Europe

Islamic State group: Charles de Gaulle carrier triples French firepower

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionJonathan Beale takes you behind the scenes as jets take off

France's one and only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, was at sea on training manoeuvres when the Paris attacks happened on 13 November.

The captain of the ship, Eric Malbrunot, said he immediately knew it would impact their next mission. He called together his 1,900-strong crew and now talks of a "special feeling".

There is no mention of the word revenge. Instead he calls it a mood of "determination".

The Charles de Gaulle left its home port of Toulon cheered on by huge crowds waving the French tricolour.

Now in the Gulf conducting air strikes, a crew member tells me it is the first time he has felt the whole nation is behind him.

The bonds with Paris were already strong. The decks of the carrier are named after Parisian streets - one way of finding your way around the labyrinth of compartments.

The geography is all the more difficult at night time when the decks are bathed in red light to protect the aircrews' night vision.

Careful choreography

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption French war planes conduct 20 sorties every 24 hours on average

But now the ties with the capital are even stronger. Letters of support and paintings sent in by Parisian schoolchildren are displayed to inspire the crew.

The captain keeps one with him up on the bridge. It shows figures dressed in the red, white and blue of France pulling together to re-erect the Eiffel Tower.

The real response to what happened in Paris, though, can be seen day and night on the carrier's 259m (850ft) deck, crammed with aircraft, missiles and bombs.

The careful choreography of moving the aircraft around is followed by the cacophony of their engines, and then the thud of the catapult as it launches the jets into the air.

They travel from 0-241km/h (0-150mph) within a few hundred feet. The afterburners for the extra thrust glow as the jets, Rafales and Super Etendards, disappear into the distance.

The sound of the launch and then the recovery reverberates throughout the ship - day and night. On average they are conducting 20 sorties every 24 hours.

Two-glass limit

There are a few distractions.

Unlike in the US Navy, the ship is not "dry". The crew can often enjoy a glass of wine with lunch. In the evening there are three bars that serve beer, even to the pilots.

There is, though, a strict limit on alcohol - two glasses a night.

Being a small piece of France, the food is also important.

The Charles de Gaulle

Image copyright AFP
  • France's only aircraft carrier
  • Powered by two nuclear reactors
  • Took 13 years to make at a cost of about $3.5bn (£2.3bn)
  • Weighs 38,000 tonnes, with a runway 195m (640ft) long
  • Has suffered a series of technical problems, with part of a propeller breaking during an early test

At night down in the galley, with the continuous sound of aircraft being launched and recovered above him, Raphael is baking 1,400 baguettes for the next morning.

He works through the night to feed the pilots and crew. He tells me he is pleased to be involved in this mission, even though he is not flying.

"I want to fight" he says. He describes Daesh (the Islamic State group) as "crazy people… who don't understand Muslims".

We are not permitted to talk to the pilots who fly the 26 jets on board the carrier. This is a reminder that their security is still an issue back home with the continued state of emergency.

Tripled fire power

Instead we meet one of the men on whom their life depends.

Xavier leads the team of engineers who prepare the aircraft for the next mission in two cavernous hangars under the flight deck.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe aircraft carrier has been stationed in the Gulf ever since the attacks on Paris in 2015

"I'm really happy to be part of the mission to be able to tell my children I was part of this victory against Daesh," he says.

That is his hope. And the involvement of the carrier has tripled France's fire power. With the Charles de Gaulle France has twice as many jets as Britain taking part in air strikes.

Vice-Admiral Rene-Jean Crignola tells me he is confident they are having an effect. He cites the recent recapture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi as evidence that the tide is turning.

"Daesh is in a defensive posture no more able to win battles or to gain territory."

That seems a bold claim. France has reason enough to want to see the defeat of the group they call Daesh.

But even with one of its most potent weapons this war is far from over.