Warship Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019: The Avenger of Toulon
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019: The avenger of Toulon
Here we see the Marine Nationale’s Bretagne (Brittany)-class dreadnought (cuirasse d’ escadre) Lorraine in Casablanca Harbor on 13 November 1943, when she was the only afloat French battleship in the world capable of fighting—a sobering thought when you remember that the country counted over 20 battleships in their fleet in WWI. Laid down in 1912 to mix it up with the potential battleships of the Italian, Austrian, and Imperial German fleets in the looming Great War, she ironically wound up facing her biggest challenges from fellow French guns three decades later.
The trio of Bretagne-class warships, at about 26,000-tons, was built on the same hulls of the previous French battleship class, the Courbets, but mounted a heavier broadside in the form of 12 34 cm/45 (13.4″) Model 1912 guns in six twin turrets as opposed to the Courbets’ dozen 305mm/45 Modèle 1910s. However, due to space limitations, this was later adjusted to five turrets mounting 10 guns.
She also carried 22 5.5-inch guns, some 3-pdrs on her fighting tops, and, like most battleships of the time, a quartet of torpedo tubes.
Laid down in April 1912 at At.&Ch de la Loire in St. Nazaire, Lorraine joined the French Navy 27 Jul 1916, which, as it turned out, was some two years into WWI.
Her sisters, Bretagne and Provence, were likewise tardy to the conflict. By the time they had become operational, Italy had switched her pre-war allegiance from Germany and Austria to the Allies, which effectively bottled up the Austro-Hungarians in the Adriatic. Likewise, the Germans were shut in the Baltic and were licking their wounds from Jutland and would never effectively sortie for a fleet action again.
With no one ready to fight the trio of powerful (for 1916) new French battleships, Provence was sidelined as a fleet flagship while Bretagne and Lorraine sailed for Corfu as part of the 1st Battle Squadron to lend their muscle to any Allied effort to smash the Austrians should they try to break out into the Med.
It was a low-morale job and the French fleet, who had lost almost a third of their personnel to shore up the Army’s losses on the Western front, were rife with discontent.
After the Austrian Kaiser left Vienna and turned over his vessels to the newly formed Yugoslav Navy in November 1918, Lorraine sailed for Cattaro to guard the former Austro-Hungarian fleet until it could be doled out as prize ships– of which the Yugoslavs received few. Lorraine was to sail for the Black Sea in March 1919 to take part in the Allied intervention in Russian during the Civil War there, but a series of paralyzing pro-Bolshevik (red flags and everything) mutinies in the French fleet (to include her sister Provence) forced a recall back home, where many of the rank-and-file were furloughed by the nearly bankrupt government.
Once peace broke out, the barely-used battleship spent the next 20 years in a series of reduced commissions (she went through at least four extensive refit/modernization periods between 1921 and 1935 alone, chalking up over 68 months in the yard), reserve status, and training cruises. During this time, some of her casemate guns were removed to free up weight, as were her torpedoes and amidships 13.4-inch turret (replaced by aviation facilities for spotting planes). Further, her coal-burning boilers were replaced by oil-fired ones, which raised both her speed and range.
All these improvements came as France was whittling their battleship force down considerably between the wars to meet the 175,000-ton mark (parable with Italy) set by the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922. The Republic started WWI with 16 pre-dreadnoughts and shed all of them in the 1920s. Of the four Courbet-class dreadnoughts, France was wrecked in 1922 and the other three relegated to hulks or training ships. The nine planned Normandie & Lyon class battleships were aborted with just one of the hulls, Bearn, converted to an aircraft carrier.
The result was that the Bretagne-class were the default heavy-hitters of the French Navy for the two solid decades from 1916 until 1936 when the new 35,000-ton Dunkerque and Strasbourg were completed.
When France once again found itself at war with the Germans in 1939, Bretagne and Provence were in Toulon with the 2nd Squadron, while Lorraine was assigned to the Atlantic Squadron. Sailing from Casablanca in November 1939, she took on a load of 1,500 boxes of gold (some 100 tons!) at Brest from the national treasury and took it across the Atlantic to Halifax, from where it was sent by rail to New York and later lent legitimacy to the Free French government in exile once the country got knocked out of the war.
Dubbed Operation Macaroni, Lorraine‘s “Force Z” was joined by several escorts in case she ran into German surface raiders or U-boats while in the North Atlantic. These included the light cruisers Marseillaise and Jean de Vienne, alongside the destroyers Aigle, Fortuné, Railleuse, Lion, and Simoun. On the way back across after making their deposit abroad, the task force escorted Allied merchantmen carrying war supplies to Europe.
Operating with the British from Alexandria in the Med after April 1940, she was in that port when the Blitzkrieg end-game was playing out at Dunkirk and the Third Republic was forced to negotiate their surrender to the Germans. Nonetheless, Lorraine was involved in one of the last French efforts of the period in support of the Allies when she sailed on 21 June along with the British light cruisers HMS Orion (VADM J.C. Tovey’s flagship), HMS Neptune, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney, and the destroyers HMAS Stuart, HMS Decoy, HMS Dainty, and HMS Hasty to conduct a bombardment of Italian positions around Bardia, Libya.
Lorraine fired 53 rounds of 13.4-inch and another 37 of 5.5-inch, credited with silencing an anti-aircraft battery in the area. It was her first shots in anger but would not be her last.
Less than two weeks later, the British ordered her disarmed and defueled, interning the vessel along with others in Alexandria in early July, as France had signed the armistice with Hitler at Compiegne. She was joined by the rest of French Adm. René-Émile Godfroy’s Force X: three 10,000-ton heavy cruisers (Duquesne, Tourville, Suffern), the 7,500-ton light cruiser Duguay-Trouin, the three torpedo boats Basque, Forbin, and Fortuné; and the submarine Protée. This effectively took a large portion of the French fleet out of the possibility of falling into German hands.
Sadly, on July 3, the British attacked their former allies, striking the French anchorage at Mers-el-Kébir where they sank Lorraine‘s sisters Bretagne and Provence as well as the new battleship Dunkerque. Bretagne was hit by several British 15-inch shells and exploded, killing most of her crew. Provence, also hit several times, burned, and settled on the harbor but did not explode. She would later be raised and patched up enough to sail for Toulon.
On the same day, the old French training battleships Paris and Courbet, then docked in Plymouth with evacuees aboard, were seized by the British as well and later used as barracks ships and targets. In effect, the only battleships left to the Republic on July 4, 1940, were the marginally functional Richelieu (which the British tried repeatedly to sink at Dakar) and the incomplete Jean Bart in Casablanca, as well as Strasbourg and the wrecked Provence at Toulon.
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, half of Godfroy’s 4,000 men chose to be repatriated to France after the indignation of Mers-el-Kébir and were in turn sent to nearby Beirut, then under Vichy control. The remainder of the Alexandria-interned vessels, Lorraine included, remained there under a British flag as impounded “Vichy” ships, while the Crown picked up their remaining crews’ pay– for three years!
Fast forward to Torch Landings in French North Africa in November 1942, which triggered the Germans move into Vichy, France, and “The Boche” occupied the French Mediterranean naval base at Toulon, but not before the French scuttled what was left of their fleet there, sending Strasbourg and the repaired Provence to the bottom:
On 30 May 1943, the three French dreadnoughts in Allied control– Lorraine in Alexandria, the battered Jean Bart in Casablanca, and Richelieu in Dakar– finally came over to De Gaulle’s Free French side and were rearmed. While JB and Richelieu were in no condition to fight and sailed for the U.S. to be repaired/completed, Lorraine was able to join the effort against the Axis more quickly and was, at the time, the only combat-capable French battleship anywhere in the world (although just four of her 13.4-inch guns could be made functional again.) Luckily, the long-ago hulked Paris and Courbet, in possession of the Brits since 1940, provided some spare parts as the three vessels shared much machinery.
Up-armed with 14 40mm Bofors and 25 20mm Oerlikons for AAA protection, her crew–most of which had left during her stint in Alexandria, to either return home or fight for De Gaulle– were reformed and retrained. She also ditched her aviation facility as cut off from French suppliers, her seaplanes could no longer be supported.
By August 1944, she was part of the Allied fleet aiming to liberate Southern France, Operation Dragoon. Largely due to the tough nut that was the Normandy invasion on D-Day, Dragoon gets lost in the history books, but have no mistake that it was no lay-up.
Importantly to the Free French, Lorraine was in the thick of the liberation of both Toulon and Marseilles. Of note, the Cross of Lorraine was the symbol of De Gaulle’s forces.
Operating in conjunction with Kingfisher floatplanes from the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser USS Quincy (CA-71) correcting her shot, Lorraine was part of TG 86.4, consisting of the fellow battlewagons USS Nevada and Texas, the cruisers Augusta, Cincinnati (CL-6), Marblehead (CL-12), Omaha (flagship), Philadelphia, Georges Leygues and Montcalm, and large French destroyers Le Fantasque, Le Malin, and Le Terrible. Starting on 18 August, Nevada, Lorraine, and Augusta shelled the harbor and batteries at Saint-Mandrier-Sur-Mer and Cap Sicié. where they also engaged the floating wreck of the German-held battleship Strasbourg, hitting the ex-French battleship aft and causing her to list to starboard in the Bay of Lazaret.
Lorraine and Quincy in tandem fired at hard-to-kill Target J-15 (Y-856/973), a German railway battery, silencing it.
Then came a running fight with emplaced two 13.4-inch guns from the French battleship Provence, Lorraine‘s old sister, on the fortified crest of the headland on Cap Cépet, not far from the village and naval arsenal at Saint-Mandrier-Sur-Mer, overlooking the approaches to Toulon.
Nevada, Ramillies, Lorraine, Augusta, Philadelphia, Aurora, Émile Bertin, Georges Leygues, Quincy, and Montcalm all fought the well-defended 13.4-inch battery at times over the next week, 19–26 August 1944, with Lorraine taking a break on 21 August to fire the first shots in the actual attack on Toulon itself. The big 13.4-inch battery, which had one of its guns knocked out by the Allied ships, eventually surrendered at the orders of German Konteradmiral Heinrich Ruhfus, who commanded the garrison in the Toulon area, on 28 August.
As noted by DANFS:
“Bombs and shells plowed the ground around the turret, and French ordnance specialists investigated the position after the Germans capitulated and noted that the larger craters carved out by the heavy naval gunfire stood out compared to the bombing impact holes. When Contre-Amiral André-Georges Lemonnier, the French Navy’s chief of staff, questioned one of the battery’s officers, the German told him that the shelling stunned many of his gunners and they refused to man the guns during the final stages of the battle.”
Lorraine was the first Allied ship into Toulon.
Following the fall of Toulon, our aging French battlewagon went on to plaster the Germans at Sospel, Castillon, Carqueiranne, and Saint-Tropez for the first two weeks of September until the fighting moved into the interior. She then got to take a few months off and refit.
In one of the last battles in Europe during WWII, Lorraine was made the biggest hitter in the 10-ship task force assigned to Operation Vénérable, a mission to rout the remaining German holdouts from the approaches of Brittany in April 1945, where they had been bypassed in 1944 and lingered on even after the Soviets were fighting in Berlin.
It was largely a French naval operation, with our battleship joining the heavy cruiser Duquesne, destroyers Alcyon, Basque and Fortuné, destroyer escort Hova, frigates Aventure, Decouverteand Surprise, and sloop Amiral Mouchez, in support of the “Black Panthers” of the U.S. 66th INF Div. and the French 2ème Division Blindé.
Festung Girondemündung Nord, on the north bank of the Gironde estuary on the Bay of Biscay, which had four 240mm/50 Modèle 1902 guns taken off the old Danton class semi-dreadnought Condorcet following the scuttling of the French fleet at Toulon in late November 1942. Commanded by Konteradmiral Hans Michahelles, the position was held largely by Kriegsmarine sailors acting as infantry, namely the unit formed by the destroyermen of the 8. Zerstörer-Flottille sunk in the 1940 Norway campaign, Marine-Bataillon Narvik. Starting her bombardment on 14 April, in conjunction with massive airstrikes, Lorraine and company reduced the fortress by 20 April, when Michahelles threw in the towel.
The war in Europe only had 18 more days.
During Venerable, Lorraine fired 236 13.4-inch shells, 192 5.5-inch shells, and 538 75-mm shells
One of only three French battleships to make it through the war, Lorraine served as gunnery training vessel from June 1945, then as an accommodation hulk, and was only finally stricken in February 1953 after giving 37 hard years to both the Third and Fourth Republics, while politely refusing to take part in that whole Vichy thing.
She was sold before the end of the year and towed to Brégaillon outside Toulon in January 1954 where she was broken up for scrap.
Today, Toulon is still the main home of the French Navy, including the flagship carrier, Charles de Gaulle (R91).
Normal: 23,230 metric tons (22,860 long tons), 25,000 fl
Length: 544 ft 7 in
Beam: 88 ft 3 in
Draft: 32 ft 2 in
4 shafts, Parsons steam turbines, 29,000 shp (22,000 kW)
24 Bellville coal-fired water-tube boilers with oil spray
4, shafts, steam turbines, 43,000 shp
16 Indret high-pressure oil-fired boilers
Speed: 20 knots as-built, 21.4kts after 1931
Range: 4,700 nmi at 10 knots on 2,700 tons coal +300t oil (as designed)
5 × 2 – 340mm, 13.4″/45cal Modèle 1912 guns, 100 rds. per gun
22 × 1 – 138.6 mm, 5.5″/ 55cal Mle 1910 guns, 275 rounds per gun
7 × 1 – 47-millimetre (1.9 in) guns
4 × 450 mm (18 in) torpedo tubes
4 × 2 – 340mm/45 Modèle 1912M guns (only four working after 1940)
12 × 1 – 138.6 mm, 5.5″/ 55cal Mle 1910 guns, 275 rounds per gun
4 x 2 – 100/45
4 x 1 – 75/63 M1908 AA
14 x 1 40mm/56cal Bofors singles
25 x 20mm/70cal Oerlikon singles
Belt: 270 mm (11 in)
Decks: 40 mm (1.6 in)
Conning tower: 314 mm (12.4 in)
Turrets: 250–340 mm (9.8–13.4 in)
Casemates: 170 mm (6.7 in)
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