France was second only to the United Kingdom as a colonial power, with possession stretching from the Caribbean to the Far East where French Indo-China was jealously watched by the Japanese. In between, France was also strong in much of Africa and especially in the north, as well as in the Middle East. Its possessions in North America and India had been lost.
Less dependent than the British on imported food and with land borders with a number of countries that could provide raw materials such as iron ore, the French nevertheless had many similar expectations of their navy, the Marine Nationale, as the British had of the Royal Navy. Greater emphasis was based on defence of the coastline, but the sea lines of communication with the empire were as important, although there was less of a contribution from the French colonies than from the British dominions. The French did not expect their navy to play a part in expeditionary warfare.
As war loomed, the French revised their operational strategy, devising different approaches to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. For the North Atlantic, the Atlantic Squadron started to be upgraded to fleet status, with at its core the two new fast battle-cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, three modern light cruisers and eight of the most up-to-date contre-torpilleur super-destroyers that would scout for the new battleships. Although the battleships and French light cruisers would have three Loire 130 reconnaissance floatplanes, this force was not built around an aircraft carrier. Different strategies were required for the Mediterranean, where the war at sea was seen as being short engagements, often conducted at high speed, with raids on enemy shipping and coastal towns, as well as defending ports in France and French North Africa from similar efforts by the enemy. This would be a cruiser battleground.
The structure of the French navy differed from that of the Royal Navy. In 1939 France and French North Africa were organized in five commands or maritime regions, régions maritimes, each under a senior admiral who was known as the préfet maritime and who reported directly to the navy minister. These were the 1st Maritime Region based on Dunkirk; 2nd Maritime Region based on Brest; 3rd Maritime Region based on Toulon; 4th Maritime Region based on Bizerte in North Africa; and the 5th Maritime Region based on Lorient. On the outbreak of war this structure was changed, merging the 2nd and 5th regions under Admiral West, and the 3rd and 4th under Admiral South. New commands were created to cover the South Atlantic and West Indies. The new structure meant that the commands became North, based on Dunkirk and covering the North Sea and English Channel; West, based on Brest and covering the North Atlantic; South, based on Toulon but later moved to Bizerte and concentrating on the Mediterranean; South Atlantic, based on Casablanca; and Western Atlantic, based on the French Antilles.
Although French naval aviation was no further forward than the British in the sense that they also lacked high-performance aircraft to fly off the single aircraft carrier, the Béarn, they had at least had continuous control of naval aviation, even including land-based maritime-reconnaissance squadrons.
During the arms race between France and Italy between the two world wars, the French developed a new type of warship, a superdestroyer known as the contre-torpilleur, usually with 5.5in guns and long-range torpedoes, to counter the growing Italian cruiser fleet.
On the outbreak of war the Marine Nationale had 3 battleships and 2 battle-cruisers, with another 3 battleships under construction. The service had just one aircraft carrier and another under construction, while a third had been authorized; there were 7 heavy cruisers and 12 light cruisers, with another building and a further 2 authorized; and there were no fewer than 32 contre-torpilleurs and another 4 authorized. There were also 26 fleet torpedo boats with another 6 building and 6 more authorized, as well as 12 light torpedo boats, another 4 being built and a further 10 approved. Abroad, there were seven colonial sloops, plus two building and another one authorized.
An unusual submarine was a cruiser variant with a heavy-calibre gun and also an aircraft that could be launched and recovered while on the surface. Cruiser submarines had also been tried by the British. The concept was that gunnery was a cheaper means of sinking enemy merchantmen than torpedoes and, of course, only a limited number of torpedoes could be carried by a submarine.
A substantial submarine force included 39 submarines with 3 under construction and plans approved for a further 2, while there were also 40 coastal submarines with a further 8 under construction and 12 more authorized. Coastal submarines were well-suited to the Mediterranean where larger submarines were easily detected, as well as to the confined waters of the English Channel. The disposition of these ships was mainly between the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets, with the remainder mainly in the overseas commands at Beirut, Saigon and Casablanca.
The Atlantic Fleet had four main bases at Brest, Cherbourg, Lorient and Dakar, the latter being in West Africa. Brest had the one aircraft carrier, 3 contre-torpilleurs and 12 standard destroyers as well as 12 submarines, while it was also home to the 1st Squadron with 2 battleships, a further 2 elderly battleships that were used for training, 3 light cruisers and 6 contre-torpilleur destroyers. Cherbourg had 3 torpedo boats and 4 coastal submarines, while another 3 torpedo boats were at Lorient. Dakar had four light cruisers, of which one was deployed to Casablanca and another to the French Antilles.
The Mediterranean Fleet had three bases at Toulon, Bizerte and Oran. Toulon had 3 contre-torpilleurs, 6 torpedo boats, 11 patrol submarines, 8 coastal submarines and another 8 submarines used for training, as well as being home to the 3rd Squadron with 6 heavy cruisers and 12 contre-torpilleurs. Bizerte had 6 patrol submarines and 8 coastal submarines, and was home to the 4th Squadron with 4 light cruisers and 6 contre-torpilleurs. Oran was the base for the 2nd Squadron, with 3 elderly battleships and 9 destroyers.
Overseas commands showed the MN to be stretched to the limit. Beirut had 3 patrol submarines; Saigon had a heavy cruiser and a light cruiser; Casablanca had 2 destroyers and 4 patrol submarines. These ships would have been augmented by some of the colonial sloops.
The defeat of France and the armistice signed on 22 June 1940, with Italy having entered the war earlier on 10 June, completely changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean, at sea as much as on land and possibly even more. Overnight, the Royal Navy had lost the not inconsiderable power of the French fleet in the Mediterranean and simultaneously found itself facing the might of the Italian navy, the Regina Marina.
This was bad enough, but the big question that had to be tackled was what would be the fate of the French fleet? Would it be handed over to the Germans? Would the French change sides? This second scenario might seem unrealistic and even insulting to what had been only days previously an ally, but after French surrender with a large part of France left unoccupied and self-governing from Vichy, some members of the Vichy regime offered to ally themselves with Germany. It was German intransigence and their desire to leave the French in no doubt as to who was winning the war at that time that left this offer unused. There were also many in the Vichy regime and at senior level in the Vichy armed forces who had no liking for the British, while many other French people felt let down by the British withdrawal from France. The British for their part were angry that France had negotiated a separate armistice with Germany. Yet, as we will see, the truth was that the French Marine Nationale was to fulfil its pledge not to surrender its ships to the Germans, even when Vichy France was occupied. However, that was not known at the time.
As it was, with Italy now in the war, Malta was within reach of Axis air bases in Sicily and the south of Italy where the Italians had a strong naval base at Taranto. The Royal Navy and the Marine Nationale were sharing a base at Alexandria in Egypt. The Marine Nationale had bases in North Africa at Oran and Mers-el-Kébir, along the main shipping route across the Mediterranean, as well as at Dakar in West Africa, along the shipping lanes from Europe to the Cape. The main French naval base in the Mediterranean was at Toulon in the south of France, Vichy-held territory. There were also French ships that had escaped to Portsmouth and Plymouth, two of the Royal Navy’s main home bases.
The Royal Navy had bases at Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria. Gibraltar was safe as long as Spain remained neutral and was the key to the Mediterranean. Malta, the main base for the British Mediterranean Fleet, was to become barely tenable and would not have been defended had not the Admiralty insisted that it remain as a base for submarines and anti-shipping air operations, but most of the Mediterranean Fleet was moved to Alexandria before Italy entered the Second World War in June 1940.
Plans had been laid in case Gibraltar was invaded by Spanish and German forces. A team of six men was to be incarcerated in the famous Rock, supplied with food and drink for a considerable time and measures were taken to ensure that they could spy and report back on Axis shipping movements. In the end this wasn’t necessary, but German agents in southern Spain and in the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla kept a close eye on Allied shipping movements. The Mediterranean was closed to British shipping unless in convoy.
Tackling the French fleet was an unwelcome task for the Royal Navy which had been fighting alongside the French and both navies had co-operated during the Norwegian campaign. Yet, the overwhelming feeling was that something had to be done. The Kriegsmarine was far from its planned wartime strength and the ships of the Marine Nationale could help to fill the gap.
North Africa was heavily influenced by France, which was one of the colonial powers in Morocco, while Algeria had been settled by more than a million people of French descent who lived alongside the indigenous Arab population. Naturally enough, the French had armed forces based in Algeria with a major naval base at Mers-el-Kébir, just outside Oran, which was also the base for a number of ships. These bases included some of the Marine Nationale’s training facilities.
After the fall of France, ships stationed at Mers-el-Kébir included two elderly battleships plus the modern battle-cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg as well as six large destroyers of the contre-torpilleur type, sometimes described as super-destroyers and intended as a counter to Italy’s light cruisers. Seven smaller destroyers and four submarines were based at Oran. Dunkerque had only recently returned to Mers-el-Kébir after a visit to Gibraltar.
This fleet had been busy since the outbreak of war escorting convoys between France and Algeria, fearful of an attack by the Italian fleet. The ships based at Mers-el-Kébir would have been valuable both to Germany and to Italy as both navies were short of destroyers, while the Italians had neglected the battle-cruiser; they did have six battleships, but only two of these could be described as modern.
The Royal Navy acted quickly to fill the gap in Allied capability in the Mediterranean following French surrender. On 28 June 1940, Force H was formed, based on Gibraltar. Officially a powerful naval squadron, it was a small fleet with an aircraft carrier – the Royal Navy’s newest, HMS Ark Royal – and capital ships, as well as supporting cruisers and destroyers, capable of ranging far out into the North Atlantic or across the Mediterranean as far east as Malta or the coast of Italy.
One duty that fell to Force H was the escort of convoys to Malta. Mediterranean convoys needed fleet carriers with their larger complement of aircraft, whereas on the Arctic convoys escort carriers were supposed to be sufficient, although with fleet carriers often in a distant escort. On the North Atlantic, MAC ships – merchant aircraft carriers with a primitive flight deck above the cargo holds and cargo of oil tankers and grain carriers – were effective.
Force H was commanded by Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville, brought out of retirement and who had taken a substantial demotion from his previous rank of admiral of the fleet, equivalent to a fleet admiral in the USN, or a drop from five-star rank to three-star rank, to serve his country. Despite his age, Somerville was one of the most daring and competent British naval commanders of the Second World War with a temperament ideally suited to a flexible and independent command such as Force H would become. Earlier, he had assisted Ramsay in organizing Operation DYNAMO.
The British government was unaware that Darlan had ordered that French warships should be scuttled rather than fall into German or Italian hands. Darlan’s anti-British attitude was well-known and in any case, the crew of a warship had to have time to scuttle it and if scuttled in harbour ships could be refloated and recommissioned.
On 3 July those French warships that had fled to British ports were seized. Force H was then ordered to Mers-el-Kébir and Somerville attempted to open negotiations with the French naval commander, Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. Gensoul was in a difficult position as he did not know what the policies of the new Vichy government would be, and whether his government would expect him to continue fighting or accept surrender and perhaps neutrality. Somerville’s emissary was refused a meeting and so negotiations had to begin in writing. This was the main difference between the situation in Mers-el-Kébir and at Alexandria, as at the latter Cunningham already had not just contact with the French naval commander but a good working relationship.
Somerville wrote offering Gensoul the choice of four options. The first of these was that he should take his fleet to sea and join the Royal Navy in continuing the war, although this could mean that he would be branded a traitor by the Vichy regime. Alternatively, he could take his ships with a reduced crew to Gibraltar, closer than Malta which was not an option because of its proximity to Italy, and once at ‘Gib’ the crews would be repatriated. A variation on this option was to take the ships to the French West Indies, where they would be immobilized. Finally, there was the option of scuttling the ships at both Mers-el-Kébir and Oran within six hours. In fact the government had a fifth option in mind, which was that the ships could be immobilized in their Algerian ports but Somerville did not offer this in his letter, realizing that the facilities at Mers-el-Kébir were more than sufficient to return the ships to full fighting condition quickly.
It was made clear to Gensoul that if he did not accept one of these options, his ships would be sunk by the Royal Navy. Gensoul did not pass on the full list of options to his superiors, but simply told them that he had been given six hours to scuttle his ships or they would be attacked by the Royal Navy. Given such a stark choice, he was ordered to resist using all the force available to him.
In common with the rest of the members of the Royal Navy, Somerville was very unhappy with having to use force against a navy that had, only weeks before, been an ally, especially during the Norwegian campaign. In a desperate bid to avoid the use of force, Somerville sent one of his most senior officers, Captain Holland, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, to see Gensoul with an ultimatum. Holland was flown in a Fairey Swordfish seaplane from Somerville’s flagship, the battle-cruiser Hood, but while he was aboard Gensoul’s flagship, the battle-cruiser Dunkerque, the French Admiralty signalled en clair for all French warships in the Mediterranean to converge on Oran and put themselves under Gensoul’s command. This was picked up by the Admiralty in London who immediately ordered Somerville to take action while he only had the French warships already at Mers-el-Kébir and Oran to deal with rather than face the might of the entire French fleet in the Mediterranean.
Captain Holland left the Dunkerque at 1725 on 3 July, and after informing Somerville that Gensoul was refusing to accept any of the options presented to him, needed to regain command of his warship. Aboard Ark Royal, the arrester wires were removed from her flight deck and the Swordfish floatplane flew safely onto her paper-thin flight deck* without damage to the aircraft or the ship, thanks to the very low stalling speed of the Swordfish, an aircraft known affectionately to the Fleet Air Arm as the ‘Stringbag’.
At 1754 Somerville opened fire, joined by aircraft from the Ark Royal. The elderly battleship Bretagne blew up and several other ships were badly damaged, including Dunkerque which although only slightly damaged in the initial salvoes of gunfire was then crippled in an attack by Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the British carrier on 6 July. A single broadside from one British ship blew an army barracks off the top of a hill.
The French warships returned the fire. Aboard HMS Hood, leading seaman Joseph Rockley remembered the French shells passing over the ship:
It was my first experience of naval gunfire. Some shells passed overhead like an express train, but others wobbled, and I learned later that this was due to the rifling in their barrels being worn. They sounded like someone blowing hard into a glass in short, sharp breaths.
It was impossible to tell at the time how much damage we had caused, but we later learnt that it had been considerable.
Aboard the French ships, opinions had been divided. Arsène le Poitevin was one of those who was pressing his superiors to continue the war alongside the British, but that was before the gunnery exchange at Mers-el-Kébir:
It was terrible for us. Lots of sailors dead, and ships sunk or damaged. It was impossible to say anything nice about the British for a long time. Later, people began to say that perhaps they had no choice.
At the same time, rather than simply rejecting the British ultimatum, had the commanding officers had the courage of their convictions, they should have gone to sea and fought, rather than just staying in harbour.
Many British sailors were upset by what had happened, but many maintained that their government had no choice. Everyone assumed that the Germans would take the French warships and use them in the war against the British, who by this time were fighting with the Empire mobilized but with no European allies.
The French lost 1,297 men in this action.