06 February 2010

Historical vignette 6: Operation Catapult

In wartime, a nation whose survival is at stake may feel compelled to commit horrifying acts against the enemy.

How much worse, though, when circumstances force a civilized nation to commit such acts against an ally.

In early July 1940, Britain faced a stark dilemma. France had just signed an armistice with Nazi Germany, leaving Britain as the lone country still standing against Hitler. Being an island, Britain was safe from invasion as long as it maintained naval superiority over Germany -- but no longer.

France had a substantial navy. And the terms of the armistice required its ships to be handed over to German control.

The British did seize some French ships that were in British or British-controlled ports at the time of the armistice. But many of the ships were in the ports of French-ruled Algeria. A British task force was sent to negotiate with the French naval authorities there, who were expected to be far from eager to hand over their ships to the Nazis. But intercepted messages suggested that the French intended to follow the terms of the armistice -- which meant the ships might be turned against Britain.

The risk was too great. Churchill ordered the ships destroyed.

Trapped amid crowded docks, the French ships were helpless. In less than fifteen minutes the British shelled them into wreckage -- and killed 1,300 French sailors. Given the situation, with their own country's freedom at stake, they had no choice. The slaughter -- designated "Operation Catapult" -- was a tragic necessity.

A detailed article on the attack is here (found via Mendip, who detects an anti-British bias).


Blogger Kentucky Rain said...

I am a serious history nut and I loved this read. WWII is actually my specialty.

06 February, 2010 11:39  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

I read something about this a long time ago. What stands out in my memory is Roosevelt's "no" to Churchill's request and, of course, Joe Kennedy's usual isolationist stance.

Just think how different the outcome might have been if Roosevelt had agreed to give England those "antique" ships.

I'd like to add that the U.S. damn well better call the Brits brave. It took as way too long to get in there and help them.

Thanks for pointing this out.

06 February, 2010 13:15  
Blogger commoncents said...

THANK YOU for posting this! I really like your blog!!

Common Cents

ps. Link Exchange?

06 February, 2010 13:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

MM: World War II is endlessly fascinating. My own special area of interest is the German-Soviet front, but there were epic struggles -- and lessons -- everywhere.

TNLib: Unfortunately there was much less of a sense of camraderie between Britain and the US back then. I think the British would have had to stop Germany from getting hold of the French navy regardless, but the struggle against Germany would have been less desperate with more American help.

My parents lived in Britain during the war and have told me about it. The fear of a Nazi invasion was very real and everybody knew how horrific life under occupation would have been.

06 February, 2010 13:25  
Blogger dotlizard said...

What an agonizing decision - but obviously (in hindsight) correct, and carried out flawlessly, with regret but without mercy.

For whatever lingering regrets the men who issued and carried out those terrible orders had to live with, we have them to thank for turning the tide against Hitler. Horrible to contemplate what would have happened if they hadn't taken absolutely decisive action -- "lost cause" is a rather frightening assessment for the US gov't to have made at that point.

06 February, 2010 14:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Yes. It's hard to know how the war would have turned out if the Nazis had assembled a navy capable of successfully invading Britain. It would certainly have been much worse. Churchill's decision was the correct one, however much agony it occasioned at the time.

06 February, 2010 15:06  
Blogger magpie said...

Churchill was quite a ruthless guy, and not always given to wise decision making, going back to and including his role in the Dardanelles fiasco of 1915. But Britain was alone in the region against the most evil regime in modern history. They did whatever it took to survive and then nearly fell down from exhaustion. They were still on rations into the 50s.

My father lived through the blitz as a very young boy. One morning he went to see a girl he played with sometimes. He found the house destroyed and her body drooped over a floorboard.

As I understand it Germany did not attempt to invade (Operation Sealion) because the Luftwaffe could not guarantee air cover after losses incurred during the Battle of Britain, when Hitler's own interference had caused them to focus bombing on symbolic rather than optimum targets. But the French ships could have been turned into raiders. The potential of the Tirptiz, Bismarck's sister ship, had an influence over the war even though she did not sortie much, again due to Hitler's interference and fears for public morale if the ship was lost.

I needn't add that American seamen would have been directly at risk if the French ships had been so used.

06 February, 2010 21:33  
Blogger Holte Ender said...

Naval superiority was key to British survival, every time a German battleship left port the RN would hunt it down, the Bismark, Graf Spee, Turpitz, The U-boats were doing enough damage without having to fight a substantial above the waves fleet. The French Navy had to be sunk, victory over the Nazis benefited the French too.

07 February, 2010 00:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Magpie: As I undertsand it, even after the loss of the French fleet, Hitler hoped to make an invasion possible by devastating the British navy from the air. It didn't happen because, as you say, the RAF was able to prevent the Germans from gaining decisive air superiority (the "Battle of Britain").

Hitler always over-estimated the importance of morale and propaganda victories over hard-headed military thinking, perhaps because his own rise to power in Germany had been mostly driven by psychological manipulation.

In such a situation, though, trying to win by breaking morale doesn't work. Britain at that time was in a position similar to Israel or Taiwan today. Defeat or surrender would have meant the end of their country as they had always known it. There is no pressure that can be used to intimidate a people into committing suicide.

HE: That's a good point. If the Nazis had used the French fleet to conquer Britain, it would have been disastrous for the French as well. Without Britain, an Anglo-American invasion of western Europe would have been impossible, and the Nazi occupation could have become permanent -- or, more likely, the eventual Soviet push-back of 1944-1945 would have rolled all the way to the Atlantic.

07 February, 2010 01:39  

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