If the month of June 1940 is obviously well known to the general public, this is less the case in the following weeks, after General de Gaulle's call on the 18th and then the signing of the armistice on the 21st in Rethondes. We see it with the case of Seas el-Kebir, July 3, 1940, which saw the destruction of part of the French fleet by its British counterpart. It is this event that analyzes Francois Delpla in his work.
The Mers el-Kebir controversy
The reasons which prompted the British to use force on July 3 still provoke debate today, and resentment within the French navy. The same goes for the chain of events, from the negotiations between the admirals to the first shot. François Delpla therefore proposes to put everything flat, by adding "two major players", Hitler and Roosevelt. Thus, he intends to demonstrate that this "battle" (it is more an execution) had a decisive importance on the continuation of the war.
After quickly returning to the quarry suffered by French ships, François Delpla goes back in time to start assembling the pieces of a complex puzzle, pieces including large pieces, such as Churchill and de Gaulle obviously, but also Hitler and Roosevelt. A choice to involve the latter two which is undoubtedly one of the novelties brought by the author.
François Delpla then places the whole day in the very broad context of the war, the defeat, but also the pre-war period, going back to Hitler's motivations. One by one, he brings the protagonists on stage, such as Churchill (recalling the difficulties in taking office), Paul Reynaud (“a French Churchill?”), Pétain, Darlan, without forgetting the important role of Halifax, the British Foreign Minister to Chamberlain, and weighs in with Churchill for the post of Prime Minister.
It is from chapter 10 (“The unveiling of the conditions”) that François Delpla really gets to the heart of the matter: he dismantles the gear by studying all its cogs, and the conditions of the choices of each other, up to 'to the confrontation, making us enter the heads, including those of the French sailors shaken by the defeat. His chapter “Churchill ignites the fuse” gives an idea of the thesis he develops in his book, which he concludes with the impact of this day in the world, proof that it is in no way an anecdotal battle, but that the choices made that day were decisive for the future.
The author's conclusions
The last two chapters of François Delpla's work return to the controversies caused by this tragic day. In "Battles around a battle", the author evokes the historiographical debates, both in France and in England, the wounds still open, including about the memory and commemorations of July 3, 1940. He goes as far as 'to hope that for this July 3, 2010, things have evolved in the right direction ...
François Delpla insists throughout his study on the central importance of Churchill and the reasons behind his order to fire, but without overwhelming him, contrary to what is often read. It was in this spirit that his conclusion "Blame England?" ". In this chapter, he returns to the theses explaining the attack, such as the fear of seeing Germany capture the French fleet (we can think here of the escape of the battleship Jean Bart, on June 20, before the armistice), and that Churchill would have preferred to avoid a bloodbath. Above all, François Delpla recalls the points which he considers acquired at the end of his work, to go beyond the debates and resentments: we can cite for example the importance of article 8 of the armistice (supposed to establish the disarmament of the French navy under German and Italian control, and the commitment by the Axis not to use these ships).
Finally, the author returns to the real culprit behind this tragedy, Hitler, without forgetting those responsible for the 1918 armistice and those who let the German dictator advance his pawns during the 1930s (the "appeasers" ), mainly the British, "incredulous" in the face of the Nazi threat. Churchill did nothing but his duty under difficult circumstances.
“Mers el-Kebir, July 3, 1940, England goes to war” is a dense book, sometimes difficult for someone who has little knowledge of the context of June-July 1940. But it is also very pleasant to read, often fascinating, and has the merit of putting into perspective everything that preceded July 3, 1940, while choosing a precise and well-argued thesis in the midst of all the controversies that still continue. We can also praise the critical and consistent bibliography he provides us.
This book will therefore be of interest to fans of the Second World War as much as to those interested in the complexities leading to political decisions with often decisive consequences.
François Delpla, normalien, associate professor of history, has among other things translated the biography of Hitler by David Gardner and participated in the book "The black book of capitalism". His book "Churchill and the French" has just been reissued (Guibert, 2010).
Mers El Kébir July 3, 1940: England returns to war by François Delpla. Guibert, March 2010.