The French were in economic dire straits at the end of the First World War. Their fleet was obsolete and ineffective, but they immediately made plans to modernize. The French were signators to the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. This treaty placed a morotorium on the construction of battleships for several years and limited cruiser tonnage to a maximum of 10,000 tons per ship. During the interwar period, the French battle fleet consisted of several dreadnaught battleships completed before or during the war. These included the Paris, Courbet, Lorraine, Bretagne, and Provence. The French, along with all other major naval powers, designed and began construction of 10,000 ton "treaty cruisers". The first French ships were the Duquesne and Tourville. These ships mounted a main armament of eight, 8-inch guns mounted in four twin turrets, two forward and two aft, both superimposed. This armament was comparable to treaty cruisers constructed by the other powers. The French cruisers were not a balanced design though. They were fast, but virtually unarmored, with only minimal protection to the turrets, and magazines. They were not a successful design. These two early heavy cruisers were followed by five more, each one an improvement on its immediate predecessor. The seventh heavy cruiser completed was the Algerie, which was a well balanced and powerful design.
Battleship Provence, damaged during the British
attack on Mers el Kebir, then later sunk by her crew
when the French scuttled their fleet at Toulon naval base in November, 1942.
She and her sister ships formed an important part of the French fleet in the
Light cruiser Primauguet seen here pre-war. She was at Casablanca
harbor and resisted the allied landing forces
during Operation Torch.
The early French heavy cruiser Tourville. She joined the
allied cause after November, 1942 and was modernized with
new anti-aircraft weapons and radars. She was used post-war in French
Indochina when the French attempted to re-assert their control there.
The modern heavy cruiser Algerie, seen here underway, was later scuttled
by her crew at Toulon naval base in November, 1942.
The French also completed eleven light cruisers comprising four separate classes during the 1920s and 1930s. They were also fast, but most carried little armored protection. However, they were more successful than the early French heavy cruisers were, and many had active careers even after the French surrender.
Light cruiser Jeanne de Vienne, also scuttled by her
crew in November, 1942 at the Toulon naval base, to
prevent her falling into the hands of the Germans.
Light cruiser Montcalm underway.
Light cruiser Gloire sporting a "zebra"
camouflage pattern in 1944. The Gloire joined the
allied cause after the collapse of the Vichy French government
in November, 1942. She was modernized in the United States.
One type of warship that French naval design and construction excelled in was the destroyer. Numerous destroyers of several different but similar designs were commissioned during the inter-war years. During the mid 1930's, the French began construction of large destroyers they called "contre-torpilleurs", which meant killers of destroyers. These large destroyers were in the same tonnage range as the smaller light cruisers in several navies, and in fact they were designated as light cruisers (erroneously in my opinion) by some. However, despite their large size and tonnage, their armament was much more comparable to contemporary destroyers in the French and other fleets, and they could not match the gunnery firepower of most light cruisers they might become engaged in battle with. They also had a limited range and endurance.
The large "contre-torpilleur" Le Terrible,
comparable in size and tonnage to several light cruisers in
foreign navies, but not comparable in armament.
In the early 1930's, the French began construction of capital ships. The first two ships, sometimes referred to as battlecruisers rather than battleships because of their size, higher speed, somewhat lighter main armamant, and less than ideal armor protection, were the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg. These were handsome ships each mounting main batteries of eight, 13-inch guns in two quadruple turrets, both mounted forward. They were designed to counter the German pocket battleships of the Deutschland class, which they far excelled in speed and strength, and they were actually comparable to, or even superior to, the later German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
Battlecruiser Strasbourg underway at speed in heavy seas
in the North Atlantic.
In the late 1930's, the French finally laid down modern, heavy battleships of the Richelieu class that were needed to counter the new Italian battleships of the Littorio class then nearing completion. Four ships were planned, but only the lead ship, the Richelieu, and the second ship, the Jean Bart, were near or somewhat nearing completion when French resistance collapsed in June, 1940. The Richelieu had all of her main armament and secondary armament already installed and was in the process of commissioning. The Jean Bart was not as far advanced. She only had one of her two main battery turrets installed, had no secondary armament, and no anti-aircraft weapons were installed. Her machinery was incomplete, but her construction was far enough advanced to allow her to get underway with difficulty and escape the advancing Germans.
Battleship Richelieu operating with British forces
late in the war.
At the beginning of hostilities in September, 1939, the French battle fleet was inferior to that of its anticipated primary adversary, the Italian navy. The Richelieu and Jean Bart were far from being ready, but the Italians already had two new Littorio class battleships in service. The Italians had also spent much time, expense, and effort during the mid to late 1930's to completely rejuvenate and modernize their World War I era dreadnaughts of the Cavour and Doria classes. Upon completion of modernization, these ships were certainly much superior to the elderly French battleships, which had received little in the way of modernization during the pre-war years. However, as events unfolded, the French fleet never engaged the Italian fleet in battle during World War II, so the results of these extensive modernizations were never tested in combat with opposing units of the French fleet.
The bulk of the French fleet was stationed in the Mediterranean at ports in Southern France and at French territories in North Africa. During the interwar years, the French had tried to maintain general parity in naval strengh with the Royal Italian Navy, which was considered to be the primary adversary in the event of a general European conflict. With the declaration of war with Germany, specific units of the French fleet were moved to Atlantic bases and operated jointly with British naval units to form hunter-killer groups. These groups were designed to seek out and destroy German commerce raiders, specifically the menacing German pocket battleships. Until the French surrender in June, 1940, these hunter-killer groups were stationed at various strategic locations in ports in Africa, the West Indies, and elsewhere. French warships also joined up with the British Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria, Egypt.
Battlecruiser Dunkerque underway
with crew lining the rails.
French warships saw little action early in the war, but some did operate with the British Home Fleet during the Norway campaign, and several French destroyers and smaller craft assisted with the evacuation of Dunkirk prior to the collapse of French resistance. The onslaught of the German blitzkreig was of such strength and force that the French Army, assisted by the British Expeditionary Force, could not withstand it. Within weeks of the invasion, France signed an armistice with Germany, allowing Germany to occupy large areas of territory within France, including the entire Atlantic coastline and the capital of Paris.
Destroyer Bison on fire and sinking during
the Norwegian campaign.
The French naval high command, believing surrender to be near at hand, undertook frantic efforts to prevent major units of the French fleet from falling into German hands, as well as undertaking efforts to transport the French gold reserves to Canada and elsewhere. All warships that could get underway made their escape either to unoccupied territory in the South of France, to ports in the French overseas territories, or to ports in Great Britain or Egypt, including the powerful, but incomplete, new battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart. The French government understood that it would possess a significant bargaining tool if the French fleet could be kept intact and out of the hands of the Germans. The French government moved to Vichy in the area of France that was not to be occupied by the Germans. Although nominally quasi-independent, the Vichy French government was not in a position to act independently either in domestic or foreign affairs, being under the heel of the German boot. The terms of the armistice required the bulk of the French fleet to be demilitarized in French ports, save a small squadron of warships selected by the Germans that the French were allowed to keep in operational condition to control its remaining territorial waters and defend unoccupied French territory.
The large submarine Surcouf was captured in a British port
following the fall of France, despite resistance offered by her crew.
The elderly battleship Paris, captured in a British port
after the French surrendered to the Germans. She was
returned to the French government after the war and later scrapped.
Although the French agreed to the German terms, many important units of the French fleet were either in British or British controlled territory or in ports in overseas French territories. The British reasonably believed that should those vessels be permitted to return to France, they might very well eventually fall under direct control of Germany and might well be used against Britain. The British government could not permit this to happen, and Churchill meant to prevent it.
The British devised plans to 1) seize French warships in British ports, and 2) require the French to demilitarize those warships under British supervision and oversight, either in Britain or in French overseas territories, or 3) to join the British and continue the fight against Germany. Should the French refuse to accept any of these alternatives, British commanders were ordered to use force to destroy the French warships.
The British were successful in seizing two elderly French battleships, the Paris and the Courbet, which had fled France and steamed to ports in Southern Britain, as well as the large submarine Surcouf and some smaller vessels. The French did offer some resistance, but were quickly overcome. In Alexandria, Egypt, the French Admiral Godfroy decided to demilitarize his squadron, including battleship Lorraine, heavy cruisers Suffren, Duquesne and Tourville, and light cruiser Duguay Trouin and remain there under British supervision. In the French territories in the West Indies was the only French carrier, the Bearn, and light cruisers Emile Bertin and Jeanne de Arc. Eventually, the Admiral in charge of these ships decided as well to demilitarize, which was also the result being sought by the United States. "Free French" naval forces were formed using light forces that had surrendered or were captured. They participated in subsequent British naval attacks on Vichy French territories, naval bases, and warships.
The only French aircraft carrier, the Bearn, seen here in 1937.
She was of little use for fleet operations due to her slow speed.
From mid 1940 to late 1942, the Bearn was demilitarized at
Martinique in the West Indies. After the fall of the Vichy
French government, she was reactivated and used as an aircraft transport.
Light cruiser Jeanne de Arc. She was designed and used
as a training cruiser. She had the same armament as several
other French light cruisers, but sacrificed some speed in
exchange for additional housing facilities for cadets. She was demilitarized
at Martinique and later joined the allies.
Submarine Le Protee.
The British success in diplomacy ended there. A powerful French squadron was at the port of Mers-el-Kebir in French North Africa under command of Admiral Marcel Gensoul. On July 3, 1940, a British squadron, Force H based at Gibraltar, appeared off the harbor entrance under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville. The British ultimatum was delivered to Admiral Gensoul, along with a deadline to meet the British demands. Admiral Gensoul was defiant, and he refused to comply with the British. He ordered his captains to raise steam and prepare to get underway for action. Moored to the jetty were the modern, powerful battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, older battleships Provence and Bretagne, and several destroyers. As the deadline passed, Admiral Somerville opened fire on the French ships, which had yet to get underway. The French attempted to reply, but were still not prepared for action. The British quickly found the range and inflicted heavy damage. The battleship Bretagne was hit, caught fire, and exploded. She capsized and sank with heavy loss of life. The battleship Provence was also heavily hit. She replied with a few salvos, but quickly lost power and was run aground to keep from sinking. The proud Dunkerque also became a target of the British. As she tried to get underway, she was hit hard and set on fire. The Dunkerque was stopped, unable to proceed further, but did not sink. The battlecruiser Strasbourg was the only French capital ship able to get underway and make for the harbor exit. She came under fire from Force H, which she responded to, but she sustained only minor damage that did not hinder her fighting efficiency or speed. Although the British had laid a minefield across the harbor entrance, the Strasbourg avoided it and began her run toward France. She was joined by several destroyers that had also managed to escape. The British squadron gave chase. The British had an aircraft carrier in their squadron, and they launched swordfish torpedo bombers to attack the Strasbourg. They were unsuccessful, and the Strasbourg made good her escape, arriving at Toulon the next day.
French battleships moored against the jetty
at Mers-el-Kebir prior to the British attack.
Battleship Bretagne under attack and exploding
from British shellfire. This battleship
capsized and sank during the attack.
1,297 French sailors were killed as a result of the British attack, and French public opinion took a dramatic turn againt their former allies, the British. Three days later, the British, unconvinced that they had inflicted sufficient damage against the battlecruiser Dunkerque to put her out of commission, launched an air attack on Mers-el-Kebir. The Dunkerque was further damaged by torpedoes and depth charges that buckled her deck and caused further extensive damage.
Admiral Marcel Gensoul, commanding the
French warships at Mers-el-Kebir. He refused the
British ultimatums and began to prepare his ships
for battle, but time ran out before they were ready.
On July 8th, the British followed up with an air attack on the new, but not fully operational, battleship Richelieu that had sought refuge at the port of Dakar in West Africa. She sustained one torpedo hit, causing some damage, but was not crippled. The British, supported by Free French units, also carried out later attacks against the Richelieu in an effort to either sink her or keep her immobilized and non-operational.
The French asked permission of the Germans to discontinue demilitarizing their ships based upon the new threat from the British, which the Germans gladly agreed to. The French launched retaliatory air strikes against the British base of Gibraltar on July 14th and on September 24th and 25th, but caused little damage.
Throughout the remainder of 1940 and until November, 1942 when the Vichy government collapsed and Germany overran the remaining unoccupied French territory, the French fleet remained largely inactive. At Toulon in Southern France were the battlecruiser Strasbourg, the heavy cruisers Algerie, Foch, Dupleix, and Colbert, light cruisers Jeanne de Vienne, Marseillaise, and La Galissonniere, and many destroyers, submarines, and lighter craft. These were later joined by the battlecruiser Dunkerque and the battleship Provence after they were repaired sufficiently enough to allow them to steam with escort to Toulon. Not all of these ships at Toulon were operational. Some, including the Dunkerque and Provence, remained under repair while others were in "care and maintenance" status and not deployable.
One of the many destroyers that were an important
part of the French fleet.
In the African port of Casablanca were the incomplete battleship Jean Bart, which had only half of her main armament installed, light cruiser Primauguet, and several destroyers and submarines. In Dakar were the damaged battleship Richelieu and light cruisers Gloire, Montcalm, and Georges Leygues. In the French West Indies were carrier Bearn and light cruisers Jeanne de Arc and Emile Bertin. In Saigon, Indochina, effectively laid up under Japanese occupation, were the light cruiser La Motte Piquet and a few colonial sloops. Finally, in Alexandria, Egypt were the demilitarized battleship Lorraine, heavy cruisers Suffren, Duquesne, and Tourville, and light cruiser Duguay Trouin. Elderly battleships Paris and Courbet, together with a few smaller craft, were out of service in Great Britain.
The British and Free French undertook several small scale operations against Vichy territory into 1942, including invading Madagascar. None of the major units of the French fleet were able to intervene to resist these attacks.
The relative calm came to an end on November 8, 1942, when the armies of the United States and Great Britain invaded French North Africa during "Operation Torch". While the ultimate goal of the allied invasion was to launch a second allied front against the Germans and Italians they were already battling in North Africa, the immediate result was a series of clashes with the French military forces loyal to the Vichy French government. Three allied task forces carring more than 70,000 allied troops approached the coast, escorted by multiple allied warships. The Vichy forces, including ground, air, and naval forces, initially offered resistance to the allied landings. The incomplete and immobilized battleship Jean Bart exchanged gunfire with the United States battleship Massachusetts. Jean Bart sustained heavy damage, and her only installed main battery turret was put out of action. The Massachusetts was not damaged. The French cruiser Primauguet and several large destroyers sortied from the harbor to engage the allied landing forces, as did several submarines. They came under heavy fire and were overwhelmed. Most of them were either destroyed or heavily damaged. The Primauguet took many shell hits, was set on fire, grounded in the harbor, and was completely burned out. Resistance ended, and Vichy officials were overthrown and replaced by French officials loyal to General de Gaulle's "Free French" movement in Britain.
Battleship Jean Bart moored dockside at Casablanca harbor.
The Jean Bart showing considerable damage after
exchanging gunfire with the United States battleship Massachusetts
during Operation Torch.
Light cruiser Primauguet at bottom, beached and
burned out following action against allied landing
forces during Operation Torch. Other French
warships are also seen to be sunk or destroyed in this photo.
The events during and immediately after Operation Torch made it clear to the Germans that the Vichy French were either unable or unwilling to make a determined effort to defend their territories. The Germans began making plans to occupy the remainder of France and to seize the French fleet at the naval base at Toulon. The French naval command surmised that this would happen, and they made arrangements to scuttle the French warships at Toulon to deprive the Germans of their use, should it become necessary.
On November 19, 1942, the Germans initiated their plans and moved ground troops into the territory of Vichy France. By November 27th, the Germans had reached the naval base of Toulon. Admiral Jean de Laborde was in command of the French warships based there. Some officials in the Vichy government had attempted to persuade Admiral de Laborde to sail his fleet to join the allies, but he refused to consider it without formal orders to that effect from the Vichy government, which never came.
Admiral de Laborde gave the order to scuttle, and his captains complied. The Germans boarded some of the ships to attempt to prevent their being scuttled, but they were too late. Explosions erupted and fires broke out on most of the warhips. The French were successful in destroying 77 vessels, including the 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 12 submarines, and many other craft. Some of the major ships were ablaze for days. The commanders of at least 5 submarines disobeyed orders to scuttle and sailed to French North Africa.
Overhead view of ships burning following
the scuttling of the French fleet at Toulon in November, 1942.
Heavy cruiser Dupleix on fire and sinking
after scuttling at Toulon.
Heavy cruiser Colbert sunk at her moorings
after scuttling at Toulon.
Battlecruiser Strasbourg sunk at her moorings
after being scuttled.
Wreck of battlecruiser Dunkerque at Toulon. It is
apparent that some salvage work for scrap metal has been done,
probably by the Italians. The bow and much of the
superstructure have been removed.
A few of the cruisers were later salvaged by the Italians, but none were ever returned to service. The Strasbourg and Dunkerque were also finished, but aerial reconnaisance failed to convince the allies that the Strasbourg was damaged beyond repair, and the allies later launched air attacks to complete her destruction. Some of the heavy guns from the old battleship Provence were removed by the Germans from the sunken ship and used as shore batteries.
In 1945, the light cruiser La Motte Picquet, which had been laid up in Saigon, Indochina and which had not been in operation since 1941, was bombed and sunk by United States carrier aircraft, possibly in error since it was reported that she had French marking prominently displayed on her. She had participated in one successful naval engagement in 1941 against ships of the Royal Thai Navy during a territorial dispute with Thailand.
Light Cruiser La Motte Picquet sinking
at her moorings after being attacked by
United States naval aircraft
The modern and powerful French battleship Richelieu at sea.
The post war French fleet consisted of warships that had survived the conflict and been fully restored to French control. Due to the military, economic, financial, infrastructure, and human losses France had sustained during the long war, it would be many years before the French Navy began to recover and undertake the construction of new warships. In time, France would re-emerge with a powerful and well-balanced navy that includes a modern aircraft carrier component.