By William Sariego
The renovation of the French navy between the world wars
is a fascinating study for several reasons; military, economic
and political. While the French army emerged from the Great
War with much prestige for saving the nation, its sister service
had less reason to boast. During the war years the French
had taken primary responsibility for the Mediterranean theater
while the Royal Navy assumed responsibility for the Atlantic
and North Sea. The reality, however, was that the Mediterranean
naval efforts were also shared by Britain and then Italy,
diluting France’s role.
The modernization of the fleet became a hot topic between
the wars, as its purpose and role were constantly debated.
These domestic debates were only part of the issue, as the
first arms reduction talks of the 20th Century, culminating
in the Washington Naval Treaty, attempted to limit tonnage
of the major powers' fleets. The first step in the modernization
program would begin as early as 1922, which provided for three
light cruisers, six super-destroyers, twelve regular destroyers,
and twelve submarines (half ocean-going and half coastal defense).
The same parliamentary authorization would provide for the
completion of the carrier Bearn using the hull of
the incomplete Normandie-class battleship of the
The battleship mentality still ruled the Great Powers between
the wars, and the French admiralty was no exception. Debate
on new capital ships began in 1926, as the three ships of the
Bretagne class (built 1916-17) were starting to show
their age. In early 1927 the Naval Staff concluded that the
new ships should be croiseurs de combat, capable of
defeating any Treaty cruisers afloat and attacking merchant
shipping protected even by slower battleships. The ships would
have to be fast and capable of independent operations, as well
as flagships for combined operations. The apparent need for
such ships was reinforced when the Germans began constructing
her first “pocket battleship” in 1929, which enjoyed
a tremendous operating radius and supposedly had the ability
to outrun what it could not outshoot and outshoot what it could
The first ship in the new class, the Dunkerque would
finally be laid down in early 1932, and her sister ship, the
Strasbourg, would follow in 1934. Interestingly enough,
they would always be referred to as batiments de ligne
(battleships) by the French Admiralty, not the earlier designation
of croiseurs de combat. Most naval authorities at
the time (and game designers since) called them battlecruisers
because of their displacement (26,500 tons) and relatively
fast speed (29 knots).
The ships featured several interesting innovations. The eight
13-inch guns were mounted in quadruple turrets forward. Tactically
this gave the ships tremendous firepower on the approach and
a limited target. Standard armament arrangements required
that a capital ship expose its broadside to bring its full
firepower to bear. The quadruple turrets were sectioned off
internally so that penetrating hit would only knock out two
of the four guns. Learning well the destructive power of the
torpedo during World War One, the ships had an excellent internal
armor belt to mitigate the threat from these weapons. The
ships were also heavily compartmentalized. To further their
ability to operate in the vast Atlantic a large hanger aft
carried four Loire-Nieuport seaplanes.
The 13-inch gun which comprised the primary armament could
fire a shell out to 21,872 yards and penetrate almost 12 inches
of armor, with a rate of fire of three rounds per minute.
The secondary batteries comprised sixteen 5.1 inch guns (three
quad turrets and two double). Anti-aircraft protection would
be light, but the threat of airpower was hardly appreciated
when the ships were laid down. They had eight 37mm AA guns
in four dual mounts and 32 13.2mm guns in eight quad mounts.
Deck armor would be 5 1/2 inches, and the main belt armor
9 1/2 inches, which would be adequate against the German 11-inch
guns, but vulnerable to larger calibers.
They were elegant ships, and fulfilled their design purpose
well. Easily superior to the German "pocket battleships,"
the battle cruisers also stacked up favorably to their later
German counterparts, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
The combat history of the Dunkerque and Strasbourg
is yet another tragedy in the tale of France during the Second
World War. They fully participated in hunting German raiders
in the early part of the war. They were both at Mers-el-Kebir
when the Royal Navy treacherously turned on its former ally.
Heavily damaged, they would make for Toulon where they would
be scuttled in November of 1942 to avoid being seized by the
Germans. These proud ships appear in Avalanche Press’s
in their search for German commerce raiders, and in Bomb
Alley which features the action at Mers-el-Kebir.
Make naval history! Order Second World War at Sea: Bismark TODAY!