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What if Mers-el-Kabir was more fair to the French?

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Hello!  This is a bit of a random history question, but I'm kinda curious what people would think in regards to the British assault on Mers-el-Kabir if it were more fair to the French fleet.  As history goes, the French fleet was in port and wasn't in an ideal position when the British attacked the base. 

 

What would've happened to the British fleet if the French were more aware and mobilized their fleet in a more ideal situation (i.e. not in port and fully ready for battle)?  Would the British have still triumphed over the French fleet...or would the French have had a chance against the English attackers?

 

Here's wiki information on the historical assault - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attack_on_Mers-el-K%C3%A9bir

 

Thanks!

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An interesting question.

 

     I think if the French fleet were at sea, or at least not at anchor within the breakwater, that they could have had much better odds against the British fleet. Though, I think France would aim to run, rather than hold their ground. No, that's not a "French retreat" joke. Strasbourg managed to escape to Toulon in the actual event where she, and the other French ships there, enjoyed relative safety from attack (that is until the Germans showed up at their doorstep, resulting in the scuttling of the fleet... but that's another story). Therefore, "running" was the smart thing for Strasbourg to do.

 

     If the French aim to just fend off the British, and do so successfully, then the British will simply have more warships on the horizon by morning. If the French fleet can manage to escape to Toulon in a running fight with the British fleet then they'll have much better odds in the long run. In Toulon, they'll be with the majority of the rest of the French fleet.

 

     Great Britain would need a massive fleet to attempt to bombard the French fleet at Toulon and, on top of the hardship of defeating the most modern navy in the world in one decisive engagement, they'd also potentially have to put up with hostile aircraft from the French mainland. Furthermore, assembling such a large fleet would require the British to pull warships that were desperately needed elsewhere.

 

     In the end, it would be too risky for the British to attempt, not to mention hardly worth the effort... Even in the worst case scenario, that is, the French fleet being captured by, or allying with, the Germans, neither the Germans nor the French would have enough fuel to operate such a large combined fleet for very long. Heck, by 1943 the Germans barely had enough fuel for the Tirpitz to keep the lights on, figuratively speaking.

 

Note: When I say the French fleet was the most modern in the World, I am not talking about technology, I am talking about the age of their ships. By the time WWII came around there was not a single warship in the French navy over 13 years old, save for her 6 old dreadnoughts.

Edited by dseehafer
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An interesting question.

 

     I think if the French fleet were at sea, or at least not at anchor within the breakwater, that they could have had much better odds against the British fleet. Though, I think France would aim to run, rather than hold their ground. No, that's not a "French retreat" joke. Strasbourg managed to escape to Toulon in the actual event where she, and the other French ships there, enjoyed relative safety from attack (that is until the Germans showed up at their doorstep, resulting in the scuttling of the fleet... but that's another story). Therefore, "running" was the smart thing for Strasbourg to do.

 

     If the French aim to just fend off the British, and do so successfully, then the British will simply have more warships on the horizon by morning. If the French fleet can manage to escape to Toulon in a running fight with the British fleet then they'll have much better odds in the long run. In Toulon, they'll be with the majority of the rest of the French fleet.

 

     Great Britain would need a massive fleet to attempt to bombard the French fleet at Toulon and, on top of the hardship of defeating the most modern navy in the world in one decisive engagement, they'd also potentially have to put up with hostile aircraft from the French mainland. Furthermore, assembling such a large fleet would require the British to pull warships that were desperately needed elsewhere.

 

     In the end, it would be too risky for the British to attempt, not to mention hardly worth the effort... Even in the worst case scenario, that is, the French fleet being captured by, or allying with, the Germans, neither the Germans nor the French would have enough fuel to operate such a large combined fleet for very long. Heck, by 1943 the Germans barely had enough fuel for the Tirpitz to keep the lights on, figuratively speaking.

 

That's interesting.  So the French could've lasted longer if they retreated to Toulon, which is where another fleet was laden. 

 

If Germany had enough fuel, do you think that the combined Kriegsmarine and French naval forces could've eliminated the Royal Navy as a major threat?

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That's interesting.  So the French could've lasted longer if they retreated to Toulon, which is where another fleet was laden. 

 

If Germany had enough fuel, do you think that the combined Kriegsmarine and French naval forces could've eliminated the Royal Navy as a major threat?

 

When the Germans arrived in Toulon, on November/27/1942, hoping to take the French fleet for themselves, France had 116 warships stationed there. France successfully scuttled 77 of those ships, leaving just 39 smaller vessels for the Germans to capture. So yes, France had almost her entire navy in Toulon.

 

Do I think a Franco-Saxon fleet could have wiped out the Royal Navy? Probably not, but I do think that they would be able to operate with near impunity as they'd have the strength and numbers to do so. In the very least the convoys would certainly be MUCH less safe from attack by surface vessels. To counter this Britain would need more escorting warships per convoy to guarantee their safety. This would mean fewer convoys, which would mean fewer supplies going back and forth between Great Britain, America, and the Soviet Union, which inevitably would lead to a much longer war. American and Britain may even be forced to pull warships from the Pacific to adequately protect their respective Atlantic and Arctic trade routes, again, probably leading to a longer war in the Pacific theater as well.

 

But again, that's assuming Germany and France have adequate amounts of fuel... which they didn't. And that's also assuming Germany got the entire French fleet from Toulon unscratched... which they didn't. In short, this is a very big "what if" scenario.

Edited by dseehafer
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I'm interested to hear what mofton has to say about all of this.

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I agree with dseehafer, the aim of the French, if they knew hostile action would commence, would be to escape to the safety of Toulon.

 

Most certainly if they could they'd try to slip by the British without engaging in combat...

 

But if an action were to commence, it would favor the British, imo.

 

First of all, Gensoul would've been faced with the excruciating choice of risking the entire force, or making good his escape at the cost of two battleships. A force is only as fast as it's slowest ships, and while almost all of the French fleet could easily outrun the British if they gave chase, the two Bretagne-class battleships, with only a 20 knot top-speed, could not outrun even Resolution.

 

Gensoul could get both his modern, fast Battleships, as well as all the destroyers, away to Toulon easily without the old Dreadnoughts.

 

If I were in his position, I likely would've left Bretagne and Province behind at Mers-el-Kébir, under the guns of the fortifications, and brought the rest of Fleet north to Toulon. However, we and he are not the same person, but then again I'm going from the PoV of trying to keep the fleet intact, while avoiding combat with the British; this is what I'd assume his goal was as well.

 

However, the situation is different if we turn around and say that Gensoul is forced to fight past the British.

 

Britian has a carrier, the French do not... And a bad hit on Dunkerque or Strasbourg could be devestating for the French.

 

The best weapon against the French the British have otherwise is Hood (top speed at the time was 26.5 or 28 knots?), As it's the fastest captial ship in the RN force, although all the British BBs (23.5 knot Valiant and 22 knot Resolution, as well as Hood) are much better armed than the French BBs, with 8x 15" guns each.

 

The British have the advantage of two light cruisers (Arethusa, and an Emerald-class CL), while the French have none. The British also have 11 DDs on hand...

 

But then again, immediately with the French BBs were five contre-torpilleurs, two of which were of the Mogador-class (and probably a match for the Emerald in gunpower).

 

And then there's also a mention on Navweap's OoB page that there were 10 regular DDs nearby at Oran, most of which were probably of the le Hardi-class (it also calls them 600 tonners, but I think it's a mistake..?).

 

So it is possible that the British crusiers and destroyers could find themselves overwhelmed by the French destroyers and contre-torpilleurs, but the advantage still lies with the British in terms of battleship. Dunkerque and Strasbourg don't have the armor to handle 15" shells, and nor do the old Dreadnoughts. The 13" guns I think still pose a significant threat to the British Battleships, but the 13.4" guns... Not so much.

 

The way I see it, no matter what route the French decide to take, the Bretagne sisters will hinder them.

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And then there's also a mention on Navweap's OoB page that there were 10 regular DDs nearby at Oran, most of which were probably of the le Hardi-class (it also calls them 600 tonners, but I think it's a mistake..?).

Those would be La Melpomene class torpedo boats, although I don't believe that all 10 of them are*

 

 There are twelve units in total, six of which were seized elsewhere on the same day. 

 

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But then again, immediately with the French BBs were five contre-torpilleurs

Ahem, six contre-torpilleurs.

And then there's also a mention on Navweap's OoB page that there were 10 regular DDs nearby at Oran, most of which were probably of the le Hardi-class (it also calls them 600 tonners, but I think it's a mistake..?).

Largely a mistake, there was just one 600 tonner (La Poursuivante), the other nine were: three Bourrasque class (Tramontane, Trombe and Typhon), three L'Adroit class (Boulonnais, Brestois and Bordelais) and two Le Hardi class (Casque and Le Corsaire). The ships are mentioned in this book and the French wikipedia.

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I'm interested to hear what mofton has to say about all of this.

 

Thanks, not sure or clear cut and I think Phoenix_jz has some good points. 

 

This really does change everything, ships shooting back makes life infinitely more difficult. Things that might well change - 

  • The British 'wasted' hours of daylight giving the French a long time to respond to the ultimatum they felt they could do that because of the position and gave the French longer than promised to decide
  • Several accounts have the British ceasing fire in response to a French cease fire, more of a slugging match may have been more decisive
  • As observed Dunkerque and Strasbourg could have run and probably wouldn't have been caught
  • Bretagne and Provence are of extremely limited combat value - not much of a threat, not greatly worth sinking
  • Expecting resistance the British might bring greater forces to bear or engage more decisively

 

A whole host of things could have gone very differently, but more damage to British ships and Dunkerque additionally escaping along with Strasbourg seems likely to me. Although the French ships can out run the British the British starting position to seawards means there's still an engagement opportunity. 

 

I don't think the destroyer v. destroyer/cruiser engagement is likely to be decisive, or favor the French. Destroyers engaging Destroyers was often indecisive. British Cruisers did have a generally good performance against Destroyers (see Orion, Australia, Enterprise/Glasgow, Sheffield, Edinburgh) with some exceptions (see Charybdis) and Destroyers rarely achieved anything against escorted warships. 

 

 

On fuel - the Axis may have been low in 1943, but 1940 was very different with many ships still operating and clearly enough fuel to do quite a lot (like invade the Soviet Union with millions of men, thousands of motor vehicles and tanks). I don't think the Italians were really hamstrung by fuel until 1942(?)

 

 

The Battle of the Atlantic was a close enough thing at several points to make throwing in a large, capable French force a major game changer - if they can get there. In the Mediterranean the British were on the back foot and in trouble for long periods, throwing the French onto the Axis side would possibly have pushed it over the edge. I don't know if a fuelled French fleet + Kriegsmarine would have been enough to allow a successful Operation Sealion, geographically with most of the French Fleet in the Med and so long as the Brits held Gibraltar it's unlikely to change much, but in the Med, a big problem.

 

Losing any semblance of sea power in the Med, the Axis taking Egypt and onto the Middle Eastern oil fields is a scary thought.  

 

 

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I've read that part of the reason Strasbourg managed to escape was, not only because of her superior speed but also because the British did not want a night-engagement (as mofton said, the British wasted a lot of daylight trying to negotiate with the French). So, knowing this, would it be likely that even the slower dreadnoughts would be able to escape as well with the rest of the fleet under the cover of darkness? Or do you think the British would engage, even in a night battle, to try to prevent the entire French fleet from escaping? Letting just the Strasbourg escape is one thing, but letting the entire fleet escape is another. :hmm:

 

Edited by dseehafer
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I think if Somerville knew that the French were in a more combat ready posture then he'd not have had the luxury of allowing prolonged negotiations and may have kept to the original 1.30pm deadline for opening fire rather than allowing things to slip on to 5.30. An extra 4 hours of daylight to play with. On the other hand the French may still have tried to drag things out. 

 

Four additional hours of daylight. Even combat ready I think Provence and Bretagne would have been roughly handled. Dunkerque did get off a number of salvos at Hood without effect before being damaged in reply. 

 

Somerville was apparently under instructions to avoid a night engagement which I understand to an extent. Night gives the smaller force a big equalizing advantage of coordination and adds many elements of risk to both sides. 

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The problem here is the underlying reason(s) that the battle occurred at all.

First, France had already surrendered to the Germans.  The French fleet was in the middle of disarming their ships and off loading ammunition at the time the British showed up with their demands.  So, if the French had put to sea their ships would be short on ammunition, fuel, and other stores.  With the exceptions of Dunkerque and Strasbourg, the French ships present are not really up to fighting the British fleet in terms of capabilities.  The battleships Provence and Bertagne were little more than targets.  Their two sister ships Paris and Courbet were interned in England by the British but never used.  One was a barracks ship, the other became part of the Mulberry breakwater off Normandy by scuttling.

The British have a carrier present.  At sea, the French Air Force wouldn't have been available for air cover as they were with the ships in port.  The initial British air strike was met by French Hawk 75 fighters that shot down one of the attacking aircraft and shot up several more, making the strike largely ineffective.  One torpedo hit on either or both battlecruisers pretty much could end the game for the French and see one or both ships sunk.

Of the smaller French ships, they had 5 DD versus 11 British destroyers and 2 light cruisers.  It is likely all 5 of these would have been sunk or crippled

So, the best outcome the French could have hoped for in such a lopsided fight was to get a few licks in before being destroyed.  The battlecruisers might have both escaped, but the DD's likely didn't have the fuel aboard to make Toulon.

Worse, by choosing to fight they are in part breaking the treaty they just signed with Germany and giving the British more than ample justification to invade and take French overseas territories at will.  That was something they came close to doing anyway, and in some cases did.  This means the British might well invade Dakar, France's North African colonial possessions, or occupy French Indochina, not to mention Syria and the Levant in the Middle East. 

Vichy France stands to lose considerably on this deal politically.  They're now firmly in the German camp politically, if not militarily.  That's a problem that will grow for them.  They knew that and that's a big reason they didn't want to fight.

 

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Of the smaller French ships, they had 5 DD versus 11 British destroyers and 2 light cruisers.  It is likely all 5 of these would have been sunk or crippled

So, the best outcome the French could have hoped for in such a lopsided fight was to get a few licks in before being destroyed.  The battlecruisers might have both escaped, but the DD's likely didn't have the fuel aboard to make Toulon.

They had six destroyers at Mers El Kebir and nine (plus one torpedo boat) at Oran, which is less than 7km away, by line of air. The ships that escorted Strasbourg back to Toulon (Tigre, Lynx, Volta, Le Terrible, La Poursuivante, Bordelais and Trombe, the last three coming from Oran) generally had sufficient fuel, only Bordelais was detached on the morning of 4 July because her available fuel didn't allow her to keep 28 knots, she made it back independently at 25 knots.

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First, France had already surrendered to the Germans.  The French fleet was in the middle of disarming their ships and off loading ammunition at the time the British showed up with their demands. 

 

I agreed with almost everything you'd said, but didn't know about that - do you have a source? Given that Strasbourg made Toulon (fuel) and Dunkerque fired at least a couple of dozen rounds (ammunition) at Hood it seems a little off kilter. 

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This is a very interesting what-if.  I think the fast units head for the hills, the slow units try to get into harbor or stay there.  Now, the Fast units, running isn't a French joke, it's common sense.  You don't want to fight the RN's battleships with your battlecruisers.  You use their speed as it was intended and you disengage.  Now, the question is what does the RN do?  They have one carrier, the Ark Royal.  How effective can her Swordfish be vs the FN battlecruisers?  Is the AA up to the task, or do they get Bismarck'd?  Does she even try, or does she try to maintain top cover over the old, slow RN BB's probably executing the Bretagne and Provence?

 

Resolution and Valiant can't catch them.  They likely stay to kill the two ancient french BB's.  That leaves Hood.  Does she still chase /two/ French battlecruisers?  if so, once I get her kited away from the old BB's if I am the French commander, I turn and engage the Hood 2v1.  I like those odds.  If Hood doesn't chase, my BC's get away clean.

 

Ark Royal is the big wild card in my mind.  How she's handled and how effective her planes are makes the difference I think.  Frankly, I think that her Swordfish struggle to get in attacking position in a stern chase, straight into the thickest of the French AA fire.

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Frankly, I think that her Swordfish struggle to get in attacking position in a stern chase, straight into the thickest of the French AA fire.

 

Swordfish are slow, but they're still about 100kts faster than Dunkerque or Strasbourg, I don't see any issue with them getting into position for a traditional hammer and anvil style attack. 

 

Ark Royal was flying off strikes of about 12 Swordfish at Mers and the follow up, the failed attack they launched on Strasbourg was with bombs as they were re-tasked from striking smaller vessels in the harbor. As 15 Swordfish put 3 torpedoes into Bismarck, there's a good though not certain chance they would damage Strasbourg. 

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Swordfish are slow, but they're still about 100kts faster than Dunkerque or Strasbourg, I don't see any issue with them getting into position for a traditional hammer and anvil style attack. 

 

Ark Royal was flying off strikes of about 12 Swordfish at Mers and the follow up, the failed attack they launched on Strasbourg was with bombs as they were re-tasked from striking smaller vessels in the harbor. As 15 Swordfish put 3 torpedoes into Bismarck, there's a good though not certain chance they would damage Strasbourg. 

 

Devastators were faster than Swordfish and were not able to achieve the same thing vs the IJN at Midway.  The ships are also going to maneuver.  I really don't think the Swordfish will be able to carry out an effective attack.  Especially flying through flack.  IIRC, Torpedo 6 chased Kaga for nearly 15 minutes trying to get in position and ended up dropping at her stern anyway.  Now, the french would have no fighters, but the swordfish would have to fly through the AAA for all that time, while the French have pretty easy targets.  Hammer and Anvil attacks were nearly impossible to pull off unless the enemy was trying to close, and you get to attack from the front.

 

With Bismarck, the CVs were not attacking from directly behind, having to fly around the formation to get into optimal strike position.

Edited by crzyhawk

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Swordfish are slow, but they're still about 100kts faster than Dunkerque or Strasbourg, I don't see any issue with them getting into position for a traditional hammer and anvil style attack. 

 

Ark Royal was flying off strikes of about 12 Swordfish at Mers and the follow up, the failed attack they launched on Strasbourg was with bombs as they were re-tasked from striking smaller vessels in the harbor. As 15 Swordfish put 3 torpedoes into Bismarck, there's a good though not certain chance they would damage Strasbourg. 

 

 

Devastators were faster than Swordfish and were not able to achieve the same thing vs the IJN at Midway.  The ships are also going to maneuver.  I really don't think the Swordfish will be able to carry out an effective attack.  Especially flying through flack.  IIRC, Torpedo 6 chased Kaga for nearly 15 minutes trying to get in position and ended up dropping at her stern anyway.  Now, the french would have no fighters, but the swordfish would have to fly through the AAA for all that time, while the French have pretty easy targets.  Hammer and Anvil attacks were nearly impossible to pull off unless the enemy was trying to close, and you get to attack from the front.

 

With Bismarck, the CVs were not attacking from directly behind, having to fly around the formation to get into optimal strike position.

 

It's also worth mentioning that Tirpitz was attacked at sea by 12 torpedo carrying Albacores and received no hits.

 

Concerning torpedo bomber tactics... the Japanese got it right. They thought it best to attack straight on from the bow and simultaneously from the bow diagonals making it nearly extremely difficult to dodge as there are torpedoes coming in from all forward directions. 

 

 DSZVHD8.png?1

 

 

Edited by dseehafer

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I had not read into Midway enough to know that, but a) I'm surprised and b) I think it's a different set of circumstances. The 'time pressure' of attacking ships with more formidable AA and critically which could launch fighters at you is immense.

 

To fly a 15 mile box around Strasbourg, or 30 miles would take about 15 mins for the attacking Swordfish, in which time Strasbourg would advance about 8 miles. That's pretty easy when there's no opposition. If you look at RN TB attacks -

Ark Royal's oopsie on Sheffield - able to pull off an 'all points of the compass' attack

Ark Royal's wowsie on Bismarck - able to pull off an 'all points of the compass' attack

IJA Air Attack on Repulse - able to pull off a classic hammer/anvil

Formidable's Air Attack on Vitorrio Veneto (ship retreating) - able to pull off a side attack despite an escorting fleet

 

I think when there's not an imminent threat of fighters it's got a good track record. The only other difference I can see with some attacks would be the British deploying ASV, allowing them to pick up the target out of visual range to dive in pre-arranged.

 

At say 120 kts so closing speed of 90 kts to Kaga Torpedo 6 would have flown 22 miles, that's a long stern chase.

 

A good, but not a perfect track record -

 

It's also worth mentioning that Tirpitz was attacked at sea by 12 torpedo carrying Albacores and received no hits.

 

Bismarck suffered 15 Swordfish from Ark Royal for 2 hits, and 9 Swordfish from Victorious for 1 hit. There are no guarantees but even 10% is a pretty good odd to take. There's also a difference between Tirpitz' 1942 AA fit and Strasbourg's 1940 fit (though she did down 2 of the bombing Swordfish - Swordfish really shouldn't bomb things bigger than U-boats)

Edited by mofton

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I believe that a read of Rear Admiral Paul Auphan's history of the French Navy in the Second World War may answer a number of questions about Mers el Kebir(for non-French speakers, it is available from USNI Press in English). Also, Robert O. Paxton's works on Vichy France.  The whole story is complex, compounded by lack of communications between Gensoul and Darlan, the perceived need to adhering to the terms of the Armistice while ensuring that the Fleet would not fall into German, or Italian, hands, and what many in the French Navy felt was a breach of trust and word by the British (Force H opened fire 34 minutes prior to the expiration of the ultimatum, according to Auphin).  Had Gensoul provided Darlan the full text of the last ultimatum, the outcome may have been different, in Paxton's view.  None the less...one could speculate...

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Hello!  This is a bit of a random history question, but I'm kinda curious what people would think in regards to the British assault on Mers-el-Kabir if it were more fair to the French fleet.  As history goes, the French fleet was in port and wasn't in an ideal position when the British attacked the base. 

 

What would've happened to the British fleet if the French were more aware and mobilized their fleet in a more ideal situation (i.e. not in port and fully ready for battle)?  Would the British have still triumphed over the French fleet...or would the French have had a chance against the English attackers?

 

Here's wiki information on the historical assault - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attack_on_Mers-el-K%C3%A9bir

 

Thanks!

 

I don't think much would have changed aside from the Vichy government possibly getting a BB or two out to sea. Even then, they just would have had the snot beaten out of them by the Fleet Air Arm.

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I don't think much would have changed aside from the Vichy government possibly getting a BB or two out to sea. Even then, they just would have had the snot beaten out of them by the Fleet Air Arm.

 

I mean, Strasbourg did escape irl...

 

In this scenario, though, where the French fleet gets out of port before the British arrive... If they're willing to leave behind Bretagne and Province, than the entire French force could've headed for Toulon, and the British wouldn't be able to catch them without a serious hit against Dunkerque or Strasbourg but the FAA... Which was hardly guaranteed. 

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