In the pre–World War II era, French naval planning was guided by the formula that the navy should be equal in strength to the combined German and Italian navies. In addition, while the bulk of the French fleet was stationed in the Mediterranean, the navy was to be capable of operating elsewhere in the world, primarily in the Atlantic. Between 1925 and 1937, the French laid down new warships at the rate of 32,426 tons a year. With the approach of war, this increased to 41,000 tons annually, severely straining France's shipyard capacity.
The French fleet was centered on the battleship. France's two oldest battleships were seized by the British in July 1940 during Operation catapult, but they were of so little worth that they would not see further naval action. Its next three older—but slow—battleships of the Bretagne-class had been reconstructed in the interwar period. The Bretagne was sunk at Mers-el-Kébir during catapult, and the Provence was damaged there and later scuttled at Toulon. The Lorraine joined the Free French fleet in 1943.
In the 1930s, the French built two fast battleships, the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg. Displacing 35,500 tons fully loaded, they were rated at 29 knots and were armed with 8 x 13-inch guns in the distinctive French quadruple turrets. Under construction the French had two of the best battleships in Europe in armor design, the Jean Bart and the Richelieu. Both were armed with 8 x 15-inch guns in two quadruple turrets. Both would see action as Vichy and Free French warships and would survive the war. France also had one elderly aircraft carrier, the Bearn, that would remain idle in the West Indies most of the war. Two aircraft carriers were under construction but were never completed.
France maintained a cruiser force centered on 7 heavy ships. With the exception of the Algérie, they were probably the worst armored heavy cruisers of any major navy. It also possessed 12 modern light cruisers, of which 6 were Gloire-class ships: fast, well armed, and well armored. France also developed a unique destroyer force. It had built 32 large destroyers of a type designated as contre-torpilleurs. Fast, long-ranged, and almost light cruisers in concept, the best known were the 6 ships of the Le Fantasque–class. Capable of maintaining 37 knots at full load, they were for the whole of their careers the fastest flotilla craft afloat ( Le Terrible made 45 knots in her trials). Displacing 2,800 tons (3,400 tons fully loaded), they were armed with 5 x 5.5-inch guns. These "superdestroyers" were designed to operate in squadrons of 3 each. France also had 26 destroyers designed for fleet operations (torpilleurs d'escadre) and 12 light destroyers, the latter being 610-ton torpedo-boats similar to the Italian Spica-class vessels. A total of 23 destroyers of all types were under construction in 1940, but none would be completed.
With the exception of the legendary monster submarine Surcouf, France's submarines consisted of three types. France had 38 first-class submarines of 900 to 1,800 tons displacement, 32 second-class submarines of approximately 600 tons displacement each, and 6 minelaying submarines. Rounding out the fleet were numerous sloops, patrol boats, and other small craft; many trawlers and similar small vessels were requisitioned during the war for coastal work.
France did not have sonar until after the outbreak of the war, and during the Vichy era there was only very limited introduction of radar. Free French naval units were dependent for advanced equipment on the British and the United States, chiefly the latter. Meanwhile, the greatest gift by Vichy France to the Axis war effort may have been Darlan's presentation to the German navy of the "Metox" device for detection of radar.
During the war, the French Navy had no role during the Polish Campaign, but it did participate in the Norwegian Campaign. The latter included a destroyer raid into the Skagerrak, an arm of the North Sea between Norway and Denmark. The navy also conducted convoy and antisubmarine operations as well as operations in the Atlantic against German raiders. French naval units also participated in the Dunkerque evacuation, losing several destroyers to German aircraft. With the fall of France, the majority of the ships passed to Vichy government control. After the British attack at Mers-el-Kébir, most of the now-truncated fleet was relocated at Toulon, where virtually all were lost in a mass scuttling on 27 November 1942. Seventy-seven ships went down: 3 battleships (the Strasbourg, the Dunkerque, and the old Provence), 7 cruisers, 32 destroyers, 16 submarines, and 19 other craft. A few destroyers and smaller ships were raised and towed to Italy, but the Axis powers gained little from them. Five submarines escaped; 1 was badly damaged by bombing and had to be scuttled, another was interned in Spain, and 3 arrived in Algeria.
Some Vichy warships participated in actions against the Allies, primarily off Syria, Madagascar, and Dakar and during Operation torch. The French warships also conducted convoy operations to France. The successful Vichy defense of Dakar on 23–24 September 1940 was an important factor in Adolf Hitler's decision to continue backing the Vichy regime in 1940–1941.
Charles de Gaulle placed the few mostly smaller warships of the Free French under Vice Admiral Émile Muselier. As late at January 1943, this modest force had only 5,314 men, but it would expand as the war progressed to include several small British- and U.S.-built warships. They would operate in all oceans, participate in operations against the Vichy territories, and later take part in Operation overlord and in Pacific Ocean battles with Japan.
Major wartime losses for French ships were 4 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers, 6 light cruisers, and 58 destroyers and large torpedo boats. Unfortunately for France, its navy was little able to influence events at the beginning of the war, and the defeat of France in June 1940 came too soon for the navy to contribute in a meaningful way. Jack Greene
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