Marcel Bruno-Gensoul: How to sink a rising star
Military officers have two duties to fulfill in their service. The obvious one is their obligation to serve their nation and carry out the missions assigned to them. Indeed many of the most vilified officers in history are notorious because of their perceived failure to uphold this first duty. The second duty is remarked upon less but is just as important to an officer’s effectiveness. They have a duty to their men, specifically to preserve their command and maintain its ability to resist the enemy and carry out the nation’s orders. While it may often seem like the two goals are opposed in many situations, the decent commanders find a way to make the best of any situation for both their country and their men. Unfortunately, the debacle at Mers El Kebir proved that Marcel Bruno-Gensoul was not one of those commanders.
Finding biographical information about the late Marcel Bruno-Gensoul was difficult, but he was born in the city of Montpelier in southern France in 1880. He joined the French Navy in 1898 and was promoted to the rank of ensign in 1903. By the time WW1 began, he had experience serving aboard various warships in Asia, Mediterranean Sea, and Syria. During the inter-war years, he rose in rank steadily, reaching contre-amiral rank in Oct 1932 and full admiral rank in 1940. Clearly this admiral was a rising star within the French navy of the time period. He also was one of the most anglophilic French admirals of the time according to at least one historian. Supposedly this is on account of him being one of the few Protestants in the French Navy. Most notably, during the Phony War of 1939-40, he participated in Franco-British combined operations in the North Atlantic, during which time he had ships of the Royal Navy, particularly HMS Hood, under his direct command.
After the French surrender, he was actually visited by Admiral Dudley North who attempted to persuade him to continue the war with the British. Gensoul apparently made it clear that he held no ill will towards the British officers, and that he had no intention of letting the Germans get their hands on his squadron at Mers El Kebir. However, he felt loyalty first to the government of the Republic and thus told North that he could only obey Petain’s orders. Indeed, Gensoul’s opinion of the British was good enough that when Darlan informed him of the French government’s acceptance of the Franco-German armistice, Gensoul did not think it was likely that the British would attempt to seize his squadron.
With hindsight of course this was a foolhardy assumption. Indeed, in my opinion it was naïve within the context of the times as well. The Royal Navy had developed a reputation and a tradition of destroying neutral or unaligned navies when they threatened to make the Royal Navy's position untenable. In addition, Darlan had warned him of the British qualms with the Franco-German Armistice. Even if Gensoul had been unaware of the rapidly worsening state of French-British affairs that had developed after Dunkirk, his decision not to heed the warnings of his direct superior is an indictment of his capacity as a military officer.
When a destroyer from Force H entered the harbor of Mers El Kebir on the dawn of the 3rd of July, Gensoul was unprepared for the situation he was about to be confronted with. On board the HMS Foxhound was a certain Captain Cedric Holland, a former attache to Paris who had been sent on behalf of Admiral Sommerville to confer with Gensoul. Gensoul interpreted the dispatch of such a junior officer to be an official snub, and responded by sending Flag Lieutenant Dufay (who apparently was a friend of Holland according to one historian) to meet the Captain.
This turned out to be a major mistake. Unknown to Gensoul, Churchill had forced through a plan to neutralize the French fleet against the wishes of his cabinet and the British Admiralty. Admiral Sommerville had been ordered to scuttle the French fleet if they did not respond to the ultimatum delivered by Holland. According to some sources, Somerville's choice to send Holland instead of meeting with Gensoul in person was motivated by Holland's fluency in French, not by a desire to snub Gensoul. Regardless, the ultimatum was significantly delayed and could not be retrieved by Gensoul until 9AM, by which point he only had 6 hours to formulate a response.
The ultimatum contained 3 possible options for Gensoul. First, he could join the Royal Navy and fight against the Germans. Second, he could sail his ships to a channel port under British control and reduced crews. Third, he could take his fleet to the Antilles Islands and the US under British control, where they would be interned for the duration of the war. Failing to accept these options would result in the scuttling of the French fleet being demanded. Otherwise the British task force would open fire on the French ships in harbor. Gensoul ordered his ship's captains to prepare for battle and sent a message to part of the French admiralty in Southern France explaining the situation. He neglected to mention the third option when describing the ultimatum. Even if it would have been rejected by the French government, the omission of such a critical piece of information in a tense standoff was yet another mistake Gensoul made that day.
Over the course of the day Gensoul informed the British of his intention to resist with force. It is worth noting that at the same time Admiral Rene-Emile Godroy had came to an agreement with Admiral Cunningham to prevent an attack on the French fleet in Alexandria. While the situation in Alexandria was different from Mers el Kebir, it is worth noting that Alexandria was possible because Cunningham disobeyed Churchill's orders. With Sommerville feeling compelled to carry out Churchill's intentions, the choice for how the confrontation would play out was squarely within the control of Gensoul. Unfortunately, he could not reconcile his desire to avoid a confrontation between the two nations with his understandable reluctance to disobey his government and endanger the Franco-German armistice. He attempted to conduct last minute negotiations between himself and Holland in order to buy time, before finally offering to scuttle his ships in Oran as a compromise almost 2 hours after the expiration of the original ultimatum. Unfortunately, the British were made aware that French reinforcements were closing on the port and thus Churchill ordered Sommerville to put an end to the fair. Since Gensoul had not taken measures to maneuver his ships into a position from which they could effectively resist the British, the result was a one sided slaughter. The battleship Bretagne was sunk while its sister Provence was damaged to the point it sunk in harbor. In addition, the battlecruiser Dunkerque and super destroyer Mogador were both badly damaged. The only capital ship that managed to escape the trap was Strasbourg.
Gensoul had been caught off guard at Mers el Kebir. Whether you choose to take the sympathetic or unsympathetic view on his actions and character, what is immeasurably clear is that Gensoul failed to react decisively when confronted with Sommerville’s ultimatum. He failed to take the dispatch of Holland seriously, which cost him precious hours. He did not send the entire contents of the British ultimatum to the French government, which left them without a piece of critical information on the situation. Finally, he could not make up his mind to defy his government, compromise with the British, or prepare for battle until he had run out of time. Whether it was Gensoul’s naive faith in British honor or his own determination to avoid a conflict, Gensoul certainly contributed grievously to the loss of 1200 French sailors and the dissolution of the French Raiding Force. This incident would mark a low point in Vichy French and British relations, and would destroy the career of an otherwise widely respected officer. For failing to fulfill his obligations to his country and his men at a crucial juncture, I judge Gensoul to be one of the worst commanders of the 20th century.