The Attack on the French Fleet


By WINSTON CHURCHILL, Prime Minister of Great Britain

Delivered to the House of Commons, July 4, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VI, pp. 589-592

IT is with sincere sorrow that I must now announce to the House the measures which we have felt bound to take in order to prevent the French Fleet from falling into German hands.

Sir [addressing the Speaker], when two nations are fighting together in long and solemn alliance against a common foe, one of them may be stricken down and overwhelmed and may be forced to ask its ally to release it from its obligations, but the least that could be expected was that the French Government, in abandoning the conflict and leaving its whole weight to fall upon Great Britain and the British Empire, would have been careful not to inflict needless injury upon their faithful comrade in whose final victory the sole chance of French freedom lay and lies.

Conditions of Release

As the House will remember, we offered to give full release to the French from their treaty obligations—although they were designed precisely for the case which arose—on one condition, namely, that the French Fleet should be sailed for British harbors before separate armistice negotiations with the enemy were held.

This was not done, but on the contrary, in spite of every kind of private and personal promise and assurance given by Admiral Darlan to the First Lord and his naval colleague the First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty, an armistice was signed which was bound to place the French Fleet as effectively in the power of Germany and its Italian following as that portion of the French Fleet which was placed inour power when many of them, being unable to reach French ports, came into the harbors of Portsmouth and Plymouth about ten days ago.

But I must place on record that what might have been a mortal injury was done to us by the Bordeaux Government with full knowledge of the consequences and of the dangers and after rejecting all our appeals at the moment when they were abandoning the alliance and breaking the engagement which fortified it.

This was another example of the callous and perhaps even malevolent treatment which we received not, indeed, from the French nation, who have never been, and apparently never are to be, consulted in these transactions, but the treatment which we received from the Bordeaux Government.

Nazi Airmen Set Free

There were over 400 German air pilots who were prisoners in France, many of them shot down by the Royal Air Force.

I obtained from M. Reynaud [former Premier Paul Reynaud] a personal promise that these pilots should be sent for safekeeping to England and orders were given by him to that effect; but when M. Reynaud fell these pilots were delivered over to Germany in order, no doubt, to win favor for the Bordeaux Government with the German masters and to win it without regard to the injury done to us.

The German Air Force already feels acutely the shortage of high-grade pilots and it seems particularly odious that these 400 skilled men should be handed over with the sure knowledge that they would be used to bomb this country and thus force our airmen to shoot them down a second time.

Such wrongful deeds will not, I am sure, be condoned by history and I firmly believe a generation of Frenchmen will arise who will clear the national honor of all countenance of them.

I said last week that we must now look with particular attention to our own salvation. I have never in my experience seen so grim or somber a question as what we were to do about the French fleet discussed in the Cabinet.

And it shows how strong were the reasons for the course we thought it our duty to take that every member of the Cabinet had the same conviction about what should be done, that there was not the slightest hesitation or divergence among them, and that the three service Ministers as well as men like the Ministers of Information [Alfred Duff Gordon Cooper] and the Secretary of State for the Colonies [Lord Lloyd], particularly noted for their long friendship with France, when they were consulted were equally convinced that no other decision was possible from that we were taking, and it was a decision to which with aching hearts but with clear vision we unitedly came.

Accordingly, early yesterday morning, July 3, after all preparation had been made, we took the greater part of the French fleet under our control or else called upon them with an adequate force to comply with our requirements.

Warships Seized in Britain

Two battleships, two light cruisers, some submarines—including a very large one, the Surcouf—eight destroyers and approximately 200 smaller but extremely useful minesweeping and anti-submarine craft, which lay for the most part in Portsmouth and Plymouth, were boarded by superior forces after a brief notice had been given wherever possible to their captains.

This operation was successfully carried on without resistance or bloodshed except in one instance. A scuffle arouse through a misunderstanding in the submarine Surcouf in which one British seaman was killed and two British officersand one rating were wounded, and one French officer was also killed and one wounded.

For the rest, the French sailors in the main cheerfully accepted the end of a period of uncertainty. A considerable number—800 or 900—expressed an ardent desire to continue the war. Some have asked for British nationality. This we are ready to concede without prejudice to other Frenchmen, numbered by thousands, who prefer to fight with us as Frenchmen.

All the rest of these crews will be immediately repatriated to French ports if the French Government are able to make arrangements for their reception by permission of their German rulers. We are also repatriating all French troops within this country, excepting those who, of their own free will, have volunteered to follow General de Gaulle and to enlist in the French forces of liberation, of whom he is the chief.

Several French submarines have also joined us independently and we have accepted their services.

Now I turn to the Mediterranean at Alexandria, where a strong British battle fleet is lying. There are, besides a French battleship, four French cruisers, three of them modern, 8-inch gun vessels, and a number of smaller ships. These have been informed that they cannot be permitted to leave harbor and thus fall within the power of the German conquerors of France.

Negotiations and discussions have taken place and measures have now been taken to ensure that those ships, which are commanded by a very gallant Admiral, shall be sunk or otherwise made to comply with our wishes. The anguish which this process has naturally caused to the British and French officers concerned may be readily imagined when I inform the House that only this morning during the air raid on Alexandria some of the French ships fired heavily and effectively with us against the common enemy.

We shall, of course, offer the fullest facilities to all French officers and men at Alexandria who wish to continue the war and we will provide for them and maintain them, and we have promised to repatriate the rest.

But the most curious part of the story remains. Two of the finest vessels of the French Fleet, the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg, modern battle cruisers much superior to the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and built for the purpose of being superior to them, lay with several light cruisers and a number of destroyers, submarines and other vessels at Oran and the adjacent Mers-el-Kebir, on the French frontier of Morocco.

Yesterday morning a carefully chosen British officer—Captain Holland, late Naval Attache at Paris, was sent on in a destroyer to wait upon the French Admiral Gensoul and after being refused an interview put before him a document of which I will read to the House the operative paragraphs.

"It is impossible for us now to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of our German or Italian enemies. We are determined to fight to the end and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our ally and that our interests are the same as hers and that our common enemy is Germany.

"And we solemnly declare that we shall restore her territory to France. For this purpose, we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe.

"In these circumstances, His Majesty's government have instructed me to demand that the French fleet now at Mers el-Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives:

A. Sail with us and continue to fight for victory against the Germans and Italians.

B. Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews will be repatriated at the earliest possible moment.

C. If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile.

"Alternatively, if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships are not to be used against the Germans or Italians unless they break the armistice conditions, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies—Martinique, for instance, where they can be demilitarized, or be perhaps entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated to France.

"If you refuse these fair offers, I must, with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within six hours. Failing the above, I have the orders of the Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands.

British Squadron on Scene

Sir, we had hoped that one or other of the alternatives which we presented would have been accepted without the necessity of using the terrible force of a British battle squadron.

Such a squadron arrived before Oran two hours after Captain Holland and his destroyer. This battle squadron was under the command of Vice Admiral Somerville, an officer who distinguished himself lately in bringing off 100,000 Frenchmen during the evacuation of Dunkerque. This officer was further provided with strong flotillas of smaller ships.

All day the parleys continued and we hoped, until the afternoon, that our terms would be accepted without bloodshed. However, no doubt in obedience to orders dictated by Germany from Wiesbaden, where the Franco-German Commission are in session, Admiral Gensoul refused to comply and announced his intention of fighting.

Admiral Somerville was therefore ordered to complete his mission before darkness fell.

At 5:58 P. M. he opened fire on this powerful French fleet, which was protected by its shore batteries. At 6 P. M. he was heavily engaged. The action lasted for some ten minutes. It was followed by heavy attacks from our naval aircraft carried on the Ark Royal.

At 7:30 Admiral Somerville forwarded a further report stating that a battle cruiser of the Strasbourg class was damaged and ashore, and a battleship of the Bretagne class had been sunk, another of the same class heavily damaged, two French destroyers and a seaplane carrier (Commandant Teste) also sunk or burned.

Some Ships Escape

While this melancholy action was being fought the other battle cruiser of the Strasbourg class, the Dunkerque, or another, managed to slip out of harbor in a gallant effort to reach Toulon or North African ports, and place herself under German control, in accordance with the armistice terms of the Bordeaux Government. She was pursued by aircraft of the fleet air arm and hit by at least one torpedo. She may have, however, been joined by other French vessels from Algiers during the night, for these vessels were well placed to join her and the whole were able to reach Toulon before we could overtake them. The Dunkerque will, at any rate, be out of action for many months to come.

I need hardly say that the French ships were fought, albeit in this unnatural action, with the characteristic courage of the French Navy. Every allowance should be made for Admiral Gensoul and his officers, who felt themselves obligedto obey the orders which they had received from their government and could not look behind that government to see the German dictator.

I fear that the loss of life among the French and in the harbor must have been heavy, as we were compelled to use a very severe measure of force and immense explosions were heard. None of the British ships taking part in the action was affected in gun power or mobility by the heavy gun power directed on it.

I have not received reports of our casualties, but Admiral Somerville states that the fleet is in all military respects intact and ready for further action.

Italians Stayed Away

The Italian Navy, for whose reception we had also made preparations and which is considerably stronger numerically than the fleet we used at Oran, kept prudently out of the way. However we trust their turn will come during the operations we shall pursue to secure effectual command of the Mediterranean.

A large proportion of the French fleet has therefore passed into our hands or has been put out of action or otherwise withheld from Germany by yesterday's events.

The House will not expect me to say anything about the other French ships which are at large except that it is our inflexible resolve to do everything possible in order to prevent them from falling into German hands.

I leave the judgment of our actions with confidence to Parliament; I leave it to the nation; I leave it to the United States of America; I leave it to history, and I turn now to the immediate future.

We must, of course, expect to be attacked, or even invaded, if that proves to be possible—it has not proved so yet—in our own island home before very long. We are making every preparation in our power to repel the assaults of the enemy, whether they be directed on Great Britain or Ireland, which all Irishmen, without distinction of creed or party, should realize is in imminent danger.

These again are matters upon which we have clear views. These preparations are constantly occupying our toil from morn till far into the night; but although we have a clear view, it would not, I think, be profitable for us to discuss this matter in public, or even, so far as the government is concerned, except under very considerable reserve, in a private session.

Plea for Universal Aid

I call upon all subjects of His Majesty and upon our allies and our well-wishers—and there are not a few—all over the world, on both sides of the Atlantic, to give us their utmost aid. In the fullest harmony with our dominions we are moving through a period of extreme danger and of splendid hope, when every virtue of our race will be tested and all that we have and are will be freely staked.

This is not a time for doubts or weaknesses. This is the supreme hour to which we are called.

I will venture to read to the House a message which I caused to be sent to all who are serving in positions of importance under the Crown, and if the House should view it with sympathy I should be very glad to send a copy to every member for his own use—not that such exhortations are needed.

This is the message:

"On what may be the eve of an attempted invasion or battle for our native land, the Prime Minister desires to impress upon all persons holding responsible positions in the government, in the fighting services or in the civil departments, their duty to maintain a spirit of alert and confident energy. While every precaution must be taken that timeand means afford, there are no grounds for supposing that more German troops can be landed in this country, either from the air or across the sea, that can be destroyed or captured by the strong forces at present under arms.

"The Royal Air Force is in excellent order and at the highest strength it has yet attained. The German Navy was never so weak nor the British Army at home so strong as now.

Duty of High Officials

"The Prime Minister expects all His Majesty's servants in high places to set an example of steadiness and resolution. They should check and rebuke expressions of loose and ill-digested opinion in their circles or by their subordinates. They should not hesitate to report or, if necessary, remove any officers or officials who are found to be consciously exercising a disturbing or depressing influence and whose talk is calculated to spread alarm and despondency.

"Thus alone will they be worthy of the fighting men who, in the air, on the sea, and on land, have already met the enemy without any sense of being outmatched in martial qualities."

In conclusion, I feel that we are entitled to the confidence of the House and that they should sincerely and readily believe that we have not failed in our duty, however painful it may have been. The action we have already taken should, in itself, be sufficient to dispose once and for all of all the lies and rumors which have been so industriously spread in the United States and elsewhere by German propaganda and which you meet with here, fostered here at home by fifth column activities.

These lies and rumors have suggested that we have had some intention of entering into negotiations with the German and Italian Governments. Any idea of that should be completely swept out of the way by the very drastic and grievous action we have felt ourselves compelled to take.

No, there is no thought of negotiation. There is no thought here, I say, in this country, whose love of peace has been proved so long, there is no thought here of peace. We shall, on the contrary, prosecute the war with the utmost vigor, by all the means that are open to us, until the righteous purposes for which we entered upon it have been in all respects fulfilled.