Chapter 7: The French Collapse
FOR MORE than a year the British had worked hard to concert plans and preparations with the French. They had been at great trouble to prevent the additional weight of Italy being thrown into the scale, for it had long been realized that this would impose a very severe strain on their combined resources. And now, not only had Italy declared war, but within a fortnight the British Commonwealth had found itself facing the consequences single-handed.
With the signature of the armistice with Italy, the German armistice came into force also. The full implications of the terms could not be judged in England immediately, nor, indeed, were the precise terms known. One thing however was quite clear: that while no one could tell what would eventually be saved from the wreckage of France’s armed strength, large enemy forces were immediately available for employment elsewhere and could not be expected to remain idle. Broadly, the Germans had the choice between invading England and turning to the Balkans. Either of these courses, whether accompanied or not by direct intervention in the Mediterranean area, would profoundly affect the military situation in the Middle East, for, as has been seen, the prospect of a German invasion of the Balkans was unwelcome enough even when France was an active ally, while if the United Kingdom was to be threatened with invasion there would be little chance of sparing the men and material now needed in the Middle East.
As far as was known in London on 27th June, the armistice terms provided for the transfer of a large part of France to German control; for the demobilization and disarming of all French armed forces other than those required to keep order; and for the recall of the ships of the fleet (except those left free for safeguarding French interests in the Colonial Empire) to their home ports, there to be demobilized and disarmed under German or Italian control. Frontier zones in Tunisia and Algeria and the whole of French Somaliland were to be demilitarized, as also were the naval bases of Toulon, Bizerta, Ajaccio, and Oran. The Italians were to have full use of the port of Jibuti, and the French section of the Addis Ababa railway. All these proceedings would be supervised by German or Italian commissions.
At sea the whole balance of strength had been upset at a stroke: the British would now be obliged to retain sufficient naval forces in
European waters to match both the German and Italian fleets. Hitherto, the Western Mediterranean had been the French zone of responsibility, and the British had intended to abandon the Eastern Mediterranean if they felt it necessary to send a fleet to the Far East, in which event the French would have assumed the task of containing the Italian fleet.1 The Australian and New Zealand Governments had now to be told that in the new situation no fleet could be sent to the Far East. Within the Mediterranean the British had lost the co-operation of three French battleships, two battlecruisers and fourteen cruisers, besides numerous destroyers, submarines and small craft; the only coasts remaining open to them were those of Egypt and Palestine, the islands of Cyprus and Malta, and the Rock of Gibraltar. Italian naval and air forces would be able to move freely in the central and western basins. This led to some anxiety about Gibraltar, where the existing British forces were inadequate even for giving due warning of enemy approach. All this was bad enough, but a recent move by Spain suggested worse to come. On 14th June she had exchanged her neutrality for non-belligerency and occupied the international zone of Tangier on the pretext of guaranteeing its neutrality. It seemed possible that, following the example of Italy, she was preparing to come to the help of the winning side.
In order that the Italian fleet should not be entirely unopposed in the western basin, nor the front door of the Mediterranean be left unguarded, a British force—to be known later as Force H—had already begun to assemble at Gibraltar. It was directly under the Admiralty, and not under the command of Admiral Cunningham. The nucleus of the force consisted of the battlecruiser Hood and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal (No. 800 Squadron-12 Skuas; No. 803 Squadron-12 Skuas; Nos. 810, 818 and 820 Squadrons-30 Swordfish), which arrived at Gibraltar on 23rd June. But even when the force was formed it would not restore the balance, nor could enemy ships be prevented from moving in comparative safety between Italy and the North African ports.
While the services of the French fleet had unquestionably been lost, it was equally certain that the territory of France itself would no longer be accessible, so that British aircraft would be unable to land and refuel on their way from the United Kingdom to the Middle East. The provision of an alternative route was therefore an urgent necessity, which led to the development of the Takoradi air route between West Africa and the Sudan, described in Chapter 10. It was always possible that in the French overseas possessions the enemy might have difficulty in enforcing the armistice terms, so that something might yet be saved from the land and air forces in North Africa, French Somaliland, and Syria. If, on the other hand,
the terms could be successfully enforced, the Italians in Libya would no longer need to concern themselves with Tunisia, but would be free to devote their whole attention to Egypt. A greatly increased scale of air attack on the naval base at Alexandria would then have to be expected and an invasion of Egypt regarded as distinctly probable. If, in addition, the Germans intended to use French North Africa themselves, and succeeded in doing so, they would acquire air bases conveniently situated for attacking Malta and Gibraltar. As for French Somaliland, this was the intended starting point for the eventual offensive against the Italians in Ethiopia, so that the loss of the territory and its port of Jibuti would necessitate a completely new plan; for the present the ability to hold British Somaliland would be greatly reduced and the threat to British shipping slightly increased. There remained Syria, where the French had been preparing forces for various agreed tasks: one to occupy Crete, another to assist Turkey, and another to move to Egypt in case of emergency. With Italy already at war it was most disconcerting to think that these and all the other plans for mutual co-operation might now be so much waste paper. It was clearly necessary to do everything possible to encourage the French at this juncture.
Accordingly, French officials everywhere were informed that, in the British view, the signature of the armistice had been obtained under duress. Metropolitan France had been occupied by the enemy, but the overseas empire was intact and had still a vital part to play. Civil and military authorities overseas were therefore called upon by the British Government and people to fight on to the end for victory, which would mean the restoration of the greatness of France. To this appeal was added the voice of General de Gaulle. As early as 18th June he had invited Frenchmen on British soil to put themselves in touch with him: now, on the 24th, he called upon all servicemen and technicians overseas to join with those who still wanted to fight.2 A Provisional French National Committee and a French Volunteer Legion were to be formed in the United Kingdom. On the 27th the General addressed himself to North Africa in particular, as it was to Algiers that Frenchmen overseas were inclined to look for a lead. They had not long to wait, for in Algeria there was a surge of anti-British feeling and defeatism, and on the 25th General Noguès refused to see Mr. Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, and General Lord Gort, who had flown to Rabat in Morocco. By the next day it was evident to the British military mission in Algiers that Noguès had no further intention of resisting. As there was nothing more that the mission could do it left the country on 28th June.
On this day His Majesty’s Government formally recognized de Gaulle as the leader of all free Frenchmen, wherever they might be, who rallied to him in support of the Allied cause.
In Syria opinion was sharply divided, and it was soon evident that General Mittelhauser was feeling the great burden of his responsibilities, and that his initial resolution was being undermined by the difficulties of his position. When he heard that Noguès intended to obey the order to capitulate, Mittelhauser decided that he must do the same. The Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East were authorized to announce that all French forces who continued to fight could count on the full political and financial support of the British Government, and that such forces would be welcome if at any time they wished to join the British. So far as this affected Syria General Wavell was inclined to doubt the wisdom of encouraging the wholesale disintegration of the French forces that seemed likely to occur, as it might give rise to a state of confusion and disorder on Palestine’s hitherto secure northern flank. He was told, however, that the Government’s policy was to accept the services of all Frenchmen who would continue to fight, and that local considerations were of secondary importance. Having consulted the Turkish Government, His Majesty’s Government announced on 1st July that they could not allow Syria or the Lebanon to be occupied by any hostile power or to be used as a base for attacks on those countries which the British were pledged to defend or to become the scene of such disorder as to constitute a danger to those countries. They therefore held themselves free to take whatever measures might be necessary.
In French Somaliland the attitude of General Legentilhomme towards General Wavell remained one of frankness and loyalty, even after he had been ordered by his own Government to cease hostilities and relinquish his authority over British troops. Both he and the Governor declared their intention of continuing to fight by the side of the British. On 28th June the locally appointed Italian armistice commission tried to get in touch with Legentilhomme, who reported to Cairo that he intended to temporize, and added that he expected to be attacked before long. 2nd Battalion The Black Watch was, accordingly sent in HMS Liverpool from Egypt to Aden, there to be held ready to support Legentilhomme, who meanwhile continued to fob off and mislead the Italians with protestations of ignorance, and seems to have enjoyed himself immensely in the process.
The doubts and uncertainties which attended the collapse of France were naturally not confined to French territory. One very important question was: what would be the reaction of Turkey? The defection of the French in Syria had deprived: her of her nearest source of military aid and had severed her land communications with the British; and this at a moment when ominous clouds were
appearing on the Balkan horizon. For the armistice had only been in force for two days when Rumania renounced the Anglo-French guarantee and aligned herself with Germany—not that this availed her anything when she received a peremptory demand from the USSR to give up Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. Germany advised her to submit, and by the end of June these provinces were in Russian occupation. This meant that Turkey’s hereditary enemy was drawing unpleasantly near, perhaps with an eye upon the Straits, while there was always the danger that Bulgaria might be the next country on Germany’s list. It was already obvious to the Turks that the help they had hoped for under the Tripartite Treaty would not be forthcoming; in fact, one of the signatories was now in no position to fulfil any obligations. In these circumstances it might not be easy to persuade the Turks that alliance with the United Kingdom was still the best policy for them to pursue. It was obvious that they were going to be faced with a difficult decision, which the artful and experienced von Papen, recently appointed German Ambassador in Ankara, would do his utmost to influence. In the opinion of the British Ambassador at Ankara, much would depend upon the fate of the French Mediterranean Fleet. If this were to fall into Axis hands it would become very difficult, he thought, to hold Turkey where she was, in view of her growing fear of Russia.
This was clearly the moment for a pronouncement on military policy, and on 3rd July the Chiefs of Staff telegraphed their appreciation of the new situation. It was more reassuring in its tone than in its content. Most of it was already familiar—a restatement of the factors which contributed to the security of the Middle East. Our policy had necessarily to continue to be generally defensive. The Chiefs of Staff recognized the necessity for strengthening the forces in the Middle East at the earliest possible moment, but the governing factor was the probability of heavy air action against the United Kingdom, followed perhaps by invasion. Shortage of equipment would severely handicap us in meeting these threats. The policy would be to concentrate on the defence of the United Kingdom and start to release equipment for the Middle East when the situation following the impending trial of strength could be more clearly judged. This might not be for two months; meanwhile, everything that could be spared would be sent, including, if possible, modern fighters to rearm the squadrons in Egypt, and bombers to replace wastage. The situation in Syria was having disturbing effects in Iraq and even in Persia; subject, therefore, to the consent of the. Iraqi Government, it was proposed to send a division from India to secure the Anglo-Iranian oilfields.3
Hardly had this dispassionate survey been made when a matter
which had been causing anxiety ever since France had shown signs of collapse came sharply to a head. The direct issue was the future of the French capital ships, and it was destined to darken and imperil to a dangerous extent the friendship and understanding between Great Britain and France.
The departure of French warships from ports on the north and west coasts of France during June was in keeping with the assurances given by Admiral Darlan, Marshal Pétain, and others, that in no circumstances would the French Fleet be allowed to fall intact into enemy hands. Two old battleships, with other vessels, proceeded to Plymouth and Portsmouth. The recently completed battleship Richelieu sailed from Brest for Casablanca on the 18th, followed next day by the partially completed Jean Bart from St. Nazaire. But the main portion of the fleet was in the Mediterranean, having been based on North African ports since April. Admiral Godfroy’s Force X was at Alexandria; six cruisers were at Algiers; a few units remained at Toulon; while at Mers-el-Kebir, the naval port adjacent to Oran, was Admiral Gensoul with the two modern battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, two battleships, a seaplane carrier, and six fleet destroyers. At Oran itself were four submarines and a number of torpedo boats.
The War Cabinet was deeply concerned lest the most powerful ships should become available to the enemy, for it was thought that this might alter the whole course of the war. The armistice conditions as known to the British on 23rd June stipulated that the French Fleet was to be demobilized under German or Italian supervision in its normal home ports, to which ships were to be recalled. The Germans (and later the Italians) declared that they had no intention of using French ships for their own ends except for coastal protection and minesweeping. The French were known to have protested against the recall of their ships to home ports, but with what success the British Admiralty was as yet unaware.
There was of course ample reason for placing no reliance on any undertaking given by the Germans. The advice of the Chief of Naval Staff was that if the French capital ships fell into enemy hands it would be some two months before the Germans could efficiently employ them and some three months before the Italians could do so.4
The War Cabinet felt bound to assume that if the Germans wanted to get possession of any of the French ships they would succeed; no one knew better how to devise and enforce methods of compulsion. However resolute the French might intend to be, it was more than likely that events would pass beyond their control; so long, therefore, as these powerful ships remained afloat within reach of the Germans they constituted a very great potential menace. Accordingly, on 27th June the War Cabinet decided that, if necessary, they must be prevented from returning to their metropolitan ports.
On 28th June Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed to the command of Force H, with the initial task of securing the transfer, surrender, or destruction of the French warships at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir. Next day Admiral Cunningham was warned that all French warships were likely to be recalled to their home ports for demilitarization under German or Italian control; he was also told of Somerville’s orders and of the drastic action that would probably have to be taken against the ships at Oran. He was to send two submarines to co-operate. He replied expressing the strongest disapproval of the suggested action, which he thought would have serious consequences in the Middle East. It is easy to understand his interest and concern in the fate of any French ships—particularly those in the Mediterranean—for Admiral Godfroy’s squadron was an integral part of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, and the two Admirals were friends and respected colleagues.
On arrival at Gibraltar Admiral Somerville was able to consult several officers who were singularly competent to advise on French naval matters. Admiral Sir Dudley North, Commanding the North Atlantic Station, had paid a special visit on 24th June to Admiral Gensoul, who had assured him that his ships would be fought by Frenchmen or not at all; he gave his word of honour that in no circumstance whatever would they fall intact into German or Italian hands. Captain C. S. Holland of the Ark Royal had recently been Naval Attaché in Paris; he spoke French fluently, and among his many personal acquaintances in the French Navy was Admiral Gensoul himself. In addition, there were present two officers who had recently held liaison posts at the French naval base at Bizerta.
Early on 1st July Somerville received orders to be ready to act on the 3rd, and to make his preparations on the basis that the French would be given four choices: first, to bring their ships to a British harbour and fight on; second, to steam to a British port whence the crews would be repatriated; third, to demilitarize their ships immediately to our satisfaction; fourth, to sink them. A few hours later the Admiral signalled to say how impressed he was by the consensus of advice that the threat of force should be avoided at all costs, and that no French Admiral, faced with an ultimatum, would do other
than resist. For this reason he proposed to use Holland as an emissary to arrive some hours ahead of Force H. Later, in the belief that the French ships might soon be sailing for metropolitan ports, he altered his plan and proposed to the Admiralty that Force H should arrive one hour after Holland, whose duty it would be to explain and discuss the British proposals. If the first alternative were refused Admiral Somerville would propose that the French should proceed to sea with a minimum steaming party and allow themselves to be captured by Force H. The third and fourth alternatives would be put forward as invitations. It was Admiral Somerville’s own belief at the time that Gensoul would accept the first choice.
Early on the 2nd Somerville received his final instructions from the Admiralty, together with the terms of the communication to be made to Gensoul. The third alternative had been amended so as to give preference to demilitarization taking place at some French port in the West Indies, though if Gensoul suggested doing it at Mers-el-Kebir Somerville was authorized to agree, provided he was satisfied that the measures taken could be carried out under his supervision within six hours and would prevent the ships being brought into service for at least one year even at a fully equipped dockyard port—a proviso which in effect ruled out anything short of immediate scuttling. The idea of sending Captain Holland ahead was objected to on the ground that it would be most undesirable to have to deal with the French fleet at sea. ‘Hence you should arrive in the vicinity of Oran with your force at whatever time you select and send your emissary ashore subsequently taking any action you consider fit with your force in the period before the time limit expires.’ In the last resort Somerville was to endeavour to destroy the ships at Mers-el-Kebir, particularly the Dunkerque and Strasbourg.
At 6.30 a.m. on 3rd July HMS Foxhound with Captain Holland on board duly requested permission to enter the harbour of Mers-el-Kebir, and then made the following signal, the text of which Admiral Somerville had approved and had communicated to the Admiralty on 1st July: ‘The British Admiralty has sent Captain Holland to confer with you. The British Navy hopes their proposal will enable you and your glorious French Navy to range yourself side by side with them. In these circumstances your ships would remain yours and no one need have any anxiety for the future. A British fleet is at sea off Oran waiting to welcome you.’5
At 8.10 the French Admiral’s barge drew alongside the Foxhound for the Flag Lieutenant to present the Admiral’s compliments. He returned to the Dunkerque to say that Holland was on such an important mission that he wished to see the Admiral in person. But by this
time Gensoul had learnt of the Foxhound’s signal and had grasped the significance of the presence of Force H. Indignation at the underlying threat coloured all his subsequent actions. At 8.47 he ordered the Foxhound to leave, whereupon Captain Holland started on his way to the Dunkerque by motor-boat. As Gensoul declined to see him, he could do no more than hand over to the Flag Lieutenant the written communication which he had hoped to explain verbally point by point. It was in French, the English text being as follows:–
To Monsieur l’Amiral Gensoul from Admiral Somerville.
His Majesty’s Government have commanded me to inform you as follows:
They agreed to the French Government approaching the German Government only on condition that, if an armistice was concluded, the French Fleet should be sent to British ports. The Council of Ministers declared on 18th June that, before capitulating on land, the French Fleet would join up with the British or sink itself.6
Whilst the present French Government may consider the terms of the Armistice with Germany and Italy are reconcilable with these undertakings, H.M. Government finds it impossible from their previous experience to believe that Germany and Italy will not at any moment which suits them seize French warships and use them against Britain and Allies. Italian Armistice prescribes that French ships should return to metropolitan ports, and under armistice France is required to yield up units for coast defence and minesweeping.
It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German or Italian enemy. We are determined to fight on until the end and, if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer, we solemnly declare we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose we must be sure that the best ships of the French Navy will not be used against us by the common foe.
In these circumstances, H.M. Government have instructed me to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers-el-Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives:
A. Sail with us and continue to fight for victory against the Germans and Italians.
B. Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews will be repatriated at the earliest moment. If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war, or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.
C. Alternatively, if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against Germans or Italians, since this would break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies—Martinique, for instance—where they can be demilitarized to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States of America, and remain safely until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.
If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret require you to sink your ships within six hours. Finally, failing the above, I have the orders of His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands.
This communication, which was not drafted by Admiral Somerville but came to him with the authority of the War Cabinet, reached Gensoul shortly after 9.30. At 9.45 he signalled to the French Admiralty saying that a British force—whose size was accurately stated—was off Oran; that he had been given an ultimatum to sink his ships in six hours; and that he intended to reply to force with force. It is remarkable that he made no reference to any of the alternatives offered to him.
Meanwhile Captain Holland was waiting in the Foxhound’s motorboat at the harbour mouth. He reported that he could see the French ships furling awnings and raising steam. This information drew from the First Sea Lord a personal signal to Admiral Somerville suggesting that he should consider mining the harbour. At 10 o’clock Somerville received a message from Admiral Gensoul that the assurances given by him to Sir Dudley North still held good, but in view of what amounted to a veritable ultimatum the French warships would meet force with force. Thereafter Holland did his best in conversations with the Flag Lieutenant and Chief of Staff, and finally at 4.15 p.m. Admiral Gensoul received him. This seemed an encouraging development, but what Gensoul was really doing was to play for time. The interview was not made any easier by the Admiral’s indignation at the mining of his harbour entrance, which had been done shortly after 1 p.m. by aircraft. How was it possible for him now to accept any of the first three proposals?
At times it seemed to Holland as if some measure of agreement was in sight, but the truth is that the discussions were all to no purpose, for matters were already beyond local control. Gensoul’s hasty and misleading signal of 9.45 a.m. had reached the French Chief of Staff, Admiral Le Luc, at about noon. In the absence of Darlan—now Minister of Marine—Le Luc ordered all French forces in the Western Mediterranean to prepare for battle and rally to Oran under the orders of Gensoul. The naval air arm was to prepare for service with the fleet. Gensoul was to inform the British of these steps.
But Somerville knew of them already, for the British Admiralty had picked up Le Luc’s order and passed it on, adding: ‘Settle matters quickly or you will have reinforcements to deal with.’ This prompted Somerville to signal to Gensoul: ‘If none of the British proposals are acceptable by 17.30 it will be necessary to sink your ships.’ The receipt of this at 5.15 p.m. put an end to all discussion. Captain Holland’s feelings as he took his leave are best left to the imagination. As he went over the side at 5.25 ‘Action stations’ was sounded. As he passed the Bretagne the officer of the watch saluted smartly. A few minutes later Force H opened fire. There was a sheet of flame as one of the first salvoes struck the Bretagne; it rose to a great height as the battleship blew up, and covered the harbour in a pall of smoke. Of her crew, 37 officers and 940 ratings were killed. There was another explosion as the stern of the destroyer Mogador was blown off by a 15-inch shell. The flagship Dunkerque, also hit, managed to fire 40 rounds at the Hood before being put out of action. The Provence succeeded in getting under way and also opened fire, but was herself badly damaged, burst into flames, and ran aground. In all, 1297 French lives were lost.
Signals were flashing from the shore begging Somerville to cease fire, and at 6.10 he did so, in order to give the French the opportunity to abandon their ships and save further loss of life. Signalling ‘Unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again,’ he turned Force H to the westward in order to avoid undue exposure to the fire of the shore batteries, and to reduce the risk of injuring men proceeding ashore in boats if it should be necessary to reopen fire. Knowing that the French were aware of the mines in the harbour entrance, he felt sure that none of their ships would try to put to sea.
In this he was mistaken, for as soon as the firing began Gensoul ordered his ships to proceed to sea. Through the thick pall of smoke with which the harbour was covered the Strasbourg started to move. Skilfully handled in a visibility of only a few yards she escaped the mines, passed through the boom, and reached the open sea. At 6.20 she was reported by one of the Ark Royal’s aircraft to be moving east. This seemed unlikely, but ten minutes later it was confirmed. Altering
course to the east Somerville followed in pursuit and diverted a striking force of six Swordfish from the task of attacking ships in harbour. But by 8.20 the Strasbourg was 25 miles ahead and apparently undamaged. The chase was abandoned; another air attack was made, but again without success. With the cruisers from Algiers she reached Toulon on the evening of 4th July, followed later by the Commandant Teste and other ships from Oran.
Doubts about the extent of the damage to the Dunkerque led to a dawn attack by torpedo-carrying aircraft from the Ark Royal on 6th July. An explosion was caused in a tug alongside the battlecruiser, which tore a long rent in her hull. She, at any rate, would be out of action for a year.
There remained the Jean Bart at Casablanca and the Richelieu at Dakar. As it was known that the Jean Bart was without her main armament it was decided to take no action against her. In the case of the Richelieu similar proposals to those offered to Admiral Gensoul were made by signal on 7th July from the flagship of Admiral Onslow, the officer in charge. They were ignored, and the time limit duly expired at 8.5 p.m. At 2.15 a.m. next morning four depth charges were cast under the Richelieu’s stern from the motor-boat of the carrier Hermes. Owing to the shallowness of the water they failed to explode, and the motor-boat made a hazardous passage among adjacent merchant ships and so out to sea. At dawn on the 8th an attack was made by six torpedo-carrying aircraft from the Hermes and, although only one torpedo exploded, it apparently set off the depth charges also and caused enough damage to take a year to repair at Dakar.
There is one aspect of Oran about which there can be no two opinions. As the Prime Minister wrote in his message to Admiral Somerville, ‘You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with. ...’ The message went on to say that there was complete confidence in him and that he was relied upon to carry out his task relentlessly. This instruction, and the others that he received, were entirely consistent with the decision to which the British Government had come for reasons which, in the light of the known facts, seemed to them good and sufficient.
They did not know that the Italians had agreed on 30th June that certain ships could be demilitarized at Toulon or in African ports; though here, of course, they would be under the eye of the Italian Armistice Commission. The French Admiralty tried to transmit this news to London, but although it was sent by two routes only a corrupt version reached the British Admiralty. Nor did the
British know before July 3rd that Admiral Darlan had on 24th June issued a last message to his Fleet, in which he stated his wish that. French warships should remain French, under the French flag, with reduced French crews. Should the Armistice Commission try to prevent this, at the very moment that they did so, and without further orders, ships were to proceed to the United States or sink themselves if they could not otherwise be prevented from falling into the hands of the enemy. In no case was a ship to fall into enemy hands intact.7
What effect the possession of this information would have had upon the attitude of His Majesty’s Government, in all the anxiety and uncertainty of the moment, is impossible to assess. It certainly cannot be assumed that they would have considered intervention by British forces to be unnecessary. They were convinced of the vital necessity of ensuring that the French capital ships were placed beyond the reach of German or Italian compulsion or treachery. At Mers-el-Kebir this would have meant departure for a secure port or being scuttled under. British supervision. The French Government, for their part, were anxious not to bring still further hardship upon their country by breaking the conditions of the armistice. It is hard to see how these divergent views could have been reconciled.
The circumstances at Alexandria were entirely different from those at Oran and—thanks to the patience and understanding shown by Admiral Cunningham—so was the result. The cordial understanding between the two Admirals was an important factor from the outset. In fact the first move was made by Godfroy on 27th June when he offered to discharge all oil fuel from his ships so as to save the British the embarrassment of having to keep a large force in harbour to look after them. All he required was an assurance that there was no intention of seizing his ships by force. This was referred to the Admiralty, who directed that no such assurance was to be given. The next day the Commander-in-Chief reported that Godfroy had given his word that he would make no attempt to leave Alexandria, but that if Darlan ordered him to break out he would first ask permission to withdraw his parole and would then request to sail with a British unit in company, with the object of scuttling all his ships outside. So far, so good.
On 29th June the Admiralty asked the Commander-in-Chief for his views on a proposal that he should seize Godfroy’s ships simultaneously with Admiral Somerville’s approach to Gensoul at Oran. Admiral Cunningham replied opposing it strongly. The French ships at Alexandria were in no danger of falling into the enemy’s
hands, and a forcible attempt to seize them would only result in their being scuttled at their moorings, causing unnecessary casualties and fouling the harbour with wrecks. This would have a deplorable effect in the Middle East, and would be particularly likely to antagonize the French Suez Canal officials, whose co-operation was essential to us. He therefore pleaded for matters to be allowed to pursue their present course, and took the opportunity to repeat that he was very much against the proposed use of force at Oran.
The reply to this was that, if the use of the French ships could be obtained without bloodshed, well and good; if not, there were two alternatives which were to be presented to the French Admiral on 3rd July. Either the ships were to be placed in a non-seagoing condition with skeleton crews, the British Government being responsible for pay and upkeep, or they were to be sunk at sea. After due reflection Admiral Godfroy wrote to say that he had no choice but to sink his ships. He was accordingly told officially to prepare to sail at noon on 5th July, but Admiral Cunningham wrote privately saying that he quite understood that Godfroy might regard the reduction of his crews as incompatible with his duty; would he therefore be prepared to order the oil fuel to be discharged from his ships and the warheads from his torpedoes to be landed? To this suggestion Godfroy agreed without demur, in spite of his having received a signal from the French Admiralty ordering ‘Weigh immediately and leave Alexandria with all your ships, using force if necessary’. By 5.30 p.m. the French ships were discharging their fuel.
To Admiral Cunningham’s surprise and indignation the report of this apparently satisfactory progress drew a reply from the Admiralty noting that the French ships were discharging oil, but ordering ‘crews to commence being reduced at once by landing or transfer to merchant ships, especially key ratings, before dark tonight. Do not fail’. This signal was despatched at a time when it was after sunset at Alexandria. It struck the Commander-in-Chief as being a rather unusual signal to emanate from their Lordships, and as he was unable to comply with it he reported in due course that he had ignored it.
It was at this juncture that Godfroy became aware that ultimatums were in the air. ‘Admiral’, he wrote to Cunningham, ‘I have just learnt that an ultimatum has been addressed to our Atlantic Fleet by the British Admiralty. My Admiralty has ordered me to sail, though I have requested assurance that the order is authentic. I realize that sailing is impossible, but in order not to incur reproach for having discharged oil fuel after receiving orders to sail I have stopped the discharge pending events. But that alters nothing. I give you my word as to my intentions which remain unchanged from those I expressed to you in writing this morning.’
By the time that Cunningham’s Chief of Staff arrived to remonstrate, Godfroy had heard of the engagement at Mers-el-Kebir. Thereafter he declined to continue discharging oil or to remove any of his men. He also refused to sink his ships at sea, adding that if he were allowed out of harbour he would run for it, even though this would probably lead to a battle. He would agree to remain at Alexandria with full crews, but if faced by any demand backed by force he would scuttle his ships in the harbour.
The Commander-in-Chief thereupon decided that he must face Godfroy with a demand to be interned or surrender. He informed the Admiralty accordingly, adding that he did not propose to take this action until the morning of 5th July, so that arrangements could be made for the disposal of the French crews. During the night Godfroy learned more details of the action at Mers-el-Kebir, and at 7 a.m. Cunningham received another letter from him repudiating each and every undertaking he had given and reserving to himself complete liberty of action. From the upper deck of the Warspite the French ships could be seen raising steam and clearing their armament for action. It seemed that Godfroy was now determined to fight his way to sea, and that a battle in Alexandria harbour was inevitable.
One unusual course remained. It would take six to eight hours for the French warships to raise steam, and Admiral Cunningham decided to use the time available to appeal to officers and ships’ companies over Godfroy’s head and suborn them from allegiance to him. A message in French was composed explaining the helplessness of their situation, our sincere desire not to fight, and the generous terms which could be accepted without loss of dignity or honour. This was flashed to every ship, and was also written on large blackboards and exhibited from boats steaming slowly round the French ships. In addition, Captains of British ships visited their opposite numbers to reason with the French Captains, being received in most cases with cordiality and nowhere with hostility. (In accordance with the usual custom, British warships had been detailed to act as hosts to particular French vessels during their stay in port.) All this appeared to have an excellent effect and it was soon evident that many French officers disagreed with their Admiral.
Meanwhile the Admiralty, strongly desirous of avoiding a battle in Alexandria harbour, suggested that British ships should be taken to sea and engage the French from seaward after a suitable ultimatum. But Admiral Cunningham refused to be hustled and replied that he did not want to force matters to a head but wished to wait ‘for contacts on lower planes to have effect’.
Throughout the morning meetings were held on the foc’s’les of the French ships at which ratings harangued their shipmates, while
a number of visits of French captains to Godfroy took place. The French Minister in Cairo had also been prevailed upon to use his influence and arrived at an opportune moment. Early in the afternoon all French commanding officers were seen to go on board their flagship and, an hour later, Godfroy signalled his desire to see Admiral Cunningham. The upshot of this meeting was that Godfroy ‘yielded to overwhelming force’, and agreed to continue the discharge of oil fuel forthwith and to the placing of his ships in a condition in which they could not fight. The discharge of ships’ companies was to be a matter for further discussion. The immediate danger was thus over, for which the credit is primarily due to the men on the spot.8
The decision that, if all else failed, the French capital ships were to be attacked was as serious as it was repugnant, seeing that it might have driven France to war against us. Had this occurred, the naval situation, especially in the Mediterranean, would have become graver still. In all there remained under the Vichy Government’s control one battlecruiser, one aircraft carrier, four 8-inch and ten 6-inch cruisers, thirty destroyers and seventy submarines. Numerous bases would have become available to the Axis. French air forces had flown in large numbers to North Africa, where there were now believed to be 180 French bombers and 450 fighters. Attacks could have been made on Malta and Gibraltar and any of our naval forces that might be in the Central or Western Mediterranean. Malta would have become more isolated than ever. Shipping bound for the Middle East by the Cape route would have been liable to attacks from naval and air bases on the west coast of Africa and from Madagascar, while the defences of the important convoy assembly port of Freetown would have required strengthening urgently. Various other defence commitments would have arisen in consequence of threats from neighbouring French territories, while in Egypt a large number of hostile French residents and officials would have been an embarrassment. Finally, if German and Italian action had compelled the withdrawal of the fleet from the Eastern Mediterranean, the transport of Axis forces to Syria could no longer have been prevented and this might have produced a very serious situation indeed.
In weighing up these risks it was realized in London that the French were already so stunned and disorganized by their defeat as to be incapable of any fully co-ordinated action for the present, but
Dr. Goebbels had been presented with some first-class material and might be expected to make good use of it. The principal danger would naturally be from the French Navy itself, which could hardly be blamed if it became embittered and vindictive.
To the world in general the action against the French ships served as an indication of Britain’s relentless determination, which was of greater significance than the purely material results, especially as one of the intended victims—the battlecruiser Strasbourg—had escaped undamaged. The British Ambassadors in the Mediterranean countries reported that reactions were on the whole very favourable. Turkish official opinion was said to be in sympathy with the British action. In Greece it was generally thought to have been fully justified, though officially there was some alarm at the worsening of Anglo-French relations. In Yugoslavia the news was well received and led to the conviction that the British meant to win the war. In the United States the Secretary of State informed the British Ambassador that, when the French Ambassador had conveyed the Main Government’s protest, he had been told that the whole of American opinion supported Great Britain’s action.
In French Somaliland the gallant General Legentilhomme continued to obstruct the enforcement of the armistice and even stopped the Vichy emissary, General Germain, when he arrived on the frontier. But on 19th July he found himself opposed by his naval and air colleagues at the Governor’s Council, and desiring above all to avoid civil war he came to the conclusion that those Frenchmen who wished to continue the struggle should do so elsewhere. He managed to temporize for a little longer and finally departed for Aden on 5th August, leaving Germain engaged in trying to obtain the best local terms that he could, under pressure from Vichy to break off all relations with the British.
In the Chad Province of French Equatorial Africa, which lies between Nigeria and the Sudan, the French Government’s capitulation was widely resented. Touch was established with General de Gaulle, and the attitude of the military authorities and officials seemed very promising. In the Cameroons, too, there was a strong Free French element. By the end of August both provinces had declared their adherence to General de Gaulle.
In West Africa, on the other hand, the authorities were apathetic and generally unwilling to cut themselves off from the Home Government, and there was a strong and embittered naval element.
On 4th July the French broadcast an order forbidding British ships and aircraft to approach within twenty miles of any French territory, and on the following day French warships still at sea were ordered to intercept British merchant vessels. In the early hours of 5th July French aircraft appeared over Gibraltar, but their bombs
fell harmlessly into the Bay, which suggested that the attack had been carried out with little enthusiasm. The same day the French Government announced their intention of breaking off diplomatic relations, and on the 8th they did so. In order to ease the tension the Admiralty broadcast an order on 12th July directing that no further action against French ships in Colonial or North African ports was to be taken, but the right was reserved to take action against French warships proceeding to enemy-controlled ports. Merchant ships were to be stopped by force, if necessary, from entering any port in French territory where British merchant vessels were being detained. In repeating this signal to the Mediterranean Fleet Admiral Cunningham added that H.M. ships were not to open fire on French warships met at sea unless the latter fired first.
Force H was still to be based at Gibraltar in order to prevent Italian ships from breaking out into the Atlantic and to act offensively against Italian naval forces and coasts; it had also to be prepared to operate in the Atlantic. Within the Mediterranean its activities were to be co-ordinated with those of the Mediterranean Fleet; this meant that many of the Mediterranean operations carried out by Force H came under the general control of Admiral Cunning-ham. The force had no sooner returned to Gibraltar from Oran than it was called upon to take part in the operations against the Italians with which a very promising start had already been made.