La Regia Marina:
France’s Algérie

While the Italians tried to respond to the large, ultra-fast French destroyers with ultra-fast cruisers of their own, it was the French Navy which found itself looking to match Italian practice in constructing heavy cruisers, also known as Treaty Cruisers.

The Washington Naval Limitations Agreement of 1922 set a limit of 10,000 tons’ displacement for heavy cruisers, and a maximum armament of 203mm (8-inch) guns. Since such a ship could not protect itself from the guns of its peers – sufficient armor would weigh far too much – naval architects sought to coax the highest possible speed out of their cruisers.

Like those of other navies, early French Treaty Cruisers were properly described as “tin clads,” with only nominal armor protection. By the time the French built their third cruiser they had caught on to international practice a little and begun to seek out loopholes in the treaty; the cruiser Suffren and her three near-sisters carried coal bunkers even though they were driven by oil fuel, since the treaty did not count the weight of fuel toward the displacement limit. The coal, placed between the outer hull and the machinery spaces, would provide at least some protection. After initially pretending that the coal would be used by auxiliary boilers, the French abandoned that fiction and simply included the bunkers and their coal in their cruisers anyway.

Italy, meanwhile, turned out a pair of cruisers in the Trento class with markedly superior protection and better speed compared to the first French ships. Their next class, the Zaras, went against Italian practice to emphasize protection over speed. With no guarantee that they would be able to retain their old battleships, the Italian admirals wanted a heavy cruiser that could stand in the battle-line and be proof against shells from other heavy cruisers. Zara and her sisters had a 150mm armor belt (six inches) and similar armor on her decks and turrets – about three times the thickness found on other nations’ heavy cruisers.

Yet they still managed to make 32 knots, about the same as other cruisers, and had a main armament of eight excellent 203/53 guns with range superior to that of the 320mm (12.6-inch) guns of Italy’s rebuilt older battleships. The Italians crammed all of those capabilities into their cruisers thanks to a few new technologies: new lightweight engines of great efficiency, careful structural design, and welded construction. But the real weight savings came with a stroke of a pen: the Royal Italian Navy declared that the ships displaced 10,000 tons even though the naval architects from the beginning were allotted 11,500 tons with which to work.

Not all of that was clear to the French in the late 1920’s, but they did ascertain that Zara had superior protection – the Italians initially referred to the four ships of her class as “armored cruisers.” And reports indicated that they carried a fine main armament and still made a good cruiser speed. The French Navy wanted such a cruiser of their own and rejected the design known as C4, a somewhat improved Suffren, but don’t seem to have realized that their model was not a 10,000-ton cruiser.

To replace ship C4, the French naval architects designed a completely new cruiser from the keel up. Like the Italians, they used welded construction to save weight and new high-powered lightweight turbines that made 84,000 horsepower; less than the 95,000 horsepower turned out by the very efficient Italian models but the new ship matched Zara’s speed, since unknown to the French she was 1,500 tons lighter than her rival.

The French apparently intended to arm their new ship, christened Algérie, with a new-model 55-caliber 203mm gun with performance closer to that of the Italian weapon, but she actually carried the same 203/50 model as previous French heavy cruisers. Like the other French cruisers, she carried eight such weapons in four twin turrets.

Algérie would carry a powerful anti-aircraft suite for the time, starting with twelve 100mm semi-automatic anti-aircraft guns in six shielded double mounts. This was a new model also used on the battleship Richelieu. For mid-range protection the cruiser had eight 37mm automatic cannon in four double mounts, and for point defense sixteen 13.2mm Hotchkiss machine guns in four quadruple mounts. She also carried six torpedo tubes in two triple mounts.

While Algérie matched Zara’s speed and armament, she could not equal the Italian cruiser’s protection. The French finally did away with the fiction of protective coal bunkers, and gave their cruiser a real armored belt of 110mm (four inches); considerably less than Zara but still much more than nearly any other cruiser of her era. She had 70mm to 80mm of armor over her magazines, machinery spaces and on her conning tower, main armament turrets and barbettes. She also had sophisticated underwater protection, with a liquid-air “sandwich” scheme similar to that employed in Richelieu and highly unusual for any cruiser-sized ship. All told Algérie devoted 2,035 tons to protection, compared to 2,700 tons for Zara.

As a weight-saving measure, Algérie had only one catapult for her seaplanes, as opposed to the two carried by previous French heavy cruisers.

Algérie as completed in May 1932 was a handsome ship, and possibly the finest Treaty Cruiser design produced to the actual specifications. But she would be the only one of her class; while she was still under construction France signed the 1931 London Naval Treaty limiting cruiser construction along the same lines as the limits placed on battleships. France already had six such ships and the treaty capped her numbers (and those of rival Italy) at seven. Plans to build three more ships to the Algérie design were abandoned, and when the French contemplated new heavy cruisers at the end of the 1930’s they would be to a new, much larger design though showing many features pioneered in Algérie.

In service, Algérie helped hunt in the South Atlantic for the German raider Graf Spee in 1939, and operated in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in 1940. She lay at Toulon after the French armistice, and underwent limited modernization in early 1942, receiving additional anti-aircraft weapons. When the Germans attempted to seize the French fleet in November 1942 Algérie’s crew scuttled the ship with protesting German officers already aboard and then set her on fire for good measure; she burned for two more days.

Wreck of the Algérie, two days after scuttling.

Algérie did not appear in our old Bomb Alley game, but she’s present in Second World War at Sea: La Regia Marina as part of the vastly increased French presence in the new game. She is a fine-looking ship (I drew her playing piece myself!), and a well-balanced fighting unit.

Don’t wait to put La Regia Marina on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.