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February 6, 2010 4:28 PM   Subscribe

In Toulon, France, there stands a memorial for 1,297 French sailors, who were killed in July of 1940 when their ships were shelled and sunk in one of the earliest sea battles of World War II. The ships were fired upon by a British task force led by the HMS Hood, and it was no accident: Churchill himself sent the order: Send the French to the ocean floor.

The idea was to keep them out of German hands, and a series of miscommunications made the end result almost unavoidable. (Though, as found out two years later, the French were more than capable of doing that themselves.)

Seventy years later, survivors on both sides remember that day.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher (49 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
He gave them ample notice, and had just cause.
posted by Senator at 4:31 PM on February 6, 2010 [8 favorites]


USS Massachusetts had to do the same thing in 1942 when she exchanged fire with the French battleship Jean Bart.

In the case described by this FPP, Churchill called upon the French Fleet to change sides and fight along side the RN against the Germans. When they refused, then he ordered that they be destroyed. As Senator says, there was really no choice; he couldn't permit those ships to be captured by the Germans.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:50 PM on February 6, 2010


Thanks for the links!

Yea, I can't imagine the Germans not commandeering the fleet. As I understood it, they were still able to attack at-will with u-boats in 1940. Once that started to change, and the Bismark went down in 1941, I can't imagine them not being called out. Thank goodness for British foresight.

Is there anything out there which further discusses the repercussions? Only get a few paragraphs here and there in the links above.
posted by FuManchu at 5:12 PM on February 6, 2010


I really can't see this as a mere misunderstanding, or mistranslation, as the MHO article argues. It doesn't matter what Hitler thought in 1940, or what word was used in the armistice. The fleet could not remain available to the Germans if they were to need it, and if the Allies believed they could at all gain the upper hand, it surely would have been strategically incumbent on Germany to take full control. Neutralization and assurances were certainly not enough. And any idea that the situation could be finessed such that military necessity was satisfied while remaining friendly with conquered peoples seems, in retrospect, woefully naïve.

Looking back at the divisions inside France itself -- clarified by e.g. Is Paris Burning? -- one can only wish that the French, in defeat, were ready to unify under a flag of DeGaulle or another, and immediately sail the fleet to America. But for reasons both pragmatic -- saving Paris, saving lives -- and political -- erstwhile sympathy for Germany or suspicion of Britain -- France was in no position to do so. The war could have gone quite differently, in both tactical and grand strategic terms, if they had, but of course it would have been much more horrible for France in the beginning. Not sure that the price, in the end, would be worse than 1944.

Britain, then, was left with no other rational choice.
posted by dhartung at 5:28 PM on February 6, 2010


suspicion of Britain

A well-founded suspicion. When the British decided to run away to Dunkirk, leaving France defenceless on the Western flank the Brits were supposed to be protecting, the British command didn't bother to inform the French they were going to do so.
posted by rodgerd at 5:49 PM on February 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Hitler wasn't exactly known for keeping his treaty obligations, even before Barbarossa.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:50 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Good god. They fired 15 inch shells. The Bretagnes ammunition storage exploded and 977 men went down.
posted by joost de vries at 5:51 PM on February 6, 2010


Run away to Dunkirk? The British Expeditionary Force in northern France totalled nine divisions compared with the French army of 88 divisions. If the successful defence of France relied on them, then that tells its own story.
posted by A189Nut at 5:58 PM on February 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, even though it became necessary to sink the ships, the negotiations could have been handled in a much more mature, professional fashion than they were. It's just one of those odd instances where you're reminded that, despite fighting alongside each other in two world wars, the French and British always made a strange pair of allies.
posted by Toby Dammit X at 6:01 PM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


A well-founded suspicion. When the British decided to run away to Dunkirk

Interesting. My knowledge is a bit lacking on this, then. I had thought that the Germans had legitimately pushed them back, as they did everyone in the initial attacks. The British had planned a strategic retreat into Dunkirk?
posted by FuManchu at 6:04 PM on February 6, 2010


Correct, but rodgerd possesses that best vision, 20/20 hindsight
posted by A189Nut at 6:29 PM on February 6, 2010


After the Italians changed sides, the Germans seized all Italian navy ships in northern ports and reflagged them. (If you've ever seen the HBO movie about the Tuskeegee Airmen, and remember the scene of two of them strafing a destroyer which blew up, that destroyer was a reflagged Italian ship.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:37 PM on February 6, 2010


The Brits have never been averse to a bit of naval target practice as a show of force; this was just a forerunner to the General Belgrano.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:51 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


A few months later, of course, the British would send carrier launched torpedo bombers to attack the Italian fleet at Taranto, which inspired certain Japanese Admirals to launch a similar strike against the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor over a year later.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:55 PM on February 6, 2010


Given the importance of the Royal Navy's deterring an invasion (and more realistically) protecting Britain's supply lines, Churchill could not let the French fleet fall into German hands. Someone said that "Stalin and Roosevelt won the war, but Churchill didn't lose it."

Once the French declined Churchill's invitation to come over to serve with the British, the decision to sink the fleet was the sort of bloody-minded decision that helped not lose the war.

Perhaps the British could have done something to reduce the loss of French lives: we'll probably never know for sure. However, the die was cast for the sinking as soon as the French fleet refused to sail into British hands.

I suspect that senior French officers knew that, and wonder why they reduce their crews to skeleton strength.
posted by Russ Wood at 9:14 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think their crews were reduced to skeleton strength soon enough.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:22 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


UbuRoivas: “... this was just a forerunner to the General Belgrano.”

When you compare her to Churchill like this, the beast of Grantham smiles.
posted by koeselitz at 10:31 PM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Which is of course not to say there weren't a few adequate points of comparison.)
posted by koeselitz at 10:36 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, even though it became necessary to sink the ships, the negotiations could have been handled in a much more mature, professional fashion than they were.

Monday morning 70 years later quarterbacking, Toby Dammit X. Things could always have been handled in a much better fashion than they were.

In real life, and especially in war, things are handled with ugly urgency, and a heartless pragmatism.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:42 PM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Review of a recent book on the Anglo-French war of 1940-2.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:14 AM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting. My knowledge is a bit lacking on this, then. I had thought that the Germans had legitimately pushed them back, as they did everyone in the initial attacks. The British had planned a strategic retreat into Dunkirk?

"As early as 19 May 1940 the British army had begun to prepare to evacuate it's Expeditionary Force from the Continent of Europe [...] On 21 May Gort bstarted pulling his army back to ensure that it occupied a piece of coast from which his force could be lifted off. It was a controversial decision, the more so because of the way in which the British deliberately kept their Allies in the dark about what they were doing, and what they intended."

"The French French, who found their flanks exposed by the British withdrawls, demanded that Gort stay in position, but the BEF kept moving."

"The Belgians had been taking the weight of the German attack from the north. For a week King Leoopold had been warning the Allies that his army's capacity to hold out was limited [...] The Belgians were never informed that the BEF was abandoning them."

"The BEF was in full retreat [...] but when Paul Reynard went to see Churchill in London on Sunday 26 May, still the news was kept from him."

(Source: Blood, Tears, and Folly, Deighton)

The British Expeditionary Force in northern France totalled nine divisions compared with the French army of 88 divisions. If the successful defence of France relied on them, then that tells its own story

Gort's own reasoning:

"If the Belgians need help to hold [the line] only we can hold that." (Chief of Staff - The Diaries of Sir Harry Pownall"

Silly French and Belgians, planning a co-ordinated defence of Frances vulnerable neutral border with the British and expecting the 800,000 British troops would actually fight.

I'm sorry if, you know, facts offends some cheese-eating surrender monkey meme you picked up from a cartoon and some crappy right-wing American politicians, but the fact is that the role of the British as an ally was to defend the neutral channel into France as part of a joint command. The British ran, abandoning allies and actively covering up the fact they were in retreat, denying those allies any chance to mount a last-ditch defence.

In fact,

"To reduce congestion, the British posted millitary police on the roads to prevent roads and ttransport of any kind entering the [Dunkirk] area. This lead to angry clashes as the French soldiers obected to [...] losing elements of their fighting force."

Perfidious Albion, indeed. Not content with abandoning their allies, they actively sabotaged any effort to effictely defend the area after their departure.
posted by rodgerd at 12:33 AM on February 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


"prevent roads" should read "prevent trucks"
posted by rodgerd at 12:34 AM on February 7, 2010


800,000 British troops

Seems awfully high to me: can't find a corroborative link, only two much-smaller totals (200K and 330K). Got a source?

800K is, however, the number of British sodliers killed defending France in WW1. I wonder if that figure weighed on anyone's mind at the time?
posted by GeorgeBickham at 1:01 AM on February 7, 2010


They fired 15 inch shells.

In May of 1941 the war had just begun
The Germans had the biggest ship that had the biggest guns
The Bismarck was the fastest ship that ever sailed the sea
On her decks were guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees

Out of the cold and foggy night came the British ship the Hood
And every British seaman he knew and understood
They had to sink the Bismarck the terror of the sea
Stop those guns as big as steers and those shells as big as trees

We'll find the German battleship that's makin' such a fuss
We gotta sink the Bismarck cause the world depends on us
Yeah hit the decks a runnin' boys and spin those guns around
When we find the Bismarck we gotta cut her down

The Hood found the Bismarck and on that fatal day
The Bismarck started firing fifteen miles away
We gotta sink the Bismarck was the battle sound
But when the smoke had cleared away the mighty Hood went down
For six long days and weary nights they tried to find her trail
Churchill told the people put every ship a-sail
Cause somewhere on that ocean I know she's gotta be
We gotta sink the Bismarck to the bottom of the sea

We'll find the German battleship that's makin' such a fuss
We gotta sink the Bismarck cause the world depends on us
Yeah hit the decks a runnin' boys and spin those guns around
When we find the Bismarck we gotta cut her down

The fog was gone the seventh day and they saw the morning sun
Ten hours away from homeland the Bismarck made its run
The Admiral of the British fleet said turn those bows around
We found that German battleship and we're gonna cut her down
The British guns were aimed and the shells were coming fast
The first shell hit the Bismarck they knew she couldn't last
That mighty German battleship is just a memory
Sink the Bismarck was the battle cry that shook the seven seas

We found the German battleship t'was makin' such a fuss
We had to sink the Bismarck cause the world depends on us
We hit the deck a runnin' and we spun those guns around
Yeah we found the mighty Bismarck and then we cut her down

~Johnny Horton
posted by bwg at 1:27 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anlgo-French naval rivalry and distrust grew from such deep, old roots that the chances of a peaceful resolution to this situation were always going to be slender. Toulon has more than one reason to remember the Admiral Hood.
posted by protorp at 1:32 AM on February 7, 2010


Thanks for quoting all that, rodgerd. It definitely seems like a poor move in that light, they were pretty centrally located.

After looking at a few more references (Map, timeline, summary), though, Rommel had destroyed the French Ninth Army and was in Amiens by the 19th, on the coast by the 20th. The BEF and other northern forces had the choice of fighting on two fronts trying to move south, or taking defensible positions towards Dunkirk. I mean, I get that ideally they should have fought their way south, but no one was making forward progress. The shitty BEF actions probably contributed to losing more soldiers still fighting in the north, but they were already out of the fight for France.

Nevertheless, a grudge is a grudge. Also. Dude. Chill. I think most Mefites commenting here are more history nerds than American Rubes.
posted by FuManchu at 1:57 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


800K is, however, the number of British sodliers killed defending France in WW1. I wonder if that figure weighed on anyone's mind at the time?

The motivation was a fear that France was going to lose, anyway, and it was therefore cirtical to preserve the British ground forces - there was a (legitimate) concern that the Germans might simply end up capturing the bulk of Britain's ground troops available at this point. Which was fair enough on one level; the combination of the way it was dealt with at the time and the earlier reluctance of Britain to commit to any kind of attempts to contain Nazi Germany pre-Poland no doubt contributed to a certain jaundiced view of the value of handing the French Fleet over to the Brits.

(Dunkirk, the pathetic efforts in Singapore, and the general absence of the United States from the first few years also ought to make the English-speaking world a great deal less snide about the European nations that actually bore the brunt of the fighting, or the ones like Finland and Sweden that were caught in some very unpleasant positions between the Soviets and the Nazis.)
posted by rodgerd at 2:13 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Almost 400,000 British soldiers were killed in WW2 many of them, including my Grandfather, in defense of France. Rodgerd you should be a little more reticent about proclaiming the Allies lack of effort and look a little closer at how much of the brunt of fighting these men actually bore.
posted by theCroft at 2:47 AM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


A relative of mine was evacuated from Dunkirk and I happen to disagree with rogerd's analysis, but neither of those facts is a reason for him to be reticent in putting his views. The amount of fighting the troops had to bear is also, alas, not directly related to any correct analysis of the strategic or political decisions made regarding them.
posted by GeckoDundee at 4:12 AM on February 7, 2010


rodgerd of course. Sorry about that.
posted by GeckoDundee at 4:13 AM on February 7, 2010


rodgerd: ought to make the English-speaking world a great deal less snide

Yes, you're right, that kind of Anglo triumphalism is far too commonplace: however, there is none of it in this thread, so perhaps youhttp://www.metafilter.com/88980/Eng-F-WESNAF could fight that fight someplace else?


Anyway, back on topic: it's fascinating, isn't it, how in a war costing millions - millions! - of lives, the relatively trivial death of one thousand in one battle becomes so significant. It's our human habit of story-telling to explain things again. But history, as exchanges above show, is so nuanced and complex, this story-telling urge can be most unhelpful.

For example, Churchill, the great historian, may have been influenced by knowledge of the Second Battle of Copenhagen, when the Royal Navy attacked and captured the neutral Danish fleet to deny its use to the French, killing thousands of Danish civilians in the process. (The First Battle of Copenhagen had similar aims and success, including Nelson's "I see no signal" moment, but the Second is more contentious because of the bombardment of the city.)
posted by alasdair at 5:27 AM on February 7, 2010


The random posting of a url isn't meaningful, by the way, just a copy-and-paste accident.
posted by alasdair at 5:28 AM on February 7, 2010


Mers-el-Kebir was possibly one of the toughest calls in WWII. On one hand, in the chaotic summer of 1940, it was quite reasonable for the British to make sure that the French fleet didn't fall in German hands (just as it was quite reasonable to evacuate the BEF after Guderian's breakthrough at Sedan). In both cases the overwhelming reason was to prevent the German invasion of Britain.

However, it also was quite understandable for the French to see Dunkirk as abandonment, and Mers-el-Kebir as outright treachery. With hindsight, Mers-el-Kebir was certainly unnecessary, since, when the Germans actually attempted to capture the remainder of the French fleet in 1942, the French sailors did indeed show that they had the honour and guts to fight for their ships and scuttle them rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the Germans.

Mers-el-Kebir was thus an ultimately unnecessary waste of life and a propaganda coup for the Nazis and their French sympathizers, since the French resentment would have a strong influence in the French attitude towards the Western Allies throughout the war, and even afterwards. In particular the French Navy (never particularly Anglophile) would retain a suspicion of all things British that has arguably hampered Franco-British naval cooperation up to the present day. But back in 1940, it would have been clairvoyant of Churchill and the British naval leadership to know. So, the only thing that can be said about it is:

.

WWII was simply not the clear-cut, linear war it is perceived to be in popular culture. It was never a simple "Allies vs. Axis" war (who knows, for instance, that the Soviet Union only declared war against Japan on August 8, 1945, that is, two days after Hiroshima? Or that Germany declared war against the US after Pearl Harbor, and not the other way around?). Alliances changed constantly throughout the war. Former allies found themselves fighting each other, often against their will, and then fighting together again soon afterwards. Several countries, such as Italy, China or Yugoslavia, found themselves fighting bloody civil wars in the middle of the global conflict. The lines were further muddied by a number of opportunistic concurrent wars, like the Thai invasion of French Indochina, or the Winter and Continuation Wars between Finns and Soviets. And some neutrals more or less brazenly dithered on their neutral status, like Spain sending a division of "volunteers" to the Eastern Front, or Sweden allowing the transfer of German soldiers through its territory.
posted by Skeptic at 5:34 AM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's worth pointing out the vast majority of the French casualties resulted from the magazine explosion on the Bretagne.

This is significant, because magazine explosions are 1) the worst thing that can possibly happen on a ship, and 2) while not unheard of, not all that common either. The Bretagne went down after three salvos, but the rest of the French fleet endured thirty salvos, and casualties on the other ships were much, much lighter. The Dunkerque had 210 casualties, but the next highest was only 38.

So in terms of immediate human cost, the real tragedy here seems to have been sheer chance. If the magazine hadn't gone, the fleet would still have been incapacitated, but casualties would probably have been less than half of what they were.

War sucks.
posted by valkyryn at 7:09 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Perfidious Albion, indeed. Not content with abandoning their allies, they actively sabotaged any effort to effictely defend the area after their departure.

You're conveniently skating over the fact that almost as many French troops as British were evacuated from Dunkirk. In places, French troops were being taken off in British ships while Britons were being sacraficed in a rearguard action.

My grandfather's RA regiment was effectively destroyed in this fight. At the end, his unit had their guns - WW1 surplus 18-pounders - drawn up on the seafront. Every third crew was ordered to stay and fire until they ran out of ammo; lots were drawn and my grandfather's crew was lucky enough to be allowed to smash their gun and make an attempt at getting evacuated. The unlucky ones stood and fought on, and every one of them was killed or captured. He arrived back in England - a country now braced for imminent Nazi invasion - without a scrap of kit: his unit's rifles, field guns, trucks, everything had been lost.

We still have the little French prayer book that he picked up on the beach as he was leaving, the owners name inscribed inside the cover, smudged and water-stained; it's as heartbreaking a momento of war as you're likely to find.
posted by boosh at 7:36 AM on February 7, 2010 [9 favorites]


Mers El Kébir wasn't necessary, as illustrated later by the scuttling of the fleet at Toulon when the germans tried to seize it.
Backstabbing limeys.
posted by vivelame at 9:23 AM on February 7, 2010


With hindsight, Mers-el-Kebir was certainly unnecessary, since, when the Germans actually attempted to capture the remainder of the French fleet in 1942, the French sailors did indeed show that they had the honour and guts to fight for their ships and scuttle them rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the Germans.

valkyryn (and vivelame), the phrase "with hindsight" invalidates the phrase "certainly unnecessary". No one in 1940 had hindsight of the events of 1942. It's completely and utterly unfair to judge the guesswork of military leaders on the basis of events they were trying to foretell.

Since it isn't a certainty that the French sailors of Mers-el-Kebir would have acted in exactly the same way, it isn't even certain today that it was unnecessary. Sometimes different people in slightly different situations react differently.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:25 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mers El Kébir wasn't necessary, as illustrated later by the scuttling of the fleet at Toulon when the germans tried to seize it.

One could just as easily argue that the Vichy regime only scuttled their ships because they knew, after Mers El Kebir, that the only realistic alternative was attack by the Allies at greater loss of life and property.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:25 AM on February 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


You're conveniently skating over the fact that almost as many French troops as British were evacuated from Dunkirk.

Indeed, "by the ninth day, a total of 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French) had been rescued" (from wikipedia: operation dynamo).

The losses incurred by the RAF in defending the beachses were not inconsiderable also: "RAF lost 474 planes, compared to 132 for the Luftwaffe" (from the same wikipedia article).
posted by NailsTheCat at 10:47 AM on February 7, 2010


The fact that the french sailors decided in 1942 to scuttle their ships, instead of letting them fall in german hands, even after the murder of 1,297 of their comrades (yeah, no declaration of war, remember?) at the hands of the Royal Navy, showed they were *much* more honorable men than their british counterparts. The fact that the few ships which didn't get scuttled in Toulon joined the Allies underscore that all the more.
If you read a little bit of history, you discover that
Two hours later, the French showed the British an order they had received from Admiral Darlan instructing them to sail the ships to the USA if the Germans broke the armistice and demanded the ships.
Which so happened to be one of the options offered by the british government. It seems that wans't good enough for the Royal Navy, though, go figure.. (or: "How do you inspire a nation and win public support? Simple, you attack the French. It'll piss off France, but your country will have a sense of satisfaction and purpose...")
posted by vivelame at 10:48 AM on February 7, 2010


Monday morning 70 years later quarterbacking, Toby Dammit X. Things could always have been handled in a much better fashion than they were.

In real life, and especially in war, things are handled with ugly urgency, and a heartless pragmatism.


Actually, I'd say that leaving the negotiations in the hands of subordinates and go-betweens belied a distinct lack of urgency; I'd also say that preventing Darlan from receiving the full text of the ultimatum was the exact opposite of pragmatism. It's not even as if this was a minor, regrettable incident; as a result of the fallout, Vichy France could have conceivably threw its lot in with the Germans, a possibility that was fully understood at the time. With that in mind, the amateurish way the negotiations were conducted is simply unforgivable.
posted by Toby Dammit X at 1:33 PM on February 7, 2010


Of course, if La Royale had truly been honourable, they would have kept up the fight against fascism without a second thought...
posted by wilful at 4:59 PM on February 7, 2010


Actually, I'd say that leaving the negotiations in the hands of subordinates and go-betweens belied a distinct lack of urgency; I'd also say that preventing Darlan from receiving the full text of the ultimatum was the exact opposite of pragmatism. It's not even as if this was a minor, regrettable incident; as a result of the fallout, Vichy France could have conceivably threw its lot in with the Germans, a possibility that was fully understood at the time. With that in mind, the amateurish way the negotiations were conducted is simply unforgivable.
posted by Toby Dammit X at 1:33 PM on February 7 [+] [!]



Totally lost the war for us.... oh..... guess things worked out.
posted by Senator at 5:18 PM on February 7, 2010


Of course, if La Royale had truly been honourable, they would have kept up the fight against fascism without a second thought...

Oh yeah, very easy to say. As an armed branch of a democratic government, they were bound by the decisions of the democratic representatives. And those had decided to sue for peace. In the summer of 1940, France had been defeated, and there was very little that the French Navy could have done about it. France had not been defeated by widespread cowardice, ineptness or lack of fighting spirit. Where they could, the French forces, just like the Belgians and the BEF, and the Poles before them, had fought courageously, as befitted an army well-aware that they were fighting on soil drenched by the blood of their fathers just twenty years before. The French were simply outmaneuvered by a powerful, cunning enemy, who had learnt all the lessons from WWI, helped by the lack of imagination of the French military leadership.

The German campaign of 1940 was quite simply near-perfect. It involved, for instance, the first airborne assaults in history. This was science-fiction stuff at the time, and the Allies were completely unprepared for it. Any contemporary army would have been overwhelmed.

It is almost impossible to overestimate how traumatic the sudden defeat was for France. Consider that, less than one generation before, over one adult male in ten had been killed trying to prevent the same outcome. Nevertheless, the civilian authorities had the unenviable task of trying to negotiate the terms of armistice with a vindictive enemy with a serious grudge and a crushing victory (as well as a million and a half POWs) in his hands. Keeping command over the fourth-largest navy in the world was in fact the best remaining French card in this negotiation, especially against the designs of Mussolini (who had opportunistically declared war in the last days of the German campaign) on Southern France, Corsica and French North Africa.

Choosing whether to follow the justified decision of the legitimate civilian government and accept the surrender, or revolt against it and follow the handful of men under de Gaulle, exposing their country, their captured comrades, and even their individual families to bloody reprisal, was not, in any case, an easy choice between the honourable and the dishonourable, and indeed many French soldiers, sailors and airmen would show their honour by joining the Free French later on, just like others would show their lack thereof by cravenly collaborating with the Germans.
posted by Skeptic at 3:00 AM on February 8, 2010


rodgerd: I'm sorry if, you know, facts offends some cheese-eating surrender monkey meme you picked up from a cartoon and some crappy right-wing American politicians, but the fact is that the role of the British as an ally was to defend the neutral channel into France as part of a joint command. The British ran, abandoning allies and actively covering up the fact they were in retreat, denying those allies any chance to mount a last-ditch defence.
This seems an equally extreme point of view as the one you're mocking. You don't have to be some French-hating Conservative Neanderthal to think the British commanders were in a better position to know whether or not France was lost and evacuation was necessary than a bunch of internet posters 70 years later.

For starters, it was under 200,000 British troops, not 800,000. Also, let's look at the dates. The evacuation of Dunkirk took place between May 26 and June 4th, 1940.

On May 15th, 10 days BEFORE the evacuation of Dunkirk, the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud telephoned Churchill to say "We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle."

The day after the French Prime Minister said France was beaten, May 16th, Churchill flew to Paris to see for himself. From the wikipedia article:
[Churchill] immediately recognized the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and was preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a sombre meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, "Où est la masse de manoeuvre?" ["Where is the strategic reserve?"] that had saved Paris in the First World War. "Aucune" ["There is none"] Gamelin replied.

[...]

Churchill described hearing this later as the single most shocking moment in his life. Churchill asked Gamelin where and when the general proposed to launch a counterattack against the flanks of the German bulge. Gamelin simply replied "inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of methods".[68]
Perhaps that should put better context to your quote, which you offered to show either the cowardice and/or perfidy of the British that:
"As early as 19 May 1940 the British army had begun to prepare to evacuate it's Expeditionary Force from the Continent of Europe
So it was several days after Churchill flew to Paris and heard Gamelin say 'France was beaten' that the British forces started to plan to evacuate, or, as you said "The British ran, abandoning allies and actively covering up the fact they were in retreat, denying those allies any chance to mount a last-ditch defence."

In fact the evacuation at Dunkirk wouldn't start for another 10 days after the French were convinced the war was lost.

Just to be clear, I'm not slamming the French. All one needs to do is look at how easily the Nazis sliced through the Eastern Front a year later to realize that there wasn't anything that could have been done to save France, or really any country in Nazi Germany's way. In fact, had Hitler's invasion of Russia not started late (thanks to some problems in the Balkans), and had Hitler not been so arrogant as to plan a multi-pronged attack that divided their forces, he might well have succeeded in taking Moscow (as indeed they were at the gates) before the coldest winter in ages hit the Nazi army.

Remember too that Britain only very nearly escaped being invaded itself, during the Battle of Britain.

In other words, it's very difficult to imagine how 150,000 British troops could have made a difference going against the full strength of the Nazi army at that point in time. It took nearly a thousand miles, millions of lives, bad planning, and the worst winter in generations to put the Nazi army in retreat. A slow, bloody, difficult retreat whose losses were made all the worse by Hitler's refusal to allow his generals to fall back to more defensible positions rather than stand in fight, like at Kursk.

Nor was the invasion of Normandy four years later by any means easy nor was success inevitable. Had Germany not been duped into holding reserves at Calais for what Hitler presumed would be 'the real invasion', it might well have failed. And the invasion of Normandy had the benefit of going against a Nazi army that was much weaker than it had been four years earlier, having suffered devastating defeats on the Eastern Front (and indeed it was in headlong retreat), the Battle of Britain, North Africa, and Italy. And the invasion force had the benefit of air cover, American and other allied troops, navy, and equipment.

As for the topic of the thread, I think it's a poor argument to excuse the reluctance of the French fleet to join the British fleet based on distrust of the British evacuation of Dunkirk for two very obvious reasons: one, almost half of those evacuated were French soldiers; two, why on earth would you distrust the English who at least fought with you for a while, than the Nazi bastards who actually invaded your country?

To bottom line it: half of France, Vichy, wasn't conquered outright by the Nazis but rather was set up as a puppet regime allied to Nazi. It was officially formed on July 1st. The sinking of the French fleet didn't take place until July 3rd. If the French sailors weren't willing to hand over their ships to the British right then and there, there was a fair concern that their allegiance was with -- or would soon be with -- Vichy. An alleged order to sail to America (but not under British escort or control) sounds like thinly veiled delaying tactic.
posted by Davenhill at 3:32 AM on February 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Davenhill: You don't have to be some French-hating Conservative Neanderthal to think the British commanders were in a better position to know whether or not France was lost and evacuation was necessary than a bunch of internet posters 70 years later.
You can just be the regular kind of Neanderthal, like me... :)
posted by Davenhill at 3:37 AM on February 8, 2010


Davenhill OK, to all your points, although it must be said that in June 1940 the Vichy government still wasn't the craven Nazi puppet that it would later become, and that elements of the Vichy armed forces continued to conspire against the Germans for quite a long time, with quiet official approval (notably safeguarding the Polish cryptographers who broke the Enigma codes, and assisting their escape to Britain when the Germans occupied the "Free Zone").

As for just how efficient the German strategy was in May 1940, I'd also add that, four years later, they almost managed to repeat the same trick against the by then battle-hardened Americans, British and Canadians in the Battle of the Bulge, and this despite attacking in the middle of one of the harshest European winters in record, without almost any air cover, and with completely depleted supplies...
posted by Skeptic at 3:56 AM on February 8, 2010


IAmBroom, the only argument I was trying to advance was that the reason this incident was the minor tragedy that it became has more to do with chance and accident than with anything over which humans had control. If the British had attacked and the Bretagne's magazine hadn't blown, we might not even be talking about it, as casualties would have been a fraction of what they actually were.

Whether or not the action was or was not necessary isn't something I'm all that interested in second-guessing.
posted by valkyryn at 4:34 AM on February 8, 2010


Skeptic, excellent points, especially the Battle of the Bulge.

Notwithstanding how much I enjoyed that bit in the Simpsons with Groundskeeper Willie ("Bonjourrrrrrrrrr, ya cheese eating surrender monkeys"), I think the French get a bum rap with the whole surrendering to the Nazis. Nazi Germany could have rolled pretty much anybody on the planet, at least initially, at that time, including Britain or the better part of the US were it not for both of those countries being protected by oceans.

And I don't think we get to a better place exonerating France by blaming Britain for the rapid collapse under the Nazi invasion. But that's just my take.

Your point is also well taken that the nature of the Vichy government could not have been known in the couple of days between its formation and the British attack on the French fleet. Certainly it was too early to know anything about its eventual nature. But I think that goes both ways, from the British perspective. I think it would be safe to assume Vichy would become a puppet, even if it hadn't had time to prove those suspicions correct, and in any case even an outside chance of it becoming a puppet regime (when I think the odds were something closer to 100%), was a chance England just couldn't take.

If the link above describing Operation Catapult is accurate, the French forced Britain's hand when they refused to cooperate and called for other ships to come to their assistance against Britain.

Blaming that incident on France's distrust of Britain after their evacuation at Dunkirk, as rodgerd implied, doesn't seem sufficiently compelling to me, and in any case would have been irrelevant from Britain's perspective (preventing those ships from falling into Nazi control). Even had Britain known about the concessions Nazi Germany gave to the French (to allow the disarming of the ships in their North African ports), I don't think it changes things much. Nazi Germany's agreements were obviously worthless.
posted by Davenhill at 3:42 PM on February 8, 2010


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