Mers-el-Kebir (rerun)

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.

15 thoughts on “Mers-el-Kebir (rerun)”

  1. That incident may have determined FDR to support the British as it established their deadly seriousness about continuing the war. Churchill may have had that in mind, as well.

    Something like that was in Reagan’s mind when he fired the air traffic controllers in 1981. He probably was also thinking of Coolidge’s firing of the Boston police but it showed the Soviets that Reagan was no pushover.

    Too bad we have the opposite as president now. We will pay a dear price for this.

  2. I commented before I read the rest but agree completely. Darlan was quite anti-British before this incident and could not be trusted.

  3. The French were already angry with the British. The French had command of the Anglo-French forces. The British contingent was ordered to attack to the South. Instead, the British bugged out at Dunkerque. They saved their own forces and left the French to fend for themselves. You are looking at things totally from the British point of view.

  4. “You are looking at things totally from the British point of view.”

    The French were lying about the war and what they were doing. On the third day of the war, the Germans broke through the French lines at Sedan. The Germans reached the Channel on the 10th day of the battle. There was a supposed plan for a counter attack to cut the “nose off the crocodile” of the German intrusion. Th British shipped two crack units to Calais, even though it was under siege. Churchill did this to reassure the French even though he realized they might be lost. And they were.

    On May 22 Weygand, the French general, telephoned Ironside to tell him the French had recaptured Amiens, Albert and Peronne. This was a lie although there is a slight possibility that Weygand believed it. On May 23, Lord Gort the British commander ordered his troops to Dunkirk and the first thoughts about trying to evacuate them were mentioned. They did not believe it could be done.

    On May 24, the 14th day of the battle, Hitler for reasons still debated, halted his Panzers when they were close to Dunkirk. He may have thought the British would sign an armistice and did not want to fight an all out battle. Or he may have wanted to let the Luftwaffe do the job. Or he may have momentarily been too worried about the non-existent counterattack. Guderian could have beaten the British to Dunkirk.

    The evacuation began May 26 and ended June 4.

    The French army had collapsed and the British came very close to losing the entire BEF. They were also very close to losing the war. The RAF saved them and Churchill, who might have been ousted if either effort failed, went on to hold on until we came in and the Germans made the critical mistake of invading Russia.

    The bombardment of July 3 convinced Roosevelt, who had not yet committed to helping the British, that Churchill was not going to give in.

    In books written about the Normandy invasion, there is a good deal of pro-French romanticism about the Resistance and about the French attitude toward the invasion. Much of that is not true.

  5. Darlan could give all the assurances he wanted. In the end, he was governed by the Vichy regime; openly collaborationist at all points. If he was ordered to attack the British at a later date after being left alone, the ire, outrage, and sense of betrayal would have been reversed. And the French being French would have blown off any Brit sense of betrayal with the same excuse that it was war.

    It was not heroic, but it was war. One reason that heroism shines so brightly, is the less than shining background that is war.

    In the matter of showing seriousness, if we ever have a change of regime, and an American government; it is going to have to kick a** and not even bother with names in order to restore belief that we are not the world’s punching bag. I assume the Pajama Boys will then retire to their fainting couches.

  6. I guess that’s why it was so damned important that the bust was removed from the White House. Plain-speaking courageous men, without alias’ or bluestocking’s to hide behind, did what had to be done. Even though it was a relatively short time ago, it’s as though describing the incident was something otherworldly compared to the cowardly and treasonous behaviors of the day. Subotai is right on the money, it’s going to take someone extraordinary to face the external as well as the internal threats.

  7. “They saved their own forces and left the French to fend for themselves.” Untrue; they left many British troops behind at Dunkirk, evacuating French troops instead – who, after being returned to France, were duly surrendered to the Germans.

  8. Mike and Dearieme-Well argued but irrelevant. We already know the British viewpoint. The question was why did France not merely turn over its fleet to the British. See, for instance, André Beaufre’s comments in the “World at War” documentary. France was offended by Britain’s actions whether deserved or not.

  9. The best example of Vichy French perfidy I know is the story of Ralph Fralick who took 40 of his men in a small boat to Indochina where he reported to the French authorities. They, in turn, immediately turned his men over to the Japanese. The story in brief is here and in WEB Griffin;s book “Behind the Lines.”

    In World War II, on Luzon, a friend Lieutenant Ralph Fralick successfully escaped from Bataan before its surrender, with forty of his men. After a desperate 1200-mile voyage in an open boat, they arrived at Hanoi, then French Indochina.
    Fralick formed up his starving, exhausted, but still-proud troops and marched them to report to the French authorities. Salutes were exchanged, and then the French turned the Americans over to their allies the Japanese. Fralick survived four horrible years of Japanese captivity.
    To the end of his life (1993) he hated all things French.

    The French were seriously infected by fascism in 1940 and their surrender was probably a result. I have read a couple of books on the French campaign in 1940 and it is clear that they could have given a much better account if motivation had existed.

  10. “The question was why did France not merely turn over its fleet to the British.” The first question is who decided it. Was it Johnny-on-the-spot, or was it orders from above? Was the motive to avoid, say, a Nazi slaughter of French POWs in retaliation? Or of Vichy men e.g. Petain himself? Or to avoid a Nazi invasion and suppression of Vichy France altogether? Was there a functioning chain of command? If there was, did it have secure communications?

    It’s odd that they couldn’t find an easy way out e.g. have the reduced crews sail off across the Atlantic, and have the regime blame the Admiral for acting on his own initiative.
    But is there any point asking why they didn’t rise to the occasion? The whole lamentable business of French performance in 1940 still seems astonishing in hindsight.

  11. British forces fought the Vichy French in Syria and Lebanon in the summer of 1941 to gain control of French colonies and prevent potential Axis attacks against the Suez Canal. There were thousands of casualties. It’s not generally known about because war censors didn’t want to offend the free French. Even now there are few historical records of it. I found a good account from an Australian history web site it from the Wikipedia entry. Many Aussies fought in the Middle East campaign.

  12. There was also hope that the French would not oppose the Torch landings but they did and there were quite a few casualties.

    Eisenhower got into a lot of trouble by asking Darlan to intercede with the local Vichy officers.

  13. The British made the same mistake in Syria. They thought the Vichy French would roll over, but instead they fought fiercely and repeatedly counterattacked. The French had air superiority, an advantage in tanks, pretty effective naval presence, and held terrain well suited for defensive actions.

    There were three thrusts in the campaign:

    One up the Mediterranean coast to Beirut involving mostly Australian troops and Jewish commandos.

    Another from Iraq, which was just conquered, and through Northern Syria mostly by Indian troops including Gurkhas  (the most successful thrust which actually stormed through al Raqqa, currently ISIS HQ, and Palmyra- if only they would let them loose in Syria nowadays).

    The third from Galilee through Golan moving towards Damascus with a diverse group of Aussies, Indians, Jews, and Free French. At Kissoue saw the Vichy French fighting the Free French:é

    Although, the Australian military history account makes clear that the Free French brigades mostly consisted of Algerians who didn’t show much fighting spirit. To their credit, though, they were chronically short of basic supplies as supply lines were easily interdicted by Vichy planes, and they were substantially outgunned.

    Eventually the Vichy French couldn’t hold out from being assaulted on three sides (another lesson that could be applied today perhaps). The British finally got their fighter planes in place to neutralize the French in the air.  The Aussies then were able to use their artillary to push north and take Beirut. The rest of Syria crumbled after that.

    It’s an interesting history. The campaign probably wasn’t particularly fought well by either side, but it was a unique alignment of forces which you don’t hear about very much.

    The Vichy French in the Levant were long serving colonial forces and Legionaires, so they must not have felt as much allegiance to the particulars of the European alliances. Plus they may have also come under the influence of some of their more radical  subjects like the fascist Baathist movement.

    Whether because of their far flung location or breakdown in command, they also seemed to no longer feel moral responsibility. One revealing excerpt in the Australian history from the advance to Damascus:

    The Australians found that Jebel Mazar was capped by two small knoll s 200 yards apart. Murchison posted some of his men on one of them and some on the other, and they took up positions in the sangars an d shallow connecting trenches the French had abandoned . He was inspecting the area in the half-light when he saw what he thought was a crumple d groundsheet lying on the hillside with a helmet beside it. But the helmet rose and below it appeared the head of a French officer who was sheltering in a small trench. Murchison thrust his pistol towards him . “Ha!” said the Frenchman. “There are no Germans here .” “What of it?” said Murchison . “Then why are you fighting?” asked the Frenchman . “Because I’ve been told to,” replied Murchison, adding after a littl e hesitation, “because you are collaborating with the Huns .” And in this style there was a brisk argument on the rights and wrongs of the campaign . The French officer was the artillery observer who had been directin g fire on the British positions below.

  14. The Australians got the short end of the stick in Gallipoli and at Tobruk. It’s a wonder they kept up the enthusiasm for Blighty.

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