French battleship Dunkerque
|Namesake:||City of Dunkirk|
|Laid down:||24 December 1932|
|Launched:||2 October 1935|
|Commissioned:||1 May 1937|
|Fate:||Scuttled 27 November 1942, ultimately scrapped in 1958|
|Class & type:||Dunkerque class battleship|
|Length:||214.5 m (704 ft)|
|Beam:||31.08 m (102.0 ft)|
|Draft:||8.7 m (29 ft)|
|Speed:||29.5 knots (54.6 km/h; 33.9 mph) (designed) 31.06 knots (max)|
|Aircraft carried:||2 floatplanes|
Dunkerque was the lead ship of the Dunkerque class of battleships built for the French Navy in the 1930s. The class also included Strasbourg. The two ships were the first capital ships to be built by the French Navy after World War I; the planned Normandie and Lyon classes had been cancelled at the outbreak of war, and budgetary problems prevented the French from building new battleships in the decade after the war. Dunkerque was laid down in December 1932, was launched October 1935, and was completed in May 1937. She was armed with a main battery of eight 330mm/50 Modèle 1931 guns arranged in two quadruple gun turrets and had a top speed of 29.5 knots (54.6 km/h; 33.9 mph).
Dunkerque and Strasbourg formed the French Navy's 1ère Division de Ligne (1st Division of the Line) prior to the Second World War. The two ships searched for German commerce raiders in the early months of the war, and Dunkerque also participated in convoy escort duties. The ship was badly damaged during the British attack at Mers-el-Kébir after the Armistice that ended the first phase of France's participation in World War II, but she was refloated and partially repaired to return to Toulon for comprehensive repairs. Dunkerque was scuttled in November 1942 to prevent her capture by the Germans, and subsequently seized and partially scrapped by the Italians and later the Germans. Her wreck remained in Toulon until she was stricken in 1955, and scrapped three years later.
The French Navy's design staff spent the decade following the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty attempting to produce a satisfactory design to fill 70,000 tons as allowed by the treaty. Initially, the French sought a reply to the Italian Trento-class cruisers of 1925, but all proposals were rejected. A 17,500-ton cruiser, which could have handled the Trentos, was inadequate against the old Italian battleships, however, and the 37,000-ton battlecruiser concepts were prohibitively expensive and would jeopardize further naval limitation talks. These attempts were followed by an intermediate design for a 23,690-ton protected cruiser in 1929; it was armed with 305 mm (12.0 in) guns, armoured against 203 mm (8.0 in) guns, and had a speed of 29 kn (54 km/h; 33 mph). Visually, it bore a profile strikingly similar to the final Dunkerque.
The German Deutschland-class cruisers became the new focus for French naval architects in 1929. The design had to respect the 1930 London Naval Treaty, which limited the French to two 23,333-ton ships until 1936. Drawing upon previous work, the French developed a 23,333-ton design armed with 305 mm (12.0 in) guns, armoured against the German cruisers' 280 mm (11 in) guns, and with a speed of 30 kn (56 km/h; 35 mph). As with the final Dunkerque, the main artillery was concentrated entirely forward. The design was rejected by the French parliament in July 1931 and sent back for revision. The final revision grew to 26,500 tons; the 305-mm guns were replaced by 330mm/50 Modèle 1931 guns, the armour was slightly improved, and the speed slightly decreased. Parliamentary approval was granted in early 1932, and Dunkerque was ordered on 26 October.
Dunkerque displaced 26,500 t (26,100 long tons) as built and 35,500 t (34,900 long tons) fully loaded, with an overall length of 214.5 m (703 ft 9 in), a beam of 31.08 m (102 ft 0 in) and a maximum draft of 8.7 m (28 ft 7 in). She was powered by four Parsons geared steam turbines and six oil-fired Indret boilers, which developed a total of 112,500 shaft horsepower (83,900 kW) and yielded a maximum speed of 29.5 kn (54.6 km/h; 33.9 mph). Her crew numbered between 1,381 and 1,431 officers and men.[Note 1] The ship carried a pair of spotter aircraft on the fantail, and the aircraft facilities consisted of a steam catapult and a crane to handle the floatplanes. The floatplanes were initially Gourdou-Leseurre GL-832 HY, and later Loire 130.
She was armed with eight 330mm/50 Modèle 1931 guns arranged in two quadruple gun turrets, both of which were placed in a superfiring pair forward of the superstructure. Her secondary armament consisted of sixteen 130 mm (5.1 in) /45 dual-purpose guns; these were mounted in three quadruple and two twin turrets. The quadruple turrets were placed on the stern, and the twin turrets were located amidships. Close range antiaircraft defense was provided by a battery of eight 37 mm (1.5 in) guns in twin mounts and thirty-two 13.2 mm (0.52 in) guns in quadruple mounts. The ship's belt armor was 225 mm (8.9 in) thick amidships, and the main battery turrets were protected by 330 mm (13 in) of armor plate on the faces. The main armored deck was 115 mm (4.5 in) thick, and the conning tower had 270 mm (11 in) thick sides.
Dunkerque was modified several times throughout her relatively short career. In 1937, a funnel cap was added and four of the 37 mm guns, which were the Modèle 1925 variant, were removed. These were replaced the following year with new Modèle 1933 guns. The 13.2 mm guns were also rearranged slightly, with the two mounts that were located abreast of the second main battery turret moved further aft. A new14 m (46 ft) rangefinder was installed in 1940 on the fore tower.
Dunkerque was laid down in the Brest Navy Yard, on 24 December 1932, in the Salou graving dock number 4. The hull was completed except for the forward-most 17 m (56 ft) section, since the dock was only 200 m (660 ft) long. She was launched on 2 October 1935 and towed to Laninon graving dock number 8, where the bow was fitted. Sea trials were carried out, starting on 18 April 1936, before the superstructure was complete. The trials lasted until late-April 1937. Dunkerque represented France at the British Naval Review in May 1937, marking the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Later that month on May 27, she took part in another review off Île de Sein, where the French Mediterranean and Atlantic squadrons were assembled following combined exercises; Dunkerque hosted the Navy Minister and the new Chief of Staff of the French Navy, Vice Admiral François Darlan.
On 20 January 1938, Dunkerque departed for a tour of French colonial possessions in the Atlantic; ports of call included Fort-de-France in the Antilles and Dakar, Senegal. She returned to France on 6 March, where she was placed on active duty on 1 September. She joined the Atlantic Squadron and became the flagship of Vice Amiral d'Escadre (Squadron Vice Admiral) Marcel-Bruno Gensoul. The ship then went into drydock for drydock in Brest for periodic maintenance on 29 November; repairs lasted until 27 February 1939. After emerging from drydock, Dunkerque was assigned to the Force de Raid, a fast task force created in response to the Sudetenland Crisis with Germany. Strasbourg joined the Force de Raid in March; the two Dunkerque-class battleships formed the 1ère Division de Ligne (1st Division of the Line). The ships received division stripes on their funnels, one for Dunkerque as division leader, and two for Strasbourg. By that time, the Force de Raid consisted of the two Dunkerques, three light cruisers, and eight large destroyers. The squadron was based in Brest. The German Deutschland-class cruisers were operating off Spain at the time tensions began to rise over the Sudetenland Crisis in early 1938, so the Force de Raid was sent out to cover the return of the cruiser Jeanne d'Arc on 14–16 April. The Sudetenland Crisis ultimately was resolved in the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and led to a temporary slackening of tensions in Europe.
The 1ère Division de Ligne made an official visit on 3–4 May 1939 to Lisbon, Portugal, commemorating the discovery of Brazil by Alvares Cabral. On 23 May, the two battleships and other ships of the Force de Raid visited Britain, including stops in Liverpool, Oban, Staffa, Loch Ewe, Scapa Flow, and Rosyth. They returned to Brest on 21 June. On 2 September 1939, the day after Germany invaded Poland, the Force de Raid sortied from Brest, since the Deutschland-class cruisers were reported to be operating in the Atlantic. After four days at sea, the squadron returned to Brest. In October, Dunkerque was assigned to Force L, along with Béarn and three cruisers; the squadron was based in Brest. The ships were tasked with hunting down the cruiser Admiral Graf Spee.
On 25 November, Vice Admiral Gensoul ordered Dunkerque, the French 4th Cruiser Division, and the British battlecruiser HMS Hood to intercept the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which had sunk the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi, north of the Faroe Islands on 23 November. While the German battleships attempted to break into the Atlantic, Dunkerque suffered bow damages in a huge North Atlantic tempest and had to be docked for repairs on 3 December. On 11 December, Dunkerque and the cruiser Gloire carried a shipment of part of the Banque de France's gold reserve to Canada. The ships arrived on 17 December and covered a troop convoy on the return voyage. After returning to Brest on 4 January 1940, Dunkerque underwent another period of maintenance, which lasted until 6 February. The ship then conducted sea trials and training maneuvers through March.
Faced with increasingly hostile posturing by Italy during the spring of 1940, the Force de Raid was dispatched, on 2 April to the Mediterranean. The squadron was quickly ordered to return to Brest several days later, in response to the German landings in Norway on 9 April. The Force de Raid was transferred subsequently to Mers-el Kebir on 24 April, arriving on 27 April. Reports of Axis vessels in the area on 9–10 May prompted Dunkerque and Strasbourg to sortie. Dunkerque remained in the Mediterranean when the Italians declared war on France and Britain on 10 June. Two days later, Dunkerque and Strasbourg sortied to intercept reported German and Italian ships that were incorrectly reported to be in the area. On 22 June, however, France surrendered to Germany following the Battle of France; during the truce negotiations, the French Navy proposed demilitarizing Dunkerque and several other warships in Toulon.
The only test in battle for Dunkerque came in the attack on Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July. The British Force H, commanded by Admiral Somerville and centered on HMS Hood and the battleships Revenge, and Valiant, arrived off Mers-el-Kébir to coerce the French battleship squadron to join the British cause or scuttle their ships. The French Navy refused, as complying with the demand would have violated the Armistice signed with Germany. To ensure the ships would not fall into Axis hands, the British warships opened fire. Dunkerque was tied alongside the mole with her stern facing the sea, so she could not return fire.
Dunkerque's crew loosed the chains and started to get the ship underway just as the British opened fire; the ship was engaged by HMS Hood. She was hit by four 15 inch (381 mm) shells in quick succession. The first was deflected on the upper 330 mm turret roof, though it killed all the men in the right half turret; the left half remained operational. The second shell damaged the aircraft installations, the last two passed through the 225 mm armored belt, which had not been designed to resist 15-inch shells. The third shell penetrated the handling room of the starboard twin 130 mm turret and penetrated to the forward turbine room, putting it out of action. The fourth shell holed the belt and reached the central boiler room (BR 2), causing severe damage. The damage forced the crew to beach the ship on the other side of Mers-el-Kébir roadstead. Part of the crew were then sent ashore.
The British fire ceased after less than twenty minutes, which limited the damage inflicted. Admiral Esteva, Admiral Sud (C. in C. French Navy in North Africa, at Bizerta), reported to the French Admiralty that the ship had suffered "moderate" damage, and boasted, in a communiqué to the Algerian press, that Dunkerque would soon be able to return to Toulon on her own steam. After learning of the status of Dunkerque, the British Admiralty ordered Somerville to return to Mers-el-Kébir and to put Dunkerque permanently out of action. Since Dunkerque was beached just in front of a village, Admiral Sommerville, preferred to attack with torpedo bombers to avoid causing serious collateral damages to civilians. The second attack took place on July 6. One of the torpedoes hit the small patrol ship Terre-Neuve, which carried a load of depth charges, and was moored alongside Dunkerque. The explosion of fourteen depth charges, equivalent of 1,400 kg of TNT, ripped an enormous hole in the battleship's hull and killed a further 40 seamen. Dunkerque sank in shallow water. Another torpedo struck the ship and tore a hole in two compartments. The ship probably escaped a total loss by flooding the 330 mm gun magazines which had been ordered as soon as the torpedo-bombers appeared. The total number killed on Dunkerque during the two attacks of July 3 and July 6 reached 210.
Temporary repairs began immediately, but due to the limited drydock space in the port, repairs to the hull were not effected until 11 September. Dunkerque was refloated on 27 September and her propulsion system was returned to operational status. A major fire broke out on 5 December, however, which slowed down the repair effort. Repair work lasted for the entirety of 1941, and on 25 January 1942 another fire broke out. The temporary repairs were completed by 19 February, which permitted the ship to depart Mers-el-Kébir, under heavy escort, bound for Toulon. She arrived the following day, and entered the large Vauban drydock for comprehensive repairs.
Scuttling at Toulon
Repair work proceeded slowly, owing to a shortage of material and labor. After the Wehrmacht occupied the Zone libre in retaliation for the successful Allied landings in North Africa, the Germans attempted to seize the French warships remaining under Vichy control on 27 November. To prevent them from seizing the ships, their crews scuttled the fleet in Toulon, including Dunkerque, which still lay incomplete in the Vauban drydock. Demolition charges were placed on the ship and she was set on fire. Her commanding officer, Capitaine de vaisseau (Captain) Amiel, initially refused to sink his ship without written orders, but was finally convinced to do so by the Commanding Officer of the nearby light cruiser La Galissonnière.
The Italians took control of the wreck, but they found her a total loss, and so began to dismantle Dunkerque. As part of this process, the ship was deliberately damaged to prevent the French from being able to repair her if she was recaptured; the Italians cut down the main battery guns to render them unusable. The partially scrapped hulk was in turn seized by the Germans when Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943. In 1944, the Germans removed the ship's bow to float her out of the drydock to free up the dock and continue the scrapping process. While in Axis possession, she was bombed several times by Allied aircraft. The hulk was condemned on 15 September 1955 and renamed Q56. Her remains, which amounted to not more than 15,000 tonnes (15,000 long tons; 17,000 short tons), were sold for final demolition on 30 September 1958 for 226,117,000 francs.
- Whitley's Battleships of World War II provides the 1,381 figure, while Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships states the crew numbered 1,431. Garzke's & Dulin's British, Soviet, French, and Dutch Battleships of World War II confirm the 1,381 number, and further clarify that the crew was composed of 56 officers, 1,319 enlisted men, and six civilian crew members.
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- Dumas, pp. 16–17
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- Breyer, p. 433
- Gardiner & Chesneau, p. 259
- Whitley, p. 45
- Garzke & Dulin, p. 73
- (French) Les hydravions du cuirassé Dunkerque, netmarine.net
- Garzke & Dulin, pp. 71–72
- Jordan & Dumas, p. 38
- Dumas, p. 65
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- Whitley, p. 50
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- Mitcham, pp. 149–150
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- Garzke & Dulin, p. 50
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- Dumas, Robert (2001). Les cuirassés Dunkerque et Strasbourg (in French). Paris: Marine Éditions. ISBN 978-2-909675-75-6. Dunkerque.
- Gardiner, Robert; Chesneau, Roger (1980). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, 1922–1946. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-913-8.
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