THE FATAL DAY
Mers-el-Kébir, 3rd and 6th July 1940
“It was like shooting fish in a barrel… carnage, pure and utter.”
Signalman Ted Briggs, HMS Hood.
Since the time of Elizabeth I no force was more important to the security of Great Britain than the Royal Navy, and until the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, no device of man, no instrument of destruction, no weapon of war has held more sway over the minds of kings, of emperors and of men, than the battleship. These steel behemoths carried in them the hopes of the nation, and where these ships went, the British Empire followed.
1940. The war had gone terribly wrong. Nazi Germany was triumphant. Hitler and his army had swept all before them, knocking down the nations of Europe like ninepins. Last to go was France. Now the ever-victorious Luftwaffe turned its attention to Britain.
There was one last bulwark against the Nazis’ final victory through invasion of Great Britain: her Royal Navy. Supreme in confidence, and in ships too, with the German navy small and battered by the Norway campaign. But only supreme in ships until France fell. Because then the Nazis had in their grasp the most powerful and well-equipped of European navies, strong in numbers and in modem fighting ships: the Marine Nationale of France. At a stroke Hitler’s crucial shortage of ships for his navy would be over.
Churchill could not allow this to happen – and he had to show the USA, essential to the survival of a world free of tyranny, that he would not allow it to happen. A terrible tragedy was unfolding – one that has haunted France and Britain ever since.
So began Operation Catapult, an operation of annihilation by a Royal Navy task force led by the iconic HMS Hood. It was perhaps the darkest task ever undertaken by British arms. A former naval ally would be told to come over Britain’s side with her ships, or face annihilation at anchor in the key naval base of Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria. In the confusion of defeat and occupation the French Admiral refused. And so the “carnage, pure and utter” began.
In a 13 minute bombardment, 1,297 French sailors were killed as salvoes of giant shells rained down on a fleet stuck at anchor. It was a breach of trust, a savage blow against a former ally that poisoned Franco-British relations. A tragedy in the true, classical sense. Unforgiveable - and inevitable. And forgotten.
Quickly overshadowed here by the victory of ‘The Few’ in the air, the Blitz on British cities, and then the desperate struggles at sea and on land, with defeat always looming, the terrible suffering and loss of life inflicted on a nation already in great pain faded swiftly away. That fading was reinforced by a swift acceptance of ‘Catapult’s bloody work. Fearful of Parliament’s response, Churchill was moved to tears when MP’s cheered him to the echo. And the will to win in his decision was not lost on President Roosevelt, convincing him to push the US congress to support Britain with the Destroyers for Bases and later Lend-lease.
Till now – little indeed. Tragedy piled on tragedy. Everywhere, across Europe with WWI commemoration years and with the big event of commemorating D-day , everyone is compelled to pay tribute and give their respect to those who fell. A lot is covered on TV with drama and documentaries, on digital platforms and in museums. All will be - except the 1,297 lost at Mers-el-Kébir and their stories. Our documentary will shed new light on this fatal day, which changed the course of the war by keeping supreme the one force that at that moment could resist Nazism - and ensure the eventual recovery of freedom and democracy in Europe. But what a price was paid. Today very few in both Britain and France have even heard the name of this tragic place. The French sailors who survived are still considered an embarrassment in France, and orphans remember how badly their families were treated.
Many of the dead remain buried in Algeria, but their graves have been desecrated, and there is still no political interest in repatriating the remains of these slaughtered sailors to their families. On a national scale, the damage done by perfide Albion that day still has the power to poison relations already fraught – though veterans of both navies have reached out to each other, with ceremonies of remembrance held in Brittany on the 70th anniversary of the catastrophe.
With the wholehearted support of the Mers-el-Kébir and HMS Hood Associations, over the summers of 2013/14 Caramie Productions has recorded well over 16 hours of interview footage with veterans, survivors, orphans and historians of the incident.
This broadcast-quality HD footage tells tales of heroism and tragedy, peppered with many personal accounts and touching tales of life at sea – all of this with deep respect for the souls lost and a desire to heal the wounds inflicted at Mers-el-Kébir.
Our film will tell this difficult and at times heart-wrenching story with grace and reverence. Eye witness accounts and stories from those closely linked to the incident provide the backdrop for a historically enthralling story. A story that changed the world – but one that we forgot to remember.
The Fatal day (previous title: The Forgotten 1297)