Winston Churchill’s leadership through World War Two led the United Kingdom to victory against Nazi Germany. His decision at Mers el-Kebir is a clear example of statesmanship, one worth study and imitation.

Winston S. Churchill demonstrated statesmanship, prudence, and determination in the destruction of the French Fleet at Oran. Prime Minister Churchill sat at the pinnacle of government, the locus where strategy and statesmanship become one. In this position, Churchill was the organizer and director of Britain’s war operations. His aim: victory. In July of 1940, Great Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. Militarily speaking, Great Britain was weak, ill-prepared to fend off the Nazi war machine. Freedom and democracy appeared to hang on the scaffold. Against the encroaching darkness, Churchill rose to give fortitude and leadership to the beleaguered nation.

Early on, Churchill faced a crisis that would have paralyzed most leaders. That crisis was the addition of the French Fleet to the German Navy, an addition in strength that would have allowed them to choke off the Atlantic supply line. Britain’s war effort was dependent on that supply line. Churchill’s decision to sink the French Fleet was a bloody and violent one necessitated by the likelihood of German invasion. It was an exercise in prudence and statesmanship.

Statesmanship is the prudential instantiation of the good with the given resources and circumstances confronting oneself. The adoption of means to achieve the end requires the consideration of the particular circumstances. This necessitates the use of prudence—the intelligent adaption of means to ends. In order to properly apply prudence to defend Great Britain Churchill required the power to implement grand strategy.

Strategy, the overarching plan intended to implement the prudential ordering of means and ends in light of the particular situation, has great influence on politics. How the war is won, its cost in blood, treasure, and the morals of the people; its effects upon their institutions and the peace that is imposed, have great implications in the life of the polis. Politics is authoritative, concerned with the relationships among men, aiming at the highest good. Politics (when functioning properly) provides the means by which men can peacefully live together and prosper.
Churchill combined the offices of Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, and Minister of Defense to protect the polis. These combined powers gave him unity of conception over the war effort and the ability to act with courage and audacity.

War has a very specific end. Aristotle stated, “Peace is the end of war.”[1] The victory for which Churchill fought was not without purpose. The twentieth century had become a world of mass effects. Progress had brought wealth and power to nations. That same wealth and power was both a benefit and curse, providing prosperity and greater weapons of destruction. Nations could be more efficiently organized for war; the entire efforts of the populace were strained to the highest pitch. In both war and peacetime, the centralization and expansion of restrictive governmental powers threatens the freedom of individuals. Churchill acted to defend and maintain the democratic principles which undergird freedom. Hitler intended to suppress, even extinguish the cherished freedoms and liberties of Britain. The English had the benefits of an independent judiciary, rule of law, freedom of speech, and government based upon consent of the governed. The Nazi regime operated on the principle that the people serve the state and are in fact utterly subservient to it. Therefore, Nazi Germany posed an existential threat to Britain’s institutions, government, and individual liberties. The stakes were high; only Churchill’s quick and decisive action could preserve British freedom.

War changes the priorities that statesmen order and strive to achieve. In peacetime, balanced budgets may take precedence. Balanced budgets facilitate citizens’ having capital funds for investing, inventing, and flourishing. Commerce with neighboring nations is both a luxury and a priority. Britain’s perilous situation abrogated such luxuries, necessitating Churchill take forceful action against the French fleet, against a nation that had been Britain’s close ally a short time earlier.

Avoiding raining shells upon recent close allies may be devoutly wished but necessary to preserve the state. World War Two and the threat of Nazi Germany demanded a change in priorities: the blood of hundreds and the destruction of the pride of the French Fleet.

Operation Catapult, the Raid on Mers el-Kebir, demonstrates the qualities of statesmanship, strategy, and prudence. Churchill had to weigh the preservation of British society, with its government, institutions, liberties, freedom, rule of law, and democracy against: (1) Hitler’s past actions; (2) the strategic position facing Britain in Europe and the Pacific; (3) the tactical reality of Britain’s dependence upon the Atlantic supply line; (4) the opinion of other nations regarding Britain’s will and ability to fight; and (5) what effect the addition of French vessels to the German Navy would have. In the face of these realities, Churchill made the difficult decision. He chose to sink the fleet of a nation that mere weeks before had been comrades in arms in the great battle against Nazi Germany. In doing so he risked the wrath of public opinion and that of the French.

Hitler’s Past Actions

Hitler’s actions tell a tale of naked ambition, bloodshed, and broken promises. This is best exemplified by his actions with Czechoslovakia.
Hitler desired the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. The Sudetenland had a substantial German population that agitated for secession. The threat of war menaced Europe; France and Britain cravenly strove to avoid it. On 29 September 1938 Edouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement, giving Hitler the Sudetenland. It was not enough to satisfy the rapacious ambition of Hitler. The Nazis fomented unrest in Slovakia and marched into Prague in March to form a German Protectorate. Hitler’s actions finally stiffened the resolve of Britain and France; on 31 March they issued a declaration guaranteeing the territorial integrity Poland.

Blitzkrieg: Nazi Victory in Europe

On 1 September 1939 Nazi troops crossed the Polish frontier. Hitler unleashed blitzkrieg (lightning war). German armored divisions drove deep into enemy territory, bypassing fortifications and strong points before curving inward like fishhooks. They were followed by mechanized units and hard-marching infantry divisions. Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe rained fire down upon those below, attacking convoys, train stations, and choke points; sowing death and destruction. This method of fighting allowed the Germans to bypass resistance and cut the enemy off from supplies and reinforcements. The fury and massed power of the German military allowed them to achieve victory in a month and a week. The Poles had lost over 60,000 soldiers; in comparison the Germans lost 14,000 men.[2]

Germany invaded Norway on 9 April 1940 in order to secure iron ore shipments from Sweden through the port of Narvik and prevent the British from closing off access to the Black Sea. Victory required sixty-two days of fighting, at the end of which the Germans had control of Norway, ensuring access to the vital ore shipments and providing bases for air reconnaissance flights and u-boat bases for the Battle of the Atlantic. In conjunction with the Norwegian Campaign, the Nazis conquered Denmark. Their string of lightning victories was not yet over.
German forces crossed the frontiers of Belgium and Holland on 10 May 1940 as part of Operation Fall Gelb (Case Yellow). German victory was swift.

Through the skillful use of blitzkrieg tactics and paratroopers the Dutch were forced to surrender on May 15. They had been successively pushed back by combined panzer and bombing attacks. German parachutists captured vital bridges and enabled the Germans to swiftly penetrate Dutch defenses. Queen Wilhemina fled to England and the Dutch commander surrendered to prevent the bombing of major Dutch cities.

Belgium, too, fell swiftly. German paratroopers captured the Fortress of Eben Emael. This allowed the Germans to outflank the vital Belgium defensive line that rested upon the Albert Canal. The Belgians retreated to the Dyle line only to be forced to withdraw further on May 15. They were forced to surrender on 27 May.

The Germans rapidly covered miles and passed battlefields that had heralded weeks and months of marching and fighting, places like Sedan and the Somme. By May 13 the Germans had crossed the Meuse River and by May 15 they had struck through French defenses to turn to the Channel. A massive breach over sixty miles in length had been created in the French lines. The Allied armies were split in two. In the north, the British were rapidly being pushed back. Then, the inexplicable happened. On May 24 Hitler ordered a two-day halt to allow the infantry to catch up to the panzer units. This halt proved crucial in allowing the British Expeditionary Force and various French units to reach the Canal Line and begin embarking the hodgepodge of ships sent to their rescue.[3] Evacuation commenced on 26 May but became urgent after the surrender of the Belgians the next day. The evacuation of Dunkirk was truly miraculous. John Keegan wrote, “By 4 June, when the last ship drew away, 337,000 had been saved from capture. The number included almost the whole manpower of the BEF less its temporarily irreplaceable equipment, and 110,000 French soldiers.”[4] The French armies in the south were soon defeated after a new assault was launched on June 5. On June 14, 1940 the Germans entered Paris, an objective they had been unable to reach during four years of bloody warfare 1914-1918. The Franco-German Armistice was signed on June 22, 1940.

In the thirty-six days since his appointment to Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had seen Europe overrun by the Germans; France with its large military crushed and the small countries, such as Belgium, that had displayed such valor in the First World War forced to capitulate. The Nazi military machine had achieved a feat unprecedented in the annals of warfare—the conquest of Europe in a matter of weeks. Hitler stood poised across the Channel, with a mighty war machine and Europe prostrate at his feet.

The British not only faced the onslaught of the Nazis but also faced the prospect of war with Imperial Japan and the necessity of keeping the Atlantic supply lines open. The Japanese were allied with Germany; possessed a powerful navy in the Pacific; and had displayed a willingness to engage in savage warfare in China. The need to protect English possessions in the Pacific in addition to the men and materials that this region could supply Britain in Europe made this a possible theater of operations the safety of which had to be borne in mind. Thousands of Indians and other members of the British Empire volunteered to serve in the armed forces during both World Wars, helping to fill a manpower gap. Their service played a crucial role in policing the Empire and filling the infantry regiments that would fight the Nazis and Japanese. In conjunction with the prospect of war with Japan and the protection of the British Empire was the exigency of supplying an island nation the men and material necessary for survival and victory.

The Atlantic supply line was vital to Britain during the Second World War. This supply line brought the war materials, food supplies, and military equipment from the United States and other countries necessary to the British war effort. The British had proven themselves capable of industrializing the economy to supply the military, but they were dependent on the sea lanes for shipments of two vital goods-oil and food. According to Keegan, “In 1939 Britain needed to import 55 million tons of goods by sea to support its way of life.”[5] Churchill recognized decades before that much of British life depended on the sea, stating, “The Empire which has grown up around these islands is essentially commercial and marine.”[6] This was doubly so during a modern war with its mobilization of the entire populace and industrial capacity. Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt at the beginning of the war, “The next six months are vital. If while we have to guard the East Coast against invasion a new heavy German-Italian submarine attack is launched against our commerce, the strain may be beyond our resources; and the ocean traffic by which we live may be strangled.”[7] If Britain was cut off from the sea it would be a matter of mere months before the war economy ground to a halt and the food supply became critical. The situation of Britain was perilous, the Nazis victorious across the fields of Europe, accomplishing in months what Kaiser Wilhelm II had been unable to accomplish during four years of warfare that cost the German manhood of a generation.

The choices facing Britain were grim. There were three possible outcomes for the British. First, they could resist and possibly maintain freedom, national sovereignty, and the rule of law. Second, they could be conquered and forced to capitulate to the Germans, with all that would imply. Third, they could sign an armistice with Nazi Germany, hope that Hitler would keep it, and become a vassal state. The third option would likely lead to the loss of the Royal Navy and the breakup of the British Empire, bulwarks of Great Britain’s strength and economy. A weak England would be unable to prevent Hitler from interfering with domestic policy or resist an invasion at a later date.

The world wondered if Britain would resist. The world wondered if Britain would capitulate. As Churchill stated, “After the collapse of France the question which arose in the minds of all our friends and foes was, “Would Britain surrender too?”[8] British example would either galvanize or demoralize defeated Europeans now living under the Nazi jackboot. In addition, it was vital that the United States, still neutral in the war, be convinced that Britain would fight. Churchill made clear England’s resolve in his first speech as Prime Minister. He declared:

You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.[9]

Churchill was committed to British victory. He understood the threat Hitler posed and the necessity of preserving Great Britain. To achieve this Churchill assumed the power necessary to direct war operations and ensure vigorous action. There would be no repeat of the First World War. In the First World War Churchill had been prevented from acting decisively because he did not have the necessary authority. Therefore, Churchill became Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, and Minister of Defence to provide the nation with strong war leadership.

Threat of French Fleet

The surrender of the French Fleet had grave implications for Great Britain. Churchill wrote, “The addition of the French Navy to the German and Italian Fleets, with the menace of Japan measureless upon the horizon, confronted Great Britain with mortal dangers and gravely affected the safety of the United States.[10] The French Fleet was the second largest in Europe behind Great Britain. At the time of the Armistice 40 percent of the Fleet was in North Africa. The squadron at Oran consisted “of the battleships Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Provence, and Bretagne, the seaplane tender Commandant Teste, and six super-destroyers.”[11] Gensoul’s squadron was a formidable force.

France had capitulated to Germany and signed an armistice. Article 8 of the Armistice prescribed the fate of the French Fleet. A remnant sufficient to police and maintain the French Empire was to remain in existence. The remainder of the Fleet was to head to Axis ports, there to be demobilized under German or Italian control. While the Armistice explicitly stated that the French Fleet would not be drawn into the Axis war effort, Churchill thought Hitler’s actions had proven him untrustworthy. In addition, the Germans could cancel the Armistice at any time and moving with speed and force capture the naval vessels. Churchill concluded, “There was in fact no security for us at all. At all costs, at all risks, in one way or another, we must make sure that the Navy of France did not fall into wrong hands, and then perhaps bring us and others into ruin.”[12] The threat of Germany, inability to trust Hitler, and necessity of preserving the sea lanes that brought vital goods to Britain necessitated Churchill make a difficult decision. Trying situations are where statesmen are necessary, able to provide a unity of conception, to see what must be done in the particular circumstances given the present means in order to achieve a higher good. A British squadron was sent to Oran. It would negotiate or fight.

On July 3 Force H arrived outside the Mers el-Kebir roadstead. Captain Cedric Holland was sent to negotiate with Admiral Gensoul. He was refused and forced to confer with Flag Lieutenant Dufay. Dufay reported to Gensoul that there was an official document for him. Dufay was sent to retrieve this document. Inside was the British ultimatum.

The French were given four options. First, the French could join the British in the fight against the Nazis. Second, they could abandon ship and scuttle their vessels. Third, the crewmen could be repatriated. Fourth, the fleet could be sailed to Martinique, an island loyal to Vichy France. “Sailing to Martinique did not, therefore, entail passage to hostile territory or the abandonment of Petain’s government.”[13] Given the reality facing Britain, these were the only options they could offer the French.

Around 10:00 A.M. the British were informed that their ultimatum was rejected and of Gensoul’s determination to “reply to force with force.”[14] At 2:05 P.M. the British intercepted transmissions indicating Gensoul would be reinforced by the French. At 4:15, in an effort to gain time, Gensoul met Lieutenant Holland for further negotiations. This would not be allowed. Churchill demanded the issue be decisively decided before the arrival of French reinforcements. Therefore, “Somerville, absolutely crushed, had executed the order. So, Gensoul was forced to engage in combat in the worst possible position. Stuck in a water trap, his warships were anchored with their sterns to the sea… The result was a one-sided carnage.”[15] The French lost almost 1,300 sailors in addition to the Dunkerque, Province, and Bretagne.

On 4 July 1940 Churchill addressed the House of Commons on the measures taken to ensure the French Fleet did not fall into German hands. He made clear empathy may be shown to an ally conquered by the foe but the ally should try to limit the harm done by her surrender. The French had not done so but had signed an armistice that would have put the navy in the power of the Nazis. Action was required and the Cabinet made the necessary decision, “with aching heats but with clear vision.”[16] He continued to iterate respect for the bravery of the French and resolve to prevent any other French ships from falling into Nazi hands. Churchill closed the section on the action at Oran by stating, “I leave the judgment of our action, with confidence, to Parliament. I leave it to the nation, and I leave it to the United States. I leave it to the world and to history.”[17] Churchill’s actions have been vindicated by the response of England, the United States, and the victory of the Allies over the Axis forces.

Aftermath

The sinking of the French fleet had significant effects. First, it assured that the French navy would not join the Germans and strangle the Atlantic lifeline. Second, high government officials in the United States felt assured that Britain would continue to resist Nazi Germany. Third, Churchill’s prompt and vigorous command implementing an unpleasant fleet battle earned him respect and loyalty in Britain.
The first effect was assured by sinking the main force of the French fleet. The destruction of the fleet made it a physical impossibility that it would join the Germans. Time, resources, and Hitler’s priorities made it impossible for Germany to build such a surface fleet or to raise the French ships that had been sunk. The Nazis would see no sudden and significant addition to their military might, a gift stolen from the French.

The situation Britain faced in 1940 was dire. Hitler was victorious across Europe. The Nazi military machine, primarily the Wermacht and Luftwaffe, had enabled the conquest of Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, and France. These countries had been overrun with miraculous speed and at minimum loss to the Germans. The entire might of the German Empire had been unable to do so much. Every country to face the Germans had been forced to capitulate. It was expected England would do the same or reach a peace compromise in order to retain nominal sovereignty. Mers el-Kebir changed that gloomy outlook. In Their Finest Hours Winston Churchill wrote:

The elimination of the French navy as an important factor almost at a single stroke by violent action produced a profound impression in every country. Here was this Britain which so many had counted down and out, which strangers had supposed to be quivering on the brink of surrender to the mighty power arrayed against her, striking ruthlessly at her dearest friends of yesterday and securing for a while to herself the undisputed command of the sea.[18]

In war the way of life of the regime must be preserved. Nazi Germany posed an existential threat to Great Britain. Hitler was determined to dominate and control. This control would extend not just to matters of foreign relations but reach the liberties and freedoms of the English. As Churchill put forth the sentiment so eloquently so many times, it would be better to be dead than under the tread of the Nazi boot. Therefore, in this situation Churchill and the British were justified in their actions. Vigorous and decisive action commands respect. The world had expected Britain to lose or to go to the Germans and beg for mercy. They did not. Instead, they displayed the martial virtue of courage. It was a courage reminiscent of the Spartans at Thermopylae that inspired the Greeks. The world, particularly the United States, was reassured Britain would fight. As recorded by Churchill,

Immense relief spread through the high Government circles in the United States. The Atlantic Ocean seemed to regain its sheltering power, and a long vista of time opened out for the necessary preparations or the safety of the great Republic. Henceforth there was no more talk about Britain giving in.[19]

Martin Gilbert, in his work Churchill and America, wrote, “Seven months later Roosevelt’s personal emissary to Churchill, Harry Hopkins, told a member of Churchill’s Private Office that it was Britain’s action at Oran that convinced Roosevelt, in spite of Ambassador Kennedy’s ‘defeatist opinions,’ that Britain would continue the fight.”[20] Through Lend-Lease the United States gained important bases while Britain made use of fifty aging destroyers. When America joined the war American industrial might supplied a significant portion of the equipment used to conquer Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

Winston Churchill remained Prime Minister throughout the war. This had not happened in World War One. Midway through the war Prime Minister Asquith was forced out and a new government put in place. Churchill managed to work with his coalition government while retaining the necessary control to maintain unity of conception. This allowed him to make strategic decisions concerning the safety and welfare of the nation as well the lives of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen. No small part of this was due to the conviction that Churchill would make the difficult decisions and fight that was demonstrated with the destruction of the French Fleet at Oran. Churchill took note of the particular situation facing Britain, the need to preserve democracy, urgency of preserving Britain’s access to the sea, and the necessity of proving England’s resolve. The conquered nations of Europe took hope in England’s resolve while America recognized Britain would not tamely surrender. His leadership through the war led the United Kingdom to victory against Nazi Germany. Churchill’s decision is a clear example of statesmanship, one worth study and imitation. The world still needs statesman, for the world is small and the destructive force available to man greater than ever while man’s virtue has failed to grow.

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Notes:

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1334al15.

[2] Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989), 18.

[3] John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990), 80.

[4] Ibid., 81.

[5] Ibid., 105.

[6] Winston S. Churchill, “Army Reform” May 13, 1901. House of Commons, The International Churchill Society, accessed April 3, 2017.

[7] Martin Gilbert, The Churchill Documents: Never Surrender May 1940-December 1940 (Hillsdale: Hillsdale College Press, 1994), 288.

[8] Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949), 224.

[9] Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), 646.

[10] Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour, 231-232.

[11] Philip Lasterle, “Could Admiral Gensoul Have Averted the Tragedy of Mers el-Kebir?,” 849.

[12] Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour, 231-232.

[13] Martin Thomas, “After Mers-el-Kebir: The Armed Neutrality of the Vichy French Navy, 1940-43,” English Historical Review, 112, no. 447 (Jun., 1997): 650.

[14] Philippe Lasterle, “Could Admiral Gensoul Have Averted the Tragedy of Mers el-Kebir?,” Journal of Military History 67 (July 2003): 842.

[15] Ibid., 843.

[16] Martin Gilbert, The Churchill Documents: Never Surrender May 1940-December 1940, 470.

[17] Ibid., 474.

[18] Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour, 238.

[19] Ibid., 239.

[20] Martin Gilbert, Churchill and America (New York: Free Press, 2005), 198.

The featured image is the French battleship Strasbourg, with two-level bridge, by Jacques Mulard and is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. It appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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