OPINION: At the start of World War II, Winston Churchill and his cabinet had to make a lot of big decisions. As you would expect.
Decisions which would have grave consequences for many people. They did it with imperfect information and conflicting demands from different parties.
One such decision was what to do with the French Navy’s fleet of battleships.
The French, who had already surrendered to the Germans, had some of the most advanced and powerful battleships in the world.
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If the Germans got hold of them they would use them against the English, most likely to disrupt the flow of supplies across the Atlantic ocean.
Winston Churchill gave the French three options:
- They could fight alongside the British fleet against the Germans;
- They could sail to a neutral port such as the United States, where they would remain for the rest of the war;
- They could scuttle the ships where they were.
The French refused to do any of those things.
In negotiations for a surrender agreement, Hitler told the French that they could keep the ships in dock until after the war. Knowing what we all know now, that situation was highly unlikely.
Churchill couldn’t think of any other option but to sink the French ships, and requested permission from the war cabinet.
His request was refused – the French were their allies, after all.
But the French continued to refuse to cooperate. Churchill had to make a choice and his allegiance was with the British people.
The war cabinet eventually agreed and gave the authorisation to sink the French fleet.
The French battleships were harboured in Mers el Kebir, Algeria. The British sent a fleet from Gibraltar and blocked the French ships in the harbour.
The French were again offered the three options, which they refused to acknowledge.
The British opened fire, sinking the unprepared French ships and resulting in the deaths of 1300 French sailors.
The French have never forgiven the British for this act and Churchill described the decision as the one he was most ashamed of.
The day after the attack, Churchill went to the House of Lords to explain why he made the terrible decision. He unexpectedly received a standing ovation.
But the decision had another benefit. The USA had been reluctant to get into the war and help the Allies, who they saw as weak and not committed enough. They didn’t want to join a losing effort.
The Americans were expecting the British to fall into German occupation in short order but the decision to sink the French ships showed the rest of the world that the British were not going to lie down.
Shortly after, the Americans entered the war.
Global leaders like prime ministers and presidents are making very hard decisions at the moment. Trying to decide the value of people’s lives. At the same time, they are trying to understand the value of another person’s job.
At what point does one become more important than the other?
These leaders have to make decisions with imperfect information while under time pressure and all the while having their judgements scrutinised and critiqued by us on the sidelines.
It’s a hard job.
We’re all leaders of something and we’re all trying to decide the best course of action for our businesses or families or anything we have responsibility for.
I’m normally quite optimistic. But I’m making plans based on the assumption we are heading into a long economic depression, similar to the great depression of the 1930s.
What do I know? I may well be wrong. We’ll all know in 24 mont time, what decisions we should have made today.
Which doesn’t make it any easier now.
– Glen Herud is the founder of the Happy Cow Milk Company.