In July 1940, with the boot of Nazi Germany pressing upon the neck of Europe, there occurred in Toulon, France, an event in which the voice of the French people rose above that of a morally bankrupt politician and the defeatist government he had formed.
On June 16, 1940, with German victory now a certainty, the embattled French government under Premier Renauld collapsed. A new government was formed under Marshall Petain. The next day, the Petain government surrendered.
For the French government, World War II was over.
But it was not over for the French people. The surrender came as a shock to them. They felt that Petain had betrayed them.
France had large colonies in North Africa and could easily have fallen back, evacuating hundreds of thousands of fighting men to continue the war from there. With the large and powerful French Navy still intact, and the might of the British Navy added to it, the Mediterranean would have been an Allied lake. The fight could have been carried on from North Africa and Britain, with every expectation of eventual victory. Petain’s surrender was loathsome to the French people, many of whom left France to fight beside General DeGaulle, vowing they would never give up.
The British feared that Petain, in order to negotiate better peace terms, might agree to place the French Navy, the fourth largest navy in the world, in Hitler’s hands. Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain, realized with horror what this would mean. With the French Navy added to swarms of German submarines already in the Atlantic Ocean, Britain would be cut off from outside help. Italy and Japan would enter the war, Italy attacking in North Africa and Japan in the Pacific. The United States would be isolated, trapped between two oceans filled with hostile vessels. The entire world would fall under the domination of Adolf Hitler, who was already planning how to divide it up with Italy, Japan, and Soviet Russia, his eager and grasping allies.
On June 16, 1940, Churchill spoke these memorable words to Parliament: “The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into the light. But if we fail, the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new stone age. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say this was their finest hour.”
Even as Churchill spoke, his orders were speeding to the Admiralty, leaving no doubt about what Britain would be forced to do if they could not obtain assurances from Petain that the French fleet would not go to Hitler. Sadly, Churchill saw, the British Navy would have no other choice than to fire upon the ships of their closest ally to stop them from falling into Hitler’s hands.
Part of the French fleet lay at anchor in British ports — two battleships, four light cruisers, several submarines, and over 200 other valuable mine-sweeping and anti-submarine craft.
In British-controlled Alexandria were one battleship, four heavy cruisers, a number of destroyers, and several other ships.
At Oran in North Africa were two of the finest vessels of the French fleet, the Dunkerque and the Strassbourg, modern battle cruisers. With them were two battleships, several light cruisers, and a large number of destroyers, submarines and other vessels.
Anchored at Algiers were seven cruisers. Anchored at Dakar and Casablanca were two very large and powerful battleships.
Finally, anchored at Martinique in the West Indies were an aircraft carrier and two light cruisers.
On July 1, 1940, convinced that Petain had secret intentions of handing over the French fleet to Hitler, Churchill gave the approval for Operation Catapult. On the night of July 3, the French vessels in British home ports were taken under British control, mostly amicably. One British seaman was killed and three were wounded in minor scuffles, but thousands of French sailors volunteered to join the battle against Germany.
In British-controlled Alexandria, the French admiral agreed to disable his ships, as did the French admiral in Martinique. At Dakar, foolishly loyal to Petain, the battleship Richelieu was attacked by a British aircraft carrier and put out of commission.
But there remained Oran, with the mightiest concentration of French fighting ships afloat. A British fleet composed of a battle cruiser, two battleships, an aircraft carrier, two cruisers, and 11 destroyers, slid over the horizon at Oran and delivered an ultimatum to French Admiral Gensoul: Either sail with the British Navy to fight the Germans, or sail with reduced crews to a British port or to Martinique, or scuttle their ships within six hours.
The deadline elapsed. Sadly, and with great reluctance, the British fleet opened fire as British aircraft from the carrier Ark Royal took off. The French fleet and shore batteries, choosing loyalty to Petain, replied. When the smoke cleared the French had lost three battleships and several smaller vessels.
Thus, in a single day, with the events in British ports, at Oran, in Martinique, and at Alexandria, the once proud French fleet was eliminated as an important factor in World War II.
But how would the French people view an action between their own ships and those of their closest ally? Many French sailors had been killed or wounded in the battles at Dakar and Oran. How far could French patriotism be expected to go? Would the death of their sailors turn the French people against the British?
In his book “Their Finest Hour,” Churchill tells a moving tale which echoes what was happening across France in July 1940.
“In a village near Toulon dwelt two families, each of whom had lost their sailor son by British fire at Oran. Both families requested that the Union Jack should lie upon the coffins side by side with the French Tricolour.”
It was but one gallant and inspiring example of how the voice of the French people rose above that of Marshall Petain and his defeatist government, saying what had to be said, both to their British ally and to Nazi Germany.
God pray that we too, we the people of this magnificent nation, this treasured experiment in liberty and self-government, remember always to speak to politicians with a voice as loud and clear as that.