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 time period and will profile a different ship each week.

– Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday,  April 24


Here we see one of that 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...

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

The submarine that carried the name of this often forgotten sea dog was ordered 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.

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 the 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 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 for 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 on-board 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 standing room was almost unheard of unless the submariner was 5′ 2″, she 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 Admiral Muselier and his three small gunboats, which combined were less than half the warship that the submarine was.


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 turned about and follow along side. 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 in 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 3000-feet deep and has never been found. She was announced lost 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 lie somewhere on this lost warship.


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!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as Guns.com, University of Guns, Outdoor Hub, Tac-44, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the U.S. federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

2 responses to “Warship Wednesday, April 24 Surcouf!”

  1. Eric Gill says :

    Under the Surcouf article, the black and white image of the boat underway is actually from the Japanese movie “Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean”. The featured ship is a sub, design inspired by Surcouf by definitely not identical.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Station HYPO

Celebrating the Past, Present and Future of Navy Cryptology

National Guard Marksmanship Training Center

Official site for National Guard marksmanship training and competitions


Better to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble.

Yokosuka Sasebo Japan

The U.S. Navy and the Western Pacific

The Writer in Black

News and views from The Writer in Black

Stephen Taylor, WW2 Relic Hunter

World War 2 Historian, Relic Hunter and expert in identification of WW2 relics

USS Gerald R. Ford

Mission Ready, Qualified & Competent, On Time Execution!

The Unwritten Record

Exploring History with the National Archives Special Media Division

Stuff From Hsoi

Writing about whatever interests me, and maybe you.

Louisville Gun

Thoughts and Musings on Gun Control & Crime


Identifying the Best Training, Tools, and Tactics for the Armed Civilian!


Nous Defions!

Under Every Leaf.

A Site for the British Empire 1860-1913


Military wings and things

Western Rifle Shooters Association

You already live in a socialist country, and the large majority of your fellow FUSAns are Reds.

%d bloggers like this: