The Cruel Sea:
French Battleships, Part Four

Despite the design flaws of the French fast battleship Richelieu, the Marine Nationale planned a very similar ship for its next class. The new battleship Gascogne would be funded as the fourth battleship of the Richelieu class.

Our massive expansion set Second Great War at Sea: The Cruel Sea is an alternative-history expansion set for Bismarck and Arctic Convoy. In the Second Great War story arc, the great empires of Eastern Europe have survived for another generation thanks to a negotiated end to the First World War in late 1916. War returns in 1940. France, Italy, Russia and later Britain face the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and eventually the Ottoman Empire.

In preparation for this war, the French Republic has expended far greater resources on its Navy than was the case in our own reality. The Great Depression has been far milder, including in France (which in our reality suffered deeper economic problems than most other European nations), and not only are more funds available, the shipyards that scaled back their capacity are still capable of building heavy warships. The result is a large-scale naval war in the North Atlantic, with the French and their Russian allies trying to disrupt German commerce in the face of a larger High Seas Fleet.

France’s new battleship fleet in The Cruel Sea consists of ships actually designed, but in most cases never built (two of them were had been begun by the collapse of France in June 1940, but very little work had been accomplished). We detailed the Richelieu class in a previous installment; two were completed and two barely started.

Of those last two, Clemenceau followed the design of Richelieu with some modifications. For the fourth sister, we added a ship named Charlemagne built to the same design. But that’s not what the Marine Nationale actually did.

Gascogne, projected as the fourth ship of the Richelieu class, underwent large-scale design changes. Admiral Georges Durand-Viel, who had overseen Richelieu’s design, retired at the end of 1936 as Chief of the Naval Staff and Vice Admiral François Darlan, though junior to other candidates, used his political skills to maneuver into the position.

Concerned by the results from the battle cruiser Dunkerque’s trials, as she also had all of her big guns concentrated forward, Darlan ordered new battleship sketches before the next battleships were ordered. The ships were to retain the main armament of 15-inch guns; the French Navy’s gun factory at Ruelle, which manufactured all heavy naval artillery, had no design prepared for 16-inch guns.

Three alternatives emerged: one following the same lines as Richelieu, with her secondary armament re-arranged, another placing one quadruple turret forward and another aft, and the third keeping the two quadruple turrets forward and adding a third aft.

Installing the quadruple 15-inch turret.

Not wanting to delay construction, Darlan ordered Clemenceau built to the improved-Richelieu design in the same graving dock at the Brest Arsenal just vacated by Richelieu herself. With more time available to draft new plans before another ship could be laid down, he directed that the fourth ship follow the second alternative. Darlan, a Gascon, also directed that she be named Gascogne after his home province.

Gascogne would have the same hull as Richelieu, with a very similar armor scheme though this had to be altered with the switch of the second turret and its barbette to the after position. She shared the earlier design’s excellent underwater protection and good armor scheme featuring an innovative sloped belt. But Gascogne’s armored citadel had to be larger than that of the earlier ship, and she would have displaced slightly more than Richelieu – since the second main turret no longer had to fire over the forward turret, its heavy armored barbette did not have to be as tall. Richelieu had broken her 35,000-ton target displacement by about 2,000 tons – the limit set in naval treaties – and Gascogne would have done so by at least that much.

Installing the 6-inch dual-purpose triple turret.

Like Richelieu, she carried nine 152mm (six-inch) dual-purpose guns as her secondary armament, mounted in three turrets. All were on the centerline, two firing over the forward 15-inch turret and one over the aft 15-inch turret. In addition to providing rather dubious anti-aircraft protection (the turrets simply could not track aircraft fast enough), they provided the only bombardment capability for any of the French fast battleships – the French manufactured no high-explosive ammunition for their 15-inch guns until after the end of the (actual) Second World War, and as these were actually 14.99-inch weapons, they couldn’t use those made for other nations’ 15-inch guns, either (the six-inch guns not only had high-explosive rounds, they also could and did use American-made ammunition). A few of Gascogne’s 15-inch guns fell into German hands but apparently saw little if any use, since they were mounted in Jean Bart after the war without concern for wear.

Gascogne would have had a slightly heavier array of lighter anti-aircraft weaponry, as the shortcomings of the dual-purpose battery had become apparent – had the war not broken out in 1940, the French Navy intended to replace at least one of her six-inch turrets with more 3.9-inch anti-aircraft guns. Gascogne would have had sixteen 3.9-inch anti-aircraft guns in eight dual mounts (compared to a dozen in Richelieu), twenty 37mm anti-aircraft guns also in dual mounts, and 36 machine guns in nine four-barreled mountings.

She would have the same power plant as her near sisters – four Parsons turbines and six huge Indret boilers to produce 150,000 horsepower. Richelieu made 32 knots on trials, compared to her design speed of 30 knots. Gascogne, with her more even weight distribution, likely would have done at least as well.

Gascogne adopted a new hangar arrangement modeled on that of the American heavy cruiser Wichita, recessed into the stern at the very aft end of the ship where the blast effects of the aft turret would not damage the aircraft. She would have had one catapult and two float planes.

Darlan received approval to build two more ships to the Gascogne design in April 1940, creating two fast battleship squadrons of three ships each. These were not laid down before the French collapse, nor had any material been ordered or shipyards assigned.

In The Cruel Sea we expanded the Gascogne sub-class from one ship to a full class of four, with the others named France (which would have been the name of one of the two ships authorized in April 1940; the other being Alsace), Maine and Artois. In game terms they’re not much different from the preceding Richelieu class; they have better anti-aircraft protection but are otherwise identical.

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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.