Operation “Catapult”. How the British sank the French fleet

British battleships Hood (left) and Valiant under return fire from the French battleship Dunkirk or Provence off Mers-el-Kebir

80 years ago, on July 3, 1940, Operation Catapult was carried out. The British attacked the French fleet in British and colonial ports and bases. The attack was carried out under the pretext of preventing the French ships from falling under the control of the Third Reich.

Reasons for the operation

According to the Armistice of Compiegne on June 22, 1940, the French fleet was subject to disarmament and demobilization of the crews (Article No. 8). The French ships were to arrive at ports designated by the German naval command and were placed under the supervision of the German-Italian forces. For their part, the Germans promised that they would not use the ships of the French fleet for military purposes. Then, during negotiations, the Germans and Italians agreed that the French ships would be demilitarized in the unoccupied French ports (Toulon) and in the African colonies.

The head of Vichy France (with the capital in Vichy), Marshal Henri Pétain, and one of the leaders of the Vichy regime, the commander-in-chief of the French fleet, François Darlan, have repeatedly stated that not a single ship will be transferred to Germany. Darlan ordered, with the threat of seizure of ships, to destroy their weapons and flood or take them to the United States. However, the British government feared that the French fleet would strengthen the Reich. The fourth most powerful fleet in the world could significantly strengthen the naval capabilities of the German Empire. Germany and Italy could gain complete control over the Mediterranean basin by inflicting a powerful blow on the military-strategic positions of Britain. Also, the German fleet was strengthened in Northern Europe. The Nazis at this time were preparing for the landing of an amphibious army on the British Isles. With the help of French ships, Germany and Italy could expand their capabilities in Africa.

The British held a series of meetings with the French colonial civil and military administration, offering to break with the Vichy regime and go over to the side of England. In particular, the British persuaded the commander of the French Atlantic squadron Jensoul to cooperate. However, the British were not successful. As a result, London decided to undertake a decisive and risky operation to neutralize the French fleet. First of all, the British wanted to seize or disable ships in ports and bases in Alexandria (Egypt), Mers el-Kebir (near the Algerian port of Oran), in the port of Pointe-a-Pitre on the island of Guadeloupe (French West Indies) and Dakar.

The death of the French battleship “Brittany” in the battle at Mers-el-Kebir. The battleship Brittany was hit by a third salvo, hitting the base of the mast, after which a strong fire began. The commander tried to throw the ship aground, but the battleship was hit by another salvo from the English battleship Hood. Two minutes later, the old battleship began to capsize and suddenly exploded, taking the lives of 977 crew members.

The tragedy of the French navy

On the night of July 3, 1940, the British captured French ships that were stationed in the British ports of Portsmouth and Plymouth. Two old battleships Paris and Courbet (battleships of the 1910s of the Courbet class), two destroyers, several submarines and torpedo boats were captured. The French could not resist, since they did not expect an attack. Therefore, only a few people were injured. French sailors were interned. Some of the crew members were then expelled to France, while others joined the Free French under General de Gaulle.

In Egyptian Alexandria, the British managed to peacefully demilitarize French ships. Here stood the French battleship of the First World War “Lorraine” (ships of the 1910s series of the “Brittany” class), four cruisers and several destroyers. French Vice Admiral Godefroy and the British Navy Commander in the Mediterranean Cunningham were able to come to an agreement. The French were able to maintain control of the ships, but, in fact, deprived them of the opportunity to leave and disarmed them. They gave the British fuel, gun locks and torpedo warheads. Part of the French crews went ashore. That is, the squadron lost its combat capability and no longer posed a threat to the British. Later, these ships joined de Gaulle’s forces.

In Algeria, there was a French squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Jensoul. French ships were stationed in three ports: Mers el-Kebir, Oran and Algeria. At the unfinished naval base Mers el-Kebir there were new battleships Dunkirk, Strasbourg (ships of the 1930s of the Dunkirk type), old battleships Provence, Brittany (ships of the Brittany type), six destroyer leaders (Volta, Mogador, Tiger, Lynx, Kersen, Terribl) and the commandan Test seaplane carrier. Also, the coast guard ships and auxiliary ships were based here. The ships could support coastal batteries and several dozen fighters. In Oran, a few miles to the east, there were 9 destroyers, several destroyers, patrol boats, minesweepers and 6 submarines. In Algeria, there were the 3rd and 4th cruiser divisions (5-6 light cruisers), 4 leaders.

Britain deployed a squadron (Formation H) under the command of Admiral Somerville. It consisted of the powerful battle cruiser Hood, the old battleships of the 1910s Resolution and Valiant, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the light cruisers Arethusa, Enterprise and 11 destroyers. The advantage of the British was that they were ready for battle, but the French were not. In particular, the newest French battleships were stern to the pier, that is, they could not fire their main caliber towards the sea (both main towers were on the bow). Psychologically, the French were not ready to attack the former allies, with whom they had just fought together against Germany.

On July 3, 1940, the British presented an ultimatum to the French command. The French fleet was to join the British and continue the fight against Germany, or proceed to the ports of England and join the Free France; either go under an English escort to the ports of the West Indies or the United States, where he was subject to disarmament; subject to flooding; otherwise the British threatened to attack. Even before the deadline for the ultimatum expired, British aircraft planted mines at the exit from the base so that the French ships could not go to sea. The French shot down one plane, two pilots were killed.

The French admiral rejected the humiliating British ultimatum. Jensul replied that he could hand over the ships only by order of the main command, drown only in case of a threat of their capture by the Germans and Italians. Therefore, the only way out is to fight. This news was conveyed to Churchill, and he ordered to solve the problem: the French had to accept the terms of surrender or sink the ships, or the British had to destroy them. Somerville’s ships opened fire at 1654 hours, even before Churchill’s instructions and the expiration of the ultimatum. The British literally shot down the French ships that were at the moth. De Gaulle later noted:

“The ships in Oran were unable to fight. They were at anchor, without any possibility of maneuvering or dispersal … Our ships gave the British ships the opportunity to fire the first salvoes, which, as we know, are of decisive importance at sea at such a distance. The French ships were not destroyed in a fair fight. “

The battleship “Brittany” took off into the air. The battleships Provence and Dunkirk were damaged and ran aground off the coast. The leader “Mogador” was severely damaged, the ship was thrown ashore. The battleship “Strasbourg” with the rest of the leaders was able to break into the sea. They were joined by destroyers from Oran. The British tried to attack the French battleship with torpedo bombers, but without success. “Hood” began to pursue “Strasbourg”, but could not catch up. Somerville decided not to leave the old battleships unprotected. In addition, a night battle with a large number of destroyers was too risky. Formation H turned to Gibraltar, where it returned on 4 July. Strasbourg and destroyers arrived in Toulon.

After the French declared that the damage to the Dunkirk was minor, Churchill ordered Somerville to “complete the job.” On 6 July, the British re-attacked Mers el-Kebir with air force. “Dunkirk” received new heavy damage and was taken out of standing for several months (at the beginning of 1942, the battleship was transferred to Toulon). Thus, the British killed about 1,300 people, about 350 were injured. One French battleship was destroyed, two were badly damaged. The British lost 6 aircraft and 2 pilots during the operation.

The destroyer “Mogador” under the fire of the British squadron, leaving the harbor, was hit by a 381-mm shell in the stern. This led to the detonation of depth charges and the stern of the destroyer tore off almost the bulkhead of the aft engine room. Later, the “Mogador” was able to run aground and with the help of small ships that approached from Oran began to extinguish the fire

Hatred of France

The British also planned to attack the French aircraft carrier Béarn and two light cruisers in the French West Indies. But this attack was canceled due to US intervention. On July 8, 1940, the British attacked French ships in the port of Dakar (Senegal, West Africa). A British plane with the help of a torpedo inflicted severe damage on the newest battleship “Richelieu” (the ship was transporting the gold reserves of France and Poland to the French colonies). In September, the British decided to land in Dakar. De Gaulle was with them. Britain wanted to seize a developed French colony for the base of the “Free French”. Dakar was also a convenient port, the gold reserves of France and Poland were brought here. However, the French in Dakar put up active resistance, and the Senegalese operation did not achieve its goal.

As a result, Operation Catapult did not solve the main problem. The British could not capture or destroy the French fleet. However, they managed to capture, disarm and damage some of the ships, reducing the combat potential of the French fleet. The political effect was negative. The French did not understand their former allies at all and now they cursed. In French society, already dissatisfied with the actions of the British during the Dunkirk operation and later, anti-British sentiments reigned. The authority of the Vichy regime was temporarily strengthened. De Gaulle’s reputation was dealt a severe blow, the French considered him a traitor.

“Strasbourg” under the fire of British battleships leaves the harbor of Mers el-Kebira

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