Since the establishment of her present territory, France had to face three major challenges on the naval level: two sea sides, which force to keep two naval forces and divide resources between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean; Political and strategic interests on the East border and the continent, which creates a tendency to emphasise land forces; A tendency to neglectful administrations, unable to withstand the sustained efforts necessary to keep an effective navy. This created a series of brilliant eras followed by disasters.
Four main eras and be distinguished in the History of the French Navy
The French navy is affectionately known as La Royale ("the Royal"). The reason is not well known: it might be for its traditional attachment to the French monarchy; because, before being named "nationale", the Navy had be named "royale" (the navy did not sport the royal titles common with other European navies like the British Royal Navy); or simply because of the location of its headquarters, "rue Royale" in Paris.
During the reign of Henri IV, France was in an unstable state, and striving to guarantee her independence from Spanish and papal influences. This prompted both an emphasis on land forces, which drained resources, and an alliance with England, which would have unfavourably seen France challenging her naval supremacy.
When Richelieu became Minister of the Navy, he decided on a plan to rebuild a powerful navy, divided into two distinct forces.
The Mediterranean force was to be completely composed of galleys, to take advantage of the relatively calm sea. Initially, the plan called for 40 galleys, but was downsized to 24 of them, notably because of a lack of galley slaves — each galley was 400 or 500 slave strong.
The Oceanic force was to be composed of men of war. The designs were moderately large ships, for a lack of harbours fit for very large units, but very heavily armed with large calibre guns; these ships displaced between 300 and 2000 tonnes and bore up to 50 24-pound cannons, firing 150mm-round shots. The first ships were ordered from the Dutch, and French production started with the famous Couronne, a prestige ship typical of this era.
When later completed, the Navy built a French empire, conquering the "Nouvelle-Guyenne" (now Acadia), "Nouvelle France" (now Canada), Tortuga, Martinique, Guadeloupe, The Bahamas and several other islands in the Carrabean, and Madagascar.
Under the tutelage of the "Sun King," the French Navy was well financed and equipped, managing to score several early victories in the Nine Years War against the Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy. Financial troubles, however, forced the navy back to port and allowed the English and the Dutch to regain the initiative.
Under the impulsion of Jean-Baptiste Colbert's ambitious policy of ship building, the French navy began to gain a magnificence matching the symbolism of the Louis XIV era, as well as an actual military significance. The Soleil-Royal is illustrative of the trend of the time. Colbert is credited with forging a good part of the naval tradition of France.
During the War of the Grand Alliance, Admiral Tourville won a decisive victory in the Battle of Beachy Head (1690, Bataille de Bévezier); the event is regarded as one of the most glorious deed of the French Navy, and Tourville earned a fame which lasts to present times (a number of ships were named Bévezier or Tourville to commemorate the battle).
The Battle of Barfleur saw a largely under-numbered French fleet attack and defeat the combined English and Dutch fleets, obtaining a noticeable tactical victory. However, the event ended in a strategic disaster, as some of the damaged French ships were forced to beach themselves at Cherbourg, where they were annihilated by English long boats and with fire ships. The loss effectively put French ambitions to challenge the English navy to a halt for decades.
King Louis XVI was keen on technical subjects and geography, and encouraged explorations. Vessels designed by French engineer Jacques-Noël Sané started being constructed during the American Revolutionary War. He created what were to be, in effect, the ultimate designs of wind-powered fighting ship, with standard frigates of 18 guns, and standard ships of the line of 64, 74, 80 and 118 guns ; his 74-gun ship of the line became the backbone of the French and English navies. The largest units, the 118-guns, were said to be "as manoeuverable as a frigate" (the Océan type is a typical example).
During the American War of Independence the French Navy played a decisive role in supporting the American side. The French Navy was the only standing navy to fight the British, alongside the modest Continental and American state navies and American privateers. In a very impressive effort, the French under de Grasse managed to defeat an English fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781, thus ensuring that the Franco-American ground forces would win the ongoing Battle of Yorktown.
In 1789, the French navy counted 71 ships of the line, 64 frigates, 45 corvettes and 32 smaller units; 12 ships of the line and 10 frigates were under construction and expected to be launched within the year. The crews counted 75 000 sailors, 5 000 gunners, 2 000 officers and 14 000 Fusiliers de Marine. The ships were based mostly in Brest, Toulon and Rochefort, as well as in Lorient, le Havre de Grâce, Dunkerque, Bordeaux, Bayonne and Marseille.
The National Convention dissolved the Fleet Gunners Corps, which effectively put a halt to the training in gunnery, abysmally degrading the rate of fire and precision of batteries; in addition, the French doctrine was to fire at the rigging of enemy ships as to render them hapless; this doctrine could prove effective with highly trained crews, but was impractical with poorly trained gunners, and resulted in a number of instances where French ships did not manage to score a single hit on dangerously exposed English ships (as happened with the fight of the Ça Ira, or at the beginning of the Battle of Trafalgar). By contrast, the Royal Navy doctrine was to fire at the ship's hull in order to kill and maim the crew, and gradually degrade the firepower of their opponents — also much easier target for much better trained gunners.
Efforts to make it into a powerful force under Napoleon were dashed by the death of Latouche Tréville in 1804, and the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where the British all but annihilated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. The disaster guaranteed British naval domination until the steam era.
From then on, the French navy was limited to frigate actions and privateers like Robert Surcouf. This started the French tendency to prefer large numbers of smaller but powerful and swift units, rather than large capital ships.
During this period, explorer and naval officer Dumont d'Urville contributed to geography in Southern and Western Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica, and brought back previously unknown plants and animal species.
The French Navy also conducted a successful blockade of Mexico in the Pastry War of 1838 and obliterated the Chinese navy at the Battle of Foochow in 1884. It also served as an effective link between the growing parts of the French empire. Ever eager to challenge British naval supremacy, the French Navy took a leadership role in many areas of warship development, pioneering the introduction of several new technologies: steam propulsion, adoption of the screw propeller, adoption of armour plate protection, steel construction, and protected gun mounts.
In China, France took part in the Second Opium War along with Great Britain, and in 1860 French troops entered Beijing. China was forced to concede more trading rights, allow freedom of navigation of the Yangzi river, give full civil rights and freedom of religion to Christians, and give France and Britain a huge indemnity. This combined with the intervention in Vietnam set the stage for further French influence in China leading up to a sphere of influence over parts of Southern China.
In 1866, French Navy troops made an attempt to colonize Korea, during the French Campaign against Korea. The French Navy also had a mild presence in Japan in 1867-1868, around the actions of French Military Mission to Japan, and the subsequent Boshin war.
French capital ships of this time were instantly identifiable by their small size (10,000 tons), huge spur rams, great height and pronounced tumble-home (turning inwards of the hull's sides as they climb upwards). Often carrying only half the main armament of their British contemporaries, French battleships had armoured masts with electric elevators inside, outsized funnels, and elaborate davit systems to swing out boats from the narrow upper decks.
France built a considerable fleet of these vessels, though seldom with such uniform class characteristics as seen in Britain and Germany. The Bouvet, Masséna, and Jauréguiberry were built as "sample battleships", as the design for a true class of battleships was fiddled with. It eventually materialised with the 3-ship Charlemagne class, which introduced armament nearly on a par with its British contemporaries.
France's conceptual and technological edge proved attractive to the newly industrialising Japan, when the French engineer Émile Bertin was invited for four years to design a new fleet for the Imperial Japanese Navy, which led to her success in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. French yards busily turned out warships for foreign customers, especially Imperial Russia, which copied French stylings in designing many of its cruisers and battleships. Despite her leads in some areas of technology (boilers, metallurgy), France did not have the productive capacity of her rival across the Channel, or her new nemesis, Germany.
Right at the turn of the century, French design absorbed influences from foreign practice. Her newer battleships featured two twin 300mm gun turrets as opposed to single mounts, less exaggerated tumble-home of the hull, and abandonment of the ram bow. This led to improved seakeeping characteristics, though the ships remained small.
In the Liberté class (completed 1907), French pre-dreadnought design finally caught up with U.S. and British standards; but 1907 also saw the debut of HMS Dreadnought, which made all the world's capital ships obsolete overnight. Through 1911, while rival navies were turning out new dreadnoughts, all France's available shipyards were dedicated to producing the 6-ship Danton class pre-dreadnoughts which, though they featured turbine/quad screw propulsion, still mounted only 4 heavy guns each, as against at least 10 for a dreadnought.
The first French dreadnoughts did not appear until 1914, and two classes totalling 7 ships, the Courbet and Bretagne classes, were completed during the First World War. With the alliance with Britain just before the war, France's naval assets were concentrated in the Mediterranean, largely to face off the Italian fleet. Meanwhile a large cruiser fleet was also built, seeing service in the Mediterranean, the Channel, and in France's imperial dominions in Vietnam, Africa, and the Caribbean.
A number of major ships of the French Navy at the outbreak / end of World War I
The invention of the seaplane in 1910 with the French Le Canard led to the earliest development of ships designed to carry airplanes, albeit equipped with floats. In 1911 appears the French Navy La Foudre, the first seaplane carrier. She was commissioned as a seaplane tender, and carried float-equipped planes under hangars on the main deck, from where they were lowered on the sea with a crane. La Foudre was further modified in November 1913 with a 10 metre flat deck to launch her seaplanes.
|"An airplane-carrying vessel is indispensable. These vessels will be constructed on a plan very different from what is currently used. First of all the deck will be cleared of all obstacles. It will be flat, as wide as possible without jeopardizing the nautical lines of the hull, and it will look like a landing field."|
|Clément Ader, "L'Aviation Militaire", 1909|
Every naval fleet consists of a variety of ships of different sizes, and no fleet has enough resources to make every vessel supreme in its class. Nonetheless, different countries strive to excel in particular classes. Between the world wars, the French fleet was remarkable in its building of small numbers of ships that were "over the top" with relation to their equivalents of other powers.
For example, the French chose to build "super-destroyers" which were deemed during the Second World War by the Allies as the equivalent of light cruisers. This was a way of bypassing the Treaty of Washington, which imposed restrictions on cruisers and battleships, but not on destroyers and smaller units. The Fantasque class of destroyer is still the world's fastest class of destroyer. The Surcouf submarine was the largest and most powerful of its day.
In 1933, the French Navy was considering building a super-battleship, the Lyon class battleship, but the plans were canceled when the Germans came out with the so-called "pocket battleships" ; the French responded with a class of two ships of the Dunkerque type, a fast battleship class falling somewhere in between battlecruisers and battleships. The large battleship niche was filled with the Richelieu.
The bulk of the fleet, however, was in Dakar or Mers-el-Kebir. The Royal Navy delivered an ultimatum but, when agreement proved impossible, they opened fire and sunk or damaged much of the French fleet (Operation Catapult) on 3 July 1940. The action soured Anglo-French relations and inhibited further defections to the Allies. From this point on, the ships remaining in Vichyst hands spent the war trying to observe neutrality towards the Axis powers, while avoiding destructions or capture by the Allies and the Free French. They obtained anecdotical tactical successes which weighted for nought against the overall strategic disaster, like the Battle of Dakar or the Battle of Koh Chang.
In November, 1942, the Allies invaded French North Africa. In response, the Germans occupied (Case Anton) Vichy France, including the French naval port of Toulon, where the main part of the surviving French fleet lay. This was a major German objective and forces under SS command had been detailed to capture them (Operation Lila). French naval authorities were divided on their response: Admiral Jean de Laborde, the commander of the Forces de Haute Mer (the High Seas Fleet) advocated sailing to attack the Allied invasion fleet while others, such as the Vichy Secretary of the Navy, Contre-Amiral Auphan favoured joining the Allies. On several warships, there were spontaneous demonstrations in favour of sailing with the Allies, chanting "Vive de Gaulle! Appareillage!".
The orders to French commanders to scuttle their ships in case of an attempted take-over had been reinforced, however, and, often despite the presence of German troops, this was done, in the Scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon. No capital ships and few others were taken in reparable condition A few ships fled Toulon and joined the Allies, notably the submarine Casabianca.
In the wake of the Armistice and the Appeal of 18 June, De Gaulle founded the Free French Forces, including a naval arm, the Forces navales françaises libres (FNFL, "Free Naval French Forces"). To distinguish the FNFL from the Vichist forces, vice-admiral Émile Muselier created the bow flag displaying the French colours with a red cross of Lorraine, and a cocarde also featuring the cross of Lorraine for aircraft.
The French fleet was widely dispersed. Some vessels were in port in France; others had escaped from France to British controlled ports, mainly in Britain itself or Alexandria in Egypt. At the first stage of Operation Catapult, the ships in the British ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth were simply boarded on the night of 3 July 1940. The then largest submarine in the world, the Surcouf, which had sought refuge in Portsmouth in June 1940 following the German invasion of France, resisted the British operation. In capturing the submarine, two British officers and one French sailor were killed. Other ships were the two obsolete battleships Paris and Courbet, the destroyers Le Triomphant and the Léopard, 8 torpedo boads, 5 submarines and a number of other ships of lesser importance.
Beside warships, the FNFL developed special forces: Captain Philippe Kieffer took inspiration from the British commandos to train new units of " Commandos Fusiliers-Marins", which later would become the Commandos Marine. These commandos distinguished themselves during the Battle of Normandy, climbing cliffs under fire to destroy German shore batteries. Captain d'Estienne d'Orves attempted to unite the French Resistance, became an inspiring symbol when he was arrested, tortured by the Gestapo and executed.
The FNFL also harboured technical innovators, like Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who invented the modern aqua-lung, and Yves Rocard, who perfected the radar. The aqua-lung became a major improvement for commando operations.
French warships of the FNFL supported the landings in southern France (Operation Dragoon) and Normandy (Operation Neptune). These units also played their parts in the war in the Pacific. The Richelieu was present in Tokyo Bay during the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.
Newer strategic submarines of the SNLE-NG type have mostly replaced the elder SNLE, and a new nuclear ballistic missile is under test, due for 2008. The experience acquired with the building of the SNLE-NG will also lead to a newer type of nuclear attack submarines, which are expected for 2010.