Merge our proud Navy with the feeble French? Whoever dreamt that one up should walk the plank
By Guy Walters
Updated: 07:44 GMT, 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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- 'We're so lucky to have each other': Nicole Kidman says 'commitment and kindness' is the secret to her marriage to Keith Urban as they celebrate their 11th anniversary
- Ready for bed? Pascal Craymer goes braless as she rocks bizarre pyjama-style outfit to attend Asley Isham show for LFW Comfy style
- Sparkling Snowdon! Lisa brings the dazzle to Julien Macdonald's LFW show in eye-catching glittery trousers She looked the picture of happiness
- CBB star Calum Best cuts a casual figure as he heads out in Blackpool... after partying with scantily-clad beauties in club
- Chloe Meadows lends TOWIE co-star Jamie Reed a supportive ear over coffee amid claims his girlfriend Amber Turner cheated on him with Dan Edgar
- Fashionista Alexa Chung covers up in a demure peasant-style dress teamed with black tights as she steps out at the J.W. Anderson LFW show
- 'I was victimized and vilified': Mariah Carey says she was upset 'people didn't understand' what she went through over NYE mishap
- Let's roll! Modern mom Cate Blanchett takes daughter Edith for a ride around town on her scooter Cate Blanchett is ever the doting mother
- Eclectic Maggie Gyllenhaal is typically striking in a low cut gold and black floral gown as she hits the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival Known for her quirkiness
- Kirsty Gallacher stuns in chic denim dress as she joins Emmerdale's Natalie Anderson for glamorous turnout at Jasper Conran A/W '17 LFW show
- 'Harvey has been waiting ten years!' Katie Price SLAMS 'd**k' Dwight Yorke on Twitter as she claims he hasn't seen their son for a decade
- Bottom's up! Bella Thorne shows off her perky posterior in sultry bikini shot before kissing gal pal on vacation Lets her wild side show
- Angelina Jolie dazzles in hot pink chiffon gown as she's honoured at opening ceremony for new Cambodia-based flick Pink couldn't be hotter
- Curves for days! Ashley Graham flaunts hourglass figure while sitting pretty in white robe for hotel room snap Before Sports Illustrated Swimsuit launch party
- 'That bikini's almost gone!' Pia Muehlenbeck sizzles in holiday snap as the bikini model flaunts her pert derrière in tiny G-string and sends fans into a frenzy
- Louis Tomlinson's sister Lottie makes a rare appearance at London Fashion Week two months after their mother's death... following a day out with Harry Styles' sister Gemma
- Stitch-up! The Great British Sewing Bee is ditched after the BBC fails to commission a new series as 20,000 fans sign a petition in protest
- From Strictly to speedy! Drama on the set of Top Gear as Ore Oduba's car spins out of control on the race track and an ambulance is seen at the scene
- Pooch smooch! Sheridan Smith can't contain her giggles as she puckers up to her pet dog Pandora for Funny Girl photocall Kissing with tongues!
- Tell him boy bye! Pregnant Beyonce flashes the middle finger with mum Tina Knowles at post awards bash... after missing out on top Grammy gong
- Selfies on the slopes! Princess Mary and Prince Frederik take time off to enjoy a ski holiday with their four young children in Switzerland
- Robin Thicke emerges at LAX after dramatic standoff with ex Paula Patton during attempted visitation with son Looked stony faced following the clash
- On the piste! Holly Willoughby enjoys a tipple with husband Dan Baldwin as they relax on idyllic skiing holiday with their three children Lucky guys!
- Jennifer Connelly, 46, looks fantastic in stylish bikini as she holidays with husband Paul Bettany and kids in St Barts Looked sensational
- 'Where is the science?' Robert De Niro AGAIN questions vaccine safety and calls for an 'independent commission'
- Ashley James stuns in sexy khaki dress and military boots as she jokes around with SpongeBob Squarepants at LFW Design collective
- 'There is absolutely no truth in it!' BBC DENIES Danny Dyer is set to get the axe from EastEnders amid rumours he is spiraling out of control
- 'No time for makeup!': Liv Tyler shows off her natural beauty in cute photo with children Sailor and Lula Enjoying motherhood
- 'Daddy's girl': Coronation Street star Shayne Ward offers fans first glimpse of baby Willow... after welcoming first child two months ago Doting dad
- Pharrell Williams makes his first appearance at BET's American Black Film Festival Honors since wife Helen Lasichanh welcomed triplets
- Tallia Storm flashes her bra in lace semi-sheer top as she joins glamorous Ella Eyre at star-studded Julien Macdonald A/W '17 show during London Fashion Week
- I'm out of here! Chris Martin jets out of rainy LA after saving charity event with last minute performance Chris to the rescue
- Cover girls Kate Upton and Hannah Jeter stun as they match in black at Vibes by Sports Illustrated Swimsuit festival Looking gorgeous
- EXCLUSIVE PICTURES: Zoe Saldana and Marco Perego step out with son Zen after secret arrival of new family member
- Kendall Jenner rocks an opulent fur jacket with a red tracksuit as she jets into London with fellow model Bella Hadid for Fashion Week
- Blondes have more fun! Kim Kardashian appears to have platinum locks again as she wishes Paris Hilton a Happy Birthday on Snapchat
- 'Keep up the good work': TOWIE's Gemma Collins stuns fans with her remarkable weight loss as she flaunts her new figure in a series of skintight ensembles
- 'Snow bunny' Harper Beckham, five, gets a skiing lesson from doting dad David during family skiing holiday in Canada Hit the slopes
- Gwen Stefani embraces a casual look as she steps out in LA... before sharing heartwarming picture of her youngest son Apollo
- 'Cheers to the mum-ophobic waiter': Phoebe Burgess posts rant about being kicked out of a cafe with her SLEEPING newborn daughter Poppy
- Like mother, like daughter: TOWIE'S Lydia Bright shows off her slender legs in silk kimono dress as she enjoys fashionable night out with mum Debbie
- Model Neelam Gill stuns in a quirky silk tracksuit as she parties the night away at Missguided bash during London Fashion Week
- The Saturdays singer Una Healy teases her cleavage in a keyhole cut-out dress as she continues to promote solo material in Ireland
- David Baddiel reveals he and his brothers are 'frightened' of his father as he opens up about his dementia ordeal in a searingly honest documentary
- Golden girl! Christie Brinkley, 63, dazzles mini dress while joined by daughter Sailor, 18, at Vibes by Sports Illustrated Swimsuit festival
- Bella Thorne flaunts her incredibly flat stomach in a TINY printed blue bikini as she hits the beach during idyllic Mexican getaway
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