I’ve been reading and pondering recently about Operation Catapult, and the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir that resulted in the deaths of 1,300 French sailors. Since we’ve all been mulling over the topic of submission to authority for a good while now, it occurs to me that there may be some useful food for thought to be found here. So if you’re up for a little history, grab a cup of coffee and read on.
What fascinates me so much about this period of time and event is the ambiguous nature of authority in the midst of conquest and regime change, and the consequences that come from it when people aren’t really sure who to acknowledge as their rightful civil authority.
For those who need a little background, by 10 June 1940, it was becoming evident to the French that the Germans had beaten them. German troops were outside of Paris, and the French leadership was in shambles. The government had fled Paris and convened in the town of Vichy, where parliament voted to give all powers to Marshal Phillippe Pétain to be head of the new French State. This effectively formed a new government, which would come to be known in history as “Vichy France.” Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned his position. The Third Republic was now effectively dead. Pétain ordered that the French troops cease resisting and prepared to come to terms with the Germans, rather than see Paris reduced to rubble.
Days later, on 17 June 1940, General Charles de Gaulle – who, like Reynaud, had no interest in capitulation, and rejected Pétain’s plan to negotiate armistice – abdicated his command and fled by plane to England, where he would become the de facto leader of the French resistance, and be recognized by the British as the head of the French government-in-exile, known as “Free France.”
The armistice was signed on 22 June 1940. So by 1 July 1940, France now had two competing governments. There was “Vichy France” – the government that was hastily (and perhaps illegally) formed on the eve of capitulation to the Germans, while an army lay outside of Paris. And there was “Free France” – which wasn’t really a government at all, having no formal authority, and having no legitimate claim to be heading the republic. It was merely the “spirit” of France being propped up and reinforced by the British, in hopes of a one-day liberation and restoration of the French republic.
At this point, all of the men in the French military had a choice to make. Do they recognize the Vichy regime as their rightful authority, and obey Pétain? Or do they follow in the steps of de Gaulle and join the British to continue taking the fight to the Germans? For most of the French army, who were stuck in France, there was little they could do to continue openly resisting. But what about the French navy?
According to the terms of the armistice, the French were to relinquish their vessels into the hands of the Germans or the Italians, who were allegedly going to remove their armaments and ensure these vessels sat out the rest of the war. But the thing is, the Germans weren’t in a position to simply seize all French ships, because the French had multiple fleets anchored abroad in their colonial holdings in North Africa, including Morocco and Algeria. These ships were out of reach of the Germans, and if the French commanders so desired, they could have simply set sail to join the British and continue fighting.
Here’s where things get ugly.
As soon as the British recognized in mid-June that France was going to capitulate, they began making contingency plans for what to do about the French navy. By the time the terms of the French armistice were divulged, the British had absolutely no trust in Hitler’s word that French vessels would be sitting out the rest of the war. They had every expectation that Germany would use the French fleet against the British. And so plans for Operation Catapult began.
Here’s where we introduce another key French character, François Darlan. Darlan was a well-respected admiral, who had been a major player in the building of the French navy. But Churchill writes of him in his memoirs (as do other sources) to have been a very self-promoting man, with great ambitions for rank and notoriety. When war was declared in 1939, Darlan was made the effective Commander-in-Chief of the navy. However, Churchill noted that he had made very clear that he aspired for a higher position – to be Minister of Marine in the government.
Churchill spoke with Darlan at a formal dinner in mid-June, prior to the signing of the armistice, where Darlan swore to Churchill that no French ship would come into German hands. Darlan voiced that he was committed to continuing to fight the Germans, even if there was an armistice, and that he would even sail under the British if it came to it.
Churchill wrote of Darlan in his memoir, “His authority over the Fleet was for all practical purposes absolute. He had only to order the ships to British, American, or French colonial harbours – some had already started – to be obeyed. In the morning of June 17, after the fall of M. Reynaud’s Cabinet, he declared to General Georges that he was resolved to give the order. The next day Georges met him in the afternoon and asked him what had happened. Darlan replied that he had changed his mind. When asked why, he answered simply: ‘I am now Minister if Marine.’ This did not mean that he had changed his mind in order to become Minister of Marine; but that being Minister of Marine he had a different point of view.”
So there it was. On 18 June, Pétain had declared Darlan to be Minister of Marine. Churchill goes on in his memoir to credit Darlan’s selfish ambition as being the reason for his sudden change of mind. Having now achieved the authority and title he had so long desired, Darlan was now loyal to the Vichy regime. Just a single day prior, he was determined to put his allegiance elsewhere.
This is one of those striking examples to me in history about the sins of selfish ambition. While it could very well be argued that the Vichy government was the lawful government, and therefore rightly commanded Darlan’s allegiance, it would seem plainly obvious that Darlan’s decision about who to regard as his rightful authority didn’t come from any well-thought out conviction or sense of moral duty, but rather from his own self-interest. And now that Darlan’s allegiance was securely held by the Vichy government, the vast majority of the rest of the French fleet would follow suit.
After this, Churchill and the War Cabinet decided to go forward with Operation Catapult.
Simply put, Operation Catapult would involve the British taking measures to ensure that French warships could not fall into German hands. I won’t go over all of Operation Catapult comprehensively, but the two elements that stick out most to me are what happened at Alexandria, and of course, at Mers-el-Kébir.
In short, the plan for how the British would approach the French at these sites was as follows. The British would sail out to meet French ships at their ports, and issue an ultimatum. The choices were a) join the British and continue taking the fight to the Germans; b) sail under decreased crew to Britain, or the United States, and leave your ships in the keeping of the Americans until the war is over, or to some other remote holding like the French West Indies; or c) sink your ships. If the French would not accept either of these options, then the British fleet dispatching this message would use any means necessary to ensure that the French vessels could not fall into German hands. In other words, they would open fire.
At Alexandria, the French Admiral René-Émile Godfroy negotiated terms with the British Admiral Andrew Cunningham. He, his men, and his ships were peacefully interned. However, it is very interesting to note that Godfroy was very clear on where his allegiance lied. I found a quote somewhere online of him later explaining, “For us Frenchmen the fact is that a government still exists in France, a government supported by a Parliament established in non-occupied territory and which in consequence cannot be considered irregular or deposed. The establishment elsewhere of another government, and all support for this other government, would clearly be rebellion.”
Pause and think about that. While the legitimacy of the Vichy government may remain questionable to us, as we look back and judge history, I think we would do well to consider whether or not Godfroy had a better theology of authority than we do.
Meanwhile, at Mers-el-Kébir, things did not proceed peacefully. In short, there was reportedly confusion in the exchange of messages between the British and French – apparently stemming from the fact that the French Admiral Gensoul was offended by the fact that the British sent a Captain to negotiate, rather than a man of equal rank to Gensoul. This prompted Gensoul to send his own lower-ranked man to negotiate, which created a game of telephone with middlemen. Meanwhile, Darlan was unreachable at his home, and couldn’t give direct guidance. Gensoul reportedly ended up with the impression that the British were saying the only options were either to fight alongside the British, or become prisoners. Neither of these were acceptable, so they chose to fight. In the end, the British crushed them. Around 1,300 French sailors died.
To wrap it all up, here are some takeaways I am left pondering.
First, I have great sympathy for the French civilians and military who, by God’s providence, found themselves in so grave a position as to have to question who their rightful civil authority was. My mind is too small to begin to ask such questions of exactly whose sin in what generation lead to such and such consequence. All I know is that this kind of situation makes me want to be slow to say who was in the right. I have great sympathy for Godfroy’s simple explanation of why he submitted to the Vichy government. At the same time, I have great sympathy for those who couldn’t bring themselves to recognize what was at worst a puppet regime, and at best a questionably legal regime that was hastily constructed under great duress with a foreign army shelling outside their capital city.
Second, I am struck and chastened once again by another example in history of how one man’s selfish ambition (Darlan, in this case) can produce such far-reaching consequences for others.
Third, I am also chastened to consider Churchill’s powerful commentary on Darlan’s decision. He wrote, “How vain are human calculations of self-interest! Rarely has there been a more convincing example. Darlan had but to sail in any one of his ships to any port outside France to become the master of all French interests beyond German control. He would have come, like General de Gaulle, with only on unconquerable heart and a few kindred spirits. He would have carried with him outside the German reach the fourth Navy in the world, whose officers and men were personally devoted to him. Acting thus, Darlan would have become the chief of the French Resistance with a mighty weapon in his hand. British and American dockyards and arsenals would have been at his disposal for the maintenance of his fleet. The French gold reserve in the United States would have assured him, once recognised, of ample resources. The whole French Empire would have rallied to him. Nothing could have prevented him from being the Liberator of France. The fame and power which he so ardently desired were in his grasp. Instead, he went forward through two years of worrying and ignominious office to a violent death, a dishonoured grave, and a name long to be excrated by the French Navy and the nation he had hitherto served so well.”
Churchill writes there with the benefit of hindsight, of course. But nevertheless, there is truth to find there. How often does selfish ambition rob us of the very honor that we seek for ourselves?
Fourth, I am struck by the fact that these 1,300 Frenchmen died for what amounts to little more than pride and miscommunication. Had Gensoul not been offended that he had to speak to a man of lesser rank, would he have heard the messages clearer? Did Gensoul’s ego prevent him from being amenable, like Godfroy was? From a temporal perspective, these men died for effectively nothing. My heart aches for all the deaths like these in history. Nevertheless, there is something admirable in the fact that they tried to do their simple duty, being men under authority.
Congratulations if you made it to the end of this. Hopefully my story-telling has been interesting to someone. I’ve really appreciated studying this small facet of history.