The construction of Dreadnought created a problem for the French Navy. The French had begun construction of a class of six advanced pre-dreadnoughts at almost the same time as Dreadnought. These ships were comparable in quality with the best pre-dreadnought battleships around the world, but they were no match for Dreadnought. Sadly, French naval construction proceeded slowly, and the six Danton class ships occupied all of the large French construction slips. Thus, the French arrived very late to the dreadnought game. The first French effort, the Courbet class, turned out well enough for a series of ships built in 1910. Unfortunately, they were not completed until 1914. The Bretagne and her sisters were an improvement on the Courbet class.
Bretagne, slowed by World War I, was commissioned in late 1915. She carried 10 13.4″ guns, displaced 29000 tons, and could make 20 knots. Her armor was somewhat lighter than foreign contemporaries. Bretagne was completely outclassed by the ships emerging from British, Japanese, and American yards. The Nevada class carried heavier guns, more (and better arranged) armor, and could make a higher speed. The British Queen Elizabeth’s could easily outgun and outrun the French ships, as could the Japanese Fuso class. At the time of construction, Bretagne would probably have proven more than a match for the Italian Giulio Cesare, but after the modernizations of both ships in the 1930s, Giulio Cesare was clearly the superior unit.
Bretagne’s career was relatively uneventful. She spent most of World War I in the Mediterranean, preparing for the possible break out of the Austrian Navy. In World War II she escorted some Mediterranean convoys from North Africa to France, but Italy did not enter the war until just before France’s surrender. After the surrender, Bretagne found herself with a French naval squadron at the port Mers El Kebir, not too far from Oran in what is now Algeria. The French fleet had, by and large, escaped the Fall of France unscathed. The world, and especially London, now wondered what the disposition of the fleet would be. Shortly after the armistice, Winston Churchill decided to stop waiting.
On July 3, 1940, a Royal Navy task force paid a visit to Mers El Kebir. The task force consisted of the battleships Valiant, Resolution, and Hood, along with the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and several smaller ships. The visit was not friendly. Winston Churchill had determined that the French fleet was a threat to the United Kingdom. Two Royal Navy admirals bitterly disagreed with Churchill on this point; they felt that destroying the French fleet would be a political disaster. French ships in other locations were forceably seized, but this was not an option at Mers El Kebir. The French fleet consisted of Provence, Bretagne, Strasbourg, Dunkerque, and six modern destroyers. Provence and Bretagne were old, slow battleships that could contribute little to either side; they lacked the speed to operate with the main battle line of the Italian Navy, and the British already had an excess of old, slow battleships. Dunkerque, Strasbourg, and the six destroyers were the real prizes. In Axis hands they would have the speed and firepower to stiffen the Italian battlefleet. The same qualities made the two battlecruisers valuable to the Royal Navy; in British or Free French hands, they might have been used to hunt German raiders (imagine them at the Battle of Denmark Strait, with Hood and Prince of Wales), or stiffen British forces in the Pacific.
The British ultimatum was simple. The French could join the British and continue the war against Germany. They could sail their ships to British ports and allow them to be taken over by the Royal Navy until the end of the war. Finally, they could sail their ships to the West Indies where they would be demilitarized or turned over to the care of the United States. The French response to this ultimatum was, more or less, “Can’t we all just get along?” The British reply came in the form of salvos of 15″ shells.
The French fleet was not prepared for combat. Provence and Dunkerque were each struck by several 15″ shells, but managed to beach themselves and escape serious damage. Bretagne was not so fortunate. Her armor was not up to modern standards, and one of the 15″ shells apparently penetrated a magazine before exploding. Bretagne exploded and rolled over thirteen minutes into the engagement. Strasbourg and five of the six modern destroyers escaped the harbor with only minor damage, making their way eventually to Toulon. The British fleet attacked Dunkerque later that week, inflicting minor damage but not preventing Dunkerque from also moving to Toulon under her own power.
The attack at Mers El Kebir must be seen as a political and operational disaster of the highest order for Great Britain. Having decided to attack its erstwhile ally, the British brought insufficient force to do the job, and allowed the most powerful French ships to escape with minimal damage. Moreover, the deaths of 1300 French sailors (roughly 1100 on Bretagne) were a massive propaganda victory for the Germans, and undoubtedly made the job of Charles Degaulle and the Free French much more difficult. Much of the blame must lie with Winston Churchill, who fundamentally misunderstood the French political situation in 1940. Even after Mers El Kebir, the French did not hand their fleet over to the Axis, and in fact scuttled most of their ships at Toulon in 1942, in order to avoid German capture. Had Mers El Kebir not happened, those ships might have found their way to Gibraltar or Malta, instead of to the bottom.
Trivia: When the German Bismarck was commissioned in August 1940 she became the largest battleship in the world. What ship held this title before Bismarck, and what ship held it after?