Warship Wednesday, March 29, 2023: The Republic’s Lightning

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, March 29, 2023: The Republic’s Lightning

Naval History and Heritage Command NH 64202

Above we see the French torpedo boat cruiser (croiseur porte-torpilleurs) Foudre (Lightning) circa 1901 with a half-inflated free balloon on her quarter deck and numerous 59-foot steam-powered torpedo boats arranged in her complicated gantry system. About as interesting a warship as has taken to the waves, Foudre would be a chameleon of sorts when it came to naval technology, all of which has sadly been almost forgotten.

Torpedo Boat Carrier Race

In 1878, the Royal Navy purchased the incomplete merchant steamer British Crown (Yard 7A, C7) while on the builder’s ways at Harland & Wolff in Belfast. The 390-foot, 6,400-ton iron-hulled merchantman was originally to be a cargo hauler, but her owner ran into physical limitations before she could be completed. The Admiralty picked her up for a bargain and converted her to HMS Hecla, a new type of experimental “torpedo depot ship and floating factory” that would carry and support a series of at least four small 2nd class torpedo boats.

Besides her torpedo boats, she was given enough topside armament to be considered a small cruiser. This included five 6.32-inch (64pdr) MLRs and a 4-inch (40pdr) breechloader, along with enough small arms to send a company-sized force of Tars ashore.

HMS Hecla (British Torpedo Depot Ship, 1878) Note torpedo boats on deck. NH 60288

Lessons from Hecla’s service led the Admiralty in 1888 to order from the Portsmouth Dockyard a more purpose-built “enhanced Hecla type” a 350-foot 6,820-ton steamer dubbed HMS Vulcan. Much faster (20 knots vs 12 knots) than Hecla, Vulcan could also carry more than twice the number of boats (9) while mounting a very decent armament of eight 4-inch QF guns, 12 Hotchkiss 3 pounders, and six torpedo tubes for Mr. Whitehead’s deadly steel fish. Also, unlike the unprotected Hecla, Vulcan carried an armored conning tower as well as up to four inches of plate over her machinery spaces.

H.M. steel twin-screw torpedo depot ship Vulcan

The TBs used by the two British carriers were a class of one dozen wooden-hulled craft (WTB Nos. 1-12) of some 56 feet and 14 tons that carried either a pair of 14-inch torpedoes in dropping gear or one in a centerline tube and a couple of Mr. Maxim’s water-cooled machine guns. Essentially steam-powered picket boats that carried a single locomotive boiler, they were among the largest carried by RN warships for launching via davits.

Between Hecla and Vulcan, it was thought the Royal Navy could use the vessels to set up an instant blockade of an enemy seaport or coastline, or deploy to a disputed land and establish a working naval base virtually upon arrival. Alternatively, they could be used to raid an enemy roadstead at night, with the cruisers closing to within 15 miles or so just after sunset, putting their boats in the water, then retrieving the survivors after the attack and beating feet as soon as possible after the attack.

Enter Foudre

With such a capability out there in British hands, the French moved to field a similar vessel in 1890, ordering Foudre from Soc de la Gironde, Bordeaux.

Some 389 feet overall, she hit the scales at 6,000 tons (full). Powered by twin VTEs fed by a staggering 24 boilers, she could make 19.5 knots at least on trials.

Swathed in Harvey nickel steel armor up to five inches thick, she had a decent gun armament of eight 4-inch M1891s located one fore, one aft, and six in sponsons, as well as two batteries of smaller anti-boat guns.

She carried eight 100/45 M1891 Canet guns in shields

However, her boats were her main battery.

A closer inset of NH 64202, the first image in the post, shows two of Foudre’s embarked Type A torpedo boats under the gantry with their funnels folded down.

The French had six old torpilleur-vedette spar boats but wanted something better. This led to ordering designs from Thibaudier & Normand domestically with seven built at Creusot (Lettered A, B, D-I) and Yarrow in England, with the latter being a single boat (Letter C) constructed of an early Webster’s process aluminum. The fact that they were lettered set them easily apart, as the more than 200 larger torpedo boats in the French Navy, capable of independent operations, were all numbered. 

Their length was 59 feet overall with a single stern-mounted 14-inch torpedo tube (with no reloads) oriented to fire either over the port side just off-center for banking shots at an enemy ship or downward from the bow.

Taking on a torpedo

Note the downward-sloped bow tube

Note the folding funnel and detail of the slanted bow tube

Other than the torpedo, the boats had no other armament to save weight. Speed on these boats was a paltry 16 knots with a range of about 100 miles, a performance that was largely in the hands of how effectively the vessels’ seven-man crew worked their boiler.

The difference in weight between the Creusot boat (11.5 tons) and the Yarrow-built aluminum craft (9.5 tons) was significant. However, the English boat was a failure due to electrolytic action with the salt water.

Yarrow built torpilleur-vedette a embarquer “C” for the torpedo boat cruiser Foudre. Note the offset funnel to allow for the slanted topside tube, and the armored wheelhouse, clad in a 4mm plate to protect the skipper and helmsman. She used a hull skin and frames of aluminum from 1mm to 5mm thick. Via Feb. 1895 Cassier’s drawing.

Foudre would be completed and enter service in September 1897 and based at Toulon, would spend the next four years in a series of fleet operations and experiments.

A great clear shot of her around 1900. NH 63905

And during balloon trials off Toulon in 1901. Note her forward 4-inch gun

It was discovered that her boats were so large and unwieldy that they proved hard to launch rapidly, or in any sea state, while conversely, they were too small and slow to prove much practical value in anything more than coastwise operations. This led Foudre to be laid up by 1902 after just a few years of service.

But don’t worry, the French soon found many other uses for her.

Sub-transport and conversion

Recommissioned in March 1904, she had her aft gantry works removed and, with four of her old torpedo boats loaded forward and the newly built small (70 tons, 2×17.7 inch tubes) Naiade-class submarines Lynx (Q23) and Protee (Q16) aft, sailed for Saigon in French Indochina where she disembarked the menagerie.

1904 with Lynx and Protee aboard under canvas

1904 with Lynx and Protee aboard. Note the white “colonial” scheme

She would repeat the trip the following year with the subs Perle (Q17) and Esturgeon (Q18) and four more TBs.

Finished with her Asian excursions, Foudre was reclassified as a floating repair ship in 1907 and then converted to become a minelayer in 1910, although she was also used to transport troops back and forth from Africa.

“Foudre will transport the troups of the Armée d ‘Afrique to France. 2-6-10” Note her gantries are gone and the forward deck house is much more visible.

Likewise, her British counterparts, HMS Hecla and Vulcan, would be soon converted from their primary mission into becoming submarine and destroyer tenders.

To the skies!

A pet project of the forward-looking VADM Auguste Boué de Lapeyrère, who had fought with the Marines ashore against the Germans as a cadet in 1870 and then later commanded the torpedo boat Volta in its fight against the Chinese sloop Fou-Sing in 1884, Foudre set her mine warfare role aside and soon became part of the budding Aéronavale, the French Navy’s air arm.

Long experimenting with balloons, by December 1911 she had become a full-fledged seaplane carrier capable of transporting, launching, and recovering up to four small floatplanes. This included large (30×15-foot) on-deck hangars, below-deck workshops, and cranes to lift the aircraft aboard and down to the sea.

This feat made her the first seaplane carrier in history, predating the British HMS Hermes and the seaplane antics aboard USS Mississippi by over a year, and the Japanese Wakamiya by nearly three.

Her arrangement as a seaplane carrier. Note she still has her stern 4-inch gun but her forward has been removed and she now has a large hangar center deck. Her forward deck house has been deleted as well. 

In the summer of 1912, she supported trials of the Voisin Canard (Duck) amphibie floatplane, equipped with Fabre floats, under the control of aviation pioneer LT Pierre Cayla. Foudre’s skipper at the time was Capt. (later VADM) Louis Fatou.

Cayla would later go on to lead the 1re Escadrille de Bombardement on the successful attack on the Pechelbronn oil complex in 1915, one of the first practical uses of strike aircraft, and earn the Legion D’Honneur.

In November 1913, she had a 113×24-foot wooden deck installed to launch a small single-seat Caudron G.3 biplane. Powered by an 80hp Rhone engine, the G.3 was light, with just a 1,600-pound maximum loaded weight, but could carry a small bomb.

Boarding a Caudron G.3 Type J on the Foudre. Note the hole cut in the wings for the lifting hook

Boarding a Caudron G.3 Type J on the Foudre. Note the hole cut in the wings for the lifting hook

She conducted at least one take-off of the aircraft from her deck on 8 May 1914, with Rene Caudron at the stick.

While this was four years after Eugene Ely’s historic flight in his Curtiss pusher airplane from the cruiser USS Birmingham at Hampton Roads, it was a first for the French.


Jane’s 1914 entry on Foudre.

Soon after the Great War began, Foudre landed her aircraft ramp, thus ending her G.3 operations, and joined the fleet as a sort of do-all vessel deployed to the eastern Med. In this work, she clocked in as an auxiliary cruiser, a troop transport, a tender and depot ship for seaplanes, destroyers, and submarines; and basically, any other mission that came up.

She was attached to the allied fleet for the Dardanelles operations and in October 1915 evacuated 4,000 Armenian refugees from Antioch to Port Said, thus helping to document the genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans.

By 1916, she was a floating headquarters and depot ship for the Armée d ‘Orient, the French expeditionary corps in Salonika, and would continue in that role for the remainder of the conflict.

Post-Armistice, she was heavily involved in occupation duties in the former Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian regions. A floating ship of state to protect the Republic’s interests everywhere from Syria to the Adriatic. 

The French torpedo boat carrier Foudre (L. 1895) at Spalato (Split, Yugoslavia), in 1919. NH 64205

After the war, she was used as an aviation school ship.

By August 1921, the former torpedo boat carrier/submarine transport/repair ship/minelayer/aircraft carrier/headquarters ship was retired and scrapped.


Little of the old Foudre still exists, other than a collection of period postcards, some of which used early photoshop techniques to overlay assorted airplanes. 

Since then, the French have recycled her name for an American-built Casa Grande-class landing ship dock (A646, ex HMS Oceanway) that was active in the 1950s and 60s.

TCD Foudre (A646) moored on the Saigon River, French Indochina in 1955. Note the F4U Corsairs on her deck. Built at Newport News in 1942-43, she was Lend Leased to the Royal Navy as HMS Oceanway (F-143) and landed U.S. troops on Omaha Beach on D-Day. The French operated her from 1952 to 1969. Photo: Georges Demichelis via Navsource.

The name was used again as the class leader (L9011) of a similar type of LPD that served the French Navy from 1990 through 2011. As LPDs are every bit the same sort of “all things to all people” multitool that our Great War era Foudre was, the logic is obvious.

TCD Foudre (L9011). The ship now serves in the Chilean Navy.

Ships are more than steel
and wood
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
them know
That some ships have a

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

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.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.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO, has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships, you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

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 )

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.