By William Sariego
Surcouf is one of the most fascinating
ships of the Second World War. When launched
she was the largest submarine in the world,
only surpassed in WWII by the Japanese
I-400 boats arriving in 1944. She would
serve both the Third Republic and Free France
before being lost under mysterious circumstances.
The exact fate and final resting place of
this mighty submarine are still a mystery. Bismarck by Avalanche Press is the perfect opportunity
to spotlight this unique ship in the context
of that fine game.
In The Beginning
It was the British, oddly enough, who first
experimented with large submarines with naval
guns as a primary armament during the Great
War. Designated the M class, and projecting
four submarines, only M-1 was launched during
the war (June 1918) and never saw combat,
though she was stationed in the Mediterranean.
The British would get cold feet on the project,
for fear of the Germans getting ideas about
arming subs with battlecruiser-sized guns
and surfacing off the coast of England to
After the war, in 1921, the British started
work on another submarine series, the X Class,
which would have been armed with two 5.25"
guns in separate turrets. X-1 was launched
in 1925; the ship was a failure and spent
most of her time in the dockyards. Great Britain
highly broadcast this fact, again for fear
that Japan, rapidly becoming a rival in the
Far East, might copycat and perfect the concept.
Dreadnought of the deep: British submarine
It was their allies, the French, however,
whom followed up on the theoretical use of
massive submarines. In 1922 Admiral Drujon
drafted plans for a fleet of seven such large
submarines designed for commerce raiding.
It took much political maneuvering until his
plans were accepted, and work commenced on Surcouf (named after Robert Surcouf,
a famous French pirate) at Cherbourg in 1927
and she would be launched in late 1929.
Surcouf displaced 3,304 tons on the
surface and was 361 feet long. Powered by
two large 3,800-horsepower Sulzer Diesel engines,
her top speed was 18 knots on the surface
and ten submerged. She had a range of 10,000
miles and could carry enough supplies for
a 90 day cruise for her crew; eight officers
and 110 enlisted men.
To complement her intended role as a commerce
raider, Surcouf came complete with
a prison hold for up to 40 captives! Early
designs even called for a motor launch to
be carried to help boarding ships she disabled
and captured. This idea was dropped as too
impractical but a Besson MN-411 floatplane
was carried in a hanger aft of the tower to
both scout for victims and spot for her main
Surcouf and her crew.
Her armaments were quite impressive. In a
special watertight turret forward of the tower
she carried two eight-inch naval guns, the
same type found on French heavy cruisers.
For anti-aircraft defense she originally carried
two 37mm guns, which would later be supplemented
with two dual 13.2mm machine gun mounts.
Some controversy surrounds her torpedo armament.
She carried four bow tubes armed with 21.7"
torpedoes for use while submerged, that much
is agreed upon. Most secondary and Internet
sources have her armed with six tubes, mounted
on a platform at the stern for use when surfaced.
Four of these were the fast but short-ranged
15.7" torpedoes. Other sources (Submarines by Anthony Preston, for example) and most
importantly the two-volume history of the
French Navy by Henri Le Messon, state that
two quad mounted platforms were carried astern,
one for both 15.7" and 21.7" torpedoes.
Henri Le Messon was a member of the French
Marine Academy and editor of the authoritative
magazine, Les Flottes de Combat, so
I think we can trust him as a most reliable
source. Regardless of exact configuration,
a total of fourteen 21.7" and eight 15.7"
torpedoes were carried.
Despite the impressive armaments, Surcouf quickly proved to be a “paper tiger.”
She was a very complex design and constantly
plagued by mechanical troubles. The first
of a projected series, one might speculate
the “bugs” could have been worked
out with the other boats. This was not to
be the case and Surcouf was to be one
of a kind. Trim was difficult to adjust during
a dive, and on the surface she rolled badly
in rough seas. It took over two minutes to
dive to a depth of forty feet, making her
vulnerable to aircraft, and she carried no
form of radar. She was so low to the horizon
her effective range with the 8" guns,
her main strength, was effectively halved,
from 15 miles to seven.
Operations under the Third
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Surcouf did a good job “showing
the flag” on several overseas trips
to various ports of call. While this projected
the image of French power, it did little to
test the boat in her designated role of commerce
raider. She would travel over 16,000 miles,
almost all on the surface, prior to the start
of the Second World War. When war broke out
she was in the French Antilles. She started
for home on the 26th of September, 1939, as
part of the escort for British convoy KJ-2,
sailing from Jamaica. She docked at Brest
for repairs to the hydroplanes and rudders
(thus missing Operational Scenario Four).
With the fall of France, and the German panzers
rapidly approaching Brest, Surcouf bravely
left port so as not to be captured. She would
be in the naval dockyard at Plymouth, alongside
the battleship Paris, when Operation
Catapult was launched. This was the treacherous
attack by Britain on her former allies, on
the baseless assumption that Admiral Jean
Darlan might hand over the fleet to the Axis
powers. For Surcouf it meant a boarding
party of British sailors and marines during
the night. A brief firefight ensued, and one
Frenchman and three Englishmen died as a result,
before the captain of Surcouf recognized
the inevitable and surrendered.
Under the Cross of Lorraine
Given the bitterness surrounding Operation
Catapult, it is hardly surprising that only
two officers and 14 men of the crew agreed
to remain as part of the Free French navy.
Crew would be recruited among Frenchmen on
British territory, a largely inexperienced
lot, though attempts were made to find anyone
with knowledge of the sea (including Breton
fisherman and others). She went on her first
cruise with her new crew in October, and their
inexperience was revealed. A British officer
and two signalmen were added to the crew as
liaisons. This was common procedure with navies-in-exile
serving the RN and worked well with other
crews. Not so with Surcouf and tensions
were always high.
What to do with the ship was the question.
The largest French ships were fairly useless,
with the elderly battleships Paris and Courbet being used as AA platforms
and accommodation ships. Smaller ships and
other subs (the exploits of Rubis are legendary)
found a useful home alongside the Royal Navy. Surcouf was regarded as the pride of
the fledgling navy by De Gaulle, and as a
joke by the British Admiralty. After some
brief training with the Third Submarine Flotilla
in the Clyde, it was decided to transfer the
boat to Halifax. She set sail from the Clyde
on February 10th, 1941 (during Operational
Scenario Seven). Several smaller Free French
ships had been operating out of Halifax, acting
as convoy escorts on the first leg of the
long trans-Atlantic journey.
Surcouf would sail from Halifax on
April 1st and would see service as an escort
for convoy HX 118 and SC 27. This is during
the time frame of Operational Scenario Eight,
though she was off map to the west. Detached
from her duties during the trip, she was ordered
back to Plymouth and would arrive on April
17th. Once more the issue of what to do with
her was raised. Her purpose of commerce raiding
was not relevant and she could not operate
as a normal submarine, being to vulnerable
to air attacks if placed on blockade duty.
It was decided to send her to Bermuda, where
she could act as a local escort and help patrol
for German U-Boats. She sailed on May 14th,
just prior to Operational Scenario Three.
Her first and only patrol in this capacity
began on the last day of June and lasted three
weeks. It was a total disaster, as the ship
had repeated electrical failures and two diving
mishaps almost cost the loss of the boat with
all hands. Once chlorine gas flooded the sub,
sickening the crew. Back in Bermuda it was
recognized that the ship was in dire need
of a major overhaul. With properly made spare
parts unavailable (she was one of a kind and
built in Cherbourg!) prospects were bleak.
Under the terms of the recent Anglo-Allied
Lend-Lease agreement Surcouf sailed
to the United States and was docked at Portsmouth,
New Hampshire’s naval yard late in July.
She would not leave until November 11th, 1941.
Surcouf under repair at Portsmouth,
N.H., September 1941.
Despite Herculean efforts, only some of her
problems could be addressed at Portsmouth.
After a brief stopover in New London, Surcouf briefly went back to Bermuda. After which
she received orders to proceed once more to
Halifax to rendezvous with Admiral Muselier,
commander of the Free French Navy. She arrived
at Halifax on December 10th. The Admiral arrived
a few days later with three corvettes, Mimosa, Alysse, and Aconit.
On the 20th the little fleet, with Surcouf as flagship, left port on “maneuvers.”
The maneuvers were more political and aggressive
than a mere training exercise, however. On
Christmas Eve, they landed sailors on the
Vichy-controlled islands of St. Pierre and
Miquelon, off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland.
These small islands were the last of France's
North American holdings. This set off a diplomatic
storm with the United States, and got President
Roosevelt and General De Gaulle off on a very
bad foot, indeed! In the end, despite the
affront to the Monroe Doctrine (which implicitly
indicates only the United States is allowed
to invade countries in the Western Hemisphere),
the conquest stood and Free France added the
islands to its growing clientele. Surcouf returned to Halifax on January 11th, 1942.
It became readily apparent that the boat
was still not totally seaworthy as more little
defects kept coming to the fore. Orders came
from Free French naval command to proceed
to Tahiti, in the Pacific, despite the sub’s
increasingly weakening condition. She arrived
at Bermuda for a temporary stop over on February
7th. Yet more problems with the engines emerged
during this trip, and it was apparent Surcouf was hardly able to dive. This did not
detract from her capabilities much as she
had almost always functioned as a surface
ship. She set out for the Panama Canal on
February 12th, despite her poor state. She
was just able to make 13 knots with her engines
malfunctioning, but a return to Portsmouth
was never considered due to the anger of her
former hosts over the St. Pierre and Miquelon
The Bermuda Triangle?
Surcouf never made it to the Panama
Canal. Her exact fate remains a mystery to
this day, and her wreck has never been located
(though rumor persists that Jacques Cousteau
found it). The most likely, and accepted,
explanation is that she went down the night
of February 18th, having collided with an
American freighter named Thompson Lykes.
It was simply bad luck. Two old ships, neither
with radar, running at night in the wrong
place at the wrong time. One was leaving the
Canal area and the other headed toward it.
James Rusbridger (Who Sank Surcouf?)
examines some rather wild conspiracy theories
on her demise. All are easy to dismiss except
one. He states the records of the 6th Heavy
Bomber Group operating out of Panama show
them sinking a large sub the morning of the
19th. Since we know that no Axis submarine
was lost in that area on that date, it could
only have been Surcouf. He postulates
that damage from the collision short-circuited
the radio and the stricken boat could only
limp blindly toward Panama and hope for the
Surcouf visits St. Pierre.
Inquiries into what happened were haphazard
and tardy. Frankly, the disappearance of one
French submarine was of minor import to the
United States and the British Empire, engaged
as they were in a global war. A later French
inquiry would support the sinking due to “friendly
fire.” This is conclusion was supported
by Rear Admiral Jean Auphan in his excellent The French Navy in World War II in
which he states “for reasons which appear
to have been primarily political, she was
rammed at night in the Caribbean by an American
freighter.” Yet it is interesting to
note that Charles de Gaulle, never one to
shy away when he felt misused or diminished
by the Anglo-Saxon world, simply stated in The Call to Honor that Surcouf “had
sunk with all hands.” A memorial to
the brave but ill-starred submarine stands
today in Cherbourg harbor, overlooking the
The sea has many mysteries, and is an unforgiving
mistress. May her crew rest in peace, whatever
final fate befell them. Vive La France!
Surcouf Special Rules
Anti-Aircraft: Her light armament
is only useful for self-protection. It can
only be fired at aircraft attacking Surcouf.
Float Plane: The Besson can
be used as a normal float plane per 11.6,
excepting it is not jettisoned when on the
tactical board; indeed that is its primary
use! The range of Surcouf's battery
is two hexes, rather than the normal four
for secondary guns. If Surcouf remains
stationary during an eligible Movement Impulse,
she can launch the float plane (place atop Surcouf counter to indicate this) instead.
In subsequent Gunnery Impulses range is increased
to four hexes. If the Allied player has qualified
for 5.78 Surprise Sighting the float plane
begins the tactical sequence deployed.
Torpedo Mounts: Because of her unique
arrangement, rule 6.62 does not apply. Surcouf is allowed to allocate its torpedo factors
at different targets. One factor represents
the 15.7" torpedoes, with a range of
only one hex but +1 to hit. The bow torpedo
does not suffer a penalty to hit like other
You can download
the new Surcouf counter here!
You can download
the new Surcouf hit record here!
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