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Post Was Churchill a War Criminal? Mers-el-Kebir
Created by John Eipper on 07/26/12 2:19 PM

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Was Churchill a War Criminal? Mers-el-Kebir (Anthony D'Amato, USA, 07/26/12 2:19 pm)

Nigel Jones wrote on 26 July:

"I'm somewhat surprised that in his litany of Churchillian crimes, Alain de Benoist has not mentioned what may be considered his greatest crime against France: viz. his destruction of the French naval squadron at Mers-el-Kebir outside Oran in Algeria in July 1940, ostensibly to prevent it from falling into Hitler's hands. Some 1,500 French sailors died in this unnecessary attack. While I believe this was one of Churchill's many blunders--even crimes--it had the unintended consequence of demonstrating to the world--not least to FDR--that Britain, after the useless Chamberlain, as now under new and ruthless management which would stop at--literally--nothing to survive and win the war."

I'll try to add to the story, agreeing that it was a Churchillian crime.

In the summer of 1940, after France's capitulation to Germany, the problem for Great Britain was how to obtain the French fleet. In the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir were four French battleships, six destroyers, and six submarines. Located west of Oran, the port was a strategic location for maintaining control of the Straits of Gibraltar.

The British game plan, called Operation Catapult, was one in which Churchill agreed with the British military strategists, though Churchill of course had the final decision. Although his optimal strategy would have been to send De Gaulle to Mers-el-Kebir to persuade the French commanders to join the war on the side of the British, instead he ignored De Gaulle and resorted to the old British naval tradition of approaching ships in port by sea and making a demand.

British war vessels, led by Vice-Admiral Somerville, sent a message to the French ships in the harbor. It appears to have been drafted by lawyers working for the War Cabinet, with all the hauteur and lack of grace for which inferior lawyers are renowned:

"It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German 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 that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe. In these circumstances, His Majesty's 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 the fight until victory against the Germans.

"(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would 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 the Germans unless they 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 demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe 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 6 hours.

"Finally, failing the above, I have the orders from His Majesty's Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German hands."

One can well imagine a French naval commander receiving such a message. "What's with this partners-up-to-now baloney?" he undoubtedly thought. Looking quickly to see if there were any demands at the end of the message, he was shocked instead to find an ultimatum. What colossal effrontery did the British have!

The British managed to make matters worse by the way they delivered the ultimatum to the French commanders. Vice-Admiral Somerville decided not to deliver the ultimatum personally, instead sending a lower-ranking officer. The French Commander in charge of the fleet stationed at Mers el-Kebir, Vice-Admiral Gensoul, was insulted by Somerville's refusal to deal directly with him. In response he sent a lower officer with his answer. This led to a communication mix-up, as subordinates were careless with the content of the messages entrusted to them. The situation became increasingly tense.

If Vice-Admiral Gensoul had been properly approached, he might have acquiesced fully in the British proposal. He personally wanted to continue the fight against the Germans. He had decided that he owed no loyalty to the Vichy Government. A word from De Gaulle would have been decisive. But the British kept De Gaulle in the dark.

As the day progressed, the negotiations continued to break down. Somerville received orders from London to attack as soon as possible. They didn't want to give the French ships the opportunity to prepare for battle.

At 5 PM, the British opened fire. Within ten minutes, the battle was over. 1,297 French soldiers were killed. Of the four battleships, the Bretagne was sunk, and the Provence and Dunkerque run aground. Only the Strausbourg escaped. There were no British casualties.

Churchill papered over the blunder in his Memoirs with the argument that the top priority was to keep French ships out of German hands. But the newly entrenched Vichy government jumped at the opportunity to use the Mers-el-Kebir debacle as propaganda against Churchill and De Gaulle. To most citizens within the French Empire the propaganda hit home. The idea of the British navy firing upon and sinking French ships created huge doubts in their minds about who was friend and who was foe.

Mers-el-Kebir was one of those quite infrequent British blunders in which both Churchill and the War Cabinet were both to blame, though Churchill had the final say. In my view, most of the British war errors occurred when Churchill disagreed with the military leaders. These disagreements almost always saw Churchill wanting to gain a propaganda advantage against the War Cabinet's purely military judgment. When they disagreed, Churchill's decision prevailed, leading, I think, to the greatest unnecessary loss of life at British hands during the entire war. The majority of the loss of life was civilian noncombatants. In this latter respect, no matter his rhetorical achievements, Churchill was a war criminal.

JE comments: A monumental example of poor communication. Is it customary to send a lower-level officer to perform such a sensitive negotiation? What is the naval protocol? I imagine the commander of a fleet is supposed to remain on board his flagship, and not visit a potentially hostile foreign vessel.  Or have I misunderstood?

And finally:  Why wasn't De Gaulle consulted?  Was he not trusted by the British leadership at this point?

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  • Was Churchill a War Criminal? Mers-el-Kebir (Nigel Jones, -UK 07/27/12 3:25 AM)
    One of my unpublished books was titled Operation Catapult, so I did quite a lot of research in England and France into the unhappy episode that Anthony D'Amato outlines (26 July).

    The reason that Admiral James Somerville did not bring the ultimatum to Admiral Marcel Gensoul personally is that Somerville was the commander of H-Force, the squadron sent from Gibraltar to Mers-el-Kebir, and it is not customary for Admirals to abandon their ships to deliver messages personally, however important.

    Instead, the ultimatum was entrusted to an officer who traveled in a small boat between the fleets. In fact, he was still in the boat when the ultimatum expired and the British--urged on by increasingly frantic messages from Churchill in London--opened fire.

    Elsewhere in North Africa the French squadron in Alexandria, which was moored in harbour directly next to British ships, was peacefully immobilised thanks to the tact of the British Admiral on the spot, Cunningham.

    In England itself, French ships were seized in the ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth. These later formed De Gaulle's tiny Free French Navy. The only violence came aboard the giant submarine Surcouf, at the time the world's largest submarine, where two British sailors and one Frenchman died in a gunfight as the British raiding party seized the sub.

    (The Surcouf, with a Free French crew, subsequently disappeared in the Bermuda triangle in circumstances still mysterious.)

    Anthony is quite correct in describing the rage in France at this episode. (Although De Gaulle himself, with uncustomary forbearance, made a single dignified protest and left it at that.) Vichy French warplanes bombed Gibraltar in reprisal--though negligible damage was done--and the two former Allies came very close to war.

    It should be remembered that the whole Royal Navy--including Somerville--were deeply reluctant to carry out Churchill's orders, and the episode is even today remembered with shame. It definitely was not one of Britain's finest hours.

    The overall commander of the French Navy in 1940 was the Anglophobe Admiral Darlan, subsequently Marshal Petain's right-hand man. Darlan's Anglophobia is often ascribed to the fact that his great-grandfather was killed at Trafalgar, or alternatively that he was placed behind a pillar in Westminster Abbey when he represented France at the coronation of George VI in 1937. In any event, he was a vicious pro-Nazi collaborator, and a slippery character who rapidly swapped sides when he found himself in Algeria at the time of the Anglo-American Operation Torch landings in November 1942. (Darlan was visiting his son who had been stricken with polio.)

    FDR, who loathed De Gaulle, wanted to make Darlan an alternative French leader, arranged for his son to be treated for his polio at Roosevelt's Warm Springs spa in Georgia, and left Darlan in situ as head of State in Algeria (complete with Vichy's anti-Semitic laws and keeping French resisters in jail)--an act which not only outraged the Gaullists who had been fighting the Admiral, but also annoyed Churchill, who knew what a dangerous foe of the Allies Darlan had been. FDR appeared blind to Darlan's horrendous record.

    Darlan's subsequent assassination in Algiers on Christmas Eve 1942 was almost certainly arranged by one of Britain's intelligence agencies, SOE, with the tacit approval if not the active involvement of Churchill and De Gaulle. (See the book Assassination in Algiers by Anthony Verrier for the detailed evidence.)

    The main body of the French fleet, incidentally, mothballed in the port of Toulon, was kept out of Hitler's hands--but only just. In November 1942, as German troops occupied Vichy France in the wake of Operation Torch, the sailors scuttled the Fleet in Toulon harbour minutes before the Germans arrived to secure the ships.

    As to whether Operation Catapult made Churchill a "war criminal" as Anthony suggests, I would answer "Yes--along with every other war leader since Caesar." And that includes such revered Americans as Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Wilson, FDR, Patton and Ike. Every leader who carried the responsibility for taking and losing lives in war is, by some legalistic yardsticks, a war criminal. War cannot be fought without such "crimes." And in an existential struggle such as WWII, necessity knows no law.

    JE comments:  I was unaware of FDR's animosity towards De Gaulle.  What was the reason?
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    • FDR and De Gaulle (Istvan Simon, USA 07/28/12 8:55 AM)

      JE asked, in his comments to a post by Nigel Jones (27 Jul), why Roosevelt did not like De Gaulle. The answer I think is obvious. De Gaulle was a pain in the butt, insisting constantly on a privileged treatment for France in war decisions, as if he had as many troops in the battle as the United States or Britain. Only saints could put up with him. So no wonder that FDR could not stand him. He behaved like a spoiled brat. His hauteur was ridiculous to an extreme, with no sense of proportion or judgment whatsoever. He suffered from it his whole life. Though a great statesman, De Gaulle was an Anglophobe, and behaved like a boorish idiot on many occasions. Who else in his right mind would have been so arrogant that on an official visit to Canada would say aloud "Vive Quebec Libre!" Only someone with a grossly exaggerated ego, and imagining to be the "symbol of France," that everyone would have to genuflect to.

      JE comments:  Next up, Nigel Jones's views on the FDR-De Gaulle relationship.

      How about a comment or two from France?  We are, after all, talking about De Gaulle.

      By the by, greetings from the Miami International Airport.

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    • FDR and De Gaulle (Nigel Jones, -UK 07/28/12 9:02 AM)
      In response to JE's question of 27 July, FDR regarded De Gaulle--with some justification--as just a jumped-up General who had assumed the leadership of France with no democratic mandate whatsoever. He also was highly suspicious of De Gaulle's politics, regarding him as a potential fascist dictator. He probably also thought (wrongly) that he was a British puppet.

      After Darlan's death, FDR switched his support to another French General, Giraud, who had escaped from a Nazi prison in Germany. But Giraud proved totally inept politically, and was easily outmanoeuvred and sidelined by De Gaulle, leaving the latter as undisputed leader of Free--by that time renamed "Fighting"--France.

      I believe that FDR's hostility fuelled De Gaulle's later bitter Anti-Americanism (as seen in such acts as throwing US troops out of France in 1966), but he would have been anti-American anyway.

      JE comments: Might we have put our finger on the origins of that durable stereotype of the last three generations--French anti-Americanism? (Disclaimer: I've never experienced this phenomenon myself.)

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      • FDR and De Gaulle (Anthony D`Amato, USA 07/29/12 5:25 PM)
        De Gaulle had good reason to dislike Roosevelt, but FDR's hatred of De Gaulle was unjustified.

        FDR knew absolutely nothing about De Gaulle's urging the French ministers to go into exile in Africa and govern the free French from there. If the ministers had accepted this idea, DeGaulle would be nothing but a one-star general. This shows that De G was not the egotist people say he was.

        All FDR could see was that the ministers took up residence in Vichy where they had important municipal functions, like deciding what time to turn on the street lights. Puppet Vichy was more vicious toward French Jews than Hitler was toward German Jews--see the recent book by Richard Weisberg. The Vichy government's maintenance of law and order in Metropolitan France meant that German soldiers did not have to patrol the streets of France but rather were freed up to fight wars outside France. For these and other reasons, FDR had no business supporting Vichy. (The US did not recognize DeG's Fighting French till 1944.)

        A screening of Casablanca was presented in the White House in December 1942. Although Bogart in the film changed his mind about the Free French, FDR didn't.

        JE comments:  Anthony D'Amato has taught me something: the US gave full diplomatic recognition to Vichy France.  Although prior to the US being at war with Germany, I suppose this makes sense.

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        • Post Unpublished - please check back later

  • Was Churchill a War Criminal? Mers-el-Kebir (Istvan Simon, USA 07/27/12 3:38 AM)
    I am afraid that I must once again disagree with my WAIS colleagues Nigel Jones and Anthony D'Amato.

    There is an able summary of the circumstances of Mers-el-Kebir episode of World War II, for example, here:


    In my opinion, the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-El-Kebir may have been a painful misunderstanding (see the account of the above reference), but it was neither a crime, and much less a blunder of Winston Churchill. The British decision was entirely justified under the circumstances. After all, D'Arlan had allegiance to a government that was collaborating with the Nazi enemy. It is a tragedy that Admiral D'Arlan was in charge, but he must be held responsible for the unfortunate outcome.

    Commanders that sacrifice their men, when given the opportunity to surrender, or even take advantage of the generous offer of Churchill of taking the ships to a friendly port not under the danger of German takeover, are not wise--they are stupid. It is Hitler that was stupid at Stalingrad, not Field Marshal Paulus. The latter chose honorably to surrender and live, rather than kill himself and murder his men, as Hitler had ordered. Likewise, at Mers-El-Kebir, the stupid man was D'Arlan, who suffered the consequences of his stupidity.

    JE comments:  A question on the angry phase of Mers-el-Kebir:  Anthony D'Amato (26 July) wrote that the British did not suffer a single casualty during the attack.  Did the French not fire back?

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    • Mers-el-Kebir (Cameron Sawyer, USA 07/30/12 6:13 AM)
      I agree with Istvan Simon's interpretation of Mers-el-Kebir (27 July) and would go further: preventing the French squadron from falling into Nazi hands was a military imperative. The French squadron--consisting of two battleships, two battlecruisers, and six destroyers--was a major strategic weapon which could have changed the balance of forces in the Mediterranean or North Atlantic. The crime and blunder would have been had Churchill or Gensoul failed to neutralize this force. The famous radiogram conversation between Gensoul and Darlan is one of those dramatic moments that make good reading in popular histories of the war. It reminds me a bit of the telegrammed misunderstandings between Kerensky and Kornilov--possible misunderstandings--which led to chaos in the Russian army, giving Lenin his chance.

      But I really don't think that the outcome would have been different, without any misunderstanding. Darlan had many, many honorable opportunities to resolve the standoff, and the he should have understand that the British could never allow the fleet to escape, and could never simply take Darlan's word for it that he would keep the fleet out of German control, a promise which Darlan had no power to fulfill.

      I have written before--I don't blame the French at all for giving up at the beginning of the war. War is generally pointless, and despite the unusually pronounced aspects of good and evil in WWII, it was still fundamentally pointless. But having given up your industrial capacity, your ports, military bases and your arsenals to your ally's enemy, what do you expect your ally to do? Is he not supposed to bomb your factories which are turning out weapons directed against his cities? Your ports which are being used to launch attacks against him? Is he supposed to stand by and allow your fleet, one of the most powerful in the world, to be taken over by your enemy to attack your navy?

      I agree with Istvan on this point--100% of the blame for the tragedy must lie with Darlan's misjudgment of the situation. I cannot really imagine how anyone can blame Churchill for doing what was really the only possible thing to do. It was, I say again--a military imperative.

      Now about De Gaulle. De Gaulle has a generally bad reputation for arrogance and impudence in popular histories. But I agree with Anthony D'Amato--this is a one-sided, distorted picture. It does not take into account what De Gaulle had to deal with in Churchill, or particularly, in Roosevelt, who indeed ignored De Gaulle for years while De Gaulle was engaged in an incredible struggle to put together a real fighting force against the Nazis, and who were maneuvering hard against De Gaulle throughout much of the conflict at the very same time they were supplying arms and--limited--intelligence. Here I cannot agree with Istvan, who blames De Gaulle for behaving as if "he had as many troops in the battle as the US or Britain." First of all, I cannot refrain from commenting on the irony of this logic, coming from Istvan, since Istvan has just so recently argued that the fact that the Soviets caused 95% of German casualties during the war and 85% of German battle deaths, and fielded something like 20 times as many troops (measured in division/months) as any of the other Allies, does not mean that the Soviets played "the most significant role in the war" (begging the question, what did play the major role in the war, then, if not military operations?). But more importantly*, it is not even true that the Free French did so much less fighting than the Brits or Americans--there were eventually more than a million Free French under arms, and they eventually managed to put about 10 divisions into the field. They played the major role in the liberation of France and were engaged in a lot of desperate fighting in North Africa and other places. Certainly, the military role of the Free French was closer in scale--in terms of divisions fighting over how many months, casualties incurred, casualties caused--to the scale of the British or American military role in the war, than was the scale of either the British or American military role was close to the Soviet one. I think that this--the minimization of the French role in the fighting--is another consequence of the persistent exaggeration of our own [US] role in WWII, and the persistent exaggeration of the importance of the operations we were engaged in.

      But the story is even more complicated than that. Underlying the tension between De Gaulle and Churchill was also the little-told story about the struggle between Churchill and De Gaulle over French colonies and spheres of influence. The invasion of Syria and Lebanon by a combined British-Free French force in June, 1941 ("Operation Exporter") is so obscure that there is apparently not even a Wikipedia article on it (sorry, I'm wrong: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syria%E2%80%93Lebanon_Campaign ). But this was a fundamental event of the war. This was the moment during which relations between Churchill and De Gaulle finally broke down. And the details of this conflict reveal that Churchill was as much interested in building the post-war world, as he was in defeating the Nazis**. But Churchill's vision of the post-war world was quite different from De Gaulle's, although both of these visions shared the common feature of an exaggerated vision of the importance of colonies.

      So there was a fundamental conflict of interest between De Gaulle and the other Western Allies. De Gaulle fought as hard as he could to preserve the French place in the world which would follow the war, and it is entirely understandable that he would want to do so. Likewise, it is understandable that Churchill and Roosevelt would consider De Gaulle a "pain in the butt" (in Istvan's phrase), unwilling to accept Anglo-American domination of former French spheres of influence like Syria and Lebanon. And so once again we are mislead by popular histories of the war which overemphasize personalities, and which try to make coherent, simplified stories out of complex historical events. And so once again, a complicated--and significant!--geopolitical situation gets simply wiped out of our consciousness with a trite and satisfying mythology about De Gaulle's arrogance and ungratefulness. Once again, popular history is not necessarily history, and is often anti-history.

      I regret that I know very little about De Gaulle and the Free French, which must be one of the most interesting aspects of WWII. The problem is language. Although my mother was a French linguist, I cannot read the language at more than a third-grade level. For the German point of view on WWII I read German writers in German. For the Soviet point of view, Russian. But I cannot read French, and so must rely on our interpretation of the French point of view on the war, an interpretation which I fundamentally distrust.

      *"More importantly" because the fact that Istvan uttered Proposition "A," which was wrong, and which is logically inconsistent with another utterance of Istvan's, let's call it Proposition "B," does not prove that Proposition "B" is false; in fact it is not even relevant to the truth or falsity of Proposition B. So I point this out for mere entertainment value, not that it proves anything at all.

      **And again I hasten to say that I don't blame Churchill at all for this--why should he have sent British troops to the slaughter when the Russians were willing to do the heavy lifting? It was the correct approach, and I would have done the same in his place.

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