One of the many tragedies of the World War II era was a heartbreakingly fratricidal affair known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kebir.
I’ve written before about the defeat of France in 1940 and the political, social, and military factors behind this disaster. Following the resignation of Paul Reynaud on June 16, the premiership was assumed by the First World War hero Philippe Petain, who immediately asked the Germans for an armistice. With an eye toward revenge, Hitler chose the Forest of Compiegne…the same place where the armistice ending the earlier war had been executed…as the venue for the signing of the documents. Indeed, he insisted that the ceremonies take place in the very same railroad car that had been employed 22 years earlier.
The armistice provided that Germany would occupy and directly control about 3/5 of France, while the remainder of the country, together with its colonies, would remain nominally “free” under the Petain government. (One particularly noxious provision of the agreement required that France hand over all individuals who had been granted political asylum–especially German nationals.)
Winston Churchill and other British leaders were quite concerned about the future role of the powerful French fleet…although French admiral Darlan had assured Churchill that the fleet would not be allowed to fall into German hands, it was far from clear that it was safe to base the future of Britain–and of the world–on this assurance. Churchill resolved that the risks of leaving the French fleet in Vichy hands were too high, and that it was necessary that this fleet join the British cause, be neutralized, be scuttled, or be destroyed.
The strongest concentration of French warships, encompassing four battleships and six destroyers, was the squadron at Mers-el-Kebir in French Algeria. On July 3, a powerful British force under the command of Admiral James Somerville confronted the French fleet with an ultimatum. The French commander, Admiral Jean-Bruno Gensoul, was given the following alternatives:
(a) Sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans.
(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated at the earliest moment.
If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.
(c) Alternatively if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans unless they break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies — Martinique for instance — where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.
If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6 hours.
Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German hands.
The duty of delivering this ultimatum was assigned to the French-speaking Captain Cedric Holland, commander of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.
Among the ordinary sailors of both fleets, few expected a battle. After all, they had been allies until a few days earlier.
Robert Philpott, a trainee gunnery officer on the battleship Hood: “Really it was all very peaceful. Nobody was doing any firing; there was a fairly happy mood on board. We all firmly believed that the ships would come out and join us. We know the French sailors were just anxious to get on with the war. So we didn’t think there would be a great problem.”
André Jaffre, an 18-year-old gunner on the battleship Bregagne: “Our officer scrutinizes the horizon, then looks for his binoculars and smiles. What is it, captain? The British have arrived! Really? Yes. We were happy! We thought they’d come to get us to continue fighting against the Nazis.”
Gensoul contacted his superior, Admiral Darlan. Both men were incensed by the British ultimatum: Gensoul was also personally offended that the British had sent a mere captain to negotiate with him, and Darlan was offended that Churchill did not trust his promise about keeping the French fleet out of German hands. Darlan sent a message–intercepted by the British–directing French reinforcements to Mers-al-Kebir, and the British could observe the French ships preparing for action. All this was reported to Churchill, who sent a brief message: Settle matters quickly. Somerville signaled the French flagship that if agreement were not reached within 30 minutes, he would open fire.
It appears that one of the the options in the British ultimatum–the option of removing the fleet to American waters–was not transmitted by Gensoul to Admiral Darlan. Whether or not this would have made a difference, we cannot know.
As Captain Holland saluted the Tricolor preparatory to stepping back into his motor launch, there were tears in his eyes. Almost immediately, Admiral Somerville gave the order to fire to open fire.
The French squadron was in no position to take evasive action, and very soon the 15-inch shells from the British battleships were accurately and repeatedly striking their targets.
Leon La Roux, a 19-year-old messenger aboard the French flagship Dunkerque: “I can’t describe what it was like. There was fear, terror, a deafening noise that makes your ears bleed and you think about yourself, of course, but you also think about the others.”
The third British salvo resulted in a magazine explosion aboard Bretagne, which quickly capsized and sank. After only 10 minutes, Admiral Somerville gave the order to cease fire. In this brief engagement, 1300 French sailors were killed.
British sailor Robert Philpott: “It was shattering to see, to see what we had just done. There was smoke, fires burning everywhere. It was a scene of utter devastation. I think the whole crew were very upset. It was not something we were very proud about.” Phipott’s commander, Admiral Somerville, was also despondent, writing that “this was the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us – we all feel thoroughly ashamed.”
This Daily Mail article describes the political consequences that actually did follow from the attack:
For the first time since the war began, Churchill was cheered from all sides of the house. According to Harold Nicolson, who was present: ‘The House is first saddened by this odious attack, but is fortified by Winston’s speech. The grand finale ends in an ovation, with Winston sitting there with tears pouring down his cheeks’…Washington was delighted. One major strategic worry (the fate of the French fleet) was removed. And another one (Britain’s will and ability to fight) was much reduced. Roosevelt’s attitude to naval aid for Britain quickly changed and soon Churchill had a deal on his 50 destroyers, the first important sign of American support for Britain and a huge boost to British morale.
Historian Andrew Lambert believes that the attack had a profound impact. ‘It impresses the hell out of the American political class. Churchill is showing the Americans that the British mean business.’
The world’s attention quickly turned to the Battle of Britain. Without the RAF, Britain would likely lose the war, and no one should ever lessen its contribution to stopping Hitler. But without American support Britain faced much the same fate, if not in 1940 then soon thereafter.
And that’s why attacking the French was a real turning point, politically and psychologically.
Because at a primal, atavistic level, the fact that Britain was doing something bold and aggressive, even against a recent ally, made people feel better after months of retreat and humiliation.
Here was a sign that maybe all was not lost, that Churchill was in charge and that he would fight dirty if he had to.
Churchill himself put it this way: “It was made plain that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing.”
In France, there was widespread anger at what was seen as a British betrayal and an act of unnecessary brutality.
Leon La Roux: “We thought, ‘Who are these English savages?’ It was hate, just hate. Allies the day before and enemies the day after. They come and sink us. What do you expect the French to think? It was betrayal, yes. But not only a betrayal, it was murder. When you have your hands tied behind your back and the barrel of a gun is pointing at you. Would you call that a crime? Yes, it’s a real crime. It’s murder.”
The Germans and the Vichy regime, of course, took maximum propaganda advantage of Mers-el-Kebir, with posters showing a drowning French sailor and depicting Churchill as an octopus, grasping at the French empire.
Decades later, some French survivors remain bitter. Leon LaRoux: “Winston Churchill should have believed the orders given to the French fleet and signed by Admiral Darlan. I do not forgive Churchill, I do not forgive the British government. I will never forgive.”
Andre Jaffre, though, offers a different point of view: “It’s not betrayal. It was war and everything that comes with it. Have you ever seen an intelligent war? Let’s say I was sad, deeply sad to know that our English friends had sunk us, but what can you do? I speak as an equal, as a French sailor to a British sailor. It’s our bosses who decide. And it’s always the same ones who suffer.”
Was it necessary? Once Gensoul and Darlan had made their decision, probably.
But a very, very sad affair.