Here’s the situation. It’s July, 1940 and things are looking bad for Britain. France has capitulated and one of its most powerful fleets is stationed at Mers-el-Kébir, in French Algeria. A British fleet sails from Gibraltar, tasked with preventing it from falling under German control by any means possible.
The British present an ultimatum to the French, asking that they either join them in fighting Hitler, sail to a British port and be repatriated or sail to a French port far far away from Hitler’s grasp like Martinique or be destroyed.
After confused negotiations time has run out for the ultimatum and you can’t hang around. The French Admiral Darlan has assured the British that the French will scuttle their fleet before the Nazis seize it. The stakes are high and you can give the order to fire or retreat. What do you do?
In history Admiral Sir James Somerville gave the order to fire, killing 1,297 French sailors and badly damaging the French fleet. It outraged the French and sparked debate that continues to this day, some saying it proved Britain was serious about defeating Hitler whatever the cost and some saying it was unnecessary.
Let me get this straight: The French commander didn’t want to go somewhere safe and he didn’t want to fight. So who is stupid enough to believe that he intends to scuttle the ships? What’s his plan then? Maybe occupied France will just be so much more pleasant than Martinique? Or he thinks that naval fleets are outmoded and sailors can fight more effectively on land in the French resistance?
I don’t know the full context of this situation, but I just don’t see any scenario in which the French plans to scuttle the ships would be taken seriously when they have been given three better options at gunpoint.
He would have, but given the controversy it’s attracted some would think it a better option.
The full context beyond my brief summation. Incidentally, at Alexandria the same terms were presented and the French chose option 2, stay in the port. There’s also evidence though that the full ultimatum made at Mers-el-Kebir was never presented to Darlan, hence why negotiations were rather confused.
Later on though it turned out that the French were true to their word, when the Germans attempted to seize the fleet at Toulon - an explicit violation of the armistice terms, who’d have thought you couldn’t trust Hitler - the French scuttled it.
Eisenhower had, tongue in cheek, wished for a ‘damned good assassin’ to deal with him which became slightly awkward when he was…assassinated, and actually demanded to know whether SOE was involved. At a New Years Eve White House party Roosevelt remarked that he was just a ‘son of a bitch’. Although, as Darlan wrote to Churchill after Toulon, “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.”
He was in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation - afterwards he was deeply unhappy with his involvement and said * “…the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us…we all feel thoroughly ashamed…”* Germany until the end loved to try and divide the Allies and the attack was a propaganda coup for them in this regard, the French were not exactly enthused about la guerre Anglaise in the first place, Anglophobic sentiment drove many into the Vichy camp to actively oppose the Allies - in Syria, for example.
Just playing Devil’s advocate, I would’ve opened fire too; the Kreigsmarine was enough of a threat as it was.
Was the option, “Before we fire, we will send over boats to get all of your sailors off your ships,” available? If so, that should have been offered - otherwise, shoot. The only other real viable option I can think of - blockade the ships so they can’t do any damage against the Allies - doesn’t seem viable; you would need to tie up quite a bit of the Royal Navy.
It was unfortunate that it had to be done, but it had to be done. Somerville followed a legal order. It was also a reasonable order. The threat that the Nazis would take the fleet was a significant one; England did not trust Vichy France for a number of perfectly good reasons; and Darlan’s response was exactly the response one would expect from a commander who would be willing to give his fleet over to Vichy/the Nazis. He never did, as it turned out, but he did not give Britain anything approaching a reasonable reassurance of that.
Darlan and Gensoul’s actions were stupid, prideful, and cowardly. Had they ordered their ships to raise the Union Jack and fight with the British, they would today be regarded as great heroes of the war. Instead they were fools and killed over a thousand of their own men.
Toulon was two years later when things were going a little differently, so it is difficult to say that is what would have happened at Mers-el-Kebir.
I think Darlan was noted for his loyalty in the sense “Once he is bought he stays bought”.
Cunningham had no choice. If the powerful French squadron had managed to merge with the Italian navy the UK would have had a dreadful time in the Med.
(As an aside, one of the reasons given for Churchill refusing to negotiate with Hitler about peace was that Hitler would have demanded the surrender of the British fleet- that is something Churchill would never countenance. So it gives an insight into his thoughts).
But even if it were only “one ship,” and it were powerful enough to kill thousands when it bombards Portsmouth, then failing to sink it led to those deaths.
Modern large-scale technological war leads to the deaths of innocents. If you refuse to engage in modern war…but your opponent doesn’t refuse…then the innocents who die are all your own citizens. Your own citizens, many of whom vote, will not admire your reasoning, and will put someone else in charge of the military.
I’d wouldn’t be able to forget that the Somme had been launched, prematurely, in response to pleas from the French to take pressure off Verdun. I wouldn’t have much patience with “you guys hold out as best as you can, and trust us to preserve our own honor.”
They weren’t at war with the French. As my ally, those crewmen were innocents. But 9 ships changes the equation, fuck that, they’re going down. But I’d probably try to avoid killing them, maybe punch small holes in their hull so that they couldn’t save the ships, but give them enough time to know I’m serious and evacuate