one of the most momentous decisions of his career

Asset Denial/Denial, in military affairs, a defensive strategy used to make it prohibitively difficult for an opponent to achieve a military objective.

On July 3, 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to make one of the most momentous decisions of his career. Early that morning, he ordered a British fleet to arrive off the naval base of Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa and demand the surrender of the French vessels there.

The British were to offer the French admiral four alternatives intended to prevent the French fleet’s falling into the hands of the Germans. If the French commander refused the terms, his ships would be sunk by the British force. If the British were compelled to open fire, it would be the first time in 125 years that the two navies were arrayed against one another in hostility.

Now, as the day grew hotter, Admiral Somerville could only steam back and forth outside Mers el Kebir and Oran, waiting anxiously for Captain Holland to signal back reports on the progress of his negotiations with the French. Two and a half hours passed while Holland, Admiral Somerville, and the War Cabinet in distant London all waited for Admiral Gensoul’s response. It was a tense, impotent time, particularly for the Force H commander.

Securing British Naval Supremacy

After the fateful actions at Oran, Mers el Kebir, and Dakar, Force H was active in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Led by Vice Admiral Sir Neville Syfret and then Vice Admiral Algernon U. Willis after Somerville departed early in 1942, the task force took part in the dramatic pursuit and destruction of the 42,000-ton German battleship Bismarck, the invasions of Madagascar, northwest Africa, and southern Europe, and provided the main escort for vital convoys to Malta. Its fighting strength fluctuated, but the ships most associated with Force H were Ark Royal, the 32,000-ton battlecruiser Renown, and the 9,100-ton heavy cruiser Sheffield. Force H was disbanded in October 1943, when Allied naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Theater was no longer in dispute.

Most of the remaining French Fleet had been scuttled at Toulon on November 27, 1942, following the Allied invasion of North Africa, to prevent its seizure by Germany after the Nazi takeover of Vichy France.

The initial commander of Force H, Admiral Somerville, was knighted in 1941 and appointed commander in chief of the Royal Navy’s hastily created Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean in February 1942. Acknowledged as a highly successful surface commander, he served until August 1944, when he was replaced by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. Somerville then headed the Admiralty mission in Washington. He was promoted to admiral of the fleet in May 1945 and died in 1949.

WE&P: E Zorrilla.

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