Legitimising violence in the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir

Varley, Karine; Trim, D.J.B. and Sims, Brendan, eds. (2024) Legitimising violence in the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir. In: Harfleur to Hamburg. Hurst & Company, London. ISBN 9781911723172 (https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/harfleur-to-h...)

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This chapter explores the motivations and justifications behind the British use of force at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July 1940. As an attack conducted against the forces of a friendly nation that had ceased to fight, the operation contravened the accepted use of military violence in war. It displayed an apparent ruthlessness that seemed at odds not only with Britain’s status as a liberal democratic pillar of the international community but with the supposed British values of decency and fairness as well. Nevertheless, the action gained wide domestic and international support as being both necessary and legitimate. Churchill justified the use of violence with a wider argument that the exceptional moral exigencies of defeating the Nazis warranted breaching the very codes, laws and values his government was fighting to uphold.