Churchill’s Darkest Decision

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In light of the Churchill documentary available through the Foxtel Movies Channel, Sophie, our new lesson planning pro, has put together a detailed review just for you.

Richard Bond’s 2009 documentary, Churchill’s Darkest Decision, provides a fascinating look at Winston Churchill’s initiative to mobilise the controversial naval Operation Catapult in July 1940. Bond’s primary focus is upon the Attack of Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria, in addition to the catalysts that culminated in this event, which resulted in the death of 1,297 Frenchmen within 10 minutes- at the time it was the highest death toll of any naval action since the commencement of World War II.

Churchill’s Darkest Decision details the rapidly shifting allegiances of WWII, demonstrating the often fickle nature of alliances in the face of this nouveau warfare and the overt threat of Nazi Germany. Key personalities such as Admiral François Darlan, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, James Somerville and Marcel-Bruno Gensoul are all noted, with Bond deftly exploring the closely interwoven political machinations of these figures in regards to Churchill.

However, the documentary isn’t limited to the perspectives of these figures, providing a further revelation into the complications of warfare via the utilisation of primary sources such as Robert Philpott (HMS Hood) and Léon le Roux (Battleship Dunkerque). Both men were teenagers at the time of the attack, serving on the British and French navies respectively, and are called upon to relay their indignation and horror at Britain turning upon their former allies, noting the confusion, the screams and bloodshed of what later became referred to as the ‘French Pearl Harbour.’ Many who were serving were ignorant of France’s changed political status, with France having surrendered to Germany only weeks prior- thus many Frenchmen believed that the British were coming to aid them, rather than open fire.

This political ignorance stands in stark contrast to the greater landscape of Churchill’s administration, the latter extending back to the genesis of his time in office (May 10th 1940). Operation Catapult was a direct result of several factors: a broken agreement between France and Britain’s terms for capitulation; the necessity of obtaining favour from the US in order to obtain naval aide; and the looming threat of the combined forces of France, Germany and Italy’s naval resources. Because whilst Britain had the largest navy, it was spread exceedingly thin over Britain’s vast empire, and their numbers didn’t compare to the aforementioned trio.

Bond establishes an immersive atmosphere, be it via the contents of Churchill’s numerous telegrams to President Roosevelt, the newsreels and primary footage surrounding and of the event, the displays of reactionary Nazi propaganda or the dichotomy of the reaction of the home front and the House of Commons in contrast to the recounted horrors of the front line. And whilst the primary focus is upon the events of Mers-el-Kébir, Bond ensures that the naval escapades of Alexandria, Britain and the scuttling of ships in Toulon are all included.

Overall, this documentary is a fantastic addition to the study of WWII, the personality of the eponymous Churchill and the intersecting nature of political and military forces. Whilst it provides a brief vignette of the pivotal event that was WWII, it also provides students with a great example of the effectiveness of collating a variety of sources, in addition to clearly demonstrating the pressure-cooker environment that was the Churchill government.

Here’s a list of TV4Education resources that can be used in relation to the topics covered in this post.

Churchill’s Darkest Decision

Churchill (2017)

Churchill and the Fascist Plot

Churchill’s First World War

Relates to Australian Curriculum Codes;