Thursday, December 17, 2009

French Battleships, 1922-1956

French Battleships, 1922-1956 by John Jordan and Robert Dumas. Published by Naval Insitute Press, 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21402. 229 pages, 2009.

Increasingly being a member of the United States Navy means interacting with naval cultures from other nations. Indeed as I write there is a multi-national naval armada off the coast of Somalia addressing threats from Somali piracy to international shipping.

During my naval career I have embarked aboard French, Italian, and Canadian warships. This has led to an interest on my part in exploring the history and heritage of other navies, and this year Naval Institute Press has published a detailed look at the battleships of France.

Authors John Jordan and Robert Dumas are naval historians, with Jordan writing on Soviet warships, and Dumas being an expert on French naval history and battleship design.

The book opens with an overview of the evolution of the modern French navy. In 1905 France’s first battleship would be the Danton-class of which six were constructed between 1906 and 1908. These were their first experimentation with steam turbines and mounted six 240mm side turrets. These were pre-dreadnoughts, and it was in 1910 that the Normandie-class was laid down that would be their first true battleship.

So it was that France started World War I playing catch-up with other naval powers. While other battleship guns could elevate 15 to 20 degrees, the French Courbet-class could only elevate 12 degrees. While the French Bretagne-class battleship had 250mm armor protection, the British Queen Elizabeth-class had 330mm and the American New Mexico-class had 340mm armor protection. The French Navy played such a minor role in World War I, that after the war had concluded decisions were made to refit antiquated battleships like the Courbet-class.

A further chapter is devoted on the Dunkerque and Strasbourg battleships that were laid down in the 1930s and were the most powerful and significant battleships in France’s inventory. These warships were coveted by the Nazis, the Italians, and the British during the early phase of World War II, and whichever country took control of them could alter the power balance in the Mediterranean. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to open fire on these two warships in July 1940 to deny them falling into German hands, who had occupied France that May.

Among the flaws of the Strasboug however was the unusually fine hull form designed to secure maximum speed, but insufficient to cope with heavy North Atlantic seas. The book ends with the advantages and flaws of France’s final battleship design the Richelieu-class, with its two battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart.

The Jean Bart saw action in the 1956 Suez Crisis off the Egyptian coast. However she only fired four rounds of 380mm shells in support of the amphibious landings before the Operation known as ‘‘Mousquetaire,” or Musketeer was called off.

The United States and the Soviets intervened to reign in Israel, Britain and France from conducting an invasion of the strategic Suez Canal, which was nationalized by Egypt’s leader Nasser.

Jean Bart was stricken from the active list in 1970. French battleships brought France prestige but their performance record was mixed, it seemed most effective when cooperating with allies such as the actions of the battleship Richelieu in the Pacific campaigns of World War II.

This book is brimming with technical details, and should be of interest to those with a passion for naval engineering, armaments, and design.

In addition, as you read through this volume, think of the future of the French Navy or Marine Nationale and where it fits in America’s national strategy. France today has a significant amphibious capability, and like the United States has evacuated citizens from hostile shores.

In addition, the prices of modern warships are such that both France and Britain are collaborating on the construction of a new aircraft carrier, it still remains to be seen how both nations will share this military asset.

Editor’s Note: Cmdr. Aboul-Enein maintains a regular book review column in the Naval District Washington newspaper Waterline. He has an interest in military affairs and is the author of ‘‘Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” to be published by Naval Institute Press in June.