Merge our proud Navy with the feeble French? Whoever dreamt that one up should walk the plank
By Guy Walters
Updated: 07:44 BST, 1 September 2010
There was something very instructive about the state of this country's sea defences on the Royal Navy's official website last night.
As you might imagine, the overall site looks very impressive, and there are lots of pictures of ships and Royal Marines and managerial buzz-phrases such as 'Modern and Relevant'.
However, when I clicked on the box labelled 'Why do we need a Navy', up popped the words: 'Error 404: Sorry, the page you requested was not found.'
Coalition ideas: The British Government is considering sharing aircraft carriers with the French
The irony would be funny if it weren't so bitterly true. With reports that our Government is considering sharing aircraft carriers with the French, it seems that the concept of an independent Royal Navy is looking dead in the water.
The idea is so misconceived that the politician or Whitehall official responsible should be made to walk the plank off Invincible (that's if she's not stuck in a dry dock somewhere). For an island country such as ours with such a proud naval history, pooling military resources is not the same as building cross-Channel tunnels or supersonic airliners.
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Although it might make sense to the bean counters, sharing as much as a coracle with the French flies in the face not just of military logistics, but of history too.
Tragically, the suggestion seems to fit with the image of a new government that seems to possess an inadequate knowledge of the past. With a Prime Minister who erroneously said the United States had joined Britain to fight Nazism in 1940, it comes as no surprise that the coalition thinks it makes sense to start merging a vital component of our armed forces with the French.
After spending many years writing books about World War II, I've discovered the sad truth is that there has never been much maritime entente cordiale between the Royal Navy and the Marine Nationale, and it would be a fool who predicted that the two fleets would never exchange shells in the future.
The most recent conflagration occurred a mere 70 years ago in July 1940, when the British destroyed much of the French fleet which was moored off Algeria in order to stop it falling into German hands.
Although the terms of the armistice drawn up by the Germans with the French 'solemnly and formally' promised not to claim the French ships for themselves, Churchill was in no mind to rely on Hitler's word, or indeed that of Francois Darlan, the French admiral.
What if there was a repeat of the events of 1940? Would the RAF find themselves having to bomb British aircraft carriers under French control?
On July 2, Churchill gave the Royal Navy the order to go into action against the French, an order he later wrote was 'the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned'.
The Royal Navy performed its task only too well. In the engagement, nearly 1,200 French sailors were killed, and 370 wounded. One battleship was sunk, two were damaged, and four destroyers were put out of action.
Unsurprisingly, the reaction throughout much of France was deeply antagonistic against the British. One weekly magazine designed an epitaph of an imaginary French sailor called 'Jean-Yves', who was wounded at Dunkirk when protecting the British, only to be repaid for his valour by being killed by the Royal Navy off Algeria a few weeks later.
In the eyes of many senior members of the French Navy at the time, Britain and France were effectively at war. An incensed Admiral Darlan persuaded the country's Vichy leader Marshal Pétain to launch an air strike against Gibraltar, and for much of World War II the French Navy came close to engaging with the British.
Indeed, in November 1942 Admiral Jean de Laborde refused to take the remainder of the French Navy to support the Allied invasion of North Africa, and instead argued that the French ships should actually be attacking the British and the Americans.
Thankfully, Laborde was overruled and forced to scuttle his ships at the French naval base of Toulon, but it was the closest the two Navies had come to an actual battle since the Battle of Grand Port near Mauritius in 1810, which the French Navy won.
Of course, the French have long been derided for their ability to lose battles, and the idea of even partially merging our Navy with that of a country with a less than stellar military record would make Nelson jump off his column.
In fact, France's Navy has been losing battles since 1340, when the English Navy thrashed the French at the Battle of Sluys. It's hard to imagine a more resounding defeat. Almost the entire French fleet of 200 ships was destroyed, and nearly 18,000 of her force of 20,000 were killed. (The English most certainly did not take prisoners in those days.)
The defeat was so bad that none of the courtiers of King Phillippe VI dared tell him about it, and the only man brave enough to do so was the court jester, who quipped: 'Our knights are much braver than the English.' When the King asked him why, the jester said: 'The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.'
Such accusations of cowardice have haunted the French for the succeeding seven centuries, and have culminated in their dismissal as 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' over their refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq.
The British and the French will always be the uneasiest of Allies - we have been enemies far more often than friends
Incidentally, if you type in the phrase 'French military victories' into Google, the first site that comes up jokingly states that your search 'did not match any documents'.
Furthermore, perhaps the most memorable outing of the French Navy happened in 1985 when, rather than engaging in a mighty sea battle, it dispatched several secret agents to New Zealand to blow up the Rainbow Warrior (the flagship of the international environmental organisation Greenpeace) as it led a fleet of vessels to Muroroa Atoll to protest against the French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
Regardless of such adventures, elsewhere the French punch below their military weight. They have committed far fewer troops to NATO's UN-mandated operations in Afghanistan than the British. We have more than twice the number of servicemen and women in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the British have 10,000 fewer full-time Army personnel than the French.
Besides, can we really trust the French to do as we asked? If Argentina decided to invade the Falkland Islands, would we be able to use the 38,000-ton nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to take them back? You can bet your bottom euro that the particularly flaky French President Nicolas Sarkozy would say a resounding 'Non'.
Of course, during the Falklands War, the French sold Exocet missiles to the Argentines and they proved to be the Royal Navy's most feared threat - responsible for sinking the destroyer Sheffield and the supply ship Atlantic Conveyor, with the loss of 34 lives.
Worse still, what if there was a repeat of the events of 1940? Would the RAF find themselves having to bomb British aircraft carriers under French control? It may sound ludicrous, but it is no more so than imagining Churchill's ' unnatural' decision in, say, 1938.
Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox should remember that the British and the French will always be the uneasiest of Allies, and we have been enemies far more often than friends. Just because the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can hop into bed together, it does not mean that everything has to be a coalition.
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- Simply the breast! Karlie Kloss goes braless under a tailored white pantsuit as she poses in a new set of sizzling snaps for her fashion line
- Hats off to Maxima! Queen of the Netherlands is resplendent in statement headwear as she visits a gallery on her Italian tour
- SEBASTIAN SHAKESPEARE: 'Stop breeding then!' Jemima Goldsmith's acidic barb to brother Ben (a father-of-five) after his rant about the UK's population boom
- SEBASTIAN SHAKESPEARE: Tragic Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's fashion line was almost £500,000 in debt before her death in February
- Traveling light! Fresh-faced Jennifer Aniston jets into LA in ripped jeans and bright pink folder No sign of jet lag
- Katy Perry puts on busty display in eye-catching dress and sexy shades in London ahead of Glastonbury Festival performance Daring outfit
- Jean-ius! Charlize Theron is casually chic in a tank top and skin tight denim trousers during outing in Beverly Hills
- Vanessa Hudgens shows off her slender legs in a pair of Daisy Dukes on daytime date with Austin Butler
- From the West Wing to Mrs West: Kim Kardashian wins Jackie Kennedy's gold Cartier watch at auction for $379,500 An anonymous bidder
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