Blog AnalysisEuropean history

70 years ago, Mers el Kebir. Or Franco-British misunderstanding

(BRUSSELS2) These last few months have been the occasion for many public commemorations of several events of the Second World War. Thus, September 1, the day the war broke out, was celebrated in Poland; June 4, the last day of the evacuation of Dunkirk, United Kingdom; while June 18 was celebrated by General de Gaulle's London Appeal. But it is not certain that July 3 will be celebrated with such pomp, except by the families of the victims (1).


That day, however, off the coast of Oran (Algeria), the French navy lost nearly 1300 sailors killed in action and several ships (including the battleship Bretagne) after a fratricidal battle with the British. A dark day for the French navy. And a little more incomprehension between yesterday's allies. For France, as for England, this act was also a lost opportunity, both political and military.

If this act were celebrated, it would be especially interesting to see how and why the British got there. Once is not custom , I will therefore take the British point of view, drawn from the best sources. I am referring here to Churchill's war speeches, an excellent work, published in the Texto collection, already cited (2). And this statement is interesting because it shows that the French had other alternatives, which they did not want or know how to choose…

The British ultimatum: 4 possibilities to escape the destructive strike

The British send to the vice-admiral who commands the French squadron, Marcel Gensoul, a message through Captain Holland, former naval attaché in Paris, carrying 4 possibilities:

a) go to sea with us and continue to fight until victory against the Germans;

b) to go to an English port with reduced crews placed under our orders. The crews will be repatriated as soon as possible;

In both cases, the British undertake to “return the vessels to France at the end of the war or fully compensate them if, in the meantime, they were damaged”.

c) win together with reduced crews, a French port in the West Indies (Martinique for example) where they can be demilitarized in a manner satisfactory for us, or be entrusted to the United States (then a neutral country), and preserved until the end of the war;

d) scuttle your ships within six hours.

Unthinkable that the French fleet would serve the Germans

These proposals give rise to reservations, a little hesitation, but ultimately no positive response from the French side. And it is the fifth proposition that wins: destruction. “II have received orders from His Majesty's Government to use all necessary force to prevent your vessels from falling into the hands of the Germans and Italians” explains the end of the message.

Because, for Churchill, it is unthinkable that the French fleet would fall into the hands of the Germans, under the agreement dating from March 1940 which binds France and Great Britain not to conclude a separate peace. “The least that can be expected of the French government is that by abandoning the battle and letting all its weight fall on Great Britain and the British Empire, it will carefully avoid inflicting a gratuitous injury on its loyal comrade whose final victory is the only chance for France to regain its freedom, now and in the future” explained the Prime Minister, on July 4, 1940, in a speech delivered to the House of Commons… It was difficult not to approve.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

(1) the site of the families of the victims (on which there are many diagrams and photos):

(2) Read: Winston’s “War Speech” Churchill

(photo credit: Brittany on fire – source: blog of the victims’ families)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

One thought on “70 years ago, Mers el Kebir. Or Franco-British misunderstanding"

  • I find you unfair to the French. Faced with the debacle, national selfishness imposed itself – which was altogether natural – and this on both sides of the Channel. Hadn't the British launched the repatriation of their troops without warning their allies, and kept their planes to protect their island? In addition, it should be remembered that the word given in 1940 by the French sailors was respected: after the invasion of the southern zone, the fleet was scuttled rather than falling into German hands. The tragedies experienced by the Royal illustrate the heartbreak of the time...

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