Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir/Battle of Mers-el-Kébir was an action that took part between the Royal Navy and the French Navy on July 3rd 1940 that was a result of Winston Churchill ordering that the French Fleet should either join the RN, with or without French crews, or be neutralised.

It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German enemy. We are determined to fight on until 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 to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers el Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives;

(a) Sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans.

(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated at the earliest moment. If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.

(c) Alternatively if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans unless they break the Armistice, then sail them with 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 and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.

If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6 hours.

Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty's Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German hands.

As a result of the battle, which the French fleet was not expecting, ~1300 french sailors died, a battleship sunk and 5 other ships damaged (2 British airmen also died).

Admiral James Somerville, RN (the British commander) said the action was:

“the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us…we all feel thoroughly ashamed…”

and is further quoted (from a letter written to his wife) as saying:

“In fact, I shouldn’t be surprised if I was relieved forthwith. I don’t mind because it was an absolutely bloody business…The truth is my heart wasn’t in it.”

Note: Quotes take from Military History Online.

Admiral Sommerville's quotes show that he personally felt like it was a huge mistake, that GB would regret, but what effect did the action have on Great Britain's international relations? and did it have a lasting impact on Churchill's relationship with Charles de Gaulle?

share|improve this question
6  
Thank you for solid research. –  Mark C. Wallace Jul 22 '13 at 13:46

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Mers-el-Kebir was indeed a tragic episode in the history of Anglo-French relations. And it wasn't the only incident of its kind (though it was by far the costliest in lives). A number of engagements made up "Operation Catapult". British sailors used force to seize various French ships, some of them, like the giant submarine Surcouf already in British ports. Several lives were lost in fighting on the Surcouf. These inglorious incidents have been somewhat ignored in standard histories of the war. Michael Portillo featured the Mers-el-Kebir incident an episode of his Radio 4 series Things We Forgot To Remember to make the point that it was just as much a turning point in Britain's prosecution of the war as was the Battle of Britain.

The difficult relationship between Britain and France after 1940 features in two recent publications: Colin Smith's England's Last War with France and Peter Mangold's Britain and the Defeated French.

In terms of its effect on international relations, let's look at Vichy France, De Gaulle's Free French, the United States and other friendly neutrals, and lastly Germany.

Relations between Britain and Vichy were of course irretrievably damaged by the incident (there was little warmth there even prior to Mers-el-Kebir). Vichy broke off diplomatic relations with London and even launched a small retaliatory raid on Gibraltar. But Vichy stopped short of declaring war on Britain, and there was never a formal state of war between Britain and France even though further bitter Anglo-French fighting occurred in Syria, West Africa and Madagascar in the following two years.

Relations with De Gaulle were more complicated. The incident was of course deeply painful for De Gaulle but he was still an obscure entity and with little option but to continue working with the British. On the one hand his efforts to recruit French soldiers and sailors to fight with him alongside the British were badly hurt. On the other, however, the lasting enmity generated between London and Vichy was helpful to him as the British were forced to back him unreservedly (the Americans persisted much longer with their policy of ignoring De Gaulle and courting Vichy).

But for Britain the truly important audience for her actions was in Washington. Mers-el-Kebir was undertaken for two reasons; to eliminate any risk at all that Germany would use French ships to challenge British naval dominance in the Mediterranean and to demonstrate to the Americans her resolve to stay the course of the war. A Britain considering some kind of accommodation with Germany would certainly not have killed and maimed thousands of sailors belonging to a recent friend. Mers-el-Kebir is linked by many historians to Roosevelt's decision to go ahead with the destroyer deal, since the president could now be confident that the ships wouldn't easily fall into German hands.

To a certain extent Germany received and understood Catapult's message in the same way. Hitler was forced to delay a planned peace overture to Britain. But with typical self-delusion Hitler continued to hope and expect Britain to come to the negotiating table. Goebbels stoked anti-British feeling in Paris distributing the famous "Remember Oran" posters featuring drowning French sailors.

share|improve this answer
    
I would say that the memory of Mers-el-Kebir almost certainly increased the level of resistance to the Operation Torch landings in Vichy French Africa and thus cost some US and Commonweath soldiers, sailors and airmen their lives. –  Oldcat Oct 22 at 16:56
    
@Oldcat: Casualties in Operation Torch landings were nearly trivial, so it is easy to say they were many times what they might have been. If they had been much less they would have been non-existent. Mers-el-Kébir or not, the French fought (in a few places but not all) the first day; talked all through the second day everywhere; and switched sides everywhere the morning of the third day. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 23 at 23:51
    
1500 casualties in three days isn't trivial by any standard, 500 KIA. Resistance didn't last long, but the fighting was hard until the surrender. Presumably without Mers, the surrender might well have been immediate and casualties effectively 0. –  Oldcat Oct 24 at 0:09

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.