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The Normandie-Class Battleships
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2013

Britain’s launch of the battleship Dreadnought touched off an international arms race, as other European powers, Germany in particular, sought to build large numbers of the powerful new type of warship. For the first several years of this deadly competition, the battleship designs followed certain parameters. They carried a main armament of 10 or 12 12-inch guns, and a speed of 20 to 21 knots. Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Italy and France all laid down ships of widely varying appearance but with these same characteristics.

But in 1909, the British introduced the first “super dreadnoughts” armed with 13.5-inch guns. The Orion class was laid down in 1910 and entered service in 1912. The Japanese armed their battle cruiser Kongo a year later with a very similar 14-inch gun, France went to a 13.4-inch gun for their Bretagne class laid down in 1912, and Austria-Hungary went to a 13.8-inch gun for the Ersatz Monarch class the navy hoped to begin in 1912.

Battleship Languedoc is launched, May 1915.]

The Orion class started a race in size and power, as well as total number, of dreadnoughts. Warships became ever larger and new designs with 15-inch and even 16-inch guns appeared on drawing boards. Britain and Germany built battleships with 15-inch guns, while Italy started four. Similar ships never left Russian and Austrian drafting tables. But in France, designers strayed from this pattern.

Where other designers went for heavier guns, the French designed ships to carry more of them. The battleships planned for the 1913 fiscal year could only be slightly larger than Bretagne, because of the limitations of French docks and other facilities. Huge ships like the British Queen Elizabeth or Italian Caracciolo were therefore out of the question. The navy’s Technical Committee presented two alternative designs: one with sixteen 12-inch guns in four quadruple turrets, with a pair of superfiring turrets fore and aft, the other with a dozen 13.4-inch guns, with a twin turret superfiring above a quadruple turret both fore and aft. They also mentioned, but did not sketch, an alternative arrangement with three quadruple turrets at the same deck level, one of them being sited amidships.

The quadruple turret had been developed by the Saint-Chamond industrial works in 1911. It consisted of two pairs of guns revolving on a single pivot, with an armored screen dividing two gun rooms. It amounted to two separate turrets combined into one, and received rave reviews from the Technical Committee. It would allow more heavy guns to be mounted on the same displacement, as the two “turrets” could share the same heavily-armored barbettes and shell rooms.

Flandre under construction, January 1914.

Bretagne had five twin turrets, two each fore and aft and one sited amidships. This last turret position greatly annoyed the Technical Committee, which had not been consulted on the Bretagne design and whose engineers seem to have been venting some bureaucratic frustration. An amidships turret, they argued, had by its very nature a limited field of fire and the guns would damage nearby equipment when fired. The two alternative designs eliminated this feature, which other navies had also abandoned for their new ships.

But the Navy’s general staff seized on the brief technical note mentioning a 12-gun ship with an amidships turret. They also noted that use of an amidships turret helped distribute the great weight of a battleship’s main armament more evenly on the hull. They ordered two designs prepared: a ship very similar to Bretagne, with ten 13.4-inch guns in five twin turrets, and one with 12 such guns in three quadruple turrets. If the quadruple turret could pass muster with the Navy’s engineers, this design would be chosen.

The quadruple turret sailed through its tests, and in July 1912 the Navy began issuing contracts. Four new battleships, to be known as the Normandie class, would be laid down: two (Normandie and Languedoc) in private yards in April 1913, and two more (Gascogne and Flandre) in naval dockayrds in October. To provide two divisions of four ships each (counting the three Provence-class ships), a fifth battleship, initially named Vendée but later changed to Béarn, was ordered in December.

Flandre awaits a decision.

All five ships were under construction when the First World War erupted in August 1914. As in other countries, the French high command expected a short war and did not exempt skilled shipyard workers from conscription. Over the next 10 months four of the battleships were launched to clear the slipways for more urgent work, with the hulls laid up nearby. Only Béarn, not advanced enough to launch, remained on her slip. The navy gave strict orders that no material gathered for the battleships was to be diverted for other uses, but in all five shipyards, managers appear to have violated this ruling fairly liberally and both steel and equipment purchased for the dreadnoughts went to build and repair the badly-needed escort craft and transport ships.

The war ground on while the battleships slowly rusted. In December 1917 the British Admiralty approached the Marine Nationale with an offer to buy the four more advanced ships, thinking it would be more cost-effective to complete these than to lay down new battleships. The British had already expressed apprehension over American determination to continue building battleships that were clearly not needed or intended to fight the Germans. The French for their part were willing to sell, but warned the British that the radically different design of the ships would make them nearly impossible to recast to a more traditional form. After brief study the British accepted the French assessment, and with French industry clearly unable to complete the ships, withdrew the purchase offer.

Less than two weeks after the 11 November 1918 Armistice, the French began to contemplate restarting construction. The Navy now wanted better protection and a speed increase to 28 knots. This would require a much larger ship, and the Technical Committee’s answer rather curtly pointed out that no improvements had been made to France’s drydocks in the intervening six years. The admirals accepted completion of the four advanced ships with improved anti-torpedo protection, much thicker deck armor and better elevation for the main guns. The underwater torpedo tubes would be removed and replaced by six trainable mounts above the waterline.

The Germans had overrun the factory near Lille where Gascogne’s turrets had been under construction. The Germans carried them off and used the guns themselves on railway mounts; no one seemed able to find the actual turrets. The Navy ordered the turrets intended for Béarn transferred to Gascogne, and laid out three alternatives for Béarn: conversion to an aircraft carrier, completion as a standard Normandie-class battleship once new turrets had been fabricated, or completion with three twin turrets for a new 400mm (15.8-inch) gun then under development. The admirals appear to have preferred to experiment with a carrier, which would become the hull’s eventual use.

By September 1919, work had not resumed and the French government had finally come to grips with economic reality. French industry and society had been shattered by the Great War, and there would be no huge German cash indemnity forthcoming, at least not anytime soon. When the Italian government gave assurances that, under equal financial pressures, it would complete at most one of their big Caracciolo class battleships abandoned in 1916, if that, the French abandoned hope of finishing the ships. In January 1920, “Plan 171” for new construction did not include the Normandie class, execpt for the conversion of Béarn into an aircraft carrier. Unofficial plans floated around for a few more years, but the 1922 Naval Law formally cancelled all of them. Though sometimes cited as victims of the Washington Naval Treaty, this is not so: The French had already decided to scrap the Normandie class when the negotiations opened, but skillfully used the “sacrifice” of the four useless hulls to win many of the points they desired in the treaty.

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