Cold War French Navy

French Navy

Cold War French Navy

Overview: The French navy in the cold war: 1947-1991

When out from the last war France was left impoverished and with all its shipyards in ruins as well as its industries and qualified manpower partly returned either from POW camps or compulsory work service (STO- service du travail obligatoire).

Of course this situation was not going to last. After 1946 the Marshall plan helped France rebuilt her ravaged economy and in the late-40s – early 1950s two shipyards were able to produce the first postwar destroyers.

Jean Bart
Jean Bart laid to rest at Casablanca, after Operation Torch Nov. 16, 1942.

The French fleet in 1946 was a mix of surviving units passed under the free french control and allied units passed from either the royal navy or in large majority the US Navy Freighters already were of us construction including former liberty ships that helped french postwar trade until the 1960s.

The French navy like many others passed through an evolution process from formulas still largely requiring artillery to missiles from the 1960s.
A good example of this is the Colbert at first completed as an AA cruiser like the De Grasse but later gradually reconstructed as a missile cruiser used as an escort for the new Clemenceau class aircraft carriers.


French cruiser Suffren departing for Indochina, 1945-46.

Situation in 1945

There were a significant number of vessels that were in needs of completion and were completed in the late 1940s to early 1950s often fully rebuilt.

The most spectacular cases were the battleship Jean Bart and cruisers Tourville and Colbert.
The Jean Bart was the sister-ship of the Richelieu and spectacularly escaped to avoid capture in 1940. It was then relegated to Casablanca for the duration of the war even exchanging fire with us battleship Massachusetts during operation torch
There were concerns about what to do with after the war when it was clear that battleships were definitely out of the equation of modern naval warfare. After much debate, it was eventually decided to convert her as an anti-aircraft battleship for task force escort.


The “old guard”, Battleship Jean Bart, cruisers Suffren and Montcalm in the early 1960s.

For that purpose, the Jean Bart was entirely rebuilt but still kept its main battery. Telemetric systems tailored to serve the many antiaircraft batteries were installed, the main gun battery fire direction system was entirely revised and a new superstructure set in place
The redesign and full conversion process took a while but eventually, the conversion had more potential than the contemporary British vanguard or the Iowa class for that matter.

Despite of this, the Jean Bart career was rather short but the ship would serve with distinction in the 1956 Suez canal operations.

Other interesting conversions at that time were the cruiser De Grasse and Colbert.
The two had been designed as large gun platforms before the war with triple turrets but this also was seen as no longer relevant after the war and the same reconstruction and reconversion process took place. Both indeed were converted as AA cruisers for aircraft carrier escort. However with rapid progress in jet propulsion, artillery was soon obsolete, and missiles look the way forward. Only the Colbert, in the end, will be converted between 1970 and 1972 as a missile cruiser, while both the De Grasse and Jean Bart went to the depot, and soon disappeared from view in the late 1960s.

Postwar allocations

French Dixmude (ex USS Bitter) during the Indochina war

Another aspect of the French Navy, besides the numerous British and US-built ships she maintained, was the generous allocation she received in war reparations. Ships in Good state, recent, powerful, has been allocated to her in priority as a special favour some found unjustified, like the Soviets, arguing their participation in the war has been all but symbolic at best. Nevertheless these served for years, helping to maintain a fledgling French Empire and its position into NATO.

Such ships has been the wartime aircraft carrier Dixmude (HMS Biter) transferred in 1945, the Arromanches (HMS Colossus) transferred in 1946 and purchased in 1951, and the same year, with the situation deteriorating in Indochina, Lafayette, ex-USS Langley (Independence class) and in 1953, Bois Belleau (USS Belleau Wood). These ships operated mostly piston aircraft of US and British design, fully compatible or early jets.

To this, the French also received two ex-Italian cruisers in 1949 (Chateaurenault & Guichen, of the 1943 Attilio Regolo class, modernized and rebuilt) and four ex-Soldati class DDs named Jurien de la Gravière, Duperré, Ducchafault, and D’Estaing acquired in the summer of 1948, seeing about 6-10 years of service.

Guichen D607, rearmed, modernized as a Fleet Escort (Escorteur d’Escadre)

These were also nine ex-German destroyers and large TBs named Marceau, Kléber, Hoche, Desaix, Alsacien, Lorrain, Dompaire, Bir Hakeim and Baccarat. Also the U-Bootes Laubie, Mille, Blaison, Bouan, were modern VIIC models of 1943-44 and the Roland Morillot, one of the famous XXI type, which helped the French designing their first modern coldwar submarine type.

Roland Morillot (S613), ex U-2518 modified Type XXI.

Six British Frigates and six US Destroyer Escorts were also transferred, named Algerien, Senegalais, Somali, Hova, Marocain, Tunisien, L’Aventure, Surprise, L’escarmouche, Croix de Lorraine, Tonkinois and La Découverte, and 15 ex-German minesweepers (1937-41) and also 30 wooden YMS type minesweepers, and 30 US PC type 280 t sub-chasers. These types, in particular, were to bring France a much-needed breathing space over which the Marine Nationale could set up a modernized naval production, integrate new maintenance and training procedure and work out early domestic designs, but also make her contribution to the NATO efforts in the western and Mediterranean seas. Of course in 1958 this changed dramatically with the arrival of De Gaulle and France leaving NATO.

France leaves NATO: 1960s policy

With the arrival of De Gaulle at the head of government in 1958, tackling both a painful but necessary exit from the Algerian war of independence and domestic turmoil like an aborted putsch attempt, a new constitution was setup and a new independent policy was established, which needed both to leave NATO and to develop a domestic nuclear program.

NATO withdrawal 1959-69

De Gaulle contested both the representation of France in the NATO command structure and her role in the naval branch, the AFMED command. The withdrawal of French naval forces from NATO was an ongoing process starting in 1959, followed by the early 1960s by the Atlantic and Channel commands, then the other arms until 1969 and the obligation for all NATO presence to leave France. Due to this new policy, completely new priorities had to be devised for the Marine Nationale, whereas NATO had to rethink its local contributions without France. From then on, De Gaulle launched the most ambitious French military program to date, called Force de Dissuasion.

The French Dissuasion force

It needed to establish, in full autonomy from Washington, the development of an independent nuclear program, including civilian and military aspects, the consequences were far-reaching. The French nuclear complex is still a powerful lobby today. The second aspect of this was the development of a domestic assault and intervention force, with considerable amphibious assets. This went beyond the definition of new aircraft carriers, with the design of large versatile assault ships. The dissuasion force took several ways, from the construction of two-stage intercontinental missiles (installed 1966-96 in Albion plateau, SE France), airborne capability (Mirage IV then Mirage 2000N) and of course a consistent SSBN force protected by SSNs, calibrated to the size of the Royal Navy’s.

French Gymnote (1964, first generation test SSBN)

French SSBNs

The French submarine program stuck to conventional diesel-electric types through the Creole, Narval, Arethuse and Daphne types, before building in 1963-66 the Gymnote, a ballistic trial submarine equipped with four SLBM tubes. Even two years before her entry into service, the keels of six SSBNs were laid down in succession (1964-1980) at Arsenal de Cherbourg, leading to the construction of the Le Redoutable class. These 8500 tons boats were able to carry 16 ballistic missiles, 18t, two-stage M1 equipped with a single 500 kt warhead, 2500 km range, comparable to the American Poseidon system.

The third boat introduced the 3000 km range M2, and in 1976, the M20 with a 1Mt warhead (fourth boat). Apart the Le Redoutable stricken in 1991, the five others were in service by 1995. Being 25 years old, their replacement was studied already from 1985. At last in 1989 was laid down the keel of the first of a new serie of very large oceanic, stealth SSBNs, displacing 14.200 tons, quite a leapfrog in capabilities. The Le Triomphant class has since replaced all 1960-70s boats, all capable to fire sixteen M5 carrying each 12 TN-75 MIRV SLBMs.

French SNAs

To hunt for enemy submarines able to threaten this dissuasion force, two classes of new generation submarines were delivered. In the 1970s, the Agosta type, last French diesel-electric type, and the Rubis class SNAs in the early 1980s, followed by the two Amethyste class in the early 1990s (the first as laid down in 1984, and the next two were cancelled). They were replaced in the 2000s by a serie of the large Barracuda class, new generation SNAs, comparable to the US Los Angeles of the last series in size, but Seawolf in capabilities. The preliminary design studies went back to the late 1980s as it was though to shorten and adapt the new SSBNs of the Le Triomphant type.

The 1969 Plan Bleu

Work in progress…