What effects did the Mers-el-Kebir incident have on the civilian population in Morocco?


The German occupation of France meant that Britain had to review its attitude towards their old allies. France still had a large, modern navy and its main squadron was based on the coast of Morocco at Mers-el-Kébir, near Oran. Britain was determined that the French fleet should not fall into German hands. The Royal Navy’s Force H Commander, Sir James Somerville, gave the French forces at Mers-el-Kébir two options; either to surrender and scuttle (sink) their ships or join the British effort to defeat Nazi Germany. If they did not do so, the British threatened to attack and sink all the ships before they could be used by the Germans against them.

Crowds assembled at John Mackintosh Square on 11th July 1940.

When the French admiral refused to co-operate, the British fleet opened fire. A French battleship was sunk, two were badly damaged and more than 1,000 French sailors were killed. Three days later HMS Ark Royal arrived on the scene. She sank the French battleship ‘Dunkerque’, again inflicting a heavy death toll. British aircraft also attacked military facilities at Mers-el-Kébir.This incident enraged the Vichy French Government and the French Moroccan Air Force retaliated by bombing Gibraltar. One bomb landed on the Loreto Convent killing one of the nuns. Two other civilians were killed and eleven injured in other parts of the city. The French Government then demanded that all the Gibraltarian evacuees in Morocco should leave Casablanca at once.

Notice regarding accomodation in Casablanca.

By lucky coincidence Rear-Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton had just arrived in Casablanca with 15 cargo vessels returning 15,000 French soldiers and sailors who had been rescued from Dunkirk but now refused to fight with the Free French Forces led by General Charles de Gaulle. Creighton sent a signal to Vice-Admiral Sir Dudley North in Gibraltar advising him that there were 13,000 Gibraltarians waiting by the docks and who needed to be shipped out immediately. The situation in Morocco was getting desperate for the Gibraltarians especially after the news of the British attack on Mers-el-Kébir became known to the French authorities. He informed the Gibraltar authorities that for the sake of the welfare of the civilians he was repatriating .the civilian population back to Gibraltar as quickly as he could. To Creighton’s amazement, the Admiralty in Gibraltar refused to accept the Gibraltarian women and children returning to Gibraltar, stating in no uncertain terms, ‘For heaven’s sake don’t! We had enough trouble getting them out.’ Faced with the alternative of either abandoning the Gibraltarians in Morocco to the enemy or ignoring the signal, Creighton, thankfully, took the right decision and took all the refugees on board before returning to Gibraltar. Had he not done so, the consequences could have been terrible; old men, women and children sweltered without food, water or shade in the baking hot sun. Worse still, agitated French colonial troops were brutally herding the stricken refugees towards the crowded and dirty transport ships at bayonet point having forced many civilians to leave most of their belongings behind. The critical situation forced Creighton’s hand and, with no time given even to clean the transport ships before embarkation, the evacuees were hastily returned to Gibraltar. A potential massacre had miraculously been averted thanks to the prompt action of Admiral Creighton.

Destroyer Mogador running aground after having been hit by a 15-in round.

Nevertheless, even when safely aboard and returning home, the situation for the refugees did not get any better. With the first ships due to arrive, the Governor Sir Clive Liddell ordered that no evacuees would be allowed to disembark, fearing they would refuse to re-embark once the ships were cleaned properly. There were tense moments as Gibraltarian men rushed to the docks to try to get their loved ones out of the unsanitary ships, whilst British soldiers formed a picket line in order to prevent anyone disembarking.

Troop ship SS Thysville

This action led to a general protest strike and, as a result, shops were closed and workmen refused to return to work. Mass crowds assembled in John Mackintosh Square (known then as the Piazza) and the tense situation threatened to turn ugly. A delegation led by City Councillors, Antonio Baldorino and Sam Benady, together with the president of the Exchange Committee (now Gibraltar Chamber of Commerce), Abraham Serfaty, went to plead with the Governor to allow the evacuees to disembark. They gave assurances that they would all return onboard once the ships were cleaned and properly refitted. Sir Clive accepted the assurances and allowed the evacuees off the ships thus diffusing a potentially explosive situation. The civilian population had survived a terrible ordeal, but for those who were to be evacuated to London, the nightmare had also just begun.

Blackburn Skuas of No 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm prepare to take off from HMS Ark Royal