From Versailles to Mers El-Kébir
The Promise of Anglo-French Naval Cooperation, 1919–40
George E. Melton
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2015, 288 pages
Book Review published on: October 12, 2018
George E. Melton offers a surprisingly relevant work on naval and diplomatic history in his latest offering, From Versailles to Mers El-Kébir: The Promise of Anglo-French Naval Cooperation. One might expect that a well-researched history of interwar naval interactions between the British and French fleets would be a dive into the obscure, but there is much here to commend to the serious reader of national strategy at the intersection of diplomacy. One sees in this book the interwoven tales of naval armaments limitation, declining empire, changing naval technology, varying national strategic objectives, and the interaction of diplomats and military officers. These many themes in the fabric that Melton weaves demonstrate skillful research and clear writing.
This book reflects the careful and thorough research of an accomplished historian. Melton is adept at using both British and French archives, along with personal diaries and conference minutes, to construct a day-by-day account of significant diplomatic decisions as they occurred in both governments. He resurrects a sense of direction in the internal dialogue among British and French leaders. To this reviewer, Melton has a talent for creating a historical narrative from stale archival cloth. He skillfully draws contrasts between the private perceptions of participants and the formal records of governmental meetings and minutes of international conferences. In this, Melton demonstrates again the importance of individual senior leadership.
The basic narrative of From Versailles to Mers El-Kébir deeply explores the interaction of both the British and French fleets with each other and with their national diplomatic establishments over the course of the interwar period in the first years of World War II. The story is how the two disparate naval establishments came to form an effective partnership in both the Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic in 1939 and 1940. This partnership soon ended with a disastrous and ill-conceived attack by the British on the French squadron at Mers El-Kébir, French Algeria, July 1940, after the French Armistice with Germany. To Melton, this attack was an unfortunate mistake, prodded by Winston Churchill, and Melton adeptly reveals the efforts of the British government to cover-up the attack and its failed results. Mers El-Kébir turned a friend into an active enemy.
The strategic context of the interwar period was a rise of Japanese naval power in the Pacific offset by a decline in both British and French fleet presence there. Given the rise of Germany’s navy in the late 1930s, both the British and French were well served to combine their fleet presence and action to protect sea lanes in the North Atlantic. This naval cooperation was most effective, however, against Benito Mussolini in the Mediterranean. The British initially resisted naval cooperation with the French out of their desire to appease Mussolini. Yet the first glimmers of Anglo-French naval cooperation grew out of the submarine threat in the Mediterranean brought on by the Spanish Civil War and Italy’s role in it. The French were the first to see the importance of this cooperation and to pursue the British Admiralty to accept it. The British eventually surrendered to necessity. It took the cooperation of both navies to protect shipping against air and submarine attacks.
Melton’s history demonstrates the importance of integrating national security planning with adept diplomacy. It shows the role of senior military leaders, in this case, admirals and their staffs formulating cooperative security arrangements and truthfully advising national leaders. It also shows the importance of forward-thinking military leaders understanding the power of diplomacy; and the dark side when advice fails and leaders are forced into disastrous military circumstances, hence the British attacking the French, their former partners, and the cover-up that ensued. Despite being written on a little-understood period with a naval focus, this work is useful for those contemplating the intersection of military leadership, strategy and diplomacy today.
Book Review written by: Col. Dean A. Nowowiejski, PhD, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas