Mers El-Kebir (1940): La rupture franco-britannique
Herve Coutau-Begarie and Claude Huan. Paris: Economica 1994. $54-00 ($51.30).
Reviewed by Sir James Cable
In the long history of Anglo-French naval encounters, the British attack of 3 July 1940 on French warships at Mers El-Kebir (sometimes miscalled Oran) is one of the most controversial. The attack was too one-sided to be noteworthy and lasted only 16 minutes, but the moral and political issues involved still excite strong feelings today. These feelings are emphasized in this French account of an episode that concerned Britain, France, and the United States.
When the shattering defeat of British and French land forces by the German blitzkrieg of May 1940 compelled France to seek an armistice, the British tried to save the French fleet from the wreck. Ideally, they wanted French ships to continue the fight from British bases or, failing that, put themselves out of German reach across the Atlantic. The most Winston Churchill
could obtain, however, was an undertaking from Admiral Jean Louis Darlan, the naval commander-in-chief, and the French government that not a single ship would be surrendered to the Germans and that the whole fleet would be scuttled if seizure was attempted. This did not satisfy Churchill, who did not believe Darlan could be sure of destroying his ships in the face of the pressures or the surprise tactics the Germans might employ at some future date. He was encouraged to seek immediate action by President Franklin Roosevelt, who was almost equally anxious to ensure that the German surface fleet (then seriously depleted by their otherwise successful Norwegian campaign) would not be reinforced by the fast, modem capital ships, cruisers, and destroyers of the French Navy.
The French attitude was different. Their pledge to destroy their own ships rather than let the Germans seize them was an obligation of honor. Honor also obliged them to insist that their word was a sufficient bond. In addition, it was in French interests to defer destruction. As the French Foreign Minister told the British First Lord of the Admiralty on 19 June, “By retaining the fleet, the French Government would be keeping in their own hands a means of action which might one day be of service.”
So Churchill decided to seize French ships in British ports in a surprise raid at dawn on 3 July. This success seemed to confirm Churchill’s view that the French might not be able to prevent the Germans from achieving a similar coup. At Alexandria, Admiral Andrew Cunningham secured the bloodless internment of a French battleship, three heavy cruisers, and other ships. The main French naval concentration, however, was at Mers El-Kebir in Algeria: 2 modem battle cruisers, 2 battleships, 6 destroyers, and a seaplane carrier. Against them, the British deployed a battle cruiser, 2 battleships, an aircraft carrier, 2 cruisers, and 11 destroyers under Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville. His orders were to offer the French admiral various peaceful alternatives, which Darlan had earlier rejected. This ultimatum was delivered early on 3 July by Captain Holland (chosen because of the excellent French he acquired as naval attaché in Paris). His inferior rank was regarded by the French admiral as an insult and may have contributed to the latter’s immediate rejection of the British proposals. After further vain attempts at persuasion, Somerville finally opened fire at 1755. The French capital ships, moored stern-on to the mole, could not bring their guns to bear before being overwhelmed. A battle cruiser, two battleships, and a cruiser were sunk, and 1,300 Frenchmen were killed. The modern battle cruiser Strasbourg and other ships escaped to France. The British lost no ships and very few men. However, the action did not achieve all of its objectives.
In a letter to Somerville, the French officers of the sunken Dunkerque described the vice admiral’s action as “murder.” Somerville himself feared he would be regarded as an “unskilled butcher.” On 11 November 1942, when the German army invaded the hitherto unoccupied zone of France, the French fleet at Toulon was scuttled before the Germans could lay hands on it. As things turned out, Britain might have avoided a tragic loss of life and lasting damage to Anglo-French relations by taking Darlan at his word.
To support their conclusion that Churchill’s decision to resort to force was a grave political error, Coutau-Begarie and Haun are able to deploy much evidence from French archives that was not available to Professor Marder when he published his admirable 1974 monograph, Oran, 3 July 1940. Marder had reached the reluctant conclusion that, given the information available to him on 3 July 1940, Churchill’s decision was “both intelligible and defensible,” because it convinced Roosevelt that the British would continue to fight.
Although Churchill preferred not to mention it, the British people also needed to be convinced. Nine months of disastrous war had undermined British confidence in their political and military leaders. Only action that was immediate, decisive, and— in Churchill’s words—ruthless could provide the needed reassurance on the eve of the expected invasion.
The verdict of history is likely to remain open, but anyone anxious to form his own judgment should read this excellent book on Mers El-Kebir. It is an absorbing story well told.
Peace and Disarmament: Naval Rivalry and Arms Control 1922-1933
Richard W. Fanning. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995. 224 pp. Photos. Illus. $35.00 ($33.25).
Reviewed by Jon T. Sumida
This book examines the Naval Limitations Conferences at Geneva in 1927 and London in 1930. The U.S. goal at the Geneva conference was to convince Britain and Japan to limit cruiser construction in the same way that battleship numbers had been restricted by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. This meant three-power recognition of cruiser tonnage parity between the United States and Britain and inferiority of 40% for Japan. The previous agreement had been based upon the existing ratio of battleship strength, but the U.S. proposals at Geneva had to be flown in the face of the fact that both Britain and Japan possessed larger fleets of up-to-date cruisers. In addition, British and U.S. cruiser requirements were very different with respect to both numbers and type. The Geneva conference thus ended in complete failure. The London conference met after preliminary discussions between new U.S. and British governments indicated that differences over cruiser numbers and type could be resolved. The accord, signed in April 1930, embodied these agreements within the framework of overall cruiser tonnage equality between Britain and the United States, while reducing Japanese de facto inferiority in the critical category of heavy cruisers to 30%.
In the introduction, Fanning first claims that he has produced “a history of American naval arms control following the Washington Naval Conference” that “describes the efforts of American leaders— political, military, and social—as well as those of their contemporaries in the two other postwar great naval powers, Britain and Japan, to come to agreement on naval limitation between 1922 and the mid- 1930s.” He then maintains that his book “is really a comparative history of forces and personalities involved with naval disarmament in the United States, Britain, and Japan.”
Promises of comprehensive treatment are unredeemed in the body of the book. State-of-the-art comparative history, insofar as the subject of naval arms control is concerned, was defined nearly 20 years ago by Roger Dingman’s classic study of the Washington Naval Conference, Power in the Pacific: The Origins of Naval Arms Limitation, 1914-1922 (Chicago, 1976). The success of Dingman’s monograph was attributable to his examination of primary sources in English and Japanese and his command of the voluminous secondary literature in these languages. Fanning’s research, in contrast, was limited to English- language sources, which means that the telling of the Japanese side of the story is based wholly on secondary works or newspaper reports.
Fanning concedes the obvious point that naval plans and premises “often formed the positions powers took at the various arms control conferences.” He did not, however, perform the serious research in British and U.S. archives that would have been required to come to terms with the financial, strategic, tactical, and technical debate over cruiser armament. Fanning’s control of even relevant printed sources in the English language is incomplete. For example, he did not consult the original work of Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, a well-known British naval commentator on the arms control process at Geneva and London; Martin Gilbert’s comprehensive biography and associated companion volume of documents on Winston Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of Geneva (and therefore an important contributor to the naval limitations debate on the British side); or Alan Raven and John Roberts’s book on British cruisers.
Fanning’s examination of the influence of such organizations as the Navy League or the National Council for the Prevention of War appears to be based on the appropriate sources. His study, however, is almost entirely limited to a narrative review of their political activities, with virtually no analysis of the socioeconomic characteristics of the membership rank and file, or even the content of their ideological reasoning. Much could, and perhaps should, have been said about the latter in particular. Dorothy Detzer of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, for example, blamed armaments races on “masculine insecurity nurtured by selfish patriotism,” but apart from quotation, Fanning goes no further. Other than the appearance of social scientific inquiry, Fanning’s “controlled comparable-cases approach” to the study of nongovernmental pressure groups is weak, and he has virtually nothing to justify his claims regarding the investigation of the “cultural underpinning” of the disarmament movement.
Fanning’s book lacks adequate foundation for significant analysis. At best, his conclusions are unexceptionable and sometimes contradictory. War prevention, for example, is presented as the primary—or even sole—reason for the fascination of statesmen and their constituents with naval arms limitation. Then, in the next paragraph, the case is made for the importance of financial considerations, which were indeed a major factor. At worst, Fanning is an extreme reductionist. At the end of the penultimate chapter, the failure to reach agreement over naval disarmament in the mid 1930s is equated with a decisive lost opportunity for world peace. Even casual readers will be offended by the many writing solecisms. This book has not satisfied the need for a sound scholarly rendering of the history of naval arms control during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The Gate of Hell Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863.
Stephen R. Wise. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. 324 pp. $27.95 ($26.55).
Reviewed by Major Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps
In summer 1863, the United States fought three major campaigns against the Confederacy. Two of those—Vicksburg and Gettysburg—were critical victories for the North. They were both continental campaigns, with Navy cooperation being incidental. The third campaign, both joint and naval in character, was directed against Charleston. It was an abject failure. The 1863 campaign in Charleston was a forerunner of early 20th-century war: Combat extended in time and space, dominated by defensive technology and the application of fire and requiring the synchronization of a wide variety of combat, combat support, and logistics systems.
In 1863, Union Army and Navy commanders around Charleston grappled with radical new technologies, while facing an integrated defense that incorporated sophisticated fire-control techniques, well- prepared fortifications, and a comprehensive communications system. The North tested the ironclad warship, used rifled guns extensively, and tested naval and land mines. They also attempted amphibious operations under fire, as well as night amphibious raids. The arena of battle extended over thousands of square miles, from Broad River and Hilton Head south of Charleston to Bull’s Bay north of the city and along all of the “watery maze” that dominated the terrain between.
The 1863 campaign began in April, when the Lincoln Administration prodded Rear Admiral Samuel DuPont to break in to Charleston Harbor with his new ironclads. DuPont’s failure led to the joint Army-Navy efforts against the city in July and August, an attack along the sea tier of islands that featured hard infantry and artillery fighting on Morris Island. It culminated in the Confederate abandonment of that island and in subsequent attempts by the Union—all failures—to either seize or reduce Fort Sumter. The campaign stalled there until the Confederates evacuated the city in 1865.
Stephen Wise has written an exhaustively detailed narrative of that key year 1863 in the defense of Charleston Harbor. In terms of names, units, strengths, and other information, his study—including many photographs and 27 maps—will become the standard work on the subject. His efforts are comprehensive, and future scholars of Charleston will have to begin with this book. It is lively and well organized, with an eye for personal detail. He has captured the tint and tone of the doomed 54th Massachusetts’s attack on Battery Wagner, immortalized in the movie Glory. He also describes in readable detail the heat, fear, noise, and confusion that reigned inside the new ironclad warships as they attempted to apply imperfect technologies against the Confederate defenses.
The Gate of Hell would have benefited from more analysis to match the excellent narrative. For example, what were the tactical effects of steam propulsion on joint operations? What about the enormous differences between the offensive and defensive capabilities of the Passaic-class monitors?
In the bloody cockpit of the hot Charleston summer of 1863, in the hulking outlines of Battery Wagner and Sumter, the road to Forts Vaux and Douamont and the dominance of fire on the tactical battlefield lay open and clear. Unlike Gettysburg, which was a Waterloo fought 50 years too late, Charleston was a Verdun fought 50 years too early. Stephen Wise has captured the essence of this battle.
Remembering the Maine
Peggy and Harold Samuels. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. 358 pp. Notes. Bibliography. $29.95 ($26.95).
Reviewed by David F. Trask
The destruction of the battleship Maine at Havana in February 1898 is of great importance, because it consolidated American public opinion against continued Spanish control of Cuba. Eventually, President McKinley was forced to call for war. The U.S. reaction was all the more violent, because an official naval investigation headed by Captain William T. Sampson determined that an external explosion had caused the Maine’s powder magazines to explode. The Sampson report did not name the miscreants, but of the candidates—which included the Spanish government, disaffected Spanish officers who opposed any concessions to the United States, and the Cuban insurgents themselves—most Americans singled out the Spanish government. The Spanish official investigation at the time alleged that the cause of the powder explosion was internal, perhaps a fire in a coal bunker caused by spontaneous combustion or a careless cigarette. In 1911, another U.S. investigation confirmed the conclusion of the Sampson board, although it relocated the site of the external explosion. The most significant evidence consisted of bent armor plates and other damage that seemed to indicate an external cause.
Initially, most historians accepted the authority of the U.S. investigations, but early doubts about the external theory, especially those of an English officer named John T. Bucknill, matured eventually into a reversal of view. No one ever was identified as having committed the deed, and the Spanish government’s interest in avoiding war became evident. Finally, in 1975, an expert engineering reassessment of the Maine’s damage arranged for by Admiral Hyman Rickover, known as the Hansen- Price evaluation, convinced most scholars that the damage to the battleship was consistent with the accident thesis, although the two engineers were unable to make a fully definitive judgment.
Recently, however, two popular histories have appeared that contest the established view. In 1992, Michael Blow cast doubt on the authority of the Hansen-Price analysis, noting elements of conjecture and inconclusiveness (A Ship to Remember: The Maine and the Spanish-American War [Morrow: New York]). The Samuels argue that rebellious Spanish officers who supported the extreme positions of General Valeriano Weyler exploded a barrel packed with black powder underneath the Maine, triggering the magazine blasts. They offer no new evidence to validate their allegation, citing only a statement made in 1912 by the former American consul in Matan- zas, Alexander Brice. He asserted that a Spanish officer who favored Cuban autonomy had informed him of a plot against the Maine. Brice warned the consul general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, but his message was disregarded. The authors conclude that the Weylerites “had the opportunity, the means, and the motivation,” but it is hard to see why this deduction should not apply with at least as much credibility to the insurgents.
The authors attempt to discredit the Hansen-Price analysis. It presumed that a large mine containing gun cotton would have been used to cause the explosion, but the authors contend that the weapon was “a small low-strength mine” containing black powder. This conclusion, unsupported by direct evidence, explains why the damage to the ship where the bomb supposedly exploded was not as extensive as one would expect from a larger mine.
Available evidence and the most logical analyses support the accident theory, and the Samuels’ unsupported speculations are unacceptable unless new evidence identifies specific culprits or credible criticisms discredit the Hansen-Price analysis. The Samuels’ work does not consider important sources and authorities available in other languages, especially Spanish, and it makes no reference to information found only in archives. The Weylerite officers are charged with the crime, but we do not learn enough about them to make an independent decision about their motives and behavior. The Samuels accept the authenticity of information such as that made public by Brice 14 years after the event—despite the absence of independent verification. The book’s tone of certainty contrasts with the professional view that the available information and interpretation do not permit scholars to arrive at a definitive view, although the weight of what is available supports the accident theory.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Devotion to Duty: A Biography of Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague
John F. Wukovits. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. 400 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Maps.
In a long overdue biography of an unsung hero of World War II, Wukovits brings to life the man whose ship was the first to fire at attacking Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor, who commanded the USS Wasp (LHD-1) at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and who commanded the ships that snatched victory from the jaws of almost inevitable defeat at the Battle off Samar. Sprague’s greatest moment came at Leyte Gulf, when he was able to extricate his force from potential disaster with relatively light losses and ensure a U.S. victory at this crucial moment of the war. His story, never fully told before, is now recounted in detail, reconstructed from many primary sources—including Sprague’s own handwritten comments on the great Battle of Leyte Gulf that cast an interesting perspective on this controversial moment in U.S. naval history.
A River Unvexed: A History and Tour Guide of the Campaign for the Mississippi River
Jim Miles. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995. 608 pp. Append. Bib. Gloss. Illus. Ind. Maps. Photos. $24.95 ($22.45) Paper.
Sixty-one original maps, 247 photographs and line drawings, many anecdotal sidebars, and a fact-filled narrative are all combined to create this unusual work about the Mississippi River campaign during the American Civil War. For more than two years, nearly a quarter of a million soldiers fought along 500 miles of North America’s greatest river—starting at Little Egypt and ending at Vicksburg— and the outcome of that struggle would have enormous strategic consequences. That fascinating and important campaign has been captured in detail by this book. As he has done in his previous books on other great Civil war campaigns, Miles has melded history with the present by including driving tours for readers who want a greater sense of the momentous events he describes. With or without this un usual feature, Miles’s account is comprehensive, full of human-interest facets, and well written, making it an excellent source of Civil War history.
The Mobilization of the United States in World War II: How the Government, Military, and Industry Prepared for War
V. R. Cardozier. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995. 277 pp. Bib. Gloss. Ind. Tables. $38.50 ($36.57).
In a very short time, the United States, out of necessity, transformed itself from an isolationist, militarily impotent, nation to a world power, mobilized to fight a two-front world war. University of Texas Professor Cardozier analyzes the successes and failures of this miraculous transformation, revealing how industries were able to gear up for war production so rapidly, how women were quickly integrated into America’s vital work force, how the military developed its incredible muscle, and how patriotism and propaganda were incorporated into the great revolution.
The Evolution of the Sailing Navy, 1509-1815
Richard Harding. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 185 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. Tables. $39.95 ($37.95).
Part of a series entitled “British History in Perspective,” this volume presents a concise picture of the Royal Navy in the heyday of sail, explaining why its organization took the form that it did, why it was able to dominate the sea, and what its effect was on British history. The Royal Navy was the largest and most complex organization of its kind during this period, and its evolutionary development had pronounced effects on Britain’s political and economic development. That process is explained and analyzed in this treatise written by a Principal Lecturer at the University of Westminster.
The First Sea Lords: From Fisher to Mountbatten
Malcolm H. Murfett, Editor. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995. 328 pp. Bib. Ind. Notes. $59.95 ($56.95).
The Royal Navy’s equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations is the First Sea Lord. In a series of essays contributed by some of today’s most prestigious naval writers, the history of this office and the men who filled it is recounted in analytical detail.
Tidewater Time Capsule: History Beneath the Patuxent
Donald G. Shomette. Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1995. 385 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $29.95 ($26.95).
Described as the “father of underwater archaeology in Maryland,” Donald Shomette provides what State Underwater Archaeologist Susan Langley describes as “a seamless blend of solid scholarship and popular prose." Exploring the Patuxent River system in detail, Shomette offers a wealth of new historical knowledge about Maryland’s maritime heritage. Of particular interest to naval historians is the discovery of Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla, which was lost during a battle with the British during the War of 1812.
The Pacific War Atlas, 1941-1945
David Smurthwaite. New York: Facts on File, 1995. 141 pp. Bib. Ind. Maps. Photos. $24 95 ($23.70). Hardcover. $15.95 ($15.15). Paper.
The History Book Club writes that “this study carefully considers the logistical, political, and ideological aspects of the Pacific War, resulting in a fresh and eminently useful survey readers will refer to again and again.” Smurthwaite, the assistant director of the National Army Museum in London, combines 60 full- color maps—themselves combining topographical detail with troop movements—with an authoritative text and 50 contemporary photographs to recount the events of the Pacific War in a concise but comprehensive treatment.
Typewriter Battalion: Dramatic Frontline Dispatches from World War II
Jack Stenbuck, Editor. New York: William Morrow, 1995. 415 pp. $23.00 ($20.70).
In his introduction, Walter Cronkite writes that the most reliable reports of World War II “can be found in the dispatches of the reporters who accompanied the troops into action and to a large degree shared with them the dangers and vicissitudes of combat.” This collection of such reports captures much of the drama and authenticity that the best of the World War II correspondents had to offer. Seventy- three pieces put the reader in the trenches, on the decks, and in the skies for some of the most dramatic moments of the war. Some of the names of these reporters are familiar to us even today— Ernie Pyle, Drew Middleton, Bob Considine, Richard Tregaskis, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., and, of course, Walter Cronkite. Whatever their reputations, all of these writers have left a legacy that is by definition brief but gives the rest of us a glimpse of history like no other.