Second World War: The Royal Navy attacked the French fleet, fearing that the ships would fall into Axis hands after the French–German armistice.
The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir (3 July 1940) also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, was part of Operation Catapult, a British naval attack on French Navy ships at the naval base at Mers El Kébir on the coast of French Algeria. The bombardment killed 1,297 French servicemen, sank a battleship and damaged five other ships for a British loss of five aircraft shot down and two crewmen killed.
The attack by air and sea was conducted by the Royal Navy after France had signed armistices with Germany and Italy that came into effect on 25 June. Of particular significance to the British were the five battleships of the Bretagne and Richelieu classes and the two fast battleships of the Dunkerque class, the second largest force of capital ships in Europe after the Royal Navy. The British War Cabinet feared that the ships would fall into Axis hands. Admiral François Darlan, commander of the French Navy, promised the British that the fleet would remain under French control but Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet judged that the fleet was too powerful to risk an Axis take-over.
The French thought they were acting honourably in terms of their armistice with Germany and were convinced they would never turn over their fleet. The British attack was almost universally condemned in France, where grievances festered for years over what they considered a betrayal by their former ally. Marshal Philippe Pétain, who had become the prime minister of France on 16 June, severed diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom on 8 July. The next day, six days after the attack, deputies of the National Assembly met at Vichy and voted to revise the constitution, bringing the French Third Republic to an end. The following day, Marshal Pétain was installed with full powers as leader of the new French State. In retaliation of the attack at Mers-el-Kébir, French aircraft raided Gibraltar on 18 July.
On 27 November 1942, after Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa began, the French navy foiled Case Anton, a German and Italian operation to capture the rest of the French fleet by the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon. The attack at Mers-el Kébir remains controversial but has also been argued to have demonstrated to the world that Britain intended to fight on.