Book Review: "The French Navy in World War II" by Paul Auphan and Jacques Mordal

Updated on January 25, 2018

There are two types of historical sources : primary, and secondary sources. Primary sources are written by those directly involved in historical events, such as diaries, while secondary sources are reports which have been heard concerning such reports, such as textbooks. Of course, the boundary is not always strict between the two, and in this case The French Navy in World War, although it is a secondary source, is written by naval officers who were intensely involved in the war itself. In such regards, they make for a book which carries many primary history elements, reflecting the opinions, attitudes, and beliefs of French naval officers - ones which are not necessarily always correct concerning themselves, but which at the least demonstrate what their idealized self image and ideas were. The book organizes itself with a brief general overview of the history and traditions of the French navy, and then devotes itself exclusively to its military operations in the Second World War. The book is old, but the world seems bereft of books which provide comprehensive coverage of the topic. While there are scattered details elsewhere, how does the book do in providing for a complete understanding of the composition, actions, and the performance of the French Navy in the Second World War?

The slogan, with its other half of Honneur et Patrie, still graces French ships : the book is an attempt to preserve it for the French Navy in the Second World War.
The slogan, with its other half of Honneur et Patrie, still graces French ships : the book is an attempt to preserve it for the French Navy in the Second World War.

While it is not the intent of the book, it does an excellent job of representing what French naval officers tried to establish as their view of themselves and their political attitudes before and during the Second World War was, after the war. It portrays a separate caste of officers, competent, alooof, above the petty squabbles of politics and interested only in serving the nation. Whether this is true - and indeed, the royalist sympathies of the officer corps has often been discussed - is not important next to the representation, set forth by the French navy of their interwar counterparts. Indeed, while I know nothing of the author's political views, the same tropes appear forth : a divided legislature, against which only the dogged determination of the navy won it its respect and longevity, this stumbles upon the fact that if there was one element of Interwar French politics where the legislature was solid in its support, it was in its constant approval of whatever proposals were put forwards by the fleet. No credit is given to the legislature here, for its constant support and assistance for the navy, but instead the navy elevated in its virtues. Of course, any member of an institution will naturally credit it with its triumphs, but it shows the continuity of political dispositions which the author attempts to deny within almost but the same chapter. The same is true of downplaying anglophobic sentiment in the fleet. The divide between Vichy and the Gaullists is too reduced in the personal struggle : the story of Jacques Mordal and de la Porte de Vaux, the former a Vichyite and the latter a Gaullist, but good friends nevertheless, both motivated by courage and discipline, who are united after the war and forget the travails of the conflict, relayed on pg. 80 is an excellent example of this. Patrie, honor, valor, discipline, the four words emblazoned on the ships of the French navy : from the pages of the book comes a story which attempts to bring them together, to fit into their lines a conflict which divided friends and severed alliances, for it would rehabilitate the navy's vision of itself. For this alone, the book makes a fascinating primary source which hints at the outlook and views of French officers formed before but operating in the light of the Second World War. If sometimes this errors onto what is common, and now rejected by scholarly opinion, Vichyist propaganda - the idea that Free France was the "sword" of France, while Vichy France was its "shield", keeping France sheltered from German blows and constantly attempting to work for every advantage to reduce German influence - then it is best looked at as being a reflection of the opinion of officers of the day. Such political vies must be taken into account reading it of course, but they are useful for primary source investigations.

In its actual historical portrayal of the French navy, the book does a superlative job of covering many operations and of dealing with the personalities of important figures like Admiral Darlan. While the large battles of the French navy at Dakar, Mers el-Kébir or in Torch are well known, there is much less information which is dedicated purely to the operations of the French navy in the Norwegian campaigns, or at Dunkirk, nor too concerning its logistics efforts, merchant marine, fighting in Syria. These aspects of trade and commerce are in my opinion particularly useful, providing a vital understanding to the nature of the French economy and the purpose of the French navy at war. Furthermore, concerning the crucial period of negotiations and misunderstandings relating to the attacks on the French navy, the difficulties plaguing command and the steady breakdown in Franco-English relations are well discussed. Although it doesn't provide much about alternatives and alternatives concerning the scuttling of the fleet at Toulon, the anecdotes portrayed and summary of events is useful, although in this it runs into competition with the extensive amount of information which is already available online about Toulon. The true strength of the book, as mentioned, is tying this into a broader narrative of French naval operations, and in doing so not neglecting the "normal" operations of a navy at war in trade and commerce protection, as well as various less remarked upon operations from Syria to Africa. This includes the administrative and operational work carried on back in France, where the work of the Navy functioned even when it had no ships at sea, something which is neglected elsewhere. This extends beyond this period of the Armistice and the Occupation, to after the war, detailing some of the legal trials and the effects of the coming of the Liberation. While partisan in its outlook, useful details and information still are presented.

If there is an example of the strengths and weaknesses of the book it is the scuttling of the French fleet at Toulon : the operation is covered splendidly, political aspects much less so.
If there is an example of the strengths and weaknesses of the book it is the scuttling of the French fleet at Toulon : the operation is covered splendidly, political aspects much less so.

At first, based on the initial introduction, I thought that the style of the book had hewed to closely to be a simple transcription of the French equivalent, without changing into being written in English prose. Although perhaps a petty difficulty, the translation from French to English is very visible. having done such work myself, it is easy to see the way in which French style carries over into the English text. Personally I prefer that the style of the target language be utilized rather than the original language, and in this case the book used the small paragraphs which is not en vogue in English, and the tense at times did not quite match what would be the English standard. However, my perhaps churlish complaint in such regards I very shortly found groundless, for in the book itself the translation is well done, leaving little thought on the part of the reader that this is a "simple" translation of what was original written. In fact, while the book is certainly not a lively one of fiction, I found that the writing style was smooth and easy to read for a historical tome which could otherwise be terribly dry. That may of course, be simply my opinion.

As something which I feel is more missing, a lack of an overview of the general state of the navy, and of its bases, before the Second World War would have been valuable. Although there is mention of the naval aviation which existed, with 350 aircraft, no note is made of the type of aircraft used. In similar nature, the fleet as a whole doesn't include mention of the characteristics of its individual ships, although the modernity of the vessels is remarked upon. A table at the end notes the French navy's strength on January 1 1939, but this does not deviate beyond class strength. There is no note of the eventual objectives of the fleet, although thankfully it does make note of the naval ships which are under construction. Today, some of these questions are available in the form of listings on the internet of the French naval fleet, but these are scattered, and their representation in the book hurts really being able to have a firm estimate of the French navy's naval strength. The lack of information about bases is even more pivitol : naval bases are an extraordinarily vital element of naval warfare, for the security and defenses of a naval base determine the flexibility and capable for independent operations of the naval ships therein based. And yet there is entirely insufficient note of the state of French naval bases in regards to their maintenance capacities, defenses, fortifications, docking facilities, barrack spaces, military units defending them, or even a general map of their location. The combination of these details is to leave a pronounced lack of a deeper understanding of the French navy, beyond its combat operations. Although it is outdated by the times and more recent publications, the War in the Mediterranean 1803-1810 provided a great deal of information about the interaction between naval bases and naval warfare, and a continual evolving development of the situation of naval defenses in Sicily.

The most error-ridden part of the book is its political aspects, which attempt to excuse the Vichy regime, minimize collaboration with the Germans, and which, according to French historical articles such as G. Schmitt's 1960 review, not extensive inadequacies of the political exploration of Operation Torch and the scuttling of the French fleet at Toulon. As mentioned elsewhere, this political stance assumed by the book must be taken into account by the reader.

This book is not perfect. Its presentation of Vichy France in particular rankles at times, and shouldn't be taken at face value. It downplays anti-Republicanism in the French navy, and minimizes collaborationist sentiments. If one is looking for political analysis of the French navy, then one is best advised going elsewhere. But at the same time in saying this, it has great utility as a primary source by showing what the authors, French naval officers, tried to represent and portray the Vichy regime and the French navy as. The book has to be read with skepticism, but it still forms a useful, if flawed, political history of the navy.

At sea meanwhile, the picture gets better with its strong history of French naval operations, which are sufficiently broad in scope to go beyond merely the famous battles. There are things it leaves out, and I dearly would have desired to see a general overview of the navy's strength, bases, doctrine, training, production, and other elements expounded upon early on but as far as an operational history of the navy, it is still quite strong. From a combination of these factors, and the fact that there are shockingly few equivalent books upon the marine nationale, The French Navy in World War II emerges as a highly useful and excellent resource upon the operations of the fleet during the Second World War... even if once one departs from the waves, its understanding is less prescient.

4 stars for The French Navy in World War II

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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