Archives For French Shipwrecks

CC Image Courtesy of Bernard Grua on Flickr

CC Image Courtesy of Bernard Grua on Flickr

French officials announced today that the Vladivostok, one of two Mistral-class amphibious warships ordered by the Russian Navy, will not be delivered to the Russians as previously planned. The announcement is quite surprising as the French had insisted for several months that the ship would be delivered as planned despite protests from Ukraine, France’s NATO allies and other international actors. The decision is also surprising given France’s infatuation with supplying military and dual-use items to authoritarian regimes – i.e. the sale of a nuclear reactor to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s. This is the same France that prohibited the Middle East’s only functioning liberal democracy, Israel, from taking delivery of missile boats it had ordered. The news comes only a days after rebels shelled and sank a Ukrainian coast guard vessel.

The Vladivostok is one of four contracted for by the Russian Navy and would be highly useful for power projection in a crisis such as that in Ukraine. As operated by the Russian Navy, the ship would most likely embark 16 attack helicopters such as the Ka-50/52 as well as 4 landing barges or 2 medium hovercraft. In short term operations, Mistral-class vessels can carry 700 troops and any combination of 60 wheeled armored vehicles, 46 vehicles plus 13 tanks or 40 T-90 tanks. A Russian task force with this kind of aerial, armored and over the horizon seaborne delivery ability would be a potent weapon deployed against an already depleted Ukrainian naval force.


USS Constellation Defeats L’Insurgente

Though largely forgotten today, in the closing years of the 18th century, the newly formed United States Navy fought an unofficial war with the French Navy. Dubbed the Quasi-War, the conflict gave the fledgling US Navy the opportunity to cut its teeth in preparation for later conflicts with the Barbary Pirates and the Royal Navy. Fittingly, the US Navy’s first victory also belonged to its first warship, USS Constellation.

While sailing off the coast of Nevis in the Caribbean on February 9, the Constellation came upon an unidentified frigate and immediately gave chase. Over the course of the next hour and a half the two vessels danced across the sea in a deadly waltz. As the vessels attempted to outmaneuver one another, a gale came up and damaged the L’Insurgente’s main topmast which enabled the undamaged Constellation to gain on the French ship. In an engagement lasting less than an hour and a half, the Constellation made quick work of the French and the L’Insurgente struck her colors. Marking the first victory of the US Navy, the French vessel was commissioned the USS Insurgent and the Constellation’s commander, Commodore Thomas Truxton, and her crew were celebrated as heroes upon their return.

u-boat pastor

Martin Niemoller

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

These famous words were composed by German theologian, Confessional Church pastor and anti-Nazi Martin Niemoller. Notably, Niemoller was no academic unfamiliar with the hardships of armed conflict for he had served with distinction in the Imperial German Navy in World War I as a U-boat captain. During his time as second officer aboard U-39, the U-boat and her crew sank 35 ships for over 90,000 tons of shipping. Additionally, while aboard U-73, the boat deployed the mine that sank the RMS Titanic’s sister ship HMHS Brittanic. Niemoller was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for his contributions to the Imperial war effort and ended the war with command of his own U-boat, UC-67.

Like fellow theologian and Confessing Church pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Niemoller spoke out against the Nazi regime and was arrested in 1937 by Nazi authorities. Niemoller spent the remainder of the Nazi years in various prisons and concentration camps including Sachenhausen and Dachau for his “crimes.” Later in life Niemoller became an ardent pacifist, campaigned for nuclear disarmament, won the Lenin Peace Prize and even visited North Vietnam’s communist dictator Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. Sadly, Niemoller’s eight years in Nazi prisons had not completely inoculated him to the dangers of authoritarian government or the ugly necessity of war in certain instances.

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.

French battleship

Early on the morning of September 25, 1911, the citizens of Toulon were awakened to a series of violent explosions that rocked the city’s naval base. Four small explosions followed by a massive fifth one aboard the French battleship Liberte rent the ship asunder. Wreckage from the ship was hurled as far as a mile away and several small craft in the harbor were damaged or sunk.

French battleship

In total 250 men lost their lives in the disaster including the commander of a vessel anchored a mile away. Subsequent investigation (this was only the latest in a series of disastrous explosions over the last four years) found that the fire was caused by defective “B” powder. The same powder caused explosions aboard the battleship Patrie that thankfully were not fatal to the vessel.  In addition to destroying the Liberte, the explosion put three other battleships out of commission for an extended period: the Verite, Republique and Democratie. The wreck of the Patrie remained in Toulon harbor until the mid-1920s when it was broken up for scrap.

French shipwreck

Battle of the Nile

August 1, 2013 — 3 Comments
Aboukir Bay

Battle of the Nile by Thomas George Webster
CC Image Courtesy of Black County Museums on Flickr

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.

Two hundred fifteen years ago today, Admiral Horatio Nelson pounced upon the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Egypt. By early morning the next day, Nelson and his fleet had captured or destroyed nearly every French ship and ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s dreams of a French Egypt and the destruction of Britain’s colonial holdings in India. Alternatively called the Battle of the Nile or the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the action would later be immortalized in the poem Casabiana by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, the first stanza of which is above.

For two months in the summer of 1798, Nelson fruitlessly tracked the French fleet across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the French used the time to capture the island of Malta and land an army of troops and scholars in Egypt. Although the French troops eventually were defeated, the scholars scored a victory for the ages when they discovered the Rosetta Stone.

After finally catching up with the French fleet in Egypt, Nelson wasted no time in daringly dividing his forces and launching an attack on the French fleet. Dividing his forces allowed the British fleet to engulf the French in a deadly crossfire and after three hours much of the French fleet had been destroyed. Capping the battle was the violent destruction of the French flagship L’Orient caused by a fire reaching one of the ship’s magazines.


French Submarine Surcouf

While the Royal Navy was experimenting with aircraft carrying submarines, the French Navy continued to pursue the unconventional submarine cruiser concept. The pinnacle of their (and all other navies’) experimentation was the submarine Surcouf which was commissioned in 1936. Surcouf displaced nearly 4,400 tons and was outfitted with dual 8-in. guns, 10 torpedo tubes, nearly half a dozen anti-aircraft and machine guns and a spotting aircraft in a stern hangar. Never before nor since have such large guns been mounted on a submarine. Named after a 19th century French privateer captain, the Surcouf was intended to be deployed as a submersible raider with the capability of shelling shore targets, merchant ships and unsuspecting surface warships and then sneaking away while submerged.

During World War II, the Surcouf had a rather lackluster reputation in the hands of the French Navy and Free French Navy. Barely escaping capture when the Nazi blitzkrieg overran France, the Surcouf fled to France where the Royal Navy later boarded her at gunpoint during Operation Catapult and the resulting confusion ended in the deaths of several sailors. The boat was then turned over to the Free French Navy and was used to assist in a coup launched on December 25, 1941 against the Vichy French administrator of Saint Pierre and Miquelon – a French colony off the coast of Canada.

Following several months of inconsequential service in which the sub constantly required maintenance, the decision was made by the Free French high command to dispatch Surcouf to Tahiti via the Panama Canal. After a temporary stop at Bermuda on February 7, 1942 the Surcouf sailed for the Canal Zone. The sub was never seen again and numerous theories have been proposed as to her fate. The two most widely accepted theories are that the sub collided with the American freighter Thompson Lykes on the night of February 18th or was sunk by American aircraft on February 19th.

The sub has never been located and there are rumors that the sub was carrying a portion of France’s gold reserves, however, this is most likely wild conjecture for several reasons. First, the Surcouf was operating primarily in the Caribbean and North Atlantic in her final months and thus would have had no access to the gold reserves. Second, and more importantly, the sub was experiencing significant mechanical difficulties and it is highly unlikely that gold reserves would have been entrusted to an unreliable vessel. Finally, the Surcouf had been ordered to Tahiti which is an unlikely destination (unless for transshipment) for any gold reserves.

french liner

Normandie Capsizes at Anchor

The late 1920s and 1930s marked the beginning of the brief reign of the super liner as the speedy behemoths of the sea. In moves foreshadowing the hostilities of World War II, the British, French and Germans all launched super liners in an effort to  win the battle for national pride. France’s contribution to the super liner race was the Normandie, a sleek technological marvel that was launched in St. Nazaire France in 1932. After final fitting out, Normandie began commercial service across the North Atlantic in 1935. During her 139 trans-Atlantic trips, the Normandie won the Blue Riband several times.

cruise liner fire

Normandie Aflame

The outbreak of World War II found the Normandie in New York City where she was interned by the United States. After the fall of France in 1940, she was taken over by the US government, renamed USS Lafayette, and efforts were begun to convert her into a troopship shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. On February 9, 1942 while the ship was docked in New York City undergoing conversion a fire engulfed the ship. Firefighting efforts resulted in the ship capsizing. Although the ship was salvaged, bringing the ship back to sailing trim was deemed cost prohibitive and she was scrapped after the war.


Normandie’s Drydock in St. Nazaire, France

While Normandie failed to make any direct contributions to the war effort, the dry dock built in St. Nazaire to accommodate her became an asset for the Nazis in the Battle of the Atlantic. The dock was large enough to fit the Kriegsmarine’s largest capital ships Bismarck and Tirpitz and the Royal Navy launched a successful commando raid (Operation Chariot) to demolish the dry dock.

royal navy painting

Battle of Santo Domingo
Nicholas Pocock, National Maritime Museum

After the defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar on October 20, 1805, the British Admiralty pulled back its close blockade of the primary French naval base at Brest. Sensing an opportunity to wage war on the British merchant fleet, Napoleon dispatched two naval squadrons to the West Indies. Ordered to prey on merchant shipping and avoid engaging naval forces of equal or greater strength, the two squadrons weighed anchor for the West Indies and escaped initial detection by the Royal Navy.

After discovering the escape of the French, the Royal Navy dispatched a force of six ships of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth to destroy the French. Admiral Duckworth’s force detected a French squadron of five ships of the line and two frigates near Santo Domingo in the West Indies on February 1, 1806 and Admiral Duckworth quickly gathered additional ships to his command. Early on the morning of February 6, Admiral Duckworth made the decision to engage the French and his squadron set upon the French squadron in Santo Domingo’s harbor. By end of the afternoon, all five of the French ships of the line had been captured or destroyed. The Royal Navy lost no ships and suffered less than a hundred killed while the French lost approximately 1,500 men. Only the two frigates and some lesser ships of the French squadron were able to escape.

The victory at Santo Domingo made Admiral Duckworth a hero in Britain and signaled the end of any effective offensive capability by the French Navy. As a random historical side note, author Jane Austen’s brother Captain Francis Austen, served at the Battle of Santo Domingo as captain of the 80-gun ship of the line HMS Canopus. Austen weaved the battle into the background of a character in her book Persuasion. Canopus’ successor would later fight farther south during World War I at the Battle of the Falklands when another belligerent raiding squadron was annihilated by a Royal Navy squadron.

French Navy World War II

Aerial View of the Vichy French Fleet Scuttled in Toulon

Despite the overwhelming success of Nazi Germany’s Blitzkrieg assault on France in May 1940, Adolf Hitler chose not to occupy the entirety of the country. Along with a small zone occupied by Italy, a significant slice of southern France was allowed to remain nominally free. Dubbed Vichy France and headed by Marshall Petain, the “country” effectively functioned as a satellite state of Nazi Germany. In November 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the occupation of Vichy France after the Allies landed in Vichy French North Africa.

One of the highest value targets in the Vichy French zone was the Vichy French fleet stationed in Toulon. Consisting of 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 18 destroyers and 21 submarines, the addition of the Vichy French fleet to Italy’s Regia Marina or Germany’s Kriegsmarine could have had a significant effect on the balance of power in the Mediterranean theater. Aiming to deprive the Allies of the Vichy French fleet, Hitler ordered Operation Lila as a part of the larger takeover of Vichy France. Lila was intended to capture the Vichy French fleet at their anchorage in Toulon and turn the ships over to the Regia Marina.

At the same time Nazi forces were setting in motion Operation Lila, Vichy French forces were planning to either flee to North Africa or, in the event they couldn’t escape, scuttle their ships at anchor. Unfortunately for the Vichy French and for the greater Allied war effort, only a handful of submarines and a single surface vessel were able to escape the clutches of the advancing Nazi war machine. Instead, the majority of the fleet was scuttled in Toulon and rendered combat ineffective to the Nazis and Italians. In total, 77 ships were scuttled including all of the French capital ships and, while 30+ small vessels were captured, Operation Lila was essentially a complete failure for the Axis.