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A brief overview of the main clashes between the British and the French is all the more tragic because it deals with the fighting between the former allies during the years 1940-1943, during which blood flowed on both sides and which in turn pushed the French more and more into cooperation with the Germans. Added to this were the losses among the civilian population in the bombing of the RAF, so that without the repressive actions of the Germans in suppressing the underground movement, there would be no emotional reason to resume fighting on the part of the Allies.

Operation Catapult

After the signing of the Franco-German armistice in June 1940, a new French government was established in Vichy, which allowed the Germans to exercise their influence indirectly in the French colonies and prevent the war-torn French fleet from escaping to British ports and keeping them out of war.


The British followed everything concerning the French navy with the utmost attention and with undisguised apprehension. The loss of French naval support was most felt in the western Mediterranean, but the possibility of naval troops coming under the control of the Axis countries would reverse dominance at sea, and the British Admiralty wanted to prevent this at all costs, planning Operation Catapult to eliminate the threat.

As German troops approached the Atlantic ports of France, the warships sailed to safety on the orders of Admiral Jean LXF Darlan. On June 17, the battleships Courbert and Paris , eight destroyers, three submarines and a number of smaller battleships headed for Portsmouth and Plymouth in the UK. The newest battleship Richelieu sailed from Brest to Dakar on June 18. Her unfinished sister ship Jean Bart left the day before the Germans arrived in St. Nazaire, the dry dock there, reached Safablanca safely. Vice Admiral RE Godfroy's squadron was in Alexandria. Six cruisers were moored in Algiers, several submarines in Bizert and four submarines and seven destroyers in Oran. The most important group of French warships. 3rd Squadron, was located at the base of Mers el-Kabir near Oran under the command of Vice Admiral Marcel Bruno Gensoul.

After previous negotiations with the French commander, the British Admiralty concluded that it was necessary to eliminate the risk arising from a fully combat-ready French squadron. Therefore, on June 27, the British War Cabinet decided to carry out Operation Catapult, which would prevent French warships from returning to their domestic ports.

After an unsuccessful attempt to convince the commander of the French fleet, on July 3, 1940, the British Union H, under the command of Vice Admiral Somerville, opened fire on the moored ships. The battleship Bretagne exploded a hundred meters from the berth, Provense and Dunkirk were badly damaged and were saved from sinking only by running aground. The battle cruiser Strasbourg and five destroyers escaped to Toulon, even though they had to make their way through a torpedo raid by the Swordfish from Ark Royal.

On July 5, an order was issued for Operation Lever - the destruction of the damaged battle cruiser Dunkirk. On July 6, at five o'clock in the morning, the first wave of 820th Squadron took off and of six dropped torpedoes hit five of them and four of them exploded on the right side of the ship. The second wave of the three machines of the 810th Squadron achieved two more starboard hits. The third wave hit the sloop Terre-Neuve, which was moored nearby and was destroyed by the attack, and its load of depth charges then exploded, their explosion ripping a hole in the side of Dunkirk 12 meters high and 18 meters wide. A total of 1,450 French people died in both operations and 351 were injured. The British lost several shrapnel during Operation Catapult and two Swordfish during Operation Leverand one Skua aircraft.


Simultaneously with the action at Mers el-Kabir, French warships moored in a total of 21 English outbuildings were manned. At 3:45 a.m. on July 3, armed units of members of the Royal Navy broke into their decks. Everything was carefully prepared and thanks to the moment of surprise, everything went successfully and without losses. Only in Plymouth on the submarine Surcouf was a shootout, in which two officers and one sailor from the raiding party were killed, and one of the defenders laid down his life. The crews of the occupied ships were then transported to internment camps and only a small part of them joined the troops of the Free French of General de Gaulle. By treating the interned Frenchmen as prisoners of war, they left them with a sense of guilt and betrayal after the common battles. This was reflected in their willingness to continue serving under Vichy Admiral Darlan, but also in the resistance they put in both the Free French 'attempt to land in Dakar in September 1940 and the Anglo-American landing in North Africa in November 1942 ( Operation Torch ).

The French squadron in Alexandria, formed by the battleship Lorraine, four cruisers and three destroyers saved from a similar fate a very cordial relationship with the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Cunningham. Vice Admiral Godfroy, on June 27, suggested to Cunningham that he let all his fuel run out of his ships' tanks. He wanted to relieve the British of the need to maintain considerable force in the port at all times, so that they could detain the French in case they decided to escape. Godfroy only demanded assurances that the British would not try to occupy his ship by force. The British Admiralty urged Cunningham to resolve the situation by force, but it succeeded in pushing for further negotiations. Of the three variants, the first of which required a transition to the British side, the second internment in the port and the third sinking of ships on the high seas in front of the port, Godfroy opted for the third. After Cunningham's personal intervention, he managed to persuade Godfroy to turn to the second option and begin refueling French ships. However, after receiving information about the course of the battle of Mers el-Kabir, the refueling was stopped. After receiving further details of the fight, the French squadron began to prepare to sail and fight. After British calls to the team and officers, the subordinates turned against the agreement to fight the British. A meeting of the French commanders was convened and, based on its decision, the second option was adopted and refueling was resumed. On July 7, 1940, a written agreement was reached in which the British renounced the forcible occupation of ships and the French agreed to reduce to 30% of the crew, remove fuel and store torpedo warheads and gun cannons at the French consulate in Alexandria.

After the attack on the French squadrons in Oran and Alexandria, two battleships remained in overseas and government-controlled ports in Vichy. In Bartar Richelieu and in Casablanca unfinished Jean Bart. On July 7, the aircraft carrier Hermes arrived in Dakar with two cruisers. The commander of the group, Rear Admiral RFJOnslow, presented an ultimatum to the Governor General of Dakar because the French had ignored them, a British motorboat broke into port at two o'clock in the morning on July 8 and dropped four depth charges at Richelieu's stern . But they didn't explode. At dawn, Richelieu was attacked by six Hermes torpedo bombers. Although only one of the dropped torpedoes exploded, the explosion probably led to the explosion of a previously placed depth charge. The great explosion damaged the battleship so much that experts estimated that it would take at least a year to repair it. However, the paralyzed ship remained her armament, which played a significant role in repelling the Free French landing attempt.

Even after neutralization, Petain's government in the Mediterranean remained a strong fleet consisting of a battleship, an aircraft carrier, four heavy cruisers, ten light cruisers, thirty destroyers, and seventy submarines. This still represented considerable force which, in the event of open hostility, could reverse the situation in the Mediterranean and jeopardize maritime supplies from bases in the colonies. Petain's government on July 4 banned British ships and planes from approaching any French territory closer than twenty nautical miles. The next day, French warships operating at sea were instructed to stop all British merchant vessels. On the morning of July 5, French bombers taking off from African airports attacked the H- Union in Gibraltar“. On July 8, Petain's government cut off official diplomatic relations with Great Britain.

On July 4, 1940, the first air battles between French and British aircraft took place 30 miles southwest of Gibraltar. Three French fighters Curtiss Hawk attack the flying boat Sunderland, which is on anti-submarine patrol. The flying boat shoots down one fighter jet and damages the other. On July 5, Gibraltar is bombed.

Operation Manace and retaliatory raids on Gibraltar

Operation Menace was an attempt by de Gaulle Free French to occupy 23-25. September 1940 with the support of the British fleet Dakar, as they had previously succeeded in other French colonies of New Caledonia and Cameroon. The French loyal to Admiral Darlan and the government in Vichy repulsed the attackers in a naval artillery battle.

After Governor Boisson rejected the calls of the British and Free French, three days of fighting broke out. On the British side, they were attended by Force M with the aircraft carrier Ark Royal ( 21 fighters, 25 torpedo bombers ), 2 battleships Barham and Resolution , 3 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 10 destroyers, 6 transport ships, 1 tanker and auxiliary vessels. The French were fought by 1 battleship, 5 auxiliary cruisers, 1 large and 4 small torpedo boats, 3 submarines, 6 notices and recently arrived 2 cruisers and 3 destroyers from Toulon, which escaped the attempt of Australian cruisers to prevent them from getting in the way.

In retaliation for the action, six groups of Armeé de l´Air bombers and four squadrons of the French Navy attack the port of Gibraltar on September 24. A total of 64 bombers from the bases of Oran, Tafaroui, Merknes, Mediouna and Port Lyautey. Shortly after 12:20, LéO 451 ( GBI / 23 and GB II / 23 ) take off from Merknes Airport. British anti-aircraft artillery defended itself with heavy fire, but no British fighter appeared. To protect the bombers are used 12 fighters Dewoitine D 520 GC II / 3, 12 Curtiss H 75GC II / 5 and 12 Curtiss H 75 GC I / 5. The last wave of bombers consists of GB 2 and GB 3. A total of 41 tons of bombs were dropped. The event was approved by the German-Italian ceasefire commission. The loss was the damage to several aircraft by shrapnel. A four-member group from GB I / 22 photographs the results of the raid and confirms that the southern part of the fortress, the southern pier and one larger ship are heavily hit. Several requests have erupted in northern Gibraltar.

During another deployment against Gibraltar on the second day on Wednesday, September 25, the union is strengthened by two more groups and two squadrons. A total of 83 bombers are raiding in good weather, this time without fighter protection, but even this time British fighters do not appear. The union drops 56 tons of bombs. One LéO 451 bomber from GB II / 23 with the crew of Lieutenant Court is shot down by British anti-aircraft artillery and 13 machines are slightly damaged. Reconnaissance aircraft confirm further interventions at the base and port facilities.

Operation Ironclad

Given Indochina's precedent when the Vichy government handed over the colony to imperial Japan virtually without a fight in July 1941, a possible Japanese landing in Madagascar seemed very realistic, which would seriously cripple an important convoy route from the British Isles around Africa to Egypt. That is why the start of planning for Operation Ironclad, the invasion of Madagascar, began in February.


Both the domestic fleet, the Gibraltar Force H and the Eastern Fleet freed up the necessary capacities. Forces under the leadership of Vice Admiral EN Syfret received the designation Force F. The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and HMS Hermes were selected for air support , which was replaced by HMS Indomitable after its sinking in April . The invading forces gathered in the port of Durban in the South African Union. HMS Illustriousleft Durban as part of a rapid convoy consisting of landing craft, one battleship, one cruiser, and six destroyers. On April 28, a slow convoy protected by a cruiser, two destroyers and other smaller vessels sailed. Roal Navy vessels headed north along the west coast of Madagascar. On May 3, another aircraft carrier, HMS Formidable, joined the union .

The Armée de l´Air in Madagascar had only very limited forces. In addition to a small number of obsolete Potez biplanes 25 recognized for reconnaissance and bombing, the French had on May 5 in combat-ready condition Morane MS 406 fighters and part of the seven reconnaissance Potez 63/11 . Modern types were concentrated at Grupe Aéien Mixte ( mixed air groups ). French ground troops, mostly made up of colored soldiers, suffered from a lack of modern equipment and armaments.

The attack on Diego Suarez (a port in northern Madagascar ) began before sunrise on May 5, 1942 by landing in the Gulf of Courrier, west of the port and in the Gulf of Ambararata. At first, the Allies did not encounter resistance on the ground, but then they were temporarily stopped by the French defense near the city of Antsirane. By the morning of May 7, however, the fighting had subsided and the berth at Diego Suarez was in Allied hands.

The Royal Navy's on-board machines have made a significant contribution to Britain's penetrating success. The air activity began before dawn on May 5 with the launch of Swordfish and Albacors to attack ships in the port and airport of Arrachart, six miles from the city of Diego Suarez. Then the Martlets, Fulmars and Sea Hurricanes took off for patrols over the coast and raids on French artillery batteries. The crew of the Arrachart airport was completely taken by surprise by the Albacor and Martlet raids. British planes set fire to the hangars and knocked out most of the aircraft, including five destroyed and two damaged MS 406 fighters. During the day, FAA pilots continued tactical reconnaissance over the battlefield. On May 5, Swordfish crews sank one submarine, the auxiliary cruiser Bougainville, and damaged the gunboat D´Entrecasteaux.

On May 6, the 881st Squadron was the first to take off from HMS Illoustrious to patrol Martleta Mk II . At six o'clock they spotted three twin-engined Potez 63/11 machines from the 555th Squadron, whose task was to shell ships and invasive beaches in Courrir's Bay. The absence of fighter protection proved fatal. The French lost two planes and three pilots and one wounded.

The second and last confrontation with the French Air Force took place on May 7. Three MS.406 from the 565th Squadron faced four Matrlets of the 881st Squadron. The first frontal collision with a lower-flying pair of Martlets was taken away by the commander of the British section, who made an emergency landing off the coast. In the ensuing battle, his number claimed one, Morane. Then a higher pair of Martlets intervened in the fight. In a single loss, the pilots of the 881 squadron of the FAA claimed four victories. The 565th Squadron actually lost all three fighters deployed and two pilots.

Even after the loss of the port of Diego Suarez, the French did not give up the fight for the rest of Madagascar.

While landing in Diego Suarez, the Eastern Shipwreck cruised in the central Indian Ocean and was ready to cover up the invasion from possible Japanese Navy counterattacks. During the air cover, the Martlets shot down the 888th Squadron  in early May by Kawanishi H6K operating from the Port Blair base in the Andaman Archipelago.

Operation Ironcald cost the British over a hundred dead soldiers and about three hundred wounded, the French reported one hundred and fifty dead and five hundred wounded. Fleet Air Arm took part in 309 combat sorties and with a smooth deployment raised the morale that was the previous failures at Ceylon at a low level. One Martel was shot down by French fighters, one Fulmar was shot down by ground anti-aircraft fire, another was lost in an accident. Sea Hurricanes were deployed as Fulmars against ground targets. The number of losses was completed by one Swortfish.

The French submarine Monge, on May 8, attacked torpedoes on HMS Indomitable , which managed to avoid them. The submarine was then sunk by escort destroyers.

After taking control of the berth in Diego Suarez, aircraft carriers sailed to East Africa to replenish supplies, which allowed them to avoid the attack of Japanese minisubmarines on Diego Suarez on the night of May 30-31, which after being transported to the destination by submarines I-16 and I-20 torpedoed the battleship HMS Ramillies and one tanker. The battleship was severely damaged and out of combat for several months. The air protection of northern Madagascar was taken over by the South African Air Force. However, the Japanese action retroactively confirmed the legitimacy of Operation Ironclad.

The concentration of the three large Royal Navy aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean did not last long, and soon the two were transferred to the Mediterranean. Only HMS Illustrious continued to intervene in support of further actions in the fighting in Madagascar .

After taking control of northern Madagascar, the British command was at first reluctant to continue further south. However, the Japanese attack and the need to release forces for more important battlefields decided for another attack. Due to poor communications, amphibious operations were preferred. The invasion vessels set sail in early September 1942. The ships were protected by HMS: Illustrious. The landing began before dawn on September 10 at Ampozona, north of Majunga. This port and the nearby airport were occupied by the British without resistance, further progress was already delayed by French destruction and growing resistance. However, as soon as South African planes and the FAA's 795th and 796th Squadrons flew over the captured airport on September 11. On September 18, another Allied landing took place at the port of Tamatave. The French retreated after a short resistance. The capital of Madagascar fell on September 23. The Vichy Governor-General retreated, and the campaign had to continue until November 6, when an armistice was signed.

Fighting in the Levant

On May 15, 1941, the RAF bombed three Syrian airports in Palmyra, Damascus and Rayak. Three Junkers and two other German aircraft and one Italian Caproni were spotted at Palmyra Airport. Three of these aircraft were badly damaged and a fourth was set on fire.

In June 1941, Allied troops entered the territory of Syria and Lebanon with units of the Free French

On the morning of June 5, 1941, three Blehheims attack Aleppo Airport ( Syria ) where several Italian CR.42 fighters and SM 79 transport fighters were spotted on the ground . One plane and a hangar were destroyed. Three MS 406s resisted , but in vain.

On Sunday, June 8, Australian and Indian troops, supported by the 1st Cavalry Division and units of the Free French, with the support of 60 RAF aircraft, set out on a journey to Beirut and Damascus. The first operations of the day are raids on the French air base in Rayak. The Hurricanes are trying to destroy the just arrived Martin 167 bombers from GB I / 39. But in the meantime, they are bombing British columns approaching Quneitra. Five Tomahawks of the Australian 3rd Squadron attack Rayak.

On June 10, a well-known French pilot, Captain Jacobi of GC III / 6, was shot down by a British anti-aircraft defense during a reconnaissance flight over Derau. In the afternoon, the crews of GC I / 7 attack the 15th cruiser squadron shelling the coast to no avail. Both warring parties have strong air support during the fighting. The French will increase the number of fighters to 159, of which the D 520 in particular causes heavy losses to the British. Also Martin 167 bombing troops of British troops. One of the columns advancing from Iraq to Palmyra is stopped by French bombers for several days.

June 29, 1941 - Vichy, communiqué of the French government: The British fleet shelled our position on the Levan coast. In the mountains of southern Lebanon, we cleared several points under the protection of our artillery fire, which caused the attacker heavy losses. Our air force, with the support of naval aircraft, repeatedly intervenes in ground combat, especially in the area of ​​Palmyra. Furthermore, the residence of the French High Commissioner in Beirut was bombed and destroyed.

June 30, 1941 - Syria, General Wilson's headquarters announces: The Allied offensive against Homs is making considerable progress. During the air battle, an Australian squadron shot down a P-40 union of six French Glen Martin 167 bombers without its own losses.

As the insurgency in Iraq draws to a close, the British turn the two's attention back to Syria and Lebanon. A few days before the British enter Syria, the country becomes the scene of fierce fighting between the British and French air forces. Already on Wednesday, May 28, 1941, the French achieved their first air victory. Lieutenant Vilullemin of GC I / 7 shot down a reconnaissance Blenheim with his Moran MS 406 over Syria. On the same day, after a flight from Algeria, reinforcements arrived along the Mediterranean coast in the form of GC III / 6 with Dewoitin D 520.

An armistice is reached on July 14 and Syria and Lebanon come under the control of the Allies and the Free French. In September and November, the independence of Syria and Lebanon was announced, the real fulfillment of which was to take place only after the end of the war. The last French and English troops left Syria and Lebanon in 1946.

Operation Torch

On November 8, 1942, the Allies conducted their first joint amphibious operation. Anglo-American troops landed under General Eisenhower in northwest Africa. The ports of Casablanca, Oran and Algeria were chosen as targets for the landing. The Allies wanted to seize Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia before the Germans built a bridgehead and Rommel arrived .

The Allies managed to break the resistance of the Vichy French relatively quickly. The fiercest fighting had to be fought mostly by British troops. In particular, the French sailors put up stiff resistance, as they never forgave the British for the massacre in Mers-el-Kebir on July 3, 1940.

But this operation deviates somewhat from the topic of this article, so we will leave room for someone else to work out its detailed course because the French fight against the Anglo-American landing was only an introductory episode in this large-scale operation.

Miloš Hubáček, Boj o Středomoří
Miroslav Šnajdr,Palubní stíhači Jeho Veličenstva 2. (FAA 1942-1943)
Janusz Peikalkeiwicz, Letecká válka 1939-1945
Paul Kamp, Námořní války

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