively been neutralised but at a very high cost in human lives.
Further along the coast at Alexandria, a second British battle force had assembled to confront
a substantial part of the remaining French navy in the southern Mediterranean. This time, the British commander at Alexandria, Admiral Cunningham, was able to open a successful dialogue with his friend and French counterpart,
Admiral Godfroy. Despite orders from Churchill for results to be achieved by nightfall, he held the negotiations over till the next day,
July 4 and a settlement was reached. Godfroy’s eleven ships were immobilised in Alexandria harbour
with the draining of their oil supplies and the confiscation of their
breech blocks by the French consulate at the port.
French Government was, understandably, angry and dismayed by the turn of events at Mers-El-Kebir and
other ports. The British had killed 1,200 French sailors, who had been, just two weeks earlier, their
close allies. In addition, they
had seized, immobilised or sunk a large part of the French
[Photo; the inevitable consequence of the shelling.]
In some French quarters,
support for the British cause waned and Petain broke off diplomatic relations
with Britain. Two days later, the Vichy French captured three British
merchant ships in retaliation. Further skirmishes between the former
Allies occurred, including the bombing of Gibraltar by the French and the torpedoing of the French battleship, Richelieu,
at Dakar, by the British.
The reaction in the UK to Churchill's
determination and resolution in seeing through
this grotesquely difficult problem, was largely positive. It proved that his recent appointment
to the position of prime minister, was a good
move. When the action was announced to
Parliament, there was cheering from both sides of the house. The
action had further benefits for Britain in the USA, as confirmed by
Roosevelt later when he told Churchill that his decisive action against the French Navy had convinced him that Britain still had the will to fight, even if she was alone.
Ultimately, the action at Mers-El-Kebir
was a tragedy. However, the French navy no longer posed a threat to
the UK's conduct of the war at a time when she was
Summary of Action
Allied Forces: Sea - Force H
- HMS Hood (Battleship) Vice- Admiral, Sir James Somerville. Flag, HMS
Resolution (Battleship), HMS Valiant (Battleship), HMS Ark Royal (Carrier), HMS Arethusa (Cruiser),
(Cruiser), HMS Faulkner (Destroyer), HMS Foxhound (Destroyer), HMS Fearless (Destroyer), HMS Forester (Destroyer),
Foresight (Destroyer), HMS Escort??? (Destroyer), HMS Kepple (Destroyer), HMS Active (Destroyer),
(Destroyer), HMS Vidette (Destroyer), HMS Vortigern (Destroyer), HMS Ark Royals aircraft consisted of: 12 Skuas (800
Squadron), 12 Skuas (803 Squadron), 12 Swordfish (810 Squadron), 9 Swordfish (818 Squadron), 9 Swordfish (820
Vichy French Forces:
Sea - Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul,
Strasbourg (Battle cruiser), Dunkerque (Battle cruiser), 2nd
Battleship Division. Rear- Admiral Bouxin, Provence (Battleship), Bretagne (Battleship), Mogador (Destroyer),
(Destroyer), Tigre (Destroyer), Lynx (Destroyer), Kersaint (Destroyer), Le Terrible (Destroyer).
the east of Mers-El-Kebir at the port of Oran were the following French forces. Light Destroyers: 10, Submarines:
6 ( 3 Operational), Assorted smaller ships 13. Land - French Shore
Batteries; Fort Santoni: 3x194mm Guns, Gambetta Battery:
4x120mm Guns, Espagnole Battery: 2x75mm Guns, Canastel Battery: 3x240mm Guns.
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