On June 13, 1940, Winston Churchill took one of several trips to France during Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. After convincing the French not to sign a separate armistice with Germany just two months prior, Churchill was now being begged to release them from the obligation. When a country loses its will to fight, there’s not much you can do to inspire them to anything but quit.
That left Churchill with a loose-end on his mind: The French Fleet.
The French Fleet
By June 10, 1940, the French Army was shattered, but the French Navy was amazingly intact. FranÃ§ois Darlan, the Admiral of the French Fleet told Churchill point-blank that the Fleet would be sunk before it was surrendered to the Germans.
Churchill later remarked of Admiral Darlan that he had “but to sail in any one of his ships to any port outside France to become the master of all French interests beyond German control.” Darlan could have become “the chief of the French Resistance with a mighty weapon in his hand.” Churchill believed the Admiral could have been the “Liberator of France”.
But that was not to happen. Although Admiral Darlan was strong in his commitment to prevent the Germans from seizing a single French ship, Churchill was not convinced. Losing Britian’s last fighting ally in the war is one thing, but allowing that ally’s fleet to fall in the hands of the Germans was something to lose sleep over.
The concern was not over the French using their fleet to assist their new conqueror. The real concern was that Germany would train their own sailors to command those ships.
Members of Britain’s own navy spent time with the commanders of the French Fleet. They were convinced that the commanders were dedicated to the cause of not surrendering to the Germans.
On June 17, France pressed for peace with Germany.
Before France could officially surrender, Churchill tried to convince his War Cabinet to attack the French Fleet. The War Cabinet refused. There were several concerns on the table. For one, the attack would surely result in the loss of British troops and ships. Second, although getting beaten by Germany and showing eagerness to throw in the towel, France was still an ally.
On June 24, France and Germany signed an armistice. Part of that agreement was the French could keep their ships, but Germany would gain control over items such as passports and tickets. Hitler treaded lightly concerning the ships and did not push for full ownership. He feared such aggression would inspire the French to keep fighting.
Hitler’s concerns were not known to England.
However, on July 1, Churchill was finally able to get the backing of the War Cabinet to sink the ships if they would not be surrendered.
On July 3, the British surrounded the French Fleet at the port of Mers-el-Kebir right outside Oran, Algeria. Churchill’s message was clear: sail to Britain, sail to the USA, or scuttle your ships in the next six hours. At first, the French refused to speak to negotiators. Two hours later, the French showed the British an order they had received from Admiral Darlan instructing them to sail the ships to the USA if the Germans broke the armistice and demanded the ships.
Meanwhile, the British intercepted a message from the Vichy Government ordering French reinforcements to move urgently to Oran. Churchill was done playing games and ordered the attack to his commanders, “Settle everything before dark or you will have reinforcements to deal with.”
An hour and a half later, the British Fleet attacked. In less than ten minutes, 1,297 French soldiers were dead and three battleships were sunk. One battleship and five destroyers managed to escape.
While the French were furious over the events, the reaction in England was the exact opposite.
The day after attacking the French, Churchill went to the House of Commons to explain why he ordered the attack on the former ally. Churchill declared, “However painful, the action we have already taken should be, in itself, sufficient to dispose once and for all of the lies and Fifth Column activities that we have the slightest intention of entering into negations. We shall prosecute the war with the utmost vigour by all the means that are open to us.”
For the first time since taking over as Prime Minister, Churchill received a unanimous standing ovation. Churchill had a message for the British, for Hitler, and for the world. The message was heard loud and clear.
England would not make peace with Hitler and the country was in this war for the long haul.
Berthon, Simon and Potts, Joanna (2006). Warlords: an extraordinary re-creation of World War II through the eyes and minds of Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. United Kingdom: Da Capo Press.
Collier, Basil (1967). The Second World War: a military history: from Munich to Hiroshima – in one volume. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company.
Lamb, Richard (1991). Churchill as war leader (1st Carroll & Grad ed.). New York, NY: Caroll & Graf Publishers.