I found this story rather intriguing and interesting. I had never heard about it before until yesterday. And that is the story of what was called Operation: Catapult which happened early during the second world war.
The Germans were marching across Europe seizing nation after nation. France was soon to be under attack by the invading Nazi forces.
This caused great concern for the British Empire. They feared that because of the fact that the United States had not entered the war, that if the French were to have fallen into the hands of the enemy, that Great Britain would most certainly become next. Winston Churchill was convinced that if the French forces were to be taken by the enemy, that Britain too would fall and the war would be lost.
In 1940, after the Fall of France and the armistice between France and Nazi Germany, Great Britain became concerned about the possibility that the Germans would acquire control of the French fleet. The combined French and German naval forces would mean that the balance of power at sea might tip in Germany’s favor.
The British government feared the possibility despite the fact that the Armistice terms at Article 8 paragraph 2 stated that the German government “solemnly and firmly declared that it had no intention of making demands regarding the French fleet during the peace negotiations” and similar terms existed in the armistice with Italy.
Furthermore, on 24th of June, Admiral Darlan had given assurances to Churchill against such a possibility (a later German attempt, made in violation of the Armistice terms, resulted in the French fleet scuttling itself in Toulon in 1942). Winston Churchillordered that the French Navy (Marine Nationale) should either join forces with the British Royal Navy or be disabled in some way to prevent the ships from falling into German or Italian hands.
The French fleet was widely dispersed. Some vessels were in port in France; others had escaped from France to British-controlled ports, mainly in Britain and Alexandria, Egypt. Operation Catapult was to take the French ships into British control or destroy them.
What would happen would be chaos.
In the first stage, the French ships in the British ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth were simply boarded on the night of 3rd of July in 1940. On the largest submarine in the world, the Surcouf, which had sought refuge in Portsmouth in June 1940 following the German invasion of France, the crew resisted; two British officers and one seaman were killed. One French sailor was also killed. Other ships were then captured.
After several attempts from the British to take control over the French naval fleet, the French were given an ultimatum to surrender control to the British or be under fire. The French did nothing.
Off the coast of what was then known as French Algeria, at Mers-el-Kébir, the British naval forces actually fired upon their own allies in an effort to sink the resisting French naval fleet after the French denied the British to take control over the fleet.
The British under the guise of not wanting any French ships to be controlled by the Germans would continue concentrated fire power on the French vessels.
At the end of it all 1,297 French sailors lost their lives and 350 were injured. The French suffered the loss or damage of eight ships in the attack. Only two British servicemen were lost on the other side of the fight, and six British aircraft were gone.
This would obviously cause a lot of pain and friction between the French and the British. The Germans actually had used the attack as propaganda against the British and its allies.
It has been also reported that Winston Churchill came up with this attack because he wanted to show the United States that the British Empire was serious in the efforts of fighting off the Germans to the very end. Churchill had begged the United States President Franklin Roosevelt to send the British some battleships. So depending on one’s point of view, it can be said that the British forces attacked their allies only to gain the support of the United States.
It would work because the United States would send warships to Great Britain. And then a year and a half later, the United States would enter the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.