Naval Operations, French

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Naval Operations, French

NAVAL OPERATIONS, FRENCH. One of the prime factors in the defeat of Great Britain, and thus of the establishment of the United States of America as an independent nation, was the remarkable military role played by the French navy during the conflict. Traditionally the underdog since the 1690s when pitted against Britain's Royal Navy, France's navy defied the British against the odds and was often successful between 1778 and 1783.


This transformation of the French navy from a relatively moribund force in 1760 to a vigorous and aggressive entity by 1778 was not achieved overnight. It was a process that had started in the final years of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), during which the French fleet had been rendered incapable of seriously challenging the British enemy. The loss of substantial naval power, leading to the loss of overseas territories and trade as well as a metropolitan coastline open to naval raids, provoked a strong reaction in France for the navy's rehabilitation. The whole country rallied to the idea, and even before the Seven Years' War had ended, money was being raised by public subscriptions to build ships-of-the-line, mostly of seventy-four guns. This is how such ships as the seventy-four-gun Le Marseillais, the seventy-four-gun Bourgogne, and the ninety-gun Ville de Paris were financed; they were named after the donating cities or provinces. The new vessels, especially the seventy-four-gun ships, were remarkably fast and sturdy, with well-designed gun decks allowing a maximum of firepower. The gunners were relentlessly trained and became very proficient.

During this era, the duc de Choiseul came to power as prime minister, holding the portfolios of the ministries of war, foreign affairs, and the navy. The energetic Choiseul was given wide authority in these desperate times, and he used them fully. Naval budgets rose sharply, while incompetent officers were retired in favor of younger men with fresh ideas. The education of officer-cadets and officers was considerably expanded, and examinations for proficiency were introduced. The organization of officers was transformed by a series of orders in 1765 that checked the powers of the administrative officers "of the quill pen" in favor of the fighting officers "of the sword," who now had the last word when it came to resources and supplies for combat vessels. Engineers had also become something of a power in the officers' structure, and they were now told to design the best ships possible for the fighting fleet officers. Transformations came to naval bases as well. Brest now became the primary base with thirty ships-of-the-line, while the main bases of Toulon and Rochefort got twelve each. Lorient was added in 1770. Secondary bases at Bayonne, Marseille, and Bordeaux were activated. In 1768, a base in Corsica was added to counter the British at Minorca. Overseas, naval bases at Martinique, Haiti, and Mauritius formed part of the French navy's network.

Choiseul lost power in 1770, and for a few years the navy was in something of a limbo, but this situation was temporary. The appointment of Antoine de Sartine as minister in 1774 brought a new round of reforms and fostered the fleet's capacity and fighting spirit. Now technically equal to or better than anything afloat, its main and largely unsolvable problem was a shortage of sailors to man what was becoming a truly large fleet. The impact of this shortage included a reduction in the number of training cruises the squadrons could undertake.


The outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 quickly raised tensions between France and Britain, with many Frenchmen itching to avenge the humiliations of the Seven Years' War. The fleet was obviously going to be at the forefront of an eventual conflict, and preparations were accordingly made. The naval budget shot up from 47 million French pounds in 1776 to 125 million two years later. This time, France was putting in substantial money to match its ambitions. The American victory at Saratoga in October 1777 had a great impact in France, and it was now a question of when the break with Britain would come, particularly after the Treaty of Alliance between France and the United States was made in February 1778.

As it turned out, the break came off the coast of Brittany in a naval engagement on 17 June 1778 between the French frigate La Belle-Poule and the British frigate Arethusa, detached from Admiral Keppel's squadron and sent to keep an eye on Brest. After a ferocious fight, both damaged ships went back to their bases and claimed victory, but the real victory went to the French. The Belle-Poule had not been struck, and it became a symbolic embodiment of the fleet's new fighting spirit. Thousands lined the walls of Brest, cheering her wildly as she proudly entered the harbor. Before long, all of France was cheering her. After this first action of the new war against Britain, King Louis XVI on 10 July ordered his fleet to give chase to the British. It was a declaration of war.

In July 1778 the French navy had fifty-two ships-of-the-line in commission against the British Royal Navy's sixty-six. At the time, some thirty French ships were deployed on France's Atlantic coast, five in the Mediterranean, twelve en route to America, and two in the Indian Ocean. The British had thirty-one ships in Britain, nineteen in America (including five in the West Indies), two in the Indian Ocean, one off St. Helena, and only one in the Mediterranean. France also had some thirty frigates. The French navy then had about 75,000 sailors led by some 1,300 officers while the Royal Navy had about 85,000 officers and men. Two years later, the French navy stood at seventy-nine ships-of-the-line, eighty-six frigates, and one hundred and seventy-four lesser vessels. A tremendous effort had raised the budget to 155 million, but the Royal Navy had grown as well, to ninty five ships-of-the-line. The French were therefore numerically weaker, but the British had to detach many ships overseas, including along the North American coast. It was not quite an even match, but if France deployed its squadrons wisely, it stood a chance of some success.

Leadership was the unknown factor in the French navy. Would the new admirals be able to hold their own against Britain's renowned flag officers? Certainly, ministers such as Choiseul and de Sartine spared no effort to find talent and intelligence, wherever it was. Too often in the past, the French flag officers had been seen as too cautious and conservative, so that tactical initiative sometimes escaped their grasp. A new generation of "fighting" officers was required to counter the more conservative elements in the fleet. One way to do this was to seek brilliant officers in the army and entice them into the navy. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and the count d'Estaing had been brought in this way by Choiseul. There were also talented officers commissioned within the navy who despaired of the ambient conservatism in tactical theory and whose innovative spirit had to be channeled. An example was Pierre André de Suffren. His aggressive stance previously had largely benefited the Order of Malta's navy; now, however, he was given a decent command in his own French navy. Also, not all of the older able officers were excluded from senior commands. The comte d'Orvilliers was sixty-eight years old in 1778; the comte de Guichen was sixty-six. They were shrewd masters of maneuvers, and their experience was valued.


D'Orvilliers led the Brest fleet of twenty-seven ships that met, on 27 July 1778, Admiral Keppel's thirty Royal Navy ships off the Île de Ouessant (Ushant) off Brittany. The action was inconclusive, and both sides claimed victory, but the French had more grounds to be pleased. The British squadron had certainly not vanquished the French; rather, it had met an opponent that had badly damaged many of its ships thanks to remarkably good shooting. D'Orvilliers had not destroyed the British but had kept his position. This was very bad news for the British, whose control of the French coast now vanished and who now had to protect the English Channel at all cost.

Meanwhile, Admiral Estaing had sailed with twelve ships-of-the-line for North America. His squadron's arrival in August 1778 at Newport, Rhode Island, brought a palpable sign to the Americans that they now had a powerful ally. After some inconclusive engagements with elements of Admiral William Howe's fleet, Estaing sailed for the West Indies. There, the aggressive governor general of Martinique, the marquis de Bouillé, had already captured Dominica from the British. During the following years, this daring and brilliant officer, who would later be all but forgotten, masterminded the conquest of most of the British Leeward and Windward Islands, often personally taking part in the assaults. De Bouillé was an ideal officer for working with a fleet commander, as he understood combined operations perfectly. It seems, however, that Estaing was less proficient in this area, and in November things were rather bungled at St. Lucia, to Bouillé's considerable disappointment.

The naval campaigns of 1779 got off to a brilliant start for the French in the West Indies, with Bouillé's and Estaing's assault on Grenada on July 3 and the repulse of Admiral Byron's relieving British squadron three days later. The island of St. Vincent had already fallen in late June. Estaing then sailed for Haiti, picked up troops there, and landed them for a joint operation with the Americans against Savannah, Georgia, in October. The siege failed, however, and Estaing, who was badly wounded in the attempt, finally sailed for Europe. Elsewhere, a small squadron under the comte de Vaudreuil had captured the British forts on the coast of Senegal.


Meanwhile, Spain had declared war on Britain on 16 June 1779. This brought the world's third largest navy into the conflict, which gave the allies on paper a comfortable superiority of some ninety ships-of-the-line over the Royal Navy. However, the Spanish navy's strategic objectives were historically quite different than those of the French or the British. Spain's fleet was far more concerned with protection, notably for the safety of the treasure convoys from America, than with fast movements and elaborate maneuvers. Spanish ships were therefore built as floating fortresses and were thus slower than other vessels of their class. As a result, Spanish navy officers tended to be cautious and did not have a truly aggressive stance or doctrine. The courts of France and Spain had hatched a plan for a combined Hispano-French fleet of sixty-six ships-of-the-line to take control of the English Channel and land a French army in England. Overall command was given to Spanish Admiral de Cordoba with French Admiral d'Orvilliers as second-in-command. The British Isles certainly feared an invasion that summer, but nothing went according to plan for the allies. Besides operational difficulties, bad weather set in. And the reinforced Royal Navy home fleet was not about to be swept away from the Channel. The invasion plan was finally abandoned and the joint fleet went back into Brest in late September.

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BATTLES OF 1780–1783

In February 1780 Admiral Guichen sailed for the West Indies; in April and May, his twenty-two ships fought inconclusive engagements with Admiral Rodney's twenty-one ships. On 12 July, Admiral de Ternay with seven ships arrived at Newport and landed General Rochambeau with a French army of five thousand men to assist the Americans. The French squadron stayed on the New England coast to counter British naval movements. In Europe, de Cordoba and d'Orvilliers captured a British convoy of some sixty supply ships intended for America on 9 August. In October the portfolio of minister of the navy passed from de Sartines to the marquis de Castries. He also proved to be a most able administrator.

In March 1781 a small squadron of five ships under Admiral Suffren sailed for the Indian Ocean. On 16 April he attacked and damaged a Royal Navy squadron of six ships moored at La Praya in the Cape Verde Island, thus preventing an attack on the Dutch Cape Colony. (The Netherlands had declared war on Britain the previous year.) There were great plans for joint operations with the Spanish in the Mediterranean for 1781. Minorca and Gibraltar, the latter under siege since 1779, were still British. De Guichen's twenty-four ships joined de Cordoba's twenty-two ships and landed Spanish and French troops on Minorca in August. The island finally capitulated in early February 1782, eliminating the British presence in the western Mediterranean. Only Gibraltar would remain British as the Spanish repeatedly failed to thwart the Royal Navy's supply convoys. America was not neglected, and the comte de Grasse now assumed command of the West Indies fleet. On 2 June he landed troops that captured Tobago. In July he sailed from Martinique and, after a stop in Haiti to embark three thousand troops, arrived in Chesapeake Bay in late August. There, the French squadron that had sailed down from New England reinforced his fleet. On 5 September, Admiral Graves arrived in the area with nineteen ships and was quite surprised to find a large French squadron of twenty-four ships there. In the ensuing Battle of the Virginia Capes, de Grasse drove Graves off, and the fate of the British army in Yorktown, besieged by Washington and Rochambeau's troops, was sealed. The place surrendered on 19 October.

The year 1782 started with a French assault on St. Kitts, which capitulated on 13 February, leading to the surrender of Nevis and Montserrat. In Versailles and Madrid, a joint attack on Jamaica was planned. The Spanish fleet at Havana would join de Grasse's squadron at Haiti and there embark some seven thousand French and Spanish troops to invade the British island. The British naval forces simply had to prevent the junction and, on 12 April, Admiral Rodney's ships intercepted de Grasse's fleet off the Saints archipelago in the Windward Islands. In the ensuing battle, four French ships and Admiral de Grasse were captured and the expedition to Jamaica cancelled as a result. Rodney's victory, hailed as a triumph by countless British historians, was not a major setback to the French. Since de Grasse was not a popular commander, some did not regret his loss, and most of his fleet actually made its junction with Admiral Salcedo's fifteen Spanish ships-of-the-line. By the end of the year, more French ships had arrived in the West Indies to replace the losses.

During the last year of the war, the most notable actions occurred in the Indian Ocean. There, Suffren fought a series of engagements that revealed his great innovative talent in naval tactics. Had his battle orders been fully obeyed by his conservative captains, it is likely that the British would have been beaten. By June 1783, he nevertheless had pushed back Admiral Hughes's squadron and landed a French army in southern India to assist Indian princes against the British. The arrival of a frigate from Europe bearing news of the peace treaty stopped the hostilities and probably saved the British from defeat.

As it was, Suffren came back to France in triumph, rightly acknowledged as the country's best admiral. The war had been won, American independence had been secured, and France's navy had regained the nation's place as a redoubtable world power.

SEE ALSO Bougainville, Louis Antoine de; Chesapeake Capes; Choiseul, Etienne François, Comte de Stainville; Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d'; French Alliance; Grasse, François Joseph Paul, Comte de; Rochambeau, (fils) Donatien Marie Joseph de Vimeur; Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de; Rodney, George Bridges; Spanish Participation in the American Revolution; St. Kitts, Captured by the French; Suffren de Saint Tropez, Pierre André de; Ternay, Charles Louis d'Arsac, chevalier de; Yorktown Campaign; Yorktown, Siege of.


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