History | 6 January 2016WWII at Sea: Battle of Mers-el-Kébir Share article facebook twitter google pinterest The successes and failures of naval forces during World War II are fascinating because each maneuver had the power to change the course of the entire war. At the start of the war, British naval forces struggled with some potential unpreparedness to say the least, yet were able to recover and orchestrate a bombardment on the French navy at base during a moment of weakness, as part of what was known as Operation Catapult, or the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir. In the following excerpt from World War II at Sea: A Naval View of the Global Conflict: 1939 to 1945, author Jeremy Harwood discusses the events of this game changing battle. FRENCH SEA POWER With 7 old and new capital ships, and with a further 2 under construction, an aircraft carrier, 19 cruisers, and 66 destroyers, the French navy was an invaluable adjunct to British naval power, especially in the Mediterranean, where most of the French fleet was based. The French and British Mediterranean fleets—one concentrated in the west and the other in the east—were together just about strong enough to deal with the Italian battle fleet should Italy decide to honor its treaty commitments to Germany. Mussolini, however, elected to remain neutral. The situation changed for the worse in June 1940. With France forced out of the war and Mussolini entering it, the naval balance of power swung heavily against the British. A powerful squadron had to be detached from the Home Fleet to attempt to replace in some measure the French presence in the western Mediterranean. This dangerously reduced the Home Fleet’s ability to protect the Atlantic convoy routes from marauding German surface raiders. At the same time, the absence of the French fleet placed Britain’s position in the Far East and the Pacific in jeopardy, always assuming that the Japanese would decide to take advantage of the British predicament. The French battleship Richelieu passingBrooklyn Bridge in New York’s East River,heading for repairs at a US Naval yard in1943. The largest battleship ever constructedby France, Richelieu had a checkered wartimecareer. Torpedoed and then further damagedby shellfire when British and Free Frenchforces tried unsuccessfully to capture theWest African port of Dakar in September1940, she served under Vichy colors until1942 when, following the German occupationof Vichy France, she finally passed into FreeFrench hands. MERS-EL-KÉBIR Originally, the plan had been for the British Mediterranean fleet to sail via the Suez Canal to Singapore, while the French remained behind to hold the Italians in check. With France’s capitulation, this eastward switch became impossible unless the Mediterranean was abandoned. Churchill, only a few weeks into his premiership, refused to countenance such a move. There was an even worse possibility. The British,rightly or wrongly, believed that there was a real risk the French fleet would be handed over to the Germans as part of the armistice terms. Churchill and his war cabinet decided to take drastic action. On June 27, the premier ordered that all French ships be prevented from returning to their home ports.In Alexandria, where Force X—a battleship, four cruisers, three destroyers, and a submarine—was anchored alongside the British Mediterranean fleet,things proceeded peacefully. The French agreed to their ships being demilitarized. The same was not the case at Mers-el-Kébir, a major French naval base three miles (4.8km) west of Oran in Algeria, where Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force H, sailing posthaste from Gibraltar, arrived on the morning of June 3. Somerville’s force included the battle cruiser Hood, the battleships Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, 2 light cruisers, and 11 destroyers. The French battleships Bretagne and Provence, the battle cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, the sea plane carrier Commandant Teste, six destroyers, and a motley collection of submarines, torpedo boats, sloops, patrol boats, and mine sweepers crowded the harbor. Somerville gave Admiral Marcel Gensoul, the French commander, four choices. He and his fleet could fight on from a British harbor, steam to a British port after which his sailors would be repatriated to France, sail to a French port in the Caribbean where the fleet would be entrusted to US supervision for the rest of the war, or scuttle itself. Gensoul, like many senior French naval officers of time, was profoundly suspicious of the British. Ordered by Vichy to fight if necessary, he played for time while his ships raised steam and prepared for action. Somerville warned him that he would open fire at 7:30 p.m. that evening if he did not receive a satisfactory answer to his demands.The British started to shell the French as soon as theultimatum expired. Bretagne exploded and capsized, Dunkerque was disabled, and Provence ran aground. A crowd of more than 60,000 excitedGermans watched as Adolf Hitler launchedBismarck, the first of the Third Reich’s newgeneration of super-battleships, at theBlohm & Voss shipyard, Hamburg, onFebruary 15, 1939. She was, according toCaptain Ernst Lindemann, her first and lastcommander, “the largest, strongest and bestbattleship that has ever been launched by anyGerman or foreign shipyard.” With a maximumspeed of just over 30 knots as she showed onher sea trials, Bismarck was clearly faster thanany battleship in the Royal Navy. GrandAdmiral Erich Raeder, commander-in-chief ofthe Kriegsmarine, planned to build even biggerand more heavily armed warships, but the planwas abandoned shortly after the outbreak ofwar in 1939. The destroyer Mogador, its stern blown off, managed to anchor in the shallows. Miraculously, Strasbourg, shielded by five destroyers, managed to escape, as did Commandant Teste and another seven destroyers. Together with six cruisers from Algiers, they all managed to steam back to Toulon and safety. Richelieu, one of France’s newest battleships was not as fortunate. She was heavily damaged by Fleet Air Arm torpedo bombers at her moorings at the West African port of Dakar and put out of action for a year. The whole action lasted no more than half an hour. Around 1,300 French sailors were killed. Though MPs in the House of Commons cheered Churchill to the echo after he justified the attack, it was, as The Times wrote,a “melancholy victory.” Most of the remainder of the French fleet remained in port in Toulon until November 1942. As the Germans marched into Vichy France,following the Allied invasion of North Africa, it put into effect the secret orders Admiral François Darlan,its commander-in-chief, had given it to cover such an eventuality. It sunk itself. Discover how the vital war at sea was fought, from the first battle to the last. As soon as World War II broke out in September 1939, the conflict at sea began and was fought with fury until the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan nearly six years later. World War II at Sea highlights the key moments in this fascinating, pivotal, and absorbing story. From the sinking of the British passenger liner Athenia to Operation Ten-Go, decisive battles and engagements are fully explored—clashes such as Cape Mataplan, aptly regarded as a Mediterranean Trafalgar, in which the British navy scored one of the greatest and most one-sided victories in its history against the Italian battlefleet. Discover how, starting with Midway and continuing at Guadalcanal, the US Pacific Fleet fought the Imperial Japanese Navy to a standstill in the early years of the war to establish naval supremacy throughout the Pacific. Some of the lesser-known aspects of the conflict, such as the battle against the magnetic mine and the exploits of the German surface raider Pinguin, aren’t ignored. Unusual and secret weapons like maiale, X-craft, kaiten, asdic, sonar and radar, and much, much more are discussed. Fully illustrated throughout with a fascinating mixture of historic photographs, maps, charts, and specially-devised diagrams, World War II at Sea is s compelling read and an essential reference for every history enthusiast. Buy from an Online Retailer In North America: Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.