Operation Catapult 1940

Nov 2009
3,760
Queensland, Australia
#1
From British point of view in 1939, the German navy was a serious threat.
After Italy joined the war, German-Italian navies were formidable opponents.
After capitulation of France British leaders and gem de Gaulle make the appeal to French navy to join allies and continue fighting. Many French units answered this calls and sailed towards British controlled ports. French Alexandria detachment refused to join British and has been immobilised and interned in Egypt.
According to armistice agreement, French Fleet shall be stationed in French harbours under German control. Adm. Daladier has disrespected this agreement and ordered French Fleet to sail into African Ports. He reportedly announced that he will never allow the Navy to be controlled and used by Germany but he refused to cooperate with British.
In this situation, British government unanimously voted for elimination of French Navy by Force.
Operation Catapult was an attempt to ensure that the Germans did not get their hands on the six battleships and two battle-cruisers that the French had in their fleet. Force “H” was created under Adm. Somerville and 3rd of June, Somerville ordered to open fire on French fleet anchored at Mers el Kébir.
Was this decision necessary? Could this “brotherly” fighting be avoided?

http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/operation_catapult.htm
 
Oct 2010
404
Glasgow
#2
I have always found this particular incident of WWII regrettable !!
The French fleet in Alexandria was interned in Alexandria via peaceful negotiations most probably because they were already in a British port, so they didnt have many options!! At Mers-El-Kebir the British had to make a decision !! Anything was possible that late Summer of 1940. Many unthinkable things had happened in a short space of time!! The mighty French considered to have the best army in Europe had fallen swiftly, the BEF very lucky to escape the noose!! Petain the hero of Verdun and Marshall of France had set up the Vichy state which though nominally neutral was very much a German puppet state!! Quite simply the British could not take the chance that this powerful French fleet may be either compelled by the Vichy goverment or directly fall into German hands and used to aid any invasion planned for Britain or be used to raid or harry British commerce!! Already feeling the pinch after both losing the French as an ally in the Med and having now to deal with the Italian Navy which was powerful but thankfully incompetently led!! The British were understandbly feeling pretty threatned by the hitherto unimaginable prospect of a former allies vessels being used against them!!

The negotiations were a bit of a farse neither senior commander attended and this led to some confusion!! In fairness i think the British ulitimatum was fair enough!! Sail to the West Indies or USA or face the alternative!! However i think the negotiations could have and should have been conducted in a far better way!! However it is easy to understand why the British preferred to take the direct route!! NO SHIPS, NO FUTURE RISK!! Britain meant business the phoney war had vanished in a blurr during May and the British were no longer mucking about!! Facing their most serious risk to the homeland since Napoleon!! They could only be cold and calculating in these unnatural circumstances!! You can bet even though he ordered it!! That this deliberate neutralising of a former allies fleet and that of a country that was close to his heart in many ways!! Weighed heavy with Churchill!! He did what he saw he had to do!! In order to protect the interests of the country which was closest to his heart at perhaps the most crucial point in her history!!
 
Last edited:
Oct 2010
114
UK, Scotland
#3
A terrible shame in hindsight, the fact the French later scuttled their remaining ships in Toulon seems to indicate that there was never any danger of the ships falling into German hands.

On the upside I suppose it showed the world that Britain was determined to stay in the war.
 

Chookie

Ad Honorem
Nov 2007
7,628
Alba
#4
After Italy joined the war, German-Italian navies were formidable opponents.
I would disagree here - the German navy, other than the submarine arm and the odd commerce raider was negligible- as were the Italian heavy ships...

As to Operation Catapult itself, while the British needed absolute knowledge that these ships would not sail against them, the way they went about ensuring this, while it may have been the best idea they could come up with, the attack on an anchored fleet which, only weeks before had assisted in the Dunkirk, is unsavoury.
 
Nov 2009
3,760
Queensland, Australia
#5
It was probably what Somerville thought. French “Fleet in Being” somewhere in West India did not have a special appeal to him. IMO, The decision was brutal, but it was a necessary decision in this time when Great Britain stand-alone against German/Italian forces.
But as the German Navy is concerned, it almost twice strangled the British communication so it could not be treated as a negligible force.
 
Last edited:
Oct 2010
404
Glasgow
#6
I would disagree here - the German navy, other than the submarine arm and the odd commerce raider was negligible- as were the Italian heavy ships...

As to Operation Catapult itself, while the British needed absolute knowledge that these ships would not sail against them, the way they went about ensuring this, while it may have been the best idea they could come up with, the attack on an anchored fleet which, only weeks before had assisted in the Dunkirk, is unsavoury.

A often find ma sel agreeing wi you Chookie and this time is no exception regarding the negotiations at Mer-El-Kebir they were downright tragically farsical !!!! I am sure many of those poor French lads onboard were as anxious as if not more so than the British about what the future may hold!!
However i have to agree with Edward regarding the potential threat posed by these ships falling into German hands or possibly directly by the puppet Vichy government had they perhaps thrown their lot in with the Germans and Italians no matter how half hearted that may have been !!

As i said earlier that Summer of 1940 anything seemed possible?? In 1939 the two most idealogical oppossed regimes on earth had signed a non aggression pact over the corpse of Poland,in 40 France had fallen, with the British Army to use a Glaesga term of phrase given a right good balatogin (kicking) in the process, the Italians were pushing into Egypt, their fleet was fairly modern and a powerful threat on paper at least!! The possability that Facist Spain may be pursuaded to join the party was also very real!! So it was not too far a stretch of the imagination that Vichy France might be coerced into fully joining the Axis, after all anti-British feeling was high in France!! After Dunkirk many Frenchmen felt that the British had selfishly abandoned them in their hour of need!! Britain was in an even worse position than she had been at the height of French success during the Napoleonic wars, at least then she had strong allies and potential allies on the continent, now she was virtually alone apart from the Empire and the Dominions and without the financial clobber that she enjoyed back then!!

The Royal Navy was also in a bad position!! Ok in 1940 it was still the largest fleet in the world, but after the fall of France and the Italian entry into the war it was severly overstretched. Yea your right that the Big Ships may have seen their day!! But that is with hindsight, in 1940 the Battleship was still considered the Queen of the sea!! Look at the Bismarck, she sank HMS Hood in a couple of minutes, it took half the Home Fleet to sink the Bismarck!! The panic she caused in Whitehall and at the Admiralty was immense!! It was only with the sinking of Bismarck crippled by a Fairy Swordfishes torpedo that the battleship's crown slipped from its proud dignified head and was being passed along the line to the Aircraft Carrier!! This fact was not lost on the RN and she pioneered in action the potential of Carrier bourne operations, Taranto being the most famous and successful of the early Britsh actions, a wee idea picked up and successfuly mimicked on larger scale by the Japanese and finally perfected by the USN!!

Back in 40 however none of this could have been predicted!! We now know the Italian fleet was powerful but ineptly commanded and vulenrable to Carrier bourne attack!! The British were still to find this out !! A powerful French fleet joining them in the Med or raiding UK commerce in the Atlantic would have really tested RN and British metal!! I dont think the French Admirals would have been half as inept as the Italians, afterall they had trained and worked alongside the British for years!!

So to sum up though Mers-El-Kebir was a tragic and most unfortunate reflection of unnatural circumstances between two very recent allies, i think IMO it was the right decision at the time and had to be made! It was classic Nelsonian but it was an action that we rightly dont and should not crow about!! In War when the enemy has a knife to your throat difficult decisions have to be made and carried out!! Harsh as they may seem:(
 

Chookie

Ad Honorem
Nov 2007
7,628
Alba
#7
The Royal Navy was also in a bad position!!.....Ok in 1940 it was still the largest fleet in the world, but after the fall of France and the Italian entry into the war it was severly overstretched.
Every navy always is severely overstretched - this includes the present day USN.

This fact was not lost on the RN and she pioneered in action the potential of Carrier bourne operations, Taranto being the most famous and successful of the early Britsh actions
In fact only Taranto and the damaging of the Bismarck were the only "early British actions". The Japanese were the only nation with a blue-water navy which took on-board the lessons of Taranto.

The British were still to find this out !! A powerful French fleet joining them in the Med or raiding UK commerce in the Atlantic would have really tested RN and British metal!! I dont think the French Admirals would have been half as inept as the Italians, afterall they had trained and worked alongside the British for years!!
The trouble with this scenario is that Britain controlled both exits from the Med. I can't see British commander allowing this part of the French fleet free access to the Suez canal for instance, and it would be no more than a sixty-forty chance of getting through the Straits of Gibraltar with every ship undamaged.

As an aside, would you please, please, please, pretty l;ease with knobs on drap the bluidy Weegieisms, myself is from a civilised part of the country :p.
 
Nov 2009
3,760
Queensland, Australia
#9
The Italians actually had a Navy? The only naval power that we ever hear of the Germans using was the formidable U-Boats in their "Wolf Packs".
Just for starter look at "battle of Cape Matapan":)
[ame="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cape_Matapan"]Battle of Cape Matapan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]
 
Oct 2010
404
Glasgow
#10
Every navy always is severely overstretched - this includes the present day USN.


In fact only Taranto and the damaging of the Bismarck were the only "early British actions". The Japanese were the only nation with a blue-water navy which took on-board the lessons of Taranto.


The trouble with this scenario is that Britain controlled both exits from the Med. I can't see British commander allowing this part of the French fleet free access to the Suez canal for instance, and it would be no more than a sixty-forty chance of getting through the Straits of Gibraltar with every ship undamaged.

As an aside, would you please, please, please, pretty l;ease with knobs on drap the bluidy Weegieisms, myself is from a civilised part of the country :p.
Ye must be fae Bearsden then ?? lol:D
Sorry apols i will try to refrain from too much o the Glaesga banter!!:)

Yea totally agree with you that every Navy is overstretched!! But i think at that point in 1940 the RN was really up against it!! Firstly having to devote most of her destroyers to protecting convoys in the Atlantic now made all the more difficult due to the fact that German U-Boats had direct access via ports in France and Norway. The home fleet had to keep a constant watch on the Skagerrak in case any of the German big boys managed to sneak out, and now they had a hostile Italy to contend with in the Med!! Ok yer right we still controlled both ends of the Med but for how long?? In 1940 it was not unimaginable that Franco might decide now was a great opportunity to remove the British from Gibraltar or give the Germans military access to do it for him!! Not forgetting that we were also facing the prospect of potential invasion, the Navy was the only branch of the services in which we had undisputed superiority over the Germans and they would have to play the leading role in thwarting it. With a world wide Empire to patrol the RN had a very big plate to look after and events kept piling more crap on top of it!! Its like China Buffet King except on this occasion the RN would have been satisified with just a couple of Spring rolls a handful of prawn crackers and a diet coke, instead of the works :D

So with no one really knowing how things were going to pan out!! Someone had to make a decision over the French fleet!! Churchill was that man!! Events and an uncertain future conspired to make that decision when it came after all the possible worse case scenarios had been added up.....A brutal, cold, premeditated, tragic but none the same necessary one!!

As for Taranto and Bismarck i believe Swordfishes were involved at Cape Matapan?? But i was thinking at the time of "Operation Ceberus" when Swordfish aircraft attempted unsuccesfully to prevent the Germans moving the Scharnhorst and Gneisnau out of the channel!! (probably spelt those wrong??) So i will doth ma tartan bunnet tae ye cos that was 1942 after Pearl Harbour:cool:

Anyway I have ma X-Mas office party to attend, so i cant be late!!! I have got seven hours and i am gonna make damn sure that i will be apologising and feeling awkward with my fellow workmates for at least the next 4 months!! As the token Scot there is my national honour to respect!! As an ambassador for my country i have to out do my Irish colleagues in the bevvy stakes as our closest international rivals the pressure is on!! lol :p