WAR: WOLRD WAR II: Sinking of French Fleet in 1940 and British Attack

RAndy Black writes: It is obvious that David Pike has extensive knowledge about Britain and France. Might he offer his opinion as to how the French view the British action (Force H) to sink the French Navy in 1940, when the French were ready to turn their warships over to the Axis? Do the French still harbor grudges against the Brits for sinking much of its Navy at Mers-el-Kebir? I realize that this action resulted in the sinking of numerous French warships, but at the same time, it precipitated the surrender of 1 battleship, 3 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 12 sloops, 6 submarines, along with numerous other craft to the British later. Had the French successfully turned their Navy over to the Axis and Hitler, the combined Italian, German and French Navies might have been able to overwhelm the Royal Navy, thus the decision to sink the French ships was a sound one. How does David Pike view this element of history, but more importantly, what do the French think today?
Mers-el-Kebir is a port near Oran in Algeria. It was the scene of the destruction of a large part of the French fleet in World War II.  See.
www.angelfire.com/ia/totalwar/MersElKebir.html - 7k

David Pike writes: Randy Black invites me to give my opinion on the British naval action in mid-1940 against the French fleet. I can offer only my impressions, with "facts" based on memory.  The French Navy, at the moment of the defeat of France, was obviously dispersed around the world, but its main fleets were in Toulon, Mers-el-Kebir, Casablanca, and Dakar. I do not know of any vessels captured by the Germans in Brest, their main Atlantic port. Nor do I know of any strong action by the Royal Navy against the Marine Nationale other than
that at Mers-el-Kebir.

First, it is wrong to say that Jean François Darlan, as the proud commander-in-chief of the Navy, had any intention of passing over any part of his fleet to Hitler. But he was no different from any other anglophobic French admiral who could not get over Trafalgar, and I understand it is true, and not an invention, that every French matelot then, if not now, wore a black strip inside his white  vest as a commemoration of that defeat. Petain's appointment of Darlan to replace Laval as Prime Minister at the end of 1940 is of interest. Petain and Laval were not getting along; Petain considered that Laval was forcing his hand toward entering the war on the Axis side. But Hitler, not Petain, would decide if Laval was to be replaced, and Hitler would agree only if Laval was replaced by somebody even more anglophobic than Laval. Hence Darlan as Prime Minister. When later Hitler ordered Laval to be reinstated, Darlan returned to full-time watch on the Navy. When the Allies landed in North Africa in November 1942, Darlan happened to be in Algiers (only to see his son in hospital), but when
Hitler ordered the invasion of the Zone Libre and German forces raced to take the fleet in Toulon, the French admiral in Toulon remained loyal to his pledge to Darlan that if ever that should happen the fleet in Toulon
was to be scuttled. This, more than Mers-el-Kebir, ensured that France would not have a seat at Yalta.

What happened at Mers-el-Kebir?  In the 1960s I circulated just enough in French naval circles to see that they resolutely refused to admit the truth as to what Admiral Somerville proposed to Admiral Gensoul. The French naval version of the time (perhaps now officially refuted) is that the French had only two options; surrender or be destroyed, to which French pride required that they not surrender. In fact Churchill, who indeed saw this as a matter of life and death, made three offers: join us (which is hardly the same as surrender to us), scuttle, or sail to a neutral port (not in the Antilles, already under the Vichy admiral Robert) but almost anywhere else; why not
the US or Mexico? It seems that only a traditional bitterness prevented the French from reaching the obvious and only honorable solution. Probably Somerville was a disaster as a diplomat. In the action that ensued, with
Somerville ordering the Royal Navy squadron from Gibraltar to open fire, everything went wrong. The purpose was to sink the ships, not kill the crews. The RN was using torpedoes rather than shells to reduce casualties,
but one torpedo went straight through a French liberty ship packed with seamen. The reaction in the French press, stoked of course by the French Navy, created such a war fever that French planes were ordered to bomb
Gibraltar. Imagine the delight in Berlin.

The sabotage at Toulon tended to dilute the criticism over Mers-el-Kebir. De Gaulle in London was at first incensed when he first heard the news of Mers-el-Kebir, but he came around to agreeing that in the circumstances Churchill had absolutely no alternative. The fleet in Mers-el-Kebir was substantial, and Hitler's promise in 1940 that he would leave the French Navy intact and in French hands was no reassurance at all. I would say that the myth of "once-again-perfidious-Albion" still lives at a popular level among those who read certain street magazines, but certainly no educated person would cling any longer to this belief.

RH: The Vichy leaders came to a sad end. Darlan was assassinated.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 16, 2005