Operation Catapult: Mers-el-Kébir - Dunkerque (Part 2/2)
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Early in the morning of July 6, 1940, Dunkerque was still beached in the harbour. While some of her crewmembers were sleeping on her deck (due to the destruction of their living places), the sound of approaching aircraft woke them up. Six Fairey Swordfish armed with torpedoes caught the French completely by surprise and started their torpedo run. Two torpedoes hit Dunkerque but failed to detonate due to faulty fuzes. A third one hit the Terre-Neuve, a lighter moored on the starboard side of Dunkerque that was used to offload ammunitions from her magazines. This torpedo failed to detonate as well but damaged the lighter which started to sink. Not a single anti-aircraft shell was fired against the six attackers.
Minutes later, a second wave of three Swordfish attacked the French ship. This time, they were met by a heavy anti-aircraft fire but none were hit. A second torpedo struck the sinking Terre-Neuve and exploded, cutting her in half. Depth charges loaded on her deck started to sink but for some reasons, they were armed. One of these exploded, triggering 13 of the 44 depth charges. The massive explosion tore Dunkerque's hull apart below the Nr.II turret, distorting the armour belt and opening a huge hole. Had the magazines not be flooded after the first wave, it is likely that Dunkerque would have been completely destroyed by a magazine explosion. 20'000 tons (57% of her full load displacement!) of water entered the ship and she developed a 5 degrees list despite counterflooding and being beached. The explosion equaled the combined effect of 8 British torpedoes (!!) and even moved the main rangefinder off-axis. Water invaded all boiler rooms and other important compartments, putting Dunkerque out of action for good.
The third and final wave of three Swordfish attacked from her port side but failed to hit her. One torpedo however struck and sunk the lighter Esterel which was sailing between the aircraft and Dunkerque. In total, 225 sailors died aboard Dunkerque during the combined attack of July 3 and 6.