The Right Honourable Arnold Hiller, M.P
By Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first six chapters of this series we traced Arnold Hiller’s rise to power; his crushing of Ernest Rome’s SA and the British teachers’ strike; his establishment of an alliance with Italy’s Benito Mussolini; his 1936 occupation of Ireland; the start of the Second World War; the imprisonment of his most vocal critic Winston Churchill; and the Axis invasion of French colonies in the Middle East and North Africa. In this chapter we’ll examine Major General Ramsdell’s campaign in Syria, the BAC landings on the Algerian coast, and the Royal Navy carrier strikes against Toulon and Marseilles.
The commander-in-chief of the French navy, Admiral Jean Darlan, was in noticeable and understandable distress as he met with his fellow C-in-Cs at the French defense ministry headquarters in Paris just after 1:30 AM on the morning of December 12th, 1937. His surface fleet in the Mediterranean was on the verge of suffering the worst defeat inflicted on a French naval force since Trafalgar. French naval bases on the coasts of Syria and Lebanon were threatened by Irwin Ramsdell’s 7th Armoured Division as it steamrollered its way through the Syrian desert. What was left of France’s Atlantic fleet, then based along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, might have to be either scuttled or sent to North America to keep it out of the hands of advancing British troops. And last but not least, word had just reached him in the last hour that Italy had formally declared war on France.
The Italian invasion of southern France was easily repelled; in fact, had the French armed forces not had their hands full trying to defend their homeland against the British they probably could have chased the remnants of the invasion force deep into Italian territory and advanced to within thirty or forty miles of Rome by the spring of 1938. As it was, they could only push the invaders back to the Franco-Italian border.
The British carrier strikes on Toulon and Marseilles, meanwhile, were proving to be an absolute nightmare for the French navy. Like many of their peers of that generation, French admirals subscribed to the conventional wisdom that battleships would continue to dominate sea warfare just as they had during the First World War; the idea that that the age of the battlewagon was over and aircraft carriers would take over this dominant role had never crossed their minds—and the cream of their Mediterranean fleet was paying the price for that lack of imagination.
The first French warship to succumb to the wrath of the Royal Navy’s carrier planes was the battlewagon Jean Bart, which sank within just over an hour after the first wave struck. Torn apart by a relentless volley of British torpedoes, she broke in half and went swiftly to the bottom of the Mediterranean, taking all but a handful of her crew with her. Her sister ship Normandie perished a scant 45 minutes later, the victim of two direct hits to her boiler room.
By 3:00 AM London time the British attack force had already sunk half of the French Mediterranean fleet’s surface ships and two- thirds of its submarines, and the fleet’s naval aviation branch had all but ceased to exist thanks to the merciless destruction inflicted on it by the Royal Navy. A few brave pilots managed to get airborne and claim a handful of kills against the torpedo planes, but for the most part the British dominated the skies on that fateful morning.
In Algeria, meanwhile, the Royal Marines were winning the battle for Oran and their Italian allies in Libya had started their overland push into the Algerian interior. In Syria, the 7th Armoured was tearing through the beleaguered French colonial defenses like wet paper and French colonial troops in Lebanon were bracing themselves for British attack. Tunisia’s Arab population, encouraged by British covert agents working out of Tunis and Bizerte, had started a rebellion against the French colonial administration there.
Hiller listened gleefully to each new report of BAC success as it reached him in the Cabinet War Room; he waxed euphoric about the blows his carrier planes were dealing the French Mediterranean fleet. When Major General Ramsdell telegraphed him at 4:45 AM to notify him that advance units of the 7th Armoured Division were within less than five miles of Damascus, he did a spontaneous jig in the center of the room.1
At 5:30 AM London time the last of the torpedo planes were recalled to their respective home carriers, leaving behind 4000 dead French sailors and marines, a once-proud fleet in ruins, and the harbors of Marseilles and Toulon in flames. Admiral Raye and Commodore Dornett awarded hundreds of commendations to the Royal Navy personnel involved in the attack.
The battle for Damascus began in earnest 24 hours later. Knowing that air power would make or break his campaign to take the Syrian capital, Major General Ramsdell had insisted on-- and gotten --Prime Minister Hiller’s personal guarantee that RAF fighter squadrons in Iraq and Transjordan would back him up when he began his offensive. Spitfires modified with special filters to protect their engines from the desert sand accompanied Ramsdell’s tanks on the 7th Armoured’s initial thrust into Damascus; these planes annihilated most of the French aircraft that opposed them, and also inflicted some serious damage on ground targets as well-- for instance, a half-dozen of them shot up the colonial governor’s car as he and his staff were trying to evacuate to Aleppo to re-establish their administration.
Even if they had made it to Aleppo, it’s questionable whether they could have survived. At the same time that Ramsdell’s tanks were hitting Damascus from the east and Percy Hobart’s 9th Armoured Division was moving into the city from the west, RAF bombers were pounding Aleppo into rubble; French AA guns had little effect on them. An American military attaché who was present at the time of the air raid would later recall: "You couldn’t walk two feet without the damn Brits trying to blast you into dust."2
By December 15th, the battle for Damascus was over and almost half of Syria was under British occupation. Percy Hobart led the main body of the 9th Armoured Division across the Syrian border into Lebanon on November 7th and pushed deep into the Bekaa Valley while the rest of his unit stayed behind to guard his rear flank or to assist the 7th Armoured in securing Damascus. By December 18th Italian marines had established beachheads on the Lebanese coast, capturing the ancient port of Tyre and surrounding her sister port of Sidon. France’s colonial empire in the Middle East and North Africa was collapsing like a house of cards.
And France herself was in equally dire straits; on December 19th, barely four days after the last pockets of French resistance in Damascus had collapsed, Admiral Darlan was forced to scuttle the remnants of his Atlantic fleet warships in order to keep them out of British hands. British heavy artillery was within direct shelling range of the outer districts of Paris. The RAF now bombed France’s remaining unoccupied cities almost at will, and Royal Navy submarines were picking off French merchant ships at an alarmingly high rate.
Yet Leon Blum would not abide any talk of evacuating himself or his cabinet from the French capital-- that, he said, was defeatist talk, and he’d made it his personal mission to win the war for France even if it meant taking a bullet right between the eyes. To prove that he meant what he said, he ordered all papers pertaining to the evacuation of his offices burned.
He did, however, accede to the recommendation of his defense minister that an emergency command headquarters be set up in the resort town of Vichy so that the French armed forces could continue the fight against Britain if Paris fell. This post was placed under the command of a general whose name and face would soon become the worldwide symbol of French resistance to the BNSP-- Charles Andre Joseph Marie de Gaulle.
In his first words to the senior staff of his new command, General de Gaulle set the tone for his post’s operations by invoking the spirit of 18th century revolutionary and attorney Georges-Jacques Danton. Quoting a Danton rallying cry from the Austrian invasion of France in the early 1790s, de Gaulle said: "We must be daring, still more daring, and yet more daring again, and France will be saved!" In short, he was saying timidity was a luxury the French military could not afford if France were to win its fight against Hillerite Britain.
He and his staff then set to work planning a counterattack against the British forces besieging Paris. De Gaulle’s fearlessness would be greatly needed in the days to come: on December 21st, two days after the remnants of the French Atlantic fleet were scuttled, Royal Army advance units were sighted in one of the northern districts on the outer edges of the French capital.
In the Middle East the British-instigated Arab rebellion in Tunisia was on the verge of overthrowing that country’s French colonial administration while Axis troops controlled most of Algeria; Percy Hobart’s 9th Armoured Division had encircled Beirut, Tyre and Sidon were now both fully under Axis control, and pro-Axis Lebanese insurgents had started an uprising against French authorities in Tripoli.
But it was Irwin Ramsdell who dominated world headlines and newsreels: the 7th Armoured Division commander, admiring dubbed "the Desert Fox" by the London Times, was inexorably surging towards Aleppo like a tsunami, routing the French at every turn. No matter what they did to prepare themselves for his attacks, he always seemed to be one step ahead of them-- and that was bad news for French hopes of victory in the region. By Christmas Eve, advance elements of the 7th were less than ten miles from the outskirts of Aleppo and Hiller was confidently predicting to his cronies that the war with France would be over by January 6th.
There was little reason to doubt him on this score: by time the 7th entered Aleppo on December 28th eight French soldiers were being killed for every Englishman who fell in combat, the French air force was down to a handful of planes, and the French Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets had effectively ceased to exist.
In the Pacific, however, the Hiller government would eventually receive an object lesson in the law of unintended consequences....
By the time Ramsdell started his push on Aleppo, the isolationist attitudes that had dominated American views of foreign affairs since the early 1920s were fading into a distant memory; the question now was not so much if the United States would get involved in the war against Britain, but where and how. While millions of Americans, most notably those of Irish descent, were clamoring for the Roosevelt Administration to intervene in Europe first, Roosevelt himself thought that the more serious British threat to American security interests lay in Asia, where Tokyo had agreed to lease bases to Britain on the Japanese home islands to compensate her for the loss of India, New Zealand, and Australia.
To counteract the British threat, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had been negotiating a four-nation pact which would reaffirm the United States’ mutual defense arrangements with New Zealand, Australia, and Canada; the pact, known in the American press as the Darwin Accords because the final draft was written in the famed Australian port city, was signed on January 4th, 1938 and would have earth-shaking implications for both sides in the Second World War.
To Be Continued...
1Herman Geary captured the moment for posterity on a home movie camera.
2Lt. Colonel J.R. Featherston, USA(ret), I’m Here To Give You The Facts, copyright 1978 University of Alabama Press.