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World War II: “Operation Catapult”

(July 3, 1940)

After the Nazis overran France, the British could not allow Germany to incorporate the French ships into its navy. Though the British had fought beside the French just a few weeks before, Churchill decided to launch an operation to eliminate the naval threat. “Operation Catapult” was aimed, ideally, at seizing the French ships. This was done in several cases, mainly where the French ships were in British ports. The main exception was at the French naval base at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran in Algeria, which had the largest number of ships in one place. When the French refused to accept any of the choices they were offered to ensure the Germans couldn’t get the ships, the British attacked, sinking the battleship Bretagne and heavily damaging the battleship Provence and the battlecruiser Dunkerque. More than 1,000 French sailors were killed and hundreds wounded. Some 59 other French warships that had sought refuge at Plymouth and Portsmouth were seized by the Royal Navy. Afterward, Churchill was unrepentant, believing that at a crucial moment when British security was at stake, the French chose to side with their conquerors rather than their allies.

Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War II. NY: MacMillan, 1998; World War 2 Timeline.