Operation Catapult: A Most Disagreeable Task

Operation Catapult: A Most Disagreeable Task

Mers-el-Kebir Harbour
Mers-el-Kebir Harbour

It was midnight on 25 June 1940 when the armistice, signed three days earlier by French and German representatives at Compiègne, came into force and ended the Battle of France. In a mere six weeks the Germans had conquered much of western Europe, including France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. These unfortunate countries would remain under German occupation for years, until their eventual liberation following the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. France, however, was a large country and Hitler initially sought to only militarily occupy its northern and western regions. The south would be allowed to remain unoccupied under the civil administration of the Régime de Vichy.

In theory the new French Government under Marshal Phillipe Pétain was responsible for all of France – except the region of Alsace-Lorraine – as well as much of France’s colonial empire, but in reality its authority in the German occupied zones was minimal. Indeed, Pétain’s new administration had established itself not in occupied Paris but in the city of Vichy in the so-called ‘zone libre’ or ‘free zone’. Although technically neutral, Vichy France was little more than a puppet-government of Germany.

With France out of the war Britain stood alone, and, as the British braced themselves for the coming Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill had an additional worry created by the establishment of the Vichy Government. Most of the French navy remained intact, and following the surrender of France many of its ships had set sail in order to avoid capture by the Germans. A powerful concentration of French warships found themselves anchored at the port of Mers-el-Kébir in French Algeria, and the British feared Pétain might hand them over to the German Kriegsmarine.

Britain, therefore, attempted to persuade the French authorities in North Africa to either continue the fight against Germany or hand over their ships at Mers-el-Kébir to the Royal Navy. Meanwhile, Churchill ordered the formation of Force H, a naval force under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, which was to fill the vacuum left by the French navy in the Mediterranean. If the French refused to give up their ships, Churchill was determined to remove the potential threat they posed by the use of force. This plan was codenamed Operation Catapult.

Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville
Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville

Operation Catapult
On 2 July, Somerville, who personally opposed the plan as he believed it would turn French public opinion against the British and risk significant damage to the Royal Navy in a potential naval action in the Mediterranean, was instructed to deliver the following message to French Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, commander of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir:

“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;
(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.”

Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul
Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul

Less than two weeks earlier the two fleets had been allies, now they were about to go into battle against one another. Somerville was extremely unhappy with the situation, but the British Admiralty, under Churchill’s instructions, signaled him clear and ruthless instructions:

“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.”

Thus, early on 3 July, Operation Grasp was put into action, with all French warships in British territorial waters being forcefully boarded by the Royal Navy and seized. Little resistance was met, and a total of two battleships, four cruisers, eight destroyers and a number of submarines and other vessels were taken.

While the above was being carried out, Somerville’s Force H, comprising of two battleships (HMS Resolution and Valiant), a battlecruiser (HMS Hood, acting as flagship), an aircraft carrier (HMS Ark Royal), two light cruisers and eleven destroyers arrived off Mers-el-Kébir. They faced a French fleet consisting of four battleships (Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Bretagne and Provence), a seaplane tender and six large destroyers.

Somerville dispatched Captain Cedric Holland, the commanding officer of Ark Royal, to deliver his note to Gensoul. Holland had been chosen for this task because he had been a personal friend of the French admiral, being the former British naval attaché in Paris. While the British vice-admiral waited, his French counterpart sensed an ultimatum was heading his way and so refused to see Holland, but he did send his flag lieutenant who accepted the note. Later, Gensoul penned a reply informing Somerville that under no circumstances would French ships be allowed to fall into German or Italians hands. However, he also informed the British admiral that his ships would defend themselves by force if attacked. The British demands would not be accepted, as Gensoul believed they broke the terms of the French armistice with Germany.

Gensoul then informed the Vichy Government that he had received an ultimatum from the British, which triggered an order for French warships at Toulon and Algiers to sail for Mers-el-Kébir as reinforcements. The French admiral next agreed to meet with Holland, suggesting a gentleman’s agreement but Somerville was by now aware of the additional French ships steaming towards his location. The British admiral set a final deadline of 17:30 hours for his demands to be agreed, and Holland withdrew back to his ship. No reply from the French was received.

The Attack
Prior to the expiry of the British ultimatum, both sides had been busy making preparations. Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers had taken off from Ark Royal just after 13:00 hours and began dropping magnetic mines in the entrance to Mers-el-Kébir harbour, while the French made their ships ready for action. Gensoul, however, was at a huge disadvantage, since his ships were restricted by the narrow harbour they were anchored in, their main armament unable to be properly brought to bear on an attacker out at sea. The British, on the other hand, were able to maneuver their ships as they saw fit.

At 17:54 hours, Churchill sent orders to Somerville to commence his attack. The first salvo came from the 15-inch guns of HMS Hood, which devastatingly smashed their way into the hull of the Bretange, as did several more salvos fired from a range of 17,500 yards. The French battleship would sink at 18:09 hours with the loss of 977 French sailors.

French battleship Bretagne burns at Mers-el-Kebir
French battleship Bretagne burns at Mers-el-Kebir

The ensuing action would last a mere fifteen minutes, the vicious firepower of the Royal Navy relentlessly pounding the French ships. The Dunkerque was also badly hit, and although not sunk she was crippled with the loss of over 200 killed and many more wounded. The Provence ran aground, while the destroyer Mogador was heavily damaged. A shocked Gensoul sent a signal to Somerville asking him to ceasefire, but the British admiral merely informed his French counterpart that if he did not sink his own ships he would open fire again.

Nevertheless, despite the mining of the entrance to the harbour the Strasbourg and four of the French destroyers managed to escape to the open sea. Swordfish from Ark Royal attacked them, the French managing to shoot down two of the outdated biplanes. Somerville, at 18:43 hours, ordered his force to pursue the fleeing French warships, during which the cruisers HMS Arethusa and Enterprise hotly engaged a French destroyer. However, believing a nighttime action to be futile, the British admiral ordered his force to call off the pursuit at 20:20 hours. More Swordfish attempted to torpedo the Strasbourg, but the French battleship eventually made it safely to Toulon on 4 July.

French destroyer Mogador sustaining heavy damage at Mers-el-Kebir
French destroyer Mogador sustaining heavy damage at Mers-el-Kebir

At Alexandria, another British naval force had prepared to make a similar attack on French warships. However, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the British naval commander at Alexandria, was able to hold successful negotiations with his French opposite, Admiral René-Émile Godfroy. A total of eleven French warships were immobilised without a fight.

More fighting, however, did take place, when the British submarine HMS Pandora sank the French gunboat Rigault de Genouily on 4 July, killing twelve French sailors. Four days later, Swordfish from Ark Royal conducted another raid on Mers-el-Kébir. One of their torpedoes hit the Terre-Neuve, a patrol boat, which was packed with depth charges. These exploded, sinking the small vessel and causing further serious damage to the Dunkerque. Elsewhere, aircraft from the carrier HMS Hermes carried out an attack on the French battleship Richelieu near Dakar, inflicting heavy damage.

The attack on Mers-el-Kébir resulted in the loss of 1,297 French sailors killed and over 350 wounded. A battleship had been sunk, with a further five large ships damaged, including two battleships and three destroyers. British losses stood at a mere two killed and six aircraft lost.

The British attack at Mers-el-Kébir understandably caused much anger in France, and Pétain quickly broke off all diplomatic relations with Britain. In retaliation, the French conducted an air raid against Gibraltar on 5 July, but most of the bombs dropped by the Armée de l’Air dropped harmlessly into the sea. The French also seized three British merchant ships and would conduct a further air raid on Gibraltar in September.

Churchill would later write that his decision to neutralise the French ships at Mers-el-Kébir and elsewhere was “the most hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned.” Nevertheless, it did his reputation at home little injury, for when the action was announced in the House of Commons MPs from all parties cheered. It also proved to Roosevelt that Britain was determined to fight on, and would not, perhaps, be as easily brought to her knees by Germany as the Americans originally feared.

The French, of course, viewed the attack on their ships as a shameful betrayal by their former ally. Even Free French troops in Britain were angry, and relations between their leader, Charles de Gaulle, and Churchill became heavily strained. However, Britain was at its weakest following the defeat of France in June 1940, and the removal of the threat of powerful French warships ending up in the hands of the Kriegsmarine was seen as of paramount importance to the British Government at the time.