When France fell in June 1940, a small remnant of the French army and navy found itself in England. Most of them chose to return to France, where their government was preparing to capitulate to the invader. Few of the soldiers and almost none of the sailors recognised Charles de Gaulle, an armoured corps colonel temporarily elevated to brigadier general, as their leader. To them, de Gaulle seemed more of a traitor to his fellow officers for siding with Britain than Maréchal Pétain for seeking accommodation with Germany. Pétain, at least, remained on French soil to share the national humiliation rather than join an ancient enemy to sacrifice more lives in a war that seemed irretrievably lost. On 18 June, the day after Pétain announced his decision to seek an armistice that would oblige French officials to co-operate with the Wehrmacht, de Gaulle addressed the French nation via the BBC:
J’invite tous les militaires français des armées de terre, de mer et de l’air, j’invite les ingénieurs français spécialistes de l’armement qui se trouvent en territoire britannique ou qui pourraient y parvenir, à se réunir à moi. J’invite les chefs, les soldats, les marins, les aviateurs des forces françaises de terre, de mer, de l’air, où qu’ils se trouvent actuellement, à se mettre en rapport avec moi. J’invite tous les Français qui veulent rester libres à m’écouter et à me suivre.
Few Frenchmen actually heard the words now taught in French schools, ‘La France a perdu une bataille, mais la France n’a pas perdu la guerre.’ Fewer still responded. French defeat had been absolute: more than 90,000 soldiers killed, another 200,000 wounded, nearly two million taken prisoner, the army routed and demoralised, the population defenceless. Most French men and women distrusted Britain, whom they blamed for bringing France into a war for which it was unprepared, and for skimping on its own military contribution to the Allied cause: France fielded 67 army divisions along the front to Britain’s five. (Germany had 107.) ‘Anglophobia seems to be almost universal in the French army,’ the writer Claude Jamet noted in his diary. When France collapsed, an American living in Paris wrote of de Gaulle: ‘It must be supposed that an officer who seeks shelter far from the situation that he himself has abandoned, who is clothed, fed and financed by a government which has seldom throughout history manifested affection towards his fatherland, is hardly in a position to judge the conditions from which he himself has escaped.’
Jean Monnet, one of France’s more respected statesmen, wrote to de Gaulle on 23 June in London: ‘I share completely your desire to keep France from giving up the fight. But it is not from London that the effort of resurrection can, at the moment, begin. It would look to Frenchmen, in this form, like a movement protected by England, inspired by its interests and, because of that, condemned to a failure that will make later efforts to get back on our feet more difficult.’
Anglo-French distrust ran deep. Each navy had named its ships for heroes in wars fought against the other. HMS Hotspur honoured Harry Percy, who fought the French in the 14th century and had been governor of Bordeaux; HMS Keppel recalled Augustus Keppel, the admiral who defeated a French fleet at Quiberon Bay off Saint-Nazaire in 1759; in the same year, George Rodney, after whom the battleship HMS Rodney was named, shelled Le Havre for two full days and nights. The French navy similarly honoured Jean Bart, who escaped British captivity in 1689 by rowing with 20 of his men across the Channel to Brittany and in the next year razed a castle in Scotland; the Bévéziers recalled a French naval victory over the English off Beachy Head in 1690; and no name resounded with more anti-English ardour than Surcouf, a submarine launched in 1929 and named after Robert Surcouf, le roi des corsairs, who in his long career seized more than 40 English ships.
In 1940, the first shots in what Colin Smith calls ‘England’s last war against France’ were exchanged between the two navies. Before the armistice of 22 June, de Gaulle and Churchill had urged the French government to commit its large fleet and its 400,000-man colonial army in Africa to the war against Germany. Pétain refused, going so far as to order the arrest of parliamentarians who had gone in good faith to Algiers to prosecute the war. The armistice left the navy and empire in French hands so long as both remained strictly neutral between Germany and Britain. Vichy policy was a vain attempt to keep the French Empire out of the clutches of both the British and the Axis. Although hostilities between Germany and France ended on 25 June, it was only a week later that France found herself at war again – with Britain.
The commander of the French navy, Admiral Darlan, had assured the British that he would scuttle his ships if the Germans or Italians attempted to seize them, but Churchill was unwilling to accept Darlan’s word. The Germans might use any pretext to capture the French ships for use in the invasion of Britain. Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to requisition or destroy French vessels in those ports they could reach. The bulk of the fleet lay at anchor in naval bases in North Africa, the Far East and the Caribbean, and under British guns in Egypt. Two battleships, four light cruisers, 200 light vessels and several submarines, including the Surcouf, were docked in Britain. On 3 July, Royal Marines and armed sailors boarded French vessels at Devonport. A French lieutenant fired a pistol at the officers demanding the surrender of the Surcouf, and a British chief petty officer returned fire with ‘.455 bullets as big as musket balls with his six-inch-barrel revolver which had first been issued to the British army almost half a century before’. The shoot-out continued at close quarters, killing three Britons and one Frenchman. ‘These were the first shots exchanged between official representatives of the British and French military in the 125 years since Waterloo,’ Smith writes. They were not the last.
In Alexandria, local naval commanders reached a gentlemen’s agreement that neither of their superiors approved. No such accommodation took place at Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria. Admiral North had sailed there from Gibraltar with an invitation to Admiral Gensoul to bring his ships to Britain. Gensoul declined, but told North he had made preparations to scuttle the ships rather than allow them to fall into Axis hands. North appeared satisfied and returned to Gibraltar. A British seaplane flew over Mers-el-Kébir in the following days, and the French did not fire on it.
Meanwhile, a British armada, Force H, was steaming into the Mediterranean to compensate for the withdrawal of French ships from the conflict. Admiral Somerville, whose flagship had been ‘named after his ancestor Lord Hood who once burned down the Toulon dockyard’, was ordered to present the French with an ultimatum: turn the ships over to Britain or be destroyed. ‘Never in the Royal Navy’s long history had one of its admirals gone into battle, certainly not against the French, as reluctantly as this one,’ Smith writes. Somerville’s ‘relations with the French had always been … amicable, most recently at Dunkirk, where Admiral Bertram Ramsay and he had worked alongside Amiral Jean Abrial’ in rescuing 366,000 soldiers from capture by the Germans. (Seven of the 16 large warships sunk during the evacuation were French.) Somerville now ‘did something that only highly regarded admirals who know their own worth, and don’t give a damn, can do on the eve of a major operation: he queried his orders … proposing that they negotiate without the threat of force’. The Admiralty altered its plans by offering French commanders several alternatives: join the British and continue fighting; take the ships to British ports, after which their crews would be repatriated; or sail with reduced crews to a French port in the West Indies, where the ships could wait out the war as neutrals.
‘If you refuse these fair offers,’ Somerville wrote to Gensoul, ‘I must, with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within six hours.’ Otherwise, the Royal Navy would ‘use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships falling into German or Italian hands’. Negotiations proceeded throughout the morning of 3 July, and Somerville extended the deadline for a French decision from 1.30 to 3 p.m. The deadline was relaxed again when Gensoul agreed to allow a Royal Navy captain onto his flagship for more thorough discussions. In the event, the officer left the Dunkerque without an agreement. Gensoul believed he had more time, but half an hour later, the British attacked.
Most of the French ships trapped in Mers-el-Kébir’s basin despite all indicators pointing to an imminent attack, had as little chance as the American Pacific fleet would have a year and a half later, when Japan bombed it without warning. Smith recounts the first Anglo-French naval battle in dramatic detail, using not only official records and personal diaries, but eyewitness accounts from participants whom he has tracked down. It is difficult not to share the feelings of the commander of HMS Keppel, who found himself enjoying a battle he didn’t want to fight: ‘It was a fine sight, and must have been rare in this war, to see two destroyer flotillas ahead of a battle squadron in full pursuit of the enemy … The only thing was, this was the wrong enemy, at the wrong place and the wrong time.’ The British destruction of its former ally’s ships resulted in 1297 French deaths, another 350 wounded, and the enmity of the French navy and people. ‘We all feel thoroughly dirty and ashamed that the first time we have been in action was an affair like this,’ Somerville wrote to his wife. ‘I feel I will be blamed for bungling the job and I think I did. But to you I don’t mind confessing that I was half-hearted and you can’t win an action that way.’
The Vichy government reacted by severing diplomatic relations with Britain; de Gaulle found it almost impossible to persuade French sailors anywhere to join his Free French movement in the country that had killed more than a thousand of their comrades; and pro-Nazi Frenchmen in Paris, like Marcel Déat and Jacques Doriot, now had evidence that France would be better served by an alliance with Germany than continued neutrality. The legacy of Mers-el-Kébir would cost many British lives over the following two years. The next day Churchill informed the Commons about the ‘melancholy action’ that Britain had tried to avoid while assuring MPs that Mers-el-Kébir was ‘sufficient to dispose once and for all of the lies and rumours that we have the slightest intention of entering into negotiations with Germany’. Members leaped to their feet to cheer his defiance, but their applause was less for Britain’s attack on the French than for its renewed determination to fight the Nazis. ‘The House is at first saddened by this odious attack, but it is fortified by Winston’s speech,’ Harold Nicolson wrote.
In the emerging conflict with Vichy, the British didn’t have it all their own way. The next assault on the French military took place that September at Dakar in French West Africa. Its purpose, as in Algeria, was primarily naval: to deprive German U-boats of a base jutting into the Atlantic from which to sink merchant ships. It was to be a conquest rather than a hit and run raid, deploying the Free French in their first engagement. The British hoped de Gaulle would persuade the commander of the French Army in Africa, General Noguès, to come over without a fight. Noguès had earlier objected to the armistice, writing to the defence minister General Weygand, that he would ask ‘immediately’ to be relieved of his command. In the event, Noguès did not resign, and he remained loyal to Vichy. His resistance to the British naval bombardment of Dakar, joined with a bungled commando landing by de Gaulle, led to Vichy’s first victory over the British intruder. In revenge for the attempt to take Dakar, Vichy warplanes dropped 150 bombs on Gibraltar.
After the British withdrawal by sea, one of the aviators who bombed Dakar wrote: ‘I began to think it was a pretty odd war in which our erstwhile allies the French shot at us from aeroplanes made by the Americans who seemed to be on our side. But I suppose we started it.’ It was as good a summary as any of the emerging war between the two former allies. The warrant officers and sergeants sang as they departed:
We went to Dakar with General de Gaulle
We sailed round in circles and did bugger all.
In the following months, Britain blockaded non-food imports through French ports in the Mediterranean (including aid from the United States, which maintained relations with Vichy). The Royal Navy seized almost two hundred French merchant ships and sank one French passenger liner. Events in Iraq and at Vichy then conspired to make Syria and Lebanon, French Mandate territories, the next theatre of operations in the unfolding confrontation.
After a coup in Baghdad by nationalist officers, the politician Rashid Ali al-Gaylani threatened to drive the British out of their bases and bring the Germans in. To support the nationalists, the Germans asked for the use of airfields in Syria and Lebanon. Darlan, who had replaced Pierre Laval as Pétain’s deputy in December 1940 in what de Gaulle called ‘a palace revolution that expelled the Grand Vizier’, met Hitler in Berchtesgaden in May 1941 to accede to Germany’s request for use of the airfields. Britain responded by invading Syria and Lebanon from Palestine, advancing up the coast and inland through the desert and mountains. Smith describes a hard campaign by British, Australian and Arab forces that took five weeks to dislodge the French, at the cost of 1092 of Vichy’s men. Iraq had been secured, and the Germans were kept out of Syria and Lebanon. But de Gaulle’s recruitment drive among French regulars in Syria won over 5668 men while 32,032 remained loyal to Vichy.
The next trouble spot was Madagascar, where Britain feared the Japanese navy would follow Hitler’s advice and take the island as a base from which to conduct operations against the Suez Canal and British African waters. British planes dropped leaflets to French forces to remind them: ‘Those of you who want nothing to do with all this, remember that in Saigon French officers have to salute Japanese other ranks.’ The assault began on 5 May 1942, and the battle was bloodier than the British expected: in the first phase, they lost more than a hundred troops. It took a further six months to subdue the entire island, the Vichy commander capitulating on 5 November.
The American journalist Vincent Sheean, who had lived in France and spoke the language well, wrote of the impact Britain’s mostly triumphant campaigns against the French Empire were having in France. ‘Later, a very large part of the French public was taught to regard de Gaulle as a traitor who had fired upon troops of the French Republic in Dakar, in Madagascar and in Syria; he became known to the public in 1942 for the first time, in the role of a rebel during a time of his country’s worst ordeal.’ The United States looked elsewhere for a French leader, even to the collaborators at Vichy, who would be more acceptable to the French than one so closely identified with the English enemy. As late as the end of 1942, Roosevelt hoped that Pétain himself would come over to the Allied side and unite France against Germany.
So deep had French animosity to Britain grown that Robert Murphy, the suave diplomat whom Roosevelt sent to North Africa to lay the ground for Operation Torch, the Allied gamble to invade North Africa, neglected to inform his potential anti-Nazi allies among the local French that British troops were participating in the American invasion. When the Anglo-American forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, British suspicions of the French were so strong that the Royal Navy delivered many of the troops to the wrong beaches – in order to avoid linking up with the French Resistance fighters who were waiting to assist them. Neither the British nor the Americans trusted de Gaulle enough even to inform him that they were about to invade French territory. When he discovered the truth, he said: ‘I hope these Vichy people are going to throw them into the sea.’
Those Vichy people variously succumbed to superior force or suddenly saw the wisdom of joining the Allied cause. Noguès put up the stiffest resistance to Patton at Casablanca, but he eventually changed sides. Hitler did more than anyone else to reconcile the regular French army to the Allies in North Africa by invading the Vichy zone in France and placing the whole country under occupation. Pétain’s change of status from collaborator to prisoner relieved the French military in North Africa of its sacred oath of loyalty to him. Darlan, Vichy’s arch-collaborationist, happened to be in Algeria visiting his son when the invasion began. He soon collaborated with the British and Americans, leaving many on the Allied side uneasy, but on Christmas Eve 1942 an assassin’s bullet saved them further embarrassment. The Anglo-French war now effectively ended, as Free French and former Vichy forces joined the battle against the Germans in Tunisia, Italy and, in June 1944, their homeland. That they fought bravely – certainly more effectively under General Juin in Italy than either the Americans or the British – helped to avoid the civil war in liberated France that both de Gaulle and Laval feared. Roosevelt, whose antipathy to de Gaulle never vacillated, allowed the Free French leader only a share of command in French North Africa with General Giraud. Giraud, a brave if simple soldier, was outmanoeuvred by a master politician, who, in the postwar settlement, would outfox his British benefactors as well.
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