Operation Catapult and the Attack on Mels-el-Kebir

The French surrender to the Germans on June 22nd, 1940 put Britain in a real pickle.  After the evacuation of Dunkirk, the British Army was short on heavy equipment like tanks and artillery. Britain had no allies, the US was a nominal ally from behind the scenes, but still wasn’t officially in the war, and the Soviet Union at the time was officially an ally of Germany.  The only advantage Britain seemed to have was the Royal Navy, one of the most powerful navies in the world and long time protector of Britain for hundreds of years.  However, after the surrender of France, the country was reorganized into an occupied zone controlled by the Germans, consisting of the northern half of the country, and Vichy France, a quasi fascist rump state located in the south.  


British and Free French officials accused Vichy France of being a puppet state. Of course, this point was not clear cut, there were many Vichy French officials who actively collaborated with the Germans, there were many who just gave the outward pretense of collaborating, and there were many who actively resisted.  

What the British particularly feared was that the Germans would get their hands on the French Navy.  With the Axis in control of a combined German-French-Italian fleet, the British could see their only advantage quickly melt away. The commander of the French Navy, Admiral Francois Darlan, promised Winston Churchill that he would not let the Germans take control of the fleet. However, with Britain reeling from the evacuation of Dunkirk, masses of British merchant ships being sunk by German U-Boats in the Atlantic, and the threat of German invasion looming, Churchill decided he wasn’t going to take any chances.

On July 3rd, the British government sent the French this ultimatum,

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.

© Alternatively if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans lest 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.

The French Navy refused to agree to any of the above points. Six hours later, Operation Catapult commenced, which was the British plan deny Vichy France and Germany control of the fleet. That night British soldiers stormed French ships harbored in British ports.  The French offered little resistance, with the exception of the submarine Sarcouf, causing a short gun battle which led to the deaths of a French sailor and three Royal Navy personnel.  Elsewhere around the Mediterranean, small skirmished occurred between British and French ships.  

By far, the largest fleet action as part of Operation Catapult was the attack on the French port of Mers-el-kebir in North Africa.  The port was home to the largest concentration of French ships in the Mediterranean, consisting of four battleships, five destroyers, and various other support craft.


At 1754 hours a British fleet consisting of 2 battleships, 1 battlecruiser, 2 light cruisers, 11 destroyers, and an aircraft carrier conducted a surprise attack on the fleet at Mels-el-kebir.  The British shelled the French fleet while simultaneously torpedo planes from the carrier HMS Arc Royal dropped torpedoes towards the French battleships.  Caught by surprise and unprepared for an attack, there was little the French could do to fight back, and as a result they suffered heavy casualties.  1 battleship and 1 destroyer was sunk, while another battleship and a handful of destroyers were badly damaged. The French suffered 1,300 sailors dead. The British only lost 2 men.

After the attack, the French retaliated by bombarding the British stronghold at Gibraltar.  While French retaliation was relatively minor, it brewed feelings of Anglo-phobia among many French, which partly hindered the Allied effort for the rest of the war. Today, the British attack on Mers-el-kebir is still very controversial and the morals of Churchill’s decision are still hotly debated among historians and history buffs.  

On November 27th, 1942, the Germans attempted to seize the French fleet in violation of the armistice treaty. Admiral Darlan ordered the fleet scuttled, resulting in the sinking of 77 ships.  Darlan sent a message to Churchill later that day,

Prime Minister you said to me ‘I hope you will never surrender the fleet’. I replied, ‘There is no question of doing so’. It seems to me you did not believe my word. The destruction of the fleet at Toulon has just proved that I was right.

If the tables were turned, and the Royal Navy sunk/seized by an ally,
there would bloody howling that would never cease! And the quest for
& retribution would going on today!