Secrets of the Dead: Churchill’s Deadly Decision
Narrator: The summer of 1940. With Europe falling to the Nazis, Great Britain is in desperate need of American aid. But President Roosevelt has little faith in Winston Churchill. He worries that the new British Prime Minister lacks the mettle to stand up to Hitler. Churchill needs to prove him wrong.
Andrew Lambert: Churchill knew that if the American’s aren’t on side, the British are finished.
Narrator: The Prime Minister tries reason, diplomacy and threats…all to no avail. So on July 3rd, 1940, after only 55 days in office, he resorts to desperate measures—ordering a controversial and deadly mission (boom) against his allies, the French.
Robert Philpott: It was dreadful what we had to do. I don’t have any pride in being part of it.
Narrator: Churchill’s decision that day… will change the course of history.
Narrator: On May 10th, 1940, Nazi armies simultaneously invade Belgium, Holland and France. On the same day, Winston Churchill becomes the new Prime Minister of Britain. When Churchill takes office, he is confident that Germany will soon be defeated by the combined might of Britain and France. The two nations had mobilized more than four million troops, and had signed a treaty stating that neither country would surrender to Germany, unless the other agreed.
Andrew Lambert: Well, on May the 10th, it doesn’t look too bad. If the French can hold the Germans on the German/French border, the British will fight a naval and air war, blockading and bombarding the Germans, and eventually the Germans will be defeated. It could be worse.
Narrator: But the allies are woefully unprepared for Hitler’s Blitzkrieg attack. Only five days after becoming Prime Minister, Churchill receives a phone call from the French high command. Nazi tanks have broken through the French lines and are threatening ports less than 25 miles from the English coast.
Churchill is looking at the very real possibility of a German invasion of Britain.
Instantly, the Royal Navy becomes a crucial barrier to the Nazi advance.
Britain has the largest navy in the world, but in May of 1940, it is scattered around the globe protecting a vast empire.
Martin Gilbert: We simply didn’t have sufficient naval power to guarantee that we could stop a German armada crossing the Channel & the North Sea.
Narrator: Desperate for reinforcements, Churchill turns to American President, Franklin Roosevelt. Both are Navy men, a bond not lost on the incisive Prime Minister.
Andrew Lambert: For Churchill, who you have to remember is half American, the thing that matters in 1940 is the Americans. From the start, in September ‘39, he’s writing to President Roosevelt, using this neat trick that they’ve both been in naval administration earlier in their careers, and he’s sounding Roosevelt out about coming to the assistance of Britain. He’s trying to make Roosevelt understand that this is democracy’s last throw, that if the British go down, America is next.
Narrator: Within hours of receiving the call from France, Churchill sends a telegram to Roosevelt with an urgent request for American warships.
Churchill: The scene has darkened swiftly. You may have a completely subjugated Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear. Immediate needs are the loan of fifty of your older destroyers.
Narrator: In Washington, Roosevelt is privately sympathetic. But he is gearing up for an election, and has pledged to the American people that he will not embroil the nation in another European war.
Roosevelt: The United States of America shall and must remain un-entangled and free.
Galen Perras: Newspaper people are constantly making claims that Roosevelt is a closet interventionist, and he could lose the election. Public opinions polls consistently in the summer of 1940, consistently say we wish the allies would win, we don’t want American boys to die.
Narrator: With public opinion set against intervention, it is politically impossible for Roosevelt to send ships to Britain.
Two days after sending his request for aid, Churchill receives Roosevelt’s reply. There will be no American warships. It is a major blow for the new Prime Minister.
He has been in office for just one week, and during that time, Hitler’s panzer divisions have advanced deep into French territory; the British forces in Europe have been cut off and are retreating toward the coast, and the French army is in disarray. The prime minister can’t take “no” for an answer.
In his next telegram to Roosevelt, Churchill combines an appeal to American self-interest, with a thinly-veiled threat.
He warns that if Britain falls to the Nazis, his successor will be forced to give Hitler the Royal Navy in exchange for a favorable armistice agreement.
Churchill: You must not be blind to the fact that the sole remaining bargaining counter with Germany would be the fleet. Excuse me, Mr. President, putting this nightmare bluntly.
Galen Perras: He very much is trying to blackmail the Americans, he’s trying to impress upon them, we want to fight, give us the tools to fight, because If you don’t, the consequences are too horrendous to contemplate. If the Germans can now get their hands on the best navy in the world, then Germany is capable of threatening the United States in a meaningful way.
Newsreel: The jaws of the Nazi whale were set to swallow Jonah. Churchill isn’t the only one foreshadowing a German invasion.
Newsreel: Conquer Britain. Force the surrender of the British fleet. Then, with the combined sea power of Germany, Britain, Italy, France and Japan, he could control the seas and tell us where to head in.
Narrator: But Churchill’s attempt to scare Roosevelt into action backfires. Rather than seeing Britain as a viable ally, Roosevelt presumes it is only a matter of time before the British fall to the Nazis.
So instead of jumping to Britain’s aid and sending ships, the President begins preparing for a British defeat.
In Washington, Roosevelt summons Canadian diplomat Hugh Keenleyside for a meeting. The President suggests that American and Canadian safety must now be the number one priority.
Since Canada is still technically part of the British Empire, Roosevelt requests that the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, persuade Churchill to send the Royal Navy to Canada rather than surrendering it to the Nazis.
Warren Kimball: If the British fleet is in a Canadian port, Roosevelt has a finger in the pie. That’s pretty shrewd, it was pretty secret.
Narrator: King is stunned by Roosevelt’s suggestion.
Galen Perras: It seemed to me that the United States was seeking to save itself at the expense of Britain. That it was an appeal to the selfishness of the Dominions at the expense of the British Isles. Those are pretty strong words. Mackenzie King is horrified.
Narrator: King sends a telegram to Churchill explaining Roosevelt’s position.
It is now abundantly clear to the Prime Minister how little faith Roosevelt has in Britain’s ability to defend herself. Churchill recognizes that he will get no meaningful aid from America unless he can prove his country is capable of putting up a fight.
Meanwhile, the news from the front is getting worse. The British army is being forced to retreat, and has to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk.
Then Italy shocks the Allies and enters the war on the side of the Germans.
Roosevelt: The hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.
Narrator: As the Germans advance toward Paris, the French army collapses.
The government flees the capital, along with millions of refugees.
With Nazi storm troopers entering the city, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud warns his British counterpart that France is on the verge of defeat.
Churchill finds himself confronting the same naval threat to Britain that he previously conjured up to scare America.
Galen Perras: Churchill was faced with the fact that if France surrenders, and it looks like it would be an abject, unconditional surrender, given the situation, what will happen to the French fleet, which is substantial? Aircraft carriers, battleships. If the Germans can get their hands on that undamaged fleet, their ability to threaten British interests goes up exponentially.
Andrew Lambert: The French fleet is the most powerful fleet in European waters after the Royal Navy, and it really does hold the balance of power. If the French fleet goes over to the enemy, with Italy and Germany, the British are outnumbered at sea, and they will lose the war.
Narrator: Desperate for ships, Churchill sends another telegram to Roosevelt. He warns the president that the French fleet’s surrender is imminent, and that the threat to America is growing.
Churchill: This revolution in sea power might happen very quickly and certainly long before the US may be able to prepare against it. American interests are at stake in our battle.
But in Washington, Roosevelt is still convinced that sending warships to Churchill would be a terrible mistake. His fears are fuelled by dispatches from Joseph Kennedy, his ambassador in London.
Joseph, the father of John F. Kennedy, is a vocal advocate of appeasing Hitler, not confronting him.
Joseph Kennedy: I don’t want to see this country go to war unless we’re attacked.
Andrew Lambert: Kennedy is a defeatist. He’s convinced the British will fall, and he’s convinced that Britain should not be backed, that the Americans would be well advised not to get any closer to the British. The British are beaten.
Warren Kimball: Roosevelt has this dilemma. Do you send aid, and maybe it gets captured by the Germans? Or do you keep it for yourself, and prepare to defend yourself? And that’s going to take some time for him to decide.
Narrator: But Churchill has no more time. With no help from America, he will have to try and secure the French fleet before it is captured by the Germans.
The alliance between Britain and France states that neither country can surrender unless the other agrees. Churchill now makes it clear that he will only allow the French to seek peace with the Germans under one condition:
Churchill: “Provided, but only provided, that the French fleet is sailed forthwith for British harbors.”
Narrator: But that night, the French prime minister resigns and a new, pro-German government forms in the south of France. Ignoring Churchill’s request, they break the agreement with Britain, and ask Hitler for an armistice.
Churchill then makes a final appeal, directly to the head of the French Navy, Admiral Francois Darlan.
Martin Gilbert: Darlan had commanded the French fleet for many years and was highly respected in Britain, Churchill knew him quite well.
Narrator: Darlan inspires absolute loyalty in his men, and has told Churchill at a previous meeting that he will never surrender his ships to Hitler.
So Churchill sends a British envoy to suggest to Darlan that he order his fleet to Britain before the armistice with the Germans is formally signed. Darlan repeats his solemn assurance that he will never let his fleet fall into German hands.
Churchill hopes this means the ships will soon be on their way. But as the days pass, the French Navy remained doesn’t move.
William L. Shirer: This is William L. Shirer speaking from the forest at Compiègne, where Adolf Hitler today is handing his armistice terms to France.
Narrator: Hitler’s terms are clear—the French can continue to administer unoccupied southern France, but the rest of the country will be controlled by the Nazis. Additionally, all French ships must return immediately to their home ports, where they will remain under German supervision.
The new, collaborationist French government agrees.
It takes several hours for the news to reach London. Churchill is horrified to read what his French allies have signed.
Martin Gilbert: Churchill was absolutely astonished, he was very frightened. At first he didn’t believe it, he couldn’t believe that the French would agree to such a thing. He felt betrayed in many ways by Admiral Darlan.
Narrator: Admiral Darlan is still trying to keep his promise to Churchill.
On hearing the armistice conditions, Darlan sends a message to every captain in the French Navy, ordering them to scuttle their ships if the Germans make any attempts to take control.
By issuing this order, Darlan believes he is honoring his pledge, and trusts that Churchill will agree.
Martin Gilbert: The War Cabinet had a long discussion about what should be done. And the top secret annex of the war cabinet minutes has Churchill’s response: “The Prime Minister said that in a matter so vital to the safety of the whole British Empire we could not afford to rely on the word of Admiral Darlan.”
Narrator: Many ministers are in favor of negotiating directly with individual French captains in hopes of persuading them to ignore the armistice with Germany and join Britain’s war effort. Churchill is already contemplating more drastic measures.
Martin Gilbert: Churchill wound up the meeting with the following words: “The prime minister agreed but stressed that in no circumstances must we run the mortal risk of allowing these ships to fall into the hands of the enemy. Rather than that, we should have to fight and sink them.”
Andrew Lambert: Churchill really wasn’t interested in papers, promises, the words of Admiral Darlan. This is a total war for national survival. If the Germans win, Britain is finished.
Narrator: As frantic preparations are being made in Britain to resist the German invasion, Churchill continues to plead with President Roosevelt for American warships. But after seeing how France had fallen and believing the British will soon follow suit, Roosevelt is less inclined than ever to send ships.
Instead, he asks Congress for four billion dollars to bulk up the U.S. Navy, believing it might soon be called upon to defend America from German forces bolstered by French and British ships.
Churchill sums up his frustration in a telegram to his ambassador in Washington.
Churchill: “I don’t think words count for much now. Only force of events can govern them.”
Narrator: But the window of opportunity for action is closing. Under the terms of the armistice agreement, the French ships will be under German control within days.
With no time to lose, Churchill makes a fateful decision.
Narrator: Churchill orders the Admiralty to draw up a plan for securing the French fleet. By persuasion…or by force. The mission is called Operation Catapult.
Andrew Lambert: Operation Catapult is high stakes. If it goes wrong, if it goes badly wrong, Churchill’s finished, Britain’s finished, the war is over. This is Churchill saying, we need to do this to stay in this game.
Narrator: Operation Catapult will involve simultaneous actions around the world. In coordinated dawn raids, the British Navy will seize the 14 French warships, several submarines, and almost 200 smaller ships that are sitting in British ports, preparing to return to France.
At Alexandria, in Egypt, a battleship and four cruisers are trapped inside a British base.
But the most important targets are in French Algeria, within the fortified harbor of Mers El Kébir, near Oran.
Moored inside is the main French battle fleet, including the two ships that Churchill fears the most.
The Dunkerque and the Strasbourg are modern battle cruisers that can outclass most British ships. At Mers El Kébir, they are supported by two older battleships, six destroyers and at least two submarines—a deadly strike force.
Hoping to avoid a dangerous confrontation, Churchill personally drafts an ultimatum for Marcel Gensoul, the French Admiral in charge of Mers El Kébir. It presents three choices.
Churchill: A) Sail with us and continue the fight, B) Sail to a British port, C) Sail to a French port in the West Indies or to the United States. If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within six hours.
Narrator: Off Gibraltar, the British assemble a fleet to deliver the ultimatum.
It is called Force H and includes the world’s largest battleship, the HMS Hood.
In command is Admiral James Somerville.
The night before setting sail, Somerville voices his reservations about the mission, and the likely French reaction.
But as Force H travels through the night toward the Algerian coast, Somerville receives Churchill’s uncompromising reply.
Churchill: “If the French will not accept any of your alternatives, they are to be destroyed.”
Narrator: Operation Catapult gets underway at dawn.
Troops begin boarding all French ships in British ports.
In Plymouth, England, one of the targets is the Surcouf, the world’s largest submarine.
Hearing noises upstairs, the French captain wakes his men and goes to investigate.
As the British search the Surcouf, the ship’s engineer destroys records and codebooks, while the captain confronts the intruders.
Narrator: Moments later, violence erupts.
The French engineer and three British servicemen are killed.
Although the remaining French crew eventually surrenders, it is an inauspicious start for Operation Catapult.
As the sun rises over the Mediterranean, Force H arrives at Mers El Kébir, ready to present Churchill’s ultimatum.
Robert Philpott is a 20-year-old gunnery officer-in-training on the British flagship, HMS Hood.
Robert Philpott: Really it was all very peaceful. Nobody was doing any firing; there was a fairly happy mood on board. We all firmly believed that the ships would come out and join us. We know the French sailors were just anxious to get on with the war. So we didn’t think there would be a great problem.
Narrator: Many of the enlisted French sailors are equally optimistic.
André Jaffre is an 18-year-old gunner on the battleship, Bretagne.
André Jaffre (in French): Our officer scrutinizes the horizon, then looks for his binoculars and smiles. What is it, captain? The British have arrived! Really? Yes. We were happy! We thought they’d come to get us to continue fighting against the Nazis.
Narrator: Leon Le Roux is a 19-year-old messenger aboard the French flagship, Dunkerque.
Leon Le Roux (in French): Rumors traveled fast, so we found out quickly that there was a British fleet outside the port of Oran. And we heard that a small torpedo boat, the Foxhound, had entered the harbor and so we thought it was a bit odd.
Narrator: The Foxhound is sent ahead to open negotiations while the rest of the British fleet waits offshore. On board is Captain Hooky Holland, a fluent French-speaker who had served as the naval attaché in Paris.
The Foxhound signals to Admiral Marcel Gensoul that Captain Holland wants a meeting. Gensoul is immediately offended that the British are sending a mere captain to confer with him.
He orders the Foxhound to leave the harbor immediately. But Holland has orders to deliver the ultimatum, and sets off toward the French flagship in a small motor launch.
Andrew Lambert: One of the big problems at Mers El Kébir is that French Admiral Gensoul is really not a man to take decisions. Gensoul doesn’t have any judgment, he refuses to even meet Captain Holland, who was well known to him. Just obstructive, negative. Gensoul either doesn’t want to believe, or refuses to understand that the British are serious.
Narrator: Holland is intercepted in the middle of the bay. Prevented from meeting the French Admiral in person, he hands over the written demands. The French are given six hours to accept one of Churchill’s options, or face a British attack.
The deadline is set for 3:30 pm.
When Gensoul finally reads the terms, he is incensed. He orders his ships to raise steam and prepare for action, then sends a hand-written reply to Captain Holland, stating that the French fleet will meet force with force.
André Jaffre (in French): My friend who works on the bridge. He says, ‘The English have sent us an ultimatum and we are not moving. We are staying here.” Now us simple sailors didn’t really know what was in the ultimatum. Then there was a message: return aboard immediately. We were being recalled to the ship. And then we receive the order, everyone to combat posts.
Narrator: From the HMS Hood, Admiral Sommerville watches the sudden French activity as he receives Gensoul’s reply.
Under strict orders to prevent the French ships from escaping, Sommerville orders planes from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal to drop mines at the entrance to the port.
Leon Le Roux (in French): At 1 o’clock, I was on deck stretching my legs and I could see some British planes flying overhead. They were laying mines at the mouth of the harbor. We thought; this is beginning to smell like trouble. We wondered why they were blocking us in. We were trapped.
Narrator: By now, Gensoul has relayed the situation back to his superiors in mainland France. Insulted that Churchill did not trust him to keep the French fleet out of German hands, Admiral Darlan authorizes a call for reinforcements.
All French forces in the Mediterranean are ordered to Mers El Kébir to support Gensoul.
Narrator: With the deadline of 3:30 fast-approaching, Gensoul receives word that reinforcements are on the way. Playing for time, he invites Captain Holland aboard. The British suspend their deadline to allow negotiations to proceed.
Robert Philpott: I think the French Admiral was doing a certain amount of bluffing. I don’t think he really thought that we would, when it came to it, open fire.
Narrator: When Holland boards the French flagship, Gensoul shows him. Admiral Darlan’s message from ten days earlier ordering all French sailors to sabotage their ships if the Germans try to take control.
Like Darlan, Gensoul believes the missive should be enough to allay British fears.
But in London, the British Admiralty intercepts Darlan’s call for back up and warns Churchill that French reinforcements may arrive at any time. Churchill quickly decides that the time has come for action. He issues a final message to Admiral Somerville. His orders are short and direct.
Churchill: Settle matters quickly.
Narrator: Somerville immediately signals the French flagship that if no agreement is reached within 30 minutes, he will open fire.
Robert Philpott: This, of course, was pretty devastating news to the lower deck, on which I was at the time. We couldn’t imagine opening fire on our friends and allies.
Narrator: The deadline comes and goes without an accord.
This photograph captures the moment when Captain Holland says goodbye to Admiral Gensoul. He later reports ‘our leave taking was friendly.’ But Holland knows that feeling is about to change.
There are only a few men left alive who remember what happened next. Almost 70 years later, they still carry the emotional scars of the battle of Mers El Kébir.
At 5:54 PM, Admiral Somerville unleashes one of the most concentrated big gun broadsides in history. A French camera crew films the entire attack.
André Jaffre (in French): What’s going on? We didn’t have time to take a breath. Another salvo and a third.
Leon Le Roux (in French): I can’t describe what it was like. There was fear, terror, a deafening noise that makes your ears bleed and you think about yourself, of course, but you also think about the others.
Narrator: Unable to maneuver inside the harbor, the French ships are sitting ducks.
Robert Philpott: It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Narrator: The 15-inch shells from the HMS Hood are devastatingly effective. The third salvo scores a direct hit on André Jaffre’s ship, the Bretagne.
André Jaffre (in French): A flaming ball, a shell, flew across my battery. It exploded below me, right amongst the fuel and the ammunition. I looked around me and saw a friend of mine who had put his head too near the gun cover, and had his head blown off. He was completely decapitated, the blood dripped off me. I wanted to be sick. I was still next to my gun and I began to singe, my feet were burning. My shoes were on fire and I was pleading with the Lord and the Virgin Mary: “What’s happening to me? I don’t want to die aged 18.” The shells kept on falling. I remember men shouting “Kill me, kill me” because they were so badly burned, or they had lost limbs. They were asking to be finished off.
Leon Le Roux (in French): It’s just panic, total panic. So many shells and you wonder how much damage is this causing and how many more will they kill?
André Jaffre (in French): I saw the water. It was black with smoking oil and small flames, not like gasoline, but like a deep fryer, bubbling away. In there, were men who were struggling and screaming. It was horrific. They continued the shelling so I decided to jump in. I wanted to go as deep as possible to be sheltered from the gunfire. But when I jumped in, I fell into boiling oil, so I let myself sink. I was so burnt. It was so painful, so I tried to swim underwater as far as possible from the boat, but I needed to breathe, and every time I surfaced I came up into boiling oil. So I had to breathe in smoke and oil and dive again. I did that for as long as I could.
Narrator: As André struggles in the water, he turns to see the fate of his ship, the Bretagne, and its crew of more than a thousand men.
André Jaffre (in French): Eventually I found an area with no oil. I turned onto my back and from there I saw an appalling sight. The Bretagne was capsizing completely.
Leon Le Roux (in French): It happened quickly. In 20 seconds she capsized. 20 seconds! On the Bretagne there were almost 1,000 dead. Everyone was killed. Everyone. And that, that was the end of those poor men. That’s what I saw. Terrible and apocalyptic things that I wish with all my heart I will never see again.
Narrator: After only ten minutes, Admiral Somerville gives the order to cease fire.
Robert Philpott: It was shattering to see, to see what we had just done. There was smoke, fires burning everywhere. It was a scene of utter devastation. I think the whole crew were very upset. It was not something we were very proud about.
Narrator: The carnage is massive. Admiral Somerville had sunk the Bretagne and disabled the battle cruiser Dunkerque, as well as other, less important ships. But on closer inspection, the British realize they have failed to complete their mission.
The powerful battle cruiser Strasbourg and five of the destroyers had somehow slipped through the minefield and escaped.
And within the harbor, the casualties are horrific. 1,297 French sailors are dead, and three hundred and fifty others are wounded.
The death toll is higher than that of any single action taken against the Germans since the war began.
Elsewhere, Operation Catapult is more successful. At the base in Alexandria, the British demobilized the French Squadron without any bloodshed. And in Britain, almost 200 vessels, including the submarine Surcouf, were seized and now lay under British control.
Not surprisingly, the French are incensed.
Andrew Lambert: There really is a risk that the French will declare war. Had Admiral Darlan had his way, the French would have gone to war straight away. He’s apoplectic.
Narrator: The French respond with a retaliatory bombing raid on the British naval base in Gibraltar. But they inflict little damage and cause no casualties.
Still reeling from the German occupation and overwhelmed by the millions of starving refugees who had fled south, the French government is ill-equipped for any further military action. Instead, they sever diplomatic relations with Britain for the duration of the war.
Leon La Roux: (in French): We thought, ‘Who are these English savages?’ It was hate, just hate. Allies the day before and enemies the day after. They come and sink us. What do you expect the French to think? It was betrayal, yes. But not only a betrayal, it was murder. When you have your hands tied behind your back and the barrel of a gun is pointing at you. Would you call that a crime? Yes, it’s a real crime. It’s murder.
Narrator: The Nazis use the attack to sow anti-British sentiment in occupied France. Posters soon appear showing a drowning French sailor, and depicting Churchill as an octopus, grasping at the French Empire.
Churchill himself is horrified by the scale of the French casualties.
Martin Gilbert: When Churchill got the news of Mers El Kébir, he was physically sick, he was devastated. He obviously had great difficulty in knowing how to explain it, because he thought that there would be outrage in the commons that we had fired upon an ally.
Narrator: On July 4th 1940—only his 54th day in office—Churchill makes a speech to the House of Commons justifying his decision. It is later broadcast to the nation.
Churchill: The transference of these ships to Hitler would have endangered the security both of Great Britain and the United States. We therefore had no choice but to act as we did.
Narrator: John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, writes about the speech in his diary.
“He told the whole story of Oran and the House listened enthralled and amazed. Gasps of surprise were audible. I heard him say ‘this is heartbreaking for me.”
Martin Gilbert: When it was over, he started crying, he began to cry, he was quite overwhelmed.
Narrator: The reaction from the House is not what Churchill expected.
Martin Gilbert: He was astonished that the house went berserk, with cheers and enthusiasm, and of course with relief, a tremendous sense of relief, that these damned warships were not going to be the stepping stone, one way or another, of a German invasion of Britain.
Newsreel: “The problem of the French fleet has been solved in the only way we could allow it to be solved.”
Narrator: The British press and public thoroughly approved of the attack.
Newsreel: “From the royal navy and from the nation, there is wholehearted support for the government’s action.”
Narrator: But for Churchill, the most important reaction will come from America.
Martin Gilbert: Roosevelt, when he heard of what Britain had done, finally laid to rest his lingering doubts that Britain didn’t have the strength or the guts to carry on. Mers El Kébir showed that, in a curious way, we weren’t beaten, we could hit back, we could act in what we considered to be our national interest i.e. survival.
Andrew Lambert: It impresses the hell out of the American political class. It shows that what Joe Kennedy says is wrong. If the British are going down, they’re going to go down in flames they’re not going to surrender. Churchill is showing the Americans that the British mean business. This is Churchill saying I’m Winston Churchill and we’re going to finish this.
Narrator: There is even some evidence that President Roosevelt knew Churchill’s plans in advance, and encouraged him to go ahead with the attack.
The British war cabinet minutes from July 3rd 1940 reveal that as the negotiations were taking place in Mers El Kébir, Churchill received a telegram about Roosevelt from Lord Lothian, Churchill’s ambassador in Washington.
“I asked him if American public opinion would support forcible seizure of these ships. He said certainly.”
Martin Gilbert: Lord Lothian asked President Roosevelt for his opinion, and he expressed it at a crucial moment: 11.30 on the morning of July 3rd. It made a tremendous impact on the War Cabinet, that the President of the United States, on whom they knew, everybody knew, we were totally dependent if we were to continue at war, wanted us to take action to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands.
Narrator: It was only after receiving this message that Churchill gave the order to ‘settle matters quickly.’ The timing has led some to conclude that Churchill only acted to win Roosevelt’s approval.
Andrew Lambert: The French will often say that Churchill only did this to impress Roosevelt, to get the Americans on side. I don’t see that as a criticism. If the Americans aren’t on side the British are finished.
Narrator: The question is, did Roosevelt realize that Churchill would authorize an all-out attack if the French failed to surrender their ships?
The evidence lies in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, where a forgotten letter has recently been uncovered.
The letter was sent to Roosevelt by Ambassador Lothian one day after the attack.
Warren Kimball: Scrawled at the bottom of the note: ‘You will see that Winston Churchill has taken the action in regard to the French fleet which we discussed and you approved.” Churchill has shelled, or authorized shelling, of the French fleet, Roosevelt agreed with Lothian that forcible seizure of the French fleet was the way to go. Did Roosevelt know ahead of time that Churchill was going to shell the French fleet? You decide.
Narrator: Whether Roosevelt knew about the attack beforehand or not, it had a profound effect on his attitude toward Britain.
Newsreel: This is the record of one of the most momentous transactions in our history. The taking over of some the 50 destroyers from the United States.
Narrator: Just two months after the attack, Roosevelt gave Churchill his ships.
Newsreel: It is the cooperation of the two great English-speaking peoples, in the fight against Nazi aggression. These destroyers now belong to Britain, and in exchange American warships will have the use of certain British bases. Thus at one stroke, a double edged sword is created to hold off the menace of Hitler.
Warren Kimball: What the shelling of the French fleet set in motion was an ever stronger American belief that helping the Brits was worth the effort. We weren’t going to be throwing away American war material that could be desperately needed in the event this war continues, which seemed likely. That they were reliable. That when they said they were going to fight, they fought. Maybe they fought dirty. But they fought.
Martin Gilbert: As a result of Mers El Kébir, Roosevelt said ‘these people are not going to give in.’ Therefore, I can send them the supplies they desperately need. The guns the ammunition, the aircraft, the tanks, because they’re not going to give in.
Roosevelt: I ask this congress for authority and for funds.
Narrator: In effect, Mers El Kébir paved the way for the steady flow of American aid to Britain.
Roosevelt: Our most immediate role is to act as an arsenal for them as well as for ourselves.
Newsreel: Ships, planes, tanks, guns, that is our purpose and our pledge.
Narrator: But despite the positive outcome for Britain, Churchill’s actions remain deeply unpopular in France.
The French believe history has proven that Admiral Darlan and his Navy would never have submitted to German control.
In November of 1942, the Nazi’s occupied southern France and attempted to seize the remaining French ships from their base in Toulon.
After surviving Mers El Kébir, André Jaffre was stationed in Toulon when the Germans approached.
André Jaffre (in French): In the middle of the night everyone was woken up. In the distance, we could hear the Germans, the clicking of the tanks.
Narrator: True to their word, the French sailors immediately carried out the order Admiral Darlan had given them more than two years earlier.
Using fire, explosives and brute force, they sabotaged their ships.
André Jaffre (in French): I was there when we scuttled the fleet. I sabotaged my equipment and my 90 mm gun. I gave it a hammering. I broke the fuses and smashed the magazines. And then the Germans came.
Narrator: The French disabled close to 70 ships before the Germans could stop them.
André Jaffre (in French): They arrived all pleased, thinking we’re going to have a nice fleet, and schtt, nothing! We scuttled everything. They were furious. They had trekked for miles to get these boats. We were laughing! I remember laughing with a friend, but a swift hit with a gun butt in your kidneys, a kick, and they were hitting us on the ground. Bastards!
Narrator: For many in the French Navy, Toulon was the definitive proof that the attack at Mers El Kébir should never have happened—that the French fleet would never have ended up under German control.
Within days of the scuttling, Churchill received a scathing letter from Admiral Darlan.
Darlan: “Prime Minister, you said to me: “Darlan, I hope you will never surrender the fleet.” I replied, “There is no question of doing so.” It seems to me that you did not believe my word. The destruction of the fleet at Toulon has just proved that I was right.”
Narrator: Seventy years after the attack at Mers El Kébir, some French survivors still remain bitter.
Leon Le Roux (in French): Winston Churchill should have believed the orders given to the French fleet and signed by Admiral Darlan. I do not forgive Churchill, I do not forgive the British government. I will never forgive.
Narrator: But others, like André Jaffre, bare no grudge toward the British sailors.
André Jaffre (in French): It’s not betrayal. It was war and everything that comes with it. Have you ever seen an intelligent war? Let’s say I was sad, deeply sad to know that our English friends had sunk us, but what can you do? I speak as an equal, as a French sailor to a British sailor. It’s our bosses who decide. And it’s always the same ones who suffer.
Martin Gilbert: In his speech in the house of commons, Churchill said that history would be the judge. What has history decided? For the French it was almost a war crime that Britain then killed more than 1,200 French sailors. For the British it was the only way that Britain could survive.
Robert Philpott: We had no choice. If the Americans had been in the war at that stage, we could have perhaps coped. But the Royal Navy wasn’t big enough to cope with the German fleet and the French fleet so, distressing it was, but it had to be done. And in wartime, one has to do distasteful things.
Narrator: And although there were terrible consequences for all the men involved in the attack, Churchill’s decision provided the foundation for the powerful alliance between America and Britain.
Without that, the Nazi menace might never have been defeated.