Dunkerque, décembre 1916 Musée national Blérancourt
The French Navy
Submersibles and submarines
A submersible is a ship capable of descending below the surface of water and rising again. It depends on air to recharge the batteries of its accumulators and to ventilate the interior of the hull.
A submarine, on the contrary, does not depend on air to navigate while under water. It is endowed with technical features that make it possible for it, in principle, to stay under water indefinitely, subject, of course, to the supplies available and the capacity of the crew to endure.
Several forerunners preceded the submersible. While not try to trace its evolution right up to Leonard de Vinci, it is worthwhile mentioning:
the 1775 wooden "Turtle" of the American Bushnell; the 1797 metal "Nautilus" of the American Fulton, and the 1863 "Plongeur" (diver) of two Frenchmen, Bourgois and Brun. It was in 1887 that Dupuy de Lôme and Zédé, two other Frenchmen, constructed the "Gymnote", an engine submersible, 17 metres long, capable of attaining a surface speed of 8 knots and could accommodate a crew of five men. Between 1899 and 1904, an engineer known as Laubeuf designed a double hull submersible, the "Narval", already integrating a dual propulsion system and equipped with ballasts and a periscope.
Submarine, the convoy destruction weapon...
A weapon capable of destroying convoys was the underlying principle that inspired the designing and manufacturing of diesel engine submersibles during the First World War. Deployed extensively during fighting, they were used by the Germans to destroy merchant ships, sending a total of 11 million tonnes to the bottom of the sea.
During the Second World War the Kriegsmarine once more used the U-Boote to sink 12 million tonnes of Allied merchant boats. This era also witnessed the designing of the schnorchel and the asdic.
Taking advantage of technological advancement...
In the post-war period, the use of nuclear drive engines constituted the giant evolution stride from ancient submersibles to submarines. The latter were equipped with advanced communication and detection facilities, like radars, microphones, sonars and very low frequency radios, inertial navigation tables and an encrypted satellite link.
Fundamental component of the nuclear dissuasion force
The most important missions assigned to the submarine arm were those of the SSBN, (nuclear ballistic missile submarines) capable of shooting nuclear missiles across distances of over 5000 kilometres, and inflicting fatal damages. This was the fundamental component of the dissuasion force advocated by General de Gaulle. The French national navy had 6 SSBN, measuring some 130 metres long, more than 10 metres in diameter, and weighing close to 9000 tonnes. They had a cruising speed of more than 20 knots and carried 16 nuclear charge ballistic missiles. Their names were le Redoutable (the Formidable), le Terrible (the Terrible), le Foudroyant (the Furious), le Tonnant (the Thunderous), l'Indomptable (the Indomitable) and l'Inflexible (the Unyielding). The first one was put into service in 1972. It should be noted that the initial SSBN are being replaced with new generation ones, NG-SSBN: le Triomphant (the Triumphant), le Téméraire (the Foolhardy), le Vigilant (the Vigilant). Their operational base is at Ile Longue, Finistère. With the Fleet Air Arm Super Etendard planes, these huge machines carry most of the French dissuasion force.
The Redoutable submarine at anchor
The mission of the SSN (nuclear attack submarines) consists of tracking and destroying ships and land targets, escorting convoys as well as infiltrating and rescuing commandos. The SSN are 72m in length, 7.60m in diameter and about 2500 tonnes in weight. They are equipped with cruise missiles, shipboard missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, torpedoes and mines. They are six of them, namely: Rubis, Saphir, Casabianca, Emeraude, Améthyste and Perle. Their operational base is in Toulon .