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The French Air Force of the armistice.

by Philippe Ballarini
translation Mike Leveillard

2. Mers el-Kébir

The French Air Force had left France, and so did the French Navy. In the harbor of Mers el-Kébir (near Oran Algeria in North Africa), a large number of battleships had found refuge. According to the stipulations of the armistice, the axis forces had renounced all claims on the French Navy. Of course, we must remember how Hitler had kept his promises in the past!

On July 1st 1940, Admiral Sommerville while in Gibraltar received the order to proceed to Oran, rally the French fleet, leave for the Antilles, or have the fleet scuttled to prevent its return to the ports in France. The rest is history: the arrival of the British fleet in Oran on July 3rd, the refusal of Admiral Gensoul to agree to the ultimatum of surrender, the impossibility of the French fleet to maneuver in the harbor, the British attack and the death of nearly 1300 French sailors.

The French Air Force however had not stayed idle. General Pennes had taken the initiative to intervene, giving the order to proceed rapidly with the overhaul of enough airplanes to fight against the possible incursions of English airplanes. As the British bombardment began, the first French fighters had arrived but they could only prevent the
Skua dive-bombers to do too much damage. Because of the long delays to return in service, the French bombers could not participate.

This lamentable episode of Mers el-Kébir had unforeseen consequences. The clauses of the armistice were somewhat relaxed, delaying the demobilization of the French Air Force. In fact it was more or less reorganized, but it was still under German control.  The reasons given were the necessity to prevent other similar attacks by the British.

Another consequence, a very important one, was a strong resentment against England by the French military still on duty. (It was also the majority of the general opinion). The choice of code of conduct for every French Airman and Sailor suddenly became more difficult. Getting ready to fight against Germany and Italy, certainly! But, how to justify choosing the side of those who just had bombed the French Fleet?

Under such conditions, it is certain that a large number of the military that were considering continuing the fight someday could not in due conscience regard England as an ally.
In the first days of July 1940, it was certainly more tempting for many French aircrews to retaliate by bombing the British forces in Gibraltar (as it became the case) rather than to rejoin de Gaulle in London. Let's not forget that any attempts to rejoin de Gaulle was considered an act of desertion, resulting in the most severe punishment, including the order to open fire on any airplane attempting an escape. Therefore, general obedience was the rule.

©
Aerostories, 2001.

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November 1940, Oran La Sénia airfield: a LeO-45 from the 2nd escadrille of GB II/11. It displays one of the Vichy markings: a white lateral band on the fuselage, not to be confused with those that had been painted on the Potez 631s in June 1940 to avoid the confusion with the Bf-110. At Mers el-Kébir, the LeO-45s were not able to partake in the battle.

S.H.A.A. Document                          Click

Regarding the ultimatum of Admiral Sommerville, Gensoul had retorted: "We will respond to force with force." The unforeseen result of this attack actually provided an opportunity to maintain the existence of the French Air Force.  Click