Moral complexity in WW2 (1): ‘Operation Catapult’

At the beginning of the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston felt compelled to order the Royal Navy to attack the pride of the French naval fleet in ‘Operation Catapult’, an assault which caused some 1,300 deaths and around 350 injuries – all of them citizens of France, our leading ally in the struggle against Nazi Germany. It happened at the North African port of Mers-el-Kébir in the late afternoon of 3 July 1940.
This was arguably the toughest decision that Churchill had to take in the course of the war and may well have been decisive in denying the French vessels to the Germans and in convincing the Americans of Britain’s determination to resist Hitler. But the chances are that you’ve never heard of the incident.
I’ve known about the operation for a long time because I came across it while researching for a book I wrote some 25 years ago. It was a biography of my wife’s father Karel Kuttelwascher, a Czech pilot who at this stage of the war was close to Mers-el-Kébir with the French III/3 Squadron. The squadron flew a couple of sorties over the port just after the British attack but none of the Czechs with the squadron was allowed to fly that day because they were felt to have divided loyalties, since the Battle of France had been lost and the Czechs were planning to escape to Britain to continue the fight.
I was reminded of ‘Operation Catapult’ this week when Channel Four screened a documentary called “Churchill’s Darkest Decision”. The programme featured both British and French naval crew involved in the event and underlined the morally complex decisions that have to be made in war.


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