Tag Archives: Sword Beach

Warship Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022: Ozzie Bird Boat

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, Jan. 26, 2022: Ozzie Bird Boat

RAN Photo

Here we see something of an ugly duckling, the Royal Australian Navy’s seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross in Hobart around 1930 with five of her six early Supermarine Seagull amphibians aloft. She is considered by many to be the first aircraft carrier of the RAN, sparking a tradition that endures almost a century later.

Purpose-built for her role at the Cockatoo Docks, she was the size of a small cruiser, weighing some 7,000-tons (full load) on a 444-foot long steel hull. She was the largest ship built in dominion at the time. Powered by a quartet of Yarrow boilers driving a pair of Parsons steam turbines, she could make 22.5 knots which was reasonably fast for the age. She carried four QF 4.7-inch Mk VIII naval guns with two forward and two over her stern as well as a variety of Vickers 40mm pom-poms and .303-caliber machine guns, equivalent to a decently armed destroyer.

However, her primary purpose and armament was her airwing of up to nine (six active, three stowed in reserve) floatplanes or amphibians. These would augment and support the RAN’s two planned new Kent (County) class heavy cruisers, HMAS Australia (I84/D84/C01) and HMAS Canberra (I33/D33), who would also carry the same type of catapult-launched/crane recovered seaplanes as Albatross. In fact, it was felt that Albatross could operate in conjunction with those two cruisers in the Pacific, with the seaplane carrier forward deploying to anticipated areas in advance of the more capable surface ships to screen their operations with her aircraft. Besides, her cruise speed was the same rate as the warships. 

Her aviation facilities included safe stowage of 9,967 gallons of avgas– enough for at least 80 sorties for the planned floatplanes she would carry– a large forward hangar space, a centerline black powder catapult that launched over the bow, and two (later three) large cranes capable of lifting aircraft aboard.

The 1931 Jane’s entry for Albatross.

She was a much-updated revised design of the first seaplane/aircraft carrier, the Great War-era HMS Ark Royal.

Albatross, the only Australian warship ever named for the large and iconic seabird, was laid down in 1926 and commissioned on 23 January 1929.

The launch of the Royal Australian Navy’s first seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross on 23 February 1928 at Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney. Australian National Maritime Museum’s Samuel J. Hood Studio collection. Object no. 00035168

It was originally thought Albatross would carry and operate RAN’s fleet of six Fairey 111D seaplanes, which they had received starting in 1921. One was awarded the Britannia Trophy in 1924 by the Royal Aero Club for circumnavigating Australia in 44 days.

The Fairey III could carry up to 500 pounds of bombs as well as two .303 guns. When used in a pure recon role, sans bombs, they had a 1,500-mile range on 123 gals of gas, which was long legged for the 1920s. Here are IIIFs floatplanes of No. 47 Squadron on the Blue Nile at Khartoum before departing for a series of exploratory flights over Southern Sudan on 8 July 1930. The aircraft pictured are J9796, J9809, and J9802. RAF MOD Image 45163722

However, the Supermarine Seagull III, an amphibian design by Reginald Joseph Mitchell— father of the Spitfire– superseded the Fairy floatplane before Albatross entered the fleet, with nine of the flying boats delivered by 1927. Able to remain aloft for five-hour patrols, the Seagull III was the direct antecedent of the Walrus (Seagull V), one of the best amphibians of WWII. 

As explained by the Fleet Air Arm Association of Australia in reference to the Seagull III:

A total of nine of these aircraft were delivered to the RAAF 101 Fleet Cooperation Flight, who worked closely with the RAN. Of the nine, two were wrecked in (separate) storms whilst at mooring, one crashed after entering a spin during a gunnery spotting exercise (fatal) and six survived for eventual retirement.

Six Seagulls were attached to HMAS Albatross in 1929, but their low freeboard and relatively low powered engine gave poor performance at sea, including the ability to only operate in relatively low sea states.

Wings folded, a Seagull Mk III is lowered onto the foredeck of “Australia’s first aircraft carrier,” the seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross, RAN 1929-1938. Notes on photo: HMAS CERBERUS Museum. It has been kindly made available to the Unofficial RAN Centenary 1911-2011 photo stream courtesy of the Curator, Warrant Officer Martin Grogan RANR. The photo also appears in Topmill Pty Ltd book ‘Aircraft Carriers and Squadrons of the Royal Australian Navy [Topmill, Sydney] edited by Johnathan Nally, p8; also, in Ross Guillett’s book ‘Wings Across the Sea [Aerospace Publications, Canberra 1988] p33.

A great image showing much detail of Albatross’s amidships as she lifts a Seagull Mk III aboard. Note the Naval Number 0 five-cross flag flying, and her two deck guns sandwiched among her cranes. Image via State Library of NSW

A Seagull III amphibian moored in calm water via FAAA

Note the 4.7-inch guns, which surely proved a hassle to plane operations. Nonetheless, she would use them for NGFS at Normandy. 

Although she never operated with more than nine aircraft, measurements of her hangar deck allowed for as many as 14 folded Seagulls.

Albatross’s RAN career was not lengthy, with LCDR Geoffrey B Mason RN (Rtd)’s Naval History Homepage detailing that she completed trials and workups in 1929 to include embarking the Governor-General and wife for a visit to the Australian Mandated Territories in the Pacific then completed a series of local deployments. The next couple of years were spent in a cycle of winter cruises to the New Guinea area, spring cruises in coastal Australian waters, and various fleet exercises.

HMAS Albatross seen at the fleet exercise area in Hervey Bay, Queensland, “we think this image may have been taken around 1931.” Photo: Collection of the late CPO Bill Westwood, courtesy John Westwood, RANR 1965-1967. 

HMAS Albatross craning an amphibian aboard.

HMAS Albatross maneuvering away from Garden Island dockyard (RAN image)

HMAS Albatross. State Library of Victoria – Allan C. Green collection

She was a very beamy ship

Two Supermarine Seagull III amphibians taxi near HMAS Albatross at Hervey Bay, QLD. (RAN image)

In April 1933, her Seagulls were disembarked, and the vessel was reduced to reserve status, used occasionally to tend visiting seaplanes. While in reserve in 1936 she was briefly reactivated for the installation and testing of a new catapult then returned to storage.

In 1937, the Australian government brokered a deal to swap the still very young and low-mileage Albatross to the British Admiralty in partial payment for the recently completed Leander-class light cruiser HMS Apollo, soon to be the HMAS Hobart (D63). The cruiser arrived in Australia at the end of 1938– and went on to earn eight battle honors for her WWII service: “Mediterranean 1941”, “Indian Ocean 1941”, “Coral Sea 1942”, “Savo Island 1942”, “Guadalcanal 1942”, “Pacific 1942–45”, “East Indies 1940”, and “Borneo 1945,” while Albatross, recommissioned 19 April 1938, waved goodbye to Sydney for the last time that July.

HMAS Albatross about 1938, likely on her way to England. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Meet HMS Albatross

Arriving at Portsmouth in September 1938, Albatross was paid off by the Australians and officially transferred to the Royal Navy, a force that promptly put her in reserve with a wartime mission being to provide air surveillance with a force of Walrus amphibians. Her reserve time would be short, as she was fully manned and commissioned as HMS Albatross in June 1939 on the lead-up to Hitler marching into Poland.

Outfitted with six (later nine) Walruses of 710 Naval Air Squadron, she was dispatched in September 1939 to West Africa with a homeport at Freetown– along with visits to Bathurst in the Gambia and French naval base at Dakar– tasked with searching for German blockade runners, U-boats, and commerce raiders plying the South Atlantic.

Artwork, Supermarine Walrus MKI RN FAA 710NAS 9F HMS Albatross W2771. Note the Walrus was a pusher type rather than the Seagull III’s tractor type, and had an enclosed cabin.

HMS ALBATROSS (FL 3052) Underway, coastal waters. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205120269

When France fell in June 1940, Albatross carried Jutland veteran RADM George Hamilton D’Oyly Lyon (CiC Africa Station) to Dakar to try and negotiate the neutralization of the French Fleet there, and her aircraft shadowed the incomplete but still dangerous battleship, Richelieu.

Except for a brief refit in Mobile, Alabama, Albatross would maintain her quiet Freetown outpost station for 31 months until, fresh from her Dixie overhaul, she was assigned to the East Indies Station in May 1942 for trade defense against the Japanese and long-ranging German and Italian raiders/submarines.

Notably, she detached one of her planes at Trinidad (Supermarine Walrus W2738 9A ‘Audrey III’), designated 710 NAS ‘Y’ Flight, which proceeded to the Falklands to provide that island chain its sole air defense/patrol asset for the first part of 1942 against the (remote) possibility of a Japanese naval assault on the windswept South Atlantic colony. 

After sailing around the Cape of Good Hope with convoy WS18– and dodging Axis minefields– she was soon part of South African-born RADM Edward Syfret’s Force H for Operation(s) Ironclad/Stream Line Jane, the seizure of the Vichy French colony of Mayotte, the port of Diego-Suarez, and the island of Madagascar, where the Japanese hoped to base long-ranging Kaidai-type submarines.

The extended Madagascar operation was a sideshow, historically significant as it was the first British amphibious assault since the disastrous landings in the Dardanelles in 1915. During the seven-month campaign, Albatross provided care and feeding for her pack of 710 NAS Walruses used in ASW patrols against Japanese RADM Noboru Ishizaki’s 8th Submarine Squadron and five locally-based Vichy subs as Syfret had the large the aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Indomitable— equipped with a mix of Martlets, Albacores, and Swordfish– for heavy lifting and to cover the landings themselves.

Embarrassingly, the old battleship HMS Ramillies was heavily damaged while in the “protected” Diego-Suarez harbor at the end of May after Japanese midget submarines, launched from IJN I-16 and I-20, penetrated the layered defenses.

USN ONI image of Albatross 1942 with a CVS (carrier, anti-submarine) designation

Post-Madagascar, Albatross would continue her Indian Ocean service as a headquarters and combined operations training ship at Bombay until July 1943 when, as the Japanese threat to the region had receded, she was sent back to European waters. The Walruses of 710 Squadron were put ashore at Kilindini and ferried to Nairobi before the ship sailed without aircraft, the squadron disbanding at RNAS Lee-on-Solent soon after arrival.

Arriving at Devonport in September, Albatross was paid off for conversion from a seaplane tender to a floating repair ship, a change that included the removal of her catapult and forward main armament while her hangar space was converted to workshops. As she would be sent in harm’s way still, a Type 286 air search radar was fitted as was a half dozen Oerlikons.

Assigned to Force S for the upcoming Operation Neptune, the RN’s support of the D-Day landings at Normandy, she was part of the huge invasion fleet on 6 June 1944 on “The Longest Day.” Her role would be to help install and tend the Gooseberry 5 (Sword Beach) breakwater while plying her repair services there for small craft.

She had a busy month, as noted by Mason, logging an air attack from a German Me109, taking shore fire that killed one rating, providing naval gunfire support and AAA defense of the anchorage, surviving the infamously fierce gale of 19 June, and saving 79 craft from total loss while enabling 132 others to resume service off the beachhead.

By July, Albatross was given a short break to resupply and was then back at it, working repairs off Juno Beach. There, in the pre-dawn darkness of 11 August, she was hit by a new type of German long-range/low-speed circling torpedo– a G7e/TIIID Dackel (dachshund) fired by S-boats (S79, S97, and S177 engaged in the attack, with 10 torpedos fired) of out of Le Harve that killed 66 men and left her with a 15-degree list.

Towed to Portsmouth by a “Free Dutch” salvage tug, Albatross spent most of the remainder of the war under repair with the eye to keep her around as a minesweeper tender. However, as the conflict soon wound down, on 3 August 1945 she was paid off to the reserve and laid up at the Isle of Wright.

Post War career

Placed on the Disposal List in 1946, she was sold to the South Western Steam Navigation Company for continued merchant use. Initially named SS Pride of Torquay in line with a plan to convert her to a floating casino by the Chatham Dockyards, in October 1948 she was bought at auction by the Greek-owned China Hellenic Lines, and she soon became SS Hellenic Prince, ostensibly to recognize the birth of Prince Charles in November, himself the son of Greek nobility, WWII-naval veteran Prince Phillip. Her bread and butter would be to carry World War II refugees to new lives abroad.

SS Hellenic Prince

Reuben Goossens, who details the lives of classic 20th Century liners, has an interesting page covering Hellenic Prince’s short career with the CHL and Pacific Salvage Co. Ltd, which included turning “migrant voyages into a living hell” from Europe to Australia that included allegations of mutiny and a stint as a troopship taking Commonwealth ground forces to Kenya to fight the Mau Mau.

He notes this about the vessel:

The completed 6.558 GRT (Gross Registered Tons) SS Hellenic Prince was certainly no luxury liner, was able to accommodate up 1,200 persons in 200 cabins and dormitories with up to 20 persons, as well some eight and some 4 bunk cabins all having the most basic of facilities, yet all accommodations were fully air-conditioned. The spacious Dining Room seated 560 persons and this venue at certain times also was used as a lounge area, for there were no formal lounges, but there were two Cinemas for entertainment. In the three bays of her hangar deck there were three separate Hospitals – one for men, one for women, and an isolation Ward for sick children who would most likely have come out of one of the concentration camps of post-war Europe.

SS Hellenic Prince (former HMAS Albatross), in rough condition, between 1949 and 1951. State Library of Victoria.

Sold to a British Ship-breaker in 1954, ex-HMAS/HMS Albatross was broken up in Hong Kong where she arrived in tow on 12th August 1954. As far as I can tell, there is little that remains of her in terms of relics.

A Portuguese sister?

Portuguese Navy Capt. Artur de Sacadura Freire Cabral was famed for the first flight across the South Atlantic Ocean in 1922– a 5,200nm trip from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro that took 79 days to log 62 hours of flight time! His aircraft was dubbed Lusitania, a Fairey III-D seaplane specifically outfitted for the journey and, if you remember, the same type of aircraft the Australians intended to operate from HMAS Albatross.

Portugal this month celebrated the centennial of that feat. 

Sadly, Cabral would disappear two years later while flying over the foggy English Channel and never be recovered.

In a salute to him, the Portuguese Navy in 1931 planned the acquisition of a seaplane tender based on Albatross to be constructed at an Italian yard. To be built at Cantieri Riunii dell Adriatico at Trieste as part of an extensive naval shipbuilding program, funding was never realized and all we have is the 1931 Jane’s entry for the vessel.

Sacadura Cabral, based on HMAS Albatross, per Janes.

Epilogue

Albatross is remembered in Australia via a variety of maritime art.

HMAS Albatross operating her Sea Gull III amphibian aircraft. Painting by Phil Belbin. (RAN Naval Heritage Collection)

HMAS Albatross watercolor by John Alcott. AWM ART28074

The Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, including four squadrons of helicopters (723, 725, 808, and 816) along with one of UAVs (822X Squadron), and the Fleet Air Arm Museum, are located at a shore establishment near Nowra, New South Wales. The base, originally formed in 1942 by the Royal Australian Air Force as RAAF Nowra, was transferred to the RAN in 1944 and commissioned in 1948 as HMAS Albatross, recognizing the name of the old seaplane carrier.

RAN MH-60R crew with 725 Squadron at HMAS Albatross

Further, the RAN would revisit aircraft carrier operations with the Colossus-class light aircraft carrier HMS Vengeance (as HMAS Vengeance, from 1952 to 1955) along with the Majestic-class light aircraft carriers HMS Majestic (as HMAS Melbourne, from 1955 to 1982) and HMS Terrible (as HMAS Sydney from 1948 to 1973), spanning a solid 34 years of running fixed-wing flattops.

Today, the RAN’s pair of Canberra-class LHDs, big ships of some 27,500-tons and 757-feet overall length, can carry as many as 18 helicopters and it is thought they could eventually operate F-35B models, continuing the legacy the humble Albatross began a century ago.

September 2021, HMAS Sirius (AO-266) conducts a dual replenishment at sea with HMAS Canberra (LHD-2) and USCGC Munro (WMSL-755), during Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2021. (RAN Photo by LSIS Leo Baumgartner)

Specs:

As seaplane tender/carrier
Displacement: 4,800 tons (standard), 7,000 full
Length 443 ft 7 in
Beam: 58 ft molded, 77.75 ft at sponsons
Draft:
1930: 16 ft 11.5 in
1936: 17.25 ft
Propulsion: 4 × Yarrow boilers, 2 x Parsons Turbines, 12,000 shp, 2 shafts
Speed: 22 knots
Range:
4,280 nm at 22 knots; 7,900 nm at 10 knots on 942 tons of oil
Complement: 29 RAN officers, 375 RAN sailors, 8 RAAF officers, 38 RAAF enlisted
Armament:
4 x 120/40 QF Mk VIII guns
2 x single 2-pounder (40-mm) pom-poms (later replaced by quadruple pom-poms in 1943)
4 x 47/40 3pdr Hotchkiss Mk I saluting guns
Aircraft carried: 9 aircraft (six actives, three reserves)

As Hellenic Prince (1949-54, Lloyd’s specs)
Tonnage: 6.558 GRT.
Length: 443.7 ft
Width: 61ft
Draught: 17.25 ft
Propulsion: 4 × Yarrow boilers, Parsons Turbines, 12,000 SHP
Speed: 17 knots service speed, 22 maximum.
Passengers: around 1,000, but up to 1,200 maximum in Steerage.
Crew: 250


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!

About Time, Fusiliers Marins edition

Earlier this month, the Chief of Staff of the French Navy, Admiral Christophe Prazuck announced the that the names of the nine French Marine units, the Fusiliers Marins et Commandos Marins, will moving forward be tied to historic officers of the names of key heroes from the Free French 1er BFM/BFMC (aka Commando Kieffer) and 1er RFM (Régiment de Fusiliers Marins).

Raised from volunteers abroad and members of the French Navy who ended their 1940 war in British ports– many from the old battleships Paris and Courbet— the brand-new Forces Navales Françaises Libres (Free French Naval Forces) forces under Admiral Emile Muselier, allied with then-renegade Maj Gen. Charles de Gaulle formed these commandos along British lines.

Taking part in the Dieppe Raid in August 1942, they landed in force at D-Day and continued on to the Alps, earning more than 200 Croix de Guerre and 32 Légion d’Honneur.

While elite frogmen units such as Commando Hubert have the names of famous (posthumously) officers who have led them, up until this month, the modern French marines had unit names such as the uninspired but descriptive details such as the Groupe des Marines de l’Atlantique (Atlantic Marines Group). Now, the Groupe des Marines de l’Atlantique, for example, is the Amyot d’Inville Marines Battalion, named after French navy CDR Amyot D’Inville who commanded the Free French Marines at Bir Hakeim and was killed on the Continent in 1944.

More here. 

Warship Wednesday, June 12, 2019: The End of l’Ancien Régime, Beginning of Another

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, June 12, 2019: The End of l’Ancien Régime, Beginning of Another

NH 110742 French Warships in port, circa 1939 Mediterranean palm trees and old fort 2400-tonne type destroyer battleship Courbet, while a Duguay Trouin class light cruiser is to the right

Naval History and Heritage Command Photo NH 93575

Here we see the first French dreadnought, Courbet, class leader of a four-ship group of mighty warships built for the French Third Republic. She is the largest ship to the far left, seen at Villefranche during late 1938 or early 1939. She gave her last full measure some 75 years ago this week but left an interesting legacy.

When built, Courbet and her sisters were the Republic’s answer to the growing trend of all-big-gun battleships started with the launch of the Royal Navy’s HMS Dreadnought in 1906.

French Battleship COURBET as Build 1911

French Battleship COURBET as Build 1911

Part of the 1909 Naval Plan, these big French battlewagons went nearly 26,000-tons (FL) and carried an impressive main battery of a dozen new design 12-inch (305mm) 45 Modèle 1906 guns. These big boys, in six twin turrets, were comparable to the U.S. Navy’s 12″/45 caliber Mark 5 gun on five classes of American battleships (Connecticut, Mississippi, South Carolina, Delaware, and Florida) as well as the British BL 12-inch Mk X naval guns which were mounted on not only  Dreadnought herself but also a dozen other RN battleships and battlecruisers of the day.

Courbet, forward turrets photographed by Robert W. Neeser, probably at Toulon, France, circa 1919. Note the triplex rangefinder on the conning tower. She carried 100 rounds per gun in her magazines, which interestingly were refrigerated to 77-degrees, a bonus on a steel ship designed to operate in the Med. NH 42849

Courbet, forward turrets photographed by Robert W. Neeser, probably at Toulon, France, circa 1919. Note the triplex rangefinder on the conning tower. She carried 100 rounds per gun in her magazines, which interestingly were refrigerated to 77-degrees, a bonus on a steel ship designed to operate in the Med. NH 42849

Courbet 12-inch and 5.5-inch (138mm) guns photographed by Robert W. Neeser. These ships carried an impressive 22 of the latter, each with 225 shells. NH 42848

Laid down at Arsenal de Brest, our 21-knot beastie, named after famed French Admiral Amédée Courbet of Indochina fame, was soon followed by sister ship Jean Bart, constructed at the same time by the same yard. Two other sisters, France and Paris, were built by A C de la Loire, St-Nazaire and F C de la Méditerranée, La Seyne, respectively.

French battleship Paris, trial at full steam from the 1 August 1914 issue of L'Illustration

French battleship Paris, the trial at full steam from the 1 August 1914 issue of L’Illustration

Courbet was commissioned in November 1913 and the entire class was all at sea by the time the lamps went out across Europe in August 1914. Their design was essentially recycled to create the follow-on Bretagne (Brittany)-class dreadnoughts who were up-armed with 13.5-inch guns.

Courbet entered the Great War monitoring of the Otranto Canal, a vital sea route connecting the Adriatic with the Ionian while keeping an eye peeled for the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben. She served at the time as flagship for Vice Admiral Boue de Lapeyrère, who led a force that comprise most of France’s battle fleet along with two British cruisers.

Courbet

Courbet

On 16 August 1914, the fresh new battleship and her task force came across the small (2,500-ton) Austro-Hungarian protected cruiser SMS Zenta and a companion destroyer, SMS Ulan, off the coast of Bar, Montenegro. The ensuing action, remembered today as the Battle of Antivari, was brief, with Ulan escaping destruction and Zenta, her guns far outranged by the French, destroyed, taking 173 of the Austrian Kaiser’s men to the bottom of the Adriatic with her. The war was just two weeks old.

Painting showing SMS Zenta and SMS Ulan in action on 16 August 1914, by Harry Heusser via Illustrirte Zeitung 1915, wiki

Painting showing SMS Zenta and SMS Ulan in action on 16 August 1914, with Courbet and company in the distance, by Harry Heusser via Illustrirte Zeitung 1915, wiki

When the Italians entered the conflict on the Allied side in May 1915, the Austrian fleet was bottled up for the rest of the war, and Courbet, along with most of the French capital ships, were likewise sidelined, waiting the next four years just in case for a fleet action that would never come. After 1916, most of her crew was pulled and detailed to submarines and small craft, a common occurrence with the French navy at the time.

Remaining rusting in Corfu until April 1919, Courbet returned to Toulon where she became the nominal flagship of the West Mediterranean Fleet while she conducted extensive repairs through 1923.

Put back into service, she suffered a major electrical fire at the French North African port of Mers El Kebir which required further extensive repairs at FCM in La Seyne Sur Mer through 1924. Courbet was a member of an unlucky class perhaps, as sister ship France foundered at sea and was lost at about the same time.

In 1927, with Courbet‘s original design increasingly dated, she was hauled out of the water and given a three-year rebuild and modernization. This included retrunking into two funnels, down from three, updating her propulsion plant by taking her old coal boilers and direct drive turbines with oil-burning small-tube boilers and new geared turbines which provided 43,000 shp (up from 29,250). She lost her torpedo tubes (like battleships really used them) and reinforced her anti-air defenses in the form of 76mm high-angle pieces and a smattering of 13.2mm machine guns. Jean Bart and Paris were given similar overhauls.

She emerged looking very different:

Courbet original and post modernization

Courbet original, top, and postmodernization, bottom

In 1934, she was made a full-time gunnery school ship, her place in the French battle line going to the new 26,000-ton Dunkerque-class of fast (29.5-knot) battleships ordered for the French Navy the same year. Likewise, her sister Jean Bart, renamed Ocean, was made a training hulk at about the same time while Paris was used as a school ship for signals rates.

Courbet and Jean Bart in Algeria

Courbet and Jean Bart in Algeria

With World War II on the horizon, Courbet and Paris were taken from their taskings on the training roster in June 1939 and placed in the French Navy’s 3eme Division de Ligne, fleshing out their ranks, taking on power and shell, and installing more AAA guns.

Reportedly, the ships had troublesome engineering suites, only capable of making about 15 knots and even that speed could not be sustained.

Tasked with coastal defense, Courbet was moved to Cherbourg on the English Channel in May 1940. From there, she engaged  German aircraft poking their nose over the harbor and helped support the withdrawal from the beaches of Dunkirk. Later, as the German Army broke through and swept towards Paris, Courbet fired on advancing Boche columns of Rommel’s 7. Panzerdivision outside of Cherbourg before she raised steam and headed across the Channel to Portsmouth on June 19/20. Her sister Paris, damaged by German bombs, likewise left Brest for Plymouth, England at about the same time.

With France officially dropping out of WWII and the Third Republic voting to give full powers to Philippe Petain, the elderly battleships Paris and Courbet were seized and disarmed at their British moorings by Royal Marines on the order of Churchill on 3 July as part of Operation Catapult.

On 18 July 1940, De Gaulle addressed France, and Frenchmen everywhere, with his famous “Report to me” speech in which he specifically mentioned French sailors. (“J’invite les chefs, les soldats, les marins, les aviateurs des forces françaises de terre, de mer, de l’air, où qu’ils se trouvent actuellement, à se mettre en rapport avec moi.”)

Courbet-class battleship Paris in British hands, 1940, note the Union Jack on her bow IWM

Courbet-class battleship Paris in British hands, 1940, note the Union Jack on her bow and false bow wave. IWM

Paris, in bad condition, had her crew totally removed– who largely decided to return to France. She would be turned over to the Free Polish Navy who would use her for a dockside trainer and clubhouse until 1945 when she was returned to French custody and scrapped.

As for Courbet, she was turned over to the brand-new Forces Navales Françaises Libres (Free French Naval Forces) forces under Admiral Emile Muselier, allied with then-renegade Maj Gen. Charles de Gaulle, on 10 July, becoming the largest and arguably most effective French warship, not under Vichy control. Meanwhile, hulked sister Jean Bart remained in Vichy hands in Toulon on the Med, along with the bulk of the French Navy that wasn’t hiding out in Africa or the Caribbean.

Cuirassé Courbet à Portsmouth 1940, note the false bow wave painted on her bow.

Rearmed in August 1940, Courbet‘s AAA gunners managed to splash five German bombers over Portsmouth during the Battle of Britain. She continued her role as a floating symbol for De Gaulle and receiving ship for the rapidly forming Free French Navy for the next four years but sadly never left port under her own steam again.

Enter Monsieur Philippe Kieffer, stage left.

Philippe Kieffer

This guy.

The day after World War II started with the German invasion of Poland, Kieffer, a 40-year-old Haitian-born Alsatian bank executive in New York City, presented himself at the French consulate in Manhattan and signed up for the Navy. Having been schooled as a reserve naval officer in university but graduating too late in 1918 to fight in the Great War, the skilled financial analyst was given a sub-lieutenant’s commission and assigned to help flesh out Courbet‘s ranks, where he was assigned as an interpreter and cipher officer. Still aboard her when she left for England, he volunteered for the Free French Forces on 1 July 1940 and remained on her during the Battle of Britain.

In Portsmouth in May 1941, he formed a group of 40 volunteers, largely drawn from Courbet and Paris’s remaining crew who chose to not be repatriated to Vichy France, dubbed the 1re Compagnie de Fusiliers Marins (1st Company of Naval Rifles). Soon, his handful of bluejackets was wearing British uniforms and learning from the likes of former Shanghai Police Inspectors William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes at the commando training center in Achnacarry, Scotland. There, they picked up the general tricks of the dirty deeds done dirt cheap trade.

French marines of No. 1 Troop, No. 10 Commando. Note the British kit, to include No. 1 MK III Enfields. The officer at the left wears French naval insignia-- likely Keiffer -- and carries a Mle 1892 8mm revolver.

French marines of No. 1 Troop, No. 10 Commando. Note the British kit, to include No. 1 MK III Enfields. The officer at the left wears French sub-lieutenant naval insignia– likely Keiffer — and carries a Great War-era Mle 1892 8mm revolver.

His force became No. 1 Troop, No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando. Taking part in the Dieppe Raid in August 1942, his forces were expanded to include a second troop, No. 8, and his men were often used in small-scale raids and intelligence ops along the coasts of occupied Holland and Belgium for the next two years.

In early 1944, Kieffer’s two troops, along with a smattering of new recruits (including a few Belgians and at least four Luxembourgers) were carved off from No. 10 Commando and formed the new 1re Compagnie du Bataillon de Fusiliers-Marins Commandos (1st Company of the Battalion of Marine Fusilier Commandos, or just BFMC). Geared up for Operation Overlord, they were part of British No 4 Commando of Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade and landed on Sword Beach on D-Day, some 177-men strong, for their official return to France, Tommy guns in hand.

Philippe Kieffer, in commando garb meeting Monty, along with early BFMC legends Augustin Hubert (glasses) and Charles Trépel (pointy thing.) The dashing Trepel would be killed in a commando raid off the Dutch coast in 1944 while Hubert was killed on D-Day by a sniper near the Ouistreham casino.

Philippe Kieffer, in commando garb meeting Monty, along with early BFMC legends Augustin Hubert (glasses) and Charles Trépel (making friends with the pointy thing.) The dashing Trepel would be killed in a commando raid off the Dutch coast in 1944 while Hubert was fatally shot on D-Day by a German sniper near the Ouistreham casino.

Kieffer’s Bérets Verts (Green Berets) would soon push from the beach to link up with the 6th Parachute Division at Pegasus Bridge and go on to suffer 21 killed and 93 wounded in the days that were to follow, with the latter including Kieffer.

French villagers welcome French Naval Commandos who D-Day landings. thompson tommy gun Near Amfreville, Calvados, Lower Normandy, France. 17 June 1944.

French villagers welcome BFMC French Naval Commandos who D-Day landings. Near Amfreville, Calvados, Lower Normandy, France. 17 June 1944. Note the green beret’s M1928 Thompson and Fairbairn-Sykes Commando knife.

Before the war was out, his men were the first unformed members of the Free French to enter Paris, see the elephant again at Walcheren, liberate Flessinge, help capture the port of Antwerp, and carry out raids along the Dutch Coast. Not bad for a banker.

As for Courbet, she was at Sword Beach as well, just a few days behind Kieffer’s famed 177.

By 1944 she was old news. The Free French Navy, after the collapse of Vichy France in November 1942, had picked up the scratch and dent but much newer fast battleships Jean Bart and Richelieu, which were given extensive refits in America, as well as the still (somewhat), combat-effective Bretagne-class dreadnought Lorraine, the latter of which was soon to see combat in the Operation Dragoon landings in the Med.

With her marginalization as De Gaulle’s unneeded 4th battleship, Courbet‘s bunker oil was pumped out and replaced with concrete as her crew removed their possessions. She was towed out of Portsmouth by HMRT Growler and HMRT Samsonia with her remaining French skeleton crew along for the ride on 9 June, bound for the invasion beaches of Normandy with TF 128.

Stopping some 3,360 meters in front of Hermanville near Ouistreham, her crew was evacuated at 13:15 and 10 minutes later her skipper, Capt. Wertzel, triggered the detonation of a series of installed scuttling charges that soon sent France’s first dreadnought 33 feet to the bottom, still flying her tricolor flag adorned with De Gaulle’s Cross of Lorraine, to give the impression that she was still in some form of service.

French Battleship Courbet was sunk as part of Gooseberry 5 on D+3. Note her decks are almost awash, the benefit of having a 29-foot draft in 33 feet of water.

Courbet was part of a line of blockships laid off the beaches to form a reef before the rest of the Mulberry dock system was assembled to bring supplies to the beach.

There were to be five “Gooseberry” breakwaters, one for each beach:
No. 1 Utah Beach at Varreville
No. 2 Omaha Beach at St. Laurent (Part of MULBERRY A)
No. 3 Gold Beach at Arromanches (Part of MULBERRY B)
No. 4 Juno Beach at Courseulles
No. 5 Sword Beach at Oistreham

In all, the breakwaters were to be formed by about 60 blockships (approximately 12 in each Gooseberry) which were all merchant vessels except the disarmed King George V-class battleship HMS Centurion, Free Dutch Java-class light cruiser HNLMS Sumatra, Danae-class light cruiser HMS Durban and our Courbet.

A typical Gooseberry breakwater

The sinking of blockships was to commence p.m. D+1 and the Gooseberries were to be completed by D+3, with Courbet being one of the final pieces of the puzzle at Sword Beach (Gooseberry 5), which was to include the merchant ships Becheville, Dover Hill, Empire Defiance, Empire Tamar, Empire Tana, and Forbin along with the old cruisers Durban and Sumatra.

Gooseberry 5 off the beaches at Ouistreham, showing Sumatra and Durban

Gooseberry 5 off the beaches at Ouistreham, showing Sumatra and Durban

Courbet, still with her war flag flying, was one of the few blockships to be “manned” with generators supplying power to her eight searchlights and a radio. A crew of 35 men from the Royal Artillery was left in charge of her AAA guns for the next several weeks with the intention of drawing away Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine attacks on the vulnerable beachhead while at the same time possibly splashing a couple of raiders.

The concept worked, as reportedly the very grounded Courbet was hit by German Neger human torpedoes (Einmann-Torpedo) of K-Flottille 361 during the nights of both August 15/16 to 16/17, without effect.

As the breakout occurred and the fighting moved inland, her British gunners were withdrawn in September, and Courbet‘s flag hauled down, presented to De Gaulle’s government with honors.

On 14 February 1951, the wrecks in Gooseberry 5 were auctioned by the French government to be salvaged and slowly scrapped, a process that took until 1970 to be completed. By coincidence, Jean Bart, the last French (or European for that matter) battleship afloat, was scrapped the same year at Brégaillon near Toulon, making Courbet and big Jean something of bookends on the tale of French dreadnoughts.

As for Kieffer, Courbet‘s star, he would die at age 63 in 1962, a Commandeur du Légion d’Honneur.

Of the current seven French Commando battalions today, three bear the name of officers of the WWII 1st BFMC: Augustin Hubert, Charles Trépel, and Kieffer. Meanwhile, French marine commandos still wear the badge Kieffer designed and issue the Fairbairn-Sykes.

French Fusiliers marins et commandos marine fighting knife green beret via French marines

In the seven decades since the 1st BFMC, more than 8,300 French commandos have followed in their footsteps. To say they have been extremely busy in the past 70 years is an understatement.

French heartthrob Christian Marquand would portray Kieffer in 1962’s The Longest Day, correctly wearing BFMC-badged green berets during the seizure of the Ouistreham casino (which had actually been destroyed before the landing). If Marquand looks familiar, he also played the holdout French plantation owner in Apocalypse Now Redux. Notably, Kieffer served on the film as a technical adviser just before he died.

Last week, on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, a monument to Kieffer and his 177 commandos was unveiled on Sword Beach, with Commando Kieffer frogmen and past veterans in attendance. A piece of salvaged steel plate from Courbet is incorporated into the display.

Specs:

Courbet class, 1914 Jane’s

Displacement:
23,475 t (23,104 long tons) (normal)
25,579 t (25,175 long tons) (full load)
Length: 544 ft 7 in (o/a)
Beam: 88 ft 7 in
Draught: 29 ft 8 in
Machinery (1913)
24 Niclausse coal-fired boilers with Bellville oil spray systems
4 shafts; 4 × Parsons direct-drive steam turbine sets
28,000 PS (20,594 kW; 27,617 shp)
2,700 tons coal/1,000 tons oil.
Range of 8,400nm at 10 knots
Machinery (1934)
16 oil-fired boilers
4 shafts; 4 × Geared steam turbine sets
43,000 PS
Speed: 21 knots (designed) only 20.74 on trials in 1913. 16 knots by 1940
Complement: 1,115 (1,187 as flagship)
Armor:
Waterline belt: 140–250 mm (5.5–9.8 in)
Deck: 40–70 mm (1.6–2.8 in)
Turrets: 250 mm (9.8 in)
Conning tower: 266 mm (10.5 in)
Armament: (1913)
6 × twin 305 mm (12 in) 45 cal guns
22 × single 138 mm (5.4 in) 45 guns
4 × single 47 mm (1.9 in) M1902 3-pdr AAA guns
4 × 450 mm (17.7 in) Model 1909 submerged torpedo tubes with 12 torpedoes
30 Blockade mines
Armament: (1940)
6 × twin 305 mm (12 in) 45 cal guns
14 × single 138 mm (5.4 in) 45 guns
8 x 75mm/50cal M1922 AAA guns
14 x 13.2mm machine guns

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!

1 SSB on D-Day, and the piper of the Pegasus Bridge

Note the Bren guns and covers on the Enfield .303s

The 1st Special Service Brigade (1 SSB) goes ashore at Sword Beach, 1944. The Lord Lovat Simon Fraser is visible to the right of the column wading ashore in the first photo, and is the one standing and addressing the brigade. After losing several men to sniper fire the unit switched from their distinctive berets to helmets shortly after coming ashore. Also visible in the first photo, closest to the camera, is the “Mad Piper” Bill Millin, who famously piped the unit across Pegasus Bridge.

Bill is interviewed below in 1991, which was demolished in 1994:

The airborne operation to seize Pegasus with just 90 glider-borne infantry of 6 Airborne Div with orders to “hold until relieved” (Operation Deadstick) is detailed below.