OPERATION CATAPULT – Churchill’s Controversial Plan to Deny the Germans French Ships
After France’s defeat, Churchill was determined to keep what was left of the French navy out of Hitler’s hands. Under OPERATION CATAPULT, he ordered all French naval vessels blockaded and given a choice: declare for England or surrender. Royal Marines boarded French vessels docked at English ports. For the most part, the French Navy capitulated. A few captains, objecting to the attempt of any foreign power to take their ship, put up a brief struggle. Aboard the Surcouf, a giant French submarine, three Royal Marines and a French sailor were killed in a brief gunfight.
The most serious incident occurred at Mers-el-Kebir in French Algeria. There, the outcome of OPERATION CATAPULT started a brief shooting war between England and France and threatened to overturn their alliance.
Huddled at this North Africa port were four French battleships, several destroyers, gunboats and assorted support craft. Negotiations with the British to determine the fate of this small armada stalled after several days of wrangling. When Italy entered the war on the Axis side, England was suddenly outgunned on land and at a disadvantage in the Mediterranean. Churchill could wait no longer. British warships and planes attacked the dockyards, sinking several French vessels and killing 1,300 sailors.
OPERATION CATAPULT almost led to war between the two nations. For a brief time all French units were ordered to engage British elements wherever they found them. Fortunately, this resulted in only a few ineffective bombing raids against the English base at Gibraltar.
However, the devastation wrought on the French Navy, the world’s fourth largest, proved to potential British allies such as the United States that England intended to fight rather than surrender. OPERATION CATAPULT convinced Roosevelt to pressure Congress to approve vital aid for the beleaguered United Kingdom.
Click here to read about the exploits of the Rubis, a Free French submarine that joined the British to fight the Axis.
About the Author:
Stefen Styrsky is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He has published other military history articles in World at War magazine.