How the Battle of Mers-El-Kébir Kept the French Navy Out of Nazi Hands
December 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: FranceWorld War IIMilitaryTechnologyWorld

How the Battle of Mers-El-Kébir Kept the French Navy Out of Nazi Hands

The fight was actually a rare British vs French engagement during World War II.

Key point: London made a tough and ruthless call. France had fallend and the British decided they would rather sink the French fleet rather than risk their surrender or cooperation with Berlin.

It was the night of July 2, 1940. In May Hitler had overrun the Low Countries and driven the British Army to the English Channel. In June German armies had completed the rout of the British, pressing them out to sea at Dunkirk, and then swept down to finish off the French. Winston Churchill, practically a lone voice in the 1930s against the danger of Hitlerism, had been appointed prime minister on May 10, yet had presided over little except disaster, and knew it. “Wars are not won with evacuations,” he had said of the Dunkirk retreat, but even in those dark hours believed the French armies would stiffen and halt the Wehrmacht short of Paris, or at least along some line to which the British could return. He saw this new war as a child of the one that ended in 1918, the French and the British again holding up short the German soldiers and slowly pressing them back to their borders. Indeed, France and Britain each had made a pledge to the other not to make a separate peace with Germany. During the disasters on the Continent Churchill made several flights to France—to assess the situation, to rally the flagging leaders, and to assure the French that Britain would stand by them for as long as it took to ensure victory for the freedom-loving democracies over Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

This appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.

France Bargains with Hitler

Churchill believed—and expected—France would fight on, if need be; to give ground as slowly as possible, if necessary, through the streets of Paris, then south of Paris, even battling in a dogged retreat all the way to the Mediterranean, and not even stopping then but carrying on the fight from North Africa. By early June, however, there was real speculation that France would break its pledge against a separate peace and bargain with Germany. This would have grave effects on Britain. Rather than slowly giving ground and helping to wear down the Germans, the French armies would be out of the fight. Resistance in occupied areas would be minimized. The Germans and Italians would be able to turn their full force against their one remaining foe—Great Britain.

But these, it might be said, were the least of the possible consequences. If France dropped out of the war, its powerful Navy might well fall to the Germans. This had to be viewed with the utmost gravity. As Churchill well knew—he had been First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911-1915 and again in 1939-1940—Britain could only survive so long as it retained a general command of the sea. Losing that, it could not import food, it could not order and offload arms from America, and it could not communicate with its Commonwealth countries. Indeed, without a general command of the sea around its island, it could not stave off invasion by Werhmacht divisions and armor, which would make quick work of a British Army that had been forced to abandon nearly all its heavy equipment during its evacuation from Dunkirk.

A great deal of the British Navy would be needed to protect the North Atlantic sea lanes and the Channel. The supposition from the outbreak of the war in September 1939 was that the French fleet could protect the Mediterranean and adjoining portions of the Atlantic, countering the weight of the Italian Navy should it come in on the German side. This Italy did on June 10, as the French government was preparing to flee Paris. The Italian Navy was formidable but built to operate in the Mediterranean only; the French fleet was more than a match. Indeed, the French fleet was reckoned the fourth largest in the world. The brand-new Strasbourg and Dunkerque were deliberately designed to be more powerful than the German battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Almost finished was the Richelieu, believed by Britain’s First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Dudley Pound to be the world’s most powerful ship when it could be completely fitted.

All Hope Rested on the British Royal Navy

But should France declare a cease-fire and begin talks with the Nazis, the blow to Britain would be greater than having been pushed off the Continent at Dunkirk. Should the French surrender their fleet to the Germans and Italians, and should the Germans and Italians put the French ships to their own use, the combined German-Italian-French fleet (as estimated by U.S. Navy Intelligence officers at the time) would be half again as strong as the British Navy. This would not only deny to the British the Mediterranean—their conduit to the Middle East and their shortest passage to India—but also would threaten their control of the oceans around their island nation. Should the Royal Navy be overcome, all was lost for Britain.

On June 13 Churchill made his last and desperate trip to the fleeing French government, then in Tours. He argued passionately against a French collapse and separate peace. There was still hope, but he specifically approached the commander of the French Navy, Admiral Jean François Darlan. “You must never let them get the French fleet,” he told the Frenchman. Darlan was equally firm. He promised the British prime minister that the French Navy would never surrender to German authority.

But each day brought new tragedy; circumstances changed by the hour and France looked increasingly defeated, in spirit as well as in the field. Still, the British worked to keep them in the fight. Indeed, when France’s hour of agony was at its height, Churchill entertained and then proposed the notion that the two nations combine. This was meant to boost the position of French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, who wanted to keep his country in the war but who was facing terrific opposition from politicians ready to acquiesce to Germany. Churchill’s proposition was that “France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union, both peoples combining in a single citizenship and the Union having single departments of defense.” If this could be accomplished—and a meeting was set up with French politicians to do just that—then the French fleet would be under the command of the Union and would fight with the British under Union orders. France would not be out of the war and its navy would not be in danger of falling intact to Germany.

But by then France was too broken to be fixed. Power was shifting to those who wanted release from their pledge against a separate peace. Gone was the vision that this second war —like the one that had ended 21 years before— would be fought out on a line in France until Germans could be pressed back. All British grip on the Continent was gone; the French armies were gone. That was bad enough, but what was worse, the French fleet might go as well.

On June 16 Great Britain agreed to release France from its pledge of no separate peace, but with an important condition: “provided, but only provided, that the French Fleet is sailed forthwith to British harbours.”

“Such an Act Would Scarify Their Names for a Thousand Years of History.”

On the 17th Churchill wired the new government of France: “I wish to repeat to you my profound conviction that [you] will not injure their ally [Great Britain] by delivering over to the enemy the fine French fleet. Such an act would scarify their names for a thousand years of history.” In these critical days, the French ships could have put themselves out of reach of Germany, and some did. Some were already in British harbors, or in the great British fleet harbor of Alexandria, Egypt. Some sailed from southern France to West and North Africa. But Admiral Darlan, formerly head of the French Navy, was now a part of the new defeatist government, its minister of marine. He was resolved to keep the French ships out of German hands, but he made little substantive effort to move them. Indeed, as part of the government, he was bound ever more closely to the terms of the German-French armistice.

And these terms, when they were made public, greatly troubled Britain. Article 8 of the armistice, concerning the French fleet, read that the French ships “shall be collected in ports to be specified and there demobilized and disarmed under German or Italian control.” Here were British fears confirmed. If the ships were under German or Italian control, who could not say the Germans and Italians might change their minds about demobilizing and disarming them? They might suddenly seize them, arm them, man them, and sail them against the British, who certainly had ample evidence that Hitler was not a man who kept his word. Or Germany could say that in some manner France had violated armistice terms, nullifying the written agreements and allowing Germans to swoop down on the ships.