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During the early summer of 1940, Britain faced the greatest threat to its independence since the Spanish Armada incursion of 1588


During the early summer of 1940, Britain faced the greatest threat to its independence since the Spanish Armada incursion of 1588. Only a few months before, Britain had enjoyed a degree of protection from the geographical buffer that France, Belgium and the Netherlands provided between itself and Germany and the presence of the powerful French army as an ally. Now with the onset of summer, this bulwark was gone and Britain stood alone against a vast German war machine that was located just a few dozen miles across the English Channel. As British authorities prepared to meet an anticipated German invasion, they were bolstered by the knowledge that the Royal Navy still maintained a sizable strength advantage over the German Kriegsmarine (navy). In considering the various factors that might degrade this naval superiority, British defense planners were immediately concerned by the prospect that the Germans might gain control over the powerful French fleet. Given the stakes involved, the British government resolved to neutralize this potential threat before it could materialize .

Accordingly, on 3 July the British launched Operation Catapult with synchronized actions in Britain, Alexandria and

Mers-el-Kebir to seize, neutralize or destroy accessible French warships. The former was a near complete success as British boarding parties successfully took control over 220 French warships, including the battleships Courbet and Paris, with a minimum of violence and bloodshed. The British achieved a similar satisfactory outcome in Alexandria, where the French commander, Admiral René-Émile Godfroy, agreed to demilitarize his squadron. Unfortunately, the situation at Mers-el-Kebir proved far more difficult, as the French refused to accede to British demands, and the British reluctantly opened fire on the French fleet. In a short engagement lasting only 15 minutes, the capital ships Hood, Valiant and Resolution rained down a heavy bombardment of 15-inch shells that destroyed the French battleship Bretagne and disabled Dunkerque and Provence. In follow-up actions over the next few days, the British inflicted further damage to Dunkerque thus rendering it truly immobile while attaining similar results against the battleship Richelieu at Dakar. Of the French capital ships, only the battleship Strasbourg made good its escape to return to Toulon.

By removing a sizable portion of the French navy from the potential clutches of the German enemy, the British signaled their determination to fight on and do whatever was necessary to act in their own defense. This message was not lost upon the United States or Spain thus helping to secure favorable strategic outcomes with a nominal ally (USA) and a potential adversary (Spain). However, the operation came at a heavy cost as the French lost 1,297 naval personnel killed and 351 wounded at Mers-el-Kébir thus causing Franco-British relations to deteriorate to a dangerous level following this event. Pictured here (prewar) is the battlecruiser Hood, which led the British assault against Mers-el-Kebir. Allan C. Green and Adam Cuerden [Public Domain]. For more information on this and other related topics, see The Longest Campaign, Britain’s Maritime Struggle in the Atlantic and Northwest Europe, 1939-1945.

Author Brian E Walter


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