What a great rack!

24 December 1939, France, likely while pierside in Brest, during the “Phony War” period of WWII: a theatre show by the Comédie-Française is given on Christmas Eve aboard the French aircraft carrier Béarn.

Réf. : MARINE 86-820 Jean Manzon/ECPAD/Défense

Note the Seaman 3rd class with his distinctive Bachi cap and Equipages de la Flotte crossed anchors insignia, standing solemn in front of a rack of a dozen or so rifles that look to be Berthier carbines and St. Etienne 8mm Model 1892 revolvers.

A better look at the revolvers locked into their racks with a padlock.

Converted from a canceled Normandie-class battleship in an effort to make lemonade out of lemons in the aftermath of the Washington Naval Treaty, Béarn was similar in concept to the massive battlewagons-turned-flattops conversions seen in the U.S. (USS Lexington and USS Saratoga) Britain (HMS Furious and HMS Glorious) and Japan (Akagi and Kaga) in the 1920s but was arguably the worst of its kind.

Planned French Normandie-class battleship became Bearn after Washington Treaty

With a shorter hull than her contemporaries, while the Americans and Japanese could pile 80-100 aircraft on each of their conversions, and the Brits could run as many as 50 on theirs, Béarn only had enough hangar and topside space for a 32-aircraft airwing– and often carried fewer than that. This was further aggravated by the fact that she was the Republic’s sole carrier, and would remain so for most of her career.

French cruiser Bearn, via Janes

Sure, she was still armed as a light cruiser with eight 6.1/50cal guns, replicating the “throw” of the new Duguay-Trouin class cruisers, as well as secondary and tertiary batteries for defense against aircraft and small boats, but who really expected a carrier to engage in a surface gun action?

Even when flattops had no other option than to try and duke it out– for example, the much out-gunned USS Gambier Bay in 1944 and HMS Glorious in 1940– it was always a bad idea. The fact that Béarn could only make 20 knots at a sprint meant she would have been in the same dead-end scenario had she encountered a German or Japanese heavy cruiser much less a battleship. 

Without much to do, Béarn spent most of the early stages of WWII in limited patrol and pilot training then was fortunate enough to be overseas on a trip to the U.S. to pick up aircraft when France fell. Diverted to the Vichy-held colony of Martinique, she languished there for most of the rest of the conflict, partially disarmed and sabotaged, only getting in the game in the last few months of the war.

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