In 1940, the Germans burst into France, overwhelming the defenses of that proud but demoralized nation in a scant six weeks. To those on the Allied side old enough to have lived through the First World War, it was a shocking spectacle. To see the roads of the Low Countries and northern France choked with the detritus and charred wreckage of war; to witness the pathetic columns of refugees fleeing the fury of the battle zones; to view the beaten residuum of Allied arms evacuate in disgrace and defeat from the continent at Dunkirk; to see the Wehrmacht’s battle standards hoisted on France’s national monuments: these were the dismaying scenes that no observer could have contemplated in 1939.

The Soviet Union in 1940 was still engaged in the cynical collusion with Germany in the rape of Europe. Even Franklin Roosevelt, though disposed to favor the justice of the Allied cause, believed it was only a matter of time before England was finished. No amount of Churchillian oratory could disguise the fact that England was prostrate, undefended, and alone.

England’s wartime agreement with France imposed the reciprocal obligation on both nations not to seek an armistice with Germany without the consent of the other. But these assurances now counted for very little. The roots of French malaise went deep, stretching back to the 1920s and 1930s; it some ways the nation (like England) had never fully recovered from the First World War. Its excessive loss of blood and treasure in the Great War had left it anemic and pale, a shadow of its former self, and a ready victim of more predatory or vengeful powers.

Its leadership was riven with faction and ideological bickering, and its people had little stomach for a fight that appeared to offer a replay of the bloodletting that had ruined Europe a generation earlier. From Paris’s perspective, a separate peace seemed the only way to preserve the integrity of the nation.

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Winston Churchill, England’s new prime minister, did not see it this way. He knew that a Franco-German armistice would be a stepping-stone for an eventual invasion of his country, and placed no faith in the guarantees of the Vichy government, which he considered to be little more than a German quisling. Of primary concern for Churchill was the disposition of the French fleet. France possessed a mighty collection of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, second in power only to the Royal Navy; these ships, should they fall into the hands of German belligerence, might prove to be a deciding factor in the coming battle for Britain. The French fleet was dispersed throughout the Mediterranean, but its bulk was concentrated at the port of Mers-al-Kébir in Algeria.

The prime minister left no doubt that he would act with resolution and speed in the protection of his nation’s interests. On July 3, 1940, as part of what was called Operation Catapult, British forces seized, after some resistance, several French vessels (including some submarines) moored at Plymouth and Portsmouth. This operation earned England the enmity of many Frenchmen, including Charles de Gaulle, who saw it as unnecessary and deeply insulting. Yet truth and reason rarely find a favorable reception in those burdened by defeat. Wisdom may often condescend to stir the passions of the human heart, but misplaced pride blocks our appreciation of what is wise.

But what to do about the formidable array of French naval power at Mers-el-Kébir? There were located four battleships, a seaplane tender, and six destroyers. Their disposition was uncertain; Churchill was receiving contradictory messages from Paris, perhaps reflecting the paralysis that had overcome the nation in the wake of its collapse.

For Churchill personally it was an agonizing dilemma. Pro-French to the marrow of his bones, he was as shocked as anyone by the swiftness of France’s collapse and the abjectness of her condition; the thought of having to take up arms against his ally was abhorrent to him. Yet he knew the fight must continue, and that he must not be swayed by emotion or sentiment in Britain’s lonely hour of peril. Roosevelt had essentially written England off, Stalin was smug in his own imagined rapprochement with Berlin, and the remaining small nations not controlled by Germany were too cowed to offer anything more than moral support.

Churchill, wanting to give the French an opportunity to avoid a confrontation, ordered an ultimatum to be delivered by a Gibraltar-based naval officer, Admiral James Somerville, to his French counterpart at Mers-el-Kébir. It offered the French three choices: sail the fleet to England and turn over the ships to British control, sail the fleet to a French colonial port away from Europe, or scuttle the fleet to prevent its seizure by the enemy. Should the French commander refuse these “fair offers”—the ultimatum continued—the British would “use whatever force may be necessary” to neutralize the French naval vessels.

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And here is where the obscuring smoke of conflict, the vanities of human interaction, and the pathos of war combined to create a tragedy. The British ultimatum was presented by a French-speaking naval officer named Cedric Holland. The French admiral receiving the message, Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, was piqued that the British had sent him an officer of comparatively low rank, and responded by erecting bureaucratic obstacles to candid discussion.

Gensoul was one of those wooden-headed military types who appear with depressing frequency in the history of armed conflict. His superior, Admiral Francois Darlan, had previously assured Churchill that the French fleet would never be permitted to fall into German hands. Churchill, however, was unwilling to put his faith in such promises.

Darlan was apparently never informed by Gensoul of the full text of the British ultimatum, nor of the fact that one of the ultimatum’s options (sailing the fleet to Martinique) was an option Darlan himself had authorized Gensoul to pursue. For the carnage that was to follow, Gensoul’s obduracy and churlishness shoulder much reproof. And this is the tragedy of war.

In war, much that seems clear or certain in hindsight is not so at the time. Decisions are made, and fates are sealed, with the information that is available to the protagonists in the arena at the time. When to this uncertainty is added the passions and errors of men under duress, one begins to see how tragedy emerges from situations that may seem easily negotiable from the comfortable perspective of one’s living room sofa. So it was at Mers-el-Kébir.

When it became clear that negotiations were going nowhere, the British mined the harbor to prevent the ships’ escape in the event of fighting. Churchill then gave the command to commence action. The British destroyers opened fire in late afternoon on July 3, 1940, against an array of French ships that was largely unprepared. One ship, the Bretagne, exploded after a direct hit on her magazine, sinking with great loss of life. Several ships sought to escape the inferno at port and made out to sea, but these too were pursued. The French made some ineffective counterattacks on the British base at Gibraltar in July and September, but these appear to have been conducted more as a face-saving exercise than anything else.

The results of Operation Catapult were grim. The French lost 1297 men, with about 350 wounded; the British lost two airmen who were killed in the mining of the harbor. The greatest damage done was that to Franco-British relations; a lasting enmity was sown into the hearts of patriotic Frenchmen, which the passage of time did little to diminish. Understandably, the French were extremely bitter at the British attack, believing it to have been unnecessary and unjustified.

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This view is not entirely without merit. French ships in Alexandria, Egypt, for example, were simply blockaded on July 3 and then turned over to the British on July 7 without violent incident, under similar conditions to those existing at Mers-el-Kébir. When the Germans attempted to capture the French fleet at Toulon in November 1942, the French did in fact scuttle their ships before the arrival of the Wehrmacht. Admiral Darlan then sent Churchill an aggrieved letter stating that his action in scuttling the fleet in Toulon finally proved that he, Darlan, would have honored his promises made two years earlier about the fleet at Mers-el-Kébir. The British attack, he believed, had been entirely unjustified.

Churchill himself was profoundly distressed by the action he had been forced to undertake against the French fleet. But in cool-headed retrospect, it is clear that the Prime Minister’s decision was the correct one. Assurances made by Darlan to Churchill were dubious at best; Darlan later proved himself to be an opportunistic fixture in the Vichy government. He died by the hand of a French assassin late in the war. And perhaps the surrender of the French fleet at Alexandria had only been made possible by the British military action at Mers-el-Kébir.

The necessity of keeping the French fleet out of German hands was so dire that extreme action was justified in pursuit of this goal. Churchill could not afford to take a wait-and-see approach to developments; the hour of crisis called for speed and resolution in the determination of outcomes. His actions sent a clear message to the rest of the world: England was down, but not out; England would still be in the game, and would fight, if necessary, to the bitter end. Churchill’s ruthlessness signaled to the world that the war would continue, and that there would be no surrender.

In 1940, when France lay in ruins and the tyrant in Berlin bestrode the continent, Churchill found himself chided by weaker spirits than his own, men who believed England’s future lay in some sort of detente with the German tyranny which had engulfed Europe. Lord Halifax attempted to usurp control of Churchill’s cabinet and convince them to make peace with Germany. Brushing him aside, Churchill delivered a passionate speech to his 25-member cabinet, urging them to fight on no matter the cost.  In these words he expressed the soul of a fighter, and a spirit that would not be cowed into subservience:

Nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished…If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.

Even after all these years, these words still command a stillness in the soul, an awe that induces a becoming submission, and removes all prevarication from the heart.

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