Douglas Johnson

  • The Battle of France: Six weeks which changed the world by Philip Warner
    Simon and Schuster, 275 pp, £16.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 671 71030 3
  • The Last War between Britain and France 1940-1942 by Warren Tute
    Collins, 334 pp, £16.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 00 215318 1
  • Darlan by Hervé Coutau-Bégarie and Claude Huan
    Fayard, 873 pp, frs 190.00, May 1989, ISBN 2 213 02271 2

During those days when the war in Western Europe had not yet got under way, so that it was called ‘the phoney war’, the drôle de guerre or the twilight war, an English journalist, with Labour sympathies, visited a number of French factories. He subsequently called on the minister responsible for industrial production, and posed the question of whether or not French workers were being obliged to work unjustifiably long hours. The minister replied: ‘If only there were a few more British soldiers in France, we could send more of our men back to the factories and the work load could be reduced.’

One can see, in this remark, the constant criticism of the British by the French. The British were supposedly comfortably situated, they did not expect to be invaded, they could continue to sail the high seas, they were secured by Commonwealth and American support, and they were proceeding in a leisurely way with the type of economic warfare that they preferred. The French, on the other hand, although they might strive to create new fronts and discover new enemies, all of which would carefully be sited far from their frontiers, knew that eventually they would have to fight the war on their own soil. They were haunted by the memory of what had happened from 1914 to 1918, and by the sentiment that they were more isolated in 1940 than they had ever been in that war. This was indeed a strange and uneasy alliance. For the French, the British were inactive and egocentric. For the British, the French were not only difficult and demanding, but also unreliable and untrustworthy.

It is not surprising that such reciprocal antagonism should have been considerably envenomed by the disastrous campaigns of 1940. The French believed that their ally, which had never given them adequate support, was preoccupied only with defending their island. The British believed that the French, who had never had the will to fight, had betrayed them. These mutual recriminations are still evident today. They have not been abolished by the general acceptance that British survival after June 1940 was due, in good part, to the existence of the Channel and to the windfall of many German errors, and they have not been lessened by the recognition of the importance of the resistance movements which developed within France, as they did in London, Africa and elsewhere.

It is true that a number of historians have modified the picture of a collapse which was confined to the French. Philip Warner, in an incisive piece of writing, equates the fate of the Dutch, Belgian, British and French armies as they were all confounded by German boldness and ruthlessness. He shows how it was not only the French but also the British who had assumed that the Maginot Line was impregnable and the River Meuse impassable, and who had believed that the Belgians would be able to hold the German attack. If there were sectors where the French panicked and ran for it, there were also sectors where the French fought bravely and continued their resistance, at the cost of heavy casualties, long after those in authority believed that the battle was irretrievably lost. Both British and French troops were affected by rumour – often, as Mr Warner suggests, sedulously spread by the Germans themselves. During the Dunkirk evacuation relations between the British and the French armies deteriorated in part because many of the French officers did not consider that the battle of France was over, and assumed that they would be returning to western France to take part in the long-awaited counter-attack which would push the Germans back and drive them off French soil.

Particular myths are put in better perspective: for example, ‘the inglorious end’, as it has been called, of the troops left behind after Dunkirk, the first formal surrender of British soldiers in the Second World War. This occurred at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, a small port some hundred miles south-west of Dunkirk. It is often said that the French, acting unilaterally, gave up fighting, and, carrying white flags, marched in front of the 51st Highland Division, thereby preventing them from firing at the Germans. Warner explains the extraordinary confusion of the situation, as well as its hopelessness. There is no doubting the outstanding bravery of several British units, some of which had not been trained for such difficult combat. But General Fortune, the division commander, was under the orders of the French General Ihler, who had asked him to transmit a telegram to the Commander-in-Chief requesting permission to surrender. This Fortune had ignored. He was determined to hang on until the British ships arrived. They would then evacuate his forces. General Ihler did not think they would arrive in time – and he ordered a cease-fire. The ships had been delayed by fog, which was bad luck. But as Warner points out, had the night been clear, the German artillery, well positioned along the cliffs, could have made a bloodbath of any evacuation. Whilst one can understand how the survivors of the Highland Division would have preferred to take a gamble and hope to get back home, rather than be drafted to the prisoner-of-war camps, it is not true to say that the disaster was caused simply by the French eagerness to surrender.

But if historians can agree about the conduct of French and British armies, there seems little likelihood that they will ever agree about the navies. One might have expected that Mr Warren Tute would have tried to reconcile conflicting views, since he was a naval officer who served on the staffs of Eisenhower and Mountbatten, taking part in the North African, Sicilian and Normandy landings, who now lives in France and who writes sympathetically about the plight of France after defeat. But his story has a clear villain. Worse than Pétain, worse than Laval, is the master of the French Navy, Admiral Darlan.

As we are taken briskly through the major episodes of Franco-British conflict from the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940, and de Gaulle’s unsuccessful expedition to Dakar the following September, to the Operation Torch landings of November 1942 in North Africa, it is the sharpminded but enigmatic Darlan who guarantees the fact that there is nothing ‘reluctant’ in the enmity that exists between Britain and France. We are told that for him the English were the enemies, the real hereditary enemies of France. After all, he had had an ancestor killed at Trafalgar. ‘Our family has always hated perfidious Albion,’ he is reported as saying. But this is not all. Darlan, ‘the pushy little Gascon’, as he is here called, is depicted as an unscrupulous politician, an intriguer and a double-dealer, with all the bad qualities of a Talleyrand. His Anglophobia coincided with his personal aspirations. Two days before the Germans entered Paris, Darlan met Marshal Pétain, who held up to him the prospect of an important post in the government which he expected to lead in the very near future. Four days later he was made Minister for the Navy in this government. There can be little doubt that Franco-British relations were affected by the Admiral’s prejudices and ambitions.

The fact that Darlan, claiming to be the only true Republican in a service that was reputedly aristocratic and reactionary, was adept at political intrigue is not in question. Professor Godechot, of the University of Toulouse, used to tell the story of how he encountered Darlan at a Popular Front rally in 1936, and no one doubts how carefully Darlan looked to his relations with Léon Blum. Yet for many years before he had benefitted from the support of his godfather, Georges Leygues, a traditional Radical deputy who seemed to be permanently Minister for the Navy in the years before the Popular Front made its mark in politics. But before forming any definitive judgment on Darlan, it is essential to consider the evidence about him which is presented in one of the major French biographies of recent years. This is all the more necessary since Warren Tute gives neither references nor bibliography in his book, whilst the large volume written by Hervé Coutau-Bégarie and Claude Huan (a former naval captain) is sustained by a considerable quantity of both public and private archives.

They suggest that one should not exaggerate Darlan’s Anglophobia before 1940. They show a man who was determined to make the French fleet efficient, and if at times he was impatient with the lack of response of his British ally (he referred to Admiral Sir Dudley Pound as demi-kilo), he showed no basic hostility to the British, and tried hard to establish an effective working relationship with them. During the crisis of May and June 1940 he is depicted as uncertain, envisaging a variety of possibilities, including that of taking the French fleet out of the reach of the Germans. The suggestion that he changed his attitude when he was offered a ministerial post by Pétain rests on uncertain evidence. What is clear, according to Coutau-Begarie and Huan (and according to many others), is that Darlan would never have handed the fleet over to the Germans. Here they differ from Warren Tute, who sees the tragedy of Mers-el-Kebir, when the British Navy’s attack on the French fleet was responsible for the deaths of 1297 French seamen, as a political necessity. It was, he suggests, essential to take over or to neutralise the French Navy, Darlan’s promises notwithstanding. Perhaps Churchill’s main aim was to demonstrate that Britain was determined to fight on. Had he seen what the Italian Foreign Minister had written in his diary after Mers-el-Kebir, he would have felt justified and satisfied: ‘The fighting spirit of His Majesty’s fleet is alive and still has the aggressive ruthlessness of the captains and pirates of the 17th century.’

There is no doubt that after 3 July 1940 Darlan became frantically anti-British, and said that he would never again shake the hand of someone who was a member of the Royal Navy. A reversal of alliances was possible and France might have joined with Germany in fighting a war against England, if Admiral Raeder had been more determined, if General Weygand had been less circumspect, if Pétain had been less hesitant. The weakness and the strength of Darlan was that he was ready to envisage all eventualities. The difference between the Admiral and General de Gaulle was that whilst the latter saw things in terms of the long perspectives of history, Darlan was a short-term man, for whom instant benefits were set within the frail framework of a quick temper. His collaboration with Hitler was not based either on ideological conviction or on any belief that the German domination of Europe was permanent. It was only an immediate, perhaps passing, necessity. No wonder that Hitler treated him with contempt.

It is appropriate that this period of Anglo-French relations, so fraught with misunderstandings and recriminations, should end with the murder of Darlan on Christmas Eve, 1942. A young aristocrat and royalist, Bonnier de la Chapelle, was the assassin, and was executed immediately afterwards (it was said that his coffin had been prepared before his trial). But the problem remains: who inspired and organised this unfortunate young man into carrying out this act? Tute simply says, that it was Astier de la Vigerie, who was acting on behalf of General de Gaulle, although it is not clear whether or not it was with his approval. A British historian, Anthony Verrier, believes that it was the Intelligence Service. Others suggest that it was all part of a monarchist plot. The most convenient suggestion is that all these different agencies were involved together. The only certainty was that Darlan was killed. No one is absolutely sure where he is buried.