Vichy France, Operation Catapult - A Case Study in Authority

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.


Certainly this was a shrewd tactic on the part of the British. But was it righteous?

Churchill, himself, seemed morally conflicted. He wrote in his memoir concerning Operation Catapult, “This was a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned.”

And the bombing of civilians; the firebombing of Dresden, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Anyhow, thanks for the history lesson. Well done.

Slaughter on the scale of the First and Second World Wars, then the even greater contemplated which was our strategy of peacekeeping (MAD) during the Cold War, and the greatest slaughter which continues unabated and likely will proceed for many generations to come of killing (now billions of) embryos in their mother’s womb should cause us to be restrained in the face of masks and vaccines being required by government we ourselves have elected under polling that, for fairness, is the envy of most nations of the world. Love,


The more I delve into the history of the war, and history in general, the more I am persuaded there really are no good guys. Just sinners killing each other. Even the most noble of endeavors is laced full with the taint of sin.

None of our fathers have ever had clean hands, and neither do we. In Christ alone is the resolution found.


This was great, Jason, thank you. Lots of interesting detail here.

World War II produced a lot of these types of authority edge conditions, many courtesy of Hitler’s early blitzkriegs, but Soviet and American occupation governments qualify also.

Really, history is full of these types of situations. It’s worth thinking about how Rome came to be the authority in the 1st century Mediterranean world, endorsed by the Lord Himself as “legitimate” to issue laws and judgments.

We may be confronting some of these situations ourselves soon.

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Thanks for this write-up. Is it fair to say that in this kind of situation, one cannot say whether Romans 13 is being obeyed without examining the heart? That is, a French holding in 1941-42 could blamelessly switch allegiance from Vichy to Free France so long as they were not doing so to defy Vichy per se, but rather to support the right government (the right government steadily becoming more apparent over those couple of years.)

I’m not sure I understand the moral dilemma in this case. The Allies couldn’t allow the ships to fall into enemy hands. If the French officers were willing to change sides, as it were, the Allies gained ships and crew. If the French officers were not willing to accommodate the Allies, wouldn’t they have become de facto enemy combatants and therefore liable to the same treatment as would be give to German naval vessels?

I get the unpleasantness in making that kind of call. I get how it’s ugly and complicated. Just don’t see how it would be unrighteous.

And on a sort-of related note: what happens when the lines of authority within an individual church break down, and how do (and should) the sheep respond?

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What made it difficult is that the French, as of yet, were their allies, and not their enemies. Just a few days prior, they had been fighting and dying together. They suffered the defeat of Dunkirk together not 3 weeks before the armistice. They had fought WW1 together. A lot of the English-French rivalry and mutual disdain that had been cultivated throughout their imperialistic pasts had been very much transformed into an attitude of kinship.

Also, just because the French were out of the war didn’t mean, by default, that they were now enemy combatants. But sadly, following Mers-el-Kabir, the French found rekindled bitterness against the English, and Vichy France was not a friend of the Allies for the remainder of the war. Perhaps most notably, the US, Britain, and the commonwealth Allies would go on to fight the French in North Africa during Operation Torch in late 1942. Moreover, Petain proved to be something of a Nazi puppet – though it was not known what kind of leader he would be at the time of the armistice.

Who knows what would have been different had Operation Catapult never happened. The French resistance may have been emboldened, and Vichy France may have been less inclined to accommodate the Axis. Who knows.


When it comes time for you to give an account of your life before the Judge of the living and the dead, are you ready to say that it was righteous for you to attack and kill men who were at peace with you because you feared that their ships might one day be obtained by your enemy?

When it comes time for you to give an account of your life before the Judge of the living and the dead, are you ready to say that you were justified in treating men as your enemy because they refused to give you what you demanded?

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I recognise that this conversation is academic for us.

That said, I think there is a legitimate case to honestly answer yes. Not an unqualified yes. But we are talking about war. Neutral…okay, occupied by (at the very least taking orders from) German High Command is worlds apart from pre-war neutrality. It’s not a case of demanding something arbitrary. The Allies were demanding what could have been the means of their undoing and subjugation. Neutral in Name Only (but controlled by Germany for all intents and purposes) is uncomfortably close to Enemy. From my admittedly very comfortable situation, this ethical quandary is far easier to answer than Dresden or Hiroshima.

Bonhoeffer made a comment in his Letters from Prison that attempting to escape the war with clean hands was a fool’s errand. That opportunity ended decades before when they failed to make the right decisions then. The only question now was how to respond to the situation at hand, how to determine what God requires of men today, and to prepare to boldly face the consequences. Which makes me wonder what impossible ethical dilemmas we shall have to respond to and answer to God for as a result of our failure to stand up for the blood of innocents.

Sometimes there is no innocent response left. Because we have failed when it was easy, we shall have to bear the yoke when it is heavy - and answer to God accordingly.


Bonhoeffer was probably right that no one would end up with clean hands. But I have to agree with Joel that God’s commands to us don’t suddenly take a hiatus during wartime. He has shown thee, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of thee.

I agree that a beaten ally, such as France, wielding the fourth largest navy in the world, presented a serious concern for the British. But that doesn’t mean that it becomes morally right to kill them over it.

I believe the British were right in their appealling to the French. But if the French refused to give up their ships, the British should have merely reminded them of Darlan’s oath, charged them as brothers to be brave and do what is right, and left the outcome in the hands of the Lord.

All that to say, we’d be remiss if we ignored the idol of nationalistic imperialism that seemed to permeate the air of both Britain and France at the time. It’s hard to judge one particular aspect or facet of the entire war without considering the sins that lead to it. We can always go deeper and find the sins that lead to other sins. Nevertheless, for practical purposes, I acknowledge that as a backdrop, but choose to leave it out of scope of the immediate conversation.


It’s not sinful for a soldier, exercising his lawful duty, to take the view that a conquered military force, neutral on paper, is actually aiding an enemy, in a just war, and devise a plan to prevent that with a realistic chance of no loss of life.

Also, surely we would plead Christ’s righteousness in our stead–but I understand that is not the point of the thread.

I don’t think friends become foes simply by virtue of them being conquered. And just because France wasn’t willing to give up her ships on Britain’s terms doesn’t make them enemies. People become your enemy based upon what they do or because of what they say they will do, not based upon what you fear they may do.

Besides, where does this rationale end? Do you firebomb occupied cities, killing conquered civilian women and children, just because that city happens to house factories that are “aiding your enemy?”

A cause can be just, but not all the activities that take place under the umbrella of that cause are just.


A clear line can be drawn between a confrontation between two military navies, and intentionally bombing civilian worksites.

Your questions in the first paragraph are good ones. England was faced with a dilemma since the new power over France had a demonstrated history of lying to its enemies in order to buy time for further aggression. Especially not during war, when you are a soldier fulfilling your vocation by making these difficult decisions of trust, is there an ultimate principle that says you have to repeatedly believe a liar each time they make a promise. It’s sad that the French sailors were trapped at Oran by the behavior of their admiral, of Germany and of the French Parliament but that doesn’t necessarily make the English policy wrong.

For what it’s worth you’ll find me generally critical of all the western empires. I’m only looking to make a limited point here.

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That wasn’t what Bonhoeffer was saying. He was saying their hands were already dirty by virtue of the situation they were in. They were already guilty. They were already complicit. The question wasn’t guilt; the question was the present response in light of that guilt.


Also, I am not ignoring your Romans 13 question above. I’m just still mulling it over, and don’t have a good answer. That’s kind of ultimately where I’m hoping others can offer better thoughts than me. :slight_smile:


Well, if you want a pastoral dilemma about rightful authority, how about: Namaan supporting his master in the temple of Rimmon as the master worshipped there? (2 Kings 5:18).

I don’t know if this is a fair example, and Namaan’s case is surely exceptional, but it does remind us that in this respect, every so often we will need to finesse things.

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“At peace with you” and “feared that their ships might” are doing an awful lot of work here.

It’s useful to contrast British interactions with the Spanish throughout the war to the event under discussion here. The Spanish, despite some pretty strong Nazi sympathies by the Franco regime, truly remained neutral throughout the war. British Gibraltar remained vulnerable to a land invasion via Spain for the duration of the war, and no doubt that contingency occupied a good bit of mental energy for the British including Churchill himself. Yet the British never attacked the Spanish to eliminate that contingency. The Spanish were good to their neutrality and were allowed to sit out the war.

The French, however, by making a separate peace with the Germans, basically double-crossed the British, who had entered an alliance with them in good faith. Any number of excuses could be made for this, and perhaps it was the best thing for the French, but it certainly was a rum deal for the British. Part of that separate peace was turning weapons of war over to the enemy of the British. That wasn’t some contingency like “what if the Spanish join the Axis,” it was the agreement the French had made with the Germans. Unless some Frenchmen had wanted to disregard that agreement and either hand the ships over to the British, scuttle them, or stand clear of them while the British sank them, those weapons were going into German hands.

Did it suck for the Frenchmen on the ships? Sure did. But war is going to suck for lots of people. If you don’t want you and your people to get the dirtier end of the stick, best be prepared to do what’s necessary to win. And if you’re not prepared to do that, then best send a delegation and ask for terms of peace.

On the topic of Darlan, in 1942 he double-crossed the Vichy government and the Nazis and went over to the Allies by making an agreement with Eisenhower. This likely was of a piece with his selfish ambition, but Eisenhower was happy to use him. But he was assassinated by a French monarchist two months later. Louis XVI’s revenge, perhaps?