Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Nov. 9, 2022: The Charging Frenchman of Casablanca
Above we see the French Duguay Trouin-class light cruiser Primauguet charging to her destruction against a much stronger American force outside of Casablanca during the Torch Landings, some 80 years ago this week. While the French Navy in WWII, and in particular the French Vichy forces, get kind of a backhanded bad wrap in English sources of the conflict as being milquetoast when it came to heroics, Primauguet is certainly the exception to that tired trope.
Lacking modern cruisers following the Great War and still saddled with far-flung colonies in the Pacific, Africa, the Americas, and the Indian Ocean, France began building several very similar classes of light cruisers for both commerce protection and “showing the flag.” Dusting off the circa 1912 La Motte-Picquet-class cruiser design that was never built, and blending it with lessons from the post-war American Omaha-class and British Emerald-class stiletto-hulled cruisers that did leave the drawing board, the French ordered the three Duguay-Trouin-class ships in 1922. The ships included Duguay-Trouin, Lamotte-Picquet and Primauguet.
Exceptionally light indeed, these 7,249-ton (standard) vessels on 604-foot-long hulls were lithe.
With a 1:10 beam-to-length ratio and a quartet of Parsons geared turbines driven by eight super-pressurized Guyot boilers, speed was their main defense. Designed with a top speed of 34.5 knots, which they could hit for an hour or so in testing. Primauguet herself logged 33.06 knots on a 6-hour speed trial in 1925, harvesting 116,849 shp while carrying a full load of fuel and stores. They also proved capable of steaming for a 24-hour period at 30 knots at half power. Meanwhile, they had comparatively short legs, only capable of 4,500nm of steaming at 15 knots.
When it came to armor, they had extraordinarily little but at least had 21 watertight compartments and were considered good seaboats. The smaller (557 foot, 6500t) training cruiser Jeanne d’Arc, laid down in 1928, used roughly the same hull form, a down-sized version of the Duguay-Trouin’s engineering suite which enabled 25 knots, and the same topside gun armament.
Their main armament was a full dozen 21.7-inch torpedo tubes in four triple mountings on deck amidships with 24 fish carried (12 loaded and 12 in the magazine). They also had two picket boats armed with 17.7-inch torpedoes as well. For anti-submarine defense, they carried depth charges.
Two single-engine floatplanes could be carried for the stern Penhoët-type air-powered catapult and it seemed the French used or evaluated at least a dozen distinct types of these across the mid-1920s through 1942 with mixed results. The country fielded no less than 50 assorted “Hydravion de reconnaissance” types in the first half of the 20th Century and I’ve seen or read of the Duguay-Trouin class with CAMS 37, Donnet-Denhaut, Loire 130 and 210, Gourdou-Leseurre GL-810/812/820 HY and GL-832, FBA 17 HL 2, Latecoere 298, and Potez 452 types aboard.
Primary gun armament was eight new 155 mm/50 (6.1″) Model 1920 rapid-fire guns arranged in four very narrow twin mounts (2 bow, 2 aft) and space for 1,220 shells in their magazines. Capable of firing a 124.6-pound HE or AP shell to 28,000 yards, the designed rate of fire was six rounds per minute per gun although the practical rate of fire was about half that. Secondary batteries were just four 3-inch AAA guns and four machine guns.
The Duguay Trouins proved the basis for French cruiser design throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.
As mentioned above, the type was shrunk down to create the training cruiser Jeanne D ‘Arc, and it was also upsized to make the first French heavy cruisers (croiseur de 1ere classe), the Duquesne and Tourville (10,000t std, 627 oal, 62 ft beam, 8×8″/50, 118,358.4 shp to make 34 knots). These Duquesne and Tourville used almost the same engineering suite (8 guyot boilers, 4 turbines, trunked through two funnels), the same thin bikini-style light armor plan that only covered gun magazines, deck, and the CT; arrangements for two scout planes on a single rear catapult, and the same 4×2 main gun arrangement for the main battery with torpedo tube clusters amidship. Then came the later heavy cruisers Suffern, Colbert, Foch, and Dupleix which were basically just the Duquesne class with slightly better armor arrangement in exchange for a lower speed.
Laid down at the Brest Arsenal on 16 August 1923, our cruiser was named after Hervé de Portzmoguer, a 15th-century pirate and privateer who was best known to history under the nom de guerre “Primauguet.”
A traditional French naval name, it had already been used by a brig and corvette in the early 19th century, a circa 1882 Laperouse-class protected cruiser, and a Great War fast troop transport.
Commissioned on April Fool’s Day 1927, she was immediately dispatched on a seven-month circumnavigation of the globe to show the flag, returning home at the end of the year.
Sent to the Indochina station in 1932, a common one for her class, she remained in East Asia until 1937 when she returned to metropolitan France.
She was designed to span the seven seas and she did that.
Once WWII broke out, based with the French Atlantic fleet out of Brest she sailed for a series of convoy protection missions and found herself protecting colonies and possessions in the West Indies in May 1940 when the Germans swept through the Low Countries. Once European Holland collapsed, Primauguet landed sailors and Marins in the Dutch Antilles to guard the Aruba oil fields for the Allies. Relieved by a British gunboat, she rushed to France just in time to participate in the evacuation of French forces from the mouth of the Gironde, one step ahead of the German advance, and took part of the Banque de France‘s gold reserves to Dakar in the French West African stronghold of Senegal, where she was when the French government capitulated.
Part of the Vichy-controlled fleet by default, she eventually made a sortie up the coast to Libreville where she was intended to operate with the cruisers Georges Leygues, Montcalm and Gloire against Free French forces only to have that operation fall apart once the British got involved and, by November 1941, was in Casablanca with Leygues, in desperate need of an overhaul.
She was still in reduced status when the Allies arrived in force off North Africa some 80 years ago this month for the Torch Landings.
The French got one heck of a shellacking from the combined Allied fleet, spearheaded by the U.S. Navy who brought the fleet carrier USS Ranger and four rapidly converted large oilers turned auxiliary carriers (Sangamon, Suwannee, Chenango, and Santee) along with three battleships (the old USS Texas and USS New York as well as the brand-new So Dak-class fast battlewagon USS Massachusetts). In the ~52-hour period between dawn on 8 November and noon on 10 November, the French Vichy fleet in North Africa, spread out between Casablanca, Oran, and Bizerte would lose:
The incomplete Richelieu-class battleship Jean Bart
The destroyers Albatros, Typhon, Epervier, Tramontane, Tornade, Milan, Frondeur, Fougueux, Boulonnais, and Brestois
The submarines Diane, Danae, Ariane, Oréade, Argonaute, Amphitrite, and Actéon
The minesweepers Surprise and Lilias
The submarine chasers V 88, P13, and Dubourdieu
The armed trawlers La Bonoise, L’Ajaccienne, La Setoise, La Toulonnaise, Sentinelle, and Chene
The tug Pigeon and Tourterelle
The cargo ships Spahi, Divona, Dahomey, Cambraisien, Ville du Havre, Saint Pierre, and Lipari
The ocean liners Savoie Marseille/Ile De Edienruder and Porthos
The tankers Saint Blaize and Ile D’Quessant
Oh yes, and Primauguet.
It wasn’t much of a fight, with the four operational carriers (Chenango carried Army P-40s on a ferry run), along with the serious spotter-plane corrected offshore gunline provided by 16-inch guns of USS Massachusetts and the eight-inch guns of the heavy cruisers USS Augusta, USS Wichita, and USS Tuscaloosa plastering the French vessels at their moorings or just as they tried to make to the sea. One of the latter was the subject of our warship Wednesday.
The U.S. Navy’s wartime ONI sheet on the Duguay Trouin class would describe their protection as “practically nil except for thin gun shields, splinter-proof conning tower, and double armored deck.” This, of course, was lifted word-for-word from previous Jane’s listings. They just weren’t made to take punishment, either in the form of 500-pound bombs, 8-inch shells, or 16-inch shells.
Even in her largely inoperable state, Primauguet was the largest French warship to get underway during the Allied invasion, and went out firing, although her short sortie ended in a literal blaze of glory.
As detailed by RADM Samuel Cox’s H-013-3 Operation Torch— The Naval Battle of Casablanca H-Gram:
At 1000, as the French destroyers bobbed and weaved in the smoke screen, the French light cruiser Primauguet sortied, and the Massachusetts and Tuscaloosa closed in on the destroyer action and one of them finally hit a French destroyer, the Fougueux, which blew up and sank. About the same time, the El Hank shore battery hit Augusta with an 8-inch round that fortunately did little damage. Shortly afterward, Massachusetts was almost hit by multiple torpedoes from an unidentified French submarine, while Tuscaloosa narrowly avoided four torpedoes from the French submarine Medusa, and Brooklyn dodged five torpedoes from the French submarine Amazone at the same time she and three U.S. destroyers were engaging the Primauguet and the remaining five French destroyers. At 1008, Brooklyn was hit by a dud shell, but got payback at 1112, when she hit the French destroyer Boulannais with a full salvo, causing her to roll over and sink.
By 1100, Massachusetts had expended 60 percent of her 16-inch shells and began to conserve ammunition as a hedge in the event the French naval forces at Dakar, West Africa (including the battleship Richelieu) showed up unexpectedly. By this time, the French ships’ luck had begun to run out under the hail of U.S. fire. The light cruiser Primauguet had been hit multiple times by Augusta and Brooklyn, including three hits below the waterline and one 8-inch hit on her number 3 turret, and she made a run for the harbor. The destroyer leader Milan had been hit five times and also made for port. The destroyer Brestois was also hit by Augusta and U.S. destroyers; she made it into the harbor, only to be strafed by Ranger aircraft and sank at the pier at 2100.
At 1115, the three remaining French ships, destroyer leader Albatross, and destroyers Frondeur and L’Alcyon formed up to conduct a coordinated torpedo attack on the U.S. cruisers, but the attack was broken up by Tuscaloosa and Wichita, although Wichita was hit by a shell from El Hank and had to dodge three torpedoes from a French submarine. Frondeur was hit aft, limped into port, and was finished off by strafing. Albatros was hit twice by shells, then by two bombs from Ranger aircraft and was left dead-in-the-water. Of the seven French surface combatants that sortied, only L’Alcyon returned to port undamaged.
At 1245, the French navy vessel La Grandier (Morison called it an “aviso-colonial” whatever that is, but it was said to resemble a light cruiser from a distance) and two coastal minesweepers sortied from Casablanca. Their mission was actually to rescue French survivors from the morning engagement, but their movement was interpreted as a threat. Two French destroyers that had not been engaged in the morning, the Tempête and Simoun, milled about smartly around the breakwater trying to lure U.S. ships back into range for El Hank, for which the U.S. ships had gained a healthy respect by this time. Augusta, Brooklyn, destroyers, and aircraft attacked the rescue ships, which managed to avoid being hit. In the meantime, a French tug came out and began to tow Albatros into port, but Ranger aircraft strafed, bombed, and forced Albatros to be beached. Ranger aircraft also repeatedly strafed the now grounded Milan and Primauguet. A direct bomb hit on Primauguet’s bridge killed the commanding officer, executive officer, and eight officers, and wounded Rear Admiral Gervais de Lafond.
Although the French had put up a spirited fight, and U.S. reports indicate admiration for their professionalism, the battle ended up very one-sided. The French scored one hit each on the Massachusetts, Augusta, Brooklyn, Ludlow, and Murphy, none of which caused major damage and only the three deaths on Murphy. The French also destroyed about 40 landing boats, most as a result of strafing by French aircraft in the early morning. The French lost four destroyers sunk, and the battleship Jean Bart disabled, the light cruiser Primauguet heavily damaged, burned out, and aground, and two destroyer leaders damaged and aground.
With a loss of about 90 of her reduced crew and twice as many wounded, Primauguet would burn all night. Her, wreck, along with the other Vichy French Navy and commercial ships in Casablanca harbor, would become well-documented by U.S. Naval forces in the coming days.
Eventually, Primauguet’s above-water structures were salvaged in 1951 and scrapped post-war while her hull was allowed to silt over. A UXO operation in 2001-02, conducted by a joint Moroccan-French team, penetrated her magazines and removed over 1,600 intact 6-inch and 75mm shells along with 251 cases of assorted power charges.
Her sister Lamotte-Picquet, in Indochinese waters since 1935, fought the Japanese-allied Thai Navy to a standstill at the oft-forgotten 1941 clash at Ko Chang. Laid up in 1942 in Saigon, she was sunk by the Allies in early 1945.
Class leader Duguay-Trouin, interned with the British in June 1940 in Alexandria, sat out the war until early 1943 when she was turned over to the Free French following the fall of the Vichy regime. Refitted by the Allies in time for the Dragoon Landings along the French Riveria in August 1944, she was ordered to Indochina after the war and participated in NGFS operations there against the Viet Minh insurgents until 1952.
Today, the museum ship USS Massachusetts carries the scars from two French shell hits received in the Battle of Casablanca. The first was a 7.9-inch shell from the El Hank shore battery that was fired at an estimated range of ~28,000 yards. The second was one of Primauguet’s 6-inchers.
At 1057, BIG MAMIE received a hit on the starboard quarter at Frame 85. The shell ricocheted from the deck and burst over 20 mm Group 13. A small fire caused by the burst was brought immediately under control by the Damage Control Repair party. No personnel casualties were sustained as personnel at group 13 had previously been shifted to the unengaged side. This hit was fired from the French cruiser Primauguet.
The French Navy remembered the name of the old pirate and the vessels that carried it into battle via the Georges Leygues (F70 type)-class frigate Primauguet, which was in service from 1986 through 2019.
Perhaps they will bring the name back one day.
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