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From Versailles to Mers el-Kébir: The Promise of Anglo-French Naval Cooperation, 1919-40 Review


During the First and Second World Wars, the French and British were allied, and a crucial component of this alliance was their naval cooperation. France and Britain both possessed powerful fleets, the British being the largest and most powerful in the world, but the French navy was not inconsequential by any means. This cooperation and ultimate alliance was never an easy thing however, particularly during the Second World War, where French and British naval cooperation had to be built from very rocky relations during the Interwar, to achieve a united diplomatic front against Fascist Italy and Germany, and provided essential service for protecting the French and British economies and empires at the beginning of the war. The story is complicated however, by the defeat of France, and the British decision to try to neutralize the French fleet out of fear of it falling into German hands. This led to the bloody slaughter at Mers-el-Kebir, where a British fleet attacked the French navy's most powerful battleship formation, killing more than a thousand French sailors at port and damaging many of its ships. George E. Melton traces the development of Franco-British naval relations and the run-up and course of this tragic massacre in his book From Versailles to Mers El-Kebir: The Promise of Anglo-French Naval Cooperation, 1919-1940. Melton's book is a useful, if sometimes limited, look into this chapter of Anglo-French relations and presents a strong and outspoken perspective on the flawed reasoning and undertaking of Mers El-Kebir.

The book's organization is along chronological lines, starting out with its initial, largely summary and pro forma chapter, about the Versailles and London naval treaties. "Towards a Global Imbalance" mostly serves to state the comparative size of the French and British navies at the end of the First World War and their competing objectives, focusing on their perspective on the naval treaties, construction, and the competing naval powers of Italy, Japan, and the United States. It does note that by the time of the London Naval Treaty the French perspectives on key classes like cruisers were closer than other fleets to the British ones than other navies were, while the French and British were facing increasing global security risks which would require cooperation if they were to be met.

Chapter 2, "Fascist Aggression in the Mediterranean" looks at the different security objectives of the French and British, with the French wishing for good relations with Italy to enable free lines of communication to East Asia, while the French viewed Italy as their main naval rival. The two powers however, ran into constant issues actually using their combined massive naval superiority over Italy, due to significant disagreements on use and divided responses to Italian aggression in Ethiopia. Staff discussions did attempt to develop friendly relations, but there was always the divide between French and British policies on Italy which lay as a crucial problem at the center of the naval alliance. The outbreak of war in Spain showed this further, with the French eager to enact a strong policy, while the British wanted to stand off, resulting in the French having to cave to the policy of non-intervention and neutrality patrols.

"Tensions in Spanish Waters," chapter 3, covers the increasing violence in the seas off of Spain by both sides of the Spanish Civil War, and the Italian commencement of a campaign of piratical attacks on Republican and their allied Soviet shipping, which hit French and British ships as well. The French and British came together to respond to this by arranging, on French initiative, to mount a conference discussing Mediterranean security with other Mediterranean powers.

The Nyon Conference in 1937. Although useful for putting a stop to Italian submarine depredations in the Mediterranean, it could have led to a firmer Anglo-French alliance more quickly if not for being pushed for multilaterialism.

The Nyon Conference in 1937. Although useful for putting a stop to Italian submarine depredations in the Mediterranean, it could have led to a firmer Anglo-French alliance more quickly if not for being pushed for multilaterialism.

The struggle of arranging the details of this conference form the subject of chapter 4, "The Road to Nyon," covering the significant problems involved in who exactly would attend, with debate over Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union appearing, and the Italians and Germans rejecting their invitations. Once again, the British wished to achieve a rapprochement with Italy, while the French wished to make a strong stand. Both the British and the French however, were able to agree on joint agreements for operational planning.

Chapter 5, "Solving a Mediterranean Problem," looks at the negotiations at the Nyon Conference between the British, French, Soviets, and minor Mediterranean states. The Nyon Conference proved to work quite successfully, managing to create patrol zones for the various navies (except the Soviet one while smaller states would only patrol their own territorial waters) in the Mediterranean while ensuring that the smaller nations wouldn't face the threat of incurring Italian wrath. Once more however, the British perceived it as an effort for multilateralism in the Mediterranean to attempt to bring the Italians back into the fold, as compared to the French view of it being a firm stand against the Italians: this difference of views would lead to the British aiming to incorporate the Italians, themselves the perpetrators of the pirate attacks, into the naval patrols.

"An Informal Naval Entente" the 6th chapter, examines how the Italians would be incorporated into the agreement, particularly vexing given Soviet opposition to Italian oversight over any of the routes they used, and how the British and French constructed a special relationship via naval staff accord. British and French cooperation proved to be effective and close, although the British, farther from their own bases, found it difficult to maintain them: when they were reduced submarine attacks resumed and were only stopped by a harsh line of the participating powers.

Chapter 7, "From Nyon to Munich," tracks the continuing frustrating nature of Anglo-French naval relations, as the French pushed for a closer alliance while the British resisted out of fear of being dragged into another war, and their desire to appease Italy and Germany. This meant that the French had to plan for fighting on their own for now, against either Germany or Italy or both, and their weakness meant that they would be unable to defend further distant areas like Indochina. The British by contrast, still aimed to hold the Japanese in their defense calculations, resulting in a fleet designed for massive conventional battle against them and which would fail to develop the important escort and light craft needed for the anti-submarine defense war against Germany. Only with the Munich crisis would this begin to change as the British assured the French of protection for their Atlantic coast, and heightened level of staff consultations began.

Chapter 8, "An Anglo-French Naval Alliance" elevates this further. The British grew increasingly frightened about the prospect of the French conceding defeat to the Germans and Italians and abandoning the British (in an amusing mirror of how the British had behaved the last several years to my eyes), and at last grew closer to the French. The British and French together handily overmatched the Germans and Italians but were outplaced once the Japanese were thrown in. This meant that the British would emphasize attempting to keep the Italians neutral, for only Italian neutrality could provide them with the fleet to hold off the Japanese. Anglo-French staff discussions arranged both for fleet dispositions in wartime and for commerce protection, although as always they ran into disputes about how to actually coordinate their fleets, both sides preferring different command and control organizations in the Mediterranean, and disagreed about their level of aggression against Italy in the event of war. Italy would thus not be attacked at the beginning, even as the naval war with Germany moved into full swing from the very beginning of the conflict.

Chapter 9, "War on the Periphery," is devoted to the Anglo-French effort to hunt down German commerce raiders, Anglo-French operational communications and their efforts to synchronize naval struggles, and the considerations of both powers for war in Scandinavia (which actually occurred in Norway, although the presence of German airpower made Anglo-French naval operations exceedingly difficult and costly) or the Balkans to open up secondary fronts against Germany. The height of the alliance came with the formation of hunter-raiding groups of French battlecruisers and British carriers throughout the Atlantic, which with the valiant action of British cruisers off of Argentina succeeded in defeating the German pocket battleship raider Graf Spee.

Chapter 10, "Twilight of the Anglo-French Naval Alliance" charts the decline of Franco-British cooperation, as a German offensive in France smashed the French and allied armies and tensions arose about British evacuation of their troops, and this only grew stronger as the French moved towards an armistice which from the British perspective threatened to leave the French fleet vulnerable to a German take-over. Despite French efforts to reassure the British on this point and protect their fleet, the British would move to deal with the French by force.

Chapter 11, "Towards a Violent Solution," peers into the complicated and confused negotiations between the British and French and the growing climate of concern in Britain. The British grew increasingly suspicious about the French assurances that their fleet would never fall into foreign hands and mistranslated several key phrases from the Franco-German armistice which caused them to exaggerate the German threat. Even as the French won crucial points on the armistice commission negotiations that would ensure their fleet would be safe, the British, with Churchill leading the charge, moved to strike the French.

The British attacking the French at Mers El-Kebir

The British attacking the French at Mers El-Kebir

Chapter 12, "Blunder at Mers el-Kebir" recounts the events of the British attack on Mers el-Kebir, the negotiations leading up to it and the battle itself, and the broader action between the British and the French as the British seized French ships in British ports.

Chapter 13, "The Cover-Up" takes a fiercely negative view of the results of the battle, claiming that it failed to significantly harm the French navy, that the British government had to claim much greater success than it actually had in a cover-up, that it was not necessary, and that post-battle justifications like the idea that it was done to show resolve to America, are precisely that, cover-ups, and that the resulting Anglo-French undeclared war was negative for both and that it was entirely avoidable.

The conclusion redraws some of the main diplomatic trends between the two powers, asks if the defensive alliance served the two powers, whether the British were mistaken about the value of Italian neutrality in keeping the Japanese neutral (who it seems, were more restrained by America than the British Alexandria fleet), and what the British could have done instead of Mers El-Kebir - such as attack Taranto.

From Versailles to Mers El-Kebir stands at a nexus of military operations and diplomacy, and is very good in showing the crucial diplomatic disagreements and problems which plagued the Anglo-French attempts at building a workable alliance, and how nevertheless mutual interests and objectives slowly dragged the French and British together. It clearly shows the reasons behind why the French and British had different ideas concerning their naval cooperation and what were the factors that brought them together. As a diplomatic history, it does an excellent job of shedding light on how the British and French cooperated in Spain to confront issues such as Italian piracy, and includes high quality and very detailed descriptions of the actual negotiations at Nyon and the lead up to this conference. Continually, one is struck by how the French and the British had competing objectives - the French to confront Italy, the British to attempt to achieve a multilateral solution to Mussolini's aggression.

The book lacks the detail which is found in other volumes concerning actual Anglo-French naval cooperation, the most obvious of which is The Road to Oran: Anglo-French Naval Relations September 1939-July 1940 which includes much more detailed writing about the plans and operations envisioned and undertaken by the French and British navies during the beginning of the Second World War. This book of course, does not have the Interwar period focus of From Versailles to Mers-el-Kebir but it is a good example of how much more information could have been comfortably fit in and used in Melton's book.

There are also elements which could have benefited from much more coverage about the soft factors behind Anglo-French relations. The book lauds Anglo-French cooperation but there were definitely major hurdles which existed between the two, and the French navy of course had constructed itself for centuries on the basis of an arm for defense against the United Kingdom and the Royal Navy above all else - while Francophobia is famously a key component of British identity and self-image, and would have been particularly prevalent in the Royal Navy. Although this is hinted at at the strategic level, in regards to the cooperation and the attitudes of individuals, this is much less present. Interestingly, it is one where a vague class element seems to come into being in the book - that the British sailors, "Jack Tar," were little moved by the loss of their French comrades, and the sadness and anxiety in the Royal Navy over the French fleet's removal from the Allied side was confined to officers. It would have been interesting for Melton to talk about why this was so, and how the break between the French and British was perceived at different levels of the two respective navies.

The end result is not bad per se, but there is much room for improvement, with additional discussion of planning and operations by the French and British navies, a more nuanced perspective of their attitudes towards cooperation beyond the strategic level. Its advantage is that it is clear, easily understood, and gives a firm and decisive opinion about the Mers-el-Kebir attack in particular, arguing convincingly that it was not necessary and failed to significantly incapacitate the French fleet. Melton's view here is notably more pro-French than other authors, who if not directly supporting the British attack on the French fleet, write about a variety of British reasons for the attack and give them credence: Melton portrays the attack as a tragic error and poor decision. In cooperation with other books on the subject, it makes for an interesting work into Anglo-French naval diplomacy, the origins of their WW2 cooperation, and a different perspective about the final, tragic, conclusion of the Anglo-French naval story.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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