At this time. France was already stumbling towards defeat when the Italians joined the war on the side of the Axis on 10 June. Although four of its six battleships were not immediately operational, the Regia Marina Italiana (Royal Italian Navy) still had seven heavy cruisers, fourteen light cruisers, sixty-one destroyers, 144 torpedo boats and 117 submarines at its disposal from the outset. As such, its deployment in the Mediterranean and the Aegean was bound to complicate the Allied war effort in these seas and through its active presence in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean potentially compromise the safe operation of the Suez Canal as well. Dudley Pound and his trusted VCNS Tom Phillips certainly believed that with the French Navy apparently out of the equation, the Italians could make things very uncomfortable for the British in the Mediterranean. While they were in favour of withdrawing the fleet from Alexandria, neither Churchill nor his combative C-in-C Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, would hear of it. Churchill’s fervent support for an active presence in the Mediterranean was crucial in convincing the COS to endorse the decision to retain the Alexandria base for the time being. This left Cunningham with a fleet that was certainly capable of holding its own in the Eastern Mediterranean, but whose scattered units looked acutely vulnerable at both Malta and Gibraltar without substantial French support and with the Spanish dictator General Franco weighing up the option of abandoning neutrality in favour of joining the Axis Powers as Hitler and Mussolini fervently wished he would.
Once the Reynaud cabinet fell in mid-June, the British government’s concern about the eventual fate of the French Navy grew perceptibly as Marshal Pétain – the veteran hero of Verdun – emerged to press the case for an immediate armistice and the formation of an administration that would be prepared to collaborate with the Nazis. In the days leading up to the signing of the armistice at Compiegne on 22 June, the French Navy had opted to move their larger warships from their metropolitan ports to those in colonial Africa. While it was considered essential that these vital warships should not be employed by either the Germans or their Vichy French partners in support of the Axis, the Admiralty had first to arrange for another set of evacuations to bring back 191,870 Allied troops from a total of nine ports dotted along the Channel and Biscay coasts by the time France exited from the war on 25 June.
Whilst their former Allies were engaged in withdrawing from the war, the attitude of the British hardened considerably and by the end of the month they had begun assembling Force H under Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville at Gibraltar. Flying his flag in the aging battlecruiser Hood, Somerville had a decidedly mixed force of old and limited battleships (Resolution and Valiant), a modern carrier (Ark Royal), two cruisers (Arethusa and Enterprise) and fifteen destroyers at his disposal. Force H desperately needed time to train together before it went out on any operational sorties, but that was a luxury it would not receive. Somerville’s operational brief (Operation Catapult) looked disarmingly simple and direct: he was to deal with the French warships that had gathered at the Algerian naval base of Mers-el-Kebir and its adjacent port of Oran. Ideally, Somerville ought to persuade the proud and irascible French naval commander, Admiral Marcel Gensoul, to recognise a case of force majeure and comply with the terms of a British ultimatum drawn up in order to take the French fleet out of the wartime equation. If he chose to ignore the ultimatum, however, Somerville was meant to disable or destroy these vessels so that they would not fall into the hands of the Germans and be used against the Royal Navy at any stage in the war. Although Admiral Jean-François Darlan, the C-in-C of the French Navy, had assured the British before the armistice had been signed that none of his fleet would ever be transferred to the Germans, the Admiralty – who considered him to be an Anglophobe – frankly didn’t believe him. When news emerged that he had been appointed minister of marine in Pétain’s Vichy government on 27 June, this distrust deepened. Already appalled at the post-armistice arrangements for dealing with the French fleet, the British (and in particular Churchill) didn’t trust either the Vichy regime or the Axis Powers to keep their word on the permanent demobilisation of these warships.
Somerville reluctantly anchored Force H off Mers-el-Kebir in the early hours of 3 July. He found Catapult distasteful in the extreme and his undistinguished performance over the next few hours fully reflected this fact. Before the unpalatable Churchillian ultimatum had been delivered to Gensoul at 0935 hours, the British had already seized those French warships that had been in the British ports of Dundee, Falmouth, Plymouth and Portsmouth (Operation Grasp). News of this treachery further poisoned the already strained atmosphere in Oran and gave Gensoul and his superiors at la Marine française even more reason to distrust the British. After stalling for time and with the latest and apparently final deadline looming, Gensoul finally rejected the British terms. A little while later at 1755 hours the Hood, Resolution and Valiant opened fire. It was the last thing that Somerville had wanted to happen and yet now there was nothing else that he could do. In the chaos and confusion that followed the older battleship Bretagne was blown up with the loss of 977 of her crew, two other battleships, the modern Dunkerque and the older Provence, were badly damaged and beached (with another 210 officers and crew dead on the flagship alone), the destroyer Mogador lost her stern (another forty-two dead) as a result of a direct shell hit and the aircraft depot ship Commandante Teste was set on fire. Amazingly, perhaps, the modern battleship Strasbourg and five large destroyers all made it through the thick pall of smoke and out of the harbour avoiding Force H as they did so. Somerville was slow to believe that any vessel could have escaped from the melée inside the Algerian harbour and only began to track down the coast in search of these ships at 1830 hours after receiving two aerial reconnaissance reports confirming the fact that they were out on the loose. Despite giving chase, Force H missed its quarry; even a torpedo attack by six Swordfish from the British carrier didn’t disable the Strasbourg and she disappeared into the night along with her destroyer escort and eventually reached the safety of Toulon harbour on the evening of 4 July. Somerville admitted afterwards that this had not been his finest hour in command and it wasn’t. London was not amused and Vichy was incandescent with rage – breaking off diplomatic relations with the British with immediate effect. French anger and resentment was further inflamed when aircraft from the Ark Royal launched a torpedo attack on the Dunkerque on 6 July, destroying the auxiliary ship Terre Neuve lying alongside her at Mers-el- Kebir. As the Terre Neuve’s cargo of depth charges exploded, they ripped open the side of the battleship and led to the loss of another 150 French sailors.
Fortunately, Cunningham was in a better position and had a more malleable individual in Admiral René Godfroy to effect the demobilisation of the French fleet at Alexandria. He was also given more time to bring about this desirable outcome. Notwithstanding his good personal relations with his French compatriot, however, the effect of Catapult had vastly complicated the situation. In the end, Cunningham, listened to the advice of his chief of staff, Rear-Admiral Algernon Willis, and asked his officers to make a direct appeal to the men under Godfroy’s command by sending a series of signals and arranging visits to individual ships, explaining the gravity of the situation in person and appealing to their erstwhile allies to avoid a battle that would pit them against overwhelming odds and cause unnecessary loss of life. It was an extraordinarily unconventional gesture, aided and abetted by the French naval liaison officer with the Mediterranean Fleet, Capitaine Philippe Auboyneau. Nevertheless, it succeeded. Godfroy’s captains and their crews put pressure on the French commander on 5 July to bow to Cunningham’s demands for demilitarisation and on 7 July a formal agreement was worked out between the two commanders to this effect.
On the same day the Admiralty ordered the carrier Hermes and the heavy cruisers Australia and Devonshire to impose an ultimatum on the French fleet in port at Dakar on the most westerly tip of the African continent. This ultimatum was designed to ensure that the yet-to-be-completed battleship Richelieu would not become a factor in the war. After being refused entry into the harbour to deliver the ultimatum, the British were forced to improvise. During the night of 7-8 July, a fast launch from the Hermes was dispatched with depth charges to do the job that the ultimatum was designed to arrange. Evading the boom at the entrance to the harbour and entering the inner basin swiftly and stealthily, the launch dropped her depth charges under the stern of the Richelieu and withdrew unharmed. For some reason the depth charges failed to explode, so a wave of carrier-based Swordfish bombers were sent in to torpedo the battleship. Only a solitary torpedo from the six aircraft employed in the attack scored a hit on the Richelieu, but it was sufficient to wreck the propeller shaft and cause flooding in three of her compartments – damage that would take nearly a year to repair.
It was with unalloyed relief that both Cunningham and Somerville put their recent confrontations with the French behind them and sought to take the fight to their real enemy – the Italians – in the Mediterranean during the next few weeks. An initial 105-minute engagement between the two fleets took place off the southeast coast of Calabria during the afternoon of 9 July. Although indecisive, the Battle of Punta Stilo demonstrated that Admiral Inigo Campioni’s capital ships were fast and were well supported by light forces that had `outnumbered, outgunned and outranged’ Cunningham’s own cruisers. When the numerical advantage enjoyed by the Italians in all types of aircraft was also factored in, Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet looked decidedly shorthanded and desperately in need of a modern carrier if it was do something more than merely hold its own in these waters. Churchill wanted much more than a mere stalemate in the Mediterranean and was prepared to support the call for reinforcements to be sent to Alexandria so that the fight could be taken to the Regia Marina. His enthusiasm for doing so was heightened by the action off Cape Spada (Crete) on 19 July and in the Gulf of Bumbah (off Tobruk) on the following day when a mixture of Allied warships and carrier aircraft got much the better of the Italians. What these three encounters in July revealed was an underlying inconsistency in the performance levels of the Italian Navy. While it could be good on occasion, it could also be demonstrably lame on others. It was a mercurial condition that afflicted the other services too, and left both friends and enemies alike wondering just what to expect from the Italians in the war.
Although it was tempting for those in Whitehall to dismiss the bombastic Mussolini as a preposterous poseur and his military as more of a liability than an asset to the Axis cause, the fact was that both were still perfectly capable of complicating the strategic picture for the British and they demonstrated this art to perfection by invading British Somaliland at the beginning of August. Once again the British were forced to retreat and conduct the latest of their series of evacuations – a small scale affair from Berbera to Aden – within a few days. Success in one theatre was quickly followed by failure in another. Throughout the war Italian combined arms operations routinely promised more than they actually delivered. Too often the degree of liaison between the services or the level of competence of any one of them left much to be desired. Above all, however, the failure of the Italian military to make the most of its geographical position was to be a recurring and galling theme for the fascist leadership. An early example of what was to come was shown in late August when an important Allied reinforcement convoy (Operation Hats) sailed through the heart of the Mediterranean to join Cunningham’s Fleet at Alexandria defying and evading aerial reconnaissance, submarine patrols and an Italian Fleet bristling with five battleships, thirteen cruisers and thirty-nine destroyers that had been deployed to detect and destroy it.
While the news from the naval side of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern theatre was mixed for all the combatants, the Germans were clearly in the ascendant in more northerly latitudes. Benefiting from a combination of good signals intelligence, distinct operational advantages now that they were largely based in French and Norwegian waters, and an improvement in tactics, Dönitz’s U-boat crews enjoyed a hugely destructive month (7 August-8 September) and referred to it as a `happy time’ (glückliche Zeit). It wouldn’t be their last. As long as Allied ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) remained fairly primitive, the U-boat was likely to escape detection and destruction more often than not. It would take many months for developments in centimetric radar, direction finding and range estimation to bring about improvements in detection methods even if the signals intelligence (SIGINT) coups emanating from the GC&CS cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park told the Admiralty where to start looking for them. As with the process of detection, the methods of destruction were fairly basic and essentially came down to either depth-charging or ramming, before mortars like the `Hedgehog’ were introduced in early 1942 and the aerial `Leigh Light’ came into operation a few months later to illuminate U-boats running on the surface and lead to a greater chance of successfully destroying them through aerial bombing.
Hitler’s intensification of the war against the United Kingdom both at sea and in the air during the late summer and early autumn of 1940 underlined the nature of the titanic struggle that beset Churchill’s government at this time. Alone in Europe, it remained acutely vulnerable. If the RAF lost the Battle of Britain, for example, an invasion was bound to follow. It didn’t, but the result was in doubt for several weeks. As this drama was being played out in the skies above the Channel and over the Home Counties, the grim toll at sea mounted. Already bad enough, it could have been even worse if the Germans had possessed a larger force of operational U-boats at this time. Dönitz certainly believed that a great opportunity was being missed to wreak such untold damage upon the Allied cause that the entire complexion of the war may well have been changed in favour of the Axis Powers. His frustration was not eased by the addition of twenty-six Italian submarines to his command over the next few months. Their operational performance was unimpressive in absolute terms and if viewed relative to their German allies rather pathetic. He sensed that they were too pampered in their well-appointed boats and didn’t possess the killer instinct that his own hard-bitten crews had. As a result, he deployed them well to the west of his own U-boats in the hope that they wouldn’t get in the way of those whom he could trust.