True or false?
On July 3, 1940, in an Algerian port, the British navy fired on and destroyed the fleet of their allies, the French, killing over 1,000 French sailors.
It seems unbelievable, but it’s true, a tragic confrontation between friends that inspired my novel Wickwythe Hall.
So how did two allies, who just days before fought side by side against the Germans, come to arms?
In May 1940, Hitler’s troops invaded France and quickly overpowered the French and British armies. In June, just one month later, France surrendered.
As part of the armistice terms, France agreed to turn over its fleet to the Germans. Most of the French ships were across the Mediterranean at Mers el-Kébir, an Algerian port. There, they had a terrible decision to make: surrender their ships to the Germans, who would likely use them against the British, or violate the terms of the armistice and continue to fight. By continuing to fight, there would be certain repercussions at home. The lives of the French sailors’ families were at stake.
To the British, the fate of the French fleet was also life or death. With the French surrender, the British were left fighting the war alone. The US wanted no part of it. President Roosevelt had promised that American boys wouldn’t be sent to fight foreign wars, and it was an election year. Great Britain was barely hanging on as it was. If the Germans got hold of the French ships, koverwhelming naval power would be in their hands. The British would have no chance.
The Royal Navy raced to Mers el-Kébir to present the French with an ultimatum: continue fighting or destroy the ships. And if the French wouldn’t destroy the ships themselves—another violation of the armistice—the British would do it for them.
On July 3, while Americans were preparing to celebrate the nation’s independence with parades and picnics, far away in Mers el-Kébir, the British and the French were at an impasse. The French, perhaps holding on to what pride they had left, refused the British ultimatum, angry that the British didn’t trust them. The British, worried German or Italian fleets would soon arrive and they’d be surrounded, opened fire. Almost all of the French ships were destroyed. Over 1,000 French sailors perished.
To the British, it was a horrible necessity. To the French, it was murder.
In the US the next day, Americans watched parades. They waved flags as bands played patriotic songs. The war in Europe, then, seemed far away. Pearl Harbor wouldn’t be attacked until over a year later.
So many tragedies comprise the whole of World War II. In the shadow of some of the larger ones—the Occupation of France, the Holocaust, the Blitz, and more—smaller tragedies like the confrontation between the British and the French at Mers el-Kébir get lost. Wickwythe Hall combines fictional and real-life characters to bring this forgotten piece of history to light.