Between the world wars, France built a series of beautiful but tragic warships. It may seem strange to call warships beautiful, but these fast, sleek vessels, were definitely sexy. They were also tragic, because most never fulfilled the missions they were designed for, and the fortunes of war doomed many to unhappy fates. Little has been published about these attractive warships in English, but French Cruisers: 1922-1956, fills this gap.
This lavishly illustrated book covers the design, construction and operations of over 20 ships of nine different cruiser classes:
Heavy (203 mm guns)
- Duquesne, Tourville
- Suffren, Colbert, Dupleix, Foch
Light (155 or 152 mm guns)
- Duguay-Trouin, Lamotte-Picquet, Primaguet
- Jeanne d’Arc
- Émile Bertin
- La Galissonnière, Montcalm, Georges Leygues, Jean de Vienne, Marseillaise, Gloire
- De Grasse (cancelled: Chaterenault, Guichen)
Minelayer-Cruiser (138 mm guns, 270 mines)
John Jordan, co-author of French Battleships: 1922-1956, is a skilled draftsman; the book has dozens of his sharp line drawings, showing details of equipment and fittings that will delight model builders. Along with many excellent photographs, there is a section of colorful ship paintings by Jean Bladé.
A technical section devotes one chapter to each ship class, plus a chapter on projected cruisers that were never built. An historical narrative section covers operations in detail, with sidebars on fleet organization, deployments, and other topics.
In the aftermath of World War I, the French navy expected to fight its next war in the Mediterranean against Fascist Italy. At the same time, France needed to police a vast colonial empire, from the Caribbean across Africa to Southeast Asia. The ’20s and ’30s were an era of naval arms limitation, with strict (but often ignored) treaty limits on the size and armament of warships. The French navy had to compete for budget and industrial resources with the politically strong army. Then, beginning in 1929, the Great Depression made life even tougher for the financially strapped navies of the major powers.
Early French light cruisers were virtually unarmored, relying on carefully designed watertight subdivision to survive battle damage. An unusual feature of these oil-fueled ships was a large supply of coal to fire a metal-working foundry and numerous cooking stoves and ovens. In 1943, when some of the cruisers were refitted and modernized at the Philadelphia Navy Yard “the Americans were astonished to find that there were no fewer than six separate galleys aboard the French ships (for the admiral, senior officers, junior officers, chief petty officers, petty officers and medical staff, and seamen).”
Later ships were better armored, but like most other navies, the French underestimated the dive bomber threat and were late in developing antiaircraft guns and effective fire control. The French navy also neglected underway replenishment, which handicapped their cruisers with limited endurance.
World War II began badly for these ships, when mine-layer cruiser Pluton accidentally exploded at Casablanca (Sept. 13, 1939). On April 19, 1940, off Norway a German Ju-88 struck cruiser Emile Bertin with a 500-kilogram bomb that “went straight through the lightly built ship without exploding.” Several cruisers made Atlantic crossings carrying European gold reserves safely to Canada. The fall of France in June 1940 left the cruisers distributed as follows:
- Toulon – 4
- Algiers – 7
- Alexandria, Egypt – 4
- Martinique – 2
- Casablanca, Morocco – 1
- Saigon – 1
A gentlemen’s agreement between British and French admirals immobilized the squadron at Alexandria, but the Royal Navy clashed with Vichy French naval forces at Mers-el-Kebir (July 3, 1940), and Dakar (Sept. 23, 1940). The bloodshed embittered relations between the Royal Navy and the French for years.
A border dispute between Thailand and Vichy-controlled French Indochina in January 1941 led to a naval battle off Koh Chang island. Cruiser Lamotte-Picquet wrecked one powerful Thai coastal defense ship and damaged another, while sinking two torpedo boats. Japan quickly intervened, forcing the French to sign an Armistice.
In November, 1942, Allied forces invaded North Africa (Operation Torch). At Casablanca, cruiser Primauguet engaged USS Massachusetts (BB 59) scoring at least one hit. Wrecked by air attacks, she ran aground. The French navy’s worst day of the war came on Nov. 27, 1942, when the Germans occupied the Toulon naval base. Three battleships, seven cruisers, fifteen destroyers, twelve submarines and many smaller warships were scuttled, blown up, or set on fire by their crews. None of the seven cruisers ever went to sea again, but France’s honor was preserved, and – mercifully – casualties were slight.
French Cruisers: 1922-1956 is reasonably priced for a book of such rich content and excellent production values. It will be of particular interest to naval historians, ship modelers, and World War II naval wargamers.