As Britain braced itself, one of its immediate goals was to prevent the French navy from falling
into German hands. As a result, Operation Catapult was put into action on July 3, 1940. A
British naval force based in Gibraltar was ordered to Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria, where much of the
remaining French navy had fled. The British offered the French crews a choice: they could sail
immediately for Britain and join in the fight against Germany, hand their ships over to the British,
allow the British to move the ships somewhere safe in the West Indies, or scuttle their fleet. The
French crews refused all four options, leaving the British little choice but to fire upon their allies,
destroying the ships and killing over 1,200 French sailors. French ships at several other
locations, however, were seized without incident.
The German code name for its plan to conquer the United Kingdom was Operation Sea Lion.
The operation began tentatively, as a series of probing bomber attacks against British ships in
the English Channel and ports in southern England in early July 1940. In fact, Hitler was still
debating whether to invade Britain or Russia first.
The first German bomber attack over the Channel came on July 10, 1940. Yet even as late as
July 19, Hitler made a last-minute speech advocating peace with Britain, presumably trying to
buy time. Britain ignored the appeal. Skirmishes over the Channel and coastal southern
England continued into August, but the Royal Air Force only rarely came out to defend the ships
in the channel, preferring to hold off until the German planes got closer to the mainland, nearer
to the limit of their range. As a result, British shipping in the Channel suffered heavy damage,
but the RAF was able to conserve pilots and planes for the coming battle.
In early August 1940, Hitler decided to begin massive bombing raids on air bases and military
command posts in southern England, hoping to break Britain’s will. Germany would withhold
any attempt at a ground invasion, however, until it was clear that air superiority could be gained
over England. On August 13, which the German high command labeled “Eagle Day,” Germany
sent more than 1,400bombers and fighters across the English Channel. The Germans brought