England and France have been in more than a few scraps over the years.
The Hundred Years’ War was fought between the 14th and 15th centuries and actually lasted well over a century, after which England surrendered nearly all of its territory on the continent.
Then, along with a host of other nations including Spain, Sweden, Prussia and Russia, the two were at it again in the mid-1700s in the Seven Years’ War.
This global conflict was fought on land and at sea, and thanks to the terms of the Treaty of Paris, France gave up its claims in Canada and America, while England gained huge swaths of land in the New World in addition to overseas territories that’d once belonged to its adversary.
The last major conflict between the two perennial powers were the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which culminated in Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.
That said, in July of 1940 Britain and France squared off yet again, this time in a harrowing, controversial and utterly lopsided naval engagement.
In 1940 Britain was in an untenable strategic position.
The collapse of the French Resistance seemed imminent, and with Italy’s entry into the Second World War the balance of naval power shifted decidedly out of Britain’s favor, especially in the Mediterranean.
To level the playing field the Admiralty repositioned resources to this strategic waterway, but as a result the Royal Navy was spread dangerously thin elsewhere.
But though Britain once again had the upper hand, the issue of the displaced French fleet was a persistent thorn in the Admiralty’s side.
In addition, England stood nearly alone against the Third Reich, European countries were falling like dominos, and with the United States still more than a year away from entering the fray the situation was becoming increasingly hopeless.
German attacks on vital supply convoys were intensifying, bombs were regularly falling on British cities, and in Berlin plans for the Invasion of England – Operation Sea Lion – were being finalized.
Consisting of nearly 200 battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and countless support vessels, France had one of the world’s most powerful navies.
In fact only Britain, America and Japan were numerically stronger, but many French warships were newer, more advanced, and more lethal.
Shortly after Germany invaded in May of 1940, many French ships were ordered to sail to distant ports lest they fall into enemy hands.
Some like the older but still potent battleships Courbet and Paris, the heavy destroyers Leopard and Le Triomphant, and the massive submarine Surcouf had sought refuge in British ports, and the Admiralty knew they could be taken with relative ease.
However, the largest concentration of ships was at Mers-el-Kebir just west of the French Algerian port of Oran.
Since being moved from Brest in early June, the ships were out of harm’s way, protected by their own guns and long-range shore batteries positioned on the bluffs overlooking the harbor.
The moored armada included the battleships Bretagne and Provence, each of which were armed with ten 13-inch guns.
In addition, there were six destroyers, a seaplane carrier and the Dunkerque-class battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, both of which were among the Admiralty’s biggest concerns.
Launched just a few years before and sporting eight 13-inch cannons, Dunkerque was one of the deadliest warships afloat.
Both Dunkerque and Strasbourg were faster and better armed than the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisnau, and if they were commandeered and pressed into service with the Kriegsmarine, the consequences for Great Britain would be immeasurable, and possibly catastrophic.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet considered this unthinkable scenario a danger not only to the Royal Navy, but to Britain’s very existence.
The War Cabinet met multiple times to consider a diplomatic solution, but though it would ultimately be a last resort, everyone knew that two great navies may once again come to blows if one wasn’t forthcoming.
During negotiations British representatives sought assurance that under no circumstances would the French allow their warships to fall into Nazi hands.
From the British perspective, there were but a few alternatives, each of which they presented to their cohorts across the table.
First, a Royal Navy task force would steam to Mers-el-Kebir and escort the French ships to British ports.
If that was unacceptable, reduced crews would be permitted to sail them to America where they’d be decommissioned.
Barring that, they’d be sunk in the harbor.
On each option, French representatives responded with resolute “nos.”
Adding insult to injury, on the 20th of June Britain’s wariness of French intentions grew when the country signed an armistice with Germany, and one of the most worrisome stipulations was that all French naval vessels were required to return home without delay.
Translation – French warships, officers and crews were to immediately make themselves available to their new masters, the Germans.
By June 24th negotiations had ground to a halt, and the War Cabinet met again to consider alternatives.
Though no course of action was agreed upon, the consensus was that the time for action was at hand.
The following day the Cabinet instructed Vice Admiral Dudley North to proceed to Oran to meet with the French commander there, in the hope that after personal and amicable interaction between the two seasoned navy men, calmer heads would prevail.
When Dudley met his French Counterpart the following week however, the latter flatly refused to hand over his ships, hence Churchill set the 3rd of July as the day on which all French warships within Britain’s grasp would be seized or destroyed.
For the next six days, high-ranking naval officers worked on the details of Operation Catapult.
Because the likelihood of Britain weathering the Nazi storm on her own appeared slim, her best hope hinged on American intervention.
What Churchill needed to convince the United States that the war was winnable was a brash show of force in the face of overwhelming odds.
One that, if all went according to plan, might just change the course of history.
The Day Of
As the sun peeked over the horizon on July 3, 1940, Force H – a British fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville – steamed into position just outside the French naval base at Mers-el-Kebir.
In command of naval forces there, Admiral Marcel Gensoul was notoriously stubborn, loyal to the French Navy and Vichy government, and to make matters worse, an unabashed Anglophobe.
Under Somerville’s command was an intimidating flotilla consisting of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the Queen Elizabeth-Class battleship Valiant, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, along with dozens more armed and support vessels.
But though persuasion was to be employed first, if Gensoul refused to accept any of Britain’s terms, Somerville and the Royal Navy were authorized to use any and all necessary force to permanently neutralize the French ships.
If force was required, Somerville had been instructed to begin the barrage no later than 1030 hours.
At 0630, Somerville instructed Captain Holland to board the destroyer Foxhound, steam into the harbor, meet with Gensoul and lay out his options.
Regardless of what transpired, under no circumstances were concessions or reprieves to be given.
Less than an hour later however, Gensoul sent a subordinate to confer with Holland on his behalf.
Holland made it abundantly clear that in light of the situation’s magnitude, he simply had to speak with Gensoul personally, though he was once again rebuked and told that the French commander wasn’t interested in participating in Britain’s “diplomacy at gunpoint.”
Knowing that thousands might die if he failed, Holland ordered the Foxhound to leave port, but not before he boarded a small launch and sped toward Gensoul’s flagship.
Once again intercepted and turned away, an exasperated Holland thrust a briefcase containing Britain’s terms to a French officer before motoring out of port.
Later after reading them indignantly, Gensoul became enraged at the Brit’s gall and informed his superiors in Toulon that his ships would most likely be attacked within a few hours.
Gensoul was instructed to stand firm and informed that all French naval and air forces in the western Mediterranean had been ordered to proceed to Mers-el-Kebir as quickly as possible.
With time running out and crews working feverishly in preparation for the impending duel, the Royal Navy began mining the harbor’s entrance to prevent ships from fleeing into the open ocean.
As the ninth hour drew near, Gensoul sent Somerville a message informing him that after the first shot was fired there’d be no turning back, and that from that point on the French and Royal navies would be at war wherever they happened to encounter one another across the globe.
In light of this alarming development, Somerville made preparations to begin the attack at 1330 hours, but ever the optimist, he still thought it likely that a peaceable settlement could be reached, and he asked for more time.
The Admiralty agreed, and a new deadline was set for 1630.
Then at 1615, as if the winds of fortune had finally shifted, Gensoul sent word that he wanted to meet with Holland personally.
However, when Gensoul informed Holland that France intended to honor the terms of its armistice with Germany, and that the mining of the port was an overt act of war, it became evident that the meeting was little more than a ploy to buy precious time.
The interview ended abruptly, and shortly after returning to his ship Somerville sent Gensoul a message stating that bombardment would commence shortly.
Holland’s message was received on Dunkerque at 1715, and approximately 15 minutes later Force H opened up with everything it had.
Simultaneously, guns of various calibers cracked to life spewing smoke and flames from their muzzles, as massive high-explosive projectiles hurtled towards their targets.
But though they’d had all day to prepare, French crews fired relatively few shells compared to their English counterparts.
Perhaps they thought it likely that Britain was bluffing, or maybe they’d been caught off guard by the attack’s sudden ferocity, but whatever the case, the British fire was far more overwhelming and accurate.
Multiple shells from the first salvo struck the battleship Bretagne causing her to explode, while another ripped away a significant portion of the destroyer Mogador’s stern.
Dunkerque took several serious hits but managed to fire more than three dozen shells at Hood before being put out of the fight.
Attempting to flee in the chaos, Provence also took a number of direct hits, after which she lost her steering and ran aground.
In light of the meager French response, Somerville ordered his ships to cease firing to give officers and crews ample opportunity to abandon their stricken vessels.
However, still unwilling to capitulate, the few seaworthy French ships used the temporary reprieve to make hasty retreats.
To avoid exposure to shore batteries, Force H moved away from the harbor’s entrance, as Strasbourg and a number of other ships evaded the mines and slipped into open water.
Determined to prevent their escape, Somerville ordered airstrikes from Ark Royal, and British pilots scored a number of direct hits on the wounded Strasbourg, though the damage wasn’t severe enough to stop her flight.
With Britain’s guns silent, an epic scene of devastation lay in their wake, and more than 1,000 French seamen lay dead.
Many floated in the oil laden waters while fires raged and black smoke billowed, and France’s once mighty Atlantic Fleet was no more.
A few days after Operation Catapult a number of French ships that had escaped arrived in Toulon, and the Royal Navy launched an airborne attack with Fairey Swordfish bombers, putting many of them including the Dunkerque out of action.
The French vehemently protested the British aggression and even considered formally declaring war.
Though the two countries were never officially combatants, after the attack the French navy was ordered to engage British vessels wherever they were encountered.
Then on July 5, a small squadron of French aircraft stormed over Gibralter and dropped bombs on British installations there, though the retailiatory attack was largely symbolic and caused only minor damage.
Three days later, the Vichy government severed diplomatic ties with London.
Though controversial, as a direct result of Operation Catapult, few warships of note were ever used by the Nazis, and in the eyes of many, Churchill’s gambit was more than justified.
Though Strasbourg and other capital ships weren’t sunk, the strength of France’s navy had effectively been neutralized.
In addition, thanks to actions at Mers-el-Kebir and elsewhere, Britain had successfully eliminated the threat of an even more powerful Kriegsmarine, while reaffirming its own naval supremacy.
But perhaps even more importantly, Operation Catapult left little doubt in the minds of enemies and allies alike, that Britain was prepared to do whatever it took to win the war and ensure its very survival.
President Franklin Roosevelt applauded the action at Mers-el-Kebir, and though America didn’t immediately declare war against Nazi Germany, it did step up its Lend-Lease program and increase shipments of fuel, war material and natural resources on which England heavily relied.