740.0011 European War 1939/4694

The President of the French Council of Ministers (Pétain) to President Roosevelt 25


Mr. President: A serious and grievous event occurred yesterday. A powerful British squadron appeared before Oran and sent an ultimatum to the French warships that were there, calling upon them either to join the British fleet or to scuttle ship. Six hours were granted them to comply with one or the other of those injunctions. When the admiral in command of our vessels stationed at Oran replied that he would oppose force with force, the British vessels opened fire at the expiration of the period of time provided for, after having had magnetic mines laid down by their seaplanes to bottle up our ships, on which they fired while they lay at anchor. One French battleship blew up; another, the Dunkerque, was set afire. The number of casualties was considerable.

The British navy has indulged in an act of hostility against the French navy. I should like to believe that it did so without instructions from its Government, but this illusion is precluded by the preparation which this inglorious operation must have called for, the choice of British battleships to which it was entrusted, and the very manner in which it took place.

Nothing could justify this hateful aggression. Before, during, and after the bipartite armistice negotiation, of which the British Government could, better than any, appreciate the imperative necessity for us, the Government which I headed freely gave it the assurance that in no case would the French naval forces be used against Great Britain. It knew that in order to obtain that result we stoically subjected ourselves to general armistice conditions the severity of which should not have left it indifferent. It was not unaware either of the fact that our adversaries had recognized that they could not demand the use of our fleet against Great Britain, or of the fact that the Mediterranean ports of Metropolitan France and of French North Africa were to remain free of any foreign occupation. However, it was into one of those ports, that of Oran, that its vessels came and surprised our fleet at anchor, and opened fire on our warships, which were unable to defend themselves.

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Since I came to power, setting it as my aim first to assess the inescapable consequences of a hopeless military situation, then to put to work all those elements of recovery which France is fortunate enough to possess, I have constantly striven to reconcile the situation into which I had been forced, by circumstances well known to the British Government, with the maintenance of normal and friendly relations between France and Great Britain. I have on many occasions charged our Ambassador in Washington to express to your Government my intention in that regard.

It was no fault of mine that this was not accomplished. In view of a coup de force for which there was no excuse and which threatens to leave me without means for attaining my aim of equitable mutual understanding, I felt that I should establish the responsibilities for a situation which I deplore, and it is with confidence that I lay the case before you, Mr. President, whose active friendship for France will not, I am sure, fail my country in the cruel misfortune from which I have undertaken to extricate it.

Marshal Pétain
  1. Handed to President Roosevelt by the French Ambassador.