On June 13, 1940, Winston Churchill took one of several trips to France during Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. After convincing the French not to sign a separate armistice with Germany just two months prior, Churchill was now being begged to release them from the obligation. When a country loses its will to fight, there’s not much you can do to inspire them to anything but quit.
That left Churchill with a loose-end on his mind: The French Fleet.
Winston Churchill and his government dreaded the prospect of the French Fleet falling into enemy hands while Britain stood alone against the Axis powers. The odds were already heavy against the island nation’s main line of defense, the Royal Navy. Facing both the German and Italian navies, it was stretched thinly in the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Far East, and the Mediterranean Sea.
By June 10, 1940, the French Army was shattered, but the French Navy was amazingly intact. François Darlan, the Admiral of the French Fleet told Churchill point-blank that the Fleet would be sunk before it was surrendered to the Germans.
Most of the main French naval units were scattered among various Mediterranean ports, while others were in British harbours and the French West Indies. Anchored at the Mers-el-Kebir base in Algeria were the modern 26,500-ton battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg; two aging battleships, the 22,189-ton Bretagne and Provence; the 10,000-ton seaplane carrier Commandante Teste; and six large destroyers. The ships formed the main French naval squadron in the Mediterranean.
In the nearby port of Oran were seven destroyers and four submarines. The new, uncompleted, 38,000-ton battleships Jean Bart and Richelieu were tied up respectively at Casablanca in French Morocco and Dakar in French West Africa, while the aging 22,189-ton battleship Lorraine and four cruisers lay under the guns of the British Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria harbour.
But that was not to happen. Although Admiral Darlan was strong in his commitment to prevent the Germans from seizing a single French ship, Churchill was not convinced. Losing Britian’s last fighting ally in the war is one thing, but allowing that ally’s fleet to fall in the hands of the Germans was something to lose sleep over.
The concern was not over the French using their fleet to assist their new conqueror. The real concern was that Germany would train their own sailors to command those ships.
Members of Britain’s own navy spent time with the commanders of the French Fleet. They were convinced that the commanders were dedicated to the cause of not surrendering to the Germans.
It was a situation that Churchill and his ministers could not permit, so it was decided that the French Fleet must be put permanently out of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s reach. The prime minister noted that the German government had “solemnly declared” that it had no intention of using the French vessels. “But who in his senses would trust the word of Hitler after his shameful record and the facts of the hour?” said Churchill. He believed that the Compiegne armistice could be voided at any time. “There was in fact no security for us at all,” he said. “At all costs, at all risks, in one way or another, we must make sure that the navy of France did not fall into wrong hands, and then perhaps bring us and others to ruin.”
Operation Catapult: Destruction of the French Navy
On June 17, France pressed for peace with Germany.
Before France could officially surrender, Churchill tried to convince his War Cabinet to attack the French Fleet. The War Cabinet refused. There were several concerns on the table. For one, the attack would surely result in the loss of British troops and ships. Second, although getting beaten by Germany and showing eagerness to throw in the towel, France was still an ally.
On June 24, France and Germany signed an armistice. Part of that agreement was the French could keep their ships, but Germany would gain control over items such as passports and tickets. Hitler treaded lightly concerning the ships and did not push for full ownership. He feared such aggression would inspire the French to keep fighting.
Hitler’s concerns were not known to Britain.
However, on July 1, Churchill was finally able to get the backing of the War Cabinet to sink the ships if they would not be surrendered.
On July 3, the British surrounded the French Fleet at the port of Mers-el-Kebir right outside Oran, Algeria. Churchill’s message was clear: sail to Britain, sail to the USA, or scuttle your ships in the next six hours. At first, the French refused to speak to negotiators.
Two hours later, the French showed the British an order they had received from Admiral Darlan instructing them to sail the ships to the USA if the Germans broke the armistice and demanded the ships.
Meanwhile, the British intercepted a message from the Vichy Government ordering French reinforcements to move urgently to Oran. Churchill was done playing games and ordered the attack to his commanders, “Settle everything before dark or you will have reinforcements to deal with.”
An hour and a half later, the British Fleet attacked. In less than ten minutes, 1,297 French soldiers were dead, and 3 capital ships along with 1 destroyer were damaged or destroyed.
While the French were furious over the events, the reaction in the UK was the exact opposite.
The day after attacking the French, Churchill went to the House of Commons to explain why he ordered the attack on the former ally. Churchill declared, “However painful, the action we have already taken should be, in itself, sufficient to dispose once and for all of the lies and Fifth Column activities that we have the slightest intention of entering into negations. We shall prosecute the war with the utmost vigour by all the means that are open to us.”
For the first time since taking over as Prime Minister, Churchill received a unanimous standing ovation. Churchill had a message for the British, for Hitler, and for the world. The message was heard loud and clear.
The UK would not make peace with Hitler and they were in this war for the long haul.