Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why Churchill Ordered an Attack on the French Navy in WW2

Nothing illustrates the ironies, complexities, ambiguities, tragedies, paradoxes, and contradictions of history than a little known episode of World War II. Noteworthy also  are the uncertainties that accompany many momentous decisions in the life of individuals and nations. Cf: Søren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr.

After France signed an armistice with the Nazis  in 1940 and agreed to call their Navy to French ports, Churchill was afraid that eventually all these ships would fall into Nazi hands  and used against Britain, insuring victory for the Germans against them. Commander of the French fleet Admiral Darlan assured Churchill that he would scuttle all this ships rather than let the Germans have them, but Churchill doubted that he would actually do it, and he needed certainty. Some evidence indicates that Admiral Darlan would have done what he promised.

Meanwhile, Churchill's pleas to Roosevelt for 50 old warships went unheeded because Roosevelt thought that Britain and the American ships  would fall to the Nazis. Churchill demanded that French ships be put under British control or sailed away to safe Allied ports. When a deal could not be worked out, Churchill ordered an attack on French vessels at a naval base in the French-Algiers port of Mers-el-Kebir. destroying a number of French ships and killing 1,300 French sailors—more than the number of French soldiers killed by the Germans at that point in the war. The British public approved;  the French were outraged, and Germany used the event for propaganda purposes. Roosevelt was now convinced of British resolve and capacity and sent the ships and other military supplies to aid Britain.

The  uncertainties, ironies,  complexities, ambiguities, tragedies, paradoxes, and contradictions of history: they are all there. 

See: Secrets of the Dead: Churchill’s Deadly Decision, PBS, May 12, 2010