Book Review: From Versailles to Mers El-Kebir: The Promise of Anglo-French Naval Cooperation, 1919-40


by George E. Melton

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 266. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $42.95. ISBN: 1612518796

Anglo-French Naval Realtions and the Rise of Fascism

Melton, author of a well-received biography of the controversial Admiral Jean Darlan, combines is expertise in French naval and diplomatic history in this new work, examining the sometimes contentious relationship between Britain’s Royal Navy and France’s Marine nationale from the end of the Great War to the disastrous encounter at Mers El-Kébir.

Melton argues that the relationship between the two governments – and their navies – was greatly affected by the evolution of the political and strategic environment in Europe. He spends relatively little time on the decade that followed the end of the Great War, when hitherto close ties between the two powers began to deteriorate to the extent that some politicians and mlitary leaders considered war between the two as a likely possiblity. Melton’s account becomes more detailed with the rise of rise of Fascism in Italy, and then that of Nazism in Germany. As both totalitarian powers become increasingly militaristic and expansionistic, the French and British began reaching out to each other again, although their initial efforts to establish close ties were at times frustrated by differing national goals and policies. For example, despite reservations about the Fascist regime, France saw Italy as a potential ally against Germany, a not unrealistic prospect during the early years of the Nazi regime, while in contrast Britain worried about an Italian threat to Imperial communications. So, for example, the Ethiopian Crisis bothered France less than Britain, fearful of the vulnerability of its lifeline to India, while in contrast the French were more sympathetic to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War than were the British.

It was the Nazi threat, of course, that finally drove the two powers into a closer relationship, as the sorted out command arrangements in a possible war, with French to control operations in the Mediterranean and Britain the Atlantic, and, particularly in the aftermath of the Munich Crisis, began developing a degree of interoperability. As a result, when the Second World War broke out, the two navies had a surprisingly close relationship, even operated integrated squadrons, such as during the hunt for the pocket battleship Graf Spee.

Of course, the collapse of the French Army in May of 1940 and resulting Franco-German armistice, caused Churchill, fearful that the French fleet – fourth most powerful in the world -- would be taken over by the Axis. This led to the ill-advised the confrontation at Mers El-Kébir, to which many senior British naval officers objected. Mers El-Kébir very nearly caused precisely the situation Churchill feared most and sparked a desultory war between Britain and Vichy France.

Melton offers some very good looks at a number of political and military leaders, with surprising views on Pierre Laval and particularly Jean Darlan, who emerges a considerably less of a collaborator than is customarily believed.

From Versailles to Mers El-Kébir is an essential work for anyone interested in the naval diplomacy of the interwar period and naval operations during the “Phony War.”

Note: From Versailles to Mers El-Kébir is also available as an e-Book, ISBN 978-1-61251-880-0.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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