Warship Wednesday, April 24 Surcouf!

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday,  April 24, 2013


Here we see one of the most peculiar types of ships–  the cruiser submarine. These big gun submersibles were seen as the most logical extension of the commerce raider after World War One. During the Great War, gun-armed auxiliary cruisers with long ranges circled the globe. These ships, like the Mowe and the Wolf, took dozens of prizes while submarines on all sides took hundreds– but had short legs. So, after 1919, the thinking was that you could take a large submarine with an extended cruising range, add a few large guns and some extra equipment, and bingo: the cruiser submarine. This particular example is the French Surcouf.

Named after Robert Surcouf, the Napoleonic French pirate (err….make that privateer, let’s be PC here!), this huge sub was built to be a swashbuckler. The namesake privateer and his brother Nicolas between 1789 and 1808 captured over 40 British and Portuguese prizes while flying the French flag alongside his own banner. Napoleon even offered him a Captain’s rank in the French Navy and command of a pair of new frigates, but Surcouf couldn’t take the pay cut.

Statue of Surcouf in Saint-Malo by Alfred Caravanniez, built in 1903. Swashbuckler complete with cutlass...

The Statue of Surcouf in Saint-Malo by Alfred Caravanniez was erected in 1903. Swashbuckler complete with cutlass…

In one notable action, Surcouf, in command of the privateer Hasard (4×6-pdrs, 26 men) engaged and captured the larger and much more powerful East Indiaman Triton (26 12-pdr guns, 150 men) after a 45-minute hand-to-hand engagement that went cabin-to-cabin and deck-to deck.

January 29, 1796: The Corsair Cartier, 4 cannons and 19 men commanded by the famous Surcouf, at age 16, on the approach of the British East Indian Triton, 150 men, 26 cannons, in the Indian Ocean. Painting by Leon Tremisot

“You French fight for money, while we British fight for honor,” a captured English officer reportedly once told the French privateer.

“Sir, a man fights for what he lacks most,” Surcouf retorted.

The submarine that carried the name of this often-forgotten sea dog was ordered in December 1927, after the Washington Naval Treaty placed a limit on cruisers. Skirting the treaty by adding cruiser-sized guns to a submarine, the London Naval Treaty of 1931 limited both the overall displacement of and the size of guns carried by submarines moving forward, making Surcouf the only submarine of her class.

The British were so impressed with Surcouf that the big cruiser submarine was the front piece of the 1931 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships

French submarine Surcouf

Over 361 feet long and 4400 tons when at a full load submerged, she carried an impressive armament of 12 torpedo tubes and two 8-inch (203mm) naval guns.

a side view of the 8-inch guns on the submarine. Note the muzzle tampinions.

A side view of the 8-inch guns on the submarine. Note the muzzle tampinions.

The guns, 203mm/50 Modèle 1924 weapons just like the kind mounted on the Duquesne and Suffren classes of heavy cruisers as the main battery, were among the largest ever placed aboard a submarine. (The top prize goes to the three WWI-era British Royal Navy M Class submarines fitted with a deck-mounted 30.48-cm (12-in) gun taken from battleship stores. These subs were all out of service by 1932).  On Surcouf, two guns were mounted in a sealed turret ahead of the conning tower.

Surcouf dock

Fitted with mechanically actuated tampions to allow quick diving, these guns could open fire 2.5 minutes after surfacing and fire approximately 3 rounds per minute. The maximum elevation of 30 degrees limited the maximum range to 21 nmi/39 km with a 270-pound shell. Of course, only 60 rounds were carried for these great guns (hey, it’s a submarine!) but these 8-inchers were pretty amazing.

The rear of the conning tower held the cutest little seaplane. This is similar to the Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) used by the US Navy since 1982 at least in overall concept anyway.

The rear of the conning tower held the cutest little seaplane. This is similar to the Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) used by the US Navy since 1982 at least in overall concept anyway.

To help spot the guns a small 2500-pound Besson MB.411 seaplane, specifically made just for the sub, was carried. This plane could putter at around 100 knots for two hours, allowing its pilot and onboard observer to correct the artillery of the sub.

hanger surcof

Her Besson MB.411 floatplane with wings folded for storage. Looks like a tight fit

Her Besson MB.411 floatplane with wings removed for storage. Looks like a tight fit

For seizing prizes at sea during commerce raiding missions, the Surcouf had space for 60 prisoners and held a 15-foot motor whaleboat in a sealed well deck.

Compared to other submarines of her day, where the standing room was almost unheard of unless the submariner was 5′ 2″, Surcouf is massive on the inside.

While not specified, it’s conceivable that the large submarine with extra space could have been used for commando-type missions.

The French boat is almost a dead ringer in size to the USS Argonaut, the submarine used to carry 120 of Carlson’s Marine Raiders to hit Makin Island in 1942.


As pointed out this image is of the submarine depicted in the fictional Japanese 2005 film “Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean”. The featured ship is a sub, design inspired by Surcouf by definitely not identical. Thanks, Eric!

Alas, for all her potential, this huge and well-armed submersible never had a combat career. Commissioned in May 1934 on the eve of WWII, she suffered from mechanical issues. She narrowly escaped capture in France in 1940 by limping away to England where she became part of General de Gaulle’s tiny Free French Navy.

Her only service was in escorting an occasional Atlantic Convoy and in seizing (liberating?) the Vichy French colony of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in 1941 without a shot. During this operation, Surcouf served as flagship for ADM Muselier and his three small gunboats, which combined were less than half the warship that the submarine was.

Free French Naval Forces submarine Surcouf in Halifax Harbour (closest to depot ship) in 1941. Here, Royal Navy Depot Ship HMS FORTH with the Free French submarine SURCOUF and two other Royal Navy submarines rest in Halifax Harbour. Original Kodachrome via Library and Archives Canada


From World at War  :

“Christmas Eve, 1941

     The predawn blackness over the frigid waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is broken by the flash of signal lamps, “Execute the mission ordered.”. A Free French task force slips past the undefended entrance to the harbor of Saint Pierre. A lookout reports no signs of life on shore. His Captain replies, “They sleep and dream of us for Christmas.”. The mail boat to Miquelon approaches and is ordered to turn about and follow alongside. It complies. A fishing dory emerges from the mist and passes the flotilla unmolested. The corvettes near the snow-covered coal wharf. A solitary figure, an ancient Breton fisherman, spies the Cross of Lorraine and races down the Quai de Ronciere. The click-clack of the old man’s sabots on the icy pavement and his bilingual curses, “Petain, le sacre bleu cochon, le old goat!” can be heard across the whole of the island. Sailors on the first of the ships to brush the dock toss him the bowline. As he secures it to the bollard the man exclaims again, “Vive de Gaulle, at last, I can say it. Vive de Gaulle!”.

     Free French sailors and marines in full battle dress race from their ships. By now a crowd of bleary-eyed Saint Pierrais has gathered to cheer them on with shouts of Vive de Gaulle!, Vive Muselier! Homemade banners, Tricolors emblazoned with Croix de Lorraine, flutter in the chill North Atlantic breeze. The assault force, intent on seizing the town’s key administrative centers; the town hall, post office, telegraph station, and radio transmitter, seems oblivious to their welcome. They meet no resistance. The island’s 11 gendarmes surrender their Vichy-supplied machine guns and offer to assist in rounding up the usual suspects. Not a shot is fired nor a drop of blood spilled.

     The operation is over in half an hour.”

When the Japanese came into the war, it was thought that Surcouf could live up to her name sinking Nippon Maru’s in the Pacific but she disappeared en route.

crew sourfouf

It is thought she was sunk on or about February 18. 1942 after a collision near Panama. Her wreck is thought to lie more than 3,000 feet deep and has never been found. She was announced lost on April 18, 1942, and stricken from the French Naval List the next year.

The plaque to the submarine's honor at Cherbourg, her original WWII home port. It lists the names of the 130 officers and men whose fate to this day lie somewhere on this lost warship.

The plaque to the submarine’s honor at Cherbourg, her original WWII home port. It lists the names of the 130 officers and men whose fate to this day lies somewhere on this lost warship.

The French Navy, of course, still has a great love of Surcouf


Displacement:     3,250 long tons (3,300 t) (surfaced)
4,304 long tons (4,373 t) (submerged)
2,880 long tons (2,930 t) (dead)
Length:     110 m (361 ft)
Beam:     9 m (29 ft 6 in)
Draft:     7.25 m (23 ft 9 in)
Installed power:     7,600 hp (5,700 kW) (surfaced)
3,400 hp (2,500 kW) (submerged)
Propulsion:     2 × Sulzer diesel engines (surfaced)
2 × electric motors (submerged)
2 × screws
Speed:     18.5 knots (34.3 km/h; 21.3 mph) (surfaced)
10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph) (submerged)
Range:     Surfaced:
18,500 km (10,000 nmi; 11,500 mi) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph)
12,600 km (6,800 nmi; 7,800 mi) at 13.5 kn (25.0 km/h; 15.5 mph)
130 km (70 nmi; 81 mi) at 4.5 kn (8.3 km/h; 5.2 mph)
110 km (59 nmi; 68 mi) at 5 kn (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph)
Endurance:     90 days
Test depth:     80 m (260 ft)
Boats & landing craft carried:     1 × motorboat in watertight deck well
Capacity:     280 long tons (280 t)
Complement:     8 officers and 110 men
Armament:     2 × 203 mm (8 in) guns (1×2)
2 × 37 mm (1.46 in) anti-aircraft guns (2×1)
4 × 13.2 mm (0.52 in) anti-aircraft machine guns (2×2)
8 × 550 mm (22 in) torpedo tubes (14 torpedoes)
4 × 400 mm (16 in) torpedo tubes (8 torpedoes)
Aircraft carried:     1 × Besson MB.411 floatplane

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO)

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval lore http://www.warship.org/naval.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

I’m a member, so should you be!


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