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British Destroy French Forces at Agincourt - History

British Destroy French Forces at Agincourt - History

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The British decisively defeated the French at the battle of Agincourt on October 25th. The British archers, under the command of Henry V, were the key to the British victory over the French . Five French counts, 90 barons and over 5,000 French knights were killed in the battle and 1,000 were taken prisoner. As a result of the English victory the French nobility was shattered and the feudal system was destroyed. Normandy lay open to English reconquering.

10 of the Most Significant Battles in British History

Britain has been involved in some of history’s most significant wars: the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars to name a few. For better or for worse during these wars battles occurred that have helped shape the fabric of Britain today.

Here are ten of the most significant British battles in history.

The Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years War saw a French army of about 36,000 men, including thousands of armored knights suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of a smaller English army of 6000 men, comprised of 5000 longbowmen and 1000 knights.

England&rsquos king Henry V was marching through Normandy to Calais when his path was blocked by a French army that outnumbered his six to one. Henry picked a position where his flanks were protected by woods, and that limited French options to a frontal attack along a narrow front comprised of recently plowed muddy fields. He placed longbowmen on his flanks, his dismounted knights and more longbowmen in the center, had his men hammer pointed stakes in front of their positions, and waited for the French.

The French obliged, and their commander ordered his first wave of mounted knights to charge. However, the muddy fields, the weight of their heavy armor, the rows of sharpened stakes in their path, and the rain of arrows spelled trouble. The charge wallowed to a halt, and a throng of disorganized French milled about in front of the English positions. They were attacked, and within minutes, the entire first wave was killed or captured.

A second French wave attacked, but was beaten back. While this was going on, king Henry received mistaken reports that he was being attacked in the rear. Judging that he lacked the men to guard thousands of prisoners, Henry ordered the captives executed. By the time he learned the reports were mistaken and ordered a halt to the executions, about 2000 prisoners had been massacred.

The French sent in their third and final wave, but it was also repulsed. Henry then ordered his small contingent of knights to mount up and charge the French, who, thoroughly demoralized by now, were routed. Estimated losses were about 600 English killed vs 10,000 French dead on the field of battle, plus another 2000 executed prisoners.

Early Examples

For the majority of history armies were limited in their speed to that of the marching soldier, about equal for everyone involved. This meant that it was possible for opposing armies to simply march around each other as long as they wished, with supply conditions often deciding where and when the battle would finally be fought. Perhaps the last and most famous example of this ended with the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, prior to which Henry V of England avoided combat while marching to Calais to resupply, allowing him to pick the battlefield.

One of most famous early maneuver tactics was the double envelopment, used by Hannibal against the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, and by Khalid ibn al-Walid against the Persian Empire at the Battle of Walaja in 633 AD.

Khalid's invasion of Roman Syria in July 634, by invading Syria from the most unexpected direction, the Syrian desert, is also an example of taking enemy defenses by surprise.While Byzantine army held Muslim forces in Southern Syria, and had expected the reinforcement from conventional Syria-Arabia road in South, Khalid, who was in Iraq, marched through Syrian desert and entered Northern Syria, completely taking the Byzantines by surprise, cutting off their communications with Northern Syria.

In prehistoric times this began to change with the domestication of the horse, the invention of chariots and the increasing military use of the cavalry. The cavalry had two major uses: one, to attack and use its momentum to break infantry formations and two, using the advantage of speed to cut communications and isolate formations for later defeat in detail.

Napoleon's use of maneuver

Similar strategies are also possible using infantry suitably trained and in recent times it was Napoleon who showed this to great effect. He used the combination of cavalry movement and fast infantry movement to bring about the defeat of superior forces whilst they were still moving to their intended place of battle.

This allowed his forces to attack where and when he wanted, often giving him the advantage of terrain to disable effective movement by his enemy. Thus he used maneuver both strategically (when and where to fight) and tactically (how to fight the battle he chose).

Napoleon's fame as a general, and indeed his powerbase to become head of the French state, was based on a powerful and fluent campaign in Northern Italy principally against the numerically superior Austrians. He cited Frederick the Great as one of his major sources of his strategy.

He trained a normal, if rather undisciplined, French Army of Italy to be able to move faster than most thought possible. In part this was because his Army lived off the land and had no big logistical 'tail'. His ability to move huge armies to give battle where he wanted and in the style of his choosing became legendary and he seemed undefeatable even against larger and superior forces.

It was these and later defeats that caused the major doctrinal re-evaluation by the Prussians under Carl von Clausewitz on the revealed power of maneuver warfare. The results of this review were seen in the Franco-Prussian War.

Napoleon also arranged his forces into what we today would call 'Battle Groups' of combined arms formations to allow faster reaction time to enemy action. This is an important support measure for maneuver warfare to be most effective and was copied by von Clausewitz.

Napoleon's principal strategy was to move fast so as to engage before the enemy had time to organize, to lightly engage whilst moving to turn the flank that defended the main resupply route, to envelop and deploy blocking forces to prevent reinforcement, and to defeat in detail those contained in the envelopment. All of these activities imply faster movement than the enemy as well as faster reaction times to enemy activities.

His use of fast mass marches to gain strategic advantage, cavalry probes and screens to hide his movements, and deliberate movement to gain psychological advantage by isolating forces from each other and HQ are all hallmarks of maneuver warfare. One of his major issues was the relatively slow speed of infantry movement relative to the cavalry.


The Hundred Years War, a dynastic feud between England and France which actually lasted well over a century, was the definitive war in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages. Fought in four stages, ultimately with a French triumph, the Hundred Years War is actually most famous for three overwhelmingly lobsided English victories. Two of these, the Battle of Crecy in 1346 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, were fought seven decades but barely twenty miles apart from each other. In both cases, badly outnumbered English forces inflicted crushing defeats and massive casualties on the French, largely due to effective use of massed bowmen. These victories allowed the English to maintain the war on French soil for far longer than would otherwise have been possible.


The Hundred Years War began as a feud for control of the French monarchy. Thanks to convoluted laws of succession, Edward III of England inherited a semi-legitimate claim to the French crown in 1328. In 1337 he decided to press his claim, and hostilities broke out between England and France. The early years of the war were dominated by minor engagements, notably in Brittany. In 1340 the English fleet utterly destroyed the French fleet at Sluys, thereby securing the Channel, and the initiative, for the English for the next century.

In 1346 the English invaded France outright. Taking the French by surprise, the English seized Caen, the old capital of Normandy under William the Conqueror. They then began moving along the coast towards Calais. The French amassed a huge army to stop them. The two sides met at Crecy. The English arrived first, setting up a strong defensive position that maximized the use of their superior force of archers. The French arrived well after the English had time to rest and prepare. They basically charged right between the English lined, unprepared, and were cut to ribbons by wave after wave of arrows. By the time the slaughter was over, well over two thousand of their twenty thousand soldiers were casualties, while the English lost only a few hundred out of their ten thousand.

The English victory at Crecy opened the door to the English conquest of Calais, which became and remained an English possession until 1556. In addition to losing this key port, Crecy was a military and strategic disaster for France. It set the stage for the Battle of Poitiers two years later, which solidified English control of northern France until the 15th century. From 1346 to 1415, there were two long periods of warfare and two long periods of peace. In 1415 hostilities resumed for the third time.

Under Henry V of England, the English almost perfectly recreated their campaign of a century earlier. Landing with a large force in Normandy, he re-captured territories that had been liberated by the French. In response the French amassed another army and chased the English to Agincourt. This time the English were outnumbered three-to-one, but the outcome was still the same, with even higher casualties. Massed English bowmen inflicted perhaps as many as ten thousand casualties, with a loss of about one hundred English soldiers. This victory allowed the English to stay in France for a further forty years, before the French drove them out of Normandy utterly.


Of the two battlefields, which can both easily be visited on one day, Agincourt is the more interesting from a visitor standpoint. Markers note the sites where the engagements took place, and there is large gravesite where the dead from the battle are buried. A small museum in the village of Azincourt features artifacts from the battle. The Crecy battlefield boasts a tower built on the site of the windmill from which Edward III commanded the battle.

Despite the fact that the English King won a great military victory, the political consequences of the battle were very complicated. The English King had to return to England, and a civil war started in France. The lack of unity in the country torn apart by war allowed the English King to prepare for a new campaign against France. Beginning in 1417, the new conquest was much easier for the English taking into account the extensive damage caused to the French military and civilian structures in Normandy in 1415. After several years of military operations, the English King managed to achieve all of his planned goals. Under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, he was recognized as regent and heir to the French throne. This was fixed by the marriage of Henry V with the daughter of the French King Charles VI, Catherine of Valois.

This battle demonstrated the superiority of the English longbow in its’ reach and strength. The arrowhead could not penetrate the armor of the French knight, only the slots and bare sections of the armor, as well as the horses, were injured. This led to the knights, having lost their horses, dismounting and getting bogged down with heavy boots and steel armor in the mud. Knights could not move in the muddy terrain because of their armor, and the light units of the English were quicker and more disciplined and organized. This battle marked the end of the era during which the most capable unit on the battlefield was a heavy knight. This set in motion a social change, from a feudal society to a society where most of the power was in the hands of an absolute ruler.

Enguerrand de Monstrelet. Battle of Agincourt, 1415
Plan of the Battle for the Campaign of Azencourt (1415)

New Battle of Agincourt as British and French join forces to defend field from wind farm project

History enthusiast Patrick Fenet is spearheading the fight against the wind farm project Credit: Magali Delporte

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A new Battle of Agincourt has erupted over plans to build a wind farm within full view of the site of Henry V's 1415 victory in northern France.

The battlefield, immortalised by Shakespeare and which has left an indelible mark on the British psyche, has remained untouched for more than 600 years, but preparations are now under way to erect 16 wind turbines beside it.

Several towering 500ft structures could stand as close as 800 yards from the site of one of England’s greatest military triumphs.

It was on this muddy field that King Henry’s “happy few”, his “band of brothers”, overcame apparently insuperable odds to massacre a vast army of French nobles on St Crispin's Day, October 25, 1415.

Gary Ashley, 62, a locally based battlefield guide from Rotherham, said: "You can’t make this stuff up, it’s Game of Thrones for real and even worse than the [television series'] Battle of the Bastards."

T his time, however, the fighting is pitting one camp of French mayors against another, backed by British locals and heritage fans, including the actor Jeremy Irons and Jane Hawking, first wife of the late scientist Stephen Hawking.

It has also highlighted the fractious nature of rural French politics, which has almost as many fiefdoms as during the Hundred Years' War.

A similar project to build a wind farm further from the site in 2003 sparked a fierce and ultimately victorious cross-Channel campaign to see it buried.

The coup de grace in the two-year tussle came from the late actor Robert Hardy, who in a letter to the Telegraph wrote: "A battlefield is much more than a place of burial: if unspoilt, it is a place to pursue historical truth.

"It is better to honour such places than to let them fall victim to the spread of concrete.”

B ut a new developer has unearthed the hatchet by signing up the municipalities of five surrounding villages to the project - Auchy, Béalancourt, Maisoncelle, Teneur and Wamin. They have already authorised service roads and electric cabling and two 200ft test masts have been erected.

“This time the threat is even greater because it’s nearer and they are higher,” warned Patrick Fenet, 70, a medieval history enthusiast who spearheaded the last campaign and staged a protest at the battlefield this week.

Holding a longbow, the weapon that swung the battle Henry’s way thanks to the fearsome firepower of his Welsh archers, Mr Fenet said: “These turbines will spoil the battlefield surroundings, all that it represents and all the efforts of those trying to develop historical tourism here.”

F rench local Arnaud Petit, 44, cited Brexit as another reason not to sully the site, saying: “Destroying a joint historical site that tens of thousands of Britons visit every year, will worsen a situation that already risks pushing us further apart.”

O n the British side, Mr Ashley said: “Where do you draw the line on wind farms? Verdun, Valmy, Omaha beach? Agincourt is a red line. I’m not here just to defend a British battlefield. This field is soaked in French blood."

Dr Hawking, who bought a house in the area in 1989, said: “Let us go once more unto the breach at Agincourt, but this time in support of our French friends and an important part of our own heritage.”

In a measured message, Irons said that while wind energy was “wonderful” it must be "carefully placed".

“The field at Azincourt may not be ideal as we should be allowed to be aware and to travel on those magical historical places,” he wrote in a message to the protest group.

B ut Daniel Boquet, 71, the pro-wind farm mayor of Béalancourt, denied he was trampling on Anglo-French history, adding defiantly “Each of us is boss in our village.”

“When the English drive over here from Calais they already see loads [of wind farms] along the way, so what’s the problem? Personally, I don’t think this will stop people coming”, he said.

M r Boquet personally stands to receive at least €6,000 (£5,300) per year for allowing the operator to lease his land. He and two other councillors did not take part in the vote approving the wind farm to avoid a “conflict of interest”.

A further €22,000 per year would be shared among all 69 villages in the area and around €1,000 would go to the village itself.

I n nearby Maisoncelle, mayor Etienne Perin, 50, a dairy farmer, is among four council members who will profit from turbines on their land if the project is approved.

He insisted he was “working together with others to make the most of the area’s history” but that his tiny village could do with a boost to its budget. He also said he backed renewable energy against nuclear.

“It’s much easier to be against everything than for it, particularly in France. Everyone is for ecology but not in my backyard,” he said.

At nearby Crécy, the site of another epic English victory in the Hundred Years' War, wind farms were everywhere and nobody complained, he claimed.

H e has even come up with a cunning plan. “We could paint medieval knights on the masts of the turbines to make it more acceptable,” he suggested.

H owever, Nicolas Poclet, the mayor of Azincourt, the village misspelt by the medieval English, is completely against the idea.

“I will not be the mayor who builds wind farms around the battlefield,” he said. “We absolutely have to protect it from any visual pollution.”

The timing for the project could not be worse, he added, as local communities had funnelled €4 million into a battlefield observation tower and a revamp of a museum about Agincourt and medieval life. The aim is to more than double annual visits to 50,000 when it reopens next summer.

The new museum will also lay to rest the Shakespearean myth that the French outnumbered the English by up to five to one as recent research suggests they were far more evenly matched in what was still an epic victory, some now think 9,000 English overcame as few as 15,000 French.

P atrick Desreumaux, vice president of the umbrella municipal grouping for the area, who opposes the wind farms, said he had “high hopes” that the regional state prefect - who has the last word - would turn the project down.

He has a powerful ally in the shape of Xavier Bertrand, head of the Hauts-de-France region, who in an angry outburst recently told the government to “give us a break over wind farms”.

“We’ve had it. They cost a fortune, they don’t create jobs and they destroy our landscapes,” he said in August.

M r Desreumaux said: “We are pulling every personal and political string. It is everyone’s duty to respect this battlefield.”

Destruction of the French Fleet by the British WWII – Operation Catapult

At the Mediterranean Sea port Mers-El-Kébir, the Royal Navy opened fire upon an anchored French fleet killing 1,297 French sailors while sinking or damaging two battleships, one battlecruiser, three destroyers and numerous smaller crafts. Just 10 days before this incident the British and the French had been allies. But the situation had changed.

France Falls to the Germans

With France finally caving into the German Blitzkrieg, an armistice was signed on June 22, 1940. Even though in Article VIII of the armistice the Germans swore not to use the captured French ships in war, the British did not believe it.

Apparently, neither did the Marine Nationale (National French Navy) for they dispersed their vessels to ports in Britain, Egypt and other places. The main concentration, however, was at Mers-El-Kébir.

French destroyer leader Mogador burning after shellfire at Mers-El-Kebir on 3 July 1940

From the moment the resolution was drafted conflicts among England and France ensued. Foremost was the fact that they had signed a previous agreement not to surrender to the Germans. Language problems, old prejudices and general lack of information contributed to the positions taken by the once and future allies.

The British, involved in a two-ocean war feared that adding the French ships to the German and/or Italian fleet would present insurmountable obstacles to their victory. The French, on the other hand, wanted to save a certain amount of face and independence.

French Battleship Strasbourg

Over the objections of the Royal Navy, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British War Cabinet decided to send an ultimatum to the main French naval force.

They gave their former allies four choices: join the British fleet, sail to a British port from where those crew members that so desired would be repatriated, sail to a French possession in America or to the United States, or scuttle the ships. If the French didn’t accept any of the alternatives, then the British would fire upon them.

Sir Winston Churchill

Under the Command of Admiral James Somerville, Force H which consisted of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the battlecruiser Hood and the battleships Valiant and Resolution with some other minor crafts sailed from Gibraltar.

Long and Unproductive Negotiations

Sommerville presented the terms as diplomatically as he could. However, he insulted French Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul by not delivering the message himself, but sending the Captain of the Ark Royal, Cedric Holland, who spoke French, in his place. Gensoul responded by sending his own lieutenant, Bernard Dufay. This prolonged and muddled the negotiations.

Admiral Sir James Somerville

Gensoul was afraid that if he handled his ships over, the Germans would retaliate by executing large numbers of French citizens. He was also uneasy about the response of his superior the resolutely anti-British Admiral François Darlan, French Minister of the Navy.

His concerns further contributed to drag on the confrontation and lead to disaster. In addition, two of the British terms, sail for the United States or scuttling the ships, were possible courses of action according to the orders Darlan had given him. Why they did not choose one of these options is unknown.

For his part, Somerville found the idea of firing upon his earlier allies so repugnant that he stepped down as commander of Force H, handling the reigns over to Admiral Andrew Cunningham.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham

The Attack

Even though the ultimatum had been delivered, the French forces, anchored at port, did not expect a barrage from the British ship. They were surprised when at just before 6:00 p.m. the Hood, Resolution, and Valiant opened fire. The Dunkerque and the Strasbourg could only respond with their aft guns while some heavy batteries from the coast opened fire on Force H.

When the smoke from the British third salvo cleared, the French battleship Bretagne had been seriously harmed and would later sink. Planes from the Ark Royal attacked and damaged the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg as well as the destroyer Mogador. Two other destroyers, the Lynx and the Kersaint were also smashed up.

The sinking of Bretagne

Louis Collinet, the captain of the Strasburg, lead a daring escape through the chaos of battle. Not only, did he guide the Volta, the Tigre, and Le Terrible, all of the destroyers, out of the port but through two other battles with British planes until they reached the port of Toulon on July 4, unscathed.

The fallout from the attack was not long in coming. German propaganda exploited it right away, presenting the British as murderers. Many pro-Britain Frenchmen, decided to side with the pro-German Vichy government. To this day the encounter is a sore point with the French Navy.

Battleship Dunkerque under fire by the British. By Jacques Mulard CC BY-SA 3.0

But in England, it had a different impact. The attack showed that Churchill meant it when he said that Britain would continue to fight the Nazis even though it was doing so alone. Both sides of the chamber cheered when the attack was announced in the House of Commons.

The British people felt reassured that their government would go to any length to fight the Nazis. In Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sensed that his decision to back Britain had been the right one.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt By FDR Presidential Library & Museum. CC BY 2.0

The question remains whether the attack was essential. On the same day of the Mers-El-Kébir attack, negotiations began at Alexandria, Egypt for a smaller French force to surrender. Both the British and French commanders ignored orders and on July 7, the French surrendered.

Two years later, when the Germans captured Toulon as part of their line of work for Vichy France, all military ships, including the Strasbourg and the now repaired Dunkerque, were scuttled.


French–German armistice Edit

After the Fall of France in 1940 and the armistice between France and Nazi Germany, the British War Cabinet was apprehensive about control over the French navy. The French and German navies combined could alter the balance of power at sea, threatening British imports over the Atlantic and communications with the rest of the British Empire. In Article 8, Paragraph 2 of the Armistice terms, the German government "solemnly and firmly declared that it had no intention of making demands regarding the French fleet during the peace negotiations" and there were similar terms in the armistice with Italy but they were considered by the British to be no guarantee of the neutralisation of the French fleet. On 24 June, Darlan assured Winston Churchill against such a possibility. [6] Churchill ordered that a demand be made that the French Navy (Marine nationale) should either join with the Royal Navy or be neutralised in a manner guaranteed to prevent the ships falling into Axis hands. [7]

At Italian suggestion, the armistice terms were amended to permit the French fleet temporarily to stay in North African ports, where they might be seized by Italian troops from Libya. The British made a contingency plan, Operation Catapult, to eliminate the French fleet in mid-June, when it was clear that Philippe Pétain was forming a government with a view to ending the war and it seemed likely that the French fleet might be seized by the Germans. [8] In a speech to Parliament, Churchill repeated that the Armistice of 22 June 1940 was a betrayal of the Allied agreement not to make a separate peace. Churchill said, "What is the value of that? Ask half a dozen countries what is the value of such a solemn assurance. Finally, the armistice could be voided at any time on any pretext of non-observance. ". [9]

The French fleet had seen little fighting during the Battle of France and was mostly intact. By tonnage, about 40 per cent was in Toulon, near Marseilles, 40 per cent in French North Africa and 20 per cent in Britain, Alexandria and the French West Indies. Although Churchill feared the fleet would be used by the Axis but because of the need to man, maintain and arm the French ships with items that were incompatible with German and Italian equipments. [10] The Kriegsmarine and Benito Mussolini made overtures but Adolf Hitler feared that an attempted take-over would provoke the French fleet into defecting to the British. Churchill and Hitler viewed the fleet as a potential threat the French leaders used the fleet (and the possibility of its rejoining the Allies) as a bargaining counter against the Germans to keep them out of unoccupied France (zone libre) and French North Africa. The armistice was contingent on the French right to man their vessels and the French Navy Minister, Admiral François Darlan, had ordered the Atlantic fleet to Toulon to demobilise, with orders to scuttle the ships if the Germans tried to take them. [10]

British–French negotiations Edit

The British tried to persuade the French authorities in North Africa to continue the war or to hand over the fleet to British control. A British admiral visited Oran on 24 June, and Duff Cooper, Minister of Information, visited Casablanca on 27 June. [11] The French Atlantic ports were in German hands and the British needed to keep the German surface fleet out of the Mediterranean, confine the Italian fleet to the Mediterranean and to blockade ports still under French control. The Admiralty was against an attack on the French fleet in case the ships were not sufficiently damaged, France declared war and the French colonies would be less likely to defect. The Royal Navy lacked the ships permanently to blockade the French naval bases in North Africa and keep the Atlantic approaches open, which made the risk of the Germans or the Italians seizing the French capital ships too great. Because the fleet in Toulon was well guarded by shore artillery, the Royal Navy decided to attack the base in North Africa. [12]

The most powerful group of French warships was at Mers-el-Kébir in French Algeria, comprising the old battleships Provence and Bretagne, the newer Force de Raid battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg, the seaplane tender Commandant Teste, six destroyers and a gunboat Rigault de Genouilly, under the command of Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. Admiral James Somerville, commander of Force H, based in Gibraltar, was ordered to deliver an ultimatum to the French, the terms of which were contrary to the German-French armistice. [11] [a] Somerville passed the duty of presenting the ultimatum to a French speaker, Captain Cedric Holland, commander of the carrier HMS Ark Royal. Gensoul was affronted that negotiations were not being conducted by a senior officer and sent his lieutenant, Bernard Dufay, which led to much delay and confusion. As negotiations dragged on, it became clear that neither side was likely to give way. The French made preparations for action, and 42 aircraft were rearmed and made ready for take off. [2] Darlan was at home on 3 July and could not be contacted Gensoul told the French government that the alternatives were internment or battle but omitted the option of sailing to the French West Indies. [11] Removing the fleet to United States waters had formed part of the orders given by Darlan to Gensoul in the event that a foreign power should attempt to seize his ships. [14]

Plymouth and Alexandria Edit

Along with French vessels in metropolitan ports, some had sailed to ports in Britain or to Alexandria in Egypt. Operation Catapult was an attempt to take these ships under British control or destroy them and the French ships in Plymouth and Portsmouth were boarded without warning on the night of 3 July 1940. [15] [16] The submarine Surcouf, the largest in the world, had been berthed in Plymouth since June 1940. [17] The crew resisted a boarding party and three Royal Navy personnel, including two officers, were killed along with a French sailor. Other ships captured included the old battleships Paris and Courbet, the destroyers Le Triomphant and Léopard, eight torpedo boats, five submarines and a number of lesser ships. The French squadron in Alexandria (Admiral René-Émile Godfroy) including the battleship Lorraine, heavy cruiser Suffren and three modern light cruisers, was neutralised by local agreement. [18]

Attack on Mers-el-Kébir Edit

The British force comprised the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and an escort of cruisers and destroyers. The British had the advantage of being able to manoeuvre, while the French fleet was anchored in a narrow harbour and its crews did not expect an attack. The main armament of Dunkerque and Strasbourg was grouped on their bows and could not immediately be brought to bear. The British capital ships had 15 in (381 mm) guns and fired a heavier broadside than the French battleships. On 3 July, before negotiations were formally terminated, 6 British Fairey Swordfish planes escorted by 3 Blackburn Skuas from Ark Royal dropped magnetic mines in the harbour exit. The force was intercepted by 5 French Curtiss H-75 fighters and a Skua was shot down into the sea with the loss of its two crew, the only British fatalities in the action. [19]

French warships were ordered from Algiers and Toulon as reinforcements but did not reach Mers-El-Kebir in time. [11] At 5:54 p.m., Churchill ordered the British ships to open fire and the British commenced from 17,500 yd (9.9 mi 16.0 km). [20] The third British salvo scored hits and a magazine aboard Bretagne exploded, the ship sinking with 977 of her crew at 6:09 p.m. After thirty salvoes, the French ships stopped firing the British force altered course to avoid return fire from the French coastal forts but Provence, Dunkerque, the destroyer Mogador and two other destroyers were damaged and run aground by their crews. Four French Morane 406 fighters arrived, outnumbering the British Skuas. Another nine French fighters were then spotted at 7:10 p.m. and a dogfight ensued in which a Curtiss 75 and a Morane 406 were damaged. Three more Curtiss fighters appeared and there was another engagement. [21]

Strasbourg, three destroyers and one gunboat managed to avoid the magnetic mines and escape to the open sea, under attack from a flight of bomb-armed Swordfish from Ark Royal. The French ships responded with anti-aircraft fire and shot down two Swordfish, the crews being rescued by the destroyer HMS Wrestler a French flying boat also bombed a British destroyer. [22] As the British bombing had little effect, at 6:43 p.m. Somerville ordered his ships to pursue and the light cruisers HMS Arethusa and Enterprise engaged a French gunboat. At 8:20 p.m. Somerville called off the pursuit, feeling that his ships were ill-deployed for a night engagement. After another ineffective Swordfish attack at 8:55 p.m., Strasbourg reached Toulon on 4 July. [23]

The French aviso (gunboat) Rigault de Genouilly, en route to Oran, met Force H at 7:33 p.m. and sailed towards Hood, only to be fired on by Arethusa and Enterprise at 12,000 and 18,000 yd (5.9 and 8.9 nmi 6.8 and 10.2 mi 11 and 16 km) respectively, along with several 15 in (380 mm) shells from Hood, against which the French ship fired nineteen 5.45 in (138 mm) shells before being hit by Enterprise. On the next day, the British submarine HMS Pandora encountered the ship off the Algerian coast, mistook it for a cruiser and sank it. [24] The French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) made reprisal raids on Gibraltar, including a half-hearted night attack on 5 July, when many bombs landed in the sea. [25] [26]

Actions of 8 July Edit

The British believed that the damage inflicted on Dunkerque and Provence was not serious and on the morning of 8 July raided Mers-el-Kébir again in Operation Lever, with Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal. A torpedo hit the patrol boat Terre-Neuve, moored alongside Dunkerque, full of depth charges. Terre-Neuve quickly sank and the depth charges went off, causing serious damage to Dunkerque. [27] Another attack took place on 8 July, by aircraft from the carrier HMS Hermes, against the battleship Richelieu at Dakar the battleship was seriously damaged. [25] [26]


Headed by British Army General Charles Keightley, it was conducted in November 1956 in close coordination with the Israeli armoured thrust into the Sinai, which was called Operation Kadesh. Egypt's government, led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, was seeking political control over the canal, an effort resisted by the Europeans. The army was originally to land at Alexandria, but the location was later switched to Port Said since a landing at Alexandria would have been opposed by most of the Egyptian army, necessitating the deployment of an armoured division. Furthermore, a preliminary bombardment of a densely populated area would have involved tens of thousands of civilian casualties. The naval bombardment of Port Said was rendered less effective by the decision to only use 4.5-inch guns instead of large caliber guns, in order to minimise the number of civilian casualties. [4]

The final land order of battle involved the Royal Marine Commando Brigade, the 16th Parachute Brigade, and the 3rd Infantry Division. To bring these formations to war establishment, the regular army reserve and selected national service reservists were mobilised. Most of the latter were sent to units in home stations (Britain and Germany) to replace regulars posted to the Musketeer force. Lieutenant General Sir Hugh Stockwell was appointed to command the landing force. A French parachute brigade joined 16th Parachute Brigade as it returned to Cyprus. The Commando Brigade completed refresher training in shore landings from helicopters, in association with the Mediterranean fleet, which was preparing to support the amphibious operation. Over the summer the Royal Air Force selected a range of targets whose loss would cripple Egyptian resistance.

Details of the secret plan for Israeli forces to invade the Sinai desert were revealed to the Chiefs of the Defence staff in October. On 29 October Israeli armour, preceded by parachute drops on two key passes, thrust south into the Sinai, routing local Egyptian forces within five days. Affecting to be alarmed by the threat of fighting along the Suez Canal, the UK and France issued a twelve-hour ultimatum on 30 October to the Israelis and the Egyptians to cease fighting. When, as expected, no response was given, Operation Musketeer was launched.

The air offensive began. The 3rd Division, minus the Guards Brigade, embarked on 1 November. The 45th Commando and 16th Parachute Brigade landed by sea and air on 5 November. Although landing forces quickly established control over major canal facilities, the Egyptians were able to sink obstacles in the canal, rendering it unusable. The Anglo-French air offensive suppressed Egyptian airfields not already attacked by the Israelis, but failed to destroy oil stocks or cripple the Egyptian army. [5] Cairo Radio continued to broadcast. The 3rd Battalion Parachute group captured El Cap airfield by airborne assault. The remaining units, held back initially for deep airborne targets, travelled by sea to Port Said. The Commando Brigade captured all its objectives. The French parachutists took Port Fuad, opposite Port Said. Elements of the 16th Parachute Brigade led by Brigadier M.A.H. Butler and a contingent of the Royal Tank Regiment set off south along the canal bank on 6 November to capture Ismailia.

Worldwide reaction against Musketeer was massive and negative. The United States unexpectedly led condemnations of the action at the United Nations and in other forums, marking a sharp break in the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom. Of the countries in the Commonwealth, only Australia, South Africa and New Zealand supported the military operation, with Canada strongly opposing it. Just before midnight Brigadier Mervyn Butler was ordered to stop on the hour, when a ceasefire would come into effect. This raised a difficulty. There were Egyptian forces ahead the British column was in open desert with no defensible feature to hand. Butler compromised, advancing until 0:15 a.m. to reach El Cap, where he sited the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, with supporting detachments. [6]

While the military operation itself had been completely successful, political pressure from the United States obliged the British and French governments to accept the ceasefire terms drawn up by the United Nations. The 3rd Division landed to relieve the parachutists. While accepting a United Nations Emergency Force to replace the Anglo-French presence, Nasser nevertheless ensured the Canal could not be used by sinking or otherwise disabling 49 ships in the channel. Anglo-French forces were withdrawn by 22 December.

When the United States threatened to devalue the British currency (the Pound Sterling), [7] the British cabinet was divided. Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden called a ceasefire, without Israeli or French officials being notified. This caused France to doubt the reliability of their allies. A few months later, French president René Coty ordered the creation of the brand new military experiments facility C.S.E.M. in the Sahara. It was used by his successor Charles de Gaulle to develop an autonomous nuclear deterrent against potential threats. The French atomic bomb Gerboise Bleue was tested in February 1960. In 1966, de Gaulle further loosened his ties with the Western Allies by leaving NATO's peacetime command structure.

Britain had a treaty with Jordan, and had a plan (Cordage) to give assistance to Jordan in the event of an attack by Israel. This led to the First Lord of the Admiralty (Hailsham) sending a memo to Eden on 2 October 1956 proposing the use of the light cruiser HMS Royalist for Cordage as well as Musketeer. HMS Royalist had just been modernised as an anti-aircraft radar picket ship, and was regarded as the most suitable ship for protection against the Mystère fighter-bombers supplied by France to Israel. But HMS Royalist had just been transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy, and New Zealand's Prime Minister Sidney Holland did not in the end allow the Royalist to be used with the British fleet in the Mediterranean for Cordage or Musketeer (where her presence would indicate support by New Zealand). The memo indicates that Hailsham did not know of the negotiations of Eden and Lloyd with France and Israel for concerted moves against Egypt. [8]

Operation Musketeer was a failure in strategic terms. By mischance it covered the Soviet Union's military intervention in Hungary on 4 November. On this issue and, more generally, on the principle of premature military action against Egypt, the operation divided public opinion in the UK. It demonstrated the limitations of the UK's military capacity, and exposed errors in several staff functions, notably intelligence and movement control. It was tactically successful, both in the sea and airborne assaults and the subsequent brief occupation.

French Navy Edit

Ground forces Edit

Most French units involved came from the 10th Parachute Division (10e DP).

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