HL Deb 02 June 1943 vol 127 cc809-12

LORD WINSTER asked His Majesty's Government, what is the position regarding the negotiations reported to have been begun in February concerning the French warships interned at Alexandria. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the question on the Paper has been twice postponed because it was represented to me that the negotiations to which it refers were in an interesting condition. Now that an announcement has been made in the Press I feel there can be no harm in putting it, and it is probably desirable that an official statement should be placed on record. I had no wish at any time to cause any embarrassment by putting this question, but I felt that a situation which had drifted on for three years should be cleared up, because it was not exactly good for the prestige or dignity of anyone that it should drift on. At any time it might have caused a very ugly situation because at the time of our reverses in Egypt, when President Roosevelt made the proposal that these ships should be moved to an American port and restored to France after the war, M. Laval gave orders to the officers and men that they were to resist any action that might be taken by ourselves. He described the President's offer as insulting. If anyone can tell me how you can insult such a reptile as Laval I should be very glad to know, because it would give me great pleasure to do it.

There is one particular point to which I hope the noble Viscount will direct his reply. Vichy is now saying that we starved the officers and men in these French ships into submission. The agreement under which the men of these ships have been paid and provisioned was entered into by Admiral Cunningham, under whose command they were at one time serving. I am sure that Admiral Cunningham would be pained by such a suggestion, and I am sure that his successor, or the Government, would never have dreamt of abrogating in any way the agreement he came to with Admiral Godefroy. I feel sure that there is not the slightest truth in the suggestion that these officers and men were starved into submission. The ships will take some time to refit and re-man, but when this is done I am sure the Navy will not only welcome the accession of very useful vessels, but will also welcome to its side comrades who will be fighting, as we are fighting, to restore France to that position in the world to which her historic struggles in the cause of liberty entitle her.


My Lords, first of all I wish to thank the noble Lord for being ready to postpone his question on two previous occasions until an answer could properly be given. The House will be aware from statements which have recently appeared in the Press that Admiral Godefroy has now decided to bring the French ships under his command in Alexandria back into the war on the Allied side, and has rallied for this purpose to the French High Command at Algiers. As noble Lords will know, the squadron which Admiral Godefroy commands was stationed at Alexandria at the time of the Franco-German armistice, and was under the orders of Admiral Cunningham as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean. After the armistice the squadron was immobilized in virtue of an arrangement whereby Admiral Godefroy undertook to refrain from all hostile action against British interests in return for provision for the maintenance of his ships and their crews. When Vichy lost its last semblance of independence after the total occupation of France last November, the basis for this arrangement disappeared. We did not, however, take any immediate steps to bring it to an end, since we hoped that, as a result of negotiations initiated by the new French authorities at Algiers, the Admiral would rally to the Allies of his own accord.

His Majesty's Government were kept fully informed of these negotiations, and were glad to give the French authorities at Algiers every facility for establishing friendly relations with the squadron at Alexandria. The expulsion of the Axis forces from Tunisia was finally chosen by Admiral Godefroy as the moment for him to abandon his attitude of neutrality. General Giraud however decided to defer a public announcement. I would emphasize that in deciding to join forces with General Giraud, Admiral Godefroy has acted of his own free will. The report broadcast by Vichy to which the noble Lord, Lord Winster, has referred, that the French sailors at Alexandria had been starved into submission, is completely untrue. It has evidently been inspired by their German masters, who have typically chosen this way of giving vent to their anger at the prospect of these valuable ships being used once more in active service against them.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Viscount for his reply.

House adjourned.