When the French entered into armistice talks with the Germans, Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill and the War Cabinet became concerned over the final disposition of the French fleet. Although the French navy commander, Admiral Jean Darlan, had promised the British government that France would scuttle the fleet rather than see it fall into German hands, Britain's leaders were not certain that would be the case. And with the threat of a German invasion of Britain looming, Churchill was determined to secure the French fleet. Such a dramatic action on the part of his nation would also demonstrate to the Americans that Britain was determined to continue in the war.
The armistice terms did indeed allow the French government to retain control of the fleet, but it was to be disarmed, mostly at the French navy base of Toulon and also at colonial French ports. At that time, a majority of the French ships were in North Africa, at the ports of Mers-el-Kébir, Oran, Algiers, Bizerte, Alexandria, or elsewhere overseas. The almost completed and powerful battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart had escaped France and were at Dakar and Casablanca, respectively. At Mers-el-Kébir, there were the two fast battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg; the two older, modernized battleships Provence and Bretagne; the seaplane tender Commandant Teste; and some large destroyers and miscellaneous warships. Oran served as base to seven destroyers, and Algiers had six modern light cruisers.
Over some opposition and at Churchill's insistence, the War Cabinet approved Operation catapult to carry out the "simultaneous seizure, control or effective disablement or destruction of all the accessible French Fleet." French naval commanders were offered a series of options: they could join Britain and continue the fight, they could sail their ships to a neutral port and be disarmed there, or they could scuttle their ships. If French commanders rejected these options, the British naval commanders were under orders to open fire and sink the French ships themselves.
The plan, which unfolded on 3 July, met with considerable success in those areas under British control. At Portsmouth, the British seized the old French battleship Courbet, along with other small vessels. At Plymouth, they secured the battleship Paris, two destroyers, a torpedo boat, and three sloops. There, also, they took the Surcouf, the world's largest submarine. Three submarines and other craft were secured from the ports of Falmouth and Dundee. In their home ports, the British secured almost 200 small warships, including minesweepers, tugs, submarine chasers, and trawlers. The vessels were taken at a cost of three sailors killed, two British and one French. Later, 3,000 of the ships' 12,000 officers and sailors joined the Free French. Also seized were French merchant ships and their crews.
catapult was also successful in the West Indies. Prolonged talks involving the British, French, and Americans led to the internment of the aircraft carrier Béarn and two light cruisers at Martinique. At Alexandria, Vice Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham negotiated with Vice Admiral René Émile Godfroy, who commanded a French squadron consisting of the rebuilt World War I–era battleship Lorraine; the heavy cruisers Duquesne, Tourville, and Suffren; the light cruiser Duguay-Trouin; three destroyers; and one submarine. In deft negotiations, Cunningham managed to secure an agreement that the French ships would be disarmed and their fuel emptied. Some of the sailors were also repatriated to France.
The operation was not so effective farther west in the Mediterranean. At Mers-el-Kébir, the French refused to yield and fought a battle with Vice Admiral James Somerville's newly formed Force H from Gibraltar. In the action, the French battleship Bretagne blew up and sank. The Provence was also badly damaged and beached herself; the battleship Dunkerque ran aground. In this battle, 1,297 French seamen died; another 351 were wounded. Later, on 5 July, the Strasbourg, Commandant Teste, and a few destroyers broke free and escaped. There was also fighting at Dakar, where a small British squadron built around the tiny aircraft carrier Hermes damaged the battleship Richelieu on 8 July.
Because of catapult, the Vichy French government severed diplomatic relations with Britain. The German government also lifted demobilization requirements for the French fleet and elements of its air force, and the French then mounted several largely ineffectual air strikes against Gibraltar. On 26 July, London declared a blockade of metropolitan France and French North Africa, although it was never heavily enforced.
Those who had opposed catapult believed it would drive a wedge between the two former allies; they also expected France to honor its pledge to Britain to scuttle the fleet if necessary. In these beliefs, they were quite correct. Despite their sharp animosity toward Britain for launching catapult—an animosity that lingers to this day—the French honored their pledge. In November 1942, following the Allied landings in North Africa (Operation torch), the French scuttled their ships when the Germans tried to secure them at Toulon. Operation catapult was one of the most tragic aspects of the war.
Huan, Claude. Mers-El Kébir: La rupture franco-britannique. Paris: Economica, 1994.; Marder, Arthur. From the Dardanelles to Oran: Studies of the Royal Navy in War and Peace, 1915–1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.; Tute, Warren. The Deadly Stroke. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1973.