Archives For French Shipwrecks

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.

Edward Pellew

Stephen Taylor’s latest book, Commander, documents the life of Edward Pellew, a British naval officer who rose to fame during the Napoleonic Wars. Taylor builds on the work of two previous biographies to present the most complete and balanced description of a man considered to be the greatest frigate captain of the Royal Navy. Most Americans, and perhaps many British citizens, associate Pellew with the same-named fictional commander of HMS Indefatigable in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Pellew, though, is considered the inspiration (along with Sir Thomas Cochrane) for Forester’s Hornblower character as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey character.

Taylor meticulously documents Pellew’s entire life including his youth in Cornwall, his path to the sea, and his early service in the American Revolution on the Great Lakes. Relying on personal correspondence and the efforts of Pellew’s son at preserving his father’s legacy, Taylor reconstructs for the reader Pellew’s various single ship commands and joint operations, including his most famous command, HMS Indefatigable. Especially noteworthy is the behind the scene squabbles that occurred between Pellew and various members of the British nobility and naval establishment.

For instance, while serving as commander of the Indian naval station, Pellew engaged in rigorous conflict with the Admiralty in England as well as another commander on station. Taylor highlights how this particular conflict not only hurt Pellew’s career, but also prevented the taking of the French island of Mauritius (an idea Pellew was pursuing) until later in the war. As a result, French privateers and men of war continued to operate from Mauritius at great cost to British shipping. Taylor concludes with Pellew’s masterful victory over the Barbary Pirates at Algiers in August 1816 and his retirement in England.

Overall, Taylor presents the reader with a well-documented and readable account of Pellew’s life. While some readers may wish for more swashbuckling tales a la Horatio Hornblower, Taylor’s intent was to present a well-rounded account of Pellew’s entire life and not just the daring exploits for which he became famous. Commander is an excellent read and anyone wishing to better understand the Napoleonic Wars and a central figure from them would do well to purchase and read it.


Admiral Nelson’s Flagship HMS Victory
CC Image Courtesy of Nigel Swales on Flickr

Today marks the 207th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar – perhaps the most noted victory by the Royal Navy in its 400 year history. Fought during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, the battle was the result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to invade Great Britain. Napoleon dispatched a fleet to rendezvous with a Spanish fleet in the Caribbean and then return to France to provide an armed escort for Napoleon’s invasion fleet. The combined French and Spanish fleet numbered 41 ships and was commanded by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. After the rendezvous in the Mediterranean, the fleet sailed to Cadiz, Spain where they were found by Admiral Horatio Nelson and his 33 ship fleet.

Napoleon had changed his plans for an invasion of Great Britain and decided instead to have Villeneuve sail to the Mediterranean to support his operations there. Eager to engage the enemy, Admiral Nelson kept only a few frigates on station close to Cadiz in order to lure Villeneuve into making a run for the Mediterranean. Sensing an opportunity to break out of Cadiz, Villeneuve ordered his ships to weigh anchor.

Upon receiving the signal that Villeneuve was setting sail, Nelson laid out a daring and audacious plan to his officers in the cabin of his flagship, HMS Victory. Instead of following the traditional tactics of the day and sailing abreast of the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson divided his fleet into two squadrons. Each squadron was to sail perpendicular to Villeneuve’s fleet and slice through their battle line. If successful, the plan would split Villeneuve’s fleet and allow Nelson’s fleet to riddle them with broadsides from both sides.

Before engaging the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson ordered the signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” to be raised from the Victory. Nelson’s plan worked brilliantly and before the day was over more than 21 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet had been sunk or captured. Tragically, Nelson paid for his triumph with his life as a French marine mortally wounded him with a musket shot.

Today, Admiral Nelson is honored as one of, if not the, greatest admiral who ever served in the Royal Navy. His statute guards Trafalgar Square in London and the HMS Victory serves as the flagship of the First Sea Lord and as a museum ship alongside the Mary Rose.

Archaeologists in Texas are pioneering a new method of shipwreck preservation – freeze drying the ship’s wooden planks to remove seawater and then re-assembling them.  Traditional conservation techniques often involve time consuming electrolysis immersion to remove concretions or prevent wooden items from decaying when exposed to the atmosphere.  If successful, the technique could be a significant breakthrough in the preservation of wooden artifacts raised from the deep.  According to the Associated Press, the same technique will soon be used to preserve the Newport Medieval Ship which was discovered in 2002 in Wales.

The Texas project, a French ship named La Belle, sank in 1685 and was re-discovered in 1995 by archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission.  La Belle was lost in a storm while en route to resupply the French explorer Robert La Salle in his quest to establish a colony on the Gulf coast.  More than 700,000 items were salvaged during its recovery and the ship has remained immersed in a chemical solution since its recovery.  For more information on the ship and its history, see today’s AP article and the Texas Historical Commission’s website.