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Attacking the French Fleet Near Oran

WASHINGTON SOCIETY FOR CHURCHILL

By Chris Sterling

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA, 7 August 2011—At their annual summer picnic meeting (luckily held inside!), the Washington Society for Churchill heard Brooke Stoddard tell about the Royal Navy’s July 3, 1940 attack on elements of the French fleet moored in Mers-el-Kebir near Oran, Algeria.

This was the heart-wrenching decision by Churchill and the Admiralty to remove any danger that Germany might gain control of several French capital ships, including two of the newest battleships. Heart-wrenching, because merely weeks before, France and Britain had been allied against Hitler. But with the June 22nd armistice, France was now at the mercy of the Germans who occupied two-thirds of the country. And Britain could not afford to let sympathy for the French situation to get in the way of cold wartime calculation.

Stoddard, author of the recent World in the Balance: The Perilous Months of June-October 1940 (Potomac Books, 2011), took his fascinated audience step-by-step through this story, reviewing the impossible position the French navy occupied (both geographically and politically), the disagreeable job facing Force H (the attacking Royal Navy force), and the all but inevitable outcome. After a multi-option ultimatum and tense negotiations, the British opened fire in the late afternoon. Within 15 minutes it was all over, and some 1300 French sailors were dead, with nary a hit on the attacking British force.

Marshal Petain’s Vichy-based government broke off relations with Britain but could do little else.

The British showed the world their mettle and willingness to do whatever it took to stay in the war. And Washington took notice, beefing up its support for the British effort on the eve of the aerial Battle of Britain.

Many questions followed Stoddard’s gripping presentation as the audience was taken back more than 70 years to an all-but-forgotten naval battle that helped to decide the war.

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