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#1 Ken Estes

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 1140 AM

The Churchill topic reappears, this time on FFZ -- ouch! -- but there was some interest on this incident. Details are from the Intl Encycl of Mil Hist Ed. James C. Bradford, London: Routledge, 2005.


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Mers-el-Kebir (1940). The turning point in Anglo-French relations after the Armistice of 1940 came in the naval confrontation of the following month at the main French naval base in North Africa. The British attitude toward the French Fleet, adopted in late June, was to take no risk that it would fall under German control, despite the risk of further alienating the French by the use of force. Thus French ships in British ports and Alexandria harbor were taken by force or neutralized under guard and plans were made to act against French fleet units in overseas bases to secure their destruction or internment. The Algerian base, located near Oran, sheltered many of the best French naval units, including the Raiding Force, consisting of the fast light battleships Dunquerque and Strasbourg with their accompanying large destroyers. Also present was a portion of the French battle line, with the old battleships Provence and Bretagne, the seaplane tender Commandante Teste and more escorts, for a total of four battleships, the seaplane tender, and six destroyers, all under the command of Vice Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. In addition, seven destroyers, four submarines and 12 smaller craft lay in port at Algiers.

At Churchill’s insistence and over the objections of First Sea Lord Admiral Dudley Pound, his naval staff, and Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the Mediterranean Fleet commander, Vice Admiral James Somerville’s Force H from Gibraltar sailed with battlecruiser Hood, the modernized old battleship Valiant and the obsolete battleship Resolution, carrier Ark Royal, two cruisers and 11 destroyers on Operation “Catapult”, the neutralization of the French naval forces, this phase at Oran. Arriving off Mers-el-Kebir early on July 3, 1940, Somerville sent in a destroyer with Captain Cedric S. Holland on board to parley with Gensoul. Holland, commander of Ark Royal, had served as naval attaché at Paris and on his skills rested Sommerville’s hopes for a peaceful resolution. Time waned, however, as Gensoul refused to receive a junior officer and had hoped to confer directly with Sommerville, or was stalling while he communicated with French Navy commander Darlan and awaited possible reinforcements. His ships were badly prepared for action, short of crews, with cold engine rooms and the traditional stern-to moorings at the base breakwater presented the all too vulnerable sterns to the British ships offshore. In London, Churchill fumed over the delays. Holland finally was able to confer with the French commander, after first forwarding Sommerville’s ultimatum to Gensoul’s aide: rally to the Allied cause, disarm the ships in a British port, sail to Martinique or an American port for internment, or scuttle the ships. Failing these measures, Somerville would open fire and destroy the French force.

In Alexandria, Admiral Cunningham pressed the same conditions on the smaller French squadron there in his own main base, but was able to accept a gentleman’s agreement with the French commander where they offloaded ammunition but maintained their separate existence. Admiral Gensoul, commanding the best ships of the French fleet, was in no mood for surrender or dishonor, and dismissed Holland after showing him his standing orders to scuttle the ships before allowing them to fall under foreign control of any type. The British had already broken the French naval code in any case and Churchill knew Darlan’s instructions to scuttle, sail to Martinique or the USA rather than surrender. By 5 pm, the French ships had made all possible preparations for action, the ultimatum had expired and Sommerville’s force opened fire at 5:30 pm before Holland had returned.

The action was short and violent. The British ships, sailing in battle line in clear weather, had an easy fire control problem against the moored ships, which attempted to get under way as firing commenced. Shells fell upon the grouped warships in deadly fashion. Bretagne suffered a magazine explosion and capsized suffering the bulk of the casualties. Provence and Dunquerque took heavy hits and ran aground to avoid sinking and the large destroyer Mogador nearly sank. Miraculously, Strasbourg and four escorts managed to sail out of harbor, evade serious damage from Ark Royal’s aircraft and escaped to Toulon. The official toll was l,297 men killed or missing, with 354 wounded, with no British casualties. After a half hour, Gensoul requested a ceasefire to permit lifesaving actions and the British complied and sailed away.

The repercussions of this one-sided battle carried well past the end of World War II. In the immediate aftermath, Admiral Darlan ordered the navy to fire on any British forces on sight. German and Vichy anti-British propaganda made a feast of the apparent slaughter of the unready French sailors by an “ally,” Britain effectively cut off all future relations with the French Vichy government, and suffered much suspicion from the Free French forces for a considerable period. Recruitment for DeGaulle’s Free French Forces suffered accordingly, Britain had ensured her supremacy at sea in the European theater by this action, but French honor had been sullied and enmity continued for a generation at least. There remains some speculation that Darlan, had he been apprised in time of the situation, might have authorized the force to sail to Martinique, but Gensoul and Sommerville each had the force of previous orders weighing upon them and a major tragedy resulted.

This may be considered Churchill’s worst mistake of World War II, ranking with his similar self-delusion over the Dardanelles in the previous world war, His cabinet railed against his impulsive and destructive act, but in the end, he satisfied his own political need for disciplining his mixed war cabinet and the British strategic tradition of sinking, wherever possible, all naval threats to the empire.


Kenneth W. Estes

See also French forces, British forces, World War II, North African campaign, Darlan, Sommerville, Cunningham, Churchill, Pound, Vichy France.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
David Brown, The Road to Oran: Anglo-French Naval Relations, September 1939-July 1980 ( Frank Cass, 2004)
Warren Tute. The Deadly Stroke (Putnam, 1973)
Claude Huan and Hervé Couteau-Begarie, Mers El Kebir (1940) (Economica, 1994)
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#2 Pachy

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 1431 PM

DISCLAIMER: I'm the grandson of a French sailor who was in MeK during the battle. So you can expect my views to be biased as h3ll.

There remains some speculation that Darlan, had he been apprised in time of the situation, might have authorized the force to sail to Martinique, but Gensoul and Sommerville each had the force of previous orders weighing upon them and a major tragedy resulted.


That's the main idea. Sommerville was ordered to negotiate, but his other orders prevented any honest negotiation to take place. This being said, it's not clear what Pétain would have agreed to - the fleet was one of his few assets in his relationship with the Germans.
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#3 Colin Williams

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Posted 28 January 2005 - 1501 PM

This may be considered Churchill’s worst mistake of World War II, ranking with his similar self-delusion over the Dardanelles in the previous world war, His cabinet railed against his impulsive and destructive act, but in the end, he satisfied his own political need for disciplining his mixed war cabinet and the British strategic tradition of sinking, wherever possible,  all naval threats to the empire.


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Nice summary, except for that last paragraph of editorializing!

To paraphrase Mr. Dooley - "War ain't beanbag."
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#4 LucaJJ

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 0632 AM

From a practical standpoint:
> Would German control of the French fleet hae impacted Britain's war position materially?
> How 'costly' was it to make an enemy of Vichy France? After all they were beinding over backwards to be accomodating to teh gemrans (who wouldn't, in their circumstances?)

We have to bear in mind that this was one of the rare occasions when nations could really look to a conflict as being literally life-or-death. I would think that by maintaining an absurd pretense of 'independence' the Vichy bods were co-responsible. When Italy sued for peace in 1943, Italian ships sailed straight for allied-controlled harbors (barring ones that, understandbly from a certain viewpoint, thought the surrender was wrong), hence no need to sink them. The Germans did sink a few before they could make it and that, too, is eminently understandable.

Edited by LucaJJ, 31 January 2005 - 0633 AM.

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#5 Nick Sumner

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 0827 AM

This is always a contentious subject. The events of MelK have the inexorability of a Greek tragedy as well as the impossible dilemmas of principle and pragmatism that characterise Greek tragedy. Given the information each leader had to hand and the situation each leader saw himself in I don't see how either could have acted differently. I don't see how either Darlan and Gensoul or Churchill and Cunningham could have acted other than they did act. They were trapped in a sequence of events as deadly and as difficult to stop as the one that led the nations of Europe in an apparent mindless lock step to the pointless and unnecessary disaster of WW1.

Gensoul and Darlan wanted to preserve the independence of the fleet to prevent the Germans occupying what remained of France. They had no options. That the France that remained bore as much resemblance to the country they had served and loved as a taxidermists dummy does to a living animal may not have been apparent to them.

Churchill and Cunningham could do no other than try and neutralise a very real threat. They too had no option, to insist otherwise is to expect them to be gifted with a remarkable degree of foresight. Crises have a habit of concentrating the mind, the honourableness (or otherwise) of such act wouldn't even merit a thought.

But the question rises who to declare war on? These I think are the horns of the British dillemma and perhaps part of the reason why there was no formal declaration and the reason for the 3 options. In essence the question was; "Whom do you serve? Vichy (and therefore the Nazis)? France (what's left of it)? Or no-one" The summer of 1940 was not a time for fence-sitting.

Darlan and Gensoul would doubtless have wanted more time to answer the question, Churchill and Cunningham had no more time and were forced into eliciting the worst possible answer ("We serve Vichy").

If only Darlan had sailed his ships out to join the allies, they could have done sterling service and taken a full share of the honour of liberating their homeland. Darlan could not possibly foresee such an outcome.

If only Cunningham could have found a way to give Darlan more time. I don't doubt the British feared air or submarine attack and Cunningham's nerves must have been strained. After 6 hours on station Italian submarines would know exactly where to find him.

Churchill's sumation of Kurita's poor decision making after having two flagships sunk under him at Leyte Gulf seems apropriate to both. "Those who have undergone a similar ordeal may judge him."

I'm sure I need hardly say that in studying history (or any aspect of human endeavour) we see that people sometimes make bad decisions for good reasons. Understanding why those decisions were made is central to understanding events. Churchill thought he was on a road with no turns (as did Darlan). Perhaps, with the clarity of hindsight, we can say it was a bad decision, at the time it must have seemed like the only one. It was certainly born of panic because events were spiralling out of control but the reason I see MelK as tragedy rather than crime is that I don't see what the British options were. Darlan was a mercurial character who disliked the British. To Churchill, the idea that the French fleet could exist as a neutral was the least likely of the possible outcomes. How stupid would Churchill have been to accept a declaration of neutrality or no answer at all?

We must also remember that the attack on MelK was a signal to the rest of the world from the British – ‘We aren’t messing about, this is a fight to the finish, don't get in our way.’
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#6 Scott Cunningham

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 0906 AM

This was obviously one of the tragedies of WWII. The British did what they had to do. In doing so they send a definite message to the entire world that they were in it for the long haul, and were going to play hardball.

The Frrench were in a tough position, but obviously made the wrong call here. Many sailors died as a result, and Brit/French relations were soured. That was unfortunate, but since France was going to be a minor partner in the upcoming liberation of europe (their main contribution was to provide the battleground) it was of little consequensce.

BTW, The first soldiers to fire at US troops in the ETO were Frenchmen during Operation Torch. Also recall that the US Navy got into a gunfight with the French as well, wrecking the Jean Bart with some 16" naval shells.
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#7 Pachy

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 0911 AM

BTW, The first soldiers to fire at US troops in the ETO were Frenchmen during Operation Torch.

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Like in Mers el-Kebir, they only returned fire.
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#8 Pachy

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 1123 AM

(their main contribution was to provide the battleground)

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Sources vary a bit, but French military casualties in the liberation of Europe (1943-1945) are in the 100,000 ~ 150,000 fatalities range, superior to the BoF + Vichy era combined.
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#9 Rich

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 1408 PM

BTW, The first soldiers to fire at US troops in the ETO were Frenchmen during Operation Torch.

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Sorry, but no, that would have been the Germans, firing on - and killing some - of the members of the 1st Ranger Battalion attached to the British Commandos at Dieppe. All this insane French-bashing has to stop sometime! :D

Edited by Rich, 31 January 2005 - 1409 PM.

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#10 Mk 1

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 1819 PM

The French were in a tough position, but obviously made the wrong call here.


I don't know what other call they might have reasonably been expected to make.

The assertion that Vichy was somehow equivelent to the Nazis is one I simply do not understand. Vichy was the continuation of the legal French Government, after it was displaced from Paris. It was not some puppet state nor unique contrivance set up by the Germans, it was the government of France (evacuated from Paris) and the territory of France (that portion of which could be saved from German occupation by negotiated settlement). To say that the Vichy government sought to accomidate the Nazis, or to appease, and in effect even to co-exist with the Nazis, is quite reasonable. But to equate the two, to suggest that serving Vichy was equivelent to being a Nazi is just wrong in my eyes.

If you were a political leader of your country, in similar circumstances, what would YOU have done? Abandoned your people to their fate and run for it? Or stayed, and tried your best to reach some accomidation to preserve some vestige, some fragment of your nation, and come to the aid of your people (millions of whom were homeless refugees, with winter just around the corner)?

Just about the ONLY bargaining chip the French had left was their fleet. They preserved it (sailed it to North Africa) and used it to get the best terms they could. Keeping that fleet neutral (so long as it WAS AFLOAT) was the one thing the French could do to barter with the Germans. So within days of reaching a cease-fire, the British sail up and demand the fleet be turned over to them. What would YOU do as a French leader?

BTW, The first soldiers to fire at US troops in the ETO were Frenchmen during Operation Torch.

Sorry, but no, that would have been the Germans, firing on - and killing some - of the members of the 1st Ranger Battalion attached to the British Commandos at Dieppe.  All this insane French-bashing has to stop sometime! :D


I don't mean to sound like I am ragging on Scott, but the point is raised by his posting. The image of the "Frenchmen" being the first to fire at "US troops" is not only belied by the earlier clash with 1st Ranger, it also conveniently ignores what the US troops in North Africa were out there doing.

Namely, they were invading French territory, the territory of a non-combatant neutral, with the intent of seizing it, holding it, without any declaration of war, and then using it as a base of operations for making war against Germany and Italy, countries that the neutral French were not at war with. Much like Germany walking through Belgium in 1914, or the North Vietnamese transiting through Laos and setting up bases in Cambodia in the 1960s.

If tomorrow a neutral country's armies showed up off of the coast of American lands, and said "we're coming ashore, and you had better let us" how would we expect US armed forces to react? Would we expect them to just sit quietly and watch it occur? OF COURSE NOT.

Yes, the analogy of the Greek tragedy is about the best one I can see. And typically, within a Greek tragedy, some players are boxed-in by the conspiracies of the fates, while others are boxed-in by their own character flaws. I can so easily see how little choice the French had in these cases. They were boxed-in by the circumstances of the German threat on one side, and the allied interests in hitting the easiest targets first on the other side. And some of the French characters (Darlan in particular, from my readings) also demonstrated classic character flaws. But some of the allies did, too. And they were the ones who could make choices, and force choices upon others.

Who do be blame ... the predator says "I must have meat to be strong", or the victim who says "Not MINE, you don't!" ?

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#11 Paul F Jungnitsch

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 1946 PM

I'll add to this that IMO there was no urgent need to neutralize the French fleet with the knowledge that the British posessed about French intentions and safeguards against capture, and even if so, some 'gentlemans agreement' could probably have been come to, such as what admirals Cunningham and Godfroy reached to spare Force X in Alexandria (contrary to orders).

That kind of thinking misses the point anyway. Churchill intended it to be seen as 'striking ruthlessly at her dear friends of yesterday' as he wrote after the war. He wanted to show the British Lion was far from beaten and still had claws. In that, it might have had some effect, however it of course alienated the French Navy, strengthened the hand of Vichy, and much weakened that of the Free French.

Admiral Cunningham commented after the war "Appallingly shameful; appallingly stupid".

Churchill's main weakness is that he had an abundance of ideas, and while some were brilliant, many of them were very bad. He had to be surrounded with strong people who understood him and could weed out the good ideas while suppressing the bad ones.
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#12 Scott Cunningham

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 1946 PM

OK, well, maybe they were not the first, but they sure as hell did shoot at US troops. Sorry, but the collaborationist excuses have a range of 0.0 meters in my book. The US didn't HAVE to declare war on Hitler's Germany. The japs had attacked us. We could have reasonably ignore Europe and left the French to their fate. That is not what happened.

As far as 'invading' N Africa, well excuuuuuuuuuse me!!. We couldn't be expected to stage a Normandy style invasion in 1942. We had to start somewhere, and French N Africa turned out to be the place. Nope, they were put in a tough spot, but war calls for tough action and tough decisions.

Churchill had the balls to make the tough call. Darlan did not. The British course of action was correct. Do not underestimate the actions taken by a nation backed into a corner.
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#13 R011

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 2037 PM

The US didn't HAVE to declare war on Hitler's Germany.

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Given that Germany declared war on the US first, it rather meant that the US did have to do so.
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#14 Scott Cunningham

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 2123 PM

Details Details. Yes, you are correct. The thing that is imprtant is that the US took a "Europe First" policy into the war right from the start. Had we not, Europe would have had several more years of Nazi pleasantness, followed by Russian domination for however long afterwards that would have lasted.

Look, the French fought AGAINST the US troops, who were there on a stepping stone to eventually go liberate THEIR country that THEY lost. It didn't last long, but it did happen.

Getting back to Mers el Kebir, what other options do you suggest for Churchill at that point.
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#15 Mk 1

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 2146 PM

OK, well, maybe they were not the first, but they sure as hell did shoot at US troops.


I'm sure it would have been more polite for them to throw their hands up and surrender to the invaders, but contrary to what some folks seem to believe, that was NOT the SOP of the French military at that time. Nor the French political leadership.

Sorry, but the collaborationist excuses have a range of 0.0 meters in my book. ...

That is where you and I differ in our views of the position of France in the early/mid-war years. I don't see the Vichy authorities as "collaborationists". I see them as the government of France, trying to keep France alive by whatever means they could come up with. Given how desperate their circumstances actually were, it must have taken a rather remarkable amount of courage to even attempt to provide any political or military leadership at that time.

I don't know if the French have any saying that parallels the one heard in the US, but "My country, right or wrong" kind of comes to mind. That is what most French officers were faced with -- you rally to the service of your country, in a task that must have seemed distasteful at best, and quite probably impossible as well. Or you could walk away from your sworn duty and seek employment elsewhere (like with the AWOL colonel, DeGaulle).

As far as 'invading' N Africa, well excuuuuuuuuuse me!!. We couldn't be expected to stage a Normandy style invasion in 1942. We had to start somewhere, and French N Africa turned out to be the place.


Exactly my point. We picked on the easy target first. When it would be too dangerous to strike the bully, pick on a smaller kid instead. Better still if you have just recently finished proclaiming your freindship with that kid.

It was probably the right thing to do from a practical standpoint. Morally reprehensible, but practical none-the-less.

Sometimes you just have to do distasteful things to get alone -- you have to drink a little gutter water on the way up. Like kissing up to your enemy (French), stabbing your buddy in the back (British), or jumping on a friend and beating the sh!t out of him to get his lunch money (Americans).

Nope, they were put in a tough spot, but war calls for tough action and tough decisions. ...Churchill had the balls to make the tough call. Darlan did not.

You really think Darlan, or Petain took the easy way out?

Easy would have been quiet retirement. That is what some members of the French political and military establishments did.

Or easy might have been what DeGaulle did. Abandon your obligation to defend your country. Place yourself where you can not see the people starve and freeze. Walk away from your duty in favor of seeking your glory. Declare yourself as a hero far away from the battlefield. Claim your destiny to be the leader of your nation while you abandon its citizenry to their fates.

No, staying IN, and committing yourself to make the best of it in an impossible situation must have taken a very particular form of courage (or arrogance, they are often indestinguishable).

The British course of action was correct. Do not underestimate the actions taken by a nation backed into a corner.


I'll quite agree with the latter sentiment. I can clearly see how the French were backed into a corner, and I can clearly see how desperately they sought every means to preserve their nation from the final lethal blow. Why can't you?

As to the British course of action -- it may have been "correct" (as in excusable), but it was also asinine. What a waste.

The US didn't HAVE to declare war on Hitler's Germany. ...  We could have reasonably ignore Europe and left the French to their fate.

Given that Germany declared war on the US first, it rather meant that the US did have to do so.


Yep. Would have been downright RUDE if we hadn't!

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#16 JOE BRENNAN

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 2204 PM

We picked on the easy target first.  When it would be too dangerous to strike the bully, pick on a smaller kid instead.  Better still if you have just recently finished proclaiming your freindship with that kid.

It was probably the right thing to do from a practical standpoint.  Morally reprehensible, but practical none-the-less. 

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That's got to be some kind of strange need to provide balance in a "French bashing" atmosphere to claim that the invasion of North Africa was "morally reprehensible". That really makes no sense to me.

The invasion of NW Europe when it came involved lots of bombing of French territory, often with significant French casualties, and I remember the thrilling Allied propaganda footage of Free French light bombers engaging in such bombing at zero altitude, underlining the necessity. Morally reprehensible?

How about being allied with Stalin? Or maybe just killing enemy soldiers in general was "morally reprehensible"? That term is robbed of any meaning in the context of a war by applying it to the Torch invasion.

The Vichy forces in NA could have brought about zero casualties by simply surrendering. I never participate in silly "surrender monkey's" stuff so that's a complete irrelevancy either way. The Germans were still in NA, and even if retreating from Libya, attacking them from both sides still took another 6 months to succeed.

When the Vichy French in fact fought against the Allies this doesn't of itself prove their moral culpability. But besides that the reality was Vichy had a lot of pro-fascist elements and sentiment. Anybody who could say it wasn't collaborationist mustn't have done much reading about it, or you could just sit through "The Sorrow and the Pity" some time, great movie.

Joe

Edited by JOE BRENNAN, 31 January 2005 - 2205 PM.

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#17 Scott Cunningham

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 2214 PM

Nope MK 1, you may be selling, but I sure am not buying.

The only thing morally reprehensible in 1942 was French soldiers fighting against US troops who were there the begin the process of liberating their country.

Getting back to the harbor attack, You still have not offered an alternative to Churchill's action. It was not a suprise raid, it was done after negotiation. WWII was in full swing. Things looked bleak. The French decided to sit it out. England had a war to fight, so it was on. Tragic circumstances, but brutally correct.

The French are still bitter about it (understandably), but if they hadn't lost their country to Germany then they never would have been in that situation in the first place.

Note: Some French ships eventually did serve with the Allies. They came so late that they were of limited use, but did get into some action. I think the Richilieu, an old WW-I era dreadnaught, and some cruisers made it. What a shame the whole fleet didn't come over en-masse prior to the French surrender. It would have made a big difference in the Mediterranean theater in 1941-42.
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#18 FlyingCanOpener

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 2247 PM

...snip...

Or you could walk away from your sworn duty and seek employment elsewhere (like with the AWOL colonel, DeGaulle).

...snip...

Or easy might have been what DeGaulle did.  Abandon your obligation to defend your country. Place yourself where you can not see the people starve and freeze.  Walk away from your duty in favor of seeking your glory.  Declare yourself as a hero far away from the battlefield.  Claim your destiny to be the leader of your nation while you abandon its citizenry to their fates.

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So I guess the Free Czech, Pole, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish, and Belgian leaders all forsook their duty and fled to London just to seek glory like deGaulle rather than stick around and "stick it out" with their fellow countrymen and try to make the best of it? Frankly Petain got what he deserved-- a conviction on the count of high treason. However you slice it, his collaboration with the Germans was an affront to the principles of the French Republic, and was rightly called treason.
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#19 Bob B

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 2247 PM

What a shame the whole fleet didn't come over en-masse prior to the French surrender. It would have made a big  difference in the Mediterranean theater in 1941-42.

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What if the French Fleet had not been attacked? Would they have turned the ships over to the Germans when Vichy collapsed? Or would they have operated them under the German control against the allies as part of negotiated settlement prior to that? For that matter could the Germans have made any use of them, or even come up with enough men and material to keep them operational? These French ships would have probably doubled the size of their navy, but the ammunition, spare parts and crewing them might have been a night mare.
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#20 KingSargent

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Posted 31 January 2005 - 2322 PM

For that matter could the Germans have made any use of them, or even come up with enough men and material to keep them operational?  These French ships would have probably doubled the size of their navy, but the ammunition, spare parts and crewing them might have been a night mare.

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Ammunition and spares would presumably have been captured with the Navy Yards and Arsenals. Crewing them would have been a problem.

:D They could have turned them over to Himmler, who could have formed a Kriegsmarine SS and manned them with "ethnic volunteers"... :P
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