Friday, July 01, 2005

This Day in History (I'm never on time with these, am I?)

(Posted from an e-mail at El-ahrairah's request, with editing -- CH)

On July 3rd in military history….in 1940.

The British naval forces destroy the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Operation Catapult. After the fall of France in June, 1940 to the Germans, the British feared that the French fleet would be used by the Germans to attack Britain. In order to remove this possibility, the British decided to either capture or destroy as many French ships as possible. Some of the French fleet was already in British ports and these ships were to be boarded and taken over by the British. However, the majority of the French fleet was located at the port of Mers-el-Kebir, outside of Oran in French Algeria.

When the British arrived at Mers-el-Kebir, they issued an ultimatum to the French fleet which gave them three options, 1) Scuttle your ships or join the British in their fight against the Germans and Italians, 2) sail your ships to the nearest British port and hand your ships over to the British or 3) sail your ships to the West Indies where they would be handed over to the United States (who at this time was neutral) and then given back at the end of the war.

The Vichy government rejected all the British demands stating that they would not allow the Germans or the Italians to take over their ships and that all attacks would be met by force. With that, the British fleet which consisted of 3 battleships, 2 cruisers, 11 destroyers and one carrier prepared for battle. The French fleet consisted of 4 battleships and 6 destroyers but some of the battleships were anchored in such a way that they could not use their main armament.

After the smoke had cleared, the British had sunk one French battleship (the Bretagne) and two others (the Dunkerque and the Provence) were damaged and ran aground. The other French battleship, the Strasbourg, was able to escape with 4 destroyers and sail for Toulon. Although the French fleet was not completely destroyed, enough of it was put out of action that it was no longer an invasion threat for the British.

Epilogue: In November, 1942, what remained of the Vichy French fleet in North Africa was captured or destroyed with the American invasion of Morocco. As for the rest of the Vichy French fleet at Toulon, the Germans did try to capture them in November, 1942, but all ships, including the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg were scuttled by their crews.

Family History: My Sainted Father participated in the Sicily invasion and one his war stories was the time that he went swimming in the Mediterranean at Mers-el-Kebir. I always thought it was just some port in Algeria, but little did I know what important events transpired there.


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