Battle summary No. 1
Operations against the French fleet Mers-el-Kebir (Oran)
3rd - 6th July, 1940
1. Outline of the circumstances leading to British action against the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.
The situation created by the collapse of French military resistance brought to the forefront of the question of the disposal of the French fleet. In circumstances of increasing chaos of the march of events was swift. On 11th June Monsieur Reynaud and the French government and retired to Tours, and three days later moved on to Bordeaux.
It was said Monsieur Reynaud he had declared: "we shall fight before Paris; we shall fight behind Paris; we shall shut ourselves are in one of our Provinces, and, if they drive us out, we shall go to North Africa and, if need be, to our American possessions." It was Monsieur Reynaud who, on 16 for June, I asked the British government to release a France from her treaty obligations. The Cabinet refused to do so and asked for French warships to be dispatched to British ports; then, in a magnificent gesture, offered to Monsieur Reynaud an Act of Union. The offer fell on deaf ears. Monsieur Reynaud was no longer in power. He had been displaced in the night of 16th to 17th June by a defeatist group headed by Marshal Petain, General Weygand, Admiral Darlan, Laval, Baudouin, and other politicians.
Negotiations with Germany were opened on 17th June, when Marshal Petain, in a letter to Hitler, asked if he was ready to sign with him, as between soldiers after the fight and in honour, the terms that would put an end to hostilities?
25th June - 3rd July, 1940
The British government, receiving the news "with grief and amazement," refused to release France from its treaty obligations, and announced its intention to continue the fight. Every effort was made to persuade the French Government to order the French Fleet to proceed to British ports, or to sink itself before the armistice terms were discussed. But all was in confusion, and no clear guarantee could be obtained. At the same time it was determined that, if other courses failed, action should be taken to prevent any important French ships falling into enemy hands.
British offers of assistance to the French authorities in arranging for an evacuation from Marseilles to North African ports were declined.
The terms of the Armistice signed by France were not made public until 25th June, the day on which hostilities ended. The clauses affecting the the French sea forces stated that the French fleet was to be assembled at ports under Italian or German control and demilitarised. (see appendix A.)
It seemed clear to the British Government that in these clauses the enemy had merely provided themselves a pretext for keeping the whole French Fleet in a state of readiness for action against us when an opportunity occurred. H. M. Government had a evidence, too, that from 20th June the Germans were in possession of and we using a French naval codes.
The first reactions to the Armistice terms of the French naval, military and colonials parties indicated a determination to fight on. This attitude, however, in the face of instructions emanating from the Bordeaux Council, was soon abandoned.
3rd July, 1940
It was obvious that protestations by the French commanders "that the French Fleet would never be surrendered" constituted but a feeble guarantee. The British Government consequently decided to offer the French naval commanders following alternatives: to continue the fight; complete the mobilisation in certain ports; to demilitarised or sink their ships. By no other means could the French Fleet be prevented from falling into the hands of a forsworn and perjured enemy.
Reports received from various sources indicated that while the senior French officers had elected to obey the central government, most of the juniors at desired to continue the struggle. The men, divided in their loyalties and lacking firm leadership, which chiefly influenced by the fear of reprisals on their families.
2. Assembly of Force "H" at Gibraltar
H. M. Government decided to prepare to enforce their determination that the French Fleet should not be permitted to pass into the power of the enemy. On 27th June, Vice-Admiral Sir J. F. Somerville, K. C.B., D.S.O., was instructed to hoist his flag in HMS "Arethusa" and to proceed to Gibraltar. There are special force, ( 1 Battle Cruiser, 3 Battleships, 3 Cruisers, 19 Destroyers. For list of ships see Section 4.) designated Force "H," was being assembled to be placed under his command. Its immediate task was to secure the transfer, surrender or destruction of the French warships at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir, so as to ensure that they were should not fall into German or Italian hands. While it was hoped that the employment of force would be unnecessary, every preparation to use it was to be made.
The Vice Admiral arrived at Gibraltar on the 30th June, where he transferred his flag to HMS "Hood". A plan of operations was drawn up and the Admiralty informed that the earliest date for its execution would be a.m., 3rd July. The operation was to be termed "Catapult."
3. Conditions to be offered concerning the disposal of the French Fleet.
The following summary gives the substance of the instructions received from the Admiralty (A.T. to F.O., Force "H" (T.O.O. 0130/2nd July)) laying down the conditions to be offered to the French. The alternatives were four in number, viz: -
A. (1) To sail for their ships to British harbours and to continue the fight with us.
(2) To sail their ships or with reduced crews to a British port from which the crews would be repatriated whenever desired.
In the case of alternatives (1) or (2) of being adopted, the ships were to be restored to France at the conclusion of the war or full compensation would be paid if they were damaged meanwhile. If the French Admiral accepted alternative (2), but ask that bishops should not be used during the war, we would accept this condition for so long as Germany and Italy observed the armistice terms. We particularly did not wish to raise this point ourselves.
(3) To sail their ships with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies such as Martinique. After arrival there they would either be demilitarised, to our satisfaction, if so desired, or be entrusted to the U.S.A. jurisdiction for the duration of the war. The crews would be repatriated.
(4) To sink their ships.
B. If the French Admiral refused to accept all the above alternatives and suggested demilitarisation of his ships to our satisfaction at their present berths, acceptance of this further alternative was authorised, provided that the Flag Officer, Force "H," was satisfied that the measures taken full demilitarisation could be carried out under his supervision within six hours, so as to prevent the ships being brought into service for at least one year, even at a fully equipped dockyard port.
C. If none of the alternatives were accepted by the French, the Flag Officer Force "H," was to endeavour to destroy the ships in Mers-el-Kebir, particularly the "Dunkerque" and the "Strasbourg," using all means at his disposal. Ships at Oran should also be destroyed if this did not entail any considerable loss of civilian life.
As it was undesirable to have to deal with the French Fleet at sea, the Flag Officer, Force "H," was instructed to arrive in the vicinity of Oran at his selected time, to send emissaries ashore, and to take such action as he considered fit in the period before the time limit given expired.
4. Plan for the Operation ("Catapult")
A meeting of Flag and Commanding Officers was held during the forenoon of 2nd July, at which the orders for Operation "Catapult" were explained and discussed.
There was a strong opinion that the use of force should be avoided is possible as it was thought that it was bound "to alienate the French completely." The opinion was communicated by the F.O, Force "H" (1220/1 July), to the Admiralty, who replied that it was the firm intention of His Majestys Government that, if the French would not accept (any of) the alternatives, their ships must be destroyed (1846/1 July).
The orders drawn up and did not propose the laying of magnetic mines, which was held to interfere with the execution of the first or second alternatives, and was only adopted later.
Captain C S Holland, of the "Ark Royal," had been selected to act as emissary, with two officers, Lieutenant Commander A Y E Spearman and a Lieutenant Commander G P S A Davies, recently employed as Liaison Officers, to assist him.
The submarine "Proteus" and "Pandora" were ordered to patrol off Oran and Algiers respectively.
At a 1500/2 destroyers sailed to carry out an A/S a sweep of the approaches and Gibraltar Bay.
Force "H," the original composition of which had been reduced by one battleship ("Nelson"), one cruiser ("Delhi") and certain destroyers on patrol, clear to Gibraltar harbour at a 1700/2.
Force "H" consisted:
"Hood" (Flag of Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, K.C.B., D.S.O., V.A.C, Force "H"), Captain I.G. Glennie. (8 15 in)
"Valiant" Captain H.B.Rawlings, O.B.E., (8 15in)
"Resolution" Captain O. Bevir (8 15 in)
"Ark Royal" (Flag V.A. L.V.Wells, C.B., D.S.O.), Captain C.S. Holland
"Arethusa" Captain Q.D. Graham
"Enterprise" Captain J.C. Annesley, D.S.O.
"Faulknor" (Captain (D), 8th D.F.) Captain A.F. de Salis
"Foxhound" Lieutenant-Commander G.H. Peters
"Fearless" Commander K.L. Harkness
"Forester" Lieutenant-Commander E.B. Tancock, D.S.C.
"Foresight" Lieutenant-Commander G.T. Lambert
"Escort" Lieutenant-Commander J. Bostock
"Keppel" (Captain (D), 13th D.F.) Lieutenant-Commander E.G. Heywood-Lonsdale (emergency)
"Active" Acting Commander E.C.L. Turner
"Wrestler" Lieutenant Commander E.N.V. Currey
"Vidette" Lieutenant-Commander D.R. Brocklebank (Ret.)
"Vortigern" Lieutenant-Commander R.S. Howlett
The "Foxhound" was detailed to embark Captain Holland and his assistant officers. Captain Holland was instructed, if necessity arose, to question the French concerning their plan for demilitarisation at two hours notice which had been mentioned to Vice-Admiral Sir Dudley North at Gibraltar, and to inquire whether the proposed measures would render the ships "ineffective for service during 12 months even with dockyard assistance"?
Although the operation orders referred to the possibility of Italian interference, the only evidence of their being even remotely on the alert was, that at to 2247/2 in 36° 12.5 North, 3° 4.6 East, a torpedo exploded ahead of the "Vortigern." The submarine was hunted for 65 minutes without success.
5. Delegate sent to Admiral Gensoul
At a 0300/3 the "Foxhound" was sent on ahead and arrived off Cape Falcon at 0545/3. Communication was established with the Port War Signal Station, and at 0620 the following message was passed to the Admiral of the port's signal station: -
"To Admiral Gensoul.
The British Admiralty House sent Captain Holland to confer with you. The British Navy hopes that their proposals will enable you and the valiant and glorious French Navy to be by our side. In the circumstances in your ships would remain yours and no one need have any anxiety for the future. A British Fleet is at sea off Oran waiting to welcome you."
Permission for the "Foxhound" to enter the port of Mers-el-Kebir was received that 0742. She anchored at a 0805, outside the net defence, in a position 1.6 miles 115° from Mers-el-Kebir Light. Five minutes later the Flag Lieutenant came alongside and informed Captain Holland at Admiral Gensoul was unable to see him, but would send his Chief of Staff.
6. The French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. Coast and harbour defences.
The French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir consisted of to battle cruisers (the "Dunkerque" and the " Strasbourg), two battleships (the "Provence" and the "Bretagne"), one aviation transport (the "Commandant Teste"), and six light cruisers or destroyers. At Oran were seven destroyers and four submarines.
At Mers-el-Kebir the capital ships and aviation transport were moored stern on to the mole, in the following order from north-west to south-east: - "Dunkerque" (8 - 13 in.), "Provence" (10 - 13.4 in.) "Strasbourg" (8 - 13 in.) "Bretagne" (10 - 13.4 in) and the aviation transport "Commandant Teste" (10,000 tonnes) - while the remaining ships and were moored on the south side of the harbour. (See plan 1.)
The shore defences consisted of a battery of six 6 in. guns on top of a hill to the west of the harbour and another of four 4.7 in guns hard south of the harbour. In the vicinity of a Oran there were a battery of three 6 in. guns at Point Canastel; one of four or 4.7 inch guns at Fort St Gregorio; one of two 4 in. guns 2,700 yards East of Oran Light.
The harbour entrance at Mers-el-Kebir was protected by anti-torpedo boat and anti-submarine booms, while a mine net stretched from Cape Falcon to a point one mile north of Point Canastel.
The break water, 30 ft high, and Fort Mers-el-Kebir, 100 ft high, afforded a certain amount of protection to the side armour of the ships inside the harbour from short range fire.
7. Scheme operations if obliged to resort to force.
The intention of the Flag Officer, force "H," if he was obliged to employ force was: -
- To destroy morale, damage A.A. equipment and induce the French crews to abandon their ships, by means of a long-range gun fire with the main armaments of his capital ships assisted my aircraft spotting.
- Bombing by aircraft from the "Ark Royal" with the same object.
- Torpedo attack by T.S.R. aircraft from the "Ark Royal" in order to sink or cripple those ships exposed to torpedo fire.
- Sinking of ships still afloat by demolition parties from destroyers.
- The cruisers were to engage light craft or shore batteries as ordered.
8. Attempts to communicate with the French Admiral and his refusal to receive the British delegate.
Admiral Gensouls refusal to confer with Captain Holland was emphasised when, after the 0847/3, the "Foxhound" received a signal from him requesting her to sail immediately. She weighed accordingly, leaving Captain Holland, Lieutenant Commanders Spearman and Davis behind in her motor boat. Meeting the French Flag Lieutenant off the entrance, Captain Holland handed him the written British proposals to be given to Admiral Gensoul, saying that he would await a reply. (see appendix B.) It was probably about 0935 that they reached Admiral Gensoul. The French ships were reported by A/C reconnaissance to be raising steam and furling awnings. At 1000 the Flag Lieutenant returned and handed over a written reply from Admiral Gensoul (from the form of Admiral Gensould replies scribbled in pencil on a signal pad it may be gathered that he wished to avoid even the appearance of having entered into formal negotiations) confirming the assurances given to Admiral North some days previously that the French ships would never be surrendered and force would be met by force. (see appendix C.)
Then followed a further exchange of written statements and a discussion with the French Chief of Staff, who came out at 1109. (see appendix D.). As it was evident that Admiral Gensoul was resolved not to see Captain Holland, the latter returned on board the "Foxhound" to communicate with the Vice-Admiral.
Meanwhile Force "H" had arrived after a 0910, and by means of projectors had passed the following message in French: - (translation.) "To Admiral Gensoul from Admiral Somerville. We hope most sincerely that the proposals will be acceptable and that we shall have you by our side." Force "H" then proceeded to steamed to and fro across the Bay, while the "Ark Royal," with a destroyer screen, was acting independently for flying off aircraft.
At 1140 Lieutenant Commander a Spearman was sent in with a message from the Flag Officer, Force "H," that the French ships would not be allowed to leave harbour and less the terms were accepted. It was at this time that Captain Holland signalled to the French Admiral, from the "Foxhound," information of the action taken by Admiral Godfroy to demilitarised the French ships at Alexandria. The "Foxhound" then proceeded outside the outer boom to a position inside visual signalling range.
9. Mines laid in the entrance to Mers-el-Kebir harbour.
Admiral Gensouls reply reached the "Hood" at 1227, and Admiral Somerville, considering that it was unsatisfactory and indicated an intention to put to sea and fight, gave the order to mind the entrance. Five mines were accordingly laid by aircraft inside the booms are guarding the entrance to Mers-el-Kebir harbour.
It was Admiral Somerville's at first intention to open fire at 1330, but the time for a final answer was extended to 1500 on the strength of air reports that there was no immediate indication of the French ships proceeding to sea.
In order to insure the least possible to lay a signal was passed to Admiral Gensoul of requesting him to hoist a large square flag at the masthead if he accepted the British terms.
10. British delegate received by Admiral Gensoul.
These measures were evidently effective, for at 1440 Admiral Gensoul signalled that he would receive a delegate for honourable discussion. This message forestalled, only by a few minutes, the dispatch of a signal from the British Admiral notifying that he would proceed to destroy the French ships at 1530. Despite Admiral Somerville's suspicion that the French Admiral was temporising, he authorised Captain Holland to proceed, and the latter, accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Davies in the "Foxhounds" motor boat, reached the "Dunkerque" at 1615.
All the French ships were by that time in advance state of readiness for sea, with tugs standing by and control positions manned.
Meanwhile signs of movement of French ships in the adjacent harbour of Oran having been reported by air reconnaissance, the two mines were laid in its entrance and the "Wrestler" was ordered to relieve the "Vortigen" on patrol there.
11. Discussions on board the "Dunkerque."
Captain Holland's reception on board the "Dunkerque" was coldly formal; Admiral Gensoul was extremely indignant and angry. A lengthy discussion ensued, in which he emphasised that the use of force would range the whole French Navy against the British, and that in effect he rejected all conditions proposed, reiterating his intention to obey the orders only of his Government and Admiral Darlan.
It was evident to Captain Holland that it was only during this discussion that Admiral Gensoul began to realise that force might actually be used. The latter then produced a secret and personal copy of the orders received from Admiral Darlan dated 24th June. The opening sentence of this read that it would be the last cipher message from Admiral Darlan. In clause 3 mention was made of taking the French ships under certain circumstances to the U.S.A. This loophole, however, was evidently unacceptable to Admiral Gensoul in the existing circumstances.
Whilst the discussion was proceeding an Admiralty message was received by the "Hood" instructing the Flag Officer, Force "H," to settle matters quickly or he would have reinforcements to deal with. A signal was accordingly passed by a visual and wireless at 1715 to Admiral Gensoul run informing him that if one of the alternatives was not accepted by a 1730 his ships would be sunk. At the same time the "Preparative for Action" was made to the British fleet.
Captain Holland left the "Dunkerque" at 1725, and as he left "Action" was being sounded in the French ships.
12. Admiral Gensouls final refusal of the British terms.
A summary of Admiral Gensoul as a final written statements (see appendix E) (1720/3/7/40) passed by signal from Captain Holland to the Vice-Admiral (H) reads: - "Admiral Gensoul says crews are being reduced and the threatened by enemy would go to Martinique or U.S.A.; but this is not quite our position. Can get no nearer." This was received in the "Hood" at 1729. As it did not comply with any of the conditions laid down, the air striking force was ordered to fly off, and the battleships stood in towards the coast.
13. Action against the French ships at Mers-el-Kebir
The attack 1754/3 fire was opened at maximum visibility range of 17,500 yards, G.I.C. (Gunnery Individual Control) concentration, with aircraft spotting. The line of fire was from the north-west, so that fire from the French ships was blanked to some extent by Mers-el-Kebir Fort (Plan 1), and risk of damage to civilian life and property reduced. An aircraft reported that the destroyers in Mers-el-Kebir were under way inside the booms
The effect of the opening salvoes was observed and from the "Foxhounds" motor boat. The first salvo fell short, the second hit the breakwater, sending large fragments of concrete flying into the air, which probably caused casualties to personnel on the upper decks of the battleships. The third salvo fell among the ships, and the battleship "Bretagne" blew up, column of orange flame of leaping into the sky followed by an immense column of smoke several hundred feet high. Another smaller explosions indicated that a destroyer had blown up. By this time the harbour were shrouded in smoke from explosions and fires; direct spotting was almost impossible and air spotting was most difficult. The French shore batteries and the battle cruisers "Dunkerque" and "Strasbourg" opened fire about a minute after the first British salvo. The shore batteries were promptly engaged by the "Arethusa," the older guns of the "Enterprise" being out ranged. Heavy projectiles were saying falling near the British battleships as the enemy fire, at first very short, began to improve in accuracy. The observers in the "Foxhounds" motor boat recorded several direct hits on the French ships, another explosion with a sheet of orange flame from a battleship and a direct hit on a large destroyer as she was leaving the harbour. None of the French projectiles hit, though a number of them (apparently 13.4 in. presumably from the French Battleships, as there is no evidence of guns of this calibre having been mounted at Mers-el-Kebir) fell close to and in some cases straddled the British ships.
Some splinters caused minor superficial damage in the "Hood" and injured one officer and a rating. After thrity-six 15 inch salvoes fire of the French ships died down, but that of the forts became increasingly accurate. To avoid damage from the latter, course was altered to 180° to port together and the ships orders to make smoke.
14. End of the action at Mers-el-Kebir
At 1804/3 as the French ships were no longer firing, "Cease Fire" was ordered. The Flag Officer, Force "H," considered that this would give them an opportunity to abandon their vessels, and that as the entrance to the harbour was mine and they would not attempt to put to sea. Force "H" then proceeded to the westward to take up a position from which, if necessary, the bombardment could be renewed without causing casualties to men in boats or exposing the British ships unduly to fire from the forts. (See plan 1)
When the poll of smoke over Mers-el-Kebir harbour cleared away, the scene viewed from the "Foxhounds" boat showed the "Dunkerque" which had slipped from the mole, lying stopped in the harbour, the "Provence" appeared to have been hit, fires were burning and in the "Commandant Teste," while nothing could be seen of the "Bretagne." Clear of the harbour and gathering speed fast were the "Strasbourg" and two "Mogador" class destroyers steering eastward close under the land.
Repeated signals received in the "Hood" from the shore visual and wireless stations requesting fire to be discontinued, to which the same reply was made: "unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again."
15 "Strasbourg" and Destroyers leave harbour.
At 1820 the Flag Officer, Force "H," received an air report that one of the "Dunkerque" class ships had left the harbour steering East. In view of other reporter of movements, subsequently cancelled, and of the difficulty of observation due to smoke, and considering it certain that the French would abandon their ships, he did act on this report until it was confirmed at 1830. The air striking force of six Swordfish aircraft armed with a 250 power and S.A.P. bombs, escorted by Skuas which had been flown off at 1825 to attack the heavy ships in Mers-el-Kebir, was then diverted to attack the battle cruiser "Strasbourg," while Force "H," altering course of to the eastward, commenced to chase.
During the foregoing a period the destroyer "Wrestler," off Oran, was heavily engaged by shore batteries, and at least 100 shells fell near her before she withdrew in obedience to orders.
16. Chase of and air attack with bombs on the "Strasbourg"
At 1843 cruisers and destroyers were ordered to the van, and, leaving the battleships to follow unscreened, the "Hood" and light craft pressed upon, working up to full speed.
The bombing attack on the "Strasbourg" was well pressed home, and although it met with heavy opposition was believed to have obtained at least one hit. Two Swordfish aircraft failed to return, but the crews were picked up by the "Wrestler."
At 1914 the "Forester" picked up Captain Holland, Lieutenant Commanders Spearman and Davies, and the boat's crew of the "Foxhound's" motor boat, which was then abandoned.
Between 1933 and 1945 a French destroyer, steering the West close inshore, was engaged at ranges of 12,000 and 18,000 yards by the "Arethusa" and "Enterprise." Later the "Hood" and "Valiant" fired a few 15 inch salvoes at her. At least three hits were observed before the Destroyer turned back to Oran.
The British ships were obliged to alter the course to avoid torpedoes.
At 1950 six Swordfish aircraft armed with torpedoes were flown off the "Ark Royal," with orders to press home their attack, making use of the failing light.
17. Chase abandoned
The chase was maintained at utmost speed until 2020, when the "Strasbourg" and attendant destroyers being about 25 miles ahead, it was abandoned. By that time the Algiers force, which included several eight inch and six inch cruisers, was at sea, and it was calculated that it would probably join a the "Strasbourg" at 2100. (See section 22)
Admiral Somerville considered that a night contact and engagement was not justified. His destroyer flotilla had not had recent experience of shadowing, and the French would be numerically superior. He summarised the situation thus: -
- The prospects of locating the "Strasbourg" at night was small
- Force "H" will be at a disadvantage, being silhouetted against the afterglow.
- The speed of advance was too high to allow the destroyers to spread.
- For the fuel endurance of the "V" and "W" class destroyers only permitted a three hours chase.
- Unless the "Hood" was in a position to support the advanced forces, the latter were numerically much inferior. This support could not be assured under night action conditions.
- The possible loss of British ships was unjustified as against the possibility of French ships being allowed to fall into enemy hands.
- The "Valiant" and "Resolution" were unscreened.
Accordingly, the course was altered after 2025 to the westward, and the Admiralty was informed that Force "H" would remain to the west of Oran during the night with the intention of carrying out air attacks on the ships in Mers-el-Kebir at dawn, or when possible.
Between 1930 and 2100 French reconnaissance and bomber aircraft were fired upon. These dropped a few bombs, which all fell wide except four about 50 yards from the "Wrestler." The attacks were not pressed home.
18. "Strasbourg" attacked by aircraft with torpedoes.
At 2055, twenty minutes after sunset, a flight of Swordfish aircraft attacked the "Strasbourg" with torpedoes. Approaching from the land, with their target silhouetted against the afterglow, they were able to deliver the attack unseen, only the last two attacking aircraft encountering machine gun fire from the screening destroyers. The observation of results was rendered difficult by the darkness and funnel smoke but an explosion was seen under the "Strasbourg's" stern and there was some evidence of the hit amidships. All the aircraft returned safely, though one came under machine-gun fire from a group of destroyers about seven miles astern of the target.
19. Aircraft lost during operation "Catapult."
The losses off aircraft during the day's operations were five, viz., to Swordfish of the bombing force, one Swordfish shadowing the "Strasbourg," one Skua shot down in combat, one Skua in forced landing near the "Ark Royal." All the crews were saved except that of the single Skua shot down. It was remarked that the French fighters did not press home their attacks.
3rd to 4th July
20. Force "H" returns to Gibraltar.
The intention to make an air attack at dawn on the 4th July with 12 Swordfish and nine Skuas had to be abandoned on the account of thick fog. As the Flag Officer, Force "H," had received a message (2250/3) from Admiral Gensoul stating that his ships were hors de combat and that their personnel had been ordered to evacuate them, the Fleet returned to Gibraltar at 1900, 4th July.
21. Review of the Operation by the Flag Officer, Force "H."
In reviewing the operation of the Flag Officer, Force "H," gives the reasons for his force being to the westward of the harbour after ceasing fire. It was considered that the mines laid in the entrance were sufficient to prevent any French ships from leaving, whilst the request to "to cease shelling" and the heavy explosions observed, gave the impression that the French were abandoning their ships. The thought uppermost in his mind was how to complete his task without causing further loss of life to the very gallant but ill-advised Frenchmen, and without exposing his fleet to damage by the shore batteries or to submarine attack. He was also under the impression that a torpedo flight, to complete the destruction of the ships afloat, had either taken off all was about to do so. In fact, however, the repeated postponement of the attack by gunfire had, unknown to him, seriously upset the "Ark Royal's" flying on and off programme.
Admiral Somerville went into the question of whether the use of force might have been avoided had Admiral Gensoul agreed at once to receive Captain Holland. The French Admiral's final offer differed, unfortunately, from the British proposals in the single proviso that the disablement of the ships would only be carried into effect if there was a danger of the French ships falling into enemy hands. Admiral Gensoul maintained that this danger was not imminent, whereas we maintained that it was. Had more time been available Captain Holland might possibly have converted Admiral Gensoul run to the British point of view but when he made his offer it was already too late, for the discussion could not be continued beyond 5.20 p.m. as French reinforcements and were approaching and the orders of H M Government were explicit that the decision had to be reached before dark.
3rd to 6th July, 1940
22. Proceedings of the British Submarines on the North African coast.
As a precautionary measure to prevent interference by other forces, French or Italian, in the execution of operation "Catapult," the submarines "Proteus" and "Pandora" (see section 4) were in position in their assigned areas by the 3rd July. The "Proteus" was order to keep clear of Force "H" to the north would off Oran. At 2150/3 she was instructed to patrol off Cap de l'Aiguille or Abuja Point, 15 miles East of Oran , North of 35° 55' N, and both submarines are ordered to sink any French ships encountered. The "Pandora" was further informed that the "Strasbourg" might arrive off Algiers after 2300/3.
At 1447/4 the "Proteus," in foggy weather, sighted the sea plane career "Commandant Teste" bearing 160°, six miles (approx), course 035°. Before an attack could be made the French altered course to the eastward and was lost to sight in the fog.
At 2300/5, in obedience to instructions, the "Proteus" proceeded to patrol off Cape Khamis, about 65 miles east of Oran. At 0340/6 a signal from the Flag Officer Commanding North Atlantic (T.O.O. 2316/5), ordered that French ships were not to be a attacked unless they attacked first.
The "Commandant Teste" was again sighted, at or 1834/6, accompanied this time by two destroyers. Shortly afterwards three "Proteus" was ordered to Gibraltar.
The "Pandora," off Algiers, a reported sighting after 1645/3 six French cruisers and four destroyers steering westwards. During the night the order (T.O.O. 2150/3) was received to attack any French warships. At 1026/4 three destroyers were sighted steering 065°, about one mile off shore, but the "Pandora" was unable to get within range.
4th to 6th July, 1940
23. Sinking of the French escort ship "Rigault de Genouilly."
At 1358/4 she sighted a French cruiser, thought at the time to be one of the "La Galissonniere" class. In fact, she was the "Rigault de Genouilly," mine laying escort vessel. Turning immediately to a firing course, at 1407, the "Pandora" fired about four torpedoes at about 3,800 yard range. Two certain and one probable hits were obtained; the French ship stopped at once, and soon after was observed to be on fire. Closing in, the "Pandora" saw there was no chance of the ship being saved. At 1532/4 the "Rigault de Genouilly" sank by the stern, and a few seconds later and extremely heavy explosion occurred, presumably from her magazines.
For some time from 1618 the "Pandora" was hunted by aircraft and a destroyer or patrol craft, explosion of bombs and depth charges being heard at intervals.
The "Pandora" continued to patrol on the 5th and 6 July without further incident, and on the 7th was ordered to Gibraltar.
The Admiralty expressed deep regret to the French Embassy for the tragic happening, which was ascribed to the fact that on the completion of the operation at Oran on 3rd July, the instructions that French ships were no longer to be attacked did not reach one submarine.
24. Forcee "H" prepares to renew attack on the "Dunkerque," Operation "Lever."
After the arrival of Force "H" at Gibraltar the ships were immediately completed with fuel and ammunition in readiness, if required, to proceed to carry out operations against the "Richelieu" at Dakar.
The Flag Officer, a Force "H," informed of the Admiralty that it was not possible from aircraft observation positively to assess the damage to the "Dunkerque," but that she was aground. Consequently the Admiralty directed that a less the Flag Officer, Force "H," was certain that the "Dunkerque" could not be refloated and repaired in less than a year, she was to be subjected to further destruction by bombardment. This was to precede any operation against the "Richelieu."
To put this decision into effect, plans were drawn up for another operation (designated "Lever"), and the Admiralty was informed that a further bombardment would be carried out at 0900, 6th July, by Force "H" (less the "Resolution" and one destroyer).
During the forenoon of 5th July, and Admiral Somerville received from the Flag Officer Commanding North Atlantic, the Admiralty message 2005/4 containing instructions with regard to the attitude to be adopted towards French warships, which stated that "ships must be prepared to attack, but should not fire the first shot." After confirmation that 2045/5 that this applied to the submarines operating off Algiers and Oran, the instructions were passed to the "Proteus" and "Pandora."
In considering the proposed Operation "Lever" it was realised that owing to the position of the "Dunkerque," bombardment could only be effected at considerable loss of French lives and damage to property ashore. This view was represented to the Admiralty.
Meanwhile force "H" sailed from Gibraltar at 2000/5.
Air reconnaissance of Mers-el-Kebir and Oran afforded knowledge that a light cruiser of the "Lynx" class was anchored off the entrance to all Oran; the "Dunkerque" was ashore on an even keel off the town of Mers-el-Kebir heading 295° ; a light cruiser off the "Fantasque" class ashore heading north, at the inner corner of the seaward breakwater.
6th July, 1940
25. Cancellation of attack by bombardment. Air attack ordered.
At 0250/6 the Flag Officer, Force "H," received Admiralty instructions cancelling the bombardment, and ordering instead continuous attack by aircraft to be carried out until the "Dunkerque" was thoroughly damaged. The original programme was accordingly recast and the flying arrangements of the "Ark Royal" completely re-organised. Surmounting all difficulties expeditiously, the "Ark Royal" reported that she would be ready at 0515.
In 36° 19' N, 2° 23' W (about 90' from Oran), at the 0520/6 the first striking force was flown off. The attack on the "Dunkerque" was made in three waves. The aircraft taking part were armed with torpedoes carrying Duplex pistols, set for depth 12th feet, speed 27 knots.
26. First attack on the "Dunkerque" by six Swordfish aircraft with torpedoes (Plan 2).
The first wave of six Swordfish of 820 Squadron made its landfall at Hababis Island, then shaped course, at 7000 ft to keep 15 miles from the coast to gain an up-sun position from the target as soon as the sun rose. As the first rays of the sun, rising above thick haze, struck the "Dunkerque," the flight commenced a shallow dive in line ahead down the path of the sun. Coming in low over the breakwater the aircraft attacked in succession. The first torpedo hit the "Dunkerque" amidships glanced off and, continuing its run exploded against the jetty. It had probably been released inside pistol safety range. The second hit and exploded under the bridge on the starboard side; the third missed the target and exploded ashore. The remaining three torpedoes all hit the "Dunkerque," exploding near "B" turret, on her starboard side. The attack proved a complete surprise, only one aircraft being fired at during the get-away.
27. Second attack by three Swordfish aircraft.
The second attack was made by three Swordfish of 810 Squadron with a fighter escort of six Skuas, which took off at 0545. This sub-flight manoeuvred into a position up-sun at 2,000 ft then at 0647 in "line astern" it turned to attack. Coming under heavy A.A. fire it was obliged to take avoiding action during the approach, and delivered the attack from over the breakwater, the leading aircraft as it passed over, firing on and dispersing a group of men running to man a gun.
The torpedoed of the first aircraft was not released as the master switch it was not made. The second and third torpedoes were seen to hit the starboard of the "Dunkerque." During the get-away a large explosion was observed, smoke and spray rising in a great column over 600 ft high. This may have been a magazine in the "Dunkerque."
No enemy aircraft were encountered, but the 6-inch and four-inch batteries from the east of Oran up to Mers-el-Kebir Point kept up continuous accurate fire throughout the attack.
28. Third attack by three Swordfish aircraft
The third wave, also a sub-flight of three Swordfish from 810 Squadron and fighter escort of six Skuas, was flown off at 0620. It made a landfall at a height of 4,000 ft at 0650 over Cap Falcon. In the "line astern" the sub-flight commenced a shallow dive with avoiding action as the "Provence" and shore batteries opened fire. This sub-flight came in low over the town of Mers-el-Kebir to its attack.
The first torpedo is reported to have struck the "Dunkerque" on her port side, but confirmation is lacking. The second, which would have hit the ship, exploded under a tug close to her, which it blew into the air. The third torpedo was dropped too close, and did not therefore explode although it appeared to be going to hit. While making its get-away the sub-flight was engaged by French fighter aircraft.
It was remarked that while the "Provence," aground with quarterdeck awash, opened fire with A.A. guns, there was none the from the "Dunkerque." The Skua escort of the third wave had many "dog fights" with French fighters, which, although they easily outmanoeuvred our aircraft, but not press home their attacks. One Skua, damaged in combat, made a forced landing on its return, the crew being picked up by the "Vidette." There were no casualties, although several aircraft were damaged by gunfire.
As at least five certain and two possible hits were estimated to have been obtained on the "Dunkerque," the Flag Officer, Force "H," was satisfied that she had been put a out of action for at least a year.
Force "H" having accomplished its task. Return to Gibraltar at 1830, 6th July.
In the Articles of the Armistice terms, proposed by the German Government and accepted by the Petain Government on 22nd June, the clause relating to the French Fleet runs:-
(8) "The French Fleet, except that part left free for the safeguard of the French interests in the Colonial Empire, shall be collected in ports to be specified, demobilized and disarmed under German or Italian control. The German Government solemnly declare that they have no intention of using for their own purposes during the war the French Fleet station in ports under German control except those units necessary for coast surveillance and minesweeping. Except for that part (to be determined) of the Fleet destined for protection of Colonial interests , all ships outside French territorial waters must be recalled to France."
The Times, 24th June, 1940
The clause relating to the Italian Armistice terms to the French Fleet published on 25th June, runs:-
"The French Fleet is to be concentrated in ports to be indicated and demobilized and disarmed under the control of Italy and Germany, except for such units as the German and Italian Governments agree upon for the safeguard of French Colonial interests. All warships not in French metropolitan waters, except those recognised as necessary to safeguard French Colonial interests, shall be brought back to metropolitan ports.
"The Italian Government declares that it does not intend to use, in the present war, units of the French Fleet placed under its control, and that on the conclusion of peace it does not intend to lay claim to the French Fleet."
Summary in The Times, 26th June, 1940.
Referring to the publication in Germany on the 25th June, of the Armistice terms; The Times points out certain differences in the text from that given in its edition of 24th June.
Article 8 in the German version specifies that: "the harbour to which a warship is to return must be determined on the basis of its home port in peace time"; and "The German Government further solemnly and expressly declare that they do not intend to claim the French Fleet on the conclusion of peace."
The Times, 26th June, 1940.
Copying of terms as sent to Admiral Gensoul, 3rd July, 1940
To: Monsieur Admiral Gensoul from Admiral Somerville.
His Majesty's Government have commanded me to inform you were as follows: -
They agreed to the French government approaching the German Government only on conditions that if an armistice was concluded, the French Fleet should be sent to British ports. The Council of Ministers declared on 18th June that before capitulating on land, the French Fleet would join up with the British force or sink itself.
Whilst the present French Government may consider the terms of their armistice with Germany and Italy are reconcilable with these undertakings, H.M. Government finds it impossible from their previous experience to believe that Germany and Italy will not at any moment which suits them seize French warships and use them against Britain and allies. Italian Armistice prescribes that French ships should return to Metropolitan ports, and under armistice France is required to yield up units for a coast defence and minesweeping.
It is impossible for us, your comrades up till now, to allow your fine ships to fall into power of German or Italian enemy. We are determined to on till the end, the 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 we shall restore a greatness and territory of France. For this purpose we must be sure that the best ships of the French Navy will also not be used against us by the common foe.
In these circumstances, H.M. Government have instructed me be to demand the French Fleet now at Mers-el-Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives:
- Sail with us and continue to fight for victory against the Germans and Italians.
- Sail with reduced crews under our control to British ports. The reduced crew will be repatriated at the earliest moment. If a either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war, or pay for compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.
- Alternatively, 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 their us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies - Martinique, for instance - where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States of America, and remain safely until the end of the war, the crew being repatriated.
If you refuse to these fair offers, I must with profound regret require you to sink your ships within six hours a. Finally, failing the above I have orders of His Majesty's Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships us from falling into German or Italian hands. (Enc. 4, M.016021/40.)
Admiral Gensoul's first written reply (copied by the Flag Lieutenant) received at 1000/3 by Captain Holland
(on British signal form, in pencil)
- Les assurances données par l'Amiral Gensoul à l'Amiral Sir Dudley North demeurent entières. En aucun cas les bâtiments français ne tomberont intacts aux mains des Allemands ni des Italiens.
- Étant donné le font et la forme du veritable ultimatum qui a été remis a l'Amiral Gensoul, les bâtiments français se defendront par la force.
- The assuarances given by Admiral Gensoul to Admiral Sir Dudley North remain the same. In no case will French warships fall intact into the hands of the Germans of the Italians.
- In view of the substance and form of the downright ultimatum which has been sent to Admiral Gensoul, the French warships will be defended by force.
(Enc. 4 M.016021/40.)
Admiral Gensoul's second written reply handed by the C.O.S. to Captain Holland at 1109/3rd July. (on French signal form in pencil)
- Amiral Gensoul ne peut que confirmer la résonse déjà apporteé par le Lieutenant de Vaisseau Dufay.
- Amiral Gensoul est décidé à se defendre par tous les moyens dont il dispose.
- Amiral Gensoul attire attention de l'Amiral Somerville sur le fait que le 1 (premier) coup de canon tiré contre nous aurait pour résultat practique de mettre immédiatement toute la Flotte Français contre la Grande Bretagne, résultat qui serait diamétralement opposé a celui que recherche la Governement de S.M. Britannique.
- Admiral Gensoul can only confirm the reply already sent by Lieutenant de Vaisseau Dufay.
- Admiral Gensoul is determined to defend himself by every means at his disposal.
- Admiral Gensoul draws Admiral Somerville's attention to the fact that the first shot fired at us will result in immediately ranging the whole French Fleet against Great Britain, as a result which would be diametrically opposed to that sought by H.M. Government.
Final statement from Admiral Gensoul written on board the "Dunkerque," 1720/3/7/40
(in pencil on notepaper, no date, no signature)
Bâtiment de linge "Dunkerque,"
- La Flotte Français ne peut pas ne pas appliquer les clauses de l'Armistice - en egard à la France metropolitaine qui en supporterait les consequences.
- Elle a reçu des ordres formels, et ces ordres ont été transmis à tous les commandants pour que, si aprés l'armistice les bâtiments risquaient de tomber entre les mains de l'adversaire ils seraient conduits aux Etat Unis ou sabordés. (Voir Message de l'Amiranté, du 24/6.)
- Ces ordres seront executés.
- Les bâtiments qui sont actuellement à Oran et Mers-el-Kebir ont commencés depuis hier, 2 Juliet, leur démobilisation (réduction des équipages). Les hommes originaires de l'Afrique du Nord ont été debarqués.
- The French Fleet cannot do otherwise that apply the clauses of the Armistice - on account of the consequences which would be borne by Metropolitan France.
- Formal orders have been received, and these orders have been sent to all Commanding Officers, so that if, after the Armistice, there is risk of the ships falling into enemy hands they would be taken to the U.S.A. or scuttled. (see Admiralty Message 24/6.)
- These orders will be carried out.
- Since yesterday, 2nd July, the ships now at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir have begun their demobilisation (reduction of crews). Men belonging to North Africa have been disembarked. (Encl. 4, M. 016021/40.)