The Fall And Rise Of French Sea Power

The Fall and Rise of French Sea Power explores the renewal of French naval power from the fall of France in 1940 through the first two decades of the Cold War. The Marine Nationale continued fighting after the Armistice, a service divided against itself. The destruction of French sea power—at the hands of the Allies, the Axis, and fratricidal confrontations in the colonies—continued unabated until the scuttling of the Vichy fleet in 1942. And yet, just over twenty years after this dark day, Charles de Gaulle announced a plan to complement the country’s nuclear deterrent with a force of nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarines. Completing the rebuilding effort that followed the nadir in Toulon, this force provided the means to make the Marine Nationale a fully-fledged blue-water navy again, ready to face the complex circumstances of the Cold War.

An important continuum of cooperation and bitter tensions shaped naval relations between France and the Anglo-Americans from World War II to the Cold War. The rejuvenation of a fleet nearly wiped out during the hostilities was underpinned by a succession of forced compromises, often the least bad possible, reluctantly accepted by French politicians and admirals but effectively leveraged in their pursuit of an independent naval policy within a strategy of the alliance. 

Hugues Canuel demonstrates that the renaissance of French sea power was shaped by a naval policy formulated within a strategy of alliance closely adapted to the needs of a continental state with worldwide interests. This work fills a distinct void in the literature concerned with the evolution of naval affairs from World War II to the 1960s. The author, drawing upon extensive research through French, British, American, and NATO archives (including those made public only recently regarding the sensitive circumstances surrounding the French nuclear deterrent) maps out for readers the unique path adopted in France to rebuild a blue-water fleet during unprecedented circumstances.


What is the backstory behind “The Fall and Rise of French Sea Power”?

This is the book version of my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 2018. I was careful to take some time in reflecting on the exact topic I wished to write about as wanted something suitable both for a doctorate and eventual publication as a book. I knew it would dictate the course of my Ph.D. studies over several years as I pursued the program part-time while continuing with my professional career as a naval officer. Indeed, I completed my ship command tour, deployed to Afghanistan for a year, joined the faculty at the Canadian joint staff college, completed my war college equivalency, attended Japanese language training, and then moved to Tokyo to commence my tour as Canadian Defence Attaché to Japan in the eight years it took me to complete my doctoral degree. All that to say I needed to choose a topic that a) was suitable for a Ph.D. dissertation; and b) most importantly, would sustain my interest through all these years, especially when I needed to read and write about it late at night from my army cot in Kabul while serving with the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, or after spending a long day of Japanese practice with my language instructor…

Luckily this reflection brought me to a fascinating topic. I knew I wanted to write about naval history, I was most interested in the Cold War period and, as a French-Canadian from Quebec, I could read French which would allow me to dive deep into France’s national archives. While I initially thought of limiting my research to the post-1945 era, I quickly realized that one could not discuss fully all dimensions of the renaissance of the French navy without addressing the grueling years that followed the catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Axis powers, hence this narrative shaped around the fall and rise of France’s sea power from 1940 to 1963. Another factor might have been that the French military archives happen to be hosted in the Château de Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris, where I had to spend my summer holidays three years in a row to complete my archival research. Arduous work, yes, but in a pleasant setting, I must admit!   

Was there an experience that you had that caused you to see a need for “The Fall and Rise of French Sea Power”?

No single experience pushed me to write about this specific topic, rather a two-fold concern drove me to it. I joined the Royal Canadian Navy in the latter years of the Cold War and, as I became increasingly drawn to historic studies, I noticed that both the Cold War naval experience in general and the specific tribulations of the French navy through these years did not generate as much scholarship as may have been warranted. Indeed, many seemed dismissive of the Cold War legacy as a “new world (dis)order” came into being while many writers and practitioners of sea power deemed the French experience of little relevance when compared to the vast Anglo-American narrative. The book seeks to fill a glaring hole in the English literature as the French experience, while unique, does provide many lessons of relevance in today’s world.       

These lessons are genuine from the institutional level down to that of the personal experience of the most junior officers and sailors. Most navies today, still largely structured and equipped as they were during the Cold War, face a great challenge in trying to adapt to new threats and entirely different operating environments in the 21st century. France’s admirals in 1945 found themselves burdened with a heteroclite fleet of French prewar constructions, American and British transfers, as well as units captured from Germany and Italy as they tried to cast a new instrument of sea power through the uncertainties of the early Cold War period and the dawn of the nuclear era. Their ability to develop an innovative approach in seeking to develop an independent naval policy within a strategy of alliance warrants the attention of naval planners today, just as the complexities of the civil-military relations that evolved through the crises and ruptures of the Vichy-Free French divide in 1940 to the “quasi coup” that brought down the Fourth Republic in 1958 repeatedly tested the loyalties of all personnel serving in the ranks of the Marine Nationale through these years.      

How has writing “The Fall and Rise of French Sea Power” made you a better thinker and better person?

Well, the need to conciliate simultaneously the demands of my naval occupation while completing the successive requirement of a Ph.D. program certainly forced me to become ever more disciplined in the use of my time and the establishment of work priorities. It also reminded me of the importance of looking after friendships, my family, and myself through it all. While it may be easy to drop dinner with friends and relaxation time with the family when confronting too many immediate professional and intellectual demands, that approach cannot be sustained over the long term and I would have certainly failed at some point had I not kept those priorities in mind during this eight-year journey.

The unique context of this particular study also helped me grow as a critical thinker. Essential to Ph.D. work is exploiting primary sources – national archives, contemporary news reports, memories by decision-makers, etc. The French people remained so divided throughout this period, and views of France by its allies and partners so conflicting, that conciliating official reports, media editorials, and personnel reminiscences consulted during my research in France, Great Britain and the United States proved a considerable challenge accompanied by repeated frustration. Admittedly, it also became the most interesting part of the research and writing process. It necessitated that I continually contrast the views and recollections of French and Allied leaders through the war years (divided as they were between supporters of Marshall Pétain in Vichy and those who promoted Charles de Gaulle in London), during the uncertainties of the immediate postwar period (when French Communist Party members filled Cabinet posts, causing considerable concerns in the US and UK camp), and through the dramatic unraveling of the Fourth Republic and sudden return to power of de Gaulle.    

Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?

Although not directly related to the fundamentals of sea power or the intricacies of naval strategy, I needed to discuss the existential dilemma that confronted French sailors in the immediate aftermath of the 1940 armistice. Who rallied to which camp greatly affected personnel dynamics within a divided Marine Nationale for the remainder of the conflict and well into the Cold War. I am fascinated by this episode given the conundrum these individuals faced, alongside all who served in the other branches of the military and the whole of civil society really, as Pétain and de Gaulle proposed two radically different visions. Insight allows many observers today to couch it as a straightforward proposition: Pétain and his Vichy regime were collaborationist traitors to France and de Gaulle and the Free French were the rightful defender of a sovereign mère patrie. And yet, in the dark and confusing days of late June and early July 1940 (the armistices with Germany and Italy took effect on 25 June), the situation was far from clear to the average sailor.

As I state in the book, “… a quorum of French senators and deputies sat for an extraordinary parliamentary session in the small southern town of Vichy… The assembled politicians ratified the terms of the two armistices and agreed to make the unelected Marshal Philippe Pétain head of state, cumulating both executive and legislative powers.” This seemingly constituted a lawful transfer of power as the Third Republic laid in ruins. The Vichy regime was recognized as the rightful government of France by most world powers, including Great Britain and the United States at this initial stage. Meanwhile, the little-known de Gaulle – a mere acting brigadier-general at the time – contested that status and promoted himself as the self-appointed savior of France and her empire, calling on his compatriots to abandon their post and rally to him in the British Isles. Talk about a dilemma in civil-military relations, where should one’s loyalty lay in the immediate wake of defeat while the larger conflict against the Axis powers continued?

What are you reading now?

Given my current assignment as Canadian Defence Attaché to Japan, I am focused on developing a more informed understanding of the country’s security environment and defense challenges, as well as its armed forces. There is a lot of literature about Imperial Japan and its military history to 1945 but much less covering developments on the defense and security front since then. Nevertheless, I have found these four volumes very informative and I would recommend them highly to anybody interested in such topics:  

  1. Sheila A. Smith. Japan Rearmed – The Politics of Military Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019;
  2. Garren Mulloy, Defenders of Japan: The Post-Imperial Armed Forces 1946-2016, a History. London: C. Hurst, 2018;
  3. David Hunter-Chester. Creating Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force, 1945–2015: A Sword Well Made. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016; and
  4. Alessio Patalano. Post-war Japan as a Sea Power – Imperial Legacy, Wartime Experience and the Making of a Navy. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Regrettably, I am yet to find a study specific to Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force but I am keeping an eye out for one. Or I may have to write it myself, LOL!

Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?

This was the first work of history where I had to undertake a deep dive into the archives with extensive research sessions in France, obviously, but also in Great Britain and the United States, as both of those powers were deeply involved in the rebuilding of the French navy during the Second World War and through the first two decades of the Cold War. Lots of surprises during that process, both good and bad! The war years left France’s archives in some disrepair as a result of repeated evacuations and burning of records ahead of the advancing enemy – in 1940 and again in 1942 when Germany moved into Vichy’s unoccupied zone – while the ad hoc nature of the Free French command structures and successive relocations of its governing bodies – to London in 1940, Algiers in 1943 and Paris in 1944 – left patchy records, to say the least. But, on the whole, exploiting and cross-referencing material from these three countries proved very productive and rewarding in the long run. The challenge is to plan your visits well in advance and determine with some precision what records you need to access in order to maximize the value of each session, especially if, as in my case, you do not reside nearby and do not have the ability to easily return to those sites.

The best surprise as I set out on this journey was the repeated endorsements and notes of encouragement I received from the get-go. I was very lucky in selecting a topic that proved of great interest to me and filled a dire lack in the existing literature, as expressed by many of the interlocutors I met through the course of my research. Their enthusiastic support propelled me through this long roller coaster ride and allowed me to complete a work that should prove of interest to those most interested in the French experience through the Second World War and the first decades of the Cold war, as well as the considerable involvement of Great Britain and the United States in this process through that period. The American role was particularly important and the support provided by the United States in rebuilding the French fleet took place in a challenging context of friendship and defiance throughout these years as French leaders sought to shape an independent naval policy within an alliance system.

Any additional words?

Only one piece of advice to serving personnel: do not wait to start writing. Do not wait for that next posting when you think you will have more time, there is never enough time to write, whatever your job is now or will be in the future… Make time for writing, discuss it with your chain of command, crossing your fingers that your supervisor appreciates the value of writing and will help you in making time! And do not wait until you retire, your personal reflections and lessons observed, intellectual and professional acumen is needed now for the benefit of other practitioners of the profession of arms. It does not have to be a book, of course, start in small steps, write short and focused pieces in military blogs and professional journals at first, turn your staff college and war college papers into lengthier articles for serious, peer-reviewed periodicals, and move on from there. Developing your writing skills will make you a more effective leader and make a lasting contribution to your institution through your recounting personal experiences, sharing knowledge, and communicating your thoughts across a wide range of concerns and topics.  

Purchase The Fall And Rise Of French Sea Power here


Captain (Navy) Hugues Canuel was born and raised in Matane, Québec. He joined the Corps des Cadets de la Marine royale canadienne Le Dauphin in 1983 before enrolling in the Canadian Armed Forces in 1986.

He graduated from the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean in 1991 and then served in various ships of the Pacific and the Atlantic Fleets as a Diving, Navigation and Communications Officer; Operations Room Officer and Anti-Air Warfare Controller; and Fleet Combat Officer. He sailed to Northeast Asia in the frigate HMCS Vancouver in 1994 and Southeast Asia in the destroyer HMCS Huron in 1997, in support of Canadian diplomacy and to conduct extensive exercises with local navies throughout these areas of strategic importance.

In 1999, Capt(N) Canuel deployed with NATO’s Standing Naval Force in the frigate HMCS Ville de Québec, conducting drug interdiction operations in the Caribbean basin, prior to joining the destroyer HMCS Iroquois in October 2001 for the deployment of the first Canadian Task Group to Southwest Asia in the wake of the dramatic events of 9/11. In 2002, he was transferred to the staff of the Commander Canadian Fleet Atlantic, overseeing follow-on deployments.

Lieutenant-Commander Canuel then served at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa with the Directorate of Maritime Strategy (2004) and completed the Canadian Forces Command and Staff Course at the Canadian Forces College in 2006. That same year, he was appointed Executive Officer in the frigate HMCS Ottawa, as the ship deployed to the Arabian Sea and Horn-of-Africa region to undertake anti-piracy work. Commander Canuel returned to Maritime Staff Headquarters in 2007 to serve as Director of Strategic Communications, transferring to the post of Executive Secretary to the Chief of the Maritime Staff in 2008. Cdr Canuel was appointed in January 2009 as Executive Officer in the replenishment ship HMCS Preserver, taking command of the ship in December of that same year. He next deployed to Kabul to assist in standing up Canada’s contribution to the NATO Training Mission — Afghanistan, serving successively as an advisor to the Afghan National Civil Order Police and a staff officer to the Deputy Commander Special Operations Forces in 2011–12.

Commander Canuel joined the Canadian Forces College in June 2012 as Directing Staff on the Joint Command and Staff Programme. Promoted to his current rank in 2015, Capt(N) Canuel remained at CFC to take up the appointment of Director of Programmes. He holds a BA in Études militaires et stratégiques from the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean (1991) as well as Master of Arts in War Studies (2001) and Master of Defence Studies (2006) from the Royal Military College of Canada, where he is currently pursuing a doctorate in War Studies.

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