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Ships of Prey
By William Sariego
March 2013

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 same name.


Strasbourg's heavy weapons.

 
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 not outrun.

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.

 


Battle cruiser Dunkerque, 1939.

 
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 games Bismarck in their search for German commerce raiders, and in Bomb Alley which features the action at Mers-el-Kebir.

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