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France’s Combat Cruiser
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
April 2012

In the years following the First World War, the Marine Nationale planned a whole series of fast ships suited to long-range attacks on enemy commerce. These would give France a means to challenge the much larger navies of Britain or the United States in case of a future war with one of them.

Several countries studied “flight deck cruisers,” a combination of cruiser and aircraft carrier, but these ideas almost all collapsed under the harsh pressure of reality. Aircraft of the time needed a lengthy flight deck for take-offs and landings, and were very susceptible to cross winds on these decks. The half-and-half schemes, with gun turrets forward and flight decks aft, created difficult wind patterns and proved impracticable.

The French program of 1922 proposed two large (30,000 ton) “aircraft-carrying cruisers.” No design sketches were submitted, and it’s unclear if these would have been hybrid vessels or if the term simply implies a high-speed traditional aircraft carrier. These ships would not have met the standards of the Washington Naval Limitations Treaties, and so afterwards a new proposal for a “combat cruiser” arose among French naval planners.


Striking aircraft below aboard the French carrier Béarn.

The treaty limited battleships to 35,000 tons, and many navies contemplated building 17,500-ton “cruiser killers” of high speed, heavy armament and light armor. These designs usually carried 11- or 12-inch guns, enough to stand well beyond the range of the eight-inch guns to which “Treaty Cruisers” were limited. We’ve looked before at cruiser killer designs contemplated by the German Weimar Republic and the Royal Netherlands Navy, and many other fleets had similar thoughts. None actually built them, however.

A request for a design came in 1925 from the Navy directly to the Service Technique, bypassing the Technical Committee. The plan they requested featured two quadruple turrets for 12-inch guns, located “en echelon” amidships. This went against the Technical Committee’s thoughts on ship deign; turrets en echelon were considered poor design as one turret could not effectively fire across the ship. Some proponents countered that the ship’s high speed would allow it to twist and turn, firing both gun turrets at a single opponent.

This ridiculous answer (not unusual in a bureaucratic setting and the sure sign of deeply entrenched egos at play) masked another problem. The Technical Committee liked the quadruple turret very much, but it had a very wide base and armored barbette underneath it. A ship would need very fine lines (and thus a relatively narrow beam) to generate the sort of speeds the Navy demanded. Fitting two wide turrets in the “wing” positions would be a very difficult design task.

But the echelon arrangement had its advantages. It greatly reduced the amount of the ship that would need heavy armor — though concentrating so much weight amidships would likely cause her to become swaybacked. It also freed the forward and after parts of the ship for aircraft arrangements. The combat cruiser was to carry eight seaplanes to help her scout for enemy merchant shipping, and seaplanes did not by definition make the ship an “aircraft carrier” for treaty purposes.


Another view of Béarn and her elevator. Note the massive crane (also planned for the combat cruiser).

The ship’s logical inconsistencies finally doomed her. Though she carried a large number of seaplanes, she would depend on her high speed to carry out her mission. Seaplanes could only be recovered by coming to a near stop. Her lack of armor also bothered many French naval leaders, and they opted instead for a more traditional (though still highly innovative) design with the Dunkerque-class battle cruisers.

Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold is based on the plans of the United States and France to fight one another, without the limitations of the Washington treaties. However, the game does include the combat cruiser. Even though it was a Treaty-inspired design, it was also responsible for mid-1920s tension between French naval officers on one hand and those from Britain and the United States on the other (politicians and the general public do not seem to have been aware of the controversy). There was also a brief spate of unofficial war planning; and as the actual Plan Gold never achieved much detail, these musings are actually a better basis for game scenarios than many of the real Franco-American war plans.

Hector Bywater and Maurice Prendergrast penned a piece in the November 1925 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (a journal intended for naval officers and other professionals, with content ranging from the coma-inducing to surprisingly moving) describing the fictional exploits of a French combat cruiser named Indomptable. Though set in an Anglo-French naval war of the near future, the Royal Navy is clearly a stand-in for the U.S. Fleet in this publication unofficially sponsored by the U.S. Navy (in those days, its offices stood on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy). Bywater’s novel Great Pacific War would later become famous as a “predictor” of World War II in the Pacific (and inspired a scenario in our own Great Pacific War game).

In their tale of French depredations, Indomptable rampages through the West Indies, sinking British cruisers and merchants with abandon and escaping from British battle cruisers using her very high speed. The article caused a minor sensation among Proceedings readers, leading to consideration of how the U.S. Navy would fight such a ship. And so we have some of the centerpiece scenarios of our game.

 

Our combat cruiser takes into account the objections of the Technical Committee and the obvious difficulties of mounting such a large turret en echelon on a ship of such narrow beam. One variant has two double turrets mounted en echelon; the other a single quadruple turret (the variant more likely to have been chosen) sited dead amidships. Both variants are otherwise identical, with high speed and operating eight to ten seaplanes (meaning that, in game terms, each carries two seaplane pieces).

The fore-and-aft aircraft arrangements appear rather awkward, but that’s what the French seem to have planned and Bywater hints that this is the layout of his Indomptable (the aircraft never play much of a part in his tale). She has a catapult at either end, with a matching aircraft hangar under the adjacent superstructure. Repair shops, munitions and fuel stowage and other support spaces would be doubled in this design for little additional benefit. But with ship-borne aircraft still quite a novelty in the 1920s, perhaps the effort and expense would have been worthwhile. Players can judge for themselves in Plan Gold's scenarios featuring the combat cruiser.

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