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A Review of "The Road to Oran: Anglo-French Naval Relations September 1939–July 1940"

Ryan loves learning about lesser-known aspects of history by reading and reviewing the literary works of historians.

"The Road to Oran" by David Brown

"The Road to Oran" by David Brown

The attack—or battle, or massacre, or whatever one wishes to call it—on Mers El-Kébir is not well known in the popular history of the Second World War. Perhaps this is because it doesn't fit the common narrative of a war against the Germans because neither France nor Britain (much less the United States) has had much of a reason to immortalize it and because it is so cloudy with so many different interpretations.

But this is exactly what makes The Road to Oran: Anglo-French Naval Relations September 1939–July 1940 such a fascinating and needed work—one that authoritatively provides a very neutral and unbiased look at the events leading up to the British attack on Mers El-Kébir, showing the mistakes, errors of communication, fears, and individual passions that made such a shattering blow between former allies possible.

The Book's Structure and Pacing

The structure of the book is simple, as the first few chapters cover the development of Anglo-French naval relations and their planning and organizational extensions during the Phony War with Germany. After this point, the book settles into a chronological summary of events and decisions, going either by periods of weeks (such as the Mediterranean between the 27th of March and the 27th of May) or ultimately by days (as during the fateful days of the end of June, in which every day has a day-by-day, blow-by-blow recounting of events).

It covers a mixture of diplomatic, institutional, and political changes, the contacts and communications between the French and British, the movement and actions of French and British ships as they concerned each other, the international context, the thoughts and opinions of various French and British leaders and personnel, the international context, and the decision making by the two sides.

It is particularly interested in the logic and importance of the Free French movement, which is intriguingly examined to determine the role it played during the negotiations over the affair and its impact. The book doesn't specialize in this, but it is something that is elsewhere neglected. This leads up, of course, to the attack on Mers El-Kébir, with its communications and negotiations and then military engagement covered. The book ends quite suddenly without much discussion of the aftermath. However, it has an excellent level of detail throughout and is very well done.

Review and Analysis

There is, I am sure, no other book on the run-up to Mers El-Kébir that has the same amount of detail laboriously fashioned into it and that covers every day and every event linked to the battle with such a loving amount of focus. Brown's work manages to chart every single day and what happens on it, ranging from actions on the ground to diplomacy to political events to discussions and decision making in the military staffs, particularly on the British side, but also on the French side.

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Beyond the Mers El-Kébir event and its leadup, the amount of detail on naval operations makes for a useful history of the Anglo-French naval war effort as a whole, with plenty of discussion of the communication and planning structures and relationships between the French and British naval commands and fleets.

This can lead to very interesting matters being broached that few other books mention, such as various plans between the British and French for naval operations, including their joint plan to seize islands off of Holland during the German invasion or their mutual naval discussions about naval forces for the reactivation of the Salonika front.

So too, it mentions fascinating elements of German deception warfare, such as broadcasting false signals that were purportedly issued by the French admiralty seeking to sow disunity and discord in the Allied ranks. Furthermore, the widespread quoting of individual opinions is very useful for giving a look at the actual thoughts of the characters involved in this historical drama, something done much better here than in other works. This degree of detail goes as far as quoting directly some of the orders and communications made, showing the high level of attention to detail and accuracy.

The attempt to stay scrupulously neutral means that it lacks some of the emotional impact that other volumes might have. From Versailles to Mers El-Kébir by George E. Melton, despite being a much less detailed book written in less general terms, takes a distinctively pro-French position and makes it better for those initially introduced to the topic to have a strong opinion to work with.

By contrast, The Road to Oran is a work that is better for those who already have a firmer grasp of the subject and can receive a more nuanced viewpoint. Its refusal to definitively choose a side as "in the wrong" gives it a much greater field of view as a conclusive history of events that leaves nothing left unsaid for the chronology of the Mers El-Kébir crisis.

For anybody interested in a highly detailed and authoritative work on the breakdown in Anglo-French relations that nearly led to open war and did lead to violence and death between the two (and does an excellent job in tracking the individuals and the institutions in which they operated in while providing a blow-by-blow account), I would recommend The Road to Oran. It is not a book for those interested in a casual and simple look at the events, and it ends precipitously, without discussion of the longer-term impacts of the event, but it is assuredly the best for the subject of the outbreak of Mers El-Kébir itself, and it is a highly detailed and excellent work for examining otherwise undiscussed and uncovered aspects of Anglo-French relations during the beginning of the Second World War.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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