The French Navy was in considerable disarray at the end of World War II. Little remained of the powerful fleet with which the nation had begun the war. Two battleships, the Richelieu and the incomplete Jean Bart, and a few cruisers, destroyers, and submarines had escaped the German occupation of France in 1940. Most of these ships had been widely dispersed and later rejoined the war with the Allies. Most of the fleet had been scuttled at Toulon at the end of 1942 rather than have it fall into the hands of the Germans.
As a consequence, France relied heavily on its allies, Britain and the United States. These two powers provided ships that were surplus to their own requirements and also supplied to France, German, and Italian prize vessels. The Italian ships in particular were modern, powerful ships. But this also meant a logistical nightmare, with a profusion of incompatible systems and ordnance. Equipment was also difficult to maintain due to a shortage of spare parts. Repairs to French ships taxed the resourcefulness of French Navy dockyard repairmen at Brest and Toulon.
In April 1945 Britain transferred to France the U. S.-built escort carrier Biter, which the French renamed the Dixmude. It saw service off Indochina. In August 1946, Britain also transferred the carrier Colossus, renamed by the French the Arromanches. During the postwar years France added a number of modern French-built warships to its fleet, including the light carriers Foch and Clemenceau (for fixed-wing aircraft), Jeanne d’Arc (for helicopters), the antiaircraft cruisers De Grasse and Colbert, and the destroyer/command ship La Galissonniere. In 1960 naval manpower stood at 62,000, but by the late 1980s that number had been cut to 32,804 (of which three-fourths were regulars). In the twilight years of the Cold War, the French fleet consisted of three carriers, forty-two surface combat vessels, twenty-nine mine hunters and minesweepers, fourteen patrol craft, sixteen attack submarines (of which three were nuclear-powered), and seven ballistic-missile nuclear submarines.
The modest naval resources available to France at the onset of the Cold War were placed under great strain as the nation attempted to reassert control over its colonial holdings. Although there was no enemy fleet to contend with in Indochina, France nonetheless utilized its navy to combat Viet Minh forces. On 23 November 1946, on the orders of French high commissioner to Indochina Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, the cruiser Suffren shelled Haiphong, killing between 200 and 1,000 Vietnamese and effectively beginning the Indochina War. During the eight-year-long Indochina War, the navy played an important role especially in riverine warfare, supporting army operations ashore and conducting amphibious operations. Junks and river craft as well as landing craft were brought in from Singapore.
Because of its heavy commitment to the fighting in Indochina, France contributed only one ship to assist the United Nations Command (UNC) during the Korean War. The frigate La Grandiere performed patrol and blockade duties off the Korean coast.
In 1951, the United States transferred to France the light carrier Langley, renamed the Lafayette. Its sister ship, the Belleau Wood (renamed the Bois Belleau), joined the fleet two years later. In addition to the two aircraft carriers, Britain provided its share of captured German vessels, including four large destroyers and four torpedo boats. The navy used many of these ships, including the carriers Lafayette and Bois Belleau, in Indochina. The Lafayette, flying F4U-7 Corsairs, completed the last naval mission of the war.
By the mid-1950s, a new French-made navy took shape. The French naval command decided to scrap the old German ships while retaining the ex-American and ex-British ships for training purposes. France’s respectable fleet of warships included two aircraft carriers, a cruiser, seventeen large destroyers, eighteen frigates, and fourteen submarines.
The battleship Richelieu was little altered. It served in Indochina and was hulked in 1959. The Jean Bart, which had been extensively damaged in the Allied landing at Casablanca in November 1942, underwent considerable renovation. New antiaircraft armament was installed in 1951-1952. The Jean Bart was stricken from the navy list in 1960.
French naval aviation played an important role in the Algerian War (1954- 1962), providing both transport and close air support. In November 1957, the navy formed a special helicopter group that worked closely with four commando units of the French Special Naval Forces. The French pressed the Jean Bart into service during the 1956 Suez Crisis as a fire support ship, while aircraft from the Lafayette also participated.
On his return to power in 1958, Charles de Gaulle sought to strengthen the navy. De Gaulle saw the navy as playing an important role in a foreign policy independent of both Washington and London. Believing that he could not rely on the United States to risk its own nuclear destruction to defend Europe with nuclear weapons against a Soviet attack, de Gaulle gradually separated France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1959 he withdrew the French Mediterranean fleet from the alliance’s command. In 1963, France also withdrew ships from NATO’s Atlantic command. Hand in hand with de Gaulle’s decision to separate France from the NATO military command structure came the decision to develop a submarine nuclear deterrent, the Force de Dissuasion, similar to the U. S. Polaris. France’s augmented fleet also possessed a considerable intervention capability, including colonial sloops, amphibious assault ships, and minesweepers. Despite these developments, the French Navy continued to maintain direct links with NATO.
The French nuclear deterrent force, known as the Force de Frappe, consisted of land, air, and sea-based delivery systems. In 1967, France launched the Redoubtable, the country’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. The Redoubtable class of submarines was designed to carry sixteen French underwater launched Mer-Sol-Balistique-Stratégique (MSBS) missiles, with a range of 1,900 miles. Each MSBS was designed to carry a nuclear warhead of 0.5 megatons.
By the end of the Cold War there were serious doubts about the ability of the French Navy to fulfill its worldwide policing commitments. New programs were also under way to replace aging vessels with new vessels, such as the Floréal-class frigates. The end of the Cold War brought retrenchment for the French Navy. This meant cuts and delays in ship construction programs, including that of the new aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
References Chumbley, Stephen, ed. Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1947-1995. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. Jenkins, Ernest H. A History of the French Navy from Its Beginnings to the Present. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1973. Koburger, Charles W. The French Navy in Indochina. New York: Praeger, 1991. Palmer, Diego A. Ruiz. “French Strategic Options in the 1990s.” Adelphi Papers 260 (Summer 1991): 3-80.