ON JUNE 22, 1940, the French signed an armistice that left Germany largely in charge of the northern half of France with Vichy in charge of the southern half and the French colonial empire. No one, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, knew whether Britain would fight on alone or seek its own armistice with Germany, as Hitler and many other European leaders anticipated. Winston Churchill believed that to continue the war he had to prevent France’s naval fleet, the second largest in Europe, from falling under German or Italian control. The fleet, which had seen little fighting, was intact; about 40 percent of its tonnage was in Toulon near Marseilles, another 40 percent in North Africa and about 20 percent in the United Kingdom, Alexandria and the French West Indies.
The Franco-German armistice had left the fleet in the hands of Vichy France, though under German and Italian “administrative supervision.” Churchill’s nightmare was that the Axis would take possession of much of the fleet through pressure on the French government or with a quick armored thrust to Toulon. A combined Franco-Italian-German fleet could dominate the Mediterranean.
While the German navy and Mussolini lobbied to make Churchill’s nightmare real, Hitler had a more sophisticated calculus. He feared the French fleet would sail for the United Kingdom if Germany tried to take it over. Hitler therefore turned down Mussolini’s request to assume control of the fleet in a June 18 meeting in Munich, explaining that French destroyers under British control would tilt the military balance against German submarines in the Atlantic. Thus, both Churchill and Hitler saw the French fleet more as a threat than potential asset.
Vichy France had its own calculus. Senior French officials led by Head of State Philippe Pétain believed correctly that the threat of the French fleet joining the United Kingdom provided a certain leverage over the Germans, including keeping them out of the unoccupied French zone and perhaps out of the French North African colonies as well. The French in fact had made the armistice contingent on their right to man their own naval vessels. Their naval chief of staff François Darlan, for his part, sailed the Atlantic fleet to Toulon and destroyed the Atlantic naval bases to thwart German designs as France collapsed. He gave orders to his admirals to scuttle their ships if the Germans tried to take them—something he told Britain’s First Sea Lord Dudley Pound on June 18. Gen. Charles de Gaulle assured the British that the French naval commander was serious. “The fleet is Darlan’s fief. A feudal lord does not surrender his fleet.”
DESPITE THESE assurances, the British began to pepper the French with questions about the fleet’s future as the fighting drew to an end. Darlan compared those polite but insistent interrogations to “heirs visiting a dying man.” Since the British could do little about the fleet in Toulon, which was well guarded by shore artillery, they turned to the fleet in North Africa. Churchill was particularly concerned about two modern battle cruisers at Mers el-Kebir, three miles west of Oran, the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg, and two modern battleships, the Richelieu at Dakar in Senegal, and the Jean Bart at Casablanca. All were superior to their German equivalents.
Initially, Britain’s naval officials were strongly opposed to attacking the North African fleet even if the French navy refused the British ultimatum to France: sail the fleet to the UK or the French Caribbean, or scuttle it. The naval officials had two concerns: Militarily, an attack might not sink the most modern French vessels and would probably result in British losses. After the attack, France would likely retaliate; at worst, the UK could find itself in a naval war with France, including with its submarine fleet. Politically, the French colonial empire, whose loyalties were still uncertain, would be more likely to side with Vichy than with de Gaulle’s Free French Forces.
However, the British cabinet and senior naval officials (though not mid-level ones) soon came around to Churchill’s view as French officials turned aside British appeals. The British felt they could not risk having the North African fleet pick up anchor one night and arrive the next morning in Toulon, a glittering potential prize for Germany. Nor could the British spare ships to monitor the French fleet in the colonies indefinitely since Britain needed every ship possible for the Atlantic convoys from North America and the anticipated German invasion of the UK. On June 27, the cabinet decided it would use military force (Operation Catapult) unless its demands were met.
Churchill had a second reason to press for military action. According to his principal private secretary Eric Seal, “[Churchill] was convinced that the Americans were impressed by ruthlessness in dealing with a ruthless foe; and in his mind the American reaction to our attack on the French fleet in Oran was of the first importance.” Churchill was to keep Roosevelt informed about his plans, albeit discreetly.
ON JUNE 27, First Sea Lord Dudley Pound informed fifty-eight-year-old Vice Adm. James Somerville that he would command Force H, whose mission would be to neutralize the French fleet at Mers el-Kebir. Charming, intelligent, energetic and competent, Somerville was beloved by his men and respected by his French counterparts. When informed of his appalling task, Somerville assumed that the French would cede to British demands even if at the last minute. He told his naval commanders this in Gibraltar when they argued against the operation on June 30. On July 2, the admiralty sent Somerville the following message as Force H left for Oran: “You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly.”
Armed with three battleships, an aircraft carrier, two light cruisers and eleven destroyers, Force H arrived to blockade the Mers el-Kebir harbor on July 3 at 7:00 a.m. Somerville chose Capt. Cedric Holland, the former British naval attaché in Paris, to deliver the British ultimatum to French Adm. Marcel Gensoul: sail to the UK or the French Caribbean, or scuttle. Holland, who was on good terms with Gensoul from his Paris days, approached the harbor entrance on the British destroyer Foxhound. Gensoul, knowing almost certainly the purpose of the visit, refused to meet with Holland and ordered the Foxhound to withdraw. In a daring move, Holland got into the Foxhound’s motorboat and at 9:05 a.m. headed towards Gensoul’s command ship, the Dunkerque. Gensoul’s aide, Lt. Bernard Dufy, intercepted Holland in the admiral’s barge, took the ultimatum to Gensoul and returned an hour later with the latter’s firm response. France would “meet [British] force by force.” Thereafter, the pace of events accelerated:
12:30 p.m.—Somerville orders the harbor mined.
2:05 p.m.—The British intercept the French admiralty’s message ordering all French naval vessels in the Mediterranean to converge on Mers el-Kebir to defend the fleet there.
2:19 p.m.—Somerville informs Gensoul by naval signals that the attack will begin at 3:00 p.m.
2:30 p.m.—Gensoul signals to the British fleet that he will meet with Holland for an “honorable discussion.” (Gensoul’s real motive was no doubt to gain time for the French fleet to arrive.)
4:15 p.m.—Gensoul meets Holland in the stifling heat of the Dunkerque’s cabin and shows him Darlan’s June 27 cable ordering his commanders to scuttle their ships if the Germans tried to take them over.
5:12 p.m.—Somerville, knowing that the French fleet is coming, informs Gensoul that the British will open fire if the ultimatum is not accepted by 5:30 p.m. Gensoul reads the message in silence and says good-bye to Holland with surprising warmth. Dufy and Holland bid farewell to each other in tears.
It was not a fair fight. At 5:54 p.m., the British capital ships began pounding the French fleet, which could not maneuver in shallow waters to bring its guns to bear on the British fleet (fifteen thousand yards away). The British granted the French request for a cease-fire after twenty minutes of mayhem that left about 1,300 French sailors dead. On July 6, British aircraft attacked the Dunkerque, which had no sailors on board. Overall, Force H seriously damaged the Dunkerque, two battleships and a seaplane carrier. But the Strasbourg had managed to escape in the smoke of battle along with five destroyers to Toulon. Admiral Somerville wrote to his wife, “For letting the battle cruiser escape and not finishing off more French ships. . . . I shouldn’t be surprised if I was relieved forthwith. . . . The truth is my heart wasn’t in it and you’re not allowed a heart in war.”
That same day, the British seized French ships in UK ports with moderate resistance; the French surrendered control of their ships in Alexandria peacefully. On July 7, British torpedo bombers put the modern battleship Richelieu out of commission for almost a year at Dakar, Senegal. The British did not attack the modern battleship Jean Bart at Casablanca because they had learned the arming of the ship could not be completed there.
After the July 3 operation, Darlan immediately ordered the French fleet to attack British naval ships wherever possible. However, Pétain and Foreign Minister Paul Baudouin overruled Darlan’s order the next day. The compromise was a token, ineffective French air attack against the British base at Gibraltar. “The attack on our fleet is one thing, war is another,” Baudouin noted.
Churchill was greeted as a hero by the British parliament when he explained his actions; he took his seat with tears flowing down his cheeks.
Hitler told Italy’s Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano that the British attack was an act of madness that served German and Italian interests by sowing dissension between the recent allies. Germany subsequently permitted France to maintain its fleet armed rather than demobilized, as had been stipulated by the armistice. The British attack and the French hostile response strengthened Hitler’s view that he should not parcel out French North Africa to Mussolini and Franco.
MILITARILY, THE attacks were a mixed success. On the one hand, the British neutralized about half the French fleet and suffered no significant losses. On the other, only two of the four capital ships that Churchill most feared were put out of service. The Dunkerque was able to sail to Toulon within two years. Thus, the forecasts of Britain’s naval officers, opposed to the operation, had been overly pessimistic about possible British losses, but quite accurate about the limited damage to the capital ships.
Britain would also pay a price in the French Empire, as British skeptics had warned. French colonial forces defeated de Gaulle’s Free French Forces at Dakar in September 1940, cooperated with the Germans in Syria in the summer of 1941 and initially resisted allied forces in Morocco in November 1942. Recruitment for the Free French movement plummeted. None of these negative developments, however, were major setbacks.
A bitter Darlan had the last word. When the Germans tried to seize the fleet in Toulon in November 1942 in response to the allied invasion of Morocco, Darlan ordered the fleet to sail to North Africa. Instead, the local commander scuttled sixty-one ships. Darlan sent a letter to Churchill within days:
“Prime Minister you said to me ‘I hope you will never surrender the fleet.’ I replied, ‘There is no question of doing so.’ It seems to me you did not believe my word. The destruction of the fleet at Toulon has just proved that I was right.”
Churchill was right about the operation’s impact on global public opinion. Roosevelt’s aide, Harry Hopkins, told Britain’s ambassador in Washington, Sir John Colville, that the British attack convinced FDR that Britain was in the war for good. The attack therefore may have contributed to his decision to provide the UK with destroyers in September 1940. It also probably helped to convince Yugoslavia and Greece to resist Germany and Turkey, and Spain to remain neutral.
Thus, the British attack must be evaluated on two levels. In light of future events, the operation was a tragic mistake. Darlan was true to his word—though it had been a near-run thing with the German forces almost taking control of the ships at Toulon in November 1942. Moreover, the Battle of Britain several months after the Mers attack would have provided ample proof to the world that the British were serious about fighting on. Churchill could not have foreseen these events in July; his decision, therefore, was understandable.
Did Churchill make a mistake in encouraging the French fleet to join the British fleet? If the French had done so, would the Germans have taken Morocco and Algeria, thereby preventing or complicating the 1942 invasion? According to military historian Douglas Porch, this would have been highly unlikely. In 1940, Germany’s army had been stretched to its limits by the invasion of France. Neither Mussolini nor Franco wanted Germany to move into their backyards; by 1941, Berlin had turned its sights on the Soviet Union.
CHURCHILL’S ATTACKS against the French fleet offer four policy lessons. First, Operation Catapult suggests that, at times, leaders must consider using military power against friendly nations. Within three weeks of the armistice, Churchill was browbeating his naval officials into attacking their former ally. Perhaps he reminded them of the British naval attacks against the Danish fleet during the Napoleonic wars to prevent it from coming under the control of Napoleon and Russia.
The United States has engaged in military actions against friendly countries, if less dramatically. President Richard Nixon considered using military force in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war against Israel for all practical purposes. Initially, America supplied Israel with arms and munitions to stave off defeat, but then prepared plans to interpose American military forces to prevent Israel from crushing the Egyptian Third Army east of the Suez Canal, according to declassified Nixon-Kissinger telephone conversations.
Moreover, when the Falklands War broke out in 1982, Washington had to choose between its traditional British ally and Argentina, with whom it was working closely in Central America against Marxist guerrilla movements. It sided against Buenos Aires by providing extensive logistical support to the British, albeit clandestinely. There was a serious divide in the Reagan administration between UN ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who favored the Argentines, and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who favored the British. The special relationship prevailed, in a minor recapitulation of America’s aid to an embattled Great Britain at the outset of World War II. The staunchly Anglophile Weinberger explained that “the U.S. action” was predicated “not on the fear that our ally would be defeated, but a fear that aggression would succeed and a resolve that the very strong, decisive and admirable action that Britain was taking should not go unrewarded.” Writing in the National Interest in the Winter 1989/90 issue, Kirkpatrick observed, “I desire also to make clear that I utterly disapprove of force as a means to settle disputes in general, and so disapproved of the use of force by Argentina in particular. I also regretted the British decision to go to war to settle the dispute.”
Could similar events happen in the future? Quick regime reversals such as in 1940 are always possible. Imagine if nuclear proliferation were to spread in the Middle East in the wake of a nuclear Iran over the coming decades. If an unfriendly regime were to replace a friendly one, as the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt in 2013, then Washington might issue an ultimatum to turn over the nuclear inventory or face attack. Furthermore, Washington should at a minimum develop arms that can be disabled where possible if they are captured by enemy forces, as happened recently with ISIS capturing U.S. arms from the Iraqi Army.
One could imagine America withholding some forms of military support to force Taiwan to walk back from a declaration of independence in order to prevent a larger clash between Beijing and Washington. The United States could, for example, refuse to help the Taiwanese fend off Chinese cyber attacks or to provide information for key American weapons systems until Taipei backed down from an independence declaration. And just as Nixon considered doing in 1973, U.S. naval forces might also be interposed between the mainland and Taiwan.
Second, military planning must take into account scenarios that are unlikely but not impossible and that have extremely high stakes. The collapse of France and the subsequent British naval attack at Mers el-Kebir dictates that the unexpected, even the astounding, must be taken into consideration in war planning. In early May 1940, British officials understandably could not conceive of a rapid and overwhelming German victory on land that would leave the French fleet intact. Within six weeks, they were faced with just such a situation.
Today, unlikely but fathomable military scenarios focus on biological or nuclear weapons. What if, for example, a ruthless dictator with an inventory of ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons commanded his forces from a deep underground urban bunker? The Obama administration should be commended for moving forward with the development of a low-yield and very accurate nuclear weapon, given the current lack of capability of conventional munitions to destroy deep bunkers. A future U.S. president should have the option to at least consider the use of such a weapon to prevent a nuclear-armed leader from attacking the U.S. homeland while limiting civilian casualties in a densely inhabited foreign city.
Third, the Mediterranean theater that Churchill faced in early World War II may represent a future model for warfare. Unlike the Atlantic, Churchill had to work in a very crowded space: the Germans in Italy, Greece, Crete and North Africa; the Italians in Italy and North Africa; and potential opponents in France and Spain. Enemy bases, planes and ships were never far off. In today’s world, the proliferation of precision-guided weapons has made the small distances of the Mediterranean and, especially, the Persian Gulf even more dangerous. These same weapons are shrinking distances even in the vast Pacific, insofar as Chinese forces can reach U.S. ships increasingly quickly. The Pacific of the future will resemble the Mediterranean of World War II more than the Pacific of World War II.
Fourth, Operation Catapult underscores the need for civilian involvement at the military operational level. In 1940, the senior civilian leaders in Britain, France and Germany proved to be more strategic in their thinking than their senior military officials. Churchill confronted the future of the French fleet decisively; British naval officers, initially at least, wanted to accept Darlan’s promises without considering such scenarios as German blackmail to force French naval cooperation. Hitler was sensitive to the danger of the French fleet sailing to England; the German navy, which wanted to lay its hands on the fleet even though it may not have had the personnel to man it, seemed oblivious to this. Pétain and Baudouin overruled Darlan, who wanted to launch a naval war against the UK.
While civilian leaders can engage in micromanagement and generally ill-informed amateurishness, Mers el-Kebir illustrates that senior military leaders can just as often suffer from professional tunnel vision. For example, the George H. W. Bush administration, in its desire not to repeat the putative civilian micromanagement of the Vietnam War, failed to monitor the U.S.-Iraq armistice negotiations. CENTCOM commander Norman Schwarzkopf’s respect for his Iraqi military brethren probably contributed to his decision to approve their request to use helicopters in southern Iraq, which were then used against the Shia uprising. Similarly, the George W. Bush administration failed to question the absence of CENTCOM plans for the postwar occupation of Baghdad; commander Tommy Franks did not like “messy” peacekeeping missions. And the Obama administration squandered, to some degree, its troop surge in Afghanistan by failing to question the deployment of Marines to the sparsely populated Helmand Province—to avoid coming under Army command in neighboring heavily populated Kandahar Province, the key to influence in southern Afghanistan. Civilian leaders should be more attuned to the big picture, as they were in the 1940s.
Churchill’s Greek tragedy must not be allowed to languish in the past.
Thomas Parker spent three decades working for U.S. national-security agencies and currently teaches at George Washington University in the District of Columbia ([email protected]).
Image: The HMS Hood in 1924. Photographer: Allan C. Green 1878 - 1954; Restoration: Adam Cuerden. Public domain.