French Leviathan
By William Sariego
November 2019

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 wreck havoc.

Dreadnought of the deep: British submarine M1.

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.

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.

The Design

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 battery.

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 Republic

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.

Surcouf under repair at Portsmouth, N.H., September 1941.

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.

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 affair.

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.

Surcouf visits St. Pierre.

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 best.

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 sea.

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 "hull"-mounted torpedoes.

You can download the new Surcouf counter here!

You can download the new Surcouf hit record here!

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