Daily Event for July 3, 2006

After the fall of France in World War II the British were very concerned about the fate of the French Fleet, concerned that it would fall into the hands of the Germans. The battleships Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Provence and Bretagne along with several destroyers had been moved by the French to a place called Mers-el-Kebir near Oran, Algeria.

Under the direct orders of Winston Churchill, ships from Force H under the command of Admiral Sir James Sommerville, were sent to the Algerian port with a four choice ultimatum, join the British, sail to a friendly port and demilitarize your ships, scuttle yourself or be destroyed. None of these choices seemed very pleasing to Admiral Gensoul, the French commander.

While negotiations continued on board the Dunkerque at about 16:30 Sommerville received a signal from the Admiralty stating "Settle matters quickly or you will have reinforcements to deal with." Sommerville sent a signal to Gensoul at 17:15 that said "If none of the proposals are acceptable by 17:30 it will be necessary to sink your ships." Further negotiations failed and the British delegation left the Dunkerque under the sound of battle stations being called aboard the French ship.

Admiral Sommerville standing on the bridge of HMS Hood had a terrible decision to make, but there seemed to be no alternative. He sent a final message to Admiral Gensoul; "Regret I must have an answer shortly otherwise I will have to take the necessary action." Gensoul's reply was; "Do not create the irreparable." The dye had been cast and action was now unavoidable.

The British were not about to take the chance that the French ships would fall into German hands as this would effectively double there battleship force and the French were not about to let the fleet fall into British hands for what ever reason. At 18:00 Sommerville, with no enthusiasm for the attack he was about to make, uttered the words; "All right, Open fire."

HM battleships Hood, Valiant and Resolution opened up with their 15" guns and the French responded. The British, firing into a confined space had a clear advantage and the French ships were hammered one by one. The Bretagne was sunk while Dunkerque, Provence and several other ships were severely damaged. Strasbourg, along with a destroyer screen made a run for it and managed to escape.

While the action at the time seemed to deal with the French fleet, all the ships except Bretagne were repaired. The raid on Dakar days later had the same result. The French fleet, including the ships at Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar, were scuttled at Toulon on Nov. 27, 1942. Over 2,000 French sailors died at Mers-el-Kebir because the French refused to give up their ships. Winston Churchill would later admit that this was one of the biggest mistakes made during the war.
© 2006 Michael W. Pocock

The French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.