Mers-el-Kébir. Three words that signify the nadir of 20th century Anglo-French relations. In the early evening of 3 July 1940 the British warships of Vice-Admiral James Somerville’s Force H opened fire on the virtually defenceless vessels of their former ally, France. In the space of nine minutes the British destroyed or disabled much of the French fleet and killing almost 1,300 French sailors.
For many across the Channel the events of 3 July 1940 represent the ultimate betrayal of trust by a close ally. The decision taken by Winston Churchill to sink the French fleet rather than let it fall into the hands of the Germans is one that has been discussed at great length ever since that summer evening. What no one, until now, realised is that this was not the first time Churchill had been faced with this problem.
The summer of 1940 had proved disastrous for the Anglo-French alliance. Stunning German military successes had left the French army in ruins, and the French government was forced to sign an armistice on 22 June. Article 8 of the armistice agreement concerned the French fleet. It stated that the fleet was ‘to collect in ports to be specified, and under German and/or Italian control to demobilize and lay up’. Continue reading »