One of the most devastating naval battles of World War II ranks among the most concentrated bombardments of the war, yet incredibly the Battle of Mers el Kebir involved no Germans or other axis nations. Known as Operation Catapult, and also as The Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, the battle was between the French and the British, and led to over 1300 casualties as the French fleet was hammered by the British, whose superior firepower and position led to almost no British casualties.
This bizarre event happened just off the coast of French Algeria on July 3, 1940.
After the German occupation of France and subsequent negotiations for control of France, the British feared the mighty French fleet could come under the control of the Germans, shifting the balance of sea power in their favor. Winston Churchill made the fateful decision to order the French Fleet to surrender to the British or face destruction. After several hours of negotiations between the British and French failed and the French prepared to leave the area, the order was given to fire on the French ships. Massive French casualties followed this fateful decision.
Although Churchill’s “resolve” was largely met with approval by the English Parliament, the Battle of Mers-el-Kebir left the French bitter and angry at such a vicious attack coming from an ally in wartime.
The ultimatum from British Admiral Somerville was delivered (copy below) to French Admiral Gensoul by lower ranking officers and was never fully received by the French Command. It appears indeed that the ego of Admiral Gensoul may have compromised the process to a reckless degree, though obviously one can argue that firing on allies was unjustified under even these circumstances. However it does appear that the act by the British sent a signal to a wavering USA that the British were absolutely resolved to win the war against Hitler, and some historians argue this was a factor in Roosevelt’s decision to enter the war.
British Admiral James Somerville to the French:
|“||It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German 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.
(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 unless they 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 hands.