Today 75 years ago the British Bombed the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir

 
 
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Admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan in Algeria on November 13, 1942 Photo Credit
Admiral Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan in Algeria on November 13, 1942 Photo Credit

Some 200 other French ships in British Ports were taken with no casualties. Also four French cruisers at the British-held Port of Alexandria in Egypt. The rest of the fleet, however, lay in the French-Algerian city of Oran at the Port of Mers-el-Kébir.

Churchill penned a letter to its admiral, Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, giving him three options: sail away with the British fleet; head to a British Port, a French Port in the West Indies, or to the US; or else! He gave them six hours upon receipt of the message to decide.

Admiral James Fownes Somerville in Gibraltar was tasked with delivering the letter. He was unhappy and said so to Churchill. Somerville set off with his fleet to Mers-el-Kébir.

French sailors saw them coming at around 7 AM and excitement broke out. They cheered, not understanding what was about to happen.

Admiral Sir James Somerville Photo Credit
Admiral Sir James Somerville Photo Credit

The British stopped several miles offshore as Captain Cedric Swinton “Hookie” Holland boarded a boat and made his way into the harbor. The former naval attaché to Paris, he was fluent in French and was therefore charged with the negotiations.

Another big mistake. A low ranking officer? Talk to an Admiral!? Gensoul was insulted and ordered the man out of his harbor even though they knew each other. Somerville got into a boat to deliver the message, but Gensoul was still fuming. An underling took the letter at 9:30 AM – setting the deadline at 3:30 PM.

Gensoul contacted Darlan who ordered reinforcements to the port. The British intercepted the message and ordered Somerville to prevent any ship from leaving Mers-el-Kébir. At 1 PM, British planes took off from the Ark Royal and dropped sea mines at the Port entrance.

Gensoul needed to buy time. At 3 PM, he invited Holland aboard his flagship, the Dunkerque, to show him Darlan’s secret orders sent ten days before. Holland contacted Somerville, who relayed his message to London at 4:55 PM.

Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul Photo Credit
Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul Photo Credit

Churchill’s teletype response was short – SETTLE MATTERS QUICKLY. Holland left Gensoul at around 5:25 PM, claiming it was a cordial farewell.

At 5:54 PM, the British launched the most concentrated broadside attack in history. The French were trapped. The third salvo took out the Bretagne with its crew of over 1,000 men.

A fireball tore through the fuel and ammunition stores, melting the deck. Those who jumped into the sea found themselves in boiling oil. More ships met the same fate, though the Strasbourg battlecruiser and five destroyers escaped and made it back to their home port in Toulon, France.

The firing stopped after exactly ten minutes, leaving 1,297 sailors dead and another 350 wounded – the highest single death toll since WWII began. The French retaliated with an air strike on Gibraltar. Except for some minor damage, there were no casualties.

Blackburn Skuas of the No 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm preparing to take off from the Ark Royal to drop sea mines at the mouth of Mers-el-Kébir Photo Credit
Blackburn Skuas of the No 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm preparing to take off from the Ark Royal to drop sea mines at the mouth of Mers-el-Kébir Photo Credit
Darlan wanted to do more, but France was exhausted. Millions of starving refugees in need of help were pouring in from the German and Italian occupied regions. All France could do was sever diplomatic ties with Britain.

Roosevelt was impressed and sent Britain 50 warships – all loaded with weapons and ammunition.

In late 1942, Germany had had enough of quasi-independent Southern France. As they advanced toward Toulon on November 27, the French Captains scuttled their ships – all 70 of them. The Germans were upset.

Later that day, Darlan sent Churchill a letter which said, in effect – See? I’m a man of my word. Mers-el-Kébir was unnecessary.

Many have therefore wondered why he did not turn his fleet over to the British.