July 1940- Operation Catapult; was it necessary?

Discussion in 'The War at Sea' started by Warlord, Dec 7, 2007.

  1. freebird

    freebird Senior Member

    Good post Arsenel, Ive head this debate on the exact wording before, why was the message not delivered in by Cunningham in person. I am right in thinking it was done my Radio or by mee mortal?

    Was Toulon a clear cut thing, I know the results where but how close where the Germans in taking the ships (there was a big standoff I seem to remember), Also there where no German's in Morocco to seize the ships, where there?


    Cunningham did consult in person, this is why there was no tragedy in Alexandria, where he was in charge. He was not in overall command of the Med, otherwise the Mers-el Kebir could might have been avoided.

    Perhaps I will be the lone voice of dissent on this topic, and say that Operation Catapult was not necessary. I would also like to ask if anyone on this thread has bothered to read any French accounts of this event, either in it's original lanugaue or translated. Believe me, it makes for interesting comparison.

    On the question of the actual options given to the French fleet at Mers el Kebir, most French sources state that the options given to Admiral Gensoul were somewhat vague, especially in it's option to "Join the Allies and continue the fight", specifically under what flag.

    Most are of the opinion that a more specific statement such as "Continue the fight as Free French" may have produced a different outcome. They also point out that technically, Admiral Muselier outranked Gen. de Gaulle when he joined the Free French cause, and that perhaps we may have seen a Free French leader under the overall auspices of Muselier. A very recent and very interesting publication by Dominique Lormier "Mers el-Kebir: Juilliet 1940" (2007) indicates that many French sailors and officers were fully expecting that the fleet would sail to England. Whether they wanted this or not would not matter, it's what they believed would soon happen.

    It is also well known that the attack pushed many in the new Vichy camp further into the German camp, in particular Laval and Adm. Darlan. When Laval wanted Petain to make a formal declaration of war against England for the attack, Petain backed off. This would lead Laval to begin to pull the string from behind Petain and become the real power broker of Vichy, not to mention the complete dissolution of the Third Republic.

    As with most non-English language accounts, I am inclined to conclude that the tragedy of Mers el-Kebir was the result of British paranoia. It's my firm belief that the French admiralty had no intentions of letting the Germans take their fleet. In fact, the French were more than willing to sink their own ships rather than see them being seized by anyone else. I would also like to point out that the events at Alexandria and later Toulon negates any justification for Operation Catapult. As for the British seizure of key French ships at Plymouth, that was an act of sheer stupidity and short-sightedness.

    I scoff at any suggestions that the French would have willingly handed over their fleet to either the Germans and/or the Italians. It was an important caveat within the terms of the June 1940 armistice, upon French demands, and there's no evidence to suggest the French would suddenly change their minds on this issue.

    Arsenal, I agree, it seems that the situation at Mers-el Kebir was allowed to get out of control, it seems that the British could have been more savvy diplomaticaly.

    But the British could not allow any chance of the French ships going over to the Axis, even if it was a small chance. We now know that they would not turn the ships over to Germany, but how could Britain be sure about that? The terms of the armistice could easily have been changed or broken.
  2. Warlord

    Warlord Veteran wannabe

    I have a couple of considerations here (sorry if it looks like I´m just copying what someone else wrote, but I´ll try to word this post so it reads like what it is, my opinion):

    1. To ask today (2008) the hard-pressed 1940 Brits to be permissive for diplomacy´s sake is to say the least, unfair; now we know a lot of things they didn´t back then, and they had to base their decisions on the fact that France had very recently been unable to put up a true fight, and had surrendered say, rather easily. What assurance (anything less just wouldn´t do) did they have that a routed and politically rotten government (not nation) wasn´t about to turn its back on them and hand over to its former enemy the very weapons it needed to complete the job at hand?

    2. On the other side, in the wake of such a humilliating surrender, France was nothing more than an out of control nuthouse, chaotic to say the least. Accordingly, it seems to me that taking advantage of the prevailing turmoil, politicians began to crawl out of their holes to "lead the nation towards its best interest", without mentioning that what they meant was the preservation of an structure for the political class to keep ruling, through the sale of the country´s battered but still defiant soul to the Axis.

    Arsenal clearly points out that the men in the french military were just waiting for the fleet to sail to British (Commonwealth) ports, if not for the sake of a shattered alliance, just to have another shot at the for the moment victorious foe. The people did want to keep the fight alive, but the politicians handling the top brass didn´t; and they did so in such a convincing manner that they even managed to keep loyal an army to "France" that out of common sense should have been loyal to France.

    France´s case shouldn´t have been different from those of other beaten nations, but it was then that political treachery stepped in, puppet government included.

    3. The one vote that Freebird mentioned that prevented the move to Algeria seems to me like the true reason for Catapult; it represented French political thinking and, since it should be remembered that there are no in-betweens during all out war, the decision to attack had to be taken regardless of the blackened souls it left in its wake.

    It was its own government who betrayed France.
    Slipdigit likes this.
  3. BulgarianSoldier

    BulgarianSoldier Senior Member

    Couldn't this be some kind of rivaly between the french and english ? Maybe sometimes emotions are stronger..
  4. Warlord

    Warlord Veteran wannabe

    I really don´t think so. The British were just too out-everything to get themselves another foe on purpose.

    I proposed the idea back at the start of the thread, but as a very marginal hipothesis, just to provide readers with food for thought.
  5. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I watched a fantastic documentary on this yesterday called Churchills Darkest Decision that I sky plus'd a couple of months ago.

    Churchill's Darkest Decision - Channel 4

    I already knew a bit about Op Catapult but the captured of some 200 French ships in British ports was a surprise to me. 3 Royal Navy Officers were killed as was the Chief Engineer on the submarine Surcouf. Apparently it was the first time the French and British had fired on each other since Waterloo.

    The other thing that surprised me was the stubborness of the French Commander Gensoul and how he was miffed that Somerville had sent a mere Captain to speak to him. The reason he was sent was he was fluent in French as he was a Naval Attache in Paris. It was to say the least quite amazing to see the stakes slowing rising knowing what was going to happen.

    The programmes did hint that one of the political reasons Churchill gave the order was to show Roosevelt that Britain would do anything to win the war-even shoot at her allies.

    Churchill had been asking America for help in the way of weapons but Roosevelt was resisting due to an impending election and did not want to be seen to be allowing America to be drawn into a European War. Apparently Roosevelt approached Mackenzie King seeking assurances that if Hitler invaded Britian the Royal Navy would sail to Canada to prevent capture by the Kreigsmarine. Mackenzie King promptly told Churchill who was not best pleased. The documentary by way of diary entries from America, Canada and Britain's leaders goes on to explain that the attack proved to Roosevelt that Britain was up for a fight.

    Interestingly it also mentioned that after the attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir the French launched a bomber attack on Gibraltar.

    Churchill also received a telegram from the French Admiral Darlan prior to the attack assuring him that if the Germans attempted to seize the French fleet they would be scuttled. Churchill didn't trust him and ordered the attack anyway as they did not agree to one of the three options given to them.

    In 1942 what was left of the French fleet was scuttled at Toulon as the Germans approached to take command of the French ships. Darlan wrote to Churchill staying that he was a man of his word and he should have believed him in 1940.

    Some of the interviews in the programme were with French veterans of Mers-el Kebir. Some agreed with what the Royal Navy did saying that it was war and France would have probably done the same thing. However some said they will never forgive the 'War Crimes' against the French Navy.

    A must see programme for any Navy Buff-Some great footage too !

  6. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    I know I'm a couple of days early for the 70th Anniversary but I thought I'd post these pics here in case I'm busy on Saturday.
    A few pictures from The First Year Of The War In Pictures.


  7. phylo_roadking

    phylo_roadking Very Senior Member

    Interestingly it also mentioned that after the attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir the French launched a bomber attack on Gibraltar.

    IIRC there were in fact three night raids - one, a night's break, then two more nights in a row.
  8. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    Excellent film, in French .
    Good view of Mogador X 61 at 3min 27 sec.
    Mogador was severely damaged during by a hit from a 15-inch (38 cm) shell in the rear hull that detonated her ready depth charges.

  9. Patricel

    Patricel Junior Member

    Please forgive once more my misconnaissance of english language .

    So I have not the time to read what you have all written about "catapult" and it's so sad to me to recognize but it's so hard for me ! .
    As a Frenchman (i'm not historian!) i understand the aim of this operation and even so much French sailors were killed i think British ( Mr Chrurchill) have no choice. French Navy should not fall into German hands and later the role of Darlan (cheif of the navy i mean was ambiguous

    French governement ( Philippe Petain and so on ) was n't sure and remember that in october 24 1940 This man meets Hitler himself at Montoire (in France) as Hitler returns from visiting General Franco in Spain ! Where Petain was former ambassador i mean.

    It's a sad day at Mers El Kebir but another sad day for French Navy was at Toulon in November 1942 when the fleet scutlle (?)

    General De Gaulle was so alone at this time in july 1940 this time was sad so sad for France and for our allies !

  10. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  11. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  12. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  13. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

  14. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    'Interesting' looking beast;
    The Submarine Surcouf:
    Some good shots here:
    Plan de bateaux#

    Here is the section of the documentary I mentioned about the shooting on the Surcouf
    link removed- it had been edited by a neo-nazi with some nasty messages in it .

    The whole documentary is worth watching (Parts 1 to 5)
  15. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    The French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria in July 1940. The ships seen on left are from bottom to top; Battleships Dunkerque, Provence, Strasbourg, Bretagne and the seaplane tender Commandant Teste.


  16. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    Whilst I agree that the action was tragic you have to understand that the French fleet under German and Italian control in the Mediterranean, would have completely altered the balance of sea power in the area.
    There would also be a risk of a breakout into the Atlantic.

    The option of just scuttling the ships was not good as we all know later at Pearl Harbour, seriously damaged and sunken ships were salvaged and put back into use in not too long a time period.

    Pumping out and salvaging scuttled ships in harbour, would have been a much easier

    Rather than risk the fleet being under Axis control it is of little wonder that the decision was made at the time.

  17. Dragon

    Dragon Junior Member

    Something Jeff (Slipdigit) mentioned on a not specifically related matter on WW2f piqued my interest.
    There's a lesser known aspect to Operation catapult which is the forced boarding of French Ships laid up in Plymouth, Portsmouth, and other UK ports at the same time in 1940. There were several vessels seized and something of a fight.
    This from: Naval-History.Net

    & from here, again on the excellent Naval History.net (My bold):

    These from CWGC are the named men killed:
    And with a bit of help from Geoff's search engine I think I've got the other Navy man who died that day:

    I wouldn't know where to start on the Frenchman's details.

    Does anyone have any more on how these chaps died fighting their allies in home ports? Or any more detail of the British boarding incidents as a whole?

    Adam.Hi found your post while nosing around net, i realize the thread is quite old now and not sure if you still are looking for information or not but leading seaman Albert Webb is my grandfather, obviously never met him but the mention of his name always gives me a warm sense of pride.
    anyway i do have various information about him, his war record and letters from some people associated with him at the time ( all gathered by his daughter, my mother ).
    if you are still interested let me know, what details i have i am willing to share :D
    von Poop likes this.
  18. von Poop

    von Poop Adaministrator Admin

    Hello, Dragon,
    Great stuff.
    Funnily enough, I was reading of the Surcouf incident again last week. While my interest could be described as dilletante, I say crack on and show us what you have - more than a few interested here no doubt.

    Having read a bit more on Catapult, I still feel the attack was fully justified given the wider war situation and severe threat of those ships being turned loose on an already overstretched Royal Navy (finally starting to grasp the significance of even handfuls of ships on the Nautical balance).
    I don't believe the French Officers would have willingly sailed against the RN if left to their own devices, but Adolf's gang were adept at getting their hands on materiel, and it's not like there was a French political layer left which could really defend that materiel.

    Was interested by Churchill's direct pressure on the Officers Handling Catapult - things could maybe have gone differently without that, particularly given the nature and experience of some of those Officers, but who could risk even the slightest chance of those ships aiding the enemy.
  19. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Welcome to the forum Dragon. One of the nice things about this place is that whilst it can never remember all of those who died, it provides a place to research some of the lesser-known aspects that might otherwise be forgotten and those who were involved.

    There is no such thing as a 'cold' thread here, sooner or later they reappear with new information. Please feel free to add what you know.
  20. Phaethon

    Phaethon Historian

    Whilst there is no doubt that CAPAPULT was one of the most unpleasant aspects of ww2, operation KREIMHILDE and its ilk has since provided support for the attack.

    Historically it has always been hard to justify military actions in a time of war, and firing on your own allies is worth a thesis- not just a response on a message board... but the important thing to remember is that France endured, was able to construct a sizable fighting force from virtually nothing, and many Vichy officials were brought to justice at the end of the war (many reaching judgement before justice). Personally, when viewing CATAPULT I feel you might as well debate the French Capitulation/ France fighting on from its colonies, and whether France weas ever truly 'free' because I see them as intrinsically being the same debate.

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