Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

David Brown, Foreword by Contre-amiral Jean Kessler, Introduction by Geoffrey Till, The Road to Oran: Anglo-French Naval Relations - September 1939 - July 1940 (London & New York: Frank Cass, 2004, £65.00, 216 pages, ISBN 0-7146-5461-2)—Richard Davis, Université Charles de Gaulle - Lille III

On July 3, 1940 Royal Navy ships lying off Mers-el-Kébir in North Africa opened fire on the French fleet at anchor in the harbour killing 1300 French sailors. This tragic attack is still remembered in France as yet another example of British perfidy. In Britain few beyond the circles of specialist historians will have any clear idea of its exact meaning. Coming between the evacuation of the B.E.F. from the beaches of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, this story has all too often been passed over or forgotten. Moreover, what Geoffrey Till, in his introduction calls this “lamentable [...] tragic affair” [xxv] was hardly a glorious episode to be given prominence in the annals of British military history. David Brown’s study, therefore, is a welcome contribution to the historiography of the Second World War.

This book is of course not the first to attempt to explain these events, either by French or British authors. Yet as Jean Kessler points out in his foreword “whether in the case of memoirs or historical works, the emotion with which French writers have approached the subject and the understandable concern to justify the action shown by British writers have hardly been conducive to objective analysis of the operation” [xi-xii]. David Brown’s ambition, to provide a more clear-headed and less emotive account of events, that seeks to explain how such a tragedy came about rather than to justify past choices or apportion blame (usually on the other side of the Channel), can only be welcomed by historians of Anglo-French relations.

Brown’s book considers the events at Mers-el-Kébir and those that lead up to them in the detail on several different levels. He is no doubt strongest on the technical detail of how the events unfolded and a good deal of attention is given to often complicated movements of the various ships and the signals between them and their respective admiralties. This book, however, is not exclusively one of military history, as it looks at the broader geopolitical dimension as well as at the more local operational level. Indeed, it is one of the merits of this work that it allows the reader to see the complex interactions between the political, diplomatic and military spheres, between those operating at sea, and those in London and the various locations occupied by the itinerant French authorities in the days following the evacuation of Paris. In this way the different levels of decision-making (from the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet, the Chiefs of Staff and the First Sea Lord, to the force commanders and the individual officers at local level) and how they interrelated are brought together to give a fuller picture than any purely military, diplomatic or political account could provide.

As Brown shows so well, there were bitter disagreements between these actors over what course of action to take. At the highest level, Winston Churchill was clearly determined to prevent the most modern ships of the French fleet from falling into the hands of the Axis powers, no matter what the cost to Anglo-French relations. The War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff followed his lead. As Brown argues, the War Cabinet was “managed by the Prime Minister, who appeared to be led by his own intuition, modified by advisers whose influence varied in proportion to the degree of agreement with Churchill’s perception of the problem and its solution” [166-67]. While Brown accepts that there was a need for the British to show international opinion, above all in the United States, that Britain was determined to pursue the war, he is nonetheless unsympathetic to the role played by Churchill. He writes of Churchill’s “extraordinary self-conceit” [10] in his interference in operational questions and how he caused “untold damage [...] by meddling in matters which he did not truly understand” [10]. On June 29, Churchill was the author of “one of the stupider signals to be sent” when he ordered that should the French battle-cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg set sail they “were to be captured at sea” [153], which, as Brown points out, was something of a romantic, almost childish, image of modern naval operations. Later on, when the Anglo-French naval stand-off in Alexandria was being defused by the local British and French commanders, “the impatient Prime Minister’s attempted long-range micro-management [...] resulted in what was undoubtedly the most ridiculous signal of the day” [202] when he ordered that French crews leave their ships before dark when in fact it was already long after nightfall there.

Nor does the War Cabinet emerge in a favourable light. For Brown their discussions of June 24 were “very lengthy and went into considerable detail, much of it erroneous” [103]. Their view that “It was not to be expected that the French crews would put up any very serious resistance” (should British attack) is for Brown “an extraordinary idea, [...] a contemptuous, foolish under-estimation of a potential enemy” [105], which was clearly contrary to all the reports coming in from naval commanders. The Cabinet’s instructions of June 25 that the Richelieu and the Jean Bart (two French battle-cruisers) should be captured at sea is ridiculed. “It is difficult to imagine,” Brown writes, “a wilder notion than this outdated, romantic conception that the most modern twentieth-century battleship afloat could be persuaded to surrender on the high seas” [120]. The politicians, as shown here, are clearly incapable of fully comprehending the military realities and in need of the naval experts’ “professional realism” [106]. The consequences on the Royal Navy of action against the French fleet and what the Germans could do with the French ship should they get their hands on them given the technical difficulties involved and the lack of trained crews were, according to Brown, all fully considered by the naval experts but insufficiently so by the politicians.

Most damningly, David Brown suggests that Churchill knew that the Italians were preparing to accept that the French fleet should remain in North African ports in half-crew conditions. He goes on: “If this hypothesis is correct, then the question must be asked as to why the Prime Minister did not pause to await the other Axis member’s decision—would the German government accept the demilitarisation of ships in North and West Africa?” [167]. Here Brown gets to the heart of the matter: how the broader political and strategic considerations that dominated thinking in London, above in Churchill’s mind, ran contrary to the anxieties of those commanders at sea who were being charged with this most disagreeable task of attacking what had been until only a few days before close colleagues and allies. As Brown writes in his conclusion “what emerge(s) from the examination of the tragic history is the victory on the British side of perceived political necessity over military reality [...] the demonstration of Britain’s determination, which, it was alleged, had been Churchill’s intention throughout, had therefore succeeded” [204-205].

It is Churchill and Admiral Darlan on the French side who, therefore, come out of this account bearing the responsibility (if not the guilt) for the tragedy of Mers-el-Kébir. The events of July 3 are the final act of what Churchill termed this “Greek tragedy” [The Second World War: Their Finest Hour (Cassell, 1949, 205)]. Its outcome was not, however, pre-determined. For Brown

Once set in train, the offensive phase [...] could only be stopped by the rival sets of decision-making machinery [...] At the ‘controls’ of each were the single figures, Winston Churchill and François Darlan, both answerable to high-level political councils but, in practice, neither consulting colleagues before making decisions [...] both men had an opportunity during the day to bring about a solution which would have avoided the loss of life and ships and, deliberately, neither took it [182].

For Anglo-French relations the attack on the French fleet was nothing short of a disaster. It was, according to Jean Kessler, “little short of fratricidal given the close and active cooperation, and friendly relations, which had existed between the two navies during the war up to the collapse of the French front and France’s request for an armistice” [xi]. Its long-term impact on relations between the two countries was equally damaging. It is also possible to see Mers-el-Kébir as a case study of wider Anglo-French relations in the twentieth century showing all their inherent difficulties, their inclination towards “mutual incomprehension” [xi] and lack of sympathy for one another’s problems and predicaments.

As Brown’s study shows, for the Anglo-French relationship to work, at whatever level and to whatever extent, trust was the key, and it was precisely the breakdown in this trust that constituted the train of events that led to the action taken against the French fleet on July 3. That the two countries are almost by nature enemies is the generally accepted view. Indeed, Brown begins with this very idea. Yet he also shows that the months of alliance up to June 1940 saw close cooperation between them, particularly in the naval sphere. How this “cooperation, and the enmity which grew from it, faltered under the intolerable strains of the military collapse of the alliance in the second week of June 1940 and foundered as the new French Government sought and obtained [...] an Armistice in the third week” and then “disappeared as British mistrust turned to enmity in some quarters” [xv] is the thread that runs throughout the story recounted by Brown.

The breakdown in trust is shown with the utmost clarity. The British Ambassador to France complained of the French lack of resolve dismissing Darlan’s “pathetic assurances” [79] that in no circumstances would he allow the French fleet to fall into the hands of the Germans. No matter how often he and others on the French side gave such assurances (and as Brown shows they were repeated time and again), they were never believed in London. British naval commanders in the Mediterranean who had built up close working relations with their French counterparts may have been, as Brown shows, far more inclined to take such French assurances in good faith but their opinions were disregarded by their superiors. By the time the final decision to attack the French fleet, should it refuse the British ultimatum to disarm, scuttle or move to British or American ports, had been taken, it had become clear that the recent past of Anglo-French naval collaboration held little weight in London. Pound, the First Sea Lord, concluded on June 28 that as “we had got to win the war not only for ourselves but for them [the French)] all trivialities and sob stuff about friendship and feelings must be swept aside” [138]. Pound’s lack of sympathy with the predicament of the French and the off-hand manner in which he dealt with them is highlighted by Brown. Again, the political over-rode the military. As Brown argues, “A deep mistrust of France [...] sometimes meant that pragmatic analysis by the Naval Staff was liable to be overruled by intuitive reaction on the part of politicians (particularly the Prime Minister)” [87].

Nor was such mistrust exclusively British. Brown regrettably deals less with the motivations behind French thinking and policies, and Darlan is given far less attention than Churchill. But he has made use of the French signals between Darlan and his commanders. One such message dated June 25 to the commander of the Richelieu warns: “Toutes les nouvelles anglaises sont fausses et de nature à faire éclater à leur profit une guerre civile qui ruinerait définitivement notre Patrie” [122]. By June 28 he was signalling a warning of British “spite at not being able to intern our Fleet in England” [145].

David Brown is also right to emphasise how the breakdown in Anglo-French relations was exacerbated by poor communications, confusion, misunderstandings and misperceptions. The British believed they had made it clear that they had agreed to the French opening talks with the Germans on terms for an armistice only if guarantees were given regarding the French fleet and that French ships should sail to British ports. In reply the French argued that this had not been made clear and that in any case their promises as to the fleet were quite sufficient and they should be taken at their word on this. Similarly the clear instructions sent by Darlan to all French commanders that in no circumstances should any French vessel be allowed to fall into German hands was not sufficiently well known or appreciated in Britain. Finally, on the critical day of the attack there were a series of misunderstandings and breakdowns in communications at Mers-el-Kébir itself.

Brown’s detailed account is also excellent in portraying the simple physical problems that made communications between the various players so difficult. At times, it was quite simply impossible to keep in touch with the French authorities following their evacuation from Paris. There was also a simple lack of means of communication, whether by telegraph, wireless or telephone, or even to know where anyone was at a particular moment (Darlan, for example, was travelling from Clermont-Ferrand to Vichy during the decisive moment of July 3 when British and French admirals in Mers-el-Kébir were attempting to find a solution). Brown also makes the interesting point that the Germans had obtained the French naval cyphers and were using them to transmit messages supposedly coming from the French authorities.

As Till writes in his introduction Mers-el-Kébir “complicated and poisoned relations between the British and the French for years to come [...] it reinforced the French perception of the British as ‘Perfidious Albion’ in a way that was to affect Franco-British political relations for the rest of the century” [xxv]. This outcome was already being predicted on the eve of the British attack. The naval officers being asked to carry out the operation made plain their opposition arguing that “Once we kill one Frenchman by direct or deliberate action, the game is up [...] The French Navy will never forgive us” [164]. Their warnings were transmitted to London “that offensive action on our part would immediately alienate [the French] and transform a defeated ally into a defeated enemy” [165]. Although Brown only briefly considers the long-term impact on Anglo-French relations, other sources show how deeply the British action was felt in France decades later.

The military and strategic consequences of the British action are quite rightly emphasised here, as are the political considerations behind Churchill’s thinking. But David Brown’s account is equally pertinent in its focus on the questions of national pride and honour that were so much at stake, particularly on the French side, and which have continued to bedevil the attempts by historians since 1940 to take a calmer, more reasoned, analysis. Brown’s book is, therefore, understandably full of accusations and counter-accusations: the French decision to seek armistice was regarded by the British as “an act of betrayal” [43]; Churchill wrote to the French government that should the French “deliver over to the enemy the fine French fleet. Such an act would scarify their names for a thousand years of history”; if the opportunity to sail these ships to British ports was not taken “the honour of France” would be lost [51]. Darlan also told the British that “the matter was one of honour rather than one of politics” [53]. In private he complained that the British were acting like “heirs who had come to reassure themselves that the dying man has really left them a bequest” [54] while he was adamant that the “Armistice Clauses will not contain any clause contrary to honour” [116]. Brown himself recognises that the British “made a poor impression on Darlan by their cold demands, made without offering any recognition of the French Navy’s achievements or of any sympathy for the nation’s predicament” [54]. On the final day of the crisis the French admiral in Mers-el-Kébir was upset that the emissary sent to talk was only a captain and that the note from the British admiral was unsigned. When he did accept the British request to open talks, his reply was couched in the same terms as his political superiors. He was, he said, ready for a “discussion honorable” [191]. As we now know, no “honourable” escape-route from this tragedy was found.

As is so often the case in such crises, the observer is left asking the question “what might have been?” For David Brown it is clear that “The events of 3 July 1940 at Mers-el-Kébir, the negotiations and the brief bombardment which brought the day to a tragic close, are a rich field for hindsight and hunters of missed opportunities” [182]. The mixture of “unfortunate elements [...] slow communications, poor intelligence, political interference in professional matters and, above all, misunderstood intentions” [119] produced a recipe for disaster. But this was a disaster that could have been avoided. Brown’s conclusion is, therefore, clearly at odds with Churchill’s argument that “no act was ever more necessary for the life of Britain and for all that depended upon it” [Op.cit., 205].

Was it all necessary? Did the British need to turn on their recent allies, “her dearest friends of yesterday” according to Churchill [Op.cit., 211], in such a violent and definitive fashion? Brown certainly raises more than a few doubts. Why was it not possible to reach a peaceful agreement at Mers-el-Kébir similar to that reached between the British and French commanders at Alexandria? Above all, why did the British choose to place such little store by the clear-cut instructions of Darlan that French ships would be scuttled, disarmed or sailed to the United States if the Germans attempted to seize them. Could things have turned out differently? The two senior British admirals in the Mediterranean certainly thought that “patient negotiation would achieve better results” but, unfortunately, they “were pitchforked into action by urgent representations from London” [xxx].

P.M.H. Bell in his book Britain and France 1940-1994: The Long Separation [Longman, 1997, 18, 21] has it that for the British the confrontation at Mers-el-Kébir soon “became merely one half-forgotten episode in a crowded summer,” that while it “left the French deeply scarred [it left] the British almost untouched.” David Brown’s book goes some way towards rectifying this imbalance and to provide an English-speaking readership with an excellent account of this tragic event. His study will be of interest to all students of the Second World War, of Anglo-French relations in particular and to naval historians.

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.