The French Navy on the Eve of the Second World War

In 1914 the French Navy consisted of 690,000 tons of combatant ships in commission, with an additional 257,000 tons under construction. At the time of the Washington Treaty of 1922, the combat fleet totalled only 485,000 tons in commission and a mere 25,000 tons under construction—an obvious indication that even obsolete ships were not being replaced. All of the other principal naval powers had emerged from the conflict larger and more modern. The French Navy lost forty per cent of its fighting strength, and the remaining Fleet units were ill assorted and decrepit. Morale was low. Neither the Government nor the public seemed to have any interest in naval affairs.

Nevertheless the Navy proved faithful to its trust. The funds which were allocated were spent wisely and in accordance with a carefully planned program. By comparison with other Government departments it revealed a constructive doctrine and an integrity that impressed even the members of Parliament. The Ministers of the Navy, who invariably entered office with prejudices against the seagoing service, became strong supporters. Among the best can be mentioned François Pietri, who served more than two years, and Georges Leygues, who died in his post in 1933 after having served as Naval Minister for more than seven years and through eight different changes of Government. It was Leygues who remarked to Lieutenant Commander Paul Auphan, “I served for fifteen or twenty years in practically every Ministry of the Republic before coming to the Navy. I found competent people everywhere. But here one is completely astounded to find his staff working indefatigably without demanding the Legion of Honor at the end of a month or a promotion at the end of three. What is most heart warming is the Navy’s discipline, loyalty, and absolutely unselfish devotion to duty!”

As his principal adviser and private secretary (Chef de Cabinet), Leygues, who was a deputy from the Department of Lot-et-Garonne, chose his godson and compatriot, François Darlan, at that time a commander. Darlan was the son of an influential member of Parliament who had been a Minister and Keeper of the Seals under the Third Republic. In spite of some shortcomings and a timidity which he hid under a brusque manner Darlan had a thorough knowledge of his profession, along with good commonsense and a quick mind. With his family connections he was naturally well known in political circles—something that is rarely a handicap in any country. With a mischievous sense of humor young Darlan would often introduce himself as “the naval officer with the greatest backing.” Be that as it may, Darlan’s position in the office of the Minister of the Navy insured that that service would at least receive a sympathetic hearing in Government circles—something which it had often lacked. So this teamwork of Darlan and Leygues, furthered by a succession of able Chiefs of the Navy General Staff—Admirals Louis Violette, Georges Durand-Viel, and, later, Darlan himself—achieved wonders in the revival of the Navy.

For instance, the Navy had long wanted the enactment of a law establishing the strength of the fighting fleet—personnel as well as ships—on which to base an orderly, year by year program of ship building.1 The Navy would then have had a solid base on which to negotiate at future disarmament conferences. The Navy failed to secure the enactment of such a law; the Army succeeded. The Navy had to content itself with empirical programs, established annually, and always subject to the hazards of parliamentary debate. In this manner, the Navy managed to obtain, between wars, the assent of ever-changing Parliaments for sixteen yearly programs for new combat construction and ten supplementary ones for auxiliaries—a total of 705,000 tons of combatant ships, plus 126 auxiliary craft.

In 1924 the Navy presented to Parliament a program calling for 175,000 tons of battleships, 60,000 tons of aircraft carriers, 360,000 tons of light craft, and 96,000 tons of submarines—a total of 691,000 tons of combatant ships (the same tonnage as in 1914, excluding auxiliaries). The program never passed.

Naturally all these ships were not completed by 1939, for the more important programs were the latest ones. However, by 1939 the Navy was approaching that strength which its officers considered the minimum necessary to insure the nation’s independence in time of peace and its security in time of war. This goal was not reached without critical struggles, not only with the politicians of their own country but of other countries as well.

For, as has been said, it is utopian indeed to hope to establish international disarmament if one country looks upon the armaments of its neighbors more critically than it looks at its own. And that was the story of the disarmament efforts of the later 1920’s and the 1930’s. On the one hand the charter of the League of Nations, to which most of the naval powers belonged, provided for a reduction of armaments, “taking into account the geographical position and the particular problems of each State.” On the other hand the United States was not a member of the League of Nations, so the naval powers which were signatories to the Washington Treaty were obliged to hold separate discussions on the only question which interested the Americans: that of naval armaments considered independently from land and air armaments.

In 1924 the “Preparatory Commission” which the League of Nations had established met at Geneva to study questions relating to disarmament. The English advocated limitation by specific categories—heavy cruisers, light cruisers, destroyers, etc.—which would automatically have insured control of the seas for the British by establishing their supremacy in each class. The French, on the contrary, advocated global limitation, which would permit complete freedom of action and leave the door wide open for “surprises.”

By “surprises” is meant new inventions, new ship designs, or development of entirely new classes which would outmode existing ships possessed in superior numbers by another power.

The discussions were deadlocked for three years. The French Navy offered a compromise plan, but the British refused to budge.

Then the United States intervened with an invitation to a naval conference with the view of extending the ratios of the Washington Treaty to all categories of ships. The French refused to be caught twice in the same trap, and Italy also declined the invitation. In 1927 the three remaining powers—Japan, Britain, and the United States—met, but could arrive at no agreement. The United States Navy, which had a greater need than Great Britain for heavy cruisers, refused the proposal of Britain in that category, where-upon the British began to veer around to the French point of view. In March, 1928, a British-French compromise plan began to take shape, which, however, required the acquiescence of all the powers. The United States not only rejected it, but to emphasize the rejection the U.S. Congress passed a building program providing for fifteen 10,000-ton cruisers. The whole attempt at arms limitation ended with the utopian but impractical Briand-Kellogg Pact, signed at Paris, by which all the great powers “renounced war”—but without any of them renouncing the right to arm.

The next conference of the five major naval powers assembled at London, in 1930. Again the Americans, though having no part in the League of Nations, wished to extend the ratios of the Washington Treaty to all navies and to all types of ships. Even if the French had been willing to discuss such a ratio in relation to the United States and British Navies, her interests in the Mediterranean were such that she could never have accepted parity with the still greatly inferior Italian Navy. The new construction program had now been in effect for eight years, and public opinion and the Government were behind the growing French Navy.

In 1932 the scene shifted to Geneva, where the General Disarmament Conference of the League of Nations met after eight years of preparation. The conference was dominated by the question of what rights were to be accorded Germany. That nation, noting that the victorious powers had not yet disarmed, as prescribed in the Versailles Treaty, asked for either disarmament all around or equality of armament for Germany. When this was refused, Hitler promptly withdrew from the conference. Later he decreed universal military service in Germany without anyone contesting it, since it was naval armaments alone that interested Great Britain at that time. The final result of the Geneva Conference was that the League of Nations no longer engaged itself with matters of naval armaments.

However, behind the scenes, the French and Italian naval experts carried on their own negotiations. It was to the interest of both countries to reduce expenditures. Unofficially they agreed on a formula of limited scope which would preserve the existing naval ratios of the two countries, without any commitment for the future. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs reluctantly accepted the Navy’s recommendation, but the British, informed of the unofficial agreement, still pressed for parity for the Italian Navy with the French Navy. Encouraged, in 1934 Mussolini announced the laying of the keels of two 35,000-ton battleships in the near future. The French Navy, which had only the Dunkerque under construction, immediately obtained funds for the construction of the Strasbourg as a makeweight.

In 1934 Japan gave the required two-year notice that she would not renew the Washington Treaty, which, as a matter of fact, she had already been secretly violating. France sent out a similar notice in order to emphasize once and for all that she would not accept naval parity with Italy. Though the diametrically opposed points of view of the various nations had been recognized for a long time, nevertheless a call was sent out for a new conference to be held in 1936 to work out some sort of substitute for the Washington Treaty.

While France was preparing for the new conference with the hope that the threatening German rearmaments might also be taken under consideration, the British Government took the initiative by negotiating directly with Hitler. In June, 1935, following a visit to Berlin by Anthony Eden, she conceded to Germany the right to a Navy thirty-five per cent the strength of the Royal Navy, and the possibility of increasing this ratio to forty-five per cent in the case of submarines.

France was thus confronted with a fait accompli. The German Navy, which had already laid down two capital ships of 26,000 tons each, plus 12 heavy cruisers, 16 destroyers, and 28 submarines, would now be in a position to build up a global tonnage of 420,000 tons instead of the mere 100,000 tons she was permitted under the Treaty of Versailles.

Looking back after the intervening years, one can understand the cold logic of Great Britain in officially recognizing German naval rearmament and agreeing to a limit, even a very large one, rather than having no agreed limit at all. It would have been commonsense if the French too had been just as realistic and had jettisoned the ineffectual legalisms of the Versailles Treaty to which she still clung. At that time, however, the French Navy could not avoid the feeling of being abandoned—left alone and misunderstood in a world of increasing menace. Accordingly the French Navy that year obtained authorization for the construction of two more battleships, to be named respectively the Richelieu and the Jean Bart. With such additions the Navy was confident that, even without the British Navy as an ally, it could cope successfully with the combined German and Italian Navies.

And international peace in Europe was becoming steadily more precarious. More exasperated than hurt by the sanctions imposed on her for the Abyssinian campaign, Italy intensified her rapprochement with the German Reich. Germany reoccupied the left bank of the Rhine without the slightest reaction to this flagrant violation of one of the most important clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. And an ideological civil war broke out in Spain, where the German-Italian fascists on one side faced the democrats, anarchists, and Soviet communists on the other.

Part of the French naval forces were called upon to cruise for many months off the Spanish coasts in order to protect or evacuate French nationals. In 1937, French ships escorted an average of 500 merchantmen each month around the Iberian Peninsula. In the harbors, the Navy saved the lives of many nationals, even Spanish. It had no part, however, in delivering the shipments of arms which the Socialist-dominated government of France was sending to Republican Spain at the expense of the French Army’s own stockpile. Convinced from their contacts with the officers of other navies that another European war was inevitable, the French Navy vigorously prepared for it.

For the London Conference of 1936 had been a complete fiasco. Japan had appeared merely to announce that she would no longer participate, and that she reserved complete freedom of action in the future. Neither Germany nor Russia was represented at all. Italy sent word that she would not know how to negotiate with nations which had just previously applied sanctions against her. All that Britain, the United States, and France could do was to establish qualitative limits (tonnage, size of guns) for each type of ship, to bind themselves not to exceed them, and to make known their building programs in advance to each other. This last was a needless clause since in every democratic country building programs only came into being after long hours of public debate. These agreements were pretty fairly observed, yet since no controls were provided, compliance depended entirely upon the good faith of the nations themselves.

In France, while the masses were engrossed in the social reforms with which they were being appeased, the Navy, ever vigilant, vigorously pressed its reorganization. The regulations were modernized; training was intensified; construction of a new naval base at Mers-el-Kebir was begun. To insure fuel oil for the Fleet, the Navy encouraged the establishment of refineries and of commercial petroleum stocks in the homeland. Moreover it stocked approximately 3,000,000 tons of petroleum products in tanks in the vicinity of its navy yards. By 1939, reservoirs with a total capacity of 1,200,000 tons—most of them underground—had been completed. In a country where the civilian work week had been reduced to five days, naval personnel worked six days a week, and an extra hour each day. This expansion all had to be done despite only a minor share of the defense budget, the Air Force being allotted twenty-seven per cent and the Army fifty-two per cent against the Navy’s twenty-one.

In 1938 the Navy obtained funds for the construction of two aircraft carriers, but unfortunately these ships were barely under construction when the war began. Following the Munich incident, it hastily increased its building program by two battleships, two cruisers, two super-destroyers, eighteen regular destroyers, and eighteen submarines, but only a few of these ships reached the stage of being given a name.

The result of the Navy’s dogged perseverance was that at the beginning of the war France possessed a strong, modern, homogenous fleet, the composition of which is shown in Appendix A. Not counting the old battleships—though these too saw action during the war—there was not one combat ship over 13 years old. The ships were well built and dependable; their gunnery was excellent. The new super-destroyers—actually small cruisers—proved themselves the fastest ships in the world. Modern communications, including ship-to-ship voice radio, had been installed. The listening devices were good, but the submarine detection gear, of the asdic type, was still in the research stage. All the ships had been trained in day and night squadron maneuvers.

One major defect existed—a weakness in aviation striking power and also a weakness in air cover, owing to the lack of aircraft carriers and to the inadequate antiaircraft batteries. Perhaps because of lack of imagination, perhaps because of conservatism, the French Navy had concentrated more on building battleships than it had on aircraft carriers. One reason for this was undoubtedly the controversy that had arisen since World War I between the Air Ministry and that of the Navy. The Navy had had its air arm transferred to the newborn Air Ministry and had only regained shipboard aviation in 1932. During those years the aviation personnel were tossed from one Ministry to the other, and the two services devoted more time to squabbling than they did to working together on the problems of the future. Politically the Air Ministry was backed by the progressive parties, while the Navy gained its support mostly from the ranks of the moderates. These rivalries between the services did not disappear until the very advent of war.

Notwithstanding all this, French naval aviation in 1939 consisted of approximately 350 combat planes, manned by picked personnel. At the same time large plane orders, some placed with American industry, were building up the air arm at a rapid rate. The squadrons underwent intensive training, especially in reconnaissance and search, illumination, sea patrol, and anti-submarine warfare.

Theoretically the provision of air cover to the fleet operating at sea and of air strikes on enemy forces was partially the responsibility of the Air Force. Actually the very opposite occurred in 1940. At the time of the German invasion then, the combat air squadrons of the Navy were the only ones in existence in France—and these were placed at the Army’s disposal for service on the Oise River front.

The Navy also had some very good anti-aircraft weapons (75-mm., 90-mm., and even 130-mm. on the Dunkerque), but these were sadly handicapped by lack of radar. Except for this lack, the naval base at Toulon, some 200 kilometers from the Italian front, was one of the best defended against air attacks. In 1940 the 90-mm. batteries of the Navy were called upon to defend Paris, as the Army had nothing equivalent to them. The main weakness in the Navy’s anti-aircraft defense—other than lack of radar—was an insufficiency of machineguns and light guns of 25-mm. or 40-mm., for use against low-flying planes and dive bombers. The need of such weapons would be bitterly felt in the Norwegian expedition and later off the northern coast of France. One difficulty was that the Navy was dependent upon the Army, which was charged with furnishing her with light automatic guns. And the complete lack of divebombing and low-flying attack planes in the French Air Force was not conducive to impressing the Army with the critical need for an adequate number of short-range anti-aircraft weapons.

Time will not be taken here to relate the Navy’s struggle even to retain its status as a distinct service. Sometimes proposals were made to incorporate the Navy into a super-ministry of National Defense, which, of course, would be completely dominated by the Army. Again the proposal was to subordinate the Navy High Command to an over-all Commander of the Armed Forces. Only the stubborn intelligence of the Navy frustrated these attempts.

Only when there is unity of strategic aim should there be a single command. But the problem of France in case of war with the Axis powers was twofold, with each part having no relation to the other. It was the Army’s mission to prevent the invasion of the country, and, if possible, to carry the war to the enemy. The Navy, on the other hand, had the mission of keeping the sealanes and the seaports open so that the country and its fighting men could receive the supplies they needed. Only at places where sea and land fronts joined was there any problem requiring single command.

Such a place was Dunkirk in 1940, when a single command was set up there at the time of the evacuation by the French and the British.

As for the rest, all that was needed was coordination and cooperation between the services, and the Navy considered this sufficiently well taken care of by the Committee of the Chiefs of Staff (Comité des Chefs d ‘Etat-Major). In 1939 the presiding officer of this Committee was General Maurice Gamelin, Commander in Chief-designate of the Army, who was assisted by a staff made up of officers from all three services. General Gamelin held the title of Chief of Staff of the National Defense, which made him the principal military adviser of the Government. In this connection he, of course, had the benefit of the advice of his colleagues. But the conduct of naval operations remained entirely outside his jurisdiction.

These operations fell within the province of the Chief of the Navy General Staff who, merely a collaborator of the Navy Minister in time of peace, assumed the title of Comander in Chief of the French Naval Forces in time of war. In 1939 the Chief was Admiral Darlan.

Experience had vastly matured this officer. Among other assignments he had commanded the Atlantic Squadron with brilliance. Chief of the Navy General Staff at the time, he had attended the coronation of King George VI, as did the chiefs of all the foreign navies. But he did not appreciate the protocol which, as he said, placed him during the coronation service “behind a pillar and after the Chinese admiral.”

At that time the two highest permanent grades in the French Navy were vice admiral and rear admiral. Although wearing an extra star as Chief of the Navy General Staff, Darlan’s permanent rank was only vice admiral, which ranked him after all regular four-star admirals, be they Chinese or Panamanian. Darlan came to the conclusion that there was only one step to take, so upon his return to Paris he had himself elevated to the rank and dignity of Admiral of the Fleet, equivalent to the Royal Navy rank of that name. Thenceforth when Darlan spoke at international meetings in the name of France, he had insured himself an equal footing with anyone else present.

Later on, the French naval officers of that time were reproached with being individualistic, aloof from the rest of the country. Some politicians even accused the Navy of being hostile to the political institutions of the day.

This may partly be attributed to the conflicting attitudes the French were to take at the time of the armistice and during the German occupation. The truth of the matter was that the Navy of those days was a tightly knit and homogenous group of dedicated officers and men—a Navy in which all were proud to serve and in which everyone obeyed without question the orders of their superiors, and these superiors in turn unhesitatingly carried out the directives of the Government, regardless of the political party which might for the moment be in power. Differently from the Army, whose strength lay mostly in mobilized reservists, eighty-six per cent of the Navy’s personnel was made up of volunteers, reenlistments, and career petty officers. If the Navy seemed aloof from the general public, it was mainly because they did not engage in politics, and because, as professional seamen, their viewpoints were on a worldwide basis rather than confined to the limited horizons of the average Frenchman.

The French Navy of 1939 may best be described by the four words which for over a century have been lettered in gold above the quarterdecks of all French men-of-war. On one side of the panel there appears the motto “Honor and Country,” and on the other side, facing it, the words “Valor and Discipline.” Not one of those four virtues but would be needed by the seamen of France in the ordeal to come.


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