France, Britain reconcile over WWII naval battle

2nd November 2005, Comments 0 comments

BREST, France, Nov 1 (AFP) - In a symbolic gesture meant to heal a 65-year-old wound between Britain and France, a British naval officer Tuesday took part for the first time in a French ceremony commemorating a World War II sea battle between the two allies.

BREST, France, Nov 1 (AFP) - In a symbolic gesture meant to heal a 65-year-old wound between Britain and France, a British naval officer Tuesday took part for the first time in a French ceremony commemorating a World War II sea battle between the two allies.

Captain Nicholas Butler, the navy attache at the British embassy in Paris, laid a wreath at a memorial in the western city of Brest amid emotional scenes by survivors and relatives of the 1,300 French sailors who perished in the battle which destroyed much of the French wartime fleet in Mers El-Kebir, Algeria.

"At this very instant, I forgive," Leon Le Roux, 85, who was a quarter-master on the battleship Dunkerque which was hit by a British shell, said with tears in his eyes after shaking Butler's hand.

The battle took place July 3-5 in 1940 after French navy commanders refused to hand their ships over to British control following France's surrender to Germany.

Then British prime minister Winston Churchill gave orders that the French ships be neutralised if they did not continue to fight alongside his country's fleet, fearing they would be used to cut British supply routes.

Holed up in the harbour of Mers El-Kebir, near Oran, the French vessels were pounded by British guns, resulting in the large loss of life and providing Germany with a propaganda coup at the news of the erstwhile allies firing at each other.

Butler told AFP that Churchill had given his orders "with a heavy heart" but explained it was necessary because "it was war."

A French rear-admiral, Laurent Merer, agreed. "War is always horrible. When there is a wound, to be able to keep going afterwards you have to expect scarring."

A representative of the families of the French sailors involved in the battle, Henri Grall, welcomed the overture Butler represented as "a positive sign towards reconciliation" and suggested that British war veterans may be present for next year's commemoration.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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