THE 1940 ATTACK ON MERS-EL-KÉBIR BY THE ROYAL NAVY ON THE NEUTRAL FRENCH FLEET
Updated: Nov 9
Taken from “Where Does It End?”
In this forthcoming book, we look at the unjustified attack, on the direct orders of Winston S. Churchill, by the Royal Navy on the anchored French Fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, 1940. This appalling incident is not something that ought to be swept under the carpet as the Churchill supporters tend to do. You will read a different history here, not the whitewashed one. You may be shocked to find out that more than 1,300 French sailors died. Of course, this is a much shortened version of what is in the book.
The Mers-el-Kébir naval base outside Toulon is not large. On the day of the attack, the French warships were tied closely together. They were facing the land side, not the ocean, and in no way able to defend themselves from a seaside attack. Nor were they expecting to be attacked. France was at “peace” with the Armistice in force. Survivors later said that they were “glad” to note their old comrades, the Royal Navy, appearing over the horizon under command of Admiral Somerville. Why wouldn’t they be? They hated the Germans, their enemy and occupier.
Somerville was not alone. With him was a powerful arrangement of ships, Force H, from Gibraltar. This force consisted of the famous battlecruiser HMS Hood, the battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and an adequate escort of cruisers and destroyers. All the battleships and battlecruiser had 15-inch guns. Each could shoot a 1,938 pounds (879 kg) shell 30 km destroying what it hit. Some of the British ships were already marked for death. HMS Hood would be sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. Only 3 sailors survived, 1,415 died. HMS Valiant fell victim to Italian frogmen whilst at anchor at Alexandria Bay and severely damaged. She made it to Durban harbor for repairs where her captain went into panic mode about supposed Nazi saboteurs who never were. The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal would be torpedoed and sunk with mass loss of life by a U-boat 81 on November 13, 1941. But that was in the future, for now, they were to enforce one of the most disgusting orders ever generated from White Hall. They were to make the French Fleet surrender.
The new Prime Minister, chosen for the lack of better men was scheming mightily on how to get his mother’s people, America, into the war. It was not about a fear of being invaded as claimed. He knew from the decoded German ciphers that an invasion was most unlikely. He knew that there was and is no way that Britain, even with the Empire’s help, could defeat Germany, Nazi or not. It is also not the British way to fight alone, they always have allies who are expected to die for them. America, neutral, had to be brought into the war at any cost if Britain were to win. Probably nothing would arouse Americans more than the sight of a gallant little island fighting on against all the odds. Therefore, the Americans had to be convinced that Britain would fight and not run again, as happened at Dunkirk. Speeches alone would not do. Deeds would, great daring deeds. But where? Against who?
Aerial bombing, Churchill felt, would greatly assist to get America into the war. He was the fellow that shrieked right through the 1930s about the German Luftwaffe strength (mostly nonsense and untrue, totally overestimated and hyped up). And now the Luftwaffe was not attacking London as predicted. Churchill needed civilian casualties. He needed sympathy. He needed to be attacked and he needed to attack Germany with the RAF, the only way to strike back. That would show the British fighting spirit, he was sure. We quote his comments in this regard in the book – it is shocking.
And so the Mers-el-Kébir attack was all (and only) about proving a point to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A man that did not hold Churchill in particularly high regard, asking if he was drunk on more than one occasion.
Admiral Somerville, the Royal Navy Force H commander, got the orders directly from Churchill to demand the following from the French Fleet moored at Mers-el-Kébir, and if not complied to immediately, to destroy the French ships with naval gunfire. The order is quoted below:
Preamble: 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 to 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”— That is, the British Admiral— to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers-El-Kébir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives:
“(1) Sail with us and continue to fight for victory against the Germans and Italians.
(2) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews will be repatriated…. We will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war, or pay full compensation if they are damaged ….
(3) Alternately, if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against Germans or Italians, since this would break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies … where they will be demilitarized by us to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States of America….
If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret require you to sink your ships within six hours. Finally, failing the above, I have the orders of His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands.”
Somerville was not happy with the orders. He certainly made his views known, protesting that it will lead to hostilities between the two fleets. He probably understood that agreeing might have grave consequences for France as Nazi Germany retaliates on France for breaking the Armistice. It could also drive France, and its still powerful fleet into Germany’s sphere. So he telegraphed back to London: “After talk with Holland and others Vice-Admiral Force H (himself) is impressed with the view that the use of force should be avoided at all costs. Holland considers offensive action on our part would alienate all French everywhere they are.”
In effect, Admiral Somerville was politely telling the Cabinet to reconsider. Captain Cedric S Holland, commanding the carrier Ark Royal, could speak French fluently. He was a former British naval attaché in Paris and on friendly terms with most high-ranking French naval officials. His views ought to have counted for much and did with Admiral Somerville, therefore the signal. However, London needed a victory for the reasons explained, to get the USA into the war. The reply came: “Firm intention of H.M.G. (His Majesty’s government – read Winston S. Churchill, Prime Minister) that if French will not accept any of your alternatives they (the ships) are to be destroyed.”
This backed the initial order which was: “You (Admiral Somerville) are charged with one of the most disagreeable 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.”
With that Somerville had no further leeway. His task force arrived at dawn, hovering outside Mers-el-Kébir. The die was cast. He sent Captain Holland to give the message that everyone knew could not and would not be accepted by the French commander, Vice-Admiral Marcel Bruno Gensoul.
Gensoul was known as a disciplined and efficient commander. From the British view, Gensoul was difficult to deal with. His loyalty to his country was seen as being “somewhat pig-headed” and that he was “Anglophobic” in nature. That does not matter one bit. The orders were wrong, unjustified, and would lead to death.
The arrival of Captain Holland, a good man that would end the war as a vice-admiral, but at the time a relatively junior officer relating to Gensoul, probably caused more problems. If critique must be rendered it would have been better for James Somerville to deliver the message himself as an equal in rank to Marcel Gensoul. But he did not because he felt Holland could do a better job. Admiral Gensoul tried to contact Jean Darlan for orders. When that failed, he fell back on his standing orders which read: “Demobilized ships are to stay French, under French flag, with reduced French crews. Secret precautions for sabotage are to be made in order that any enemy or ex-ally (Britain) seizing a vessel by force may not be able to make use of it…. In no case obey the orders of a foreign admiralty... To respond to outside interests would lead our territory into becoming a German province. Our former allies are not to be listened to.”
Earlier the day the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm tried to mine the entrance of Mers-el-Kébir and were shot down by the French Air Force. Two airmen died, the only casualties for the British side. The incident, as well as the stalled talks, and prior French Naval Headquarter orders, left only one outcome. By 17h25 the talks ended. Captain Holland departed with the usual honors, and Force H started shelling the French vessels before he was even out of the harbor. It was the first time in 125 years that the two navies were arrayed against one another in hostility. There was no way that the French ships could defend themselves or win the engagement. They were tied to a quay unable to move and avoid the incoming shells by manoeuvre. They were facing land, reducing half their gun batteries. Force H was moving, making the return fire difficult and their guns fully stabilized because they were moving. Whereas few of the French guns could be aimed at the British vessels all the British guns were aimed at the French. Only the older battleships Bretagne and Provence could put their largest guns to use. These guns were smaller than the British ones. No French ship could sail out to meet the enemy in the open seas when Force H arrived. They had to raise steam, a process that takes many hours and the reason why the negotiations were delayed by the French. However, you cannot raise steam without it being seen from the outside via the smoke coming out of the funnels.
Admiral Somerville knew that they were getting ready to fight back. Force H’s gunnery was directed from the air. Within 15 minutes 1,297 French sailors were dead as the older battleship Bretagne blew up. Dunkerque got about 40 rounds off at HMS Hood before being put out of action. Provence ran aground to prevent her from sinking. The battleship Strasbourg got out, shooting salvo after salvo at the British, and somehow made it to Toulon, the main French naval base. On the way there she was attacked twice by Royal Navy torpedo bombers. Not one registered a hit. According to some reports, two were shot down by Strasbourg’s anti-aircraft batteries. Not one British ship was hit. The next day a further airstrike by Fairey Swordfish bombers took place against Dunkerque. The French Air Force did what it could, claiming 5 British aircraft shot down, denied by the British.
It was a mess. Two allies shooting at each other. Hitler was most amused, enjoying the scenes of devastation. As Admiral Somerville predicted, the attack at Mers-el-Kébir caused lasting enmity between the two navies. Jean Darlan ordered all French vessels to attack any British ship wherever encountered. Many dozens of clashes would occur until the Torch Invasions / Landings ended the undeclared war. Admiral Somerville said publically, “It was the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us… we all feel thoroughly ashamed…” To his wife, he admitted that he “had not been quite as aggressive in the destruction as he could have been.” That is true, the shelling ended after fifteen minutes. There was not much left to shoot at.
Back in London Churchill had a field day. When he entered the House of Commons to report on the day’s actions he received wild cheers. He had his victory. It was the first time that the House showed any enthusiasm for his leadership. He ended his speech, quoted in full in “Where Does It End?” as follows: “I leave the judgment of our action, with confidence, to Parliament. I leave it to the nation, and I leave it to the United States. I leave it to the world and to history.”
No one will deny that this was a marvelous play with words. Especially the timid call to arms of the United States to rescue Britain. He also made a speech broadcasted to France to explain his views that did not go over well with the French. In private he explained the truth behind the bravado. Keep in mind that he knew already that no invasion would take place and his clarifications were just so much nonsense: “The naval action was meant that for high government circles in the United States… there was no more talk of Britain giving in.” Later, in his memoirs, written in 1949, he says that he felt that he had Parliament behind him: “The elimination of the French Navy as an important factor almost at a single stroke by violent action produced a profound impression in every country. Here was this Britain which so many had counted down and out, which strangers had supposed to be quivering on the brink of surrender to the mighty power arrayed against her, striking ruthlessly at her dearest friends of yesterday and securing for a while to herself the undisputed command of the sea. It was made plain that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing.”
A wartime British propaganda film that shows the attack from the French side, ends with the narrator saying: “History will certainly approve of the action taken that summer day.”
Well, no. History does not approve. Unless you are a Churchill admirer and believe the schoolbook histories based on his lies and dishonesties you will admit that the attack on the French Fleet was a crime which he got away with. And his master plan failed. That makes it even worse. It did not work as planned and hoped for. The USA would not enter the war in Europe officially until attacked at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and a declaration of war by Nazi Germany on the United States. The French sailors died for nothing but politics. It is disgraceful and time to face reality.
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