Attack on Mers-el-Kébir

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Attack on Mers-el-Kébir
Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean during the Second World War
Croiseur de bataille Strasbourg 03-07-1940.jpg
The battleship Strasbourg under fire
Date3 July 1940
Location 35°43′10″N0°41′20″W / 35.71944°N 0.68889°W / 35.71944; -0.68889
Result British victory
Belligerents
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom Flag of France (1794-1815, 1830-1958).svg France
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg James Somerville
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Dudley Pound
Flag of France (1794-1815, 1830-1958).svg Marcel-Bruno Gensoul
Flag of France (1794-1815, 1830-1958).svg François Darlan
Strength
1 aircraft carrier
2 battleships
1 battlecruiser
2 light cruisers
11 destroyers
4 battleships
5 destroyers
1 seaplane tender
Casualties and losses
2 killed
6 aircraft destroyed
1,297 killed
350 wounded
1 battleship sunk
2 battleships damaged
2 destroyers damaged
1 seaplane tender damaged
1 destroyer grounded
1 tugboat destroyed [1]

The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir (Battle of Mers-el-Kébir) on 3 July 1940, during the Second World War was, a British naval attack on French Navy ships at the naval base at Mers El Kébir, at Oran, on the coast of French Algeria. The attack was part of Operation Catapult, a British plan to neutralise or destroy French ships to prevent them falling into German hands in the aftermath of the Allied defeat in the Battle of France. The British bombardment of the base killed 1,297 French servicemen, sank a battleship and damaged five other ships, for a British loss of five aircraft shot down and two crewmen killed.

Contents

The attack by air and sea was conducted by the Royal Navy, after France had signed armistices with Germany and Italy, coming into effect on 25 June. Of particular significance to the British were the five battleships of the Bretagne and Richelieu classes and the two fast battleships of the Dunkerque class, the second largest force of capital ships in Europe after the Royal Navy. The British War Cabinet feared that the ships would fall into Axis hands. Admiral François Darlan, commander of the French Navy, assured the British that the fleet would remain under French control but Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet judged that the risk was too great.

The French thought they were acting honourably towards their former ally in terms of their armistices with Germany and Italy. The British attack was almost universally condemned in France and resentment festered for years over what was considered a betrayal by their former ally. Marshal Philippe Pétain, who was appointed the prime minister of France on 16 June, severed diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom on 8 July. The next day, deputies of the National Assembly met at Vichy and voted to revise the constitution, bringing the French Third Republic to an end and Pétain was installed with full powers as leader of the new French State.

French aircraft retaliated by bombing Gibraltar several times and French ships exchanged fire several times with British ships, before a tacit truce was observed in the western Mediterranean. On 27 November 1942, after the beginning of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa, the French navy foiled Case Anton, a German and Italian operation to capture the rest of the French fleet at Toulon by the scuttling the ships. The British attack at Mers-el Kébir remains controversial but some historians have written that it demonstrated to the world that Britain would fight on. [2]

Background

French–German armistice

After the Fall of France in 1940 and the armistice between France and Nazi Germany, the British War Cabinet was apprehensive about control over the French navy. The French and German navies combined could alter the balance of power at sea, threatening British imports over the Atlantic and communications with the rest of the British Empire. In Article 8, Paragraph 2 of the Armistice terms, the German government "solemnly and firmly declared that it had no intention of making demands regarding the French fleet during the peace negotiations" and there were similar terms in the armistice with Italy but they were considered by the British to be no guarantee of the neutralisation of the French fleet. On 24 June, Darlan assured Winston Churchill against such a possibility. [3] Churchill ordered that a demand be made that the French Navy (Marine nationale) should either join with the Royal Navy or be neutralised in a manner guaranteed to prevent the ships falling into Axis hands. [4]

At Italian suggestion, the armistice terms were amended to permit the French fleet temporarily to stay in North African ports, where they might be seized by Italian troops from Libya. The British made a contingency plan, Operation Catapult, to eliminate the French fleet in mid-June, when it was clear that Philippe Pétain was forming a government with a view to ending the war and it seemed likely that the French fleet might be seized by the Germans. [5] In a speech to Parliament, Churchill repeated that the Armistice of 22 June 1940 was a betrayal of the Allied agreement not to make a separate peace. Churchill said, "What is the value of that? Ask half a dozen countries; what is the value of such a solemn assurance?... Finally, the armistice could be voided at any time on any pretext of non-observance...". [6]

The French fleet had seen little fighting during the Battle of France and was mostly intact. By tonnage, about 40 per cent was in Toulon, near Marseilles, 40 per cent in French North Africa and 20 per cent in Britain, Alexandria and the French West Indies. Although Churchill feared the fleet would be used by the Axis, Hitler and Mussolini did not intend to employ a combined Franco–Italian–German force. The Kriegsmarine and Benito Mussolini made overtures but Adolf Hitler feared that an attempted take-over would provoke the French fleet into defecting to the British. Churchill and Hitler viewed the fleet as a potential threat; the French leaders used the fleet (and the possibility of its rejoining the Allies) as a bargaining counter against the Germans to keep them out of unoccupied France ( zone libre ) and French North Africa. The armistice was contingent on the French right to man their vessels and the French Navy Minister, Admiral François Darlan, had ordered the Atlantic fleet to Toulon to demobilise, with orders to scuttle the ships if the Germans tried to take them. [7]

British–French negotiations

The British tried to persuade the French authorities in North Africa to continue the war or to hand over the fleet to British control. A British admiral visited Oran on 24 June, and Duff Cooper, Minister of Information, visited Casablanca on 27 June. [8] The French Atlantic ports were in German hands and the British needed to keep the German surface fleet out of the Mediterranean, confine the Italian fleet to the Mediterranean and to blockade ports still under French control. The Admiralty was against an attack on the French fleet in case the ships were not sufficiently damaged, France declared war and the French colonies would be less likely to defect. The Royal Navy lacked the ships permanently to blockade the French naval bases in North Africa and keep the Atlantic approaches open, which made the risk of the Germans or the Italians seizing the French capital ships too great. Because the fleet in Toulon was well guarded by shore artillery, the Royal Navy decided to attack the base in North Africa. [9]

Ultimatum

French ships based in Africa, June 1940 French-ships-africa.png
French ships based in Africa, June 1940

The most powerful group of French warships was at Mers-el-Kébir in French Algeria, comprising the old battleships Provence and Bretagne, the newer Force de Raid battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg, the seaplane tender Commandant Teste, six destroyers and a gunboat, under the command of Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. Admiral James Somerville, commander of Force H, based in Gibraltar, was ordered to deliver an ultimatum to the French, the terms of which were contrary to the German-French armistice. [8] [lower-alpha 1] Somerville passed the duty of presenting the ultimatum to a French speaker, Captain Cedric Holland, commander of the carrier HMS Ark Royal. Gensoul was affronted that negotiations were not being conducted by a senior officer and sent his lieutenant, Bernard Dufay, which led to much delay and confusion. As negotiations dragged on, it became clear that neither side was likely to give way. Darlan was at home on 3 July and could not be contacted; Gensoul told the French government that the alternatives were internment or battle but omitted the option of sailing to the French West Indies. [8] Removing the fleet to United States waters had formed part of the orders given by Darlan to Gensoul in the event that a foreign power should attempt to seize his ships. [11]

Operation Catapult

Plymouth and Alexandria

Blackburn Skuas of No 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm prepare to take off from HMS Ark Royal HMS Ark Royal planes.jpg
Blackburn Skuas of No 800 Squadron Fleet Air Arm prepare to take off from HMS Ark Royal

Along with French vessels in metropolitan ports, some had sailed to ports in Britain or to Alexandria in Egypt. Operation Catapult was an attempt to take these ships under British control or destroy them and the French ships in Plymouth and Portsmouth were boarded without warning on the night of 3 July 1940. [12] [13] The submarine Surcouf, the largest in the world, had been berthed in Plymouth since June 1940. [14] The crew resisted a boarding party and three Royal Navy personnel, including two officers, were killed along with a French sailor. Other ships captured included the old battleships Paris and Courbet, the destroyers Le Triomphant and Léopard, eight torpedo boats, five submarines and a number of lesser ships. The French squadron in Alexandria (Admiral René-Émile Godfroy) including the battleship Lorraine, heavy cruiser Suffren and three modern light cruisers, was neutralised by local agreement. [15]

Attack on Mers-el-Kébir

Diagram of the British attack on Mers-el-Kebir Attack on Mers-el-Kebir harbor-EN.svg
Diagram of the British attack on Mers-el-Kébir

The British force comprised the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and an escort of cruisers and destroyers. The British had the advantage of being able to manoeuvre, while the French fleet was anchored in a narrow harbour and its crews did not expect an attack. The main armament of Dunkerque and Strasbourg was grouped on their bows and could not immediately be brought to bear. The British capital ships had 15 in (381 mm) guns and fired a heavier broadside than the French battleships. On 3 July, before negotiations were formally terminated, British Fairey Swordfish planes escorted by Blackburn Skuas from Ark Royal dropped magnetic mines in the harbour exit. The force was intercepted by French Curtiss H-75 fighters and a Skua was shot down into the sea with the loss of its two crew, the only British fatalities in the action. [16] French warships were ordered from Algiers and Toulon as reinforcements but did not reach Mers-El-Kebir in time. [8] At 5:54 p.m., Churchill ordered the British ships to open fire and the British commenced from 17,500 yd (9.9 mi; 16.0 km). [17] The third British salvo scored hits and a magazine aboard Bretagne exploded, the ship sinking with 977 of her crew at 6:09 p.m. After thirty salvoes, the French ships stopped firing; the British force altered course to avoid return fire from the French coastal forts but Provence, Dunkerque, the destroyer Mogador and two other destroyers were damaged and run aground by their crews. [18]

Battleship Bretagne on fire, still under bombardment Cuirasse Bretagne 03-07-1940.jpg
Battleship Bretagne on fire, still under bombardment

Strasbourg, three destroyers and one gunboat managed to avoid the magnetic mines and escape to the open sea under attack from a flight of bomb-armed Swordfish from Ark Royal. The French ships responded with anti-aircraft fire and shot down two Swordfish, the crews being rescued by the destroyer HMS Wrestler. As the bombing had little effect, at 6:43 p.m. Somerville ordered his forces to pursue and the light cruisers HMS Arethusa and Enterprise engaged a French gunboat. At 8:20 p.m. Somerville called off the pursuit, feeling that his ships were ill-deployed for a night engagement. After another ineffective Swordfish attack at 8:55 p.m.,Strasbourg reached Toulon on 4 July. [19] The French aviso (gunboat) Rigault de Genouilly, en route to Oran, met Force H at 7:33 p.m. and sailed towards Hood, only to be fired on by Arethusa and Enterprise at 12,000 and 18,000 yd (5.9 and 8.9 nmi; 6.8 and 10.2 mi; 11 and 16 km) respectively, along with several 15 in (380 mm) shells from Hood, against which the French ship fired nineteen 5.45 in (138 mm) shells before being hit by Enterprise. On the next day, the British submarine HMS Pandora encountered the ship off the Algerian coast, mistook it for a cruiser and sank it. [20] The French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) made reprisal raids on Gibraltar, including a half-hearted night attack on 5 July, when many bombs landed in the sea. [21] [22]

Actions of 8 July

The British believed that the damage inflicted on Dunkerque and Provence was not serious and raided Mers-el-Kébir again on the morning of 8 July, with Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal. A torpedo hit the patrol boat Terre-Neuve, moored alongside Dunkerque, full of depth charges. Terre-Neuve quickly sank and the depth charges went off, causing serious damage to Dunkerque. [23] The last part of Operation Catapult was another attack on 8 July, by aircraft from the carrier HMS Hermes against the battleship Richelieu at Dakar; the battleship was seriously damaged. [21] [22]

Aftermath

Analysis

The French destroyer Mogador running aground, after having been hit by a 15-inch shell. Mogador 03-07-1940.jpg
The French destroyer Mogador running aground, after having been hit by a 15-inch shell.

Churchill wrote "This was the most hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned". [24] Relations between Britain and France were severely strained for some time and the Germans enjoyed a propaganda coup. Somerville said that it was "...the biggest political blunder of modern times and will rouse the whole world against us...we all feel thoroughly ashamed...". [25] The attack revived Anglophobia in France but demonstrated British resolve to continue the war and rallied the British Conservative Party around Churchill (Neville Chamberlain, Churchill's predecessor as prime minister, was still party leader). The British action showed the world that defeat in France had not reduced the determination of the government to fight on and ambassadors in Mediterranean countries reported favourable reactions. [21]

The French ships in Alexandria under the command of Admiral René-Emile Godfroy, including the old battleship Lorraine and four cruisers, were blockaded by the British on 3 July and offered the same terms as at Mers-el-Kébir. After delicate negotiations, conducted on the part of the British by Admiral Andrew Cunningham, Godfroy agreed on 7 July to disarm his fleet and stay in port until the end of the war. [26] Some sailors joined the Free French while others were repatriated to France; Surcouf and the ships at Alexandria went on to be used by the Free French after May 1943. The British attacks on French vessels in port increased tension between Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, who was recognised by the British as the leader of the Free French Forces on 28 June 1940. [27] [28]

According to his principal private secretary Eric Seal, "[Churchill] was convinced that the Americans were impressed by ruthlessness in dealing with a ruthless foe; and in his mind the American reaction to our attack on the French fleet in Oran was of the first importance". On 4 July, Roosevelt told the French ambassador that he would have done the same. [29] De Gaulle's biographer Jean Lacouture blamed the tragedy mainly on miscommunication; had Darlan been in contact on the day or had Somerville possessed a more diplomatic character, a deal might have been done. Lacouture accepted that there was a danger that the French ships might have been captured by German or more likely Italian troops, as proven by the ease with which the British seized French ships in British ports or the German seizure of French ships in Bizerte in Tunisia in November 1942. [30] [31]

Casualties

Memorial on the coast path at Toulon to the 1,297 French seamen killed at Mers El Kebir Mers el Kebir Memorial at Toulon, France.jpg
Memorial on the coast path at Toulon to the 1,297 French seamen killed at Mers El Kebir
Numbers killed at Mers-el-Kébir [32]
OfficersPetty
officers
Sailors,
marines
Total
Bretagne 361518251012
Dunkerque 932169210
Provence 123
Strasbourg 235
Mogador 33538
Rigault de Genouilly 3912
Terre Neuve1168
Armen336
Esterel156
Total482021,0501,300
Fleet Air Arm [16] 2

Subsequent events

British–Vichy hostilities

Following the 3 July operation, Darlan ordered the French fleet to attack Royal Navy ships wherever possible; Pétain and his foreign minister Paul Baudouin over-ruled the order the next day. Military retaliation was conducted through ineffective air raids on Gibraltar but Baudouin noted that "the attack on our fleet is one thing, war is another". As sceptics had warned, there were also complications with the French empire; when French colonial forces defeated de Gaulle's Free French Forces at the Battle of Dakar in September 1940, Germany responded by permitting Vichy France to maintain its remaining ships armed, rather than demobilised. [33] [34] On 24 September Gibraltar was bombed by sixty Vichy French, aircraft which dropped 45 long tons (46 t) of bombs and that night, 81 bombers dropped 60 long tons (61 t) of bombs. The French 2nd Destroyer Division comprising Fougueux, Frondeur, Épée and Fleuret had sailed from Casablanca on 24 September and in the early hours of 25 September encountered the destroyer HMS Hotspur patrolling off Gibraltar. Épée opened fire but its 5.1 in (130 mm) guns broke down after firing fourteen shells, Fleuret did not open fire because it could not get on target and the other French destroyers fired six shots between them. Hotspur returned fire but this was not reported by the French ships. [35]

On 27 September Force H stayed at sea after receiving "a charming message [that] the whole of the Toulon fleet was coming out to have a scrap with us" but the two navies adhered to a tacit understanding that the British did not attack more powerful French forces at sea or ships in port but intercepted other French ships,

Though British commanders had precise instructions regarding the interception of French shipping, discretion might prove the better part of valour if Vichy escorts were liable to inflict serious loss. [35]

In the autumn, the French sent a convoy through the Straights of Gibraltar untroubled, a state of affairs which rarely changed during the Mediterranean Campaign. [35]

Gibraltarian civilians

In early June 1940, about 13,500 civilians had been evacuated from Gibraltar to Casablanca in French Morocco. Following the capitulation of the French to the Germans and the attack on Mers-el-Kébir, the Vichy government found their presence an embarrassment. Later in June, 15 British cargo vessels arrived in Casablanca under Commodore Crichton, repatriating 15,000 French servicemen who had been rescued from Dunkirk. Once the French troops had disembarked, the ships were interned until the Commodore agreed to take away the evacuees, who, reflecting tensions generated after the attack on Mers-el-Kébir, were escorted to the ships at bayonet point, minus many of their possessions. [36]

Case Anton

On 19 November 1942, the Germans tried to capture the French fleet based at Toulon, against the armistice terms, as part of Case Anton, the military occupation of Vichy France by Germany. All ships of any military value were scuttled by the French before the arrival of German troops, notably Dunkerque, Strasbourg and seven (four heavy and three light) modern cruisers. For many in the French Navy this was a final proof that there had never been a question of their ships ending up in German hands and that the British action at Mers-el-Kébir had been unnecessary. [16] Darlan was true to his promise in 1940, that French ships would not be allowed to fall into German hands. Godfroy, still in command of the French ships neutralised at Alexandria, remained aloof for a while longer but on 17 May 1943 joined the Allies. [37]

Orders of battle

Royal Navy

French Navy (Marine Nationale)

See also

Notes

  1. It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German enemy. We are determined to fight on until the end, and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer we solemnly declare that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe. In these circumstances, His Majesty's Government have instructed me to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers el Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives; (a) Sail with us and continue the fight until victory against the Germans. (b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews would be repatriated at the earliest moment. If either of these courses is adopted by you we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile. (c) Alternatively, if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans lest they break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West IndiesMartinique for instance—where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated. If you refuse these fair offers, I must with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within 6 hours. Finally, failing the above, I have orders from His Majesty's Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands.
    Somerville [10]

Footnotes

  1. Playfair 1959, p. 137.
  2. Thomas 1997, pp. 643–670.
  3. Butler 1971, p. 218.
  4. Greene & Massignani 2002, p. 57.
  5. Lacouture 1991, pp. 246–247.
  6. Hansard, War Situation, 25 June 1940, 304–05
  7. Greene & Massignani 2002, p. 56.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Lacouture 1991, p. 247.
  9. Bell 1997, pp. 19–20.
  10. Butler 1971, pp. 223–224.
  11. Butler 1971, pp. 224–225.
  12. Butler 1971, p. 222.
  13. Roskill 1957, pp. 240, 242.
  14. Smith 2010, p. 48.
  15. Smith 2010, pp. 47–56, 93.
  16. 1 2 3 Greene & Massignani 2002, p. 61.
  17. Brown 2004, p. 198.
  18. Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 58–59.
  19. Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 59–60.
  20. O'Hara 2009, p. 24.
  21. 1 2 3 Playfair 1959, p. 142.
  22. 1 2 Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 94–95.
  23. Greene & Massignani 2002, pp. 60–61.
  24. Lacouture 1991, p. 246.
  25. Smith 2010, pp. 86, 88.
  26. Playfair 1959, pp. 140–141.
  27. Auphan & Mordal 1976, pp. 124–126.
  28. Butler 1971, p. 230.
  29. Smith 2010, p. 92.
  30. Lacouture 1991, p. 249.
  31. Smith 2010, p. 404.
  32. O'Hara 2009, p. 19.
  33. Playfair 1959, pp. 142–143.
  34. Smith 2010, p. 99.
  35. 1 2 3 O'Hara 2009, p. 56.
  36. Bond 2003, p. 98.
  37. Roskill 1962, pp. 338, 444.

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The French destroyer Lynx was a Chacal-class destroyer (contre-torpilleur) built for the French Navy during the 1920s. The Chacals were regarded as obsolete by 1935 and Lynx became a training ship for the torpedo school at Toulon that year. She was assigned convoy escort duties in the Atlantic after the start of World War II in September 1939. In July 1940, the ship was present when the British attacked the French ships at Mers-el-Kébir, but managed to escape without damage. After she reached Toulon, Lynx was placed in reserve where she remained for the next two years. On 27 November 1942, she was scuttled at Toulon when the Germans attempted to capture the French ships there. Her wreck was salvaged in 1944, but she was not broken up until 1948.

Le Hardi was the lead ship of her class of destroyers built for the Marine Nationale during the late 1930s. The ship was completed during the Battle of France in mid-1940 and her first mission was to help escort an incomplete battleship to French Morocco only days before the French signed an armistice with the Germans. She played a minor role in the Battle of Dakar in September, mostly laying smoke screens. Le Hardi helped to escort one of the battleships damaged by the British during their July attack on Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria, back to France in November. She was reduced to reserve in mid-1942.

Fleuret was one of a dozen Le Hardi-class destroyers built for the Marine Nationale during the late 1930s. The ship was completed during the Battle of France in mid-1940 and her first mission was to help escort a battleship to Dakar, French West Africa, only days before the French signed an armistice with the Germans. After the British attack on Dakar in September, she was one of four destroyers ordered to attack British shipping, although there was only an inconclusive duel with a British destroyer. Fleuret helped to escort one of the battleships damaged by the British during their July attack on Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria, back to France in November and was then reduced to reserve.

The French destroyer Épée was one of a dozen Le Hardi-class destroyers built for the French Navy during the late 1930s. The ship was completed during the Battle of France in mid-1940 and her first mission was to help escort an incomplete battleship to French Morocco only days before the French signed an armistice with the Germans. After the British attack on Dakar in September, she was one of four destroyers ordered to attack British shipping, although there was only an inconclusive duel with a British destroyer. Épée helped to escort one of the battleships damaged by the British during their July Attack on Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria, back to France in November. She was transferred back to French Morocco in May 1941 for convoy-escort duties that lasted until October.

Mameluk was one of a dozen Le Hardi-class destroyers built for the French Navy during the late 1930s. The ship was completed during the Battle of France in mid-1940 and her first mission was to help escort an incomplete battleship to French Morocco only days before the French signed an armistice with the Germans in June. She then helped to escort one of the battleships damaged by the British during their July attack on Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria, back to France in November. Mameluk returned to Morocco in early 1941 for convoy-escort duties and then was transferred back to France in late 1941.

The French destroyer Lansquenet was one of a dozen Le Hardi-class destroyers built for the French Navy during the late 1930s. Placed into service after the French signed an armistice with the Germans in June 1940, she sailed to French Morocco to avoid capture. In November the ship helped to escort one of the battleships damaged by the British during their July attack on Mers-el-Kébir, French Algeria, back to France. Placed in reserve afterwards, she was scuttled to prevent her capture when the Germans occupied Vichy France in November 1942. Lansquenet was salvaged in 1943 by the Regia Marina and captured by the Germans after the Italian armistice in September. They scuttled the ship in Italy in 1945; she was refloated in 1946, but was never repaired. She was stricken in 1958, then scrapped.

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