Unable to stop the German advance in Europe, British soldiers fled through the Port of Dunkirk with French help. Weeks later, the British thanked their allies by killing over a thousand of them.
At the start of WWII, Britain had the biggest navy in the world, while France had the second largest. Both were, therefore, confident of a quick victory against Germany until the latter invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and Northern France on May 10, 1940 – hence the evacuations at Dunkirk.
On the same day, Winston Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister. Britain’s fleet was scattered throughout the world, and its supply ships were being sunk by German U-boats. The French fleet was in danger o falling to the Germans.
Churchill reminded the French of their treaty – that neither could surrender without the other’s agreement. Germany had Northern France and Ports that put them within 20 miles of the British coastline.
Desperate, Churchill asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send over 50 American warships. Roosevelt was sympathetic, but the US elections were coming up. His campaign vow? To never again involve the country in yet another European war.
When the Germans reached the English Channel on May 20, Churchill again asked Roosevelt for help – this time with a twist. If Britain fell, Hitler might want its fleet as part of an armistice deal. With the French and British Navies under German control… well, America is just across the Atlantic (hint-hint!).
Big mistake. Roosevelt understood the message to mean that Britain was going to surrender. He called Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and made him an offer – forget Britain and keep your fleet in Canada. We will defend North America together.
As Canada was part of the British Empire, King was shocked. He told Churchill, of course, beginning the countdown to disaster.
The Germans took Paris on June 14. Four days later, France officially surrendered. On June 22, the new French government recognized the joint German-Italian occupation and were allowed to keep the southern half of France. On one condition – they give their Navy to Germany.
Churchill called the Admiral of the French Fleet, Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan, begging him to take his Navy to Britain. Darlan vowed never to let Germany get his fleet, and ordered his captains to destroy their ships if the Germans got close.
Churchill did not buy it. Besides, he had to convince Roosevelt that Britain would not surrender. He launched Operation Catapult to seize the entire French fleet.
The Surcouf (then the world’s biggest submarine) lay anchored at Plymouth in Devon. It was boarded by British troops on July 3 at 5:45 AM, but its captain refused to surrender. Violence broke out – killing the ship’s engineer and three British servicemen while leaving the captain severely injured.