Fact File : Mers-el-Kébir
3 to 6 July 1940
Location: Coast of Algeria
Players: Force H, British Admiral Somerville and Cunningham and French Admirals Darlan and Gensoul.
Outcome: Over 1,000 lives lost, the French fleet immobilised, Britain's determination to succeed in the Mediterranean asserted.
Britain didn't waste any time taking action after the French Vichy government signed a treaty with the Germans on 25 June 1940. The French had a powerful fleet which was a threat to British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. Only eight days after the treaty was signed, on 3 July, the British seized all French ships in British ports. Then, under the command of Admiral Somerville, Force H was dispatched to deal with the French in North Africa.
The British were not privy to intelligence regarding an agreement made between Germany and France; the French fleet was not available to the Germans or Italians but was rendered immobile with strict instructions from Admiral Darlan, Vichy Naval Minister, not to take orders from Germans.
British warships were determined to put the French beyond Hitler's reach, and the newly formed Force H made its way to the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kébir where several French battleships were docked. Negotiations with the French were awkward (the French commander, Admiral Gensoul, at first refused to meet a British emissary) but Admiral Somerville was reluctant to attack.
Then Gensoul was sent word that all French naval forces in the Mediterranean were to proceed to Oran, from where they could support the force at Mers-el-Kébir. British intelligence forewarned Somerville that he would have to act quickly before the French support arrived. Somerville opened fire, causing serious damage to several battleships and blowing up the Bretagne. Over a thousand French were killed.
On 5 July the Richelieu was attacked by torpedo and on 6 July the Dunkerque was rendered unseaworthy. Meanwhile, British Admiral Cunningham talked the French into disarming all ships. The Vichy government put an end to diplomatic relations with Britain and retaliated with a raid on Gibraltar.
The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.