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Stolen Fleets:
Captured French Battleships

During the 1930’s, the French Navy laid down a series of modern warships as part of a rivalry with Italy. The ships were designed to meet the needs of a conflict in the Mediterranean, not a North Atlantic naval war, and included several radically innovative designs.

The fleet survived the 10-month war with German with minimal warship losses. Most of the modern warships went to the Mers-el-Kebir anchorage in Algeria just outside Oran. One incomplete new battleship went to Morocco and another to Senegal. Three old battleships, a heavy cruiser, three light cruisers plus destroyers and submarines were seized by the British in July 1940. The British attacked the main French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, sinking one old battleship and damaging many other vessels. The remaining French ships eventually gathered at Toulon in southern France.

The Franco-German Armistice left the ships demilitarized but under French control, and the Vichy Republicans hoped to use them as a bargaining chip - a very potent bargaining chip - to reduce some of the other, much more onerous conditions of the agreement. In our Plan Z story line France has fallen in similar fashion to our own history, but this had occurred two years later. The Armistice is pretty much the same, only this time the French have cashed in their potent chip and handed over their fleet including incomplete new ships to the Germans intact.

In exchange, the Germans have waived the onerous financial burdens of the occupation, released the 1.5 million prisoners of war, enlarged the permitted French Army and returned Paris to French administration. They retain control of the French Atlantic ports, and have the use of French shipyards to overhaul their new vessels and complete those still under construction.

In Plan Z: Stolen Fleets that gives the German Navy a substantial windfall of modern warships, that start to join the fleet in its North Atlantic war. Let’s take a look at them.

Fast Battleships

The great prize of the fallen French fleet, the three fast battleships had been laid down in response to the Italian Littorio class. The Richelieu class carried eight 15-inch (380mm) guns in two quadruple turrets mounted forward, could make 30 knots and had good protection. But they were not particularly good fighting ships, needing an enormous power plant to make that speed and experiencing constant trouble with their main armament - both the turrets and the guns themselves. The secondary armament of nine six-inch guns was supposedly usable against air as well as surface targets, but could not be trained or fired fast enough to actually bring down enemy planes.

The first two ships of the class, Richelieu and Jean Bart, were fitting out when France collapsed in June 1940. They escaped to French colonies; Richelieu was completed in the United States while Jean Bart was semi-finished after the war. Clemenceau was laid down in January 1939; when work stopped in September she was only about 10 percent compete and two years away from launching.

When France falls to the Germans in our Plan Z story, the first two ships have been complete for close to two years and are part of the fleet at Toulon handed over to German control in November 1942. The third is fitting out at Brest Naval Dockyard, still six months from completion, and is taken as a prize of war in September 1942 with only minimal damage from sabotage.

The French Model 1935 15-inch gun had a slightly smaller bore than other nation’s similar weapons; ammunition manufactured for German 380mm guns would not fit a French breech. It was also a balky weapon with poor performance, and in our alternative history these are replaced by German-made SK C/34 rifles, the same guns that armed Bismarck and Tirpitz. Replacing one model of gun with another, even of the nominally same caliber, is a major undertaking and would have kept the battleships out of service until 1944.

Clemenceau’s design had been slightly modified, but in German service all three ships are essentially identical. They retain the Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft guns fitted in French service, a weapon also used by Germany, and also their French-made six-inch (152mm) Model 1926 secondary guns, as these weapons also arm several of the light cruisers taken over by the Germans.

With the shipyards of FCM-La Seyne and Toulons naval dockyard under French control, the work would have to be done on the Atlantic coast. By the 1930’s all large French warships were built at either at Brest or St. Nazaire, and the ships would return there for re-fitting.

Battle Cruisers

The French Navy laid down the battle cruiser Dunkerque in the last week of 1932, followed by an improved version, Strasbourg, 23 months later. The two unusual ships formed the Force de Raid during the 10 months of France’s war with Germany, pursuing German raiders and later moving to the Mediterranean to face the Italians, but neither saw surface action against an Axis ship.

Both were at Mers-el-Kebir when the British attacked, with Strasbourg escaping unscathed but Dunkerque suffering serious damage. She finally made it back to Toulon in February 1942, and was still under repair when the French scuttled their own fleet in November. Both ships were thoroughly wrecked by saboteurs, and later Italian naval work parties committed even further vandalism to assure that the French could never repair them. Both wrecks were scrapped after the war’s end.

Dunkerque pioneered the layout also used for the Richelieu class, with her main battery of eight 13-inch (330mm) guns in two quadruple turrets, both sited forward. French battleship design had lagged behind that of other nations during the Dreadnought Age, but Dunkerque was a modern design for her time, with a small armored citadel, good underwater protection, high-pressure boilers and geared turbines, and aircraft facilities. All of her armament was placed in turrets. When new, the ships could make 29.5 knots, fast enough to run down German armored cruisers

In our alternative history, both ships are at Toulon when the Armistice takes effect, and are handed over to the Germans in November 1942. They’re taken in hand in French Atlantic coast yards for refitting and to repair damage inflicted by the British at Mers-el-Kebir (less severe than that suffered in the actual events). They retain their main armament, forcing the Germans to manufacture ammunition specially for these rather poor weapons. Their secondary armament of 5.1-inch (130mm) dual-purpose guns is replaced by the 128mm dual-purpose guns just entering service aboard German destroyers.

The result is a pair of marginally useful warships, unable to stand up to an Allied fast battleship but well able to shoot up a heavy cruiser convoy escort. Much like the original Scharnhorst class (re-armed with 380mm guns in our Plan Z story), they carry weapons too light to fight battleships, and too heavy for the task of attacking enemy commerce.

And those are the stolen French capital ships of Stolen Fleets. Next time we’ll look at captured French cruisers.

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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.