With the success of Hitlerís Blitzkrieg on France, the British admiralty was forced to consider a new and frightening possibility. When France falls, Germany will be able to force the French Navy into German use. This navy, when combined with the German and Italian navies, would outclass even the massive Royal Navy.
As a result, the British launched Force H, based around the carrier Ark Royal and the battlecruiser Hood. This group set out from England, arriving off Mers-El-Kebir on July 3, 1940. With this, Admiral Somerville delivered his ultimatum to the French commander, Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul in person.
Admiral Gensoul refused, fearing that the German Wehrmacht would retaliate by destroying many innocent French people. With this, Admiral Somerville was forced to return to the battlecruiser Hood, to carry out the threat. The Admiral felt sickened with the idea and stepped down as commander of the ships, with Admiral Cunningham becoming the new commander of Force H. Admiral Cunningham then ordered that the attack on the Oran Flotilla be commenced.
At 5:55 p.m., the order to open fire on the French was given. Hood, Resolution, and Valiant open fire with the main batteries, with the French ships and shore batteries returning fire shortly afterwards.
With the two sides firing, all British ships were ordered to lay smoke screens when the shore batteries began to make more successes. French ships were also attempting to get underway. The British ships split up, Resolution and Valiant moving away from the harbor, the Ark Royal remaining out of gunnery range, and the destroyer Forester leaving after a small boat is sighted. Hood, Arethusa, and Enterprise attempt to sink the French battleship Strasbourg, which had managed to escape from the harbor.
At 7:34 p.m, a destroyer spots the British ships and changes course to intercept. The cruisers open fire 5 minutes later, followed shortly by the destroyer. The Hood begins firing with her main batteries, and the unidentified ship responds by making a torpedo attack, which fails.
Aircraft sightings are reported, beginning at 7:44 p.m., and the carrier Ark Royal sights one battleship and six destroyers as the air attacks begin. The air attacks continue until 8:53 p.m., but without much success, so the forces join together.
Aircraft from the Ark Royal are launched against some of the fleeing French units, but with little success. After the days battle, the battleship Dunkerque and Provence are heavily damaged, as is the destroyer Mogador, which lost its stern during the attack, but only the battleship Bretagne is sunk.
Strasbourg, the battlecruiser which succeeded in slipping from the harbor, escapes with the destroyers Volta, Tigre, Lynx, Kersaint, and Le Terrible. The Strasbourg arrives with Volta, Tigre, and Le Terrible the next day.
Damages to Force H are light, with very few hits being made, but the French suffered a heavy blow. The French lost 1,147 sailors aboard Mogador, Dunquerque, and Bretagne. This tremendous loss of life was quickly exploited by Adolf Hitler who portrayed the British as murderous and traitorous for the attack.
However, several of the ships managed to enter British ports after making their escape, with 1 battleship, 3 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 12 sloops, 6 submarines, along with numerous other craft. In this aspect, the French navy had divided itself into the Free French naval units, who then would need to fight against those who had remained in Germany, called the Vichy French.
Mers-El-Kebir, while horrifying in its execution, was essential to the balance of naval power. Should the French Navy capitulated with its country, the German and Italian navy would have had a powerful foe against the thinly distributed British Royal Navy, and was necessary to prevent the tide of war turning in favor of the Axis.
Carriers: Ark Royal
Battleships: Valiant and Resolution
Cruisers: Arethusa and Enterprise
Destroyers: Faulknor, Foxhound, Fearless, Forester, Foresight, Escort, Keppel, Active, Wrestler, Vidette, and Vortigern.
Battleships: Provence (Damaged) and Bretagne (Sunk)
Battlecruisers: Strasbourg and Dunkerque (Damaged)
Destroyers: Mogador (Damaged), Volta, Tigre, Lynx (Unknown damage), Kersaint (Unknown damage), Le Terrible
Seaplane Tender: Commandant Teste
Canastel Battery-three 24 centimeter guns
Fort Santoni-three 19.4 centimeter guns
Gambetta Battery-four 12 centimeter guns
Espagnole Battery-two 7.5 centimeter guns