DNA double‐strand break (DSB) repair by homologous recombination (HR) requires 3′ single‐stranded DNA (ssDNA) generation by 5′ DNA‐end resection. During meiosis, yeast Sae2 cooperates with the nuclease Mre11 to remove covalently bound Spo11 from DSB termini, allowing resection and HR to ensue. Mitotic roles of Sae2 and Mre11 nuclease have remained enigmatic, however, since cells lacking these display modest resection defects but marked DNA damage hypersensitivities. By combining classic genetic suppressor screening with high‐throughput DNA sequencing, we identify Mre11 mutations that strongly suppress DNA damage sensitivities of sae2∆ cells. By assessing the impacts of these mutations at the cellular, biochemical and structural levels, we propose that, in addition to promoting resection, a crucial role for Sae2 and Mre11 nuclease activity in mitotic DSB repair is to facilitate the removal of Mre11 from ssDNA associated with DSB ends. Thus, without Sae2 or Mre11 nuclease activity, Mre11 bound to partly processed DSBs impairs strand invasion and HR.