British Attacks on the French Fleet
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
The fall of France and the establishment of the Vichy government put the Allied forces in a precarious position. The Vichy French government was non-belligerent, but was also under heavy influence of Nazi Germany. The vast French colonial holdings in North Africa, along with the sizeable French fleet that protected them, became a critical issue that needed to be addressed. The Allied nations, with the Free French led by Charles de Gaulle among them, wanted to gain access to this French fleet, but with the Vichy government operating under German protection, these ships were just as easily turn their guns and fire on the Allies in the Mediterranean Sea. At Oran and Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria, the French had four battleships, thirteen destroyers, one seaplane carrier, and four submarines; at Dakar, French West Africa, two battleships; at Alexandria, Egypt, one battleship and four cruisers. Should the Germans acquire these ships, either by force or with French cooperation, it would result in a German Navy that could rival the British Royal Navy.
Faced with the potential dangers of this substantial French fleet, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his decision to strike first, risking harm to British-French relations.
Plymouth and Portsmouth, Britain
On 3 Jul, French ships in Plymouth and Portsmouth, England, United Kingdom were boarded and captured. Among these ships was the French submarine Surcouf (the largest submarine in the world at the time), four other submarines, old battleships Paris and Courbet, destroyers Triomphant and Léopard, eight torpedo boats, and other smaller vessels. During the boarding some French crews cooperated while others resisted with force; two British officers and one French sailor were killed during the struggles. After the boarding, some crews joined the Free French forces; those who refused were repatriated back to France.
Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria
The largest Vichy French fleet was present at Mers-el-Kébir on the same day, which included old battleships Provence and Bretagne, modern battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg, seaplane tender Commandant Teste, and six destroyers, all under the command of Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. Code name Operation Catapult, Admiral James Somerville and his British Force H arrived at Mers-el-Kébir, attempting to negotiate before firing the guns. The ultimatum was delivered by Captain Cedric Holland, a French-speaking commanding officer of carrier HMS Ark Royal.
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-Kébir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives;
(a) sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans and Italians.
(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 hours.
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.
While Gensoul was unlikely to have conceded in any case, dispatching Captain Holland to deliver the message caused Gensoul to also dispatch an officer of equal rank, Bernard Dufay, to receive it, thus causing delay and further confusion. It was also worth noting that Gensoul never sent a copy of this text to French Navy Minister Admiral Darlan.
Before the negotiations were formally ended, the British already took action. Swordfish and Skua aircraft flew into the harbor to drop magnetic mines, and French H-75 fighters rose to meet them. One Skua aircraft was shot down during the action, killing the crew.
At 1754 hours, the warships of the British Force H opened fire, which was consisted of battlecruiser HMS Hood, battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Resolution, escorted by carrier HMS Ark Royal and a number of cruisers and destroyers. Positioned inside the narrow harbor, the French ships were at a disadvantage, unable to train all of their guns at the British. Bretagne was the first French ship to be hit, during the British third salvo, igniting an ammunition magazine which killed 977 by 1809 hours. After about 30 salvos, all French ships were disabled, but coastal guns continued to fire. Seriously damaged, the crews of Provence, Dunkerque, and destroyer Mogador ran the ships aground to prevent sinking. Seaplane carrier Commandante Teste was damaged as well.
Five ships were able to escape the battle, Strasbourg and four destroyers. HMS Ark Royal launched Swordfish torpedo bombers to pursue them, which was unsuccessful with two aircraft shot down; the downed crews were rescued by destroyer HMS Wrestler. At 1843 hours, British warships began to move away from Mers-el-Kébir to pursue the fleeing French ships, but this would also prove to be fruitless, and was called off by Somerville at 2020 hours. At 2055 hours, another round of torpedo aircraft attack came upon the French ships, and again it resulted in no damage. These five French ships would reach Toulon, France on 4 Jul.
At dawn on 6 Jul, HMS Ark Royal launched another strike at Mers-el-Kebir, with Dunkerque and Provence as the main targets; this action was code name Operation Lever. Dunkerque was struck by at least one torpedo, killing 154 and injuring 8. Patrol boat Terre-Neuve, moored alongside Dunkerque, was also hit, killing 8; depth charges stored aboard the patrol boat was ignited, and the explosion caused further damage to Dunkerque.
The actions of 3 Jul and 6 Jul at Mers-el-Kébir took the lives of 1,297 French sailors. A further 350 were injured. The British only suffered 2 deaths, which was the crew of the shot-down aircraft.
The French ships in Alexandria consisted of old battleship Lorraine and four cruisers, under the overall command of Admiral René-Emile Godfroy. They were offered the same terms on 3 Jul by Admiral Andrew Cunningham as those given to Gensoul at Mers-el-Kébir. Godfroy accepted the terms on 7 Jul, opting to keep his ships in place. This fleet would remain in Alexandria until 1943, moving out only after they agreed to join the Free French Navy.
Oran, French Algeria
At 1530 hours on 4 Jul, British submarine HMS Pandora sank French gunboat Rigault de Genouilly which had sailed from Oran. It was the only action that took place at this French naval port.
Dakar, French West Africa
Dakar was not only a major naval port in the region, but it also held the gold reserves of the Banque de France and the exiled Polish government. On 8 Jul 1940, five days after the actions at Mers-el-Kébir, British carrier HMS Hermes launched Swordfish torpedo bombers at Dakar, targeting specifically the battleship Richelieu. One torpedo hit Richelieu below the armored deck, disabling the starboard propulsion shaft. Flooding caused her stern to touch bottom. Richelieu was re-floated a few days later. She was made sea-worthy for emergencies, though she remained in Dakar as a gun platform.
In the morning of 23 Sep 1940, a combined fleet of British and Free French ships reached Dakar to conduct negotiations en force. The fleet consisted of aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, battleships HMS Resolutions and HMS Barham, four cruisers, ten destroyers, and several transports with 8,000 troops aboard; the operation was code named Operation Menace. Opposite them, the Vichy French operated the battleship/gun platform Richelieu, three submarines, two cruisers, three destroyers, and several smaller vessels. As Free French personnel arrived by air, other Allied aircraft dropped propaganda leaflets on the city to sway public opinion. Meanwhile, General Charles de Gaulle sent negotiators by ship. The Vichy French reacted with hostility; the messengers that landed at the airport were detained, and the ship carrying de Gaulle's staff was fired upon. At 1000 hours, Australian cruiser HMAS Australia fired warning shots on Vichy French ships that attempted to leave the port, and received return fire from Vichy French coastal guns. The Allied fleet returned fire, setting Vichy French destroyer L'Audacieux on fire and forcing it to be beached. That afternoon, Free French troops landed at Rufisque, northeast of Dakar; facing heavy defensive fire, de Gaulle called off the landing to avoid "shed[ding] the blood of Frenchmen for Frenchmen".
On 24 and 25 Sep, Allied fleet bombarded the coastal fortifications from the sea. Two Vichy French submarines, Persée and Ajax, left port on attack, but were sunk during the process; submarine Bévéziers, however, was able to penetrate the Allied screen and fire her torpedoes at British battleship HMS Resolution. Meanwhile, battleships Richelieu and HMS Barham exchanged fire. Richelieu hit Barham with two secondary gun shells, while Barham hit Richelieu twice with her 15-inch primary guns. Even though a blowback accident disabled Richelieu's number two turret, significantly reducing Vichy-French firepower, the Allies decided to depart to avoid further damage to their fleet.
This Vichy French victory was of little consequence militarily, but on the political scene it was significant. De Gaulle, who was one of the main proponents for this operation, lost much standing among his British peers for not being able to deliver Dakar to the Allies, which was described as an easy goal by de Gaulle.
In retaliation of the seizures and attacks on French ships, French bombers attacked the British fleet at Gibraltar several times in Jul and twice in Sep.
As expected, relationship between Vichy France and the United Kingdom was severely strained after the attacks; in fact, the Vichy French government immediately broke off all relations with the United Kingdom. Although de Gaulle was also willing to take military action against the Vichy fleet, he criticized the use of significant force that resulted in so many French deaths. Somerville later commented against the attacks, noting they were "the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us... we all feel thoroughly ashamed".
French ships Dunkerque, Provence, and Mogador would soon be temporarily repaired and sailed to Toulon in southern France.
British Attacks on the French Fleet Timeline
|29 Jun 1940||Operation Catapult: The British Admiralty gave Vice Admiral Somerville explicit instructions to secure the transfer, surrender, or destruction of the French warships at Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria. Force H under his command consisted of battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Resolution, battlecruiser HMS Hood, aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, cruisers HMS Arethusa and HMS Enterprise, and 11 destroyers.|
|3 Jul 1940||Battle of Mers-el-Kébir: At 0545 hours, Vice Admiral James Somerville and his British Royal Navy Force H arrived off of Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria where a power fleet under French Admiral Marcel Gensoul resided. At 1756 hours, after Gensoul refused to surrender, the British fleet opened fire for 10 minutes. The magazine of French battleship Bretagne was hit, sinking her, taking down 977 French sailors. Battleship Provence, battleship Dunkerque, and destroyer Mogador were damaged. In total, 1,297 French sailors were killed and 350 were wounded. After the battle, French battleship Strasbourg, carrier Commandant Teste, and four destroyers were able to escape from Mers-el-Kébir.|
|4 Jul 1940||British submarine HMS Pandora sank French gunboat Rigault de Genouilly off Oran, Algeria at 1530 hours. French bombers attacked the British fleet at Gibraltar (causing no damage) while the submarines, armed merchant cruisers, and destroyers based in Dakar were ordered to sortie to attack British shipping. On the political front, the Vichy French government broke off all relations with the United Kingdom.|
|6 Jul 1940||Operation Lever: British Royal Navy Force H under Vice Admiral James Somerville returned to Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria. At dawn, Swordfish aircraft from carrier HMS Ark Royal scored several torpedo hits on French battleship Dunkerque, killing 154 and wounding 8. One torpedo hit patrol boat Terre Neuve, detonating depth charges, killing 8; shock waves from the explosion further damaged Dunkerque.|
|7 Jul 1940||Operation Catapult: British Swordfish torpedo bombers from carrier HMS Hermes attacked the French battleship Richelieu in dock at Dakar, French West Africa. A torpedo hit caused a 40-foot hole, bringing her to the bottom of the harbor (the harbor was shallow enough for her to be refloated shortly after). In light of recent British successes against the French Navy, French Admiral René-Emile Godfroy agreed to keep his fleet at Alexandra, Egypt, which included the battleship Lorraine and four cruisers, according to British demands.|
|8 Jul 1940||Operation Catapult: British Swordfish torpedo bombers from carrier HMS Hermes hit French battleship Richelieu at Dakar, French West Africa for the second consecutive day, despite that Richelieu had already touched bottom from the attacks on the previous day. At Casablanca, French Morocco, British motor torpedo boats attacked French battleship Jean Bart, causing damage. In England, General Charles de Gaulle denounced these attacks by the British.|
|14 Jul 1940||Vichy French bombers attacked Gibraltar, causing no damage.|
|31 Aug 1940||8,000 British and French troops departed from Britain for Freetown, Sierra Leone, escorted by British cruisers HMS Devonshire and HMS Fiji and five destroyers. Their destination would ultimately be Dakar in French West Africa, which was still under Vichy control.|
|6 Sep 1940||British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, battleship HMS Barham, battleship HMS Resolution, and 10 destroyers departed Gibraltar for Dakar.|
|9 Sep 1940||French intelligence reported a possible invasion of Dakar in West Africa by General de Gaulle's forces, supported by the British. In response, French cruisers Georges Leygues, Montcalm, and Gloire, supported by three destroyers, departed Toulon in southern France to reinforce Dakar.|
|10 Sep 1940||The French Navy informed the British Naval Attaché in Madrid, Spain at 1800 hours that three cruisers and three destroyers were sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar. Unaware that these ships were en route to Dakar in West Africa, a British-Free French joint target, the British Royal Navy allowed the French warships to pass.|
|11 Sep 1940||At 0835 hours, six French warships passed through the Strait of Gibraltar at the speed of 25 knots. Realizing they were heading for Dakar in French West Africa, HMS Renown and three destroyers departed at 1600 hours in an attempt to intercept. Overnight, the French fleet stopped at Casablanca to refuel.|
|12 Sep 1940||After refueling at Casablanca overnight, three of the six French warships (the three cruisers) departed at 0400 hours, sailing full speed for Dakar in French West Africa. Behind them, HMS Renown's group, now with six destroyers in escort, chased in an attempt to intercept.|
|14 Sep 1940||British battleships HMS Barham and HMS Resolution, several British destroyers, and French sloops Commandant Domine and Commandant Duboc arrived at the Crown Colony of Freetown in West Africa to refuel. These warships were en route to French-controlled port of Dakar.|
|21 Sep 1940||British carrier HMS Ark Royal, battleship HMS Barham, battleship HMS Resolution, cruiser HMS Devonshire, French sloop Commandant Domine, French sloop Commandant Duboc, and French sloop Savorgnan De Brazza, and several destroyers and troop transports departed Freetown, West Africa for Dakar.|
|23 Sep 1940||Operation Menace: General Charles de Gaulle arrived with 3,600 Free French troops at Dakar, French West Africa held by Vichy France; his forces were supported by 4,300 British troops and a powerful fleet. The Vichy French forces imprisoned the crew of two Free French aircraft that had landed at Dakar, and then fired upon a boat containing Free French personnel approaching to negotiate (wounding 2). At 1000 hours, British warships approached the harbor, and were also fired upon (killing 5). At 1130 hours, British ships fell back out of the range of shore batteries; at about the same time, Vichy French submarine Persee was sunk while attempting to torpedo the cruiser Dragon. In the afternoon, cruiser HMAS Australia attacked Vichy French destroyer L'Audacieux, forcing her to beach after 81 were killed. De Gualle's first attempt at a landing, at Rufisque Bay, was repulsed, and he began to show reluctance of killing fellow countrymen. Having heard of this sentiment, Winston Churchill urged de Gaulle to "[s]top at nothing".|
|24 Sep 1940||Operation Menace: Overnight, Governor of French West Africa, Pierre Boisson, rejected Free French demand for the surrender of Dakar. At 0700 hours, British destroyer HMS Fortune detected Vichy French submarine Ajax, which was forced to surface by depth charges and then sunk with gunfire after the crew of 61 was captured. British battleship HMS Barham shelled French battleship Richelieu in Dakar harbor; Richelieu was damaged with two shells and a misfire of her own. French coastal batteries was able to force back the British fleet at 1000 hours. In the afternoon, the British fleet returned. French coastal artillery opened fire again, hitting Barham with four shells, and forced back the British fleet once again. Far to the north, 64 Vichy French bombers from Algeria and Morocco bombed Gibraltar in retaliation, damaging one ship.|
|25 Sep 1940||Operation Menace: The British fleet bombarded Dakar in French West Africa in the morning. At 0900 hours, French submarine Beveziers attacked British battleship HMS Resolution, damaging her; she had to be towed back by battleship HMS Barham while the rest of the British warships fell back. The British War Cabinet decided to cancel the operation after all attempts to enter Dakar failed. Meanwhile, Vichy French bombers from Algeria and Morocco again bombed Gibraltar in retaliation to the British and Free French attacks on Dakar, lighting damaging port facilities and sinking British anti-submarine trawler Stella Sirius.|
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945