July 1-10 1940 Operation Catapult

The British attacked the French Fleet at Mers-el Kebir when they failed to agree immediately to join the British. 1,300 French sailors were killed. French ships in Plymouth were seized and the French ships in Alexandria surrendered.


When the French surrendered the British feared that the French navy would fall into German hands giving the Germans a significant naval boost. The French navy while not nearly as strong as the British navy still had many modern warships. The original surrender terms had called for the navy that was now primarily in North African ports to return to France to be disarmed but the Germans had agreed that the disarming could take place in North Africa. The French naval commander had as well sent out specific orders that under no circumstances were the ships to be allowed to fall into German hands and ordered them scuttled if that was the likely outcome.

Most of the French navy was divided in three locations part in Alexandria Egypt where it had been part of the British Eastern Mediterranean squadron, a group of ships at the British base in Plymouth and a large squadron consisting of two battle cruisers, two battleships, an aircraft carriers, six light cruisers and numerous destroyers and auxiliary ships.

At a June 27th 1940 meeting of the British government, it was decided under the urging of Churchill to take surprise action against the French ships to make sure that they do not fall into German hands.

On July 3rd the British surprise the French ships in Plymouth and seize all of the French ships without violence with only one French sailor killed due to a misunderstanding. On the same day Captain CS Holland send a message to the French commander at Admiral Gensoul at Mers-el Kebir offering the French fleet three options. 1) Join the British navy in the fight against the German. 2) Sail for British ports with reduced crews. 3) Sail under a British escort to the French West Indies were the ships would be disarmed or turned over to the Untied States. If he did not received a positive answer within six hours he warned he would have to take action. The French respond with a counter offer to disarm the ships themselves but it arrives too late and the British ships open fire severely damaging a battle cruiser, two battleships and a destroyer and killing 1,300 French seamen. A few French ships escaped to Toulon.

Three days later the French ship in Alexandria the French agreed to British terms of semi surrender. That left the battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart in Dakar and Casablanca. British torpedo boats attacked both of them putting them out of commission for many months. When the Germans later tried to seize French ships in Toulon the French scuttled them.

The Richelieu and other ships eventually sailed to the US to be repaired and joined the Allied efforts agains the Germans