THE FALL AND RISE OF FRENCH SEA POWER: FRANCE’S QUEST FOR AN INDEPENDENT NAVAL POLICY, 1940-1963

December 9, 2021
Posted by: ADMIRAL SIR NIGEL ESSENHIGH

This book, in extraordinarily comprehensive detail, charts the roller coaster fortunes of the French Navy, the Marine Nationale, from the dark days of capitulation in 1940 through the difficult times of reconstruction in the late 40s and the 50s culminating in de Gaulle’s decisions in the early 60s to break with NATO and go ahead with a unilateral nuclear deterrent programme. The author, a serving officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, has based the text on his doctoral thesis at the Royal Military College.  In a very telling note on the cover, the eminent Professor Eric Grove states that “There is nothing like this in English. It is ground-breaking work”.

It tells an exceptionally complex and revealing tale which highlights the damaging impact of rivalry and mistrust between Gaullist Free French elements and the Petainist Vichy forces, a poisonous legacy that took many years to eradicate.  It is particularly illuminating in delving in detail into the extent and motivation of the US in providing substantial physical and financial aid for the reconstruction of the Marine Nationale, but with significant strings attached.  Efforts by the Admiralty to rebuild a blue water fleet to defend the coastal waters and sea lines of communication of Metropolitan France as well as re-establishing pre-war colonial influence were deliberately and repeatedly constrained by the US attaching onerous conditions.  A succession of longer-term plans for development of the fleet had to be abandoned in the face of budgetary and political realities.  Despite repeated, costly, and largely militarily irrelevant attempts to regenerate the battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart, planning was eventually focused on developing a carrier force and its supporting escorts, but which remained heavily dependent on Anglo-American support.  Integral to the build-up of a modern navy, indigenously produced, was a constant struggle for adequate resource allocation which was problematic given NATO’s Cold War priority on defence of the Rhine and France’s land force role in that Alliance priority.  As a result, the Marine Nationale had to contend with what a succession of admirals referred to as “the least bad compromises”.

Of particular interest is Chapter 8 entitled “Going Nuclear” in which is described in some detail the impact of growing tensions between the French and the Anglo-Americans resulting in France having to bear the entire costs and resource commitments of further R&D and construction of the SSBNs, their missiles and the necessary shore infrastructure.  De Gaulle’s renewed interest in the Marine Nationale may have been good for submariners but it had a grave impact on the legacy Plan Bleu of 1955 that had been focussed on regenerating a balanced fleet.  One wonders if there are lessons here for the Royal Australian Navy in the light of the recent announcement of tentative plans to develop SSNs.

The extent of the notes and bibliography, some 74 of the book’s 344-page total, reveals the enormous scale of the research that has gone into preparation of this work.  The text itself is replete with detail, occasionally somewhat distracting, but it contains 14 very useful tables that, stage by stage, illustrate the evolving composition of the French fleet over the period of the study.  Captain Canuel is to be commended for producing an interesting and exceptionally comprehensive study, perhaps not a gripping page turner, but more an excellent and authoritative book of reference in one, important element of Cold War history.